Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning

Orthodox Christianity and Post-Soviet Experience

by Alexander Agadjanian (Author)
©2014 Monographs 321 Pages


The book examines deep shifts in the religious life of Russia and the post-Soviet world as a whole. The author uses combined methods of history, sociology and anthropology to grasp transformations in various aspects of the religious field, such as changes in ritual practices, the emergence of a hierarchical pluralism of religions, and a new prominence of religion in national identity discourse. He deals with the Russian Church’s new internal diversity in reinventing its ancient tradition and Eastern Orthodoxy’s dense and tense negotiation with the State, secular society and Western liberal globalism. The volume contains academic papers, some of them co-authored with other scholars, published by the author elsewhere within the last fifteen years.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. Revising Pandora’s Gifts: Religious and National Identity in the Post-Soviet Societal Fabric
  • 2. Religion between Universal and Particular: Eastern Europe after 1989
  • 3. Religious Pluralism and National Identity in Russia
  • 4. Public Religion and the Quest for National Ideology: Russia’s Media Discourse of the 1990s
  • 5. The Search for Privacy and the Return of a Great Narrative: Religion in a Post-Communist Society
  • 6. The Social Vision of Russian Orthodoxy: Balancing between Identity and Relevance
  • 7. Breakthrough to Modernity, Apologia for Traditionalism: The Russian Orthodox View on Society and Culture in Comparative Perspective
  • 8. Liberal Individual and Christian Culture: Russian Orthodox Teaching on Human Rights in Social Theory Perspective
  • 9. Individual and Collective Identities in Russian Orthodoxy
  • 10. Reform and Revival in Moscow Orthodox Communities: Two Types of Religious Modernity
  • 11. Eastern Christianities Today: Exploring Major Trends
  • 12. Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age
  • 13. Globalization and Identity Discourse in Russian Orthodoxy
  • 14. Russian Orthodox Church in Europe: Soft Other with Quadruple Identity
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 → Preface

As I decide, thanks to a kind invitation by the Erfurt Series in Eastern Orthodoxy, to publish in one volume my previous studies in a slightly actualized and modified form1, I feel that it is necessary to preface this volume with a text setting up a few general “braces” that would hold the entire construction together. These “braces” are, in fact, a few core ideas and objectives that have been animating for more than a decade all the papers included here. Throughout this period, my field has been the dynamic of religious phenomena in the former Soviet lands, with a special emphasis on Russia, with the post-communist “exit” generating its own logic and unique historical experience. However, I was always trying to relate these unique developments to the global shifts that have been unfolding through the turn of the century in both the field of the religious being and the field of religious studies.

The post-Soviet turn in Russia and in other lands of Eurasia was, indeed, tectonic, unprecedented in many ways: besides political, economic and cultural breakdown, it was a reshaping of the universe of meanings, a reconstruction of basic symbolic codes. The decades that followed were the years of challenges and choices urged by massive institutional restructuring. These choices, taken by individuals and social groups, were informed, in this situation of symbolic flux, by unfixed, fluid and ← 7 | 8 → sometimes unconscious patchworks of motives and reactions. Occasionally, these patchworks were getting a more or less cohesive shape legitimized through references to one of the “worldviews” or a combination thereof.

Religion was one of such worldviews, which, among others, strongly affected the cultural landscape in the post-communist societies. Religion enjoyed a favorable environment of a formerly forbidden and freshly attractive fruit. Religion offered a different type of meaningful cosmos, which repudiated the distrusted super-rationalism of the officially standardized Soviet doctrine and, at the same time, rejected a new overwhelming craze: a super-pragmatic, cynical pursuit of wealth and success – not available for many and not fully acceptable. “Religion” was used as an umbrella term referring to a higher source of meaning, which seemed to provide a relative sense of stability in a vertiginous rush toward the unknown future.

As an umbrella term “religion” included a fascinating range of forms. For some, it was a full-fledged sacred canopy, referred to a millennial tradition (such as Islam or Russian Orthodoxy); however, in fact, such reference yielded to a variety of interpretations of what the true, authentic “tradition” really meant. For others, religion was a universal, ecumenical repository of common wisdom, de-linked from particular traditions and therefore elastic for individual adjustments. For yet others, religion was a bricolage of mystical, esoteric beliefs and practices addressed to semi-visible, arcane forces underlying the life-process (these forces might be connected or not to a popular-scientific worldview). Finally, for some others, religion was an epiphenomenon of ethno-national identity, an attribute of an essentialist bio-cultural synthesis, serving to collectively-experienced empowerment.

Religious meanings, in whatever of the above contexts, became frequent references in the post-Soviet cultural and political landscape, used in many spheres from commercial billboards to intellectual debates, political programs and artistic production; they entered the language of mass media and school curricula; in one word, they moved to the public sphere, in sharp contrast to their almost exclusively private existence back in the Soviet times. In this sense, the post-Soviet trends easily fit into the global trend of public religious resurgence. This shift coincided, however, with another important, and seemingly opposite, shift in society as a whole: the valorization of privacy, private freedoms and acts, private individual choices, including private religious choices and experiences. Therefore, we should look for religious meanings thriving at both levels: inner/individual and public.

And yet, what might “thriving” mean in this case? The post-Soviet return of religion appeared as a “religious revival” and was perceived as such by most religious people and some scholars; but this was a rather misleading definition. Sure, new religious freedoms were in sharp contrast to the enforced, ideological secularism in the Soviet Union, and so these societies became “post-secular” in the direct sense of the word – another link to a theoretical frame lively discussed in academic research over the last decade. What did “post-secular” mean in this case, though? It would seem very naïve to affirm – even with pointing at impressive figures of newly built churches and mosques – that religions are back in forms and with attributes and ← 8 | 9 → functions they used to have in the pre-Soviet Empire. Nothing of this kind really happened, of course. Nor are the numbers of deeply committed, practicing believers comparable with the early twentieth century, which is used as a preferred reference point for revivalists.

What then happened? In effect, the secular frame in politics and in the socio-cultural fabric of new societies seemed to continuously dominate; but in the “post-secular” landscape the secular/religious divide certainly blurred, lost its “classical” relevance, and yielded to a new reconfiguration of meanings. The process was twofold. On one hand, “religions” consolidated into particular social enclaves linked to particular worldviews, more or less cohesive subcultures within an increasingly mixed (global), pluralistic landscape: a type of free associations providing specific “products” on sale at the “spiritual marketplace”. These enclave subcultures could be very small, like a tiny local sect or a New Age hangout; or a nationwide corporation playing power games, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, religions (or, rather, an abstract “religion” in singular) became diffused, crumbled into hundreds of splinter-meanings that have often lost their connection to an original “tradition” or “worldview” or “community” and can be found in various fields: arts, politics, moral debates and even economy (work and business ethics). These diffused bits-and-pieces of religious references are hard to catch and describe, and their significance hard to grasp, but this is what is very characteristic for the post-secular cultural landscape.

All the chapters that follow are attempts, based mostly on Russian evidence, to comprehend the trends mentioned above: setting powerful symbolic meta-narratives (Russian Orthodoxy’s self-perception in Russia, within Europe and in the world where it claims to position as one of the religiously-determined “civilizations”); the challenges these narratives are faced with in a fluid, global environment (the context of legal pluralism and lived diversity); and the inner reshaping of the religious tradition (Russian Orthodoxy’s new visions of society; partial reforms; and identity quests – both individual and communitarian – generated by the post-Soviet socio-political and cultural dynamic). As I proceed, drawing upon the analysis of both texts and practices, to interpreting religious trends in Russia and other lands of the region, methodologically I position my research at the intersection of religious studies, sociology and anthropology. There is no need to warn the reader about the rapid change that continues to reshape the entire religious landscape after all these chapters were completed and about the sheer impossibility to catch up with these ongoing developments. I consider this book as a series of snapshots, fixing some of the major trends that are based on fluid empirical evidence, but also have some enduring general significance.

During the entire period of writing these texts, I was part of a scholarly network looking at the same phenomena, and many colleagues’ studies are referred to on the pages of this book. Two of these scholars, Kathy Rousselet and Victor Roudometof, must be singled out for serving as creative co-authors (chapters 9, 12 and 13). I am also indebted to stimulating academic cooperation within international research ← 9 | 10 → projects, such as “Religious Practices in Russia” (2004–6)2; “Twenty Years of Transformations: Religious and Social Life of Orthodox congregations” (2008–10)3; “Alte Grenzen und neue Fronten – Die orthodoxen Kirchen und die europäische Integration” (2009–11)4, and some other smaller endeavors. My special thanks go to the editor of the Erfurt Series, Professor Vasilios N. Makrides, who offered the very idea of the book and who, together with Dr. Sebastian Rimestad, invested a great amount of time in making its publication possible.



1First publication: Chapter 1: Europe-Asia Studies 53, no. 3 (May 2001) 473–88; Chapter 2: in: Santosh C. Saha (ed.), Religious Fundamentalism in the Contemporary World: Critical Social and Political Issues, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004, 71–90; Chapter 3: International Jour­nal on Multicultural Societies 2, no. 2 (2000) 97–124. URL: http://www.unesco.org/shs/ijms/vol2/issue2/art2; Chapter 4: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40, no. 3 (September 2001): 351–65; Chapter 5: Social Compass 53, no. 2 (June 2006) 169–84; Chapter 6: J. Sutton and W. van den Bercken (eds.), Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Europe, Leuven: Peeters, 2003, 163–82; Chapter 7: Religion, State and Society 31, no. 4 (December 2003) 327–46; Chapter 8: Religion, State and Society 38, no. 2 (June 2010) 97–113; Chapter 9: (co-authored with Kathy Rousselet) in: C. Hann and H. Goltz (eds.), Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 311–28; Chapter 10: Archives de sciences sociales des religions 162 (April-June 2013) 75–94; Chapter 11: in: Peter B. Clark/Peter Beyer (eds.), The World’s Religions: Continuities and Transformations (Routledge Encyclopedia Series), London/New York: Routledge 2008, 189–206; Chapter 12: (co-authored with Victor Roudometof) First published as “Introduction: Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age: Preliminary Considerations”, in: V. Roudometof, A. Agadjanian and J. Pank-hurst (eds.), Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age: Tradition Faces the Twenty-First Century, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005, 1–26. In this volume, a shorter version is reproduced and the second part of the text, which makes a presentation of volume articles, is omitted; Chapter 13: (co-authored with Kathy Rousselet) First published in: V. Roudometof, A. Agadjanian and J. Pankhurst (eds.), Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age : Tradition Faces the Twenty-First Century, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005, 29–57; Chapter 14: The work on this paper was a part of a three-year international project, supported by the Volkswagen-Stiftung, “Alte Grenzen und neue Fronten – Die orthodoxen Kirchen und die europäische In­tegration”. The first version of the paper was presented in March 2010 at a conference in Nij-megen, Netherlands, which was a part of this project. The proceedings of the conference will be published soon.

2Supported by the Centre franco-russe de recherches en sciences humaines et sociales in Mos­cow.

3Supported jointly by the Russian State Fund in Human Sciences and the Centre nationale de recherches scientifiques of France.

4Supported by the VolkswagenStiftung and animated by the University of Münster.

← 10 | 11 → PART I

← 11 | 12 →


According to a dominant epistemological paradigm, religion is associated with past-rooted forms of Weltanschauung and sociality that stand at odds with general historical trends. Although this episteme has been recently questioned with a number of new researches witnessing the crisis of secularization theories and the formation of the “post-secular”, in the 1990s the signs of religious revival, in whatever form or context, were considered to have no feasible basis and thus no eventual vitality. They were viewed as especially manipulative and subject to mobilization by ethnic, social and political entrepreneurs.

In this article I will explore the validity of these assumptions as applied to the multifaceted cauldron of religious identities in post-communist societies, particularly in the former Soviet Union. The common vision is that the break-up of the communist system uncovered a “Pandora’s box” of old evil spirits competing with the good spirits of democratization. Religious identities are part of this dubious legacy from the frustrating past, providing a temporary and inefficient substitute for real needs and, at the same time, a convenient means of manipulation by resource-hunting elite groups. In this context the excessive exaltation of religion as identity resource can be seen as the reverse side of its demonization. My purpose here is to try to replace these value judgments with a more balanced vision of the religious processes in this area.

Disintegration and Reintegration in Post-Soviet Eurasia

The post-Soviet religious resurgence of the 1990s is certainly part of a larger societal process of change that started as early as the 1960s. It was a period of ongoing social and cultural diversification and, at the same time, of a reactive hardening of the Soviet regime; it made the institutional framework increasingly at odds with the changing society. This “pressure cooker” effect (Milanovic 1994) finally took the form of an exponential collapse of institutional structures. The institutional catastrophe in turn produced an identity crisis – not just a gradually evolving one but a rapid and painful turning point.

The overall identity crisis that developed during the course of this disintegration was essentially dominated by the energy of particularism; it was in fact a crisis of old collective values and symbols, a multiplication and split of identity frames, from cosmic communist and imperial supranational frames down to frames of ethnicity, social strata, locality, family, other immediate groups and the individual. Although the crash of the Empire may be explained in terms of a “triumph of nations” (Carrère d’Encausse 1993) – as it seemed to be at least on the institutional level – the energy of particularism was a more general, multilevel phenomenon of structural reaction to totalitarianism.

← 13 | 14 → The rapid disintegration of society and the particularization of identities led first to a growing entropy in the societal system of meanings and symbols and then to an increasing anomie in the social and political realm. What appeared immediately was the need for a new kind of social cohesiveness that could create new cognitive frameworks and new social networks to cope with the dangerous processes of entropy and anomie. A natural outcome of this was the growing importance of such symbolically strong identities as those of ethnic, linguistic and religious grouping.

Since Shils (1957) and Geertz (1963) these identities have been included in what is labeled “primordial bonds” related to collectivities rooted in the past and oriented backward, as opposed to “civic ties” related to a modem personality and a cognitive framework within modern civil society. What Shils and Geertz stressed in their works with regard to the new post-war nations, and what can easily be applied to the new post-communist nations as well, was the inherent schizophrenia between the two sets of anticipation:

The peoples of the new states are simultaneously animated by two powerful, thoroughly interdependent, yet distinct and often actually opposed motives – the desire to be recognized as responsible agents whose wishes, acts, hopes and opinions “matter”, and the desire to build an efficient, dynamic modem state. The one aim is to be noticed: it is a search of identity, and a demand that identity be publicly acknowledged as having import, a social assertion of the self as “being somebody in the world”. The other aim is practical: it is a demand for progress, for a rising standard of living, more effective political order, greater social justice, and beyond that … of “exercising influence among the nations”. (Geertz 1963: 108)

The post-Soviet nations were obviously exposed to this dramatic choice. The power-ful matrix of a liberal democratic nation-state that had dominated the public mind, the mass media and official programs ever since Sakharov’s and Gorbachev’s interpretations of universal values ( obshchechelovecheskie tsennosti ) apparently contradicted the parallel process of rising ethno-nationalism found throughout the Empire, and several conflicts (some of them violent) appeared to prove the general propensity toward primordial forms of cognitive and social frameworks. However, this picture needs to be more specific in several ways.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
National identity Russisch-Orthodoxe Kirche secularization Post-Soviet world pluralism religiöser Pluralismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 321 pp., 1 tables, 4 graphs

Biographical notes

Alexander Agadjanian (Author)

Alexander Agadjanian, Prof. Dr., graduated from Moscow State University and worked at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and at the Department of Religious Studies of Arizona State University. He currently teaches at the Center for the Study of Religions of the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. He has published extensively on religions in the modern world, including Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity.


Title: Turns of Faith, Search for Meaning
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347 pages