Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries

by Jens Herlth (Volume editor) Christian Zehnder (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 270 Pages


This volume offers a view of modern Russian intellectual culture as shaped by the dynamic of conversions. The individual contributions examine a rich variety of personal conversions occurring in a culture in which the written word enjoyed a privileged status and, historically, was closely linked to the sacred. However, the essays presented go beyond the original meaning of conversion as a change of religious beliefs. They address shifts in style, aesthetic outlooks, and mindsets, political and ideological transfigurations as well as religious conversions in the true sense of the term.
Whether at the level of culture, society or biography, the study of conversions opens the way to profound reflections about questions of identity, cultural ruptures, and continuity. The awareness of former conversions and the possible «convertibility» of one’s own ideological, spiritual or social stance has been among the central traits of Russian intellectual culture during the last two centuries.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • On Russian Conversions: Introduction
  • Slavic Conversions
  • Between Schlegel and Baader: Stepan Shevyrev’s Conversion to Orthodox Literary Science in the European Cultural Context
  • “An upheaval was so necessary”: Authorial Conversion and the Literary Public in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky)
  • The Terrorist “Tigrych” versus the Monarchist Lev Tikhomirov: Why did Tikhomirov “Stop Being a Revolutionary”?
  • Conversion to Dionysianism: Tadeusz Zieliński and Heptachor
  • Sergei Bulgakov: The Potentiality of Conversion
  • Valerii Briusov’s Shift from Symbolism to Proletarian Culture
  • Cultural Conversion: From Modernism to Socialist Realism (Boris Pasternak and Titsian Tabidze)
  • Conversion as Attitude in Pasternak
  • Leonid Borodin’s Rasstavanie: Orthodoxy and the Moscow Intelligentsia in the 1970s
  • The Place of the Religious-Philosophical Seminar # 37 in the Witnessing of the Orthodox Christian Conception of “Anthropos” in Soviet Society
  • Our House Russia? Conversions from and to Judaism in Oleg Iur’ev’s Novel Poluostrov Zhidiatin
  • “To Be Means to Communicate …” Tat’iana Bek’s Poetry: A Dialogue Between the Poet and God
  • Contributors
  • Series index

Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

On Russian Conversions: Introduction

The notion of “conversion” connotes, first of all, a turn from one belief to another, though not necessarily religious in nature; one can also speak of philosophical, ideological, or political conversions. The characteristic feature of a conversion in any of its forms is a fundamental change in value perspective – what was once “good”, or at least “usual” now becomes “bad” or “evil”. The Polish philosopher Józef Tischner (1998: 31–34) describes conversion as a limit-situation that calls for a leap out of old habits into something completely new, and therefore leaves no room for compromise.

As the vast literature on conversion shows, such turns, despite their existential depth and radicalism, often follow, at least in part, certain behavioural and rhetorical models that have been transmitted by a long tradition of conversion narratives. One could think here of Saul’s transformation into Paul following his illumination on the road to Damascus, according to the Acts of the Apostles; Saint Augustine’s protracted journey from Manichaeism to Christian faith via Platonism, as related in the Confessions; or Blaise Pascal’s nightly encounter with the “fire” of faith, recorded in the so called Mémorial, a piece of parchment that he would carry on his person for the rest of his life. Obviously there is a strong link between conversional dynamics and the dynamics of the (written) word.

In the present volume, we do not limit the discussion of conversion to the sphere of religious art or changes of, or returns to, a religious belief. This would be all the more inadequate as in Orthodox Christianity conversions (in Russian: obrashchenie)1 tend to be seen as leading out of the Church, threatening the only real conversion in the life of an Orthodox believer, namely Baptism, the complete “turning” of a person to Christ (see Medzhibovskaya, 2008: x–xi). As Alexander Schmemann (1976: 20) pointed out in his study Of Water and the Spirit, conversion, from an ← 7 | 8 → Orthodox standpoint, “is not an event in the realm and on the level of ideas, as so many people think today. It is not the choice of an ‘ideology,’ not even an answer to ‘problems’.” However, as William James argued in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1901/1902):

the process of remedying inner incompleteness and reducing inner discord is a general psychological process, which may take place with any sort of mental material, and need not necessarily assume the religious form. (James, 2002: 139)

There would be, for example, no obstacles to calling Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Tridtsataia liubov’ Mariny (The Thirtieth Love of Marina, 1983), about the turn of a dissident woman from her libertine life to a prudish, almost ascetical communism, a novel about a conversion. It is often not so much the questions of “where from?” and “where to?” but rather the radicalism of the reorientation as such that makes us speak of a conversion. This leads us to what seems to be the heart of the conversion discourse in, and about, Russia, namely the generally accepted assertion of Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii that (modern) Russian history is marked by sudden turnarounds, ruptures and caesuras of all kinds. According to Lotman and Uspenskii (1985), polar extremes would stand in relation to one another as irreconcilable opposites and appear to exclude any ‘third way’. If we follow this idea of the “binary” structure of Russian cultural consciousness, conversion indeed appears to be something specifically ‘Russian’.

But is this more than a truism? Is there really a specifically Russian affinity for conversion? An affinity that would be based on the precarious structure of Russia’s historical and cultural self-consciousness, that could be explained by the specific mistrust in physical life and physical order that marks Russian religious thought? Following the theologian Ivan Illich,2 Charles Taylor (2007: 743) argues, “that there has been a long-standing tendency in the West to slide towards an identification of Christian faith and civilizational order.” Max Scheler (1963: 111) was astounded by the fact that the Russian “fine and subtle autumnal religiosity” (“feine und subtile herbstliche Religiosität”) could merge with one of the “greatest tyrannies” in the history of mankind, the Tsarist empire. Maybe, despite or because of the unity between state and Church that has reigned in Russia for the last few hundred years (with a few exceptions), it is more difficult from a Russian context to disregard the dramatic gap that divides, as Taylor ← 8 | 9 → (2007: 243) puts it, “the city of God and the earthly city”. This would at least explain why Dante Alighieri could write a visionary epic on the heavenly realm and Nikolay Gogol as well as Dostoevsky could not, although each had, in some way, the intention to do so in their novels Dead Souls (Mertvye dushi) and Brothers Karamazov (Brat’ia Karamazovy). “Gogol’s and Dostoevsky’s ‘Divine Comedies’”, writes Lotman (1997: 597), “though they were conceived as narratives of resurrection, would necessarily end up on its threshold.”

Russian culture is undoubtedly rich with conversions. Pavel Lungin’s film Ostrov (The Island, 2006) about a traitor who became a stoker and penitent at a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, has given testimony to the potential of this paradigm even for mass culture. And, of course, we should not forget, that the willingness to convert, to change one’s life, to leave everything behind in a sudden urge to lead a “real” life in accordance with the rules of religion or morality, is part of a certain mythical image of the “Russian people”, of “Russia” and “‘Russian life” as a whole. There is a passage in Dostoevsky’s Brat’ia Karamazovy (Brothers Karamazov), curiously not often cited, which is perfectly suited to develop this point. The passage bears precisely on this self-representation of Russia as a nation of potential converts. Converts to what? This seems to be of minor importance:

The painter Kramskoy has a remarkable painting entitled The Contemplator: it depicts a forest in winter, and in the forest, standing all by himself on the road, in deepest solitude, a stray little peasant in a ragged caftan and bast shoes; he stands as if he were lost in thought, but he is not thinking, he is “contemplating” something. If you nudged him, he would give a start and look at you as if he had just woken up, but without understanding anything. It’s true that he would come to himself at once, and yet, if he were asked what he had been thinking about while standing there, he would most likely not remember, but would most likely keep hidden away in himself the impression he had been under while contemplating. These impressions are dear to him, and he is most likely storing them up imperceptibly and even without realizing it – why and what for, of course, he does not know either; perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both. There are plenty of contemplators among the people. (Dostoevsky, 2004: 126–127)

У живописца Крамского есть одна замечательная картина под названием «Созерцатель»: изображен лес зимой, и в лесу, на дороге, в оборванном кафтанишке и лаптишках стоит один-одинешенек, в глубочайшем уединении ← 9 | 10 → забредший мужичонко, стоит и как бы задумался, но он не думает, а что-то «созерцает». Если б его толкнуть, он вздрогнул бы и посмотрел на вас, точно проснувшись, но ничего не понимая. Правда, сейчас бы и очнулся, а спросили бы его, о чем он это стоял и думал, то наверно бы ничего не припомнил, но зато наверно бы затаил в себе то впечатление, под которым находился во время своего созерцания. Впечатления же эти ему дороги, и он наверно их копит, неприметно и даже не сознавая, – для чего и зачем, конечно, тоже не знает: может, вдруг, накопив впечатлений за многие годы, бросит всё и уйдет в Иерусалим, скитаться и спасаться, а может, и село родное вдруг спалит, а может быть, случится и то, и другое вместе. Созерцателей в народе довольно. (Dostoevskii, 1976: 116–117)

Whether the contemplator will “wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul” or “burn down his native village” is still to be discovered. What is important to note here is the latent presence of a possibility of conversion that marks – according to Dostoevsky’s words – Russian life as a whole. But we should keep in mind that it is a characterization of Fedor Karamozov’s illegitimate son and future murderer, Smerdiakov, that serves as a point of departure of this commentary on Kramskoi’s painting. Russian conversions can be eruptive and brutal, and they tend not to fit into a neat scheme of either/or, since, as the narrator notes, the contemplator might as well do both, go on a pilgrimage and burn down his native village. This tendency to a sudden and radical rupture is depicted as “explosion” in Jurii Lotman’s later writings (Lotman, 2009, 2010); Lotman stresses the traditional inability within Russian culture and society to integrate new information, to reform, to find a balance between statics and dynamics.

Yet, most of the conversions we will be dealing with in this volume are not cases of such a complete ‘exit’ (ukhod) from the former life. Modern intellectuals’ conversions usually take place within culture and, very often, within the art world. Thus their conversions should be located between reason-driven considerations or a quite mundane taedium sui of the intelligentsia (Viacheslav Ivanov)3 and religious “leaps” under the sign of divine grace. According to Charles Taylor (2007: 732), the common feature of an intellectual’s, especially a poet’s, conversion from a naturalist, mechanistic, positivistic, progressive worldview to some form of transcendence involves artistic expression that provides models to express uneasiness with what has come to be regarded as old, worn out conventions. There ← 10 | 11 → is the felt need, in other words, to resist the “disintegration” of life within language itself.

The question of whether this rather optimistic view of the relation between art and religion suffices to confront Russian conversion stories can be examined by considering particular cases. A first glance at the paradigm of conversions among Russian writers suggests a degree of scepticism in this regard. Often it was not a matter of finding a new form of artistic expression but, so to say, a conflict with art itself, leading to a break with everything “artistic” (no less than scientific), now considered as the source of disintegration. Prominent examples include Gogol’s uncompromising turn to religious piety, Tolstoy’s elevation of moral duty over art as well as, in the twentieth century, Sergei Solov’ev’s (the philosopher’s nephew) or Stanislav Krasovitskii’s (a Soviet underground poet) turn to the priesthood. However, other examples show that such a rather anticultural understanding of Russian conversions is of limited value only. Viacheslav Ivanov’s famous conversion, for instance, from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism was a harmonious process that entered into conflict neither with his Russian roots nor with his self-perception as a poet.4

Let us now ask what the current state of religious or spiritual “conversion” in contemporary Russia is, more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whereas the 1980s and 1990s were marked by a powerful religious renaissance, reflected in numerous conversions of nonbaptized Russians as well as Jews, but also by a revival of the religious philosophy of the so-called “Silver Age”, since 2000, under the reign of Vladimir Putin, the influence of the Orthodox Church on public matters has continuously increased: Orthodoxy can again be considered as a kind of state religion in Russia, at least for mass consciousness, and Western observers. The Church has lost, as it were, its dissident, unworldly aura. Anecdotes and kompromat stories about the “materialism” of Church representatives have become a common topic of conversation. In other words: “existential” conversions such as that of Tat’iana Goricheva together with her dissident ← 11 | 12 → companions in the 1970s5 are today somewhat overshadowed by Russian Orthodoxy’s transformation from a semiofficial and often precarious existence under Soviet reign into a new powerful institution in Putin’s Russia.

It is all the more interesting to see how converts of the 1980s and 1990s perceive themselves as Orthodox believers today. Eloquent examples include two major figures of the Leningrad rock culture of the 1980s: Petr Mamonov, former leader of the band Zvuki mu, poet and actor, well known for his leading role as a monk in the abovementioned movie Ostrov, and Leonid Fedorov, founder of the band Auktyon, probably the most innovative singer-songwriter of contemporary Russia. Over the past few years they have given several interviews with very personal accounts of their conversion story. When it comes to official Church matters they both display a remarkably defensive reaction. Asked for his opinion of the Pussy Riot case, Mamonov answered: “I have none at all” (“Спрашивают: ‘Петр Николаевич, а как вы относитесь к тому, что эти девочки в храме …’ Я говорю: ‘Никак!’”, Tseboev, 2013). And instead he emphasizes his view that faith should be a kind of inner, completely apolitical spiritual revolution of each sinner. He says: “I am stuck in darkness, like everybody. But hope will not be shamed. I found a path. How far will I go? When will I die? What will I achieve? I don’t know. It’s our duty to go on” (“Я погружен во тьму, как и все. Но упование не посрамится. Я дорожку нашел. Сколько пройду? когда умру? что успею? – не знаю. Наше дело идти”, Tseboev, 2013). Fedorov, for his part, points out that it was not “Orthodox culture”, not the Church as an institution, which first brought him to Christian faith: “I would put it like this: I was illuminated” (“Я бы назвал это так: меня озарило”, Posashko, 2011). He pointedly summarizes his path: “I have remained the same neophyte I was before” (“[…] каким неофитом был, таким и остался”, Posashko, 2011). The main features of Mamonov’s and Fedorov’s arguments are “movement”, “going on”, Divine light, joy, and so forth. In a broader view, one could think here, too, of an emblematic moment in Russian cinema: the final minutes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969), when Rublev decides to go on and paint icons again. At this ← 12 | 13 → point, the movie is “converted” from the strained black and white world into a kind of gallery of Rublev’s icons in wonderfully bright colours.

In Russia, conversion is often conceived of as a “dangerous” matter of political revolution (Lotman/Uspenskii), while others have stressed a certain “eschatological” character of the Russian people (Nikolai Berdiaev)6 that threatens culture as such. The question we wish to consider is whether a specific “Russian” style of conversion is discernable that would not, however, depart from the productive categories we know from Charles Taylor and others. To this end, the contributors of the present volume were invited to focus on individual conversions within the Russian cultural tradition (artists, writers, philosophers, religious and political figures), on the settings of conversions as portrayed in literary works, and more broadly on rhetorical, semiotic, and ideological aspects of conversion narratives in modern and contemporary Russian culture.

Most of the chapters in the present volume go back to a conference on conversion in Russian cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries held at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, in November 2011. Our collection covers a variety of personal conversions that by far exceed the initial meaning of the term as a change of religious beliefs. The authors deal with shifts in style, aesthetic outlook, and mindsets, with political and ideological transfigurations as well as with religious conversions in the true sense of the term. However, all our examples show, as we pointed out above, the inseparable link, in the case of Russia, between conversions and the word. This goes not only for the representation and historical transmission of conversion scenes and conversion narratives. In the Russian case, the word is implicated in conversions in a more basic and more essential sense: it is well known that texts and literature enjoyed high esteem in Russian culture – they were closely linked to the sacred. The Russian term literaturotsentrizm indicates that literature has had a privileged status in modern Russian culture, and therefore choices and abrupt changes in the sphere of literature have been understood, by authors as well as by the reading public, as choices of existential, moral, and religious relevance. Conversions are announced by words and it is most often the attitude towards the word – in a broad sense, comprehending signs, ← 13 | 14 → rhetoric, narrative – that is affected by the shift to a new system of morals, beliefs, aesthetic values, action.

TOMÁŠ GLANC, in his notable opening article, explores the extraordinary range of the notion of conversion within Slavic cultural history/histories. For an understanding of the significance of personal conversions in modern Russian cultural history it is of crucial importance to read them against the background of a history of cultural divisions and unifications that opened up (or closed) a field of options regarding Russian culture as a whole, but also affected its individual representatives. Why would Russian poets of the mid-nineteenth century react so sensitively to what they understood to be the challenge of Western civilization and the Catholic Church if not because they were aware of the potential choice offered by Rome and the West? In his article, Glanc shows that historical and potential conversions did affect Russian cultural self-understanding from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century.

ALEXEY VDOVIN provides insight into the emergence of Russian Slavophile thought by focusing on Stepan Shevyrev’s “methodological conversion” from an “objective” and “strictly scientific” understanding of literary science to a new model of knowledge based on an attempt to reconcile Christian belief and scientific knowledge. Interestingly enough, this conversion was indebted to the thought of the German idealist philosopher and theologian Franz von Baader. This case study shows that Russian intellectual debates of the 1820s and 1830s tended to conceive Russia’s history against the background of an extant conversion (Peter’s reforms); cultural and political reality were understood in the light of a civilizational choice. Shevyrev saw the true religious spirit of Russia as a resource for an authentic, holistic model of culture and national life that needed to be restored and defended against Western influence. Borrowing heavily from his German inspirations, Shevyrev, in his lectures on the history of Russian literature, stressed the crucial importance of national self-knowledge and the religious mission of the Russian nation, thus becoming a proponent of the Slavophile movement. But the core of his conception was the attempt to merge science and religion in the framework of literary studies, an attempt that was doomed to failure due to developments within literary science and philosophy. However, the idea of literature as a source of national self-consciousness and as the bearer of Russia’s specific moral and religious mission was to persist – within literature itself. ← 14 | 15 →

This aspect is highlighted in JENS HERLTH’s article on writers’ conversions from literature to a more intimate, more authentic, and more moral type of discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century. In mid-nineteenth century Russia, literature was ever more burdened with a moral and religious mission – a phenomenon that has often been interpreted as a testimony to Russian culture’s backwardness. But in fact the moral impulse expressed in texts by Nikolay Gogol or Lev Tolstoy testifies to the desire to resist the “modern” claims imposed by the market and the reading public on writers and their texts. Gogol and Tolstoy were very much aware of the fact that literature was dominated not so much by moral or religious postulates but by aesthetic and economic factors. This is why they both searched for a way to utter purely moral ideas free of contamination by economic or sociological considerations. Their refusal to engage in literature as such could not but lead to a dead end, but this dead end turned to be a stable reference point for later generations of writers; suffice it to mention Vasilii Rozanov or the young émigré writer Boris Poplavskii. Still, Dostoevsky’s handling of the problem was more productive: Though unlike Gogol or Tolstoy he did not suffer from “authorial uneasiness”, many of his heroes did: from Rodion Raskol’nikov to Ivan Karamazov, his novels are filled with authors who suffer from the imperfection of their own writings. Thus, Dostoevsky converted conversion from literature into a topic of literature.

In their piece on Lev Tikhomirov, OXANA ZAMOLODSKY and ANATOLY KORCHINSKY deal with a classic political conversion: they retrace the former terrorist’s renunciation of the revolutionary movement and his public abjuration of democracy, parliamentarism, and political liberty – concepts that the late Tikhomirov, a fervent defender of Tsarism, perceived as “Western” and inappropriate to Russian social reality.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Russian History 20th century Conversion Symbolism Socialist Realism Orthodoxy Russian Language and Literature Modernism 19th century
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 270 pp.

Biographical notes

Jens Herlth (Volume editor) Christian Zehnder (Volume editor)

Jens Herlth is Professor of Slavic Literatures at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). Christian Zehnder is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland).


Title: Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries