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

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Edited By Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

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.
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On Russian Conversions: Introduction

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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,...

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