Governing Religion, Mobilizing Faith: Conference Recap

Watch the video of Panel 1 here

Watch the video of Panel 2 here

Watch the video of Panel 3 here

The Jordan Center held its first all-day conference of the fall on Friday October 18th. Governing Religion, Mobilizing Faith, co-sponsored by NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, invited academics from across the country to discuss a variety of papers concerning religion in the late Russian Empire, a place that was home to a wide range of faiths. The guests were divided into three panels according to their topical focus.

Jordan Center Director Yanni Kotsonis opened up the conference by acknowledging the range of historians present, and by pointing out one aim of this particular conference to “bring people together who aren’t normally together.” Collectively the panels offered a forum for discussion of the state’s interaction with the major religions in late Imperial Russia—Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—as well as Catholicism in partitioned Poland, and Lutheranism in Estonia.

The first panel, the Beilis Case (1913), brought together papers focusing on issues raised by the trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis. The notoriously weak case was brought against Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew, alleging he murdered Andrei Yushchinsky, a young Ukrainian boy, for ritual blood sacrifice. Though Beilis was ultimately acquitted of charges, the affair brought international attention to the issue of anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire.

Gennady Estraikh, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, discussed his paper, “The Beilis Trial on the Pages of the New York Yiddish Daily Forverts.” The paper focuses on Estraikh’s research on Abraham Cahan, editor of Forverts, who emigrated from Russia due to his involved in the Socialist movement and open criticism of the Romanovs, and the paper’s coverage of the Beilis trial. Moyshe Olgin, the correspondent who covered the trial, framed it as an affront against the Jewish nation—a politically motivated blow to Russian Jews who were struggling against autocracy. Estraikh pointed out how Forverts was representational of a widespread inner conflict amongst Jews, who at once identified with Russian culture, but were critical of the Russian political system and Romanov power. For Russian Jews, Estraikh explained, most of whom lived outside the Empire, “Russia existed apart from the nation. The Russian language was something distanced from the place, but not from the people.”

Associate Professor Nadieszda Kizenko of SUNY-Albany presented her paper, “Blood accusation in Orthodox Christianity in the Russian Empire, Before and After the Beilis Case.” Kizenko presented the fascinating example of

Kizenko pointed out the difficulty the prosecution encountered in recruiting a member of the Orthodox clergy to testify against Beilis. Her paper poses the question as to why this might have been the case in a country with an enormous number of clerics– was it due to a lack of belief in the myth of ritual blood sacrifice amongst leaders of the Orthodox Church in Russia? Kizenko makes use of the example of Gavriil of Belostok, an uncanonized child Saint supposedly murdered in the “tradition” of Jewish blood sacrifice. For hundreds of years Gavrill was regarded as a very minor, local saint. He only became popular in liturgical services in the late 19th century. Kizenko argues that the increasing popularity of what was once regarded as a minor local saint “suggests that the cult [of Gavriil] both responded to and helped foster a climate conducive to Orthodox Christians being prepared to admit the possibility of ritual murder of Christian children by their Jewish neighbors.” Thus Kizenko argues that it could not have been a lack of belief in the possibility of blood libel, as asserted by the defense, that led to the inability of prosecutors to find an Orthodox clergy member to testify on their behalf.

The final paper included in the Beilis Case panel, “Connecting the Dots: Jewish Mysticism, Ritual Murder, and the Trial of Mendel Beilis,” submitted by Robert Weinberg of Swarthmore College, focused more acutely on the trial itself and specifically on the evidence presented—bizarrely astrological and even occult-like submissions. However, Weinberg pointed out that because society was more developed at this time, the prosecution could no longer simply rely upon a purely theological explanation, and so they brought in a variety of experts, including a psychiatrist “who was a firm believer in ritual murder.”

Weinberg outlined what he found in his research as a clear documentation of falsified evidence indicating, “the government was convinced it could depend upon the jury’s belief in ritual murder.” And this wasn’t too far-fetched, he argued, because there were “very educated and very sophisticated people who believed in ritual murder.” Weinberg also put forth the idea that the Imperial government’s aim in the Beilis affair was perhaps to indict the defendant as a means of appearing justified in upholding anti-Semitic policies that, among other things, forced Jews to the Pale of Settlement.

Hillel Kieval from the History Department at Washington University of St. Louis rounded out the panel discussion, summing up the previous conversations as attempting to explain the revival of blood libel accusations from the 1880s to the early 20th century throughout Eastern Europe.

After a short break the second panel, Confession and Government, opened up to review papers, starting with Emory University Professor Ellie Schainker’s piece titled “The Politics of Religious Intimidation: Conversion and Jewish Violence in Late-Imperial Russia.” This particular paper looks at what happened in late Imperial Russia “when religious conversion became a source of family strife,” as Schainker explained her research question. She found answers in the portrayal of violent reactions amongst Jewish families and community members to conversion within the press. She also looked at archival records, official conversion documents, and the proliferation of shelters for converts as evidence for the nature of resistance to conversion. Instead of drawing examples from larger cities and thus members of the elite class, Schainker looked to small towns for her research. Schainker concluded with the proposal that her findings might support the possibility that heightened “fear of Jewish confessional power” as a means of undermining Russian Orthodoxy came from these small town examples of intra-community intimidation and violence used as a means to prevent conversion.

Karen Weber of NYU discussed her dissertation research examining the history of Russian state policy toward Lutheran priests titled, “Private Practice: Lutheran Apostates after 1905.” Weber reviewed her research findings, which indicated a shifting policy toward the Lutheran Church on the part of the Russian Imperial state, despite the official policy of religious tolerance as outlined in the 1905 law of Freedom of Conscience. Lutheran pastors continued to act in accordance with their ministerial duties, even after the Orthodox conversion of Lutherans in Estonia and Latvia, at the behest of their congregants who continued private practice of Lutheranism. This was controversial because, once converted to Orthodoxy, it was illegal for subjects of the Tsar to convert to another faith. Weber portrayed a careful approach by the Lutheran Church within the Empire— they were actually quite explicit with the regime about their continuing religious practices of parishioners who had converted to Orthodoxy. At one point, Weber said, Lutheran pastors even wrote letters to the Tsarist government, requesting the outlining of a clear policy regarding private practice. The 1860s saw fairly lenient state policy in terms of allowing the continuation of Lutheran religious practice, Weber explained, however official restrictions regarding the baptism of the children of interfaith marriages, for example, remained in place. But by the 1880s, this laissez-faire attitude was reversed, and the Tsarist state began prosecuting Lutheran priests for religious practice within the bounds of existing law. In the 1890s, policy once again shifted, and while the regime continued to prosecute some pastors, the level of repression was significantly lower than that of the previous decade.

The next paper up for discussion, submitted by Robert Crews, Associate Professor of History at Stanford University, entitled “The Russian Worlds of Islam,” considers Imperial Russian institutional accommodation of Muslims. As opposed to a top-down mechanism of social and political control, Crews argued that, as subjects of the Tsar, Muslims also made claims on the state. The result was a more complex interaction than that of traditional colonial narratives, which understand the relationship between the Tsardom and its Muslim subjects as having been that of one-sided, autocratic command stemming from the regime. Crews cited Muslim presence within the Russian military and the court system as an example of what he called “institutional accommodation of integration.” He argued that, at times, “the state was pulling out all the diplomatic stops to defend these Muslim citizens of the Russian Empire,” and that “colonial language was employed to defend these Muslim subjects.”

There was a great deal of discussion amongst the conference participants about the practical meaning of “rights” within the context of late Imperial Russia. There was widespread disagreement about whether or not the rights of the Tsar’s subjects were in any way similar to the contemporary Western conception of citizen’s rights. Opinions ranged from the view that rights of Tsarist subjects were merely official affirmations that held no practical clout. Some argued it was the Tsar who had the final say, regardless of legal constraints. Others argued that the Tsar was in fact beholden to specific legal constraints and that there was a notion of rights amongst subjects.

Eric Weitz of the City College of New York, acting as discussant, closed the panel by pointing out the consensus amongst all three papers in acknowledging that the only consistency in Tsarist policy seemed to be inconsistency. Periods of repression were superseded by periods of tolerance and vice versa. Policy was never static and always in flux. Tsarist power and the extent to which it was used to repress these various religious minorities–Jews, Muslims, and Lutherans—moved back and forth, eliciting a spectrum of degrees of control. However Weitz left the question open as to why this might be. “Was it the whim of the Tsar?” he asked. As for Weitz’s opinion on whether or not the Tsar’s subjects had rights he said, “I’m hesitant to call it rights, but I think it’s an area of ‘Imperial subject-hood.’”

Following lunch, Brian Porter-Szucs from the University of Michigan opened up the third panel, Mass Politics, with the discussion of his paper, “Fighting for Faith and Fatherland (or not):  Catholic Politics in Partitioned Poland.” Porter-Szucs’ paper presented an alternative historical narrative regarding the Catholic Church’s relationship with the 19th century Polish National Movement. Instead of viewing the Church as having always been supporting of the nationalist movement, Porter-Szucs argued, “the Church was not supportive of the national movement at all up until the end of the 19th century.” His research findings indicated that the Church, as demonstrated by sermons from the era, disapproved of a political movement that sought to change the existing social order, as the Polish National movement did. Such a change was viewed as a violation of God’s will. Porter-Szucs spoke of his findings that revealed several examples of priests speaking out against the National Movement, and church periodicals that were decidedly loyalist. Impetus for the evolution of the Catholic Church’s position to one that supported the National Movement followed Russian repression of the Church. “That’s what it took,” said Porter-Szucs, characterizing the deciding factor for the Catholic Church to align itself with the Polish nationalists.

Porter-Szucs attributed his findings to a frame of inquiry that examines “the faith behind the politics” of the Church. “For a long time the only way to talk about religion was to explain it,” Porter-Szucs said, as a way “to find out what they’re really doing.” However, in examining sermons in light of the beliefs articulated, as opposed to analyzing the possible political motives behind such religious teachings, Porter-Szucs uncovered a new finding about the history of political involvement of the Catholic Church in Poland. “And it wasn’t at all what I expected to find,” he admitted.

Assistant Professor Elena Campbell of the University of Washington followed with the presentation of her paper, “The ‘Muslim Question’ in Late Imperial Russia.” Campbell asserted that Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War was the major catalyst for the increasing visibility and centrality of the ‘Muslim Question’ in Russian politics of the era. The ensuing developments forced the state to confront its conflicting responsibilities in being both the official ally of Orthodox Christianity and the defender of Islam, in light of Imperial policy of religious tolerance.

Campbell astutely brought to light a point of comparison between hers and Porter-Szucs’ paper, focusing on the similarities between the Polish and Muslim populations within the Empire. “Because in the eyes of most Russians, the two problems were related, and similar,” Campbell explained, referring to the perceived threats of Catholicism in the western borderlands and Islam in the southern regions.

The conference’s final paper, “Of Antichrist and Duma: Old Believers and Mass Politics in Late Imperial Russia,” was presented by Roy Robson of the University of Sciences. Robson posed the question as to why the Old Believers failed in their quest to mobilize a political movement. Robson offered a multi-tiered explanation including a failure to unify Old Belief texts, and botched attempts to push Old Believer interests into the Duma. But the most damning factor for the failure of the Old Believer political project was the certainty amongst some hard-liner adherents that the Tsar was literally the Anti-Christ. In accordance with this idea, a sizeable portion of Old Believers refused to have any interaction with the Tsarist state whatsoever. Robson argued that it was this opting out of engaging with the regime significantly crippled the Old Believers political project, resulting in the failure of mass mobilization.

Charles Steinwedel Associate Professor of Northeastern Illinois University closed the final panel with his thoughts on mass politics, a new kind of political engagement that emerged following the Great Reforms of the 1860s. This development, he said, transformed the Russian Empire from “relying on people to obey, to participation.” Mass politics, he said, “changed the whole game,” shifting the environment from one of passivity, to one of activity. This political shift presented a great deal of new challenges to religious adherents, while at the same time effectively transformed the ways in which the Russian Imperial state dealt with the variety of religions within its borders.

photo: from left, Robert Crews, Stanford University; Gennady Estraikh, NYU; David Engel, NYU; Elena Campbell, University of Washington; Roy Robson, University of the Sciences; Karen Weber, NYU; Nadieszda Kizenko, SUNY-Albany; Eric Weitz, City College of New York; Hillel Kieval, Washington University in St. Louis; Brian Porter-Szucs, University of Michigan; Ellie Schainker, Emory University; Charles Steinwedel, Northeastern Illinois University; Robert Weinberg, Swarthmore College.

front center, Yanni Kotsonis, Director of the Jordan Center