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Against baptism

May 6, 2011

As Russia expanded eastward, it was illegal for Russians to enslave non-Christians, which you might think would benefit the indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Far East. What it meant in practice, if I remember correctly from Lantzeff and Pierce’s Eastward to Empire, was forced baptisms, including a recorded incident when a Cossack cut a hole in the ice, tied the man he wanted to “convert” to Orthodoxy to a pole, and baptized him by threefold immersion in a frozen river.

Reading that story in a history book made an impression on me, but until the other day I don’t think I could name any literary critiques of baptism as practiced in the Russian Empire. So I was interested in McLean’s chapter about Leskov’s treatment of the theme.

First is “At the Edge of the World” (На краю света, 1875), where the “stated moral is that the efforts of the Orthodox church to baptize the heathen and introduce Christianity among primitive tribes in Siberia are not only worthless, but harmful” (303). By putting the story in the mouth of a sympathetic Orthodox bishop, Leskov made this subversive moral acceptable to the extremely conservative journal that was one of his few outlets at the time (301-02, 308-09). When you think of the trouble that writers for, say, Nekrasov’s journals had getting things past the censors, even with the cooperation of a wily editor who was on their side, it’s impressive to think of Leskov trying to trick the censors and his own editors at the same time (without, as McLean points out, leading all his readers astray).

“At the Edge of the World” was paired with a memoir-piece called “Episcopal Justice” (Владычный суд, 1877), about Jewish boys in Kiev being baptized against their will and recruited into the army under Nicholas I (309-13). A third work, “The Unbaptized Priest” (Некрещеный поп, 1877), deals with a man who, unbeknownst to anyone but his prospective godparents, was never baptized as a child, but goes on to become a priest. The secret is revealed after he has himself performed countless marriages and absolutions and baptisms that, it is feared, are retroactively invalid (313-17). The authorial point of view throughout is that baptism as a formal sacrament, without a spiritual commitment by the person baptized, is worthless.

Leskov is known (or was to me until recently) as the rare Russian writer capable of treating the official church with sympathy, but that applies mainly to the early part of his career.  His father went to seminary (though he rebelliously refused to become a priest), and the son knew the Bible and Christian culture and theology better than most of his peers (6-12, 308). He kept a personal faith in God and immortality even after his loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution wavered (300).

In 1875 on a trip to Western Europe, Leskov “met Louis Naville, son of the Swiss Protestant theologian Ernest Naville,” which led to “a decided move in the direction of Protestantism.” Soon Leskov is saying in a letter that, if he knew then what he knew now, he “would not have written Cathedral Folk in the way [he] did” – that is, without such sympathy for people inside the Orthodox Church hierarchy (298-99).

At the end of his chapter on “Bishops and Baptisms,” McLean argues that “The Unbaptized Priest” is “convincing evidence that as early as 1877, Leskov’s religious position was already close to that which he and Tolstoy were later to share—long before Tolstoy arrived at this position himself” (317). I gather from Sperrle that Leskov and Tolstoi is a controversial subject. I thought this quotation was close to her later view, but also that she disagreed with McLean, so I’m curious to read more of what both of them say.

See Hugh McLean, Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art.

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