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Leskov on the Old Believers and the radicals

October 9, 2014

In the early 1860s, Russian radicals thought the Old Believers might be their allies in a coming revolution, on the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” This was argued about in the press, and it bled into literature, with Pisemskii in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) and Leskov in “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863), No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), and “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870) discussing the subject quite directly. It’s even possible that the name Raskolnikov (which is the word for ‘schismatic, Old Believer’ plus the last name suffix -ov) in Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание, 1866) was chosen to refer to this dispute. Katkov was publishing articles attacking the idea of an Old Believer–radical alliance from at least 1862 to 1867, even as he serialized Troubled Seas and Crime and Punishment.

This much I knew, but thanks to Inès Müller de Morogues I’ve learned more about the debate and Leskov’s extensive participation in it.

IMdM dates the idea to an 1859 doctoral thesis by the radical historian A. P. Shchapov, who “put forward the entirely new idea that the schism was also a social phenomenon.” Radicals came to see the schismatics as “a political force, a revolutionary element,” while conservatives wanted to interpret the schism in strictly religious terms (400). The conservatives drew on the work of, among others, Mel’nikov-Pecherskii.

At this time Alexander II wanted to pursue a comparatively tolerant policy toward the Old Believers, and Leskov was sent by the government to Pskov and Riga to investigate the schism there. He published his findings in 1863, but the book was printed in only 60 copies, and he recycled bits and pieces of it in other articles through the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s (400-01). Presumably his time in Riga and Pskov helped make his portrait of Old Believers in Moscow so vivid in book 2 of No Way Out.

As was often the case with Leskov, his view on the Old Believer question had something to displease everyone. He had no use for the idea that Old Believers could be allies of revolutionaries and sided with Mel’nikov-Pecherskii against Shchapov, suggesting that his own (and Mel’nikov-Pecherskii’s) direct experience with Old Believers was more valuable than Shchapov’s toiling in archives. He also thought the Old Believers were too internally divided to be a singular political force of any kind (404-07).

He opposed measures to persecute or forcibly assimilate the Old Believers, and wanted them to be provided with their own schools, which should not be controlled by Orthodox clergy (409-10). But he considered their form of religion a fanatical commitment to formal ritual that contradicted the living and changing spirit of Christ (407-08). (Cf. in this connection Sperrle’s idea of his “organic worldview.”)

It irritated Leskov when people failed to distinguish between different types of Old Believers or conflated schismatics and heretics. Leskov supported Andrei Zhuravlev’s classification of Old Believers into popovtsy and bespopovtsy, groups who did or did not acknowledge any genuine priests. There were endless subdivisions within these groups. Though Leskov knew a great deal about these subgroups and their history, he found that, at least in Pskov, the Old Believers themselves did not know what group they belonged to and were content to declare that they “followed the old way” (401-02).

The priestless Old Believers, who held that the line of apostolic succession had ended with seventeenth-century reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church, had to develop ways to live without sacraments, including marriage. Some groups had officially forbidden, secret quasi-marriages; others had “free marriages,” performed according to different rites, but without priests or legal contracts. This especially interested Leskov, whose first marriage was extremely unhappy, and who hated the rules of the Orthodox Church that made divorce difficult but also hated civil marriage (401-03). Here Leskov comes around to the radicals again. He disapproves of the way certain Old Believer men treat their unofficial wives and refuse to acknowledge their children, and he compares this to what the radicals considered their pro-woman belief in sexual freedom, wishing to “remind the radicals that free love benefits men more than women” (404).

See Inès Müller de Morogues, “Leskov face aux schismatiques,” Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique 29.3-4 (1988): 399-414.

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