Jennifer Jean Wynot. Keeping the Faith: Russian Orthodox Monasticism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1939. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press. 2004. 256 pp. 16 b&w photos. Index. Cloth $45.


In the opening pages of her monograph, Jennifer Wynot says that “of all the pre-1917 institutions, religion proved the most resilient” (x). Her book addresses “why” and “how” of the perseverance and survival of religious life and establishment in extremely hostile circumstances of the Soviet Russia. Despite the gloomy subject of a systematic destruction of religious life and tradition in the Soviet Russia, the book conveys an unambiguously uplifting pathos. It dwells on the spiritual survival of Russian monasticism at the time when monastic institution was destroyed.


The author states that her goals in writing this book were threefold: to reexamine Soviet society during the 1920s and 1930s; to elucidate the affirmative aspects in the life of the monastic establishment; and to make a contribution to Russian church history and to European history as a whole.


The author limited her research to the monasteries under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, concentrating on the regions of Moscow and Smolensk. She claims that “a full examination of monasticism of whole of Russia is not practically possible” (xii). Wynot considers Moscow to be “an ideal” subject because it offers a diversity of aspects (modern/ancient) and a huge number of monasteries which underwent especially severe treatment by NKVDD. Because the author focuses on urban religious life, she mostly refers to Moscow province, “using the more rural Smolensk as a basis for comparison.” (xii) Her other reason for writing about Smolensk province is the wide availability of archival documents from that region.


The book consists of five chapters, which are organized chronologically. Chapter 1 ambitiously pursues several goals. Its first part is designed to be an introduction to Christian monasticism and to Russian religious and ascetic life and establishment before 1917. It traces the developmental history of Russian spirituality and Church and draws parallels between Russian and Western monastic traditions. This part is the weakest and most problematic in the book. It lacks in clarity and completeness (the seventeenth century Russian Schism is omitted altogether!) and will be disappointing for a scholarly readership. As soon as this sketchy part is over, the scholar emerges at her best—her discussions of the target period are rich in detail, insightful and dynamic. Thus, in the second part of this chapter she discusses the monastic and church establishment during the pre-revolutionary period, paying special attention to the Church reform movement of 1905-1907 and the Church Council (Sobor) of 1917. The author emphasizes the profusion of positive tendencies within monastic end church institutions and contends that “had the Bolshevik revolution not interfered, monasticism may have experienced another revival.” (35)


The subject of chapter 2, “Revolution, Civil War, and Famine, 1917-1922,” is monastic life and resistance during the period of the October Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. This chapter discusses the Bolshevik antireligious campaign during this period: their urban and rural ecclesiastical targets, array of their tactics and approaches (from propaganda to persecution) as well as counter-measures undertaken by the monastics and clergy. The scholar notes that the biggest blow to the Church came with the publication of the “Decree of Separation of Church and State in Russia.”


Chapter 3 explores the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP), 1921-1928. It discusses in great detail the internal affairs of the Church, the reformation or “renovationist” movement of the so-called Living Church, as well as ordeals and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and its leaders. The unrelieved onslaught on Russian religious life proved devastating. Yet the revealing results of the 1923 secret census showed that the Soviet antireligious campaign was rather a failure, urging the Soviets to modify their tactics. More repressions and closures of the vital centers of Russian monasticism (including Optina and Kiev-Cave Monastery) followed. The chapter ends with a discussion of the 1927 Declaration and the ensuing Schism, which the scholar considers “the most serious and long-lasting schism within Russian Orthodoxy” (110). From then on the Church was split into the Patriarchal church and Karlovatskii synod (also known as the Catacomb Church). As NEP ended, the Soviets intensified their antireligious policies yet again.


Chapter 4 examines the years 1928-1933 calling them “The Good Friday of Russian Monasticism.” It discusses the antireligious campaign against the backdrop of other Soviet policies of those years. Wynot’s shows how the Soviet state was tightening its grip on peasants, convincingly connecting collectivization and antireligious campaign. The new antireligious policies and laws resulted in the rampage of church closings and massive arrests of monastics. As Wynot’s discusses the brutal repressions of those years, she addresses the new aspects of religious and pastoral life. These include the new resistance and survival strategies employed by the monastics (e.g. meetings held at the cemeteries), highlights their unbroken spirit and heroic fortitude vis-à-vis the hardships of exile. The scholar  points out that the Schism carried on in exile.


The concluding Chapter, “The Descent into Hell,” addresses the years of the Great Terror (1934-1939). Wynot pays close attention to the changing policies of the Soviet state and comments on both benefits and drawbacks for Russian monasticism which proceed from those. Topics under discussion include the 1936 constitution, the 1937 census and consolidation of Stalin’s position. In the second half of the chapter Wynot surveys Russian monasteries abroad, pointing to the fact that during the interwar period Russian presence in the monasteries of Palestine, Mount Athos, Estonia and Finland dramatically dwindled. An overview of monasteries and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad concludes the chapter.


Besides its captivating discussion, the book offers several valuable tools for scholars. These include the index, statistics tables, several appended documents (e.g. the Soviet Decree on the Separation of Church and State), as well as plenty of black and white pictures. The latter considerably enhance the book’s appeal making it literally come to life. This well-researched and inspired work will be a welcome addition to the scholarship on Russian Church History. Its readership will include scholars and general public, students of Russian and European history and culture.




Svitlana Kobets, University of Notre Dame




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