The lives, let alone the fates, of Imperial Russia’s priesthood have garnered little attention among historians. I think the reason is partially because the research of most Russian historians has been focused on explaining the country’s torturous modernization. The orthodox clergy were hardly (so the story goes) modernizers, so they could be ignored. I, too, accepted the clergy as a moribund social caste after reading I. S. Belliustin’s Description of the Clergy in Rural Russia in graduate school. A parish priest himself, Belliutsin lambasted his colleagues for their drunkenness, parasitism, and utter disregard for the souls of their flock. Only Bolshevik anti-religious propaganda could surpass the passion of Belliutsin’s indictment.
Enter Laurie Manchester‘s Holy Fathers, Secular Sons: Clergy, Intelligentsia, and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia (Northern Illinois UP, 2008). In this fascinating book, Manchester traces the paths of the sons of priests (popovichi) out of the castelike clergy and into more “modern” and “secular” professions and political movements. After their emancipation in 1860s, popovichi increasingly became academics, doctors, journalists, educators, businessmen, and revolutionaries. Manchester explains, however, that we would be wrong to assume that this departure from traditional roles meant the priest’s sons abandoned their Orthodox upbringing. On the contrary, many popovichi stressed their religious traditions, ethics, and worldview in their new “secular” mission to save Russia. Their Orthodox values provided a moral foundation that made them distinct in the ranks of Russia’s intelligentsia. These values also outlasted the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks may have destroyed the Orthodox clergy as a social class, but eliminating its ethos proved far more difficult. Manchester’s complex tale provides a much needed challenge to our image of the backward priest and secular, westernized intelligent by showing that for the sons of priests the self-fashioning of a secular identity never strayed to far from its religious antecedents.