What are ethics? What are morals? How are they constituted, practiced, and regulated? How do they change over time? My own research is informed by these question; so is Douglas Rogers’. So it was only natural that I would be drawn to Rogers’ new book The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals (Cornell UP, 2009). I was not disappointed.
Blending history with ethnography, Rodgers carefully examines how the priestless Old Believer community in the small Russian town of Sepych adapted its ethical practices in three historical episodes. First, the abolition of serfdom. It caused a spiritual schism among the failthful. Second, The coming of Soviet power, and particularly the violent, forced resettlement of collectivization, anti-religious campaigns, and the labor incentives of socialism. Soviet power broadened generational gaps within Sepych, though, paradoxically, it also strengthened the Old Belief in Sepych (via the help of Soviet archaeographers). Finally, the arrival of Post-Soviet Russia. It brought increasing social inequality, privatization, and new notions of the community’s ethical leadership and repertoire. During each of these tumultuous moments, the Old Believers’ tried mightily to square how they ought to act with the way they actually act. and to reaffirm the borders between “this world” and the “other world.” In the end, Rogers’ findings not only point to the resilience of Old Belief, but also its adaptability to the pressures of modernity.