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The Language of Russian Protest On the anniversary of Avvakums execution

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The Language of Russian Protest On the anniversary of Avvakums execution


On April 14, 1682 (Gregorian calendar), the archpriest Avvakum was burned at the stake in the Pustozyorsk prison. While the date has never been given special attention in Russia’s historical calendar, the event itself – the violent execution of one of Russia’s most prominent ideologues – unleashed a schism that has remained in historical and cultural memory. Avvakum is a colossal part of Russian life, one that is impossible to circumvent when trying to understand the twists and turns of Russian history.

Outside Old Believer circles, part of the interest in Avvakum can be explained by the same sort of mechanisms that explain the popularity of countercultural heroes in general. Though the idea of counterculture took shape only in the twentieth century, the influence of Avvakum’s legacy on Russian history is perhaps greater than the collective contribution of all other countercultural heroes. Avvakum has always been remembered during periods of great social and political change. It is hardly coincidental that Leo Tolstoy pondered him during his period of spiritual questioning. It is not at all coincidental that Dmitry Merezhkovsky turned to him in his dreams of uniting Christianity and revolution. Avvakum became a symbol of everything unofficial that has been persecuted by the authorities, but one who has nevertheless found strength in Russian culture and traditions.

Avvakum’s life actually did consist of persecution from various types of authority – from the highest church and state officials to provincial governors and other lower authorities. When he served as a village priest, which he describes in the famous Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself, he was beaten in a church by a certain “superior,” whom he had unmasked as a criminal. Driven out of his village, he made his way to Moscow and was even noticed by the spiritual advisor to the tsar, Alexei Mikhailovich Stefan. Avvakum entered Stefan’s Zealots of Piety, whose ranks included the future Patriarch Nikon. He was soon honorably returned to his previous place of service, which, however, didn’t keep Avvakum from incurring the wrath of authorities when he drove out several dancers with bears.  At his new place of service – in Yuryevets on the Volga – he was beaten by nearly the entire town’s population for denouncing local customs, an event that he recounts in his Life.

All of these events took place before the church reforms and before Avvakum became one of the leaders of the schism. Descriptions of these misfortunes in Life speak volumes of the interrelationship of tsarist, church and local authority in the middle of the seventeenth century – when a priest known personally by the tsar and chosen by him was nevertheless subject to extirpation on the part of local leaders (who themselves never faced any consequences). Incidentally, these events also make it possible to argue that from the very beginning Avvakum had such an unsociable personality that he saw it as his duty to denounce and protest simply because his convictions and character required it. In other words, he was psychologically inclined to behave in ways that are today considered “nonconformist.” Another issue concerns the strength of convictions at that time behind such behavior and the extent to which the choice was a responsible one.

It is worth noting that Avvakum’s fight against the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, which he launched under the guise of defending “ancient piety,” often lead us to think of him as an earnest retrograde. This view is hardly just, however. The actions of the Zealots of Piety were the first small attempt at bringing about church reforms. Avvakum, like Nikon, took part in the comparison of books and saw the necessity of reconciling church books by deleting possible distortions and deviations from the original sources.

Avvakum was an active opponent of so-called “polyphony,” the practice of simultaneously carrying out the liturgy with several choirs and several chants in order to end it more quickly. They also extirpated him for this opposition, notably his own parishioners (“Don’t sing too long alone, we don’t have enough time at home.” – he recalled in his memoirs). In other words, Avvakum’s energy and the active role he played in religious issues rank him as a church reformer. This is quite characteristic of Russia – when those who think about other paths to reform become the most prominent and passionate opponents of reforms actually underway. These people are also described as retrogrades.

Things turned out the way they did, though. Becoming patriarch in 1652, Nikon had his own ideas about what changes needed to take place and how they should be implemented. He began comparing church books with the Greek texts and Italian reprints. Avvakum argued that these reprints could not be completely trusted and that it was better to turn to ancient Russian Orthodox manuscripts. These arguments were not accepted by Nikon, although to be fair, from a purely academic point of view, Avvakum’s approach was not entirely illogical. Nikon was generally too ambitious and authoritarian to listen to other arguments. It is difficult to say how the Russian church, and in fact all of Russian history, might have turned out had someone with another temperament been patriarch at the time.

Those doing textual comparisons earlier were a group of Ukrainian scribes. Avvakum and other members of the defunct Zealots of Piety did not accept their corrections, which is how the schism and the story of the archpriest began as we know it (not a single written essay by Avvakum dating prior to the schism is known).

The issue of how, when and why the scribes’ complex arguments became a reason for the upheaval that later encompassed society and divided it into sides – those that accepted the changes and those that did not – does not have a clear answer. It is quite likely that Russian society at the time really was undergoing change and was searching for new paths in everything (for better or for worse before Peter the Great).

In a sense, if a religious reform encompasses the whole of society with its debates, this is an indicator of a strained spiritual life and enormous potential locked up in this society. Pyotr Chaadaev appealed in his Philosophical Letters for people to envy the survivors of the Inquisition and religious wars in Europe – “in this clash of convictions, in these bloody battles to defend truth, they created a system of ideas that we can’t even imagine for ourselves.” Chaadaev was obviously too biased to immerse himself in the nature and disputes of Russia’s schism.

Incidentally, the literature of the early period of schism is to a large degree represented by the letters and other writings of Avvakum. His fate following his conflict with Nikon turned out to be dramatic. The archpriest was exiled to Siberia (although not stripped of his office). The Siberian exile was accompanied by conflicts with the provincial governor Afanasy Pashkov and a difficult journey to Dauria on the farthest edges of the Russian empire. Fate had it that Avvakum almost literally reached the very end of the Russian world, leaving descriptions of his journey in Life. Then, after Nikon’s downfall, Avvakum returned to Moscow for a time, although he didn’t renounce his views, this despite the fact that Alexei Mikhailovich had personally undertaken to convince him. Then, in 1666, the archpriest was defrocked in the Dormition Cathedral. His response was to condemn his hierarchs. In 1667, they attempted yet again to convince him to accept the reforms, with Eastern patriarchs even traveling to Moscow. Avvakum remained intransigent, however.

All of this shows the paradox of Avvakum’s position. Both secular and church authorities continued to prosecute him, but at the same time they felt some kind of rightness in him and in and event gave him credit for the strength of his convictions and his talent as a polemicist. Avvakum’s followers could be found in the most diverse layers of society and even among the members of the tsar’s family. His letters quickly made their way around Russia.

As such, the last period of his life – in the Pustozyorsk prison, where he lived in a dungeon on bread and water for 15 years – was filled with tormented work writing messages to his followers, answering to letters and creating one of the masterpieces of Russian literature – Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself. Transfer of the messages was done by Avvakum’s guards, who are mentioned in his various messages. According to Avvakum, they did this selflessly, honestly feeling sympathy for this prisoner and his views. Thoughts of freeing him from his confinement didn’t even cross their minds, however, as private sympathies never interfered with official duties.

In returning to the writings of Avvakum, it is important to recognize his striking talent, both as a polemicist and as an essayist. This talent is key in terms of understanding why so many conflicts surrounded him and why the tsar and church hierarchs who were convinced of Nikon’s reforms tried so hard to convince Avvakum. His contribution to the heritage of Russian literature is also a very hard thing to evaluate.

Avvakum’s style is truly incommunicable. When one reads his texts, one cannot help but marvel at the quirky mix of everyday details, sharp attacks against his opponents, completely unexpected similes and a strange type of innocence bordering on naivet


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