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Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought

Russia is one of the most powerful and influential nations in the world. The power and politics of Russia are shaped by its political and economic model and its religious ideologies. The ‘Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought book is a great piece of work exploring one of the critical aspects of the cultural life of Russia, its religious ideas. The book takes on this subject, succinctly outlining the context and historical background of Russia. The authors do so by closely following through the country’s leadership and political movements that have influenced its religious thoughts over the years. This book reveals Russia to have had a unique history that shaped its religious ideology and actions.

A critical highlight in the book is the portrayal of the influence of Russia’s movements in shaping its religious ideologies during the 18th and 19th centuries. The authors reveal how the development of religious ideas supported the immense historical upheavals. For instance, during the seventy years of the country’s officially communist rule, much upheaval happened, contributing to the surge in the number of exiled diaspora (Froese, 2004, p. 58). On these grounds, the book finds Russia’s religious thought inseparable from the ongoing debates of atheism and nihilism in the country. Religious debates and upheavals largely characterize Russia’s history. For instance, critical influencers, including Bakhtin and Losev, had no alternative but to stay mute when Russia embraced religious persecution.

The book successfully explores how Russia’s cultural identity was pegged on religion. This practice has not stopped, as evidenced by the text. The authors explicitly expound how religion is increasingly forged as a critical component of modern Russia. The text further reveals Russia’s complex relationships with Judaism and the contributions of renowned thinkers, including Shestov, Frank, Karsavin, Khomiakov, Kireevsky, Bulgakov Berdyaev, Philaret, Chaadaev, and many others (Emerson, Pattison & Poole, 2020, p. 116). Other critical areas this text covers include the role and significance of poetry, music, aesthetics, film, and writing in shaping the development of religious ideologies in Russia. The authors of this text contend that different historical movements affected Russia’s religious ideologies. A few of the movements found to significantly influence the formation of religious ideologies to include Slavophilism, theosis, church academies, westernism, the imiaslavie, religious idealism and liberalism, and the Neopatristic school period, among others. Lots of dynamism have characterized the development of religious ideologies in Russia. The authorities largely influenced the changes in religious policy and beliefs.

Also, the text reveals the playout between power and religion, where those in control sought to use religion to exert power and influence. For instance, the text clarifies the tough moments of 1878-1947 when Russian authorities expatriated independent teachers, including G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. Their careers as independent teachers ended when they were expatriated to Paris and London after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. These teachers taught ‘practical mysticism’ supported by the then’ occult revival,’ making their influence significant during the Silver Age Russia (Emerson, Pattison & Poole, 2020, p. 187). The development of this religious ideology created an imperial syncretism responsive from those supporting the Gurdjieff (Greek-Armenian folk) and Ouspensky (Russian metropolitan mysticism). Imperial Russia was committed to enforcing its religious ideals, which contributed to the emergence of the émigré cultures outside Russia (Europe) after the civil war.

The text also captures critical insights on the religious ideologies in imperial Russia and the influence of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church autocrats controlled religious life in Russia during this period. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia was modeled as a multi-confessional empire where the Orthodox Church autocrats shaped religious policies through force. For instance, the text reveals how Peter I’s and Holy Synod and Catherine II embarked on secularizing Russia’s monasteries. Although they embarked on this task, the ecclesiastical structures of the Orthodox Church sustained the liturgy, communion, and legally acquired sacraments. All these practices created room for the continuity of the Orthodox religious life.

Moreover, the text reveals how church art, architecture, and music continued o shape religious ideologies and practices of Russian life. Although the Orthodox Church’s religious life continued, it faced major threats from the non-Orthodox persons adopted into the empire (Froese, 2004, p. 59). The coming in of the non-Orthodox population due to the Russian military conquests led to the renegotiation of new state structures and doctrines. Often, this would happen as the non-Orthodox persons interacted with Russian imperial authorities, shaping the Russian religious life. Although the influence of the Orthodox Church was immense, the changing demographics complicated the enforcement of state religion.

In conclusion, the Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought book is a great piece of literature for those seeking to understand the influence of religion on the politics and way of life in modern Russia. Religion has continued to influence policies and practices. The text reveals how Russian liberalism and religious idealism have been a core part of Russia’s history. The text does a great job explaining the influence of Russian neo-idealist philosophers such as Soloviev, Evgenii Trubetskoi, Sergei, and Trubetskoi on the development of liberal theory emphasizing natural law, human dignity, and Kantian personhood. These elements became a significant innovation of Russia’s religious and social thought, closely associated with religion and idealism. This book is worth recommending to others interested in understanding Russia’s religious ideologies.


Emerson, C., Pattison, G., & Poole, R 2020. The Oxford handbook of Russian religious thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Froese, P 2004. After atheism: An analysis of religious monopolies in the post-Communist world. Sociology of Religion, Vol.65, No.1, pp.57–75.


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