Serafim Sarovsky: A Saint for the Deep People – Part III

Dear Readers:

Continuing my review of this piece about Saint Serafim Sarovsky.  Where we left off, we were talking about the fact that Serafim never discussed, nor gave a fig about, any of the public events that were happening during his life time.  Not even the Napoleonic invasion!  Author Konstantin Kudryashov speculates that this indifference may have stood in the way of Serafim’s canonization.  Because indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church is built into the very apparatus of Russian statehood, and has been, ever since the Russian people were forcibly converted to Christianity.  I am not religious myself, so I cannot fully understand how this mindset works, but it is my understanding that Orthodox Believers are supposed to take an interest in society and their community; and most definitely in the well-being of the Russian state.  Although, as in any religion, provisions are made for those who simply want to escape from society altogether; as in join a monastery.

Napoleonic invasion: The army and people abandon Moscow.

And the Russian people, the “Deep People”, as I reckon you could call them, have always shown a respect and reverence for such men and women as choose to become hermits.

As a child I remember learning to sing the famous Russian folk song “The Legend of the 12 Robbers” your typical Russian forest bandit gang whose criminal mastermind was a rogue named Ataman Kudiar.  The song ends with the news that Kudiar eventually found Christ, abandoned the other thieves, and went to live out the rest of his days in a monastery.  The version I linked above, which I picked because it has an English translation, alters the final stanza as I knew it, in which we learn the twist:  That the holy Monk Pitirim in his Solovki Monastery, who is telling the story is, himself, Ataman Kudiar: Так в Соловках нам рассказывал сам Кудияр Питирим.  But much reformed, it goeth without saying.

Even as a child, when singing this song with my sister (I attempted the base line of the harmony, with a certain quantum of success therein), I remember thinking heretical thoughts:  “Well, it’s great that Kudiar stopped killing people and robbing people and raping that poor girl from Kiev; but, in truth, should he not have spent the rest of his life behind bars for those offenses?”  And should he not have turned in his erstwhile comrades, rather than leaving them free to continue their predatory forest ways?  A danger to honest Christian travelers and the like?

But no…  Apparently the Russian Deep People believe, that it’s enough to just repent and escape to a monastery, and then you don’t have to account for your bloody deeds the way a normal criminal would.  And trust me, monastery life, although not exactly luxurious, would be Camp Cupcake compared to the Russian penal system of that time.  Had Kudiar actually turned himself into the police.

But leaving Ataman Kudiar behind and returning to Serafim, who never killed nor robbed nor raped anyone (that we know of):  Recall that Serafim Sarovsky died in 1833.  Fifty years later, some people started the process of trying to canonize him into a saint.  But the Most Holy Synod hemmed and hawed and procrastinated.  They didn’t want to do it, but they also didn’t want to just come out and say so.  The Ober-Procurator of the Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was personally dead set against Serafim’s canonization.  According to his wiki page, Pobedonostsev was a “reactionary éminence grise” of the Russian Deep State, who served under three Tsars and made tons of important decisions for the nation, behind the scenes.  Which is what an éminence grise does, by trade.  It was during the reign of Tsar Alexander III that Pobedonostsev got the job of Ober-Procurator, which is a secular position of a government official who supervises the Church.

Pobedonostsev: “They call me an éminence grise, but I am actually quite a colorful individual.”

Pobedonostsev (whose name in Russian, by the way, means, literally “Bringer of Victory”, although it didn’t help Russia much in the War against Japan) was opposed to liberal reforms, and he did not care at all for the hippy-dippy intellectuals of his time.  His political agenda included a harmonious balance of Church and State.  Although the fact that this position of Ober-Procurator actually existed in Russia, might speak to the fact, that the State did not always trust the Church to do the right thing (?)

Considered one of the most educated European jurists of the 19th century, and a significant contributor to Russian civil law of the time, Pobedonostsev is better remembered as the guy who ordered the excommunication of one of Russia’s greatest writers, Leo Tolstoy.  (Which begs the question:  If he was a civilian, then how did obtain excommunication powers?)  Repin’s portrait of him, seen here, shows Pobedonostsev to be the re-incarnation of Nosferatu the Vampire dressed in a colorful suit.  He was not a beloved man.  An anarchist name of Nikolai Lagovski tried to assassinate him in 1901, but proved to be a bad shot.  (Or because you can’t shoot a vampire, you have to stake him.)  All of this explains why Pobedonostsev disliked Serafim Saratovsky and tried to nix his Sainthood.  Or does it?

Author Kudryashov explains Pobedo’s contempt for Father Serafim:  The Russian people do not need a Saint who is completely indifferent to Russia.  What kind of example could he give?  What could one possibly learn from a hermit who lives with a bear?  A man who deliberately exiles himself from the life of his country?

And thus we enter into an intriguing battle of wills:  The Deep State vs The Deep People.

[to be continued]

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3 Responses to Serafim Sarovsky: A Saint for the Deep People – Part III

  1. Ryan Ward says:

    “I am not religious myself, so I cannot fully understand how this mindset works, but it is my understanding that Orthodox Believers are supposed to take an interest in society and their community; and most definitely in the well-being of the Russian state. Although, as in any religion, provisions are made for those who simply want to escape from society altogether; as in join a monastery.”

    “Although the fact that this position of Ober-Procurator actually existed in Russia, might speak to the fact, that the State did not always trust the Church to do the right thing (?)”

    “Which begs the question: If he was a civilian, then how did obtain excommunication powers?”

    I quoted these three sections because they all point to a bit of historical context that I think is helpful in clarifying a) why Sts. Sergius and Seraphim were outwardly so different, while being very similar in many ways, and b) why the state reacted so differently to the 2.

    The key event here is the religious component of the reforms of Peter the Great. Before these reforms, the Church was institutionally independent of the state, and headed by a church official, the Patriarch of Moscow. Peter’s reforms created the synod, with its lay supervision of the clergy. This was based largely on German precedents, where the local Lutheran churches were thoroughly domesticated and harnessed to the ends of the state. The goal was to turn the church into an arm of the state that would promote the state’s ideology and interests. As noted, in an earlier period, St. Sergius had a great political impact on Russia. However, this was largely in spite of himself. To the extent that he could, he lived the same kind of life as St. Seraphim. His action of “seeding the North” with monasteries and associated communities was largely unintentional. A pattern kept repeating itself where Sergius would set out into the wild in search of a more withdrawn life, but would soon be pursued first by aspirant monks, then by others who wanted to live in the vicinity of the monastery. Eventually a whole new settlement would form, at which point Sergius would leave the new monastery in the care of someone else, then retreat to a new location, again in search of isolation, and the cycle would repeat. His interventions into political life were not at his own initiative, but in response to the requests of political rulers, and Sergius was always eager to return to his life as a hermit. The Russian political rulers at the time had no desire to domesticate a figure like Sergius, but were content to ride the wave of his charisma when possible. The much more authoritarian and micromanaging state that Peter left was unwilling to engage with holy men in this way. It would simply work with willing sycophants like Pobedonostsev, while marginalizing any figure (like St. Seraphim) who remembered that the kingdom of God is “not of this world”. But the “deep people” had, in this case, a much more solid notion of what the church is supposed to be about then did their notional rulers, which is why Seraphim is now recognized as a saint and Pobedonostsev isn’t.

    As an aside, the question of how the church should relate to the state is a complicated one that’s never really been finally resolved. A prominent example of this tension is the dispute between St. Joseph of Volokolamsk and St. Nilus Sorsky over monastic land-ownership. St. Nilus criticized land ownership because it led the monks to become worldly and implicated them in the oppression of tenants. St. Joseph argued on the other side because, if the church abandoned its lands, they would simply be taken over by secular owners who would treat the tenants much worse than the monasteries did, and wouldn’t use the wealth gained to help the poor. The church, by canonizing both Nilus and Joseph, showed an understanding of how intractable these issues really are.

    I think the contemporary Orthodox church in Russia is facing similar issues. Defenders of the concordat between church and state note that modern Russia can be a downright Darwinian place, and that the social services run by the church are the only thing standing between large numbers of people and outright destitution. The state funds that allow the church to provide these services are, of course, contingent on the continuation of the concordat. On the other hand, a lot of Russian Christians worry that the church is being co-opted in the way that Peter tried to do. The issues this raises are no more simple or easy to resolve than they ever were.

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    • Ryan Ward says:

      One small point, I was writing from memory, and make a mistake about St. Sergius. He didn’t himself go from place to place starting communities; it was his followers who did that. However, it remains true that his followers were sent out not to create colonies, but to be hermits, and Sergius himself turned down the opportunity to become Metropolitan of Moscow (the bishop of Moscow didn’t yet have the title “Patriarch”) and generally treated political involvement as a distraction to be minimized rather than something he really wanted to do.

      Like

      • yalensis says:

        Thanks, Ryan, these are super comments!
        I have a sneaking suspicion that Peter the Great was an atheist (?)
        Like Frederick the Great (?)

        I may have mentioned, in a previous post, that I inadvertently came in contact with a sort of subversive sect in Uglich (completely harmless people though, mostly Re-enactors of the Tsarevich Dmitry death) who believe that Peter the Great was an Imposter, inserted into the Russian entity by European enemies, in order to undermine the Russian state.

        To whom I have a one-word retort: “Poltava!”

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