jueves, 12 de enero de 2017

Plough and Pentateuch: Russian Judaizers as a Textual Community

This book is the first systematic study of the Judaizers' (Subbotniks') popular religious movement in Imperial and Soviet Russia.

Part One of the book considers the emergence and development of the Old Russian sects (the Subbotniks as well as the Doukhobors and Molokans) in the context of written communication between peasants and state bureaucracies. The genesis of the sects in the 1760s is revealed as a by-product of religious enlightenment politics initiated by Peter the Great.

Part Two focuses on relationships between Subbotniks and Jews which were mentioned by Russian authorities since the very beginning of the 19th c. Both the Jewish views on Subbotniks and the Subbotniks' appropriation of Jewish ideas and practices are examined as a sort of "cultural translation".

Part Three analyses responses of the Subbotniks' textual communities to the temptation of identity which gained strength in the end of the 19th - 20th c. It deals with separation of the movement into the persuasions of "Karaites" and "Talmudists" and shows various attempts to prescribe them an ethno-confessional identity.

Conclusion reviews the textuality as one of social forces and discusses its roles in Russian and Jewish cultures.

A new approach to understanding the "mysterious " Judaizing religious movement (Subbotniks) in Imperial and Soviet Russia.  (Table of Contents : )

Part 1 —  The emergence and development of the Old Russian sects (Subbotniks, Doukhobors, Molokans) in the context of written communication between peasants and state bureaucracies. The genesis of the sects in the 1760s as a by-product of religious enlightenment politics initiated by Peter the Great.

Part 2 — Relationships between Subbotniks and Jews in the early 1800s. The Jewish views on Subbotniks and the Subbotniks' appropriation of Jewish ideas and practices are examined as a sort of "cultural translation."

Part 3 — Analyses of the Subbotniks' textual communities to the temptation of identity which gained strength in the end of the 1800s to 1900. Separation of the movement into "Karaites" and "Talmudists," and various attempts to give them an ethno-confessional identity.

Conclusion — Reviews textuality (written, not oral) as one of social forces and discusses its roles in Russian and Jewish cultures.

Review  by Andrei Conovaloff, 16 March 2014, updated: 9 August 2014.

Who were my grandparents?  Are subbotniki a nationality?  Were they Jews, Molokans or what? In 1900 the official census of subbotniki (Saturday people) was about 30,000. Where did they all come from?

L’vov, a Jewish scholar in Russia, wrote this book for those who asked him about their subbotnik roots, and anyone else interested in sectarian history in Old Russia. The book fills a large gap in understanding the origins of the subbotnik movement in Russia and brings new insight into the debated formation of all sectarians in the Russian Empire. L’vov may be the leading world scholar of judaizers in Russia — Christians who adapted Jewish customs and beliefs.


During decades of research and discussions with colleagues, Lvov reports that historians overlooked many details of typical daily life in Old Russia 300 years ago which could logically explain how so many different sects (Orthodox heresies) quickly formed and endured — sprouted and spread like weeds — infesting at least 1% of the population. The book explains that since 1700, Protestantism was taught in government-published children’s textbooks, spread in house meetings, and helped form different non-Orthodox faiths.

The mystery of how subbotniki formed became a 2-decade obsession for L’vov. This book evolved out of L’vov’s lifelong research for his own historical Jewish roots in Russia.

L’vov was born in 1956 and raised in St. Petersburg, a European-like city of cultural-religious diversity, founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, designed and constructed by thousands of foreigners who were allowed to build their own churches and stay. It is the best place to do most of his research.

Interest in scientific research of Subbotniki in the Former Soviet Union was revitalized by a 1997 expedition to document subbotniki in southern Azerbaijan. Three years later, L’vov and colleagues continued the field research in 2000 by examining 300 members from the same population who resettled in South Russia. The researchers documented 2 major branches of modern subbotniki — (1) with and (2) without rabbis, and  variants of 1 and 2.

L’vov admits that though many of the popular theories proposed about the origin of Judaizing sects in Old Russia could have contributed to formation of the subbotnik movement, neither theory alone nor all in combination convincingly explained how so many people spread so far apart could have joined this widely distributed movement during the time they did:

  • They were descendants of the Khazars.
  • They were the heirs of the Novgorod Jewish Heresy.
  • They were victims of Jewish missionary propaganda.
  • They were converted by a secret society of Jews, and/or a Jewish conspiracy.

With neither an organizational center nor leadership, how did subbotniki multiply so quickly, spread so widely, and create so many diverse sub-sects? Interviewing descendants revealed few clues.

In his book an “obviously overlooked” and less mysterious theory, proposed by several scholars, that all new (non-Orthodox) religious movements (nicknamed: molokane 1765, dukhobortsy 1785, subbotniki 1806, etc.) identified in the Russian Empire arose spontaneously since the 1700s as a result of many people (first students) reading the same texts and discussing them at the same time everywhere. People learned from reading what little was available of the Bible (text) and, more important, "talking about the divine" (razgovorov o bozhestvennom : разговоров о божественном) which Russian peasants were first encouraged to do privately at home by Tsar Peter I (The Great, 1682-1725). Because public reading («Народное чтение») was encouraged, illiterate masses learned freely from the few literate people and from their own private discussion forums in homes separate from the Orthodox Churches.

Today we call this word-of-mouth / oral communication. They taught each other as best they could. Some people when given the same new information will behave similarly, it’s normal human behavior. Nobody could have manipulated all of them, everywhere, at the same time. To explain the cause of their new-faith-forming behavior, L’vov examined the “religious enlightenment politics initiated by Peter the Great” and how they facilitated the self-formation of non-Orthodox faiths, particularly the subbotnik movement.

Tsar Peter I toured much of Europe twice (1697-1717) returning with modern reforms for government, society, and religion. For example, required ritual bowing upon entering and venerating icons in every room was relaxed. “His Majesty [apparently] saw Lutheranism as the true religion.”(Moss, p.148)  He wanted people to read, find their own faith, and many invented new and hybrid faiths using just the literal Scriptures “as written” (Писания — «только то, что написано»).(Zhukova)

Home-schooling and lifelong self-learning was promoted, including topics from Western Protestant religions freely distributed in print and explained by traveling missionaries, preachers, “freethinkers” (vol'nodumetsy : вольнодумецы), self-proclaimed saints and miracle workers.(Smirnov, Chap.3) Discussions at homes during “divine assembly” (bozheskie sobraniya : божеские собрания), or “Russian rural home tradition”(Shubin, p. 78), was the genesis of their written and “living books.” Their oral unwritten histories which transferred their various faiths from person to person, and generation to generation. Though some of the oral history was transcribed (became textual), little was published by these indigenous sects.

The Tsar’s religious restructuring included recruiting and promoting talent. A bright religious teacher noticed by the Tsar while visiting Kiev, Theophan Prokopovich, a semi-heretic, was promoted to bishop (in 1718) and archbishop (in 1725), and was a founder of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1724).

Only boys were formally educated up to the early 1800s. Significant sections of this Russian “Primer..” were adapted from “The Small Catechism” by Martin Luther (1529) used to teach boys in Germany.(Korzo)

Due to this “Primer..”, issued 40 years before the molokan or dukhoborstev sects were named and nearly a century before subbotniki were named, nearly every upper-class boy schooled in the Empire for 2 generations was taught basics of the Orthodox faith, the fallacy of superstitions (icons, rituals, ordinances, etc) and that Scripture is the primary rule book. Focus was on literal interpretation of the Bible as written, particularly the Old Testament. People were warned not to make ideas up in their heads (не то, что «из головы выдумано»).(Zhukova) Though it was illegal to formally educate peasants and girls in schools, legal home discussions exposed many more thousands to Western Protestant ideas a century before Bibles were freely distributed in the early 1800s.

Judaizers in Central Russia probably got a few Slavonic Bibles from Jews in Ukraine nearly a century before they were printed in numbers by the Russian Bible Society in the early 1800s, and/or migrating Jews translated Bibles they carried with them at meetings with peasant villagers in Russia. Those who later became called subbotniki also had substantial other textual material, cited by L’vov.

Between 1813 and 1826, Tsar Alexander I funded the Russian Bible Society, imported from Europe, to translate the Bible from Old Slavonic to modern Russian. More than half a million Bible-related books were printed and distributed in 41 languages across Russia. The population consumed books so fast that the Orthodox Church stopped the press until it could take control of Bible production and distribution.(Batalden) 50 years later, in 1876 the official non-Church Slavonic Synodal Translation (Синодальный перевод) began publication. For the first time, the New Testament was widely available, and a complete Bible. The popularity of the new complete Bible greatly facilitated further conversion to and acceptance of sectarianism (non-Orthodox faiths).

An unintended result of the delay in printing the New Testament was that some people considered only the Old Testament as divine "law" (zakon : закон), adopted Old Testament rituals, like resting on the Sabbath, food restrictions, and circumcision — the origin of a subbotnik movement, named for gathering on Saturday (Russian : subbota). Others, who questioned the monopoly of the Synod of the Church in the salvation of souls, formed their own non-Orthodox faiths (heresies, sects).

Though some Jews educated non-Jews about Judaic holidays, diet laws, circumcision, relationships, etc., L’vov says this alone did not cause the broader subbotnik movement, but it influenced some to accept real Jews as mentors and interpreters of the Bible. Some congregations of subbotniki had a rabbi, or an ethnic Jew as their presiding elder (presviter, presbyter). In a few villages, the subboniki were divided into 2 congregations, with and without a rabbi.

A variety of subbotnik faiths evolved due to geo-cultural environment. In rural areas, some individual Jews joined, taught and led subbotnik congregations. In urban areas, subbotniki joined existing Jewish congregations or formed their own congregation. In South Russia, where Jews were more prosperous than sectarian peasants, intermarriage was more common, and some kids were sent to Jewish school (yeshiva). Those from Astrakhan claim their origin was from their own “Abraham.” Isolated by geography, the various groups unevenly adapted Jewish rituals, customs and beliefs, while retaining Orthodox ways when lacking an alternative. (Zhukova)  Most buried men and women separately until perestroika when they met Jewish missionaries and learned alternative rituals.

In reaction to the ideological doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality implemented by Tsar Nicholas I, after his death (in 1855) most all sectarians petitioned the Minister of the Interior to practice their non-Orthodox faiths openly. They got the standard negative answer: "Be without consequences" ("Оставить без последствия") meaning: “No — they must be Orthodox.” Since after the death of Nicholas I, Russian authorities tried not to use police to enforce religious matters, the sects interpreted "without consequences" as “without trial” ("без последствий" как "без суда и следствия"), as permission to practice their faiths openly.(Levin) They could disobey, or reinterpret, the law because it was not enforced.

L'vov quotes many reports of Orthodox church missionaries who worked in "sectarianism infected" (zarezhennykh sektanstvom : зараженных сектантством) areas which show that the Church workers took a defensive position, not trying to win over the "sectarians" and raskolniki, just hoping to keep the rest of their Orthodox flock together. Such policies allowed freedom of religion for the Old Ritual Orthodox faiths and the newer non-Orthodox “sectarian” faiths, together totalling more than 10% of the population.

In the early 1900s, amidst war, famine and protests, small groups of Subbotniki fled to Palestine (Israel). Many traveled as religious tourists with Orthodox Russians on ships booked for pilgrimage trips to get baptized in the Jordan River, a practice continued today.

After 1932, during Soviet times when everyone was issued an internal passport with a new “nationality” line, Subbotniki could be labeled: Russian, Jew or Karaite. Like all sectarians, they had no official unique public identity except what they called themselves, and/or what nickname(s) the government used to report them. Being arbitrarily classified a Jew during WWII was dangerous among German invaders. No matter what was on their passport, among themselves they divided over the importance of rabbis, Hebrew and Talmud; interpretation of laws and customs, how many holidays to follow, which rituals to perform and how, etc.

L’vov ends his book in the mid-1900s with the Jewish holocaust to avoid politically sensitive topics, which he presented a year later in 2012 (see videos). One such topic, the acceptance of all Subbotnik Jews in Russia for immigration to Israel, was reported just this month (March 2014). The transference of many Subbotniki in Russia from a Jewish-like religion to a Jewish nationality has progressively occurred since perestroika due mainly to organizations like Shavei Israel working to populate Israel with one faith, while many Israeli nationalists continue to debate what is a legal Jew, and many reject communist converts.

Translation of the book into English will be greatly appreciated, and posted if it becomes available.Three sections of the book are online in Russian, and are translated here (links below in Contents). A 4-hour mini-course about the book and more, taught by L’vov, is online in 3 lectures.

Not covered in this book:

At least one Russian scholar of religious history, Inikova, feels a more rigorous proof is needed for this intriguing hypothesis.

How many Subbotniki in Russia during the past 150 years transformed to Adventists or to Pryguny, Skakuny, and how many from all 3 faiths emigrated around the world.

That sectarians changed faiths, often temporarily, to get a privilege not available for their faith. For example, divorce among Subbotniki was easier compared to other faiths.(Breyfogle).

An oral story recorded in Narrative of the visit of Isaac Robson: and Thomas Harvey to the South of Russia, &c., 1868, pages 11-16, about how Spiritual Christians originated a century earlier solely from a General Tverchikov converting Simon Ouklev (Simeon Uklein) to the “quaker” faith, used to claim that he alone spread the “Molokan” (milk-eater/drinker) faith to over 100 thousand followers.

Timofei Bonderov, the most famous subbotnik, whose correspondence with Lev. N. Tolstoy resulted in the publishing of Bonderov’s essay and their letters. In 1956 Bonderov’s home town was renamed in his honor and 2 memorials erected in 1958 and 2005. (Subbotniki.net) Through Tolstoy, Bondarev influenced M. Gandhi.


18 Russian Czars, 1613-1917, St. Petersburg Times, Florida, 1999.

Batalden, S.K. Russian Bible Wars: Modern Scriptural Translations and Cultural Authority, Arizona State University, Cambridge, March 2013.

Breyfogle, N.B. Heretics and Colonizers: Religious dissent and Russian colonization of Transcausasia, 1830-1890 (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia), University of Pennsylvania, PHD Thesis, 387 pages, 1998. — Subbotniki relocated to Caucasus, pages 47, 55+

Freund, Michael. Fundamentally Freund: Here come the Subbotnik Jews, The Jerusalem Post, 10 March 2014. — After nearly a decade of bureaucratic torment and agony, the remaining Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union will at last be coming home to the Jewish state.

Holtrop P.N. and C.H. Slechte, editors. Foreign Churches in St. Petersburg and Their Archives, 1703-1917. Brill, 2007.

Klibanov, A.I. History of Religious Sectarianism in Russia, 1860'S-1917, 450 pages, 1982. — Subbotniki are sub-indexed under Molokans (8 pages), and under Adventists (3 pages).
Levin, Eugene. Book Review at "Portal-Credo.Ru”, Israel, 2011. (Russian)

—. Research by the Russian Scholar Aleksandr L'vov, Subbotniki.net.

Moss, Vladimir. Essays on the Russian Autocracy, UK, 2010.

Shubin, Daniel H. A History of Russian Christianity, Vol. III: The Synodal Era and the Sectarians - 1725 to 1894. 2005. PDF. — Interpretations by an American Dukhizhiznik preceptor.

Plough and Pentateuch

Russian Judaizers as a Textual Community

By Alexander L’vov

St. Petersburg. : Publisher European University in St. Petersburg, 2011. — 328 pages. [16 illustrations]. — (Studia Ethnologica; issue. 9).

Outside of social categories : world events — by W. Ong
Research literacy and textual community — by B. Stoka

Textual community as "the world event"

Textual community and socio-utopian legends — by K.V. Tchistov

Textual experience and "autocommunication" — by Y.M. Lotman

Textual community and identity

"Textual community" studies in 1990 - 2000s.

Part 1. Peasants, power and written texts

Chapter 1. Beginning of the movement : Petrine reform of piety and the genesis of Russian sectarianism

1.1. Documents and versions

1.2. Divine meeting as a “miraculous church"

1.3. Petrine reform reading : concept and realization

1.4. Peasant understanding royal appeal to godliness

1.5. "Public reading" and Russian dissent

Chapter 2. Public interview : pedants, priests and peasant community in sectarian villages at the end of the XIX century.

2.1. Pedants and Folklore

2.2. Public interviews

2.3. Methods of checking compliance with the text

2.4. Competitors dogmatists: prophets and institutions

2.5. Reading comprehension

2.6. Rhetoric dogmatists and oral knowledge of written texts

Chapter 3. "Heaven Ministry of Internal Affairs": Correspondence with the authorities and naive monarchism

3.1. Theoretical introduction : naive monarchism

3.2. Evidence of village priests

3.3. Lyrics petitions : analysis of the motives

3.4. Mechanisms of meaning in the tradition of petitions

3.5. Institutionalization tradition petitions

3.6. The role of tradition in rural clerks petitions

Part 2 . Russian peasants and Jewish civilization

Chapter 4. Judaizing , Judaism and crypto-Jews

4.1. Metaphoric and metonymic Judaism

4.2. Jews and Subbotniks : typological comparison of cultures

4.3. Pale and messianic expectations

4.4. Halacha : Giyor, Gery and crypto-Jews

4.5. Haggadah ten lost tribes

4.6. Legend of the ten lost tribes in Subbotnik tradition

Chapter 5. Jews and Subbotniks : an interactive model

5.1. Around circumcision: Yeletsk Subbotniks (Lipetsk Oblast) and Jewish wine-makers

5.2. Meeting in St. Petersburg: the royal decree , the law of Moses and the Jewish faith

5.3. Karaites topic in contacts between Jews and Subbotniks

Chapter 6. Zion and Paradise: Judaizing emigration to Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

6.1. Subbotnik-Zionists : historical memory and a letter from the past

6.2 . Eschatological expectations Judaizing in 1880-1890s.

6.3 . The role of "letters" in the development of eschatological expectations

6.4. Oral evidence on emigration Judaizing

6.5. Social context and causes of emigration Judaizing

6.6. Interaction of written and oral comprehension in emigration

Part 3. Textual community and the lure of identity

Chapter 7. Subbotnik-Karaites: purity and social order in the textual communities

7.1. Separation of two branches

7.2. Differences in practices and the possible effects

7.3. Ritual impurity in the theory of M. Douglas and textual communities

7.4. Theory of the sacred: between narrative and category

7.5. Textual and categorical orders in communities Subbotniks

Chapter 8. Representation searches : Subbotniks in the book market

8.1. Work in the mosaic of new identities late 1800s to early 1900s.

8.2 . Prayer for Subbotniks

8.3. Exoticization Subbotniks: descriptions of ethnic categories

Chapter 9. Russian Judaizing Jewish collective farms

9.1. Jews and Subbotniks after 1917

9.2 . Private religion of Anna Moiseyevna

9.3. Construction of identity as a consequence of the Holocaust


Appendix. Texts of false decrees

About "Doukhobors" in Alexandrov city

About "Doukhobors" in Georgievsk village

On the need to "fulfill the law of Moses exactly"

Resolution "pontificate without scruples all the Old Ritualists, Doukhobors, Molokans and Pomorians (priestless Old Ritualists)"