Northern Illinois University Press


Spiritual Elders

Charisma and Tradition in Russian Orthodoxy

Irina  Paert

The first full-length study to focus on this significant aspect of Russian Orthodoxy

Paert's book is certainly essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Orthodoxy, and even Christianity more broadly, in the modern world."-The Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"This monograph, well written and impressively researched, provides a pioneering account of the elders--their origins, development in the nineteenth century, and role in the final decades of the old regime. It offers a fresh new perspective on Russian religious life and suggests a number of important findings.” —Gregory Freeze, Brandeis University

"Irina Paert’s manuscript promises to be a seminal book in Russian history, especially the history of Russian Orthodoxy. Paert has done a prodigious amount of work tracking down manuscripts in both central and provincial archives stretching from Helsinki to Kazan to Tatarstan. The insights that she provides into the workings and evolving nature of Russian monasticism are invaluable.” —Christine Worobec, author of Possessed: Women, Witches, and Demons in Imperial Russia

Spiritual elders (startsy) are a quintessential part of Russian Orthodox spirituality, yet scholars have given relatively little focus to them. Elders whose authority came not from their position within the institutional church but from their reputation for personal holiness were mediating agents between official and popular Orthodoxy. Acting as teachers, spiritual directors, counselors, and prophets, elders represented a particular form of ministry within the Church. The informal source of elders’ authority meant that their position was often in conflict with the bureaucratized Synod.

While eldership re-emerged in the late eighteenth century as a relatively marginal phenomenon that had limited meaning within the monastic context, by the turn of the nineteenth century elders had developed into a symbol of Russian national spirituality. In Paert’s highly readable book, she looks at both Imperial and Soviet Russia and examines the social and cultural contexts in which startsy operated, demonstrating how eldership was appropriated by both the elites and the lower classes.

A significant contribution to the debate about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in modernizing Russian society, Paert’s study shows that elders represented both the weaknesses and the strengths of Russian Orthodoxy’s response to the challenges of modernity. Spiritual Elders promises to stimulate further discussion on the problems of spiritual authority, popular belief, the impact of a religious identity on a national one, and the interactions between church and society in the modern world.

(2010) 308 pp., 10 illus.
ISBN 978-0-87580-429-3
cloth $43.00

Irina Paert has published extensively on the history of Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church. She is a researcher and a lecturer at Tallinn University in Estonia.

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-429-3
Cloth $43.00