Augustine in Russia

Melissa Jones

East-West Church Conflict Overstated

Theologians and historians of religion have too often posited that Western theology is incompatible with Eastern Orthodoxy, and past scholarship has found it easy to define Russian theology mainly by its reaction against Western theology. Even today, rhetoric coming from leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church demonstrates that an anti-Western stance can provide an easy means to bolster Orthodox solidarity in troubled times. This can be seen, for example, in continuing conflicts between Moscow and Rome regarding Ukrainian Greek Catholics, and the 1997 “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” which was a clear effort by the Russian church to keep Western religious influence out of post-Soviet Russia. However, today’s Russian church leaders who attempt to reunite their flocks by taking an anti-Western stance distort the history of the church. Although there was certainly a history of conflict between Eastern and Western political and religious leaders, the assumption of an insurmountable theological dichotomy is not supported by historical evidence.

Although there were certainly times when medieval Russian Orthodoxy existed in relative isolation, modern Russian Orthodox theology has been in continuous dialogue with the West and has even looked to elements of Western theology to help support itself during times of social and political stress. As a specific example, Russian churchmen and intellectuals drew upon the work of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in an effort to buttress a truly Russian theology.1 Rather than looking at ways in which Russian theology changed and developed in reaction to Western theology, careful examination shows that Russian theological study was deep and broad, and that it sought knowledge of major theologians from the Western tradition for the sake of preserving and developing Orthodox theology. The popularity of Augustine in Russia was not a victory of Latin expansionism. Rather, Augustine was accepted in Russia for purely Russian reasons.

Although Augustine is considered a seminal Western theologian, his voluminous writings explored issues that were of interest to Russian theologians and philosophers as well. His historiography is one example of this. In many of his works, Augustine became a historian who endeavored to find meaning in the chaotic events of his personal life and the world around him. It is not difficult to understand why his works might have been attractive to idealistic members of the Russian intelligentsia who were seeking true wisdom in the face of social and political changes that were convulsing Russian culture in the post-Petrine period.

Order and Hierarchy

Many of Augustine’s works dealt with order and hierarchy, topics of vital interest to members of the church and intelligentsia in modern Russia. It is interesting to note that Augustine’s Confessions and City of God were translated into Russian and published in their entirety in both the 18th and 19th centuries. It is no accident that Russian translation and publication efforts were applied to these works which deal with meaning in history, the ordering of society, and the place of the individual in society and the cosmos.

Augustine is considered the architect of the Western Christian view of history, a history that is linear and providential. His City of God replaced the classical, cyclical historical view with a linear history that would end with the coming together of the City of God and the City of Man. The inherited Hellenic system of Russia’s past had not developed a philosophy of history that would allow Russia to move into modernity with a sense of historical purpose. Augustine’s theology offered a foundation for members of the intelligentsia seeking a new historical consciousness.

A Late-Roman, Post Petrine Parallel

Ideas regarding order and hierarchy became more important to Russian thought after Peter the Great’s Westernization policies were enacted. The City of God addressed the issue of how individual Christians could reconcile the practice of Christianity with their relationship to an imperial state that was often unjust and corrupt. This issue also affected the Orthodox Church as it struggled to maintain its spiritual integrity after being incorporated into Peter’s rigid bureaucracy. Augustine’s writings not only explained why such an earthly political hierarchy was allowed by God, it accepted this order and described how the Christian believer could attain salvation within it. In Augustine’s cosmology, fallen humanity needed the political structure for the sake of preserving peace and social welfare.

Augustine’s writings, particularly the City of God, provided a foundation for a church and intelligentsia hungry for historical grounding. It is this author’s suggestion that after the reign of Peter the Great (1695-1725), Russia experienced a crisis similar to that suffered in Augustine’s time. The post-Petrine Russian intelligentsia, forcibly Westernized, experienced the same societal flux as Augustine’s contemporaries who watched the great Roman Empire crumble. In many ways, Peter the Great’s heavy-handed Westernization gave Russians a feeling that they were created ex nihilo on an intellectual level. Writer Piotr Chaadaev’s lament that Russia had “no past, no present, and no future” echoed again and again. In his Apology of a Madman, Chaadaev described Russia as a “blank sheet of paper” and claimed the Petrine reforms were possible because there were no deep-rooted traditions or sense of history to stand in Peter’s way.2

The post-Petrine church found itself facing both political and social pressures: political pressure from politicians who wanted to either eviscerate it or co-opt it for state purposes, and social pressures as the Russian church faced growing losses of its educated elite to enlightenment philosophies based in German idealism and French rationalism. The simple piety of traditional Orthodoxy embraced by common folk could not hold members of the upper classes who had Western education and sophistication. As in Augustine’s time, simple piety was no longer enough: complex philosophical questions needed to be addressed in an attractive, literary form, and Augustine’s Confessions did this extremely well.

Combatting Secularization with Augustine

Russian Orthodox officials sought to provide a textual foundation which would be accessible to the clergy and educated elite to buttress the traditions of Orthodoxy in the face of attack by secularism and competing religious movements. Perhaps this best explains the church’s educational reforms and turn toward the patristic canon. In the absence of biblical translations accessible in the common language, Russian versions of the Church Fathers could provide a textual basis for spiritual and intellectual dialogue regarding the truth of Russian Orthodoxy. Thus the maintenance of Orthodoxy’s place within the new political and social orders required a reformulation of certain theological matters, which in turn required an appeal to the patristic canon and a reexamination of Western theology and patristics.

Rather than being a corrupting influence, as suggested by scholars such as Georges Florovsky, the examination of Western theology was a tool utilized by modern Russian church leaders in an attempt to maintain Orthodoxy’s Christian identity in the face of challenges of modernity. The 19th century Russian Orthodox Church sought to reform theological education, eliminate Latin scholasticism, and enliven the church. These religious reform efforts resulted in a return to patristic studies that led to the Kievan Theological Academy’s extensive, systematic translation of Augustine into Russian. Key figures in this renewal movement were Metropolitan Platon (Levshin), Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov), and Archbishop Filaret (Gumilevskii). These church leaders were instrumental in the move toward educational reforms that eventually resulted in the flowering of theological literature in the late 19th century.

Translating Augustine

As the study of patristics grew in the second half of the 19th century, the translation of Church Fathers was systemized. The Kievan Theological Academy’s geographical and educational contacts with the West made it the logical choice for the task of translating Augustine and other Western Church Fathers. Its Trudy kievskoi dukhovnoi akademii, the journal of the Kievan Theological Academy (1860 to 1917), carried numerous translations of, and articles about, Augustine.

Although the 1917 Revolution brought an end to this ambitious project, the excellent effort put forth by Kievan Academy scholars and editors was not in vain, for the translation of Augustine’s works into Russian corresponded with a blossoming of Russian secondary works on Augustinian thought. This project also stands as a monument to the sophistication and high level of academic discipline of the Kievan Theological Academy. The Russian translations of Augustine’s works produced by the Academy indicate a level of scholarship that was equal to any in Europe at the time.

Nevertheless, not only anti-Western zealots but even moderate Orthodox theologians tread carefully around Augustine’s ideas regarding original sin and the resulting limits it puts on human freedom.3 Nineteenth-century Russian churchmen experienced the same discomfort as 20th-century Orthodox theologians regarding Augustine’s interpretations of Genesis. F


1 In the 18th century, the Kievan Theological Academy referred to Augustine as sviatyi [saint] instead of the less exalted blazhennyi [blessed]. But in general, 18th-and 19th-century publications referred to this early Church Father as Blazhennyi Avgustin [Blessed Augustine].

2 P. I. Chaadaev, Apology of a Madman (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 167.

3 Reinhard Flogaus, “Palamas and Barlaam Revisited: A Reassessment of East and West in the Hesychast Controversy of 14th-Century Byzantium,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 41 (no. 1, 1998), 1-32.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Melissa Ann Jones, “Augustine in Russia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, 2000.

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Melissa Jones is an adjunct faculty member of religious studies at Chapman University College, Irvine, California