Colonizing Russia's Promised Land: Orthodoxy and Community on the Siberian Steppe. Religious Freedom in Modern Russia.

Leonard G. Friesen

The Conrad Grebel Review 39, no. 3 (Fall 2021)

Aileen E.  Friesen. Colonizing Russias Promised Land: Orthodoxy and Community on the Siberian Steppe. Religious Freedom in Modern Russia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

Aileen E. Friesen, the Executive Director of the Plett Foundation in Winnipeg, is perhaps best known to readers for her scholarship in Mennonite history. Yet it is no accident that she has also worked on larger themes found in Russian history, as is prominently displayed in the volume under review. Russian specialists will immediately see its significance for their field, but what might it offer to generalists? This review intends to address that question directly, but first things first.

In her study Friesen explores the role of the Orthodox Church in the settlement of the vast Siberian steppe from the late 19th century to the revolution of 1917. In a few short decades millions of Orthodox peasants moved eastward from European Russia to begin new lives in this vast land, and they did so alongside Russian and Ukrainian sectarians, German Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and thousands more. On the steppe they encountered a diverse yet relatively sparse population of Islamic Kazakhs, former convicts, a variety of numerically insignificant Siberian peoples, and still others who had previously settled in villages strung out along steppe and riverbank. Although the process was state directed and had the direct involvement of the last two Tsars, Friesen wants to understand the role of the Orthodox Church. If anything surprises, it is that such a vital matter has not previously been investigated by historians. The authors work fills an important blank spot.

Friesen divides the book into six concise chapters in which we first see the development of a mass migration of Slavs. The few Orthodox priests living in Siberia prior to the onset of this late 19th-century movement mainly endeavored to convert Muslims. Suddenly they faced the immense challenge of meeting the spiritual needs of their own adherents. A shortage of priests meant, for example, that Orthodox peasants routinely cohabitated and even bore children before a priest could be found to marry them and baptize their infants. Peasants died and were buried in unsacralized cemeteries without Christian rites. When the church managed to establish parishes, it often found that Orthodox peasants, who had settled from across the empires breadth, brought with them a host of localized Orthodox practices. How, then, to determine, the One True Faith?

Friesen lays this all out but also explains that Tsarist officials joined the church when they declared the settlement of Siberia to be an Orthodox project; for example, much of it was initially financed through a fund named after the late Tsar Alexander III. Both church and state officials viewed with alarm the migration of European colonists eastward as a threat to Russian interests as these colonists diluted the very Russianness that emergent nationalist impulses deemed essential. The author ends her study before the Imperial disintegration, which began in 1914 and culminated in the revolutions of 1917.

Although Friesen focuses on a single Orthodox diocese in Siberia, namely that of Omsk, her work has broader applicability, as is characteristic of all strong regional studies. Here are two examples. First, she mentions Mennonites only once in the main body of Colonizing Russias Promised Land, yet her work provides an essential context for their experience in late Imperial Russia. Mennonites were a key component of the mass of European colonists who flooded across the Ukrainian and Russian provinces and into Siberia in the late 1890s in search of daughter colonies and private estates. It was precisely because the state linked national identity and Orthodox faith in the late Imperial era that Mennonite expansion provoked such unfounded fears. Many observers warned that this expansion threatened the empire itself, especially given Germanys rise. Friesen makes plain the contradictions confronting an  Imperial  state that wanted  to  be simultaneously united, modern, Romanov, Orthodox, and (Russian) national across confessional and ethnic lines. She explains why Mennonites felt increasingly alienated from a Russian state in which they had prospered and to which they had been unfailingly loyal, and why so many initially welcomed the Tsars abdication in 1917.

Second, we are living at a time when a single word from this books title—“Colonizing”—thrusts readers into a dominant contemporary discourse. The word provokes a Manichaean drama in which the complexity of human interaction is reduced to two caricatures: one is either a victim or a victimizer. Th s is what makes Friesens narrative so refreshing as she brings nuance and agency to personas as diverse as those of Tsar Nicholas II, German Baptists, Molokan sectarians, Orthodox priests, Muslim Kazakhs, Ukrainian-speaking Siberian settlers from Chernigov, and countless others. Even if done unwittingly, the authors embrace of this grand narrative of Siberian colonization challenges a central construct of our time.

In sum, Friesen has written an engaging, thought-provoking study of the Orthodox impact on the colonization of the Siberian steppe, one that is thoroughly grounded in contemporary sources and archival records from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Omsk. We can hope that she will return to the story begun in these pages and take the question of Orthodoxy and Community” into the Soviet era.[1]

Leonard G. Friesen, Professor of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.


[1] The reviewer and the author are not related.—Editor