The end of socialism in Russia caused a reorganization of the religious landscape: it triggered the revival of diverse indigenous religious movements and introduced new agents into a newly opened spiritual marketplace (Rogers 2005; Steinberg and Wanner 2008; Wanner 2007; Zigon 2011). Siberia and the Russian Arctic became one of the most striking spots of postsocialist changes on the Russian religious map, and they were associated with an increasing presence of various Protestant denominations and churches in their vast territories. Those “godless” lands and pagan strongholds were considered a spiritual blind spot on the map of world evangelization (Brumbelow 1995; Dudarenok 2005; Krindatch 2004: 131; Rybakova 2009). A great number of missionaries from within the post-Soviet space as well as from different foreign countries began their activities in the Russian Arctic, making it a “battlefield” of different missionary principles and strategies. Since the mid-1990s, scholars have begun to register the growing influence of Evangelical movements among the indigenous population of Siberia and the Far North (Pelkmans 2009a; Vallikivi 2014; Wiget and Balalaeva 2007). As a result, a highly competitive multireligious landscape has developed in the region, with diverse religious domains: Orthodox Christianity, various Protestant movements, Islam, and native religious practices, including shamanism.
This article examines Evangelical missionary movements among the Nenets indigenous people who live in the tundra of the Polar Ural Mountains and the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia. Since the post-Soviet period, the territories of the Polar Urals and Yamal tundra have become a zone of intensive international Evangelical missionary activities and frequent cases of conversion to Protestant Christianity among nomadic and sedentary native people. The Nenets people have been popularly viewed as strongholds of “native traditional culture” who were reluctant to convert to Christianity in the past, who later tacitly resisted Soviet reforms on nomadism and sedentarization, as well as antireligious propaganda. Postsocialist transformations, however, made the Nenets open to Evangelical missions. And, while the local authorities were promoting both Russian Orthodoxy and traditional Nenets customs and beliefs along with sacred sites and ritual practices as a foundation of Nenets social order, the rural Nenets often eagerly embraced the Evangelical missionary message, challenging commonsense perspectives of the resilience of Nenets traditional culture. Moreover, shopping around in the global spiritual marketplace and trying out multiple faiths, the Nenets chose in the end the fundamentalist Baptist movement. Interestingly, the neo-Pentecostal (prosperity gospel–oriented) missionary movements failed in the Nenets tundra while they were experiencing a rapid growth and phenomenal success in other parts of the globe.
Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (2000, 2003) argue that neo-Protestantism, particularly the prosperity gospel ideology, becomes a way of making sense of capitalism, functioning as one of the enchantments of neoliberal economics. In a similar way, Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan D. Rose (1996) describe the phenomenal success of Korean Pentecostalism as it spread the message of American-style economics and anticommunism in Korea. During the early post-Soviet period, too, a variety of neo-Protestant movements became one of the forms of “de-sovietization,” an anti-Soviet alternative and a way to join the global capitalist community. As scholars acknowledge, newly arrived Evangelical mission churches gradually contributed to social and cultural changes after socialism, by bringing new visions of the society they encountered and promoting capitalism, and by reconstructing the moral order and the fabric of everyday life (Elliott 1996; Elliott and Deyneka 1999; Wanner 2007). As Mark Elliott (1996: 11) has commented on the phenomenon of Western missionaries working in the post-Soviet states, they “champion in one and the same breath Christ crucified, market economics, and Western democracy.”1
This article, however, draws on an ethnographic case in which the globally successful neo-Pentecostal prosperity gospel movement has not drawn a wide response. It appeared to be a perfect place for Pentecostal church planting thanks to a highly rural population of indigenous people, social marginalization of nomadic people, and poverty, alcoholism, and less education in many rural places. The rural Nenets in the Polar Urals and Yamal, however, rejected the system of beliefs that contributed to the process of making sense of neoliberal culture. Instead, fundamentalist Baptism, with its claims to separation from the (modern/Western/secular) world and its ideology of resistance to “corrupted” modernism, dominated the local religious landscape and became a fast-growing church there.
To answer what made possible the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Nenets tundra, this article shifts the perspective toward the spatial-temporal dimension of religious changes after socialism. It discusses the potential contribution of the chronotope concept in studying Christian conversion, and it applies the chronotopic approach in the comparative analysis of the two Evangelical missionary movements in the post-Soviet Arctic—neo-Pentecostal Charismatic Christianity and fundamentalist Baptism. In the focus are spatial and temporal perceptions that impelled missionary movements in the North and the points of their intersection with the Nenets shape of the world.
Postsocialist transformation was not merely a question of a transition to democracy or to a new economic system; it entailed what Katherine Verdery calls “a reorganization on a cosmic scale,” which involved revising the universe of basic meanings, authority, and legitimation; the sacred and faith, as well as a reorientation of time and space itself, “as the past is being revisited and the present reoriented” (Verdery 1999: 33–35). It is these fundamental categories of human experience, space and time, altered and revised, that, according to Verdery, were essential to the transformations of postsocialism.
The task, then, is to explore the spatial-temporal frame—the chronotope—of postsocialist religious changes. The category of space-time, introduced in Einstein’s theory of relativity and derived from Kant’s view of “space and time as indispensable forms of any cognition” (Bakhtin 1981: 85), was developed in literary criticism by Mikhail Bakhtin. He defines the chronotope concept as “the intrinsic connectedness of spatial and temporal relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (1981: 84–85). Bakhtin transposes the category of narrative chronotope into a field of epistemology. He endows the chronotope with a generic significance in the production of meanings and their materialization in social experience: “Every entry into the sphere of meanings is accomplished only through the gates of the chronotope” (Bakhtin 1981: 258). Bakhtin’s reader Gilles Deleuze (1984) continues the idea and discusses the chronotope of thoughts (“un chronotope de la pensée”), pointing out that space-time is presupposed by any spatiotemporal organization of thought.
And just as in literature the process of assimilating and mutating of historical chronotopes has been complicated and erratic, so also did postsocialist social experiences reveal, with all their intensity, the polysemic complexity of spatial and temporal relationships.
The search for new modes of legitimacy after socialism involved the revision of time, the past and the future, and space, bringing “re-consecration of the post-Soviet landscape” (Bernstein 2011: 624). Postsocialist transformations unveiled the multiplicity of what Kirsten Hastrup (2010: 199) calls “lived chronotopes”—different ways of perceiving territory and remaking history. The changes thus gave rise to new sacred geographies and historiographies (Bernstein 2011; Buck-Morss 2000; Verdery 1999). Religion was an active agent in these processes. This article further develops the chronotopic approach to postsocialist changes, applying it to religious rearrangements in the Russian Arctic and cross-cultural dialogues between Evangelical missionaries and the rural Nenets living in the Polar Urals.
The conversion story began as far back as 1998, when an Orthodox priest from Tobol’sk city arrived for a few days’ visit to Beloiarsk village in the Polar Ural tundra (the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region).2 As people recalled, he had undertaken an all-night service at the local House of Culture and baptized some people the next morning. The following year, everybody was talking about a new Russian “pop” (vernacular name for an Orthodox priest) who had arrived in Beloiarsk and who healed people. People were surprised when instead of a bearded man dressed in a frock, they met a young man in his early twenties, wearing jeans. He was a Charismatic missionary from Novyi Urengoi (an industrial city in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region). He was preaching and reading the Bible, telling about God and the healing power of prayer. His evangelizing work appeared to be successful particularly among the indigenous population, and in August 1999 the Charismatic missionary baptized some 50 people in the cold water of the River Yunga, creating a new branch of the independent Charismatic church Novyi Svet (New Light). It is noteworthy that mainly Nenets and Khanty people joined the church, while Russian believers remained followers of the Orthodox Church.
In the following years, Beloiarsk village became a significant frontier site in terms of cross-cultural encounters between native people and missionaries. Located a relatively short distance from urban centers, Beloiarsk was, at the same time, the gateway to the tundra, with numerous nomadic and seminomadic groups (Nenets, Khanty, and Komi) living near the village and frequently visiting this sedentary space. Hence, it attracted missionaries from all over the world. In a small village lost in the snowbound tundra, I met missionaries from western and northern Europe, the United States, Canada, and even Cameroon, Australia, and Korea. Beloiarsk turned out to be at the epicenter of many scandals associated with Protestant missionary initiatives, when heated conflicts between missionaries and local authorities and between converted and unconverted natives increasingly attracted public attention.
In 2006, when I started my fieldwork in Beloiarsk, I was straightforwardly immersed in ongoing conflicts and debates in the communityof the converted. That year another religious rearrangement happened in the village. Agitation came with the arrival of new missionaries calling themselves the Baptist Brotherhood, officially named the International Union of the Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It was an unregistered religious organization and one of the most conservative and nonconformist religious movements in Russia. The church targeted the tundra population and established religious communities among Nenets herdsmen throughout Yamal and the Polar Ural tundra regions.
The arrival of new missionaries to the village led to a split in the Beloiarsk religious community. Interestingly, the Christian community was divided along ethnic lines. It was only Nenets believers who left the core community of the newly converted (while the Khanty remained faithful to the Charismatic church) and established a purely Nenets church, which belonged to a most radical type of Baptism.
None of these (re)conversions were a dramatic change from Arthur Darby Nock’s understanding (1933: 7), nor were they a purely private experience. Nenets conversion was rather a communal religious event,when during discussions and disputes believers made a collective decision to change affiliation and to convert to a new religion altogether. As I argue elsewhere (Vagramenko 2017a), the sociality of conversion was determined by the fact that Nenets religious practices were based on the Nenets kinship system; that is, a religious community consisted mainly of members of a particular extended family. It was usually female elders who acted as missionary guides within their extended family network. They also took leading roles in those informal meetings when a kin-religious group was discussing the issues of (re)conversion.
The conversion drama in Beloiarsk calmed down with the establishment and reliable authority of the fundamentalist Baptist Brotherhood in the Polar Ural tundra and the growing disillusionment of Charismatic and other neo-Evangelical groups with their missionary outcomes. While Baptists continued to plant their churches in the northernmost villages and tundra regions, heading to the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas, Charismatic churches were located mostly in urban space and did not experience any remarkable influx of new members among the natives.
Evangelical Chronotope: “World-Breaking” and “World-Making” Principles in Pentecostalism and Baptism
Joel Robbins, in his celebrated essay on the globalization of Pentecostalism (2004), looks at the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement through a simultaneous process of “world-making” and “world-breaking,” which is similar to Peter Berger’s (1969: 4–6) general understanding of the “world-maintaining” and “world-shaking” power of religion. Following Birgit Meyer’s (2010) interpretations of these terms, I understand the “world-making” process as the spatial expansion of Pentecostalism, its community-building success, and its role in the construction or imaginary of the world “at large.” The “world-breaking” is a temporal dimension of the movement, its stress on rupture, on a complete break with the “sinful” past or disconnection from the surrounding present— what underlies the very notion of being “born again.” Below I undertake a comparative analysis of Pentecostal/Charismatic and fundamentalist Baptist spatial conceptualizations and their temporalities.
The spatial conceptualization of the Pentecostal movement is based on the “world-making” principle (Meyer 2010; Robbins 2004). This concept of the world is deeply rooted in the doctrine of spiritual warfare. The world is believed to be the site of a spiritual war between the devil (or local, demonic “territorial spirits”) and God (Englund 2004; Meyer 1999; Robbins 2004: 122). From this perspective, the idea that the whole world should be imbued with the Holy Spirit is teleologically legitimized as a sign of God’s victory in the spiritual warfare. The phenomenon of megachurches, Pentecostal visibility in public space, media empires, business enterprises, and even the prosperity gospel ideology in general have become tools in Pentecostalism’s “reaching out” into the world, in its conversion of the global space (Coleman 2006; Meyer 2010). “It is not people that are the problem, space is the problem,” said a Ghanaian Pentecostal leader in Meyer’s case (2010: 119). Goods and commodities are not bad per se, but on the contrary, they can be legitimized or even sanctified (infused with the Holy Spirit) as long as they are used in the spiritual struggle to convert the world (Meyer 2010: 118). Meyer also considers this idea as a nexus between the spread of capitalism and the appeal of Pentecostalism—that is, the embedding of neoliberal economic policies into Pentecostalism.
The Charismatic mission church Novyi Svet, with which the Beloiarsk conversion story began, was a typical neo-Pentecostal independent church. It appealed to marginal groups and the poor, embraced modern cultural trends, used contemporary methods of evangelization (such as Christian business seminars, network marketing, modern media facilities, and global infrastructures) and had an emphasis on prosperity, basing its ideology on neoliberal attitudes. It belonged to the category of “passionate religious movements,” as Mathijs Pelkmans points out (2009b: 2), concerned “less with tradition and ritual and more with truth, morality and visions of the future.”
It was far from being a megachurch with media and commercial empires. However, it remained a very typical neo-Pentecostal organization. Lacking the possibility to evangelize the whole world, believers nevertheless had “world-making” dreams and intentions: they were encouraged to be active in local public spaces, to engage in their own business, visibly expressing God’s blessings. Following the prosperity gospel, believers often justified wealth and commodities as long as the latter could be part of a born-again life and would work as “tools for evangelism.”
Once, a young Nenets woman who was not a member of the church said to me with a note of jealousy: “Charismatic women are all so modern (sovremennye), they all have their own businesses and drive their own cars.” This was true: almost every woman in the community participated in network marketing, and several of them were the most successful Amway and Mary Kay business owners in the entire region. A young Charismatic Khanty woman from Aksarka village, for instance, was a Mary Kay representative, and she had recently been rewarded with a pink Ford car by the company, the ultimate symbol of her success. She was confident, however, that her business was actually a missionary work, and she skillfully combined her Mary Kay networking with evangelism, spreading both cosmetics and the message of Christ. Her own business network was actually her church. And her material symbols of success worked as signs of God’s blessings. “You know, this [my business] is similar to faith. Faith without works is dead. So, I believe, and I do my work,” she argued.
The Charismatic church attracted missionaries from across the globe. During my field trips to Beloiarsk, I could observe how the village church was slowly transforming into a kind of a missionary-tourist spot. Several international Pentecostal missions with worldwide support headed to the Polar Urals, drawn by the exotic veil of the world’s edge. The church minister also encouraged believers to travel outside the region, to participate in Christian business seminars or Bible schools in Tiumen’, in Moscow, and abroad. The church sought to connect believers with a broader, global network—an imagined community of believers that was transnational, deterritorialized, and decentered (Casanova 2001; Corten and Marshall-Fratani 2001; Marshall-Fratani 2001). Hence, the significance of locality and cultural difference was weakening in the Charismatic conceptualization of space.
The globalizing Pentecostal network, as scholars argue, is not tied down to any place: “It becomes local without ever taking the local into itself” (Robbins 2003: 223); it disembeds cultural phenomena from their “natural” territories (Casanova 2001: 428). Although carrying the capacity to indigenize the Christian message into local forms, Pentecostalism is deployed in a transnational, global network and seeks to connect every local point within it (Corten and Marshall-Fratani 2001; Meyer 2010; Robbins 2004). As a result, the Pentecostal project of “reaching out into the world” transforms locality: “The local becomes a site that is enveloped in a broader scheme” (Meyer 2010: 119).
In such a frame, the Charismatic church, with its universalist and deterritorializing impulse can bring a threat of displacement, particularly for the Nenets, for whom locality and the microcosm of tundra life remain constituent in their system of identities. And such delocalizing attitudes, possibly, were the first tokens announcing the failure of the Charismatic movement in the Nenets tundra.
A range of scholars stress the significance of spatial conceptions in nomadic cultures (Fondahl 1998; Ingold 2000; Jordan 2003; Vitebsky 2002; Ziker 2003). The relationship to land in general remains a central concern in the identity of indigenous people. Tundroviki (tundra people) is an identity defined through the land, encompassing ethnic, kin-based, or linguistic categories: it “implies an even stronger set of solidarities and obligations between people and certain places and animals,” argues David Anderson (2000: 116). For nomadic Nenets, tundra space is appropriated, marked, organized, controlled, and highly meaningful; as Piers Vitebsky puts it (2012: 436), the “entire landscape is like a huge open-air temple.” Tundra space is impregnated with memories, ancestors’ heritage, and stories; it is demarcated by nomadic campsites, migration routes, fishing places, and hunting tracks, as well as graves and sacred sites, revealing the kinship system, economic strategies, social organization, and spiritual and cosmological knowledge of the nomads (Stammler 2005: 207ff.; Ventsel 2012).
Therefore, while drawing believers out into the wider world and imagined global community, Pentecostalism was perceived by the Nenets as rooting them out from their traditional locus, rather than being grounded within Nenets space.
With that, he pointedly ceased talking.
If we look at the history in general, the history of Christianity—what did Christianity lead to? Because they [indigenous people] are not the first, and not the last, and even not the hundredth people that are being absorbed [pogloshchaiutsia] by Christianity … What does Christianity lead to? To destroying per se. Or, to assimilation. That is, they won’t remain [zaderzhat’sia] in that form in which they try to stay now. They either will be assimilated, or most likely …
At Odds with “the World”
The Charismatic spatial frame contrasts with how the Baptist Brotherhood envision the world and order space. The first and fundamental postulate of the brotherhood is total separation of the church from the state, and ultimately from the secular world. It is not simply a point in a church charter; it is an evangelical credo and an essential pattern for the brotherhood’s system of values and sets of practices. Separation from the world is a constitutional principle of Christian fundamentalism; it shifts and thickens the boundaries between the secular world and the church, and claims new cultural and social territory (Harding 1991). This makes fundamentalism disposed to opposition and confrontation, and it constitutes a specific ideology of space.
Born as a resistance movement (initsiativnkiki group) against the Soviet state antireligious policy and the religious conformism of church leaders in the 1960s, the brotherhood functioned as an underground movement and took the brunt of Soviet-era religious persecutions, suffering from state harassment. Refusing any kind of relations with the state, rejecting official registration, the brotherhood was illegal during the Soviet period, and its leaders were regarded as criminals up to the late Soviet period (Sawatsky 1981: 160ff.). Up to the present, the motifs of religious persecution and spiritual warfare and the ideology of martyrdom remain constituent of the brotherhood system of identities and determine its defensive withdrawal from the state and from “the world.” Conservative Baptists reject official registration of their communities and churches (which is believed to be tantamount to divorce from Christ), renounce the authority of the state in the life of the church, and oppose any kind of political or social involvement with the world and politicizing the church, thereby persistently building a wall between the church and the world.
The world, therefore, is not a space to be filled or even changed—this place of predominant sin is rather to be escaped or avoided. Conversion of space (especially public space) is far from being the missionary goal of the brotherhood. It is rather protecting the church space against the influence of the world by building borders with it that can be characterized as the basic spatial perspective of the brotherhood.
Baptist believers calling themselves fundamentalists consistently struggle against any kind of “corrupted modernism,” whether it is social evangelism, liberal movements within Protestantism, prosperity gospel values, or ecumenism. A church member should avoid any kind of social activity, including engagement in politics or business, going to theaters, listening to secular music, or watching television. Modern religious practices, such as involvement in Christian business, Bible-based business seminars, Christian theaters, Christian political parties, and so forth, are the biggest threats for the brotherhood. The brotherhood’s preachers use a distinctly antiprosperity pathos, a message of antipathy to the values and concepts of capitalist culture, expressing rigorous opposition to the market economy, neoliberal values, spiritual democracy, and individualism. A Beloiarsk Baptist pastor once started his Sunday preaching as follows:
There are many Calvinists nowadays …, and we condemn them roundly, because they are too modern, they keep talking only about prosperity and wealth, instead of going by the narrow and thorny path of Christ—the path of suffering and hardships. The problem is that modern evangelism has turned into a concert, a pantomime, a total theatricalization of Evangelism. It happens now in registered churches of the official Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, who used to gather whole stadiums of people. All these are very colorful, attractive and modern. But where are they all now? On the contrary, we have everything as of old [po-starinke]: skirts and veils, as if we are survivors of the past. But our Brotherhood is steadily increasing, even though we are on a narrow and thorny path.
Refusal to collaborate with other religious organizations and with the state is a matter of principle, even regarding the issue of joint social activities. Moreover, social activity itself or social gospel (socially oriented form of Christianity) is completely rejected within the brotherhood. As one of the brotherhood’s leaders, Mikhail Khorev (2009), declared, the church is not concerned with the improvement of earthly life.3 Instead, the brotherhood represents itself as detached from any earthly concerns, including such common activities as Christian rehabilitation centers for alcoholics and drug addicts, orphan care, and charity programs. They believe that the true church of Christ is not created to build social justice and equity, nor to cure social evils, nor to struggle for a just economic system. As Khorev (2009) argues, the church should remain against the adaptation of Christian principles either to “modern culture” or to “modern thinking.” Church prosperity or social activities are not the evidence of the truth—being persecuted by the world is what makes the church truly Christian.
The brotherhood disapproves any forms of collaboration with the state and politicizing the church. Unlike many other Christian churches, the Baptist group never prays for the authorities. It thereby develops its sole political principle—to be independent of the state authorities and political mainstream. In such a context, its political neutrality is a deeply political concept (see Baran 2014).
This understanding of being separatist (otdelennye is the brotherhood’s popular name) develops a specific spatial conceptualization. While building a blind wall between the church and the world (which is often associated with Western culture), the brotherhood develops neither the world-embracing attitude nor the idea of world expansion as in the Charismatic ideology. Baptists do not intend to convert the world or to cover the space; their intention is rather to isolate and to protect the church.
To sum up, it is rather a Baptist spatial world breaking that is found in contrast to the Charismatic world-making doctrine. The brotherhood’s ideology does not entail a reaching-out-into-the-world tendency. The opposite is true: the further from the urban center toward the geographic periphery, the more opportunity to be religiously unspoiled and to have a pure Christian life without the corrupting influence of urban civilization—that is, the greater possibility of creating the purist “church-space.”
The significance of border experience and the imaginary of spatial distance—the idea of the church that must live somehow beyond the border of modernity—induces the construction of spatial utopia—the imaginary of the church at large that should be distanced from the metropole center or the modern world as much as possible, and one should not interfere with the other. These ideas underlie Baptist missionary projects as a realization of utopia called “the Church of God.” The Baptists’ social expectations are reminiscent of (and often popularly compared with) those of Russian populists (narodniki) of the nineteenth century, with their anticapitalist stance and nostalgic project of “going to the people” (khozhdenie v narod) in search of truth, cultural purity, and genuine conceptual clarity. Likewise, many brotherhood followers nowadays prefer to avoid urban space, instead choosing peasant life in remote places. Trying to realize their utopian project, they seek distant, isolated places to plant their churches in order to construct this ideal “church-space.”
Nenets Chronotope: Center-Periphery Shift
Baptist spatial semantics, the search for a space at the frontiers of modernity and the imaginary of the true church that should be distanced from the center of modernity, was easily communicated into Nenets culture. Nenets spatial order and social expectations are heavily determined by their historical experience of being part of the Russian state. The frontier ethos is particularly revealed in the history of Arctic nomadic societies (Bassin 1991; Diment and Slezkine 1993; Grant 1997). For centuries, Siberian nomads have been considered people on the periphery, “outsiders” severed from the sedentary center.
As Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 386) argue, nomadic modes of existence are antithetical to the organizational “State,” and they resist the organizational structure of the state and its attempts to striate the space in order to take control. Pictured as borderlands of the state, northern Siberia was the perfect image of wildness, “primordial emptiness” and the periphery as opposed to the meaningful space of the sedentary center and statehood (Slezkine 1994; Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). Throughout the history of the Russian colonization of Siberia, indigenous people of northern Siberia were portrayed as the iconic image of the other, living on a frontier of the civilized world (Bassin 1991; Brower and Lazzarini 1997; Diment and Slezkine 1993; Slezkine 1994; Sokolovskii 2001; Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). The spatial periphery thereby was perceived in moral categories, as the lack of social and moral order.
Unlike native spatial conceptualizations described earlier in this article, the “sedentary center/state” historically imagined the tundra as an empty, liminal, and unstructured space, as the spatial locus of wildness or lawlessness. Hence, the history of the state’s presence in the Arctic tundra has been realized in forms of various “civilizing” projects and missions, reorganization of territories, and “striation of the space,” the ultimate goal of which was to structure the unstructured; to implant hierarchy, law, and order; and to enhance the control over people and land. The state built fortresses and trading posts, then villages, state farms, and towns as governed space or culturally significant places (Ventsel 2011: 119), as plateaus of temporary and semantically meaningful zones of sedentary stabilization within a continually pulsating nomadic space.
The frontier experience becomes crucial for the construction of the modern; as Michael Watts argues (1992: 116–117), frontiers “represent the first wave of modernity to break on the shores of an uncharted heartland. As the cutting edge of state-sponsored forms of accumulation, frontiers are characteristically savage, primitive and unregulated.”
Perhaps this was the reason why, in their search for pure space to build the true church, fundamentalist Baptism was attracted by the frontier. It, however, remoralized this frontier ethos and spatial emptiness. Tundra space, which has been perceived by the Russian “center” as an empty and wild space, and by Charismatic missionaries as a land of devil spirits, is, for Baptists, that unspoiled space to realize their utopian project. The tundra, historically perceived as being exempt from state structures and severed from the center of modernity, appears to be the perfect space to build the church. For the brotherhood, it becomes a holy land.
It is no wonder that the tundra became a special missionary target for the Baptists, and the social space of the tundra overlapped with the Baptist project of building their utopia. Missionaries traveled in the tundra of the European north, the Polar Urals, and the Yamal, Gydan, and Taimyr Peninsulas for months and years. They accumulated deep knowledge of the tundra’s landscape, migration routes, and campsites. They, in their own ways, domesticated tundra space by building prayerhouses and establishing the network of Christian chums as fortresses of governed space, thereby making the tundra and nomadic life meaningful, valuable, and alive. Thus, they indigenized the tundra landscape. And they relocalized or rerooted Nenets in this reconsecrated space. A Baptist missionary once said to me,
I’ve been traveling in this tundra for years, I’ve been evangelizing here nearly in every chum. And this is what I can say to you: this land is where God lives, and these people are His people. Nenets have the greatest, the richest culture, which is close to biblical visions. These people don’t need to discover that God does exist, unlike the Russians who used to live in an atheistic society and believed that they came from monkeys.
Religious conversion restructured the symbolic landscape in such a way that now the tundra space was perceived not as a periphery of the world but as a moral, Christian center. The center of the Nenets Baptist network was located in the tundra, while the urban space was considered a cultural and religious periphery. Converted Nenets who were settled in local villages often answered my question about their religious affiliation with “We belong to the tundra church.” For them, the tundra was a true Christian center; it was the heart of their religious community.
Burning the Sacred, Burning the Past
To return to Robbins’s second point: “world-breaking,” the pathos of rupture and discontinuity, is the foundation of Evangelical Christianity. Robbins (2007: 10–11) looks at this through the lens of temporality: “Christianity represents time as a dimension in which radical change is possible. It provides for the possibility, indeed the salvational necessity, of the creation of ruptures between the past, the present, and the future.” Christian conversion, a born-again experience, entails the idea of a rupture in time, be it a complete break with the past—local traditions, ancestors’ gods, and memories—or rupture as the disconnection from the surrounding present, which can entail the social environment, the believer’s kin, or earthly society (Engelke 2004; Meyer 1998; Robbins 2010; van Dijk 1998). Christian ideas concerning discontinuity and change, which Robbins made the starting point for his central theoretical assumptions (Robbins 2003, 2007, 2010), are, a fortiori, developed within Pentecostal-Charismatic movements. As Meyer argues (2010: 121), a temporalizing discourse “seems to be basic to Pentecostal identity as grounded in the present and geared toward the future.”
Immersing themselves in Christian disjunctive temporalities, converted Nenets faced the problem of articulating and conceptualizing their own past within an appropriated sense of time. They got involved in ongoing experiments with local time and history, engaging in everyday discourse while expressing and interpreting Christian discontinuity and the notion of being “born again.” Dissociation from previous social and cultural affiliations was among the biggest issues for the Charismatic churches I observed in the Polar Urals and Yamal. Here, too, the notion of being born again was obviously the most significant in a believer’s life and ought to be visibly expressed in everyday life. The Nenets converts rigorously followed the Christian rupture impulse of being “born again,” emphatically denying those symbols and practices of their “traditional culture,” now regarded as “heathen.” They burned traditional sacred articles and sacred sites, and ceased observing tundra rituals.
This anticulture stance was even more intensified by the practice of diabolization of traditional spiritual beings, which is a common Pentecostal technique (Meyer 1994). Ritual items, “idols,” and even the tundra were thought to be filled with demons that have real existence. As a result of diabolization techniques, converted Nenets did not merely reject or deny old meanings and practices but actively struggled with everything that could be associated with “demons.” Shamans were called “antichrists” or people serving the devil. Tundra people in general were often described by Charismatic missionaries as having a special “idol consciousness” (idol’skoe soznanie). The nomads were believed to live special spiritual lives and to have special abilities to feel and interact with the “spiritual world.” Here is how a Charismatic missionary who worked in Beloiarsk for several years explained it to me:
The land here is affected by pagan sacred places. It is a quiet place, nobody is here, there are no people here, but only spirits. Do you know how powerful [krutye] these spirits are? There is a special war here. A team of evil spirits possesses a village. And these are real idols with real sacrifices and real blood! Terrible things are happening here!
The practice of burning sacred articles (Nenets: khekhe) was believed to be a significant part of the religious experience, an expressed sign of full conversion (see Vallikivi 2011). For the Nenets people, burning the sacred was an expressed ritualization of discontinuity, or as Joel Robbins (2003: 224) calls it, “rituals of rupture.” “It is most important to me: if a person burns his idols, [that means] he is one hundred percent converted,” a converted Nenets woman justified such rituals of burning the sacred, continuing, “because nobody can serve two masters.”
It was not a surprise that these rituals of rupture provoked numerous conflicts in the Nenets tundra. From the perspective of native society, the destruction of khekhe was a sacrilegious act of the destruction of the well-being, the fortune, and the moral order of the tundra. Nenets converts were accused of betrayal, of being morally corrupt and socially dangerous. “They [converted Nenets] are not Num’s children anymore,”4 a Nenets herdsman said. “Num is angry with them: he gave reindeer to them as to his children but now he is taking them back, because they are not his children anymore … They will die in poverty, because they had burned their roots!” Thus, the socialization of native born-again Christians in a new religious network turned into alienation from their traditional tundra society. Sometimes converted Nenets were even fully excluded from traditional tundra interrelations, from nomadic campsites, and ultimately from tundra life. From all parts of the Nenets tundra, you could hear stories about the punishment of the sacrilegious: parents disinherited their children who converted to an “alien faith” and took back all the reindeer; converted families were left alone by their kin, without crucial support; husbands punished their wives for ritual disobedience.
As time passed, however, many converted Nenets began the process of justification of or returning to “the Nenets culture.” As I argue elsewhere (Vagramenko 2017b), those who previously antagonized the traditional Nenets cultural legacy later became deeply committed to asserting, reshaping, and expressing it. What made it possible to harmonize Nenets Christian vocation with traditional culture? I suggest that it was specific temporal conceptualizations of fundamentalist Baptism that facilitated the conversion of the Nenets past and created a bridge between the “born-again” experience and Nenets culture.
The Baptist Brotherhood missionaries in the Arctic (like their Pentecostal counterparts) had a strong born-again pathos and a stress on rupture from the “pagan” past and sinful present. They were often at the vanguard in struggling against the “paganism” and in burning the sacred in the tundra. From what I could observe, however, Baptists had rather a retrospective teleology, which diminished their temporal discontinuity impulse. Here, the idea of conversion was often perceived as a return to the holy past. Representing themselves as “pristine Christians,” Baptist believers idealized both early Christian ascetic principles and the historical beginning of the brotherhood itself. Born as a protest reform movement in the Soviet period, the first brotherhood figures were regarded as courageous, unyielding, and purist believers, who claimed the purification and rebirth of Evangelicalism, and the return from a corrupted (by an atheistic state) religious institution to a truly Christian church.
“We live as of old,” a Baptist leader used to repeat in Beloiarsk. “People always tell us, ‘You can’t live in the past! Stop going back! And look ahead, into the future!’ But we believe the modern world tries to destroy the foundation of the church. We live looking back at the past, for only the past keeps the ideal of Christian purity.” The sacralization of the past—be it the Biblical past, late nineteenth-century Russian evangelism, or the Soviet-era evangelical renaissance—became the constituent domain for the Baptist Brotherhood. The holy past, impregnated by the specific spatial vision of the Baptists, makes their project not so much utopian as retrotopian (Rév 1998), when social utopia as an imagined future is situated in the past.
There is another implementation of Baptist retrospective teleology. While analyzing Baptist conversion narratives published in brotherhood didactic literature, I have observed that their structure significantly differs from those typical of contemporary Evangelical tradition. What is unusual in these conversion narratives is their main character—the stories are generally told by the children of believing parents (a historical outcome of a closed religious network replenishing itself by its own natural increase). And the specific character significantly alters the typical structure and social and moral outcomes of conversion narratives. As Peter Stromberg (1993) argues, Evangelical conversion narratives are both referential and constitutive. While retelling their conversion stories, people do not merely re-present their past and their religious experience, but the language used shapes the reality it describes. Baptist conversion stories, too, reflect the specific shape of their world.
The typical genre of spiritual autobiography has a three-part diachronic structure. In standard Baptist conversion stories, the structure is modified. The first part, which is normally the statement of a sinful life, is replaced by the description of a genuinely Christian life in a Christian family—the normal background for a child of believing parents. The second part, in which one can usually read the turning point of conversion itself, is, on the contrary, replaced by the story of the temporary interruption of Christian purity and the detachment of the individual from the holy church. Hence, the final pattern of a conversion narrative is the reunification with the family and the holy community, the return to a previous religious purity. Therefore, Baptist conversion narratives do not emphasize and ritualize the rupture from the sinful past in personal life as much as other Evangelical traditions do. Instead, conversion narratives are structured in the form of a return to the past, to the family history, as a reunification with the parents’ faith.
Baptists’ exercises in allochronism—to paraphrase Johannes Fabian (1983: 31), their self-denial of coevalness—also find much in common with the Nenets historical experience, particularly with the experiments with time the Nenets were drawn into during the Soviet period.
Soviet ideology was based on special temporality. Time was an ultimately dominating dimension of the socialist landscape, “a field for the exercise of sovereign power” (Buck-Morss 2000: 22–39). By speeding up or slowing down, Soviet temporality aimed to condense the boundaries between the backward past, the better present, and the bright future. Missionaries of socialism sought to help or literally to pull up (podtiagivat’) backward peoples (“people from the past”) to contemporaneity—as the present was oriented toward the modern future. They sought to help them to make a leap forward into the new stage and new time, implanting different rhythms, technologies, and representations of time.
Hence, cultural difference was not only spatialized but temporalized—a society located at a distance reveals not only an issue of space but time as well. This was how tundra space and native people revealed their archaic timelessness, perhaps better phrased as their anomalous temporality—Foucault’s (1998: 82) heterochronia as a temporal dimension of heterotopia. Thus, the tundra is emplaced not only on the periphery of space but on a periphery of time as well: here people are found in discontinuity with the common sense of time; they belong to or are stuck in the past, as “living antiquity” (zhivaia starina) (see Ssorin-Chaikov 2010).
The motif of difference in space as a difference in time was a very common Soviet perspective on northern Siberia; it also dominates a common viewpoint nowadays, as well as influences a self-perception of Siberian natives. “Stop sending me back to the Stone Age!” argued a settled Nenets from Salekhard city as we were talking about nomadism and reindeer herding in Yamal. Tundra life for him, as for many others, is associated with the past, “out of step with the rest of the world’s time” (Ferguson 2012; see also Ssorin-Chaikov 2003: 80).
The notion of time also acquired its moral dimension, based within the opposition between backward, primitive past and progressive future (cf. Fabian 1983: 40, on time as a problem of deviance). The ultimate Soviet aim was to pull the (spatial, temporal, and moral) periphery to the center, to make the periphery closer—though never equal—to the center. And the more Siberian natives were integrated into the state machine and Soviet social order, the more they were inscribed into that chronotopic framework within which they were outsiders, an outpost of modernity, edging toward but never actually arriving at the symbolic center of the modern (Ssorin-Chaikov 2003: 14–22).
In the history of the Soviet intellectual tradition, the emplacement of the people of Siberia in the past was twofold. In the early Soviet period, their backwardness was viewed as innocence, a stage of primitive communism (Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). In the later period, “backwardness-as-innocence” was replaced by “backwardness-as-beastliness” when Soviet ideology made them ahistorical, the dead end of evolution, expelling them beyond the borders of historical perspective as a “civilizational mistake” (Oushakine 2012; Slezkine 1994).
The Baptists’ approach was similar to that of early Soviet politics toward Northern natives, which viewed their backwardness and pastness as a special alternative path of historical development, a stage of primitive communism, as socialist societies per se and not spoiled by capitalist relations and class differentiation. In this frame, Siberian natives were situated in that same retrotopia. Consequently, the early-Soviet missionary aim was just to transform this primitive communism into a scientific one (Ssorin-Chaikov 2003: 44ff.). Likewise, Baptist missionaries argue that Nenets culture has not been spoiled by urban civilization, with its corrupted liberalism and market economy values, and thus is much closer to the pure Christian ideal. The missionary aim, therefore, is just to bring the Gospel and to make pristine Nenets life truly Christian.
This specific retrotopian perception developed in the Baptist Brotherhood became a fundamental crossing point that eventually bridged Baptist fundamentalism and Nenets culture. In this frame, Nenets people become the custodians of God’s law all along, those who primordially belonged to God’s plan for humanity and whose traditional culture and ancestors’ religion are “expressions of imperfect but innate inclinations towards Christian truth” (Scott 2005: 109).
This understanding allowed the conversion of the Nenets past, as now the history of this pastoral, nomadic people is represented as the pristine Old Testament, and Nenets themselvesas Old Testament or Biblical Nenets. Nenets culture is not regarded as simply heathen anymore, nor are Nenets people backward but rather prophetic, people who have always lived according to the old Jewish laws. “The Old Testament is still alive among us,” a Nenets believer told me, “because we, the Nenets, live according to the Old Testament … Take the Nenets people—they are nomadic people. They have cattle—reindeer. And take Israeli people—they used to be nomads too.” In this way, traditional Nenets culture is not simply legalized within a Christian system but is sacralized—the Nenets are God’s chosen people, whose duty is to fulfill God’s will in the modern world, who prophetically are meant to find salvation.
This was how the tundra space and Nenets nomadic culture became a veritable center of Christianity, a center of a meaningful Baptist universe. Likewise, born-again Nenets, engaging with the logic of Baptist time-space, revised their personal stories and local histories, situating them within Christian soteriology (Vagramenko 2017b). Hence, they did not merely embed their present in the past but plunged it into their future—foreseeing their own, specifically Nenets, role in carrying the Christian message out into the world.
The post-Soviet transition opened frontiers and provided even the remotest parts of Russia with access to a global religious marketplace. Different Protestant missions headed to the world’s edge—the Russian Arctic—bringing Gospel along with their own vision of social transformation, as well as their perception of space and time.
The Nenets from the Polar Ural tundra turned out to be open to religious changes, and during the 1990s and 2000s, many Nenets, both nomadic and settled, converted to various types of Protestant Christianity. On the emerging religious spectrum, the most radical form of Baptism, an unregistered and strongly segregated religious group, whose followers rigorously denounce preconversion past and social life outside the church, appeared to be most authoritative in the region and the most successful in regard to its missionary initiatives among the rural Nenets.
In this article, I elaborated on possible conditions that made Christian fundamentalism appealing in this part of the Arctic. Looking through the fundamental categories of human life—space and time—I focused on the comparative analysis of missionaries’ chronotopes.
As I suggest, it was Baptist temporal and spatial semantics that mirrored the Nenets historical experience and perception of time and space. A shared chronotope became a fundamental point of intersection between the Nenets and Baptist cultural orders. Baptist retrotopia and the imaginary of pure Christian space that should be located on the margins of the modern world was easily communicated into Nenets culture, which is heavily invested by the Soviet past. Nenets historical experience as a colonized periphery of the Russian state, particularly the Soviet experiments with space and time, have bridged Nenets social expectations and fundamentalist Baptism. A shared chronotope constituted their common imaginary of modernity and their (dis) placement in it. Baptist patterns of insularity and social separation were reflected in the Nenets’ complicated relations with Russian statehood and were further enhanced by the Nenets into ethnic awareness and re-indigenization (Vagramenko 2017b).
The Baptist retrospective and ex-centric chronotope provided believing Nenets with the tools to convert their past and to reconsecrate their space. Religious conversion restructured the symbolic landscape in such a way that it reversed commonsense spatial and temporal perspectives. Now the tundra space was perceived not as a marginal periphery but as a religious center. Baptist missionaries converted Nenets time and space: the remote tundra space and native people inhabiting it were depicted as best mirroring genuine Christian ideals. Thus, the symbolic periphery and center swapped places. The tundra has become a center of religious life and an authentic source of Christianity.
The discussion of the role of Protestant Christianity in the economic realm, particularly in fostering capitalism, goes back to Max Weber. And nowadays, the rapid growth and phenomenal global success of neo-Pentecostal and Charismatic movements—the main inspiration for increasing scholarly interest in them in recent decades—have increased awareness of the inherent strength of neo-Protestant Christianity for political and social transformation (Anderson 2014: 283–299; Berger 2010; Brouwer et al. 1996; Robbins 2010: 170–171; Yong 2010). From being an “apolitical” and “otherworldly” movement, Pentecostalism across the globe demonstrated its involvement in social issues and politics, promoting and adapting the global market economy, motivating new economic behavior, and empowering marginalized communities.
I conducted field research in Beloiarsk and the surrounding Baidarata tundra between 2006 and 2012. Beloiarsk is a relatively large settlement with a population of two thousand; half of its people are indigenous—mostly Nenets (approx. nine hundred) and Khanty (approx. three hundred)—while the rest are generally Russians and Komi-Zyrians. Like many other villages in the Far North, Beloiarsk village is not connected to railway lines or road systems and can be reached only by helicopter or by boat during summer and by a so-called zimnik—a winter road made in the snow.
According to the Baptist church charter, the church does not have juridical status and should not be involved in any commercial activity or profitable business.
Num is the main Nenets god in the Nenets pantheon.
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