Religion and Magic in Socialist and Post-Socialist Contexts I: Historic and Ethnographic Case Studies of Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and Alternative Spirituality.
Alexandra Cotofana and James M. Nyce, eds.
(Stuttgart; ibidem Press, 2017), 200 pages. ISBN: 9783838210391. Paperback, $45.00.
The proliferation of media productions that refer to the supernatural around the world points in the direction of an increasing interest in the matter in popular culture and individually. This trend has been duly paralleled by the efforts of the academic community to scrutinize the impact and value the supernatural has on heritage, history, and culture, also for utilitarian purposes of business activities. In this context, the study of the interplay of magic and religion as well as their respective roles in social and personal existence in the post-Soviet societies represents a particularly curious case due to its novel nature. Throughout the Soviet period, the instances of suppression, prohibition, and prosecution of practices linked to religion and magic pushed these practices into the realm of underground. The political changes in the region of Eastern Europe allowed for a resurgence of applied interest in religion, magic, and related phenomena, to which the publication of the volume titled Religion and Magic in Socialist and Post-Socialist Contexts is a standing testimony.
The book is composed of ten contributions, eight of which are dedicated to the country or border-region case studies. With the aim of adding to the wealth of theoretical and ethnographic knowledge pertaining to the roles of religion and magic in the formation of cultural norms, personal responses, and social psychology, the volume focuses specifically on the socialist and post-socialist Eastern European countries, with comparisons drawn from the Imperial and Soviet periods of Russian history as well as various parts of Western Europe.
The volume opens with a foreword by Patrick Lally Michelson, presenting an overview of the epistemological context for the renewed interest in the study of magic and religion in Eastern Europe. An introduction by the editors Alexandra Cotofana and James M. Nyce offers a concise synopsis of the state of the art on the matter, including an assessment of national historiographies, and elegantly establishes the links between the diverse geographical and thematic entries. It is precisely this diversity that would have rendered more pronounced conclusions for individual chapters or a general concluding chapter tying the contributions and themes together a welcome addition to the volume.
Four empirical chapters out of eight cover various aspects of religion and magic in Russia, while the geographical focus of the remaining four chapters covers, at times interchangeably, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Western Ukraine, and Poland. A chapter by Tatiana Buzekova presents an ethnographic study of practicing Neo-shamans in Bratislava and their contribution to the concept of healing against the backdrop of legal uncertainty concerning the performance of the healing functions they advertise. The precarity of their position is exacerbated by an uneasy stance vis-à-vis Christianity as an officially reorganized institutionalized religion with a mandate to perform various functions related to the nonmaterial substances of human life. Continuing the theme of the complex relationship between religious beliefs and magic practices, a chapter by Ekaterina Grishaeva and Valeria Shumkova offers a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the attitudes of the Orthodox believers to magic in the Middle Ural region and the role of mass media in shaping these attitudes. The subsequent contribution by Victor Shnirelman transitions away from religious believers to a study of leading representatives of the Russian Neo-paganism and their means of framing and advancing a coherent response to the threats posed by modernity to national identification, the ethno-cultural milieu, and the ecological equilibrium of the Russian territory. Two subsequent chapters are dedicated specifically to the ethnographic studies in borderland regions, rendering the research more complex in terms of empirical material due to population transfers, including those between the Orthodox and the Catholic territories with their distinct religious practices against the background of state-driven antireligious campaigns, on the one hand, and paganism, on the other hand. Thus, the contribution by Alexandra Cotofana examines the uses of curse prayers and other similar linguistic engagements employed with the aim of lessening the effects of witchcraft along the Ukrainian-Romanian border. Dzvenyslava Hanus’s ethnographic study of maternity rituals in the Soviet Western Ukrainian borderland looks at the fusion of pagan magic and Christian rites pertaining to maternity, child bearing and child birth, against the background of anthropological and demographic changes following the redrawing of the Ukrainian-Polish borders after the World War II, thereby offering fresh perspectives on the ethnography of the region.
The chapter by Tatiana Khoruzhenko focuses on the post-socialist developments, thereby demonstrating that witchcraft has gained a considerable degree of mainstream appeal with the change of the political systems in Eastern Europe. The author looks primarily at the media marketing provided by and for the persons who position themselves as carriers of the supernatural abilities, skills, and knowledge, thereby linking the growth of interest in witchcraft to a new wave of interest in the occult in Russia. With a specific focus on medical and health magic, a contribution by Sarah Rafijovic examines ethno-medical practices in Serbia in the context of medical pluralism in the Balkans, while a chapter by Anna Ozhiganova focuses on New Age communities in modern-day Russia. Ozhiganova’s chapter represents an interesting and informative read, and it would have benefited from more precision in the translation, as some discrepancies can be found in the text when compared to published research findings of the author elsewhere in the Russian language.
The potential usefulness of the volume as a reference text and a canon of understanding rests with its comparative nature. Both religion and magic purport to harness and understand supernatural forces, whereas the means and conceptual framework for doing so differ significantly from one discipline to another. This at times results in diametrically opposing state policies and treatments of each ranging from forceful insertion and foreign crusades directed at the spread of the religion, on the one hand, to forceful prohibition and suppression of what was perceived as various forms of magic, including via such extreme forms as the Inquisition, on the other hand. The Socialist period of the broadly defined Eastern European region is singular in this context, as it represents a rare historical juncture when state treatment of the two largely coincided, particularly when it concerned the ritual objects. In light of this unique historical context, it is heartening to encounter a volume that tackles the various open questions, juxtaposing the format of existence of religion and magic, as well as the roles they played, respectively, in the various countries of Eastern Europe, and the foundations of the dramatic change that occurred with the change of the regimes in the region as regards both religion and magic. By juxtaposing a period of suspicion, and at times prohibition and repression, with one of liberalization and pluralism, and by providing a “mainstream” comparator (religion) to the “niche” subject of analysis (magic), the volume avoids presenting a blinkered vision, or essentializing any points proffered. Rather, the research findings are contextualized and generally bear objective scrutiny, rendering them more easily defensible, and thus of greater scientific use.
Another advantage of this collection of essays lies in its methodology, which consistently combines the theoretical foundations with empirical studies of individual cases, personal histories, and accounts of specific roles in the realm of magic. Given the varied range of contributions in terms of geographical and thematic scope, this study, and particularly its focus on issues associated with neo-paganism, is likely to resonate with imagery associated with the cultural history of Siberia. While Siberia itself does not feature prominently in the volume, the rich ethnographic studies based on the empirical material elsewhere in the post-socialist regions could serve as a basis for thought-provoking comparisons.
University of Kent
Litsom k moriu: Pamiati Liudmily Bogoslovskoi.
Igor Krupnik, ed.
(Moscow: Moskva, 2016), 647 pages. ISBN 978-5600013650.
I first read Litsom k moriu: Pamiati Liudmily Bogoslovskoi (Those who face the sea: In memory of Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya) in Provideniya—Chukotka’s famous hub and seaport dubbed as Russia’s gateway to the Arctic. The apartment I stayed in once belonged to the revered dedicatee of this gem-packed volume. A standard cell in one of the rectangular Soviet buildings sitting atop the Emma Bay, the apartment is a known place of welcome. Chukchi and Yupik hunters, employed in the Beringia National Park gather there to drink tea and discuss their observations of community activities, animals and plants, and climate and weather. Tourists and researchers from around the world find shelter at the apartment during the Provideniya-based portions of their grand Chukotkan expeditions. The apartment is where the current hostess Natalya Kalyuzhina (107-119, 175–190) and several of the book’s forty contributors held numerous meetings while assembling the entangled scholarly and personal material connected with Lyudmila Sergeevna (everyone I know was addressing and referring to Professor Bogoslovskaya by the proper full Russian name, with the patronymic). For that and many other reasons it is a uniquely enriching honor to review this bibliographic treasure, composed by those taught and inspired by Lyudmila Sergeevna.
The title “Those who face the sea” is meant to refer as much to the book’s subjects—humans in the coastal Arctic, birds, and animals, including Chukotka sled dogs (447–474), sea ice, built environments, and culturally important landscapesas to Lyudmila Sergeevna herself. She is remembered for her love of coastal-marine environments, traditional watercraft, adventurous voyages, and maritime communities and cultures (9). The title is evoking vastness, but it is the diversity of the book’s contributors that is the real testimony to Bogoslovskaya’s impact. Among the authors are hunters, reindeer herders, educators, scientists trained in a variety of disciplines, artists, and Indigenous leaders.
The book is in Russian and includes an English-language summary (639–644) and table of contents (645–647); my hope is that someday we will see a full English version with an index. Alongside the rich engaging narratives, we are treated to many photographs, drawings, lists of specialized Yupik and Chukchi terms, and unique maps developed by the contributors showing local place names and other documentation. The opening chapters (8–38) are by Igor Krupnik, the volume editor, who contextualizes the biographical highlights of Bogoslovskaya’s life within the timelines of Arctic research history and the specific projects and publications. The main content of the book is divided into five parts: Indigenous Knowledge, Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Documenting Chukotka’s Historical Memory, Indigenous People’s Rights, and Personal Memoirs. Across all these themes, the chapters share one common facet: a dedication section, where the authors reflect on Bogoslovskaya’s professional pursuits while recounting personal memories of this empowering mentor, relentless human rights activist, skilled adventurer, and a truly multidisciplinary scholar.
Although there are discussions that draw examples from a variety of regions, such as the rather broad take on the challenges of cultural heritage preservation by Vedenin (pp. 251–271), the book’s geographical coverage spans largely the Russian Arctic. The farthest west region featured is the Pomor country along the Karelian coast of the White Sea (Spiridonov and Suprunenko pp. 317–343). The farthest east, and the book’s predominant focus, is Chukotka. The eight chapters in the first part, Indigenous Knowledge, are by Chukotkan authors, who write about the local observations. The chapters cover observations of marine mammals (Kochnev, 41–67; Mymrin, 68–86), birds (Apalyu et al., 107–119; Krupnik, 120–149), ice and weather (Golubtseva, 165–174, Kalyuzhina et al., 175–190), and place names (Chlenov, 214–248). Especially innovative in this cluster are the chapters by Kalyuzhina et al. (175–190), which discusses the traditional uses of multiyear ice cracks, and Yashchenko (191–213), who provides a group portrait of the contemporary young generation of Chukchi and Yupik hunters. Chapters by Zagrebin (87–106) and Vakhtin (150–164) are of historical nature; Zagrebin reconstructs the development of collaborative relationships between scientists and indigenous experts on the Russian and US sides of the Bering Strait. Vakhtin, with a satirical voice and candid storytelling that makes his contribution particularly entertaining, shares the excerpts from the letters and diary entries written during his 1984 field research.
The additional section called Publications consists of three entries: two contributions that were authored by Bogoslovskaya and a compiled list of her major publications on Chukotka and Russian Arctic (a total of eighty-nine published between 1979 and2015). Of the former, one captures her core philosophy and lists the annotated references to the key pieces of legislation that focus on resolving the current land rights issues in Russia (606–620). The other chapter describes the experience and insight gained over the course of multiple voyages Lyudmila Sergeevna made along the Chukotka coast, traveling in traditional skin boats with Yupik hunters (585–605). Earlier we learn that it is this activity, uncharacteristic for the social relationships surrounding gender, that earned Lyudmila Sergeevna one of her Chukotkan titles “the woman who traveled by skin boat” (Apalyu et al., 175). Elsewhere in the book we learn of other titles she had. The one I find to be most accurately depictive of her academic stance is “the most sciency scholar of humanities and the most humanities-informed scientist” (23). And the most relational title, featured in the memoir by Chukchi scholar Vladislav Nuvano (563–567), is “our academic mom.” In his chapter Nuvano vows to write many more chapters “about [his] people, about reindeer herders, about the traditional culture of the beloved North, to which Dr. Bogoslovskaya dedicated her life’s work” (567).
Feeling moved by Nuvano’s promise, I very much look forward to the future work by all the descendants of our shared academic mother. Meanwhile, I hope that everyone with a passion for the Russian Arctic, indigenous scholarship, good biography, and collaboration across humanities and sciences will find a way to get to read “Those who face the sea.”