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Foreign Contexts: Interview with Professor Paul Werth

Professor Paul Werth“It’s quite impressive,” Professor Paul Werth noted this January as he walked across IUB’s campus, “just how many languages are taught at IU.”  No stranger to Central Eurasia’s plethora of tongues, Professor Werth had in fact come to IU to give a guest lecture on the cross-border religious, ethnic, and cultural links that had influenced Imperial Russian policy in the mid to late 19th century.  His talk, “Foreign Confessions in Foreign Contexts: Religion Across the Borders of the Russian Empire” was organized under the auspices of the 2011-2012 Volga-Kama Colloquy and gathered together a lively audience well prepared to engage with the topic.  Weaving together the various approaches taken by the Russian Imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Religious Affairs to different “foreign” confessions, Professor Werth described the complicated balance that St. Petersburg hoped to strike between assimilatory Russification and the pragmatic extension of influence to non-Russian faiths beyond its borders.  At times more successful than others, this policy tended to shift both in reaction to internal political events–for example, the 1863 Polish Uprising-as well as external competition with Russia’s neighbors.  As Professor Werth pointed out, the longstanding conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires certainly played a role in the former’s decision to boost the influence of the Armenian Catholicos and redefine the Armenian Orthodox church, rather than a heresy, as one of the Empire’s many “foreign” confessions.

Following his talk, Professor Werth was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with the IAUNRC e-News and discuss his research, religious policy across the span of the Russian Empire’s Eurasian landmass, and the serendipity that leads us to explore strange and unexpected places.

IAUNRC: Your previous research – including the book At the Margins of Orthodoxy, which you published on the subject – has dealt with many aspects of the Volga-Kama region of Russia and the relation of central Russian imperial powers to the religions therein.  How is your current research related to this earlier project? 

Werth: Even while working on my first book, I think, it was always to some degree clear that the processes occurring in the Volga-Kama region were in part being affected by events elsewhere.  There was the Polish Insurrection in 1863, which I think in a lot of ways reoriented policy priorities across the whole of the Empire.  For example, groups that registered various forms of resistance or opposition became targeted as “separatists,” although in many cases these were groups that were simply seeking to maintain a certain level of cultural or administrative autonomy.  I mean “autonomy” in a religious sense, of course, but not only – I’ve been studying the question from a religious standpoint, so that’s what I see.  But it’s a broader desire to conserve autonomy, really a conservative position in that sense.  Yet this becomes interpreted as a tendency towards separatism: as in intrinsic danger to the integrity and unity of the country.

This all seems very much to have been a reaction, a kind of generalized reaction to the 1863 Polish insurrection.  And I think there really was a danger: this really was an insurrection instigated by an ethno-national community that didn’t accept its incorporation into the Russian Empire.  And this was not, I think, quite so true for the context of the Tatars in the same period. But I think that in an objective sense that there were analogies between other regions of the Russian Empire and the region I was studying before (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan).  There was, at the very least, a perception that these situations were analogous.

IAUNRC: Is this to say that the Russian Imperial authorities simply viewed two quite different situations through the same lens e and, as a result, policy mechanisms?  Or were there examples of real similarity?

Werth: There are some examples. If one looks at the western borderlands, you had a colorful and predominant Polish culture that was reflected in the landowning nobility and the language of high culture. On the other hand, as you got into the interior you had Russians, but you also had an intervening group, the Belorussians, whom the Russians regarded as being just “kind of Russian,” but were nonetheless understood to be in some sense different.  So not only was there the problem of Polish separatism, but there also was the danger that, rather than being assimilated by the purported dominant population, that is the Russian population, this intermediate group would be assimilated by that other population that was hostile or at least antagonistic.

In the Volga region you see something of a similar situation in a similar kind of structure.  Namely, there was a putatively dominant Russian population, and then a Tatar population which was sort of the rough equivalent of the Polish population–maybe not quite as dominant in the sense that they weren’t the landowning elite, exactly, but they were the culturally predominant indigenous group.    And then you had these smaller indigenous groups, the Chuvash, the Maris, and so forth, who, from the standpoint of anxious imperial officials, were in danger of being assimilated not by Russia, not into Russian culture and Orthodox religion, not into Christianity–but rather into Tatar culture and Islam.

So in a sense they were very comparable situations, and one can easily perceive, easily see how the people who were taking signals from the western borderlands–the imperial leadership in St. Petersburg–would possibly transfer the mentality that was being generated by one particular set of problems to these over here in the Volga-Kama region.

IAUNRC: So as you’ve investigated and researched further, has it seemed that this broadly comparative approach did have some merit?  That is, the more one digs into the question, does it seem that there really were similarities across various religious structures?

Werth: It’s an interesting situation.  One of the principal things the first book was about–one of its themes–was the case of those Tatars who had converted to Christianity but hadn’t really accepted the religion, and had continued to practice Islam. They were called apostates, since they had abandoned Orthodoxy.  Well, it turns out that there were two quite similar groups–the nature of their conversation was somewhat different–but they were similar in the sense that these people had been converted or brought into the Orthodox community for the most part against their will or by bureaucratic or coercive measures.  These were the Baltic peasants, Latvians or Estonians, who had left Lutheranism for Orthodoxy but now wanted to go back; and there were Uniates who had converted from Catholicism, presumably some from Roman Catholicism.  And this is something that emerges quite notably in early 1905 when there’s a discussion about “what to do” with these groups.  These groups are actually identified by the authorities. The imperial elite brought them together and said, look, we have these three big groups of problematic populations that were brought into Orthodoxy by strange means, they want to go back, and the final decision was to let them go back. The point that I’m trying to make is that although I had initially been looking at this one group, I then realized that there were other very comparable groups. 


IAUNRC: It really is quite curious how research can lead us down paths we hardly expected.

Werth: Oh, absolutely.  Another thing that I’ve been struck by, in looking into these links between religions within the Russian Empire and with groups outside, is the complicated question of borders.  Everyone always talks about borders.  But there was also the question of internal borders in the Russian Empire. For example, the Russian Empire proper, for lack of a better term, also included the Grand Duchy of Finland as a separate but internal unit. On the other hand, too, there was an internal border between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland. But these were, in a lot of ways, real and genuine borders.  If people wanted to cross these in some cases they would need to have had permission: it wasn’t like moving internally. And this had to do in part with the fact that there different laws, different calendars, different currencies. They really were fundamentally different spaces, although all of them were under imperial Tsarist control.  One really does need to make a distinction between the “Empire” and the “Kingdom of Poland,” for example; Finland is almost so distinct and so separate that it hardly fits at all.   I’d certainly love to learn more about the internal border between the General-Governorate of Turkestan and “the Steppe” in the Russian Empire. This would be a great direction for someone’s future research!

IAUNRC: As we discuss borders, and crossing them, and the wandering ways that research can lead us to and across them, it’s striking to consider how we ourselves can end up studying such a convoluted (if intriguing!) region.  I wonder if you might be willing to comment briefly how you yourself came to the study of Russian and Eurasian history?

Werth: Sure. It’s one of these things that’s a product, primarily, of serendipity.  In the sense that I went to a small liberal arts college in Illinois–Knox College–and I had taken French in high school, but I had wanted to try a different language.  Now, I hadn’t thought about Russian, but quite literally there was this guy in the dormitory who said, “well, I’m going to take Russian”–and I thought, “well, maybe I’ll do that too.”  And so I took it and really enjoyed the language, on top of which I had always had an interest in history, and so over the course of my undergraduate career I became a double major in Russian language and history. I had never really thought about graduate school, but the college had received some funding, and identified a number of people who looked like they might be good candidates for graduate school–and I was among them.  And during vacation they had a two-week seminar during which we took a “field-trip” up to the University of Chicago, where a graduate studies administrator talked to us and gave us the low-down, and it became clear to me that there really was a way to do this forever.  This struck me as being kind of interesting, so I applied and went to the University of Michigan.  Originally I had a pretty strong interest in the Balkans, in the then Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, but I didn’t really have the languages, and pretty soon after you get to graduate school you have to start to write original research using the languages that you know.  So I started with Russian, and went from there.

But I do sometimes really wonder: if that guy hadn’t said “I think I’m going to take Russian” that day in the dormitory, I probably would have taken German, and probably would have ended up doing something completely different.  Life would have been completely different. It really is a remarkable thing, hinging as it did on a chance occurrence! 

Part of the 2011-2012 Volga-Kama Colloquy, Professor Paul Werth’s talk, “Foreign Confessions in Foreign Contexts: Religion Across the Borders of the Russian Empire,” was held at IU on January 18, 2012.  A professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Werth is both the editor of the journal Kritika and the author of numerous works on the Volga-Kama region and religious minorities in the Russian Empire.