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Russian Spiritual Soil and the Retrieval of the Orthodox Christian Identity among Post-Soviet Immigrants to the United States


My work examines how former Soviet atheists have discovered and engaged with their national religious tradition, Russian Orthodox Christianity, after moving to the United States and becoming members of the local parish church. It is based on two years of fieldwork among the parishioners of the Southern California Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. I use the trope of the "Russian spiritual soil" which intertwines the spiritual, national, and material elements in Russian Orthodoxy to position my research historically and comparatively. While earlier, especially post-revolutionary forced immigrants, equated maintaining religious identities and national church practices with the preservation of a true spirit of Russian Orthodoxy, removed from its physical roots, for recent, post-Soviet immigrants the parish church, I argue, became a space to retrieve religion as part of their culture, history and identity. The parish setting provides a fruitful space to investigate the emergence of post- Soviet religious life, it is a space where habitual secular sensibilities meet and interact with arising religious ones. The parish setting in the foreign context adds new dimensions to these processes. Unlike in Russia, it employs Western models of organization and management, mostly borrowed from American Protestant churches, and secular Western practices of democratic voting and the equality of the clergy and the laity clash with the desire of new believers to submit to the spiritual authority of the parish priest and Church hierarchy. In my dissertation I trace and analyze the tensions and dynamics involved in processes of retrieval of the Orthodox identity by doing the ethnography of various practices, such as participation in the sacramental life of the church and in everyday management of parish life, veneration of miracle working icons, and pilgrimages. In search of a more pure and authentic spiritual life, for example, some parishioners go on regular pilgrimages to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Arizona, while others utilize personal connections with priests in Russia to seek spiritual counseling. The local Russian Orthodox parish thus exists as a site of contestation and creativity, intermixing local and transnational, national and pan-Orthodox, secular and religious dynamics in the lived experiences of post-Soviet immigrants

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