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Russian Spiritual Christianity and the Closing of the Black-Earth Frontier: The First Heresy Trials of the Dukhobors in the 1760s *

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image of Russian History

Russia’s expansion to the south in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries encouraged the development of new, dynamic religious movements, including Spiritual Christianity. Represented today by the two important Russian religious traditions of the Dukhobors and the Molokans, Spiritual Christianity first appears in archival documents from the 1760s in the black-earth provinces of Voronezh and Tambov. Holding to a radical eschatology that predicted the imminent return of Christ, these original Spiritual Christians rejected the priests, sacraments, and icons of the Orthodox Church, and instead introduced the practice of venerating one another, for each person was created in the true image of God. The remoteness of Tambov and Voronezh initially made the provinces more hospitable to different religious ideas and practices in the seventeenth century. But as the frontier closed in the black-earth region, new institutions of social control, such as the Tambov diocesan consistory, began policing religious and cultural practices in Tambov and Voronezh. At the same time, the closing of the frontier also led to the decline of the smallholders, who lost their service rank and were increasingly integrated into the state peasantry. This unhappy social group comprised a large percentage of the Spiritual Christians, who so decisively rejected the state church. After Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, many Spiritual Christians moved to the new frontiers of New Russia.

Affiliations: 1: Arizona State University,


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