An Orthodox Journal of Cross-Cultural Theology, Dialogue and Mission

Mission breathing new life into threatened cultures


Karen Hetherington in conversation with Alison Kolosova

SALT aims to bring missiological research and discussion to a more prominent place in the Orthodox Church and to bring some of the key concerns to a wider group of people. In this series of blogs, Karen Hetherington will be interviewing some of the people trying to move this work forward. Karen lives in Bath, England and is a member of the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt. She has a long-standing interest in Orthodox mission and was awarded her MPhil for a study of the missions in Russia’s Kamchatka region.

Karen:  I am starting today with Dr Alison Kolosova – a long time friend – who has done much  research into the missionary work of the Russian Orthodox Church among the Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia, particularly in the region around the city of Kazan.

During the 19th century there was a huge growth in missionary work among the non-Russian peoples of the empire.  People often know about the work done by St Innocent, but aren’t aware that his wasn’t the only mission.  Kazan and its surrounding regions had come under Russian control in the 16th century and many of the people in this area had been baptised.  By the 19th century, it was a cause for concern that these peoples showed little understanding or closeness to Christianity.  The Kazan Church Academy became a centre of missionary work, pioneering approaches and training that was to revolutionise the way mission was carried out into the 20th century.

Karen: What are you working on now, Alison?

Alison: For the last two years, I’ve been a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tartu in Estonia.  The Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people, so I’ve been looking mainly at Orthodox missions in relation to Finno-Ugric peoples.

My doctoral thesis was on the Christianisation of the Chuvash: a Turkic people who live in Russia’s Mid-Volga region.  In particular, I looked at the missionary work inspired by Nikolai Ilminskii in the fifty years or so before the 1917 Revolution. Ilminskii and his followers, many of whom were from the indigenous peoples, promoted the use of native languages in schools and in churches. Orthodox liturgical services began to be held in languages such as Chuvash and Tatar, for example. The Chuvash are surrounded by many other minority peoples, some of whom belong to the Finno-Ugric group, for example, Mordva, Mari, Udmurt.  Some people think of the Finno-Ugric peoples as the Finns, the Hungarians and Estonians, but in fact there are many smaller Finno-Ugric peoples who live across the north of Russia and Siberia.  Some of them are very few in number today and their languages and cultures are threatened with extinction so that is one reason that Estonia was keen to promote my research.[1]

The Russian Orthodox Church conducted missions among the Finno-Ugric peoples in all these regions, including the Baltic, so some of my focus has been on comparing these missions and their consequences. There are a number of issues they have in common, mainly around issues such as the motivation of the missionaries, their attitudes to indigenous languages and cultures, and the fascinating issue of the development of national identity.  There is much discussion over the contribution – positive or negative – that Orthodox Christianity has made to that.  This is a very contentious area.

Karen: Could you explain that in a bit more detail?

Well, it is widely accepted that religion is embodied in culture, that people express their beliefs and worldviews through each aspect of their everyday lives. Often, missions have taken place in cultures without written languages, but a common feature of Christian missionary work has been the introduction of a written language: Christianity has its sacred texts which must be accessible.  So one key issue is what happens when there is a transition from an oral culture to a written culture? How does the introduction of written texts, especially religious written texts such as the Bible and prayers, affect a people and their culture? These are important questions for historians of mission in any part of the world, whether the British Empire, Latin America or, as with my research, the Russian Empire.

To go further into some of these questions: song is an important part of culture.  What has been the role of song in the transmission of faith? And perhaps most fundamentally: how did Christian missions in general view pre-Christian worldviews and rites?

These questions are particularly acute in those countries which were part of the Soviet Union.  During the Soviet period, Orthodox missions were regarded with great negativity and so the view is very widespread that Christianity destroyed indigenous cultures.  This is a big issue for the Estonians, many of whom today are looking for their authentic, ancient Finno-Ugric roots after centuries of domination by Swedes, Danes, Germans and Russians.

One underlying issue is how the transition to Christianity is remembered and recorded.  For example, many local scholars in Chuvashia view Ilminskii’s work as russification: his main aim was to assimilate them into the Russian people and culture.  On the other hand, Orthodox writers would praise his work precisely for preserving the indigenous languages and cultures by providing a written language. So it can get very confusing as there are radically different opinions of one and the same person and his work. If you start out with a rosy view of Orthodox mission, you can quite quickly get disillusioned when you read what the secular historians and ethnologists have to say.

Karen: So do you think that these views  can be reconciled?

One book I have found really helpful in understanding these questions is ‘Translating the Message: the Missionary Impact on Culture’[2] by the late Lamin Sanneh, a historian of Christian missions in Africa, although he writes about the rest of the world too.  This is a book which looks at local cultures in the context of the universal church and challenges the assumption that Christian missionary work was merely an expression of colonialism and imperialism and so automatically complicit in the destruction of indigenous cultures. He argues, and illustrates his arguments with examples from Africa, that the creation of alphabets and written languages breathed new life into many peoples and gave them the tools to resist assimilation into the surrounding dominant culture. This was something I had concluded concerning the Chuvash in the course of my research, so it was exciting to find that the leading missionary historian of Africa was saying the same thing.

Sanneh’s key argument is based on the translatability of the Christian message. Right from the start, Christianity was translated into new languages and cultures. What is significant from an Orthodox point of view is that he emphasizes the value of the work of Cyril and Methodius. This issue of ‘translatability’ leads  him into a fascinating discussion of the question of how  ethnic particularity can be reconciled with the universality and unity of the Church.

Karen: And that is obviously a key question that the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world is facing.  What strikes me is that so many of the questions we’ve discussed are not only issues in the history of mission, but they are crucial to our life as Orthodox Christians in the modern world.  It will be great to hear different perspectives on these issues from missionary practitioners and scholars of Orthodox mission from other cultural situations and that is one of the aims of this new blog.  There are many other questions that I would like to ask but we will have to leave those for the next interview, Alison.  Thank you for being with us today, Alison, and we hope you’ll join us again.


[1]Alison Kolosova’s postdoctoral research has been funded by a European Regional Development Fund Mobilitas Pluss grant MOBJD 318.

[2]Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, New York, 2nd edition, 2009)

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