“God values intentions”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Sonja Luehrmann. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.015


“God values intentions”

Abortion, expiation, and moments of sincerity in Russian Orthodox pilgrimage

Sonja LUEHRMANN, Simon Fraser University

A broad understanding of sincerity includes the assumption that intentions matter for evaluating an action. Studies of Western Christianity often tell of an increasing focus on internal self-interrogation that led to an ideal of sincerity as a form of modern self-expression. Based on research with Russian Orthodox women who expiate abortions, I argue that intention matters here too, but not always and not in the form of deep interiority. During confession and pilgrimage, there are external criteria for evaluating oneself and others, including the ability to carry out plans without distraction and bear hardships without complaint. Some standards originate in the Soviet period, but judging intentions based on observable actions has a long tradition in Orthodox Christianity, traceable to Louis Dumont’s idea of the outworldly individual and its modern adaptations. Dumont’s perspective opens the way to investigating the temporal and social contexts in which a focus on sincere intentions can emerge.

Keywords: interiority, confession, pilgrimage, abortion, Russian Orthodox Christianity

Irina and Natalia were heart-broken. After traveling for two hours on a poorly heated suburban train in frosty January weather and reaching Saint Petersburg, the two elderly women had hurried toward the Church of the Resurrection from the nearest metro station. On the way, Natalia, who was in her seventies and exhausted from the long trip, slipped on the icy pavement, fell, and hit her head. They entered the church toward the end of the prayer service they had been trying to reach. One of the church workers took them to her office in a side building to put some bandages on Natalia’s bleeding forehead. But it was becoming clear that the injured woman would not reach the goal for which she had come this far: dizzy and weakened, she was going to stay in the office and wait for Irina to attend a penitential prayer service commemorating abortion on Saint Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, [164]Nevskii Prospect. “The evil one leads us astray,” she lamented. “Often we simply fall behind ourselves, and blame the evil one,” Valentina, the church worker, objected, only to continue in a more consoling tone: “But God values intentions.”

The discussion between the three women deals with questions of intentionality and agency and the external manifestations that allow people to tell right from wrong motivations. If sincerity means living as if invisible intentions mattered for the moral evaluation of an observable action (Seligman et al. 2008), the precise way in which intentions and actions are connected differs with different semantic renderings. In English it is quite possible to be sincerely motivated to accomplish something, but fail. The Russian term for sincerity (iskrennost’, related to iskra, spark), however, is more directly geared toward outward expressions of internal states, so that failing to perform one’s intentions also raises questions about how deeply one desired to achieve them (see Carroll 2016). All three women had lived most of their adult lives in the rather secular environment of the Soviet Union, but had, since retirement, become involved in the life of the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church. I participated in their conversation as part of ethnographic research on antiabortion activism in contemporary Russia, where women who had had abortions during the Soviet period were often asked retroactively to give an ethical account of what used to be commonplace decisions (Luehrmann 2017). The issue of abortion and its ritual processing through confession and pilgrimage provides examples of moments of attention to inner states in a religion of orthopraxy. These moments, in turn, have something to tell us about religious constructions of human personhood.

The outward sign that prompted the women to question their own and the “evil one’s” (lukavyi) intentions was a common occurrence on Saint Petersburg’s streets: someone had slipped and fallen on the ice, which was a perennial winter problem, causing serious accidents, especially among the elderly and the very young. In a scenario familiar to anthropologists since E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s musings on Azande witchcraft beliefs (1937), it was not the event as such that triggered debate about hidden agents, but the question why it happened to a particular person at a particular time. Just as the Azande know that granaries collapse because of rot and termites, Russian city dwellers know that people slip on winter streets because of poor snow removal. But why did Natalia fall just as she was on her way to church, and not to just any service, but to a prayer of expiation for abortions on the day of the Holy Innocent Infants of Bethlehem, the biblical children killed by King Herod, who had become a symbol of aborted fetuses? The plan had been to participate in the prayer at Resurrection Church, and then move with other participants to the square before the main cathedral on Nevskii Prospekt for a similar prayer and antiabortion rally. Irina, Natalia’s friend, had participated several times and invited her to come along, knowing that she, too, had terminated pregnancies during her reproductive years. Natalia’s fall was a failure for both, thwarting their hopes to promote their own salvation and that of others, and therefore it needed to be explained in a logic of intentional agency and evaluation.

At issue were both the question of whose intentions were most to blame (Natalia’s or the devil’s) and the relative moral weight of intended and actual outcomes of an action: Does the intention to attend the services and rally count as much as actual attendance? Both questions have long been of practical importance [165]to Orthodox Christians, and the varying answers proposed by Orthodox theology offer an instructive window on anthropological debates about interiority, sincerity, and pathways through which both emerge as problematic aspects of modern personhood. In what follows, I first sketch the particular model of personhood that is applicable to Eastern Orthodox Christianity (a modern form of Louis Dumont’s outworldly individual) and then discuss the temporal quality of sincerity that this involves. In its post-Soviet incarnation, the outworldly individual is above all an individual out-of-ordinary time, and extraordinary moments of ritualization prompt higher-than-unusual degrees of attention to intentions and their sincere expression.

Intentions, moments of sincerity, and the construction of interiority

Interiority as an area of anthropological inquiry connotes an interest in motivations, reflections, and desires that drive actions and shape subjectivities, but are not immediately accessible through outside observation. Within this broader field, cultural, legal, and theological discourses of sincerity direct attention to the way in which intentions matter for the moral status of an action as right or wrong, merely negligent or outright malicious (Rosen 1995). In Russia, much as in North America, children learn to accept the apology “it happened by accident” (sluchaino) as alleviating circumstance when a playmate bumps into them or an adult steps on a toy that is lying on the ground. But at some point they also realize that such an excuse can be dishonest, covering up actually existing malicious intentions. According to Webb Keane, intention seeking (the cognitive ability to impute others’ intentions and realize that those might differ from one’s own) is among human “ethical affordances.” These are “features of human psychology, face-to-face interaction, and social institutions that can be taken up and elaborated within ethical projects” (Keane 2015: 32). In Keane’s approach to ethics, which is meant to create a bridge between the universalism of cognitive science and anthropology’s attention to particular historical settings, ethical affordances also include empathy, norm seeking, and the capacity for self distancing. They give a shared basis to varied human projects of distinguishing right from wrong and holding selves and others accountable. Depending on the social setting, an affordance such as intention seeking can be developed or underemphasized, expanded upon or limited in its scope.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is often thought of as a religion where actions outweigh intentions, and indeed Irina and Natalia suspected that what mattered was that they were late for the prayer service, not that they had intended to be there. Some scholars even claim that the Orthodox heritage infused Russian and Soviet culture with a relative disinterest in underlying motivations behind actions (Kharkhordin 1999; cf. Halfin 2003). However, closer analysis of reproductive decision making and its religious framing shows that what is at issue for Orthodox Christians is often not whether intentions matter, but how and when they manifest. Intentions are morally significant, but unlike God, who can see and value them correctly, human beings can tell others’ intentions—and sometimes their own as well—only through external results, such as a punctual arrival at a service or the fortitude with which someone endures physical discomfort during childbirth or on [166]pilgrimage. Rather than a constant preoccupation with monitoring one’s inner life, revealing and realizing pious intentions is a question of timing for Russian Orthodox Christians, taking place in circumscribed ritual interactions.

In the studies of Protestantism that have provided the groundwork for anthropological thinking on sincerity, words “take their meanings from intentions” and the ideal speaker is someone who always means what she or he says, so that intentions can be directly imputed from speech, provided it is spontaneous and coming from the individual (Keane 2002: 73; see also Robbins 2001). The Orthodox Christian case shows that adopting the “point of view of sincerity” (Seligman et al. 2008: 104) depends on circumstances that are not equally present at all times, and that can be facilitated rather than hindered by ritual conventions (see also Mahmood 2005: 125–28).

In the Protestant framing, conventional speech and conventional actions (such as, for example, prescribed acts of expiation for a sin) are meaningless unless they are carried out with the proper intention, while appropriate intentions can give meaning even to unconventional and idiosyncratic actions. Part of the critique of ritualism is thus leveled in the name of transparency: following a convention becomes a surface that blocks access to the presumed reality of motivating moods and intended effects hidden underneath (see Asad 1993). At the same time, Orthodox Russia is not the only part of the world where digging under surfaces for hidden intentions is not a central pastime. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by so-called “opacity claims,” where people find open speculation about another person’s thoughts and intentions so disrespectful as to be morally repugnant, even though privately they may be perfectly able to engage in such musings (Warren 1995; Robbins and Rumsey 2008). And even among Western moderns, the rise of psychoanalysis has made people acutely aware that our intentions are not always fully transparent even to ourselves, let alone communicable to other people. As Charles Taylor has pointed out (1992, 2007), the increased interest in inner states that came with the Enlightenment valuation of reasoned speech over actions and words over things ultimately did not result in a transparent inner self whose desires and intentions match their verbal expression. Instead, medical, psychological, and religious probings gave rise to selves that were increasingly opaque to themselves as well as to others, necessitating ever-new techniques of (self-)interrogation and (self-)discovery (Foucault 1980). In the end, the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea are not the only ones who find it difficult to achieve the “promise of openness, of shared thoughts, feelings, and knowledge” that modernity holds out (Robbins 2001: 905).

On this continuum between cultural elaboration on intentions and interiority and relative disinterest in both, Orthodox Christianity is often seen as dwelling on surfaces, valuing liturgical participation at the expense of doctrinal explication (Horton 2004). One common defense against antiritualist critics is to say that it is a religion of orthopraxy, where actions matter more than their rationalizations, and pious subjects constitute themselves through correct and timely performances rather than right belief and individual commitment (Hann 2011). Indeed, the study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity often finds more common themes with anthropologies of Islam and Orthodox Judaism than with studies of Protestantism (Bandak and Boylston 2014; Luehrmann forthcoming; cf. Asad [1986] 2009; Fader 2009). If the history of the modern individual, accustomed to look to her- or [167]himself for choices and decisions, has often been traced to developments within Western Christianity, then Orthodox Christians appear either to be stuck in a premodern past or to have been catapulted into a modernity that lacks connection to their theological tradition.

In what follows, I argue that intention does matter in Orthodox Christianity, especially in post-Soviet Russia, where Orthodoxy has become more of a life choice and less of a taken-for-granted social horizon. However, reminders about the importance of right intentions are imbedded in an overall awareness that people’s choices are limited by the surrounding social world, even in areas such as pregnancy and reproduction, which for middle-class Westerners are intimately tied to personal decisions.

Outworldly modern

To describe the way Orthodox ritual practice negotiates the competing demands of human intentions, divinely appointed order, and worldly realities, I draw on Louis Dumont’s contrast between outworldly and inworldly individualism. Both develop out of a preexisting holism, where society itself holds supreme value and provides an all-encompassing framework for individual action. As a first step in the development of individualism, the outworldly individual (French individu-hors-du-monde; Dumont 1986: 27) withdraws from the social world, cutting ties of kin and social status, in order to shape her or his self in relation to God. The desert holy men (and women) of the first centuries of Christianity exemplify this way of achieving individualism (Brown 1971). As Christianity became a state religion, and as the Roman Catholic popes assumed temporal powers, the individualism implied in the quest for salvation started to be realized through engagement in the world rather than seclusion, a development that culminated in the Protestant Reformation and especially Calvinism, where “determined action upon this [world]” replaces withdrawal from it (Dumont 1986: 56).

Joel Robbins has helpfully glossed Dumont’s concepts of holism and individualism as values, or a “direction in which [members of a society] understand themselves to be trying to move” (2015: 185), rather than exhaustive characteristics of a historical epoch. Nonetheless, Dumont seems to treat the outworldly individualism of Hellenic Christianity as a matter of the distant past. However, it has a modern history in late imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia, and attitudes toward intentions and their trustworthy expression are part of this history.

For much of Russian history, the archetypal “outworldly individual” was a monastic hermit. Nineteenth-century Russian educated city dwellers sought, to an unprecedented degree, to live “spiritual lives” without joining monasteries, but by seeking guidance from monastics through correspondence and visits. The socialist period made this kind of spiritual guidance harder to find, but also promoted the spread of an individualized religiosity that was detached from congregational life. Corresponding with remote priests, monks and nuns was sometimes the only way to access information about matters of Christian life given the few remaining parish churches (Paert 2010). In post-Soviet Russia, new infrastructures of pilgrimage and communication facilitate a similarly dislocated, “nomadic” religiosity [168](Kormina 2012). In a process of “spiritualization” analogous to the one described for twentieth-century Sri Lankan Buddhism by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere (1990), laypeople are looking for short-term experiences of stepping outside “the world” into a spiritual environment that they imagine to be unburdened by ordinary social ties and responsibilities. Some, like Irina and Natalia, travel to urban centers for politically charged public events, others seek out remote rural places as true seats of spiritual powers; many find both options easier than regularly reciting their daily prayers at home.

Rather than removing the monastic walls and turning piety inward, as did the proverbial Weberian Protestant, Orthodox Christianity retained its orientation toward monastic centers and ritual withdrawal from everyday entanglements. But access to these techniques of aligning inner and outer selves has become a matter of timing more than social estate, with increasing numbers of lay faithful seeking to live pious lives through temporary practices of withdrawal and self-examination rather than permanent monastic vows. When it comes to recognizing and confessing past sins, such experiences outside of ordinary time provide powerful stimuli, as many laypeople prefer the counsel of a remote monastic over that of the parish priest, who can constantly observe them, and whose human foibles they know too well. In the practices of confession and expiatory pilgrimage prompted by the post-Soviet rethinking of Soviet reproductive policy, participants turn into temporarily outworldly individuals. During ritualized moments of individualization, it becomes meaningful to classify intentions as right or wrong, sincere or insincere.

“It so happened”: Soviet legacies of abortion

The limited space for interrogating intentionality in the everyday lives of many Russians becomes clear in the way women talk about something that is the ultimate abode of personal choice in Western political discourse: reproductive decision making. Memories of terminated pregnancies were the catalyst for Irina’s and Natalia’s thinking about sin and thwarted intentions. For women of their generation, whose reproductive years fell in the final decades of the Soviet Union’s existence and the time immediately following its collapse, abortion has the status of a commonplace life experience. Legally accessible on demand from 1920 until 1937 and then again from 1955 onward, surgical termination of pregnancy was the most accessible form of fertility control in the Soviet Union, where barrier contraception was hard to come by and hormonal pills were not imported (Rivkin-Fish 2013; Luehrmann 2017). During my research, I quickly learned that one hardly had to ask a woman over the age of fifty if she had terminated pregnancies. The rare woman who had had no abortions of her own would be able to speak about the experiences of a sister or friend.

The legalizations of abortion under Vladimir Lenin and then again under Nikita Khrushchev were results of state fiat rather than women’s mobilization, and the procedure was remembered as physically highly unpleasant, often consisting of dilation and curettage carried out without anesthesia. For this reason, few women spoke of abortion in strongly agentive terms as a “choice” or a “decision,” as both supporters and opponents of legal abortion in middle-class North America tend to [169]do (Ginsburg 1989). Instead, they discussed both pregnancy and its termination as something that happens to a woman as a result of external and often unexplained agency (see Seeman et al. 2016; Teman, Ivry, and Goren 2016). When commenting on experiences of abortion in particular, many of my interlocutors used the verbal phrase prishlos’ (“it had to be” or, more literally, “it came around to”) to characterize the circumstances that led to the termination.

A reflective, neutrally gendered past tense of the verb “to come,” this subjectless phrase suggests that the procedure was not willed by anyone, but the outcome of impersonal circumstances: the couple’s failure to correctly “count the days” to avoid intercourse around ovulation or their inability to raise a(n additional) child given their circumstances of living space, work, or study. In everyday conversations and reminiscences, few women found it necessary to attribute strong intentions to themselves and family members in order to explain abortions. Ethnographer Robert Paul (1995) notes that Nepali Sherpa peasants had little reason to attribute intention to others in shared, ordinary pursuits. Investigating and documenting hidden motivations mattered more in the scripturalized and morally explicit realm of state courts and Buddhist teachings about good and evil. Likewise, Russian women of Natalia’s and Irina’s generation, most of the time, treated abortion as something so ordinary that they saw little reason to discuss the motives behind it, in either a justificatory or an accusatory way. But the religious revival of the 1990s presented them with ritual occasions where the urge to restore prerevolutionary gender norms met technologies for intention seeking, challenging the commonplace status of abortion.

Sins willed and not willed

In the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, increasing numbers of Russians turned to the Orthodox Church, in whose traditions many were baptized as children, but which had played only a marginal role in the lives of most Soviet citizens (Knox 2004; Luehrmann 2011). Women who took up Orthodoxy in the 1990s also learned practices of confession and penance, which in the Russian Orthodox Church are direct prerequisites to receiving communion and thus crucial parts of participating in liturgical life as a layperson. In this context, many encountered the notion of abortion as sin for the first time, along with ritual possibilities of freeing themselves from it. In Orthodox Christian discourses on sin, intention is relevant, but it is not revealed through deep searching for hidden, subconscious motives. Rather, claiming intentional agency was a marker of moments of leaving the everyday world of social entanglements and entering the more explicit ethical imperatives of outworldly individualism.

In Orthodox confession, intention plays a dual role. It is important for a penitent to intend to give a full account of all infractions incurred since the last confession, and to take personal responsibility for them. Penitents undergo a period of fasting and prayer to prepare for confession (govenie; Kizenko 2012) and sometimes arrive with a list of sins to ensure they do not forget to mention any. The linguistic form in which confessions are made is important to the priests in their decision on whether or not to grant absolution. Metropolitan Anthony (Blum), [170]whose small work Ob ispovedi (“On confession”) is a guide to many members of the post-Soviet Orthodox intelligentsia, relates a case of negotiation over the proper linguistic framing of responsibility: “A highly respected gentleman came to me and said: ‘It happened that I took things that did not belong to me.’ I said: ‘No, say simply: I stole’” (Antonii 2008: 119). Note that the preferred form employs not only a less euphemistic verb (“steal” rather than “take”), but also a less ambiguous landscape of pronouns: a solitary “I” instead of an impersonal “it happened” (sluchalos’, using the same impersonal reflective construction as in prishlos’).

Confession in Russian Orthodox churches is secret but rarely fully private: penitents recount their sins to the priest in a low voice in a side chapel without the protection of a confessional box. Overhearing is sometimes unavoidable, and anecdotes on rejected confessions abound. Many of them involve attempts to shift blame from the self to someone else. A retired teacher and frequent churchgoer told me about the rejected confession she overheard: “The woman said, ‘I quarreled with my daughter-in-law.’ The priest asked: ‘And whose fault was it?’—‘Hers.’—‘Go,’ said the priest, ‘and come back when you’re ready.’” As in post-Vatican II Catholic notions of confession (Carr 2013), time for private reflection is as crucial to Orthodox penitents as the ritualized linguistic moment of enumerating one’s sins, but the difficulty of detaching one’s own actions from their social entanglements is more explicitly thematized.

When talking about sin and confession in the ordinary world of social relationships and economic interactions, people use more pragmatic and surface-oriented language. There are many occasions for speaking of sin as a thing, something external to the self rather than a deep truth about who one is: “I have that sin,” was a common way in which antiabortion activists acknowledged their own participation. A colloquial expression for confession is “sdat’ grekhi,” literally “to hand in sins,” as one might do with a bottle at a recycling center or an object in a lost-and-found. Rural women during Soviet times knew that after an abortion, one had to go to church to “take a prayer” (vziat’ molitvu), meaning the purifying prayer that was said over a woman after an unintentional miscarriage. Although manuals for priests criticized this practice, apparently there were priests as well as believers who considered this prayer sufficient to be readmitted to church sacraments (Ransel 2000; Kizenko 2013). Overall, vernacular understandings of confession and forgiveness are framed as a transaction of things, where sins are deposited and prayers taken home. This is quite different from the process of self-examination and discovery that genealogies of the Western self often understand confession to be (see Foucault 1980; Kharkhordin 1999). It helped Russian Orthodox women avoid any deep internalization of such labels as “sinner” or “murderer.” While many priests are critical of an extreme transactionist model of confession, the underlying view of the self resonates with Orthodox theology, where human nature is basically good and sin is more a temporary blemish to be eliminated than an integral part of a self understood as “arcane text filled with meanings and motives to discover and decipher” (Carr 2013: 38).

At the same time, precautions surrounding the rite of confession frame it as potentially embarrassing, indicating that many penitents do see their sins as reflections of inner states that can and should normally be kept hidden. The priest’s opening exhortation of the penitent acknowledges this embarrassment and seeks [171]to deflect it by emphasizing Jesus as the nonhuman addressee and the priest as witness or “ratified overhearer” (Goffman 1981):

Here, child, Christ stands invisibly, hearing your confession, so do not be ashamed nor afraid, so that you may hide nothing from me, but say without hesitation everything you have done, so that you may receive forgiveness from our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is His icon before us: I am but a witness, to bear witness in front of Him of everything you tell me. (Sil’chenkov 2001: 48)

In the words of one young mother and casual churchgoer, “You tell your sins to God, not to the priest,” and that eases potential embarrassments, for example telling a male priest about issues of pregnancy and sexuality that most Russian women find easier to discuss in all-female company. As Joel Robbins points out for a different context in which public talk about internal states is problematic, the idea of God as a nonhuman ideal listener (presumably free of the propensity to judge and gossip that even special humans such as priests can be suspected of) can be crucial to making occasions for sincere speech palatable to converts for whom they remain an exception rather than a norm. For the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, the third-party presence of God “was what allowed people to speak the truth to each other” in situations of conflict resolution where previously goods would have been exchanged (Robbins 2001: 909; see also Robbins 2004).

Whether they simply seek to “hand in a sin” or share the interest in self-examination promoted by the church, women seeking to confess an abortion in today’s Russia must accept a narrative framework which assigns them a degree of isolated responsibility and decision-making agency that is not necessarily part of everyday experience (see Duranti 1993). At the same time, responsibility rests more on the notion that one could have chosen to avoid the transgressive action rather than on an examination of the precise motivations behind it. Note that in the conversation reported above, the priest did not try to find out the exact circumstances which led to the quarrel with the daughter-in-law, but his goal was for the penitent to accept responsibility for it (whether she meant to start a quarrel or not). In the prayer of absolution as well as in prayers for the dead, the phrase “forgive him every sin, intended and unintended” (vol’noe i nevol’noe, literally “willed and not willed”) takes a prominent place, acknowledging the need to ask forgiveness for acts whose harmful effects a person is not aware of or which occurred in a state of impaired self-control, for example under the influence of drugs or alcohol (Sil’chenkov 2001). Saint Paul’s “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7: 19) can serve as a foundational quote for the understanding of ethical action and its fraught relationship to the will in the Orthodox tradition: the human will can be in harmony with God’s commandments, but only if properly shaped through spiritual discipline in order to resist contravening inclinations (Gumilevskii 1913).

Women who confess their abortions as sin are thus presented with somewhat contradictory messages about the role of their own intentions in reproductive decisions. On the one hand, they are prompted to frame their decision to terminate as a situation in which they could have done otherwise. On the other hand, the option of pointing to external circumstances and regarding abortion as an “unintentional” [172]sin remains. Many women who came of age during the Soviet period claim at least partial ignorance of one of the central claims of prolife discourse, that is, that abortion means ending a human life. “Back then, we acted out of ignorance, we were told that it’s just a fish or a toad in there, not a human being,” said a 1990s activist, referring to the Haeckelian theory that embryonic development recapitulates human evolution, which was taught in the Soviet Union as a way of proving the truth of Darwinism (Polianski 2012). Today’s young women, another activist claimed, know exactly that they are ending a human life, which makes their decisions more reprehensible.

Russian Orthodox penitents are encouraged to focus on the icon of Jesus as the not-quite-present addressee of their speech in order to lift the conversation out of everyday interaction and examine themselves in “metaphysical isolation” (Carr 2013: 47). This means leaving behind assumptions about the entanglements of words, bodily states, and social expectations that inform reproductive decision making in Russia and elsewhere (Gammeltoft 2014). In this version of outworldly individualism, a confessional language that emphasizes intention and responsibility requires a rarefied context in which speaker and hearer temporarily strip themselves of the social attributes that normally characterize their encounter. As a follow-up or alternative to confession, expiatory pilgrimages to sites symbolically linked to abortion are additional moments of withdrawal during which there is a heightened focus on right intentions and their observable manifestations.

Intention made manifest: Purposeful effort

As we have seen, confessing an abortion is an occasion of heightened sensitivity to the motivations underlying life choices, but also of acknowledging the faltering and unreliable nature of the human will, where unwilled and unconscious actions can be as consequential as intentional sins. This is the field of contradictions in which we can understand the exchange about intentions and their subversion from my opening vignette. Valentina’s statement that “God values intentions” and Natalia’s concerns about the obstacles that thwarted her good intentions both come from a world where intention is less a moral value in and of itself than a way of marking off parts of life where special evaluative frameworks apply: for example, for explaining why someone fell on the ice. Since it happened while they intended to reach a church service, what would otherwise have been an accident became a failure to transcend the force of external life circumstances, caused either by the devil or by evil inclinations in the women’s own souls.

Natalia and Irina had traveled with the express purpose of participating in the antiabortion prayers and rally, taking on physical hardship on a frosty day. Although their actions eventually failed to reach their goal, they went beyond a theoretical good intention or feeling of regret over abortion. Rather, they actively marked off a time of purposeful effort reminiscent of the Islamic concept of niyya as discussed by Paul Powers (2004). Niyya, an Arabic word often translated as intention, is a term that appears in hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and Islamic legal reasoning. Disagreeing with scholars who interpret a focus on the intentions underlying an act as evidence of a “spiritual side” of Islam, Powers argues that for most [173]legal schools, niyya is just as technical an aspect of prayer and almsgiving as the physical actions associated with such practices. For example, beginning obligatory ablutions with the intention of then performing the noon prayer, and maintaining that intention to the end, ensures for the worshiper that what she or he is performing is indeed the noon prayer. It also reserves a particular length of time for prayer and distances the person praying from everyday commitments. In a similar way, Irina and Natalia had left behind their everyday duties to spend a day traveling and standing in icy weather with the express intention of serving God, an intention that Valentina thought God would acknowledge and reward.

At the same time, the intention cannot replace the correct words and actions that make up a particular prayer or observance. In Powers’ words, “Muslim jurists are not strict behaviorists, and [Islamic jurisprudence] conceptualizes action in a way that includes intention. One must get the outward form right, but one must get the inner form right as well” (2004: 449). Sincerity discourses assume a potential contradiction between outer form and inner content, and worry how to allow inner truth to come out against an outer shell that might conceal or distort it. The regime of interiority shared by Islamic and Christian orthodoxies, however, assumes that a unity of inner and outer form is both desirable and possible. Intention helps to maintain this unity by providing a label for actions that might otherwise be ambiguous (ibid.: 450). While some Islamic jurists claim that this labeling is enough, others maintain that within the time frame of the intentional activity, it is also necessary to focus the mind on the action that is being performed, preventing daydreaming or mindwandering during the performance (Haeri, this collection). A similar tension between prayer seen as a bounded stretch of time and as an activity that requires an inner focusing of the will even in the face of distraction is central to Orthodox Christian debates on how to lead spiritual lives in the modern world. In the Orthodox context, a key question is whose duty it is to practice outworldly individualism: only monastic specialists or also laypeople immersed in family and household responsibilities.

As we were traveling to the site of the rally while Natalia remained behind, Irina shared further thoughts on the causes that had led her friend to slip on the ice. The two women often traveled to monasteries together, and Natalia was always eager to order eternal prayers for herself and her loved ones, spending significant amounts of money. “I tell her—do you imagine what kind of prayer that is, three or four times a day? You have to live a very pious life in order to withstand the attacks that might happen.” The assumption was that Natalia’s life in the secular world had not always upheld the standards of the spiritual forces that were mustered on her behalf in the monasteries. Thereby she made herself vulnerable to attack from evil forces. As places inhabited by professionally outworldly individuals, monasteries were imagined to be the origins of especially strong prayers. The efficacy of monastic prayers was not completely independent of the lives of those who ordered them (as an instrumentalist understanding of ritual might suggest), but neither was the demand for inner participation so strong as to make delegation impossible (as in Protestant understandings of sincere prayer). Irina agreed that prayers could be purchased from skilled experts (Luehrmann 2016), but maintained that doing so did not absolve the sponsor of the responsibility to engage in her own efforts, by performing her own daily prayers and by striving to approach the moral standards [174]imagined to obtain in monasteries. A person’s willingness or unwillingness to contribute such personal effort became a measure of the sincerity of the prayer request.

Concerns with how to live up to monastic standards while living “in the world” were fed by the nineteenth-century spiritual literature that many post-Soviet Orthodox Christians were reading, harking back to a period when many Orthodox laypeople first started to aspire to living spiritual lives. But how does the layperson measure success or failure, in the absence of an explicit monastic rule? As for Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York (Fader, this collection), the ability or inability to avoid the distractions and temptations of the digital age becomes a key diagnostic of a more general spiritual state. The nineteenth-century bishop Theophanus the Recluse (Feofan Zatvornik, 1815–94) belonged to a generation of monastics who corresponded extensively with laypeople and advised them how to transpose traditional monastic disciplines into modern urban life. He counseled his spiritual children to limit their daily prayers to the amount of text they could read aloud with focused attention: “You must put effort into maintaining attention, knowing in advance that thoughts will run away. Then, when during prayer your thoughts run away—turn them back, when they run away again—turn them back again, and like this every time.” The prayer text that was read in such an absent-minded state should be recited again, “until you have recited it with understanding and feeling.”1 Like the Iranian women described by Niloofar Haeri (this collection), Russian Orthodox devotees who read this guidance today see the fixed texts they recite for morning and evening prayer at once as a help and a challenge, enabling a pious routine while also inviting boredom and possible distraction.

Time set aside for prayer works as a boundary between innerworldly and outworldly action for Orthodox Christians because they, like Islamic jurists, regard intention as “the internal, subjective dimension of right action,” which is “generally stable and subject to the will” (Powers 2004: 454), though vulnerable to distraction and discouragement. “I get distracted during prayers all the time,” said a woman selling candles in a chapel that offered monthly prayers to expiate abortions. “Our duty is to read the morning and evening prayers as best we can. The rest is for them, the fathers.” Although distraction from prayer is not an exclusively modern problem, thinkers of European modernity since Walter Benjamin have counted distractedness as a normalized state of mind for city dwellers in the age of mechanical reproduction, electronic entertainment, and a plurality of competing values (Benjamin [1936] 2003; Bauman 1991). Many post-Soviet religious believers would agree that they have a hard time maintaining focused attention and stable intentions in their spiritual practices as well as their ethical commitments, and see short-term pilgrimages and stays in monasteries as temporary refuges. Because such pilgrimages are constructed as a conscious stepping-out of contemporary life into a purer and less distracted past, actions that would formerly have been considered contingent and coincidental take on new meanings of signaling, confirming, and maintaining correct intentions. To illustrate this development, the remainder of this article deals with a type of antiabortion action that involves a performance of particularly strenuous effort: a yearly walking pilgrimage in the Urals region [175]during which participants repent of past abortions. As pilgrims shun modern amenities to walk a distance of 65 miles over three days, they negotiate the question of what counts more in the eyes of God, the physical hardships or the remorseful mood with which they are undertaken.

The Fiery Infants

The story of the “Klimkovka procession with the cross,” as the pilgrimage is officially called, goes back to the nineteenth century. In 1883, Georgii Voronin, a father of six children living in a small mining village, killed his three youngest sons, aged two, four, and seven, by burning them alive in the stove. Voronin was tried and found to have acted “in a burst of melancholia,” induced by a recent illness and his worries about not being able to feed his family. He was committed to the county insane asylum, where he died of scurvy a few months later.2 The children’s ashes were buried near the parish church in Klimkovka, and soon a local cult arose that had nothing to do with abortion, but was associated simply with the notion of sacred power inherent in unusual corpses. Having died as young children, the three boys were considered to have been incapable of committing sins, which brought them close to sainthood (Levin 2003; Panchenko 2012). People were cured of toothaches and headaches when praying at the grave, and a priest regained control of runaway horses after vowing to hold a memorial service for the children. A chapel was erected over the grave, and residents of the small village where they died commissioned an icon with the three patron saints of the boys: the Prophet Elijah, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint Demetrius (Chudinovskikh 2013).

During the Soviet period, the village churches were closed and the chapel was torn down. The icon remained in the home of a local resident. In the mid-1990s, she donated it to the recently reopened church in the district center of Belaia Kholunitsa, roughly twenty miles away from Klimkovka. In 2000, the priest and parishioners began to take the icon back to Klimkovka and the abandoned villages surrounding it. From the beginning, they framed their pilgrimage as an act of penance for abortions (pokaianie za aborty). In a metonymical logic, the violent death at the hand of a parent turned Dmitrii, Ilya, and Vasilii into a symbol of aborted fetuses, though one that receives less support from the church hierarchy than the veneration of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. The three boys have never been canonized and the pilgrimage officially honors their patron saints. However, there is an anonymous “mother’s prayer to the Fiery Infants” printed on the back of a reproduction of the icon for sale at the pilgrimage. The text refers to aborted fetuses as “innocent young brothers and sisters in Christ” of the three murdered boys and asks post-Soviet mothers to identify with Georgii Voronin: “we who like your father, by demonic influence, kill our children in the womb and find justification for our evil deeds.” In a way of accepting responsibility while abdicating it reminiscent of confession, the prayer frames abortion as equivalent to killing young children, but also shifts responsibility to nonhuman demons.[176]

The annual three day-pilgrimage, timed to coincide with Saint Elijah’s day (August 2), attracted between several hundred and a thousand participants each year, who walked up to twenty-five miles per day and slept on the floor in school gyms. In 2013, when I joined the pilgrimage, the parish priest from Belaia Kholunitsa walked with the roughly five hundred pilgrims, joined by two priests from the local deanery who assisted him in reading prayer services and hearing confessions. The vast majority of the participants were women, and roughly two-thirds of them were in their sixties and seventies. Some were locals, others had come from as far away as Rostov-on-Don, Saint Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg.

Officially, the pilgrims pray to the patron saints of the three boys and hold memorial services at their grave and the site of the murder, asking for rest for their souls and forgiveness for their father. Unofficially, the pilgrims treat the three murdered boys as personifications of aborted pregnancies. Many expressed the idea that they needed to expiate past abortions and “pray out” (vymalivat’) the souls of their aborted fetuses from posthumous suffering in order to ensure the health and educational or professional success of their living children and grandchildren. Though denied by the church, the idea that unexpiated abortion brought misfortune on living family members by divine retribution or fetal revenge is as common in Russia as in other countries where abortion has been a dominant form of fertility control (Hardacre 1997). It was the need to restore health, fertility, or job market chances to themselves and their living children that led participants to temporarily abandon everyday pursuits for three days of a set-apart existence marked by walking, abstaining from meat and alcohol, and relinquishing comforts such as a bed and a shower.

Demonstrative as the occasion of an expiatory pilgrimage may seem, few participants wore their motivation on their sleeves. Most pilgrims to whom I talked turned out to have a personal connection to abortion, but few were advertising it. Members of a group of six women from Rostov in Southern Russia answered “I have that sin” when I asked what had brought them to hire a mini-bus for the twenty-four-hour drive to Belaia Kholunitsa. One had been brought to repent of her abortions during a previous trip to a monastery, where an elder with a reputation for second sight casually mentioned the number of abortions she had had: “He said, some have had so many, others so many—and mentioned exactly my number. Then only I understood what I had done.” For this woman, as for other pilgrims, times of separation from everyday life were also times of heightened sensitivity to the hidden intentions behind others’ words, leading her to read a personal message into the monk’s general comment.

Other people were there to expiate the abortions of a wife or sister rather than their own, providing a shroud of opacity over participants’ motives. In particular, no one would comment on the motivations of others, although I soon realized that the default assumption was that pilgrims were expiating abortions in their family. Although there is little stigma attached to abortion in Russia, claiming to know what sins weigh on another person’s conscience amounts to disrespecting the secrecy of confession, usurping the status of the priest or of God. By refraining from evaluating penitential actions of others, Orthodox Christians make a kind of “opacity claim” about the unreadability of other people’s minds that, as for Melanesians, demonstrates their status as reasonable adults who know what not to know [177](Keane 2008; Schieffelin 2008). The ambiguity of motivation was maintained by practices and norms that helped mark the pilgrimage as a purposeful effort distinct from ordinary life, without requiring that purpose to be spelled out. For example, it was an annual tradition for the pilgrims to chant a variation of the Jesus Prayer that was commonly used by laypeople in the Russian empire: “Lord Jesus Christ, son and word of God, for the sake of the Theotokos, have mercy on us sinners.” This both provided a common rhythm for hundreds of people walking on increasingly narrow roads, and prevented ordinary conversation from distracting the pilgrims. When interruptions did occur (e.g., in the form of an ethnographer asking pilgrims about their motivations), others were quick to remind those who chatted too much that “we came here to pray.”

In addition to the plural reference to “us sinners” in the prayer chant, abstention from meat and alcohol was another way of maintaining a sense of common purpose while protecting the opacity of individual motivations. I marked myself as an outsider by purchasing sausage at local stores (and ignorantly offering to share it with fellow pilgrims); the young men who had been recruited to carry the icon equally marked themselves as outside the purposes of the procession by consuming beer during breaks. Even more than food and drink, walking was a way to mark the sincerity of one’s participation through deliberate anachronism. Although there was an accompanying bus for those who needed to ride “out of frailty,” even the most elderly participants did everything to avoid such a ride, to the point of physical collapse. Likewise, few consented to having younger pilgrims carry any part of their baggage, remaining true to the maxim that “everyone has to carry her own load.” As historian Stella Rock remarks (2012), walking to a sacred destination was not considered to have particular spiritual value in prerevolutionary pilgrimages, where peasants walked of necessity, but those who could afford it traveled by coach or boat. The association of walking with pure intentions is an effect of the Soviet period, when pilgrimages were officially frowned upon and had to be done surreptitiously, with no possibility of hiring transportation. In post-Soviet times, walking has achieved the status of sacred feat (podvig) precisely because it is optional, an unusual way of covering long distances for modern city dwellers.

Seen from outside, participants in contemporary walking processions mark themselves off as people willing to suspend ordinary pursuits in order to participate in an intentionally “Orthodox” activity, regardless of the precise narrative connected to a particular procession (Naletova 2010). For secular interlocutors whom I told about this pilgrimage and other experiences with rural Russian religiosity, the fact that no one got drunk (usually assumed to be a universal purpose of excursions into nature) was always the clinching point that convinced them that participants were “true religious believers” (istinnye veruiushchie).

From the perspective of the pilgrims, it is not so much the physical exertion and abstinence that attest to the sincere motivation of everyone involved, but the ability to bear hardships graciously. On the third day, pilgrims commented on how everyone had endured the days of walking and nights on gym floors without complaint (ne roptali), which was seen as a sign that they were all there “for a purpose.” When I expressed my admiration for some women who not only completed the obligatory amount of walking and praying throughout the day, but also got up at two a.m. on the second day of the pilgrimage to complete additional prayers at the burned [178]children’s grave before early morning mass, another pilgrim corrected me: “When this is what you came for, it is not difficult at all.”

Observing one’s own and others’ actions helped pilgrims and outsiders make judgements about underlying intentions and degrees of moral commitment. But the ultimate significance of an action lay not in its outward form, but in the spirit or emotional tone with which it was undertaken: cheerfully or grudgingly, accompanied by prayerful chanting or distracting chatter. The diagnostic value assigned to concrete actions such as walking or carrying one’s personal belongings also varied historically and was disputed between clergy and lay participants. By admonishing pilgrims to take the bus if necessary, priests tried to nudge them away from the equation of action and commitment to a standard of sincerity where intentions mattered over outcomes. Without denying the connection between observable action and moral worth, priests sought to reframe it by presenting the pilgrimage as an opportunity for participants to help each other and bear each other’s burdens. The insistence of some pilgrims that everyone had to carry the weight of her or his own sins in order to receive forgiveness was too instrumental a calculation for many of the priests. “This is like the Catholic idea of indulgence; it is not an Orthodox idea,” explained a priest in the regional center of Kirov. However sincerely someone wished for her or his sin to be forgiven, ultimately the decision lay with God, and could not be predicted by establishing a particular price.

Like Muslim scholars, pilgrims were neither behaviorists nor idealists, but looked for a relative unity of outer and inner form in their own actions and those of others. In the everyday lives of most pilgrims, decisions to walk or take a bus, eat meat or cheese in a sandwich, and accept or refuse help from someone else would be read first and foremost in terms of utilitarian goals and personal preferences. But the heightened orientation to normative frameworks made the pilgrimage a time where actions were more clearly linked to pious intentions. In contrast to confession, these intentions did not have to be verbalized for the ritual to succeed, perhaps adding to the attraction of the pilgrimage as a less personally exposing way of acknowledging transgression.

Conclusion: Sincere moments

There are many political reasons for the heightened interrogation of past reproductive decisions in contemporary Russia, most of which can be summed up under the label of demographic anxieties over past population losses and low birthrates (Rivkin-Fish 2010, 2013; Chandler 2013). At the level of personal processing of these political messages, acts of penance such as public rallies and walking pilgrimages speak of a wish to restore a lost unity of inner values and outward actions. Participants reaffirm themselves as loving parents who would not willfully discriminate between conceived offspring to be carried to term and those to be eliminated. They also reaffirm a society that would protect and take care of its children instead of exposing them to the violence that was endemic to Russia’s twentieth century.

Abstracting from the particular example of abortion activism, the temporal shifts between attention and inattention to interiority and intention among Russian Orthodox believers tell us something about the need to attend to time in the [179]study of sincerity discourses. Much of the debate about Christian subjects in the anthropology of Christianity has revolved around the question whether missionary Christianity makes converts into modern, isolated individuals, or whether Christian subjects remain to some degree socially embedded “dividuals” (Bialecki and Daswani 2015). In this debate, Orthodox Christians have played the role of a limit case, a tradition where communal identity remains so strong as to invalidate claims that Christianity individualizes converts (Hann 2007). However, the nonpsychologized interiority and temporary social detachment that are cultivated through pilgrimage and other routinized, publicly visible, but emphatically nonquotidian spiritual practices are not fully captured by an appeal to communalism, or even to the liminal social bonds of communitas (Turner and Turner 1978). Instead, I have found it helpful to turn to Louis Dumont’s theory of outworldly and inworldly individuals, seen as values in tension with the enduring density of social relations rather than representing exclusive characteristics of any society.

Dumont describes both forms of individualism as outgrowths of the Christian insistence on the salvation of singular souls. He also places them in historical sequence, where outworldly individualism emerges first and develops from an oddity reserved to uncanny outcasts into a marker of prestige, thereby exerting pressure on the holistic social world and creating space for inworldly individualism: “By stages, worldly life will thus be contaminated by the outworldly element,” until finally “the outworldly individual will have become the modern, inworldly individual” (Dumont 1986: 32).

This path from the exceptional outworldly holy person to the normative inworldly individual follows a similar narrative to that of the emergence of sincerity ideologies. Both treat the internalization of piety in late medieval Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation as paving the way for a key feature of modernity: the isolated individual responsible for maintaining consistency between words and actions, internal thoughts and their external expression. Both discourses also draw on a particular Western Christian historiography that locates “the East” in the past rather than in a dynamic historical development of its own (Hann 2007). Finally, Dumont’s narrative privileges male subjects: for women in Protestant Europe, the end of monasticism often meant fewer possibilities to constitute themselves as individuals, rather than an extension of such opportunities to worldly pursuits (Leonard 2005).

The Russian case reminds us not only that outworldly individualism has a modern history, but also that sincerity is subject to sociological limitations on who can exercise it. As a result of centuries of shifting relationships between monastic piety and lay men and women living “in the world,” outworldly individualism has become accessible as a form of temporary separation from the ordinary world through pilgrimage, social engagement, or secluded reflection. Sincerity as a transparent matching of outer form and inner state is possible during these separations in ways that may not be achievable or desirable in ordinary life, especially for women carrying double burdens of paid employment and family responsibilities. In moments of detachment, reproductive decisions can be interrogated as a matter of decision making rather than necessity, and dress, food, and mode of transportation become meaningful choices that reflect interior states of piety or impiety. However, the world of inescapable social roles never recedes very far for lay devotees, and is probably the greatest “distraction” that intentional focus has to keep at bay.[180]

Rather than seeing sincerity as a stable characteristic that subjects do or do not achieve, the practices of contemporary Orthodox women show the effort that goes into creating spaces for the detached self-reflection through which a match or mismatch of inner and outer states can be interrogated and problematized. In Russia, as elsewhere in the world, the idea of an individualized, focused pursuit of piety remains a luxury, and, like all luxuries, it seems both desirable and somewhat suspect. For women such as Irina and Natalia, a match between intention and actions is only ever a temporary achievement, easily derailed by icy roads or a late start in the morning after doing the dishes. Sincerity in the socially embedded world means intentions that are strong enough to overcome the obstacles that are always a fact of life. Outward results become the yardstick for measuring inner states, not because of a simple materialist equation of being and consciousness, but because the odds are always so stacked against the realization of individual spiritual impulses that only the most stubborn among them prevail.


Research for this article was made possible by funding from the Social Science Research Council’s initiative New Directions in the Study of Prayer and from the EURIAS Programme. For comments and discussion I am grateful to the contributors to this collection, HAU’s anonymous reviewers, as well as Ellen Clark-King, Jeanne Kormina, and Rupert Stasch.


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“Pour Dieu les intentions comptent”: Avortement, expiation, et moments de sincérité durant le pèlerinage Russe orthodoxe

Résumé : Une acception large de la notion de sincérité inclue la présupposition que les intentions comptent pour évaluer une action. Les études menées au sujet de la Chrétienté occidentale relatent fréquemment un intérêt historiquement croissant pour l’auto-interrogation, qui a joué un rôle dans l’émergence de l’idéal de sincérité comme forme d’expression du soi moderne. A partir de recherches sur des femmes orthodoxes russes expiant des avortements, je montre que l’intention compte ici aussi, mais pas toujours et pas sous la forme d’une intériorité profonde. Durant la confession et le pèlerinage, des critères externes pour s’?evaluer soi-même et évaluer les autres se présentent, notamment la capacité à mener à bien un projet sans se laisser distraire ou encore à endurer les difficultés qui se présentent sans se plaindre. Certains de ces critères datent de l’époque soviétique, mais juger les intentions à partir d’actions observables constitue une longue tradition dans la chrétienté orthodoxe, que l’on retrouve aussi dans l’idée d’ “individu-hors-du-monde” de Louis Dumont et ses instanciations plus récentes. La perspective de Dumont donne l’occasion d’interroger les contextes temporels et sociaux dans lesquels la préoccupation pour les intentions sincères a pu émerger.

Sonja LUEHRMANN is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Secularism Soviet style: Teaching atheism and religion in a Volga republic (Indiana University Press, 2011) and Religion in secular archives: Soviet atheism and historical knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2015). She is currently working on a book manuscript about antiabortion activism in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Sonja Luehrmann
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
8888 University Drive
Burnaby, BC
Canada V5A1S6


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2. State Archive of Kirov Region, fond 24, op. 43, d. 58, ll. 45, 50—Court file on Voronin, 1883.