Day 22: Sin and Salvation in Russian Spirituality, a noon lecture sponsored by the U of M Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies given by UC Berkeley professor Victor Zhivov.
First of all nothing is free downtown when you have to pay for parking. Once I parked and found the building, it was the School of Social Work building on the corner of South and East University, I had a bit of a problem. I had the building’s address written down, not the room number. This led to much confusion as I wandered around looking for a room with the same number as the address – which didn’t exist. But thanks to Michigan Time I got there well before the lecture started, though I was too late to get one of the handouts.
My first thought upon entering the room was, “Holy crap, I’m totally hungry! Why didn’t I eat lunch before I left my house?” This was followed quickly by: “Everyone around me is speaking Russian. That’s a good sign in an ethnic restaurant. I wonder if it’s also true in an academic lecture?”
While Dr. Zhivov was outlining the theoretical framework of his lecture he said that he would be using Foucault. Foucault within the first minute of a lecture usually means I’ll either a) tune it out because it’s gonna be some pretentious overly theorized crapballs, b) have no idea what they are talking about, or c) both.
I was pleasantly surprised by this lecture. I really liked it! And I really liked Dr. Zhivov. He had a fairly thick Russian accent and he looked like the cartoonish version of an ideal professor. He wore a bowtie! Bowties are cool!!!
He discussed the emergence of the idea of purgatory and how ideas of penance were different in Russian, as opposed to Western Europe.
Russians, in the middle ages at least, were less concerned with what happened after death than Westerners. They didn’t have the social, or religious, push to confess at least once a year. Pentenance was sort of popular in monastic circles but it was not uniform and not particularly popular among the nobles. Zhivov was pretty clear that no one really knows what the peasants were doing at the time.
In the 16th century Russian nobles would actually brag about lying during their confessions. Death bed confessions became the norm. Pentenance was a marginal element on a holy man’s path to salvation. You could sin all your life and confess right before death and it would be all good. The risk, of course, was that you die unexpectedly. That could really screw you.
Some nobles even went so far as to take monastic vows right before death. These vows worked like a second baptismal and washed away all the sins you committed before the vow. This was used by princes and high standing nobles. It was really a last minute way to cheat god. A religious loophole, if you will.
The talk did push into the 18th century but I won’t really go into it except to say that by then if you didn’t confess once a year then you could be double taxed.
Then it was time for the question and answer portion of the lecture. Now for those of you who haven’t been to many academic lectures there are three basic reactions to Q and A.
1. Professors who use this as an excuse to talk about themselves and only marginally ask a question. This question usually amounts to: “How does what you’re talking about relate to what I study.” But it takes a long time to get there.
2. Grad students who are trying to impress the lecturer, professors in the audience, each other, and themselves by how smartypants they are and really want to find a hole in the theory/research/presentation to prove that they really did deserve that grant they didn’t get.
3. Undergrads who walk out as soon as the lecture is over.
I have to admit that today I left with the undergads and went to find myself a burrito.