New Forms of Spirituality in Russia: Notes from a University Course

text: Birgit Menzel, Anna Tessmann & Romina Heim

wordclouds: Daria Shevtsova

in collaboration with Amelie Hahmann, Daniel Drosdezki, Anna Manukyan, Yuliya Folschette, Swetlana Ostrowski, Melis Sari, Evgenia Schäfer, and Laura Hülsenbeck

In this summer term of 2020, our German project team organized a course on new religious practices in modern Russia. The situation of online teaching during the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for both students and academic staff of the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. For us and our students, it was no exception. Since we had not been able to teach in a class, under the circumstances of isolation we had to make new experiences with collaborative online work by testing a number of learning and other communication platforms. In our weekly meetings before and after the online class, we were discussing how we can strengthen our didactic skills and what would be the best solutions for our virtual group. These meetings were strong moments of sharing ideas and experiences. As teachers, we have had the impression that this unique situation of virtual, yet almost intimate communication finally turned a university course into an intensely personal experience for all participants.  

Teachers and students in the virtual classroom 2020

The course, which was opened to graduates and undergraduates alike, introduced the topic of spirituality as a current trend in post-Soviet Russia and in global culture. It was quite an unusual subject in the curriculum of students who have come to learn languages and are pragmatically heading to a career as professional translators. Even more unusual was the emphasis not on the return of traditional, officially approved religions in post-atheist Russia – Christian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism – but on the diverse new religious movements and spiritual practices which have emerged from encounters between Western and Eastern worlds of belief and wisdom teachings since the erosion and fall of communism. We discussed a few paradigmatic examples in-depth, such as Pavel Lungin’s film The Island (2006), some documentary and ethnographic films and journalist reports about practitioners, power places like Arkaim, Dolmens in the Krasnodarsky region, the Siberian village Okunevo as parts of sacred geography, and (neo-)shamanism as a form of altered states of consciousness. The students – most of them for the first time – learned about non-conventional spiritual, mystical, and religious traditions and practices. They were also invited to think and write about their own attitude towards the primary and secondary source material introduced to them. They gave their written comment on New Age, on songs of German Spiritual Rap songs, as well as on reactions of various religious and new religious practitioners in Russia to the Covid-19 pandemic. We asked the students to share some reflections on their learning experiences with us. What follows are some excerpts from students’ feedback papers, illustrated by word clouds based on a task for the students at the beginning of the course to write down their associations with the terms “religion, mysticism, and esotericism.”

Religion

“Ever since I attended this class, I know that there are far more religions in Russia than “only” the world religions. It is precisely in Russia, where an incredible number of tendencies allowed people’s faith to develop, which probably makes the country unique. […] Today, (Russian) religions are global. Neoshamans are consulted by people all over the world, “healers” perform their miracles on TV and New Age practices are carried out all over the world. […] Religions have evolved and so have ideas about spirituality. However, these developments are mostly due to the influence of other religions […] and they beg the question, whether this “mixing of religions” might cause the original religions and their views to gradually be forgotten.” (Amelie Hahmann)

“Before the seminar, I had only a vague idea of the term “new religious movement”. Now, I am able to distinguish both well, and lesser-known movements and tendencies that influence people’s perception of the world. To me, the interactions and relations between religion and new religious movements seem to be particularly vivid and diverse in Russia, which constitutes a geographical and linguistic space that is shared by many ethnic groups, religions, and religious movements.” (Daniel Drosdezki)

Spirituality

“Having lived most of my life in a country that was the first to adopt Christianity as state religion (almost 95% of the population are Christian and belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church) and having been closely connected to Russian culture, I thought that I knew quite a lot about the seminar’s topic, but I was wrong. […] It made me think about many things. As a future translator and linguist, I began to wonder why in other languages the Russian expression до нашей эры (“before our era”) contained the name of Christ. For example, in German – vor Christus, in English – before Christ, in Armenian – Քրիստոսից առաջ. It turned out that the Russian language also knew such an expression that, however, was abandoned during the Soviet period. Still, after many years of mass atheism in Russia, […] many of the magical traditions and rituals have neither become extinct nor have they been forgotten.” (Anna Manukyan)

“I have always been interested in spirituality, because as we get closer to the roots, we get to know ourselves more deeply. Some practices like yoga or meditation restore inner balance, which has a positive effect on both the professional and personal spheres of life. However, we should not trust all information available to us in order not to be manipulated.” (Yuliya Folschette)

Esotericism

“Russia differs from the West in regard of the relationship between spirituality and religion, which becomes evident in the Russian word духовность, which is claimed to represent a characteristic trait of the Russian nation and is intrinsic to every discourse on the Russian soul. Its meaning is dependent on the context and difficult to grasp. Духовность can refer to both “extra-ecclesiastical spirituality” and “religious spirituality”, and thus poses a real challenge to the translator. […] The probably most valuable tool I acquired during the seminar I consider to be the differentiation between emic and etic approaches. This has helped me both professionally and personally.” (Swetlana Ostrowski)

“What I learned from this class is that spirituality and faith, which go beyond the apparently well-known “classical” religions, tell us a lot about society and the followers of different movements, and also that it is clearly worth going into deeper into these topics. […] It is my impression that, unfortunately, many atheists and agnostics consider themselves intellectually superior to believers and often exhibit an unjustified categorical attitude of refusal, which in turn is, in some respect, simplistic and also regrettable, since discussions are always to one’s benefit and very instructive.” (Melis Sari)

Mysticism

“It appeared to me that before the seminar, we have been thinking in fixed categories and only with great difficulty could think and look beyond the confines of our worldview. This has changed during this seminar. […] One should have an open mind about all movements, opinions, and worldviews. Laura Hülsenbeck: This seminar made me aware of the importance to critically reflect on statements and texts without judging the views expressed in them. A superficial reflection involves the risk of jumping to conclusions and thereby doing others wrong. That is why it is important to me to take different perspectives and try to understand them, not only with regard to religiosity and spirituality.” (Evgenia Schäfer)

“This seminar made me aware of the importance to critically reflect on statements and texts without judging the views expressed in them. A superficial reflection involves the risk of jumping to conclusions and thereby doing others wrong. That is why it is important to me to take different perspectives and try to understand them, not only with regard to religiosity and spirituality.” (Laura Hülsenbeck)


This blog post in Russian

Cite this article as: “New Forms of Spirituality in Russia: Notes from a University Course”, in New Age in Russia, 11/08/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4805


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