Biriukova, Y.A. Historiography Interviews

What is Important for a Good Historian ─ an Ability to Empathize

Ю. А. Бирюкова

Experience throughout the world shows us that the participation of theologians in solving humanitarian problems only enriches scholarship. Indeed, Church historians have made a huge contribution over the past twenty years in the development of historical scholarship in Russia, in research on twentieth century Russian history, and have raised interest in this area of knowledge. The appointment of O. Yu. Vasilieva, the well-known specialist on Church history and Church-state relationships, as Minister of Education and Science, can be considered as an acknowledgment of this contribution on a government level.

An interview with a Russian scholar who researches the Supreme Ecclesiastical Authority in the South of Russa, a predecessor of Supreme Ecclesiastical Authority.

Yulia Alexandrovna, you are currently working in the field of history. And this isn’t just history but Russian Orthodox Church history. Why did you specifically choose history?

We are all probably born with a feeling (at least on a subconscious level) that each one of us is dealt a certain role, a mission in this world. I would think that a person becomes unhappy due to an inability or unwillingness to find one’s place and to make efforts toward self-realization. During my childhood the range of my interests was very wide. But still, sooner or later we are faced with choosing what path we should take. And it is not always immediately apparent. At first I chose the path of applied technical professions. Studying the exact sciences and doing scientific work in this field gave me a great deal, but subsequently I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I wasn’t utilizing my abilities effectively, and that my time was being wasted. The profession I had acquired was not at all with which I could and wished to occupy myself for the rest of my life. And the first year following my graduation from college was the hardest for me. All this changed in 2003, when I enrolled in the Orthodox St. Tikhon Humanitarian University, and then graduated from it with a bakalavr degree in Theology. I discovered a whole new world here which I never suspected. I became familiar with theological studies and with the humanities, undertaking the first attempts at research in the humanities. I became familiar with Early Church history and the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. My graduate work was on the history of the Russian Church. And sources are the mainstay of a historian. I worked with documents in the archives. We know that sources fascinate and preoccupy. This is a process of acquiring new knowledge, an experience of discoveries which cannot be compared with anything. At the advice of Archpriest Vladimir Ter-Arakeliants I continued my education in Rostov-on-Don, pursuing a master’s degree in history of religion at the Pedagogic Institute of the Southern Federal University. Here I came to know many talented people who were involved in their work, professionals capable of conveying the fervor of creativity. Professor Ludmila Vladimirovna Mininkova, who has a Ph.D. in history, became my academic advisor. Under her guidance I completed my post-graduate studies at the Southern Federal University ahead of time, and defended a dissertation entitled “Soviet Power and Orthodox Communities in the Twenties and Thirties: The Nature of Local Relationships.” I published my second monograph on this subject. Generally, it turned out that I didn’t choose history, but history chose me.

This has to do with the acquisition of knowledge. But what was taking place in the area of your professional activities?

While I was still studying for my technical profession I became director of the Sunday school at the Church of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos at the town of Shakhty in the Rostov Province, which was just starting its rebirth from the ruins. At the same time I was searching for a way to become involved in charitable work. Starting in 2010 I worked in the extension program of the Orthodox St. Tikhon Humanitarian University. And I currently teach the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a specialist I also found myself in demand for the work of the Committee on the Canonization of the Saints of the Don Metropolitanate. I taught the history of the Early Church at the Seminary of the Don for two years.

Tell us how your teaching career has developed these last few years.

I am currently teaching the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the new and recent history of the Russian Orthodox Church within “Theology,” a program of professional retraining for use in the extension system. I am assistant professor to the head of Department of Orthodox Culture and Theology at the Institute for Servicing and Business Undertakings, a branch of the Don Government Technical University.

But for me, my research holds the most interest, although unfortunately little time is now left over for it. In 2013 I started writing a doctoral dissertation on “The Russian Orthodox Church in Southern Russia During the Civil War” as part of the general church graduate work and the doctoral work of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the History Department.

Congratulations on the publication of your book about Hieromartyr Zachariah (Lobov). Why did you pick this subject?

Thank you. The book is entitled Podvig sluzheniia sviashchennomuchenika Zakharii (Lobova), episkopa Aksaiskogo, arkhiepiskopa Voronezhskogo i Zadonskogo (1865-1937). It’s a strange paradox that the Civil War was being bitterly fought in the Don Region, and the Bolsheviks undertook maximum efforts to get rid of their opponents in these areas, while those serving in the Church were perceived with particular hostility and were done away with in particularly cruel ways. Nonetheless, the new martyrs whose ministry was connected with the Don lands and who were canonized by the Church are very few and far between. And one of them was Hieromartyr Zachariah, who had devoted 37 years of his ministry to the Don lands.

St. Zachariah was a graduate of the Seminary of the Don. From 1890 to 1900 he served as a priest at the town of Alexandrovsk-Grushevskii (now Shakhty in the Rostov Province). As a very young man at 29 he built the SS. Peter and Paul stone church in this town. He then served as sacristan at the Novocherkassk Military Cathedral of the Ascension. In 1923, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon, he was consecrated to the episcopate and took a leading role in combating the renovationist schism in Southern Russia, in parts of the Ukraine, and along the Volga. In 1924 he was arrested and convicted. He was sentenced to Solovki, where, along with other bishops, he took part in putting together the famous “Address of Orthodox Bishops to the Government of the USSR.” In 1929 he was elevated to archbishop and was assigned to the Voronezh See, and actually headed the dioceses of central Russia in the central Black Earth Region, which included the Voronezh, Tambov, Kursk, and Orel Provinces. In 1933 he was rearrested, and was convicted for the last time in 1937 in Kazakhstan at the Karaganda Labor Camp (Karlag) for discussions with convicts about God and for singing “Christ is Risen from the Dead” at Pascha, at which point he was sentenced to be executed.

I became aware of this person when I was working on my dissertation and the monograph based upon it. He could not be disregarded. The whole material with which I had to work could not be used for this work, since its subject matter was precisely defined, and so I decided on a separate publication. And he was widely venerated in the Voronezh Diocese, but insufficiently so in the Don Metropolitanate. In many ways this was connected with insufficient reliable information on his heroism, on the scale and significance of this person.

After this book was published a new stage in my life began, one connected with the establishment of the Foundation for the Rebirth of Village Churches in Memory of Hieromartyr Zachariah (Lobov), of which I am president. Now social activity has become one of my activities, involving projects promoting the rebirth of village churches and socially oriented projects for the development parish territories.

And are you currently involved in any new academic projects? Can you tell us about them?

At present I have completed work on the academic publication of documents and materials of the Southeastern Russian Church Council of 1919. It is also known as the Stavropol Council. It took place in Southern Russia, which was cut off from Patriarch Tikhon’s direction by the front line, on the territory controlled by General Denikin’s army. This anthology is about to be published by Novospassky Monastery. Its co-publishers are the Stavropol Diocese and the Priest Elias Popov Foundation. While working on this publication I had the opportunity to collaborate with a working group from the Academic Editing Council on the Publication of Documents of the Local Council of 1917-1918. And with this publication my volume is involved not only with its publications, but also with general working principles. This is not accidental, since the Local Council of 1917-1918 and the Southeastern Council of 1919 are connected in many ways. The participants in the latter, as well as the contemporary society, understood their activity as a continuation of the Local Council, and were hoping for the renewal of its work before long. We will speak about this in Munich at the presentation of the academic publication of documents from the Local Council in late November of 2016.

What personality characteristics helped your improvement and growth?

The fact of the matter is that it’s not at all apparent to me whether I am improving or growing professionally. Of course, I would like to accomplish more. But I am undoubtedly becoming more experienced. Experience helps me to solve a huge number of various problems more effectively in different areas of my activity.

I’m sure you’ve faced difficulties in your work.

For me the greatest difficulties have to do with time and with relating to people. Of course, we feel happier around like-minded friends. I’ve been lucky to come across people who are like me. This is an important condition of professional growth. When we work as a team we can accomplish much more than if we work singly. But, unfortunately, what happens most often is that it’s hard for me to find a common language. I’m confronted with the fact that people have become quite aggressive, ill-disposed, envious, and striving to cause harm. This is absurd and inexplicable, since a person destroys himself this way. What kind of professional growth can we speak of if a person spends his entire energy on the negative?

As for the insufficient time, this has to do with the fact that in today’s Russia a scholar is occupied not so much with academic work, but with an immense amount of paperwork, endless drawing up of plans, reports, and other documents, filling out all kinds of electronic forms, constant drawing up what had already been drawn up, since the higher-up organizations are constantly introducing some kinds of innovations, changes, and so on. The tendency toward rigid regulation of a scholar’s activity is on a greater increase. The duty is imposed on him to earn money for the organization in which he is working. However, for example, how can a church historian or a geologist earn money? This isn’t quite clear. So, very little time and energy remain for the activity that the scholar considers important, for his professional growth.

The financial problem can also be mentioned, since working in the archives requires both time and material means.

Everything else can be resolved.

What is important for you in dealing with people? What personal qualities is it necessary for you to develop?

It’s the same as what is important for a good historian ─ an ability to empathize, hear, understand, and share the experience of the other person, to put yourself in his shoes, and understand his motives and interests. This is the hardest thing, since we’re all selfish, but here we have to overcome our ego and forget about our interests.

In your opinion, does Church History have a future in Russia? How do you envision it?

Experience throughout the world shows us that the participation of theologians in solving humanitarian problems only enriches scholarship. Indeed, Church historians have made a huge contribution over the past twenty years in the development of historical scholarship in Russia, in research on twentieth century Russian history, and have raised interest in this area of knowledge. The appointment of O. Yu. Vasilieva, the well-known specialist on Church history and Church-state relationships, as Minister of Education and Science can be considered as an acknowledgement of this contribution on a government level. Another acknowledgement of this is the recent opening of the Governmental Dissertational Council on Theology. In my opinion, Church history remains as the field of theology that is in greatest demand and is undergoing dynamic development. This is demonstrated by the many conferences taking place. It should also be noted that church organizations have started financing large projects in the historical field. Undoubtedly, the publication of the documents from the Local Council of 1917-18 will be an important contribution to the development of Church history scholarship. The top specialists in this field have become involved in this project. I feel that the Church should encourage such collaborative work by scholars through grants. If we look at Church history as a secular field we see that secular scholarly organizations are increasingly including this subject matter in their work, totally devoting various forums to it and publishing anthologies and monographs. The sources upon which a historian relies were declassified relatively recently, and thus there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge, plenty of questions that lack unequivocal answers. Obviously, this requires complete declassification of such sources as investigative cases, Politburo documents, and so on. And the main consideration is that contemporary society wishes to give moral judgments to twentieth century events in Russia and speaks of the necessity of learning from the lessons of the past, which requires factual material. This means that the preconditions exist for the development of this scholarly orientation. Thus I feel that there is a definite future for Church history.

What do you think of woman’s role in the Church in today’s world?

Let me remind you that “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Of course, there can be discussion of men’s and women’s roles in the Church. Most likely, this would be a conversation about personal traits connected with gender which will help people to be more effective in one area of activity or another. I wish to note that arrogant and scornful attitudes toward women on the part of Orthodox men are becoming a thing of the past, and, probably, only inept men, who live according to their fanciful concepts and categories of some sort, can exhibit such an attitude. But, unfortunately, instances of offensive behavior toward women are still encountered, and certain men even regard such behavior as a virtue. If we turn away from theoretical frameworks and direct our attention to the real situation, responsibility for the work of many elements of the Church organism lies on women’s shoulders. I have heard repeatedly from bishops and experienced clergy that a great deal lies on women’s shoulders today, and that only in a woman one can find that combination of mind and spirit which helps her find the necessary balance between principle and flexibility, firmness and sensitivity, to solve the most important problems. And, for certain directions that work takes, a woman is an ideal worker. (In general, the Church reflects the situation in society). I cannot argue with this opinion.

Click here to support the Fund for Restoration of Churches in Rural Russia (President Yulia Buriukova).

The money for restoration of St. Alla church in Penza region of Russia has been collected by the fund headed by Yu. A. Biruikova

The money for restoration of St. Alla church in Penza region of Russia has been collected by the fund headed by Yu. A. Biruikova

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