Appalachia and the Third Rome

Managing Editor Kyle Trowbridge interviewed anthropologist Sarah Riccardi-Swartz about her book Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia.

Kyle: Your book explores the beliefs and practices of a community in Woodford, West Virginia whose church is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). First, who is ROCOR and what sort of relationship does ROCOR have with other Orthodox churches, including those churches which are part of the community you belong to, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)?

Sarah: ROCOR is an acronym that stands for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. This religious polity formed in the early twentieth century to preserve prerevolutionary forms of Russian Orthodoxy outside of Russia during the rise and subsequent installation of Soviet power that came about after the Bolshevik Revolution. That revolution, along with the assassinations of Tsar Nicholas II (who had already abdicated) and his family in 1918, made it increasingly clear to leadership in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that Soviet officials were not only hostile to tsarist power, but also to their religious organization, which was intimately linked to imperial Russia. To prevent the total collapse of Church structure, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow ordered an emergency resolution that granted diocesan bishops the ability to reorganize themselves as temporary governing bodies and to align with other dioceses nearby if they found themselves out of contact with the ROC administration (outside of Russia). This resolution was an effort by the ROC to preserve the structural formation of the Church, to keep the global satellites of Russian Orthodoxy attached to the host, and it played a crucial role in ROCOR’s formation and in the historical evolution of the Russian Church in the United States.

The early history of the Russian Church in North America in the twentieth century is one of great turmoil. Depending on which accounts and voices we listen to, we often get two very distinct stories about the eventual creation of ROCOR and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). It’s important to note that what becomes ROCOR in 1920s did not consider itself to be an autocephalous Church; rather, it believed it was still loyal to the mother Church in Russia, even though in 1927 ROCOR broke communion with the ROC. There are far too many internal struggles between ROCOR and what would eventually come to be called the Moscow Patriarchate to note here, but it is crucial to understand that once ROCOR became its own entity, it was canonically separate from the Russian Orthodox Church (and the OCA) until it signed documents of reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. The self-isolationism of ROCOR, especially in the United States, was key to forging its distinctive religious practices and ethos. 

The OCA, or what was originally known as the Metropolia, has a shared history with the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the twentieth century. Starting as one, all three churches—the ROC, ROCOR, and the OCA—would eventually claim the early Russian missionization of Alaskan territories as part of their own histories to legitimize their religious legacy and distinction from one another. Much like ROCOR, the Metropolia had a tumultuous relationship with the ROC, but eventually received a tomos of autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, positioning the OCA as both self-governing and in communion with the ROC. Meanwhile, ROCOR did not concede to this agreement, meaning they were not in communion with either religious organization until 2007. These historical differences were and are expressed in a variety of ways, particularly in how both institutions (ROCOR and the OCA) understand themselves in relationship to the West.  

Kyle: What are some of the political and theological points of emphasis for the community you surveyed? What about US culture, as understood by the ROCOR community in Woodford, drifts them simultaneously towards political positions like monarchism and revolution?

Sarah: In Orthodoxy, particularly in its Russian diasporic formation, many of my interlocutors believe they have found a space in which hierarchy, patriarchy, and purity are preserved in opposition to secularization, democratization, and diversification. They saw ROCOR as an organization that had crystalized a traditional form of Christianity instead of letting it succumb to progressive secularism, which many believed was (and is) invading western religions. To that end, interlocutors often talked about Orthodoxy as a worldview that does not ascribe to politics (that is beyond politics), while self-identifying as fascists, nationalists, traditionalists, reactionaries, and monarchists. This community, and others like it that have been springing up in the American South and Midwest because of the convert influx into ROCOR, are done with the American democratic project, turning instead to authoritarian, king figures abroad, like Putin or a potential monarch, who might secure a different political future for the U.S. One of my interlocutors, the abbot at the monastery in my field site, told me very plainly that “Our country [meaning America] now represents anti-Christianity and Russia represents Christianity.” My interlocutors believed most Western countries were failing to protect the family structure and social morality. For them, liberal democracy, as a secular construction, created a political hellscape that would eventually bring about the apocalyptic rise of the antichrist. The diversity of democracy was not godly. It was a creation of humans that wreaked the divine ordering of the world. The monks in my field site would often quote a Russian saint and tell me that, “In heaven there is a monarchy and in hell there is a democracy.” Monarchy, they often argued, was part of God’s ordering of society, a way to imbue our social structures with the moral values of Christianity and the divine sanctity of the heteronormative family from the top down.

In terms of revolution, my interlocutors would not adhere to the idea that they were revolutionaries; indeed, most converts with whom I spoke loathed the idea of revolution, often suggesting that all the ills of our post-modern moment stem from the French Revolution. I would argue, however, that they are reactionaries bent on social transformation at the grassroots level. Their goal is to transform themselves, their community, and then society more broadly through theological and political engagement with both pre-revolutionary and post-Soviet Russia.

Kyle: You specifically use the terms “nostalgic apocalypticism” and “reactive orthodoxy.” Could you unpack those a bit?

Sarah: By nostalgic apocalypticism, I am referring to an attempt by my interlocutors to return to what they believed historically was a traditional Christian national ethos in the United States. They see the mid-to-late twentieth century as the beginning of the end for Christian America and they are fearful that “secular liberal agendas” will create an apocalyptic event or scenario (the end of the world). Their apocalyptic politics are a worldbuilding project of nationalistic futurecraft, composed of nostalgia, conservative political ideology, and Russian Orthodox theology. Nostalgia, ideology, and theology create the building blocks of their new social reality—their new world. Each piece affects the other; nostalgia and theology are mapped onto politics, social issues, and current events, while politics are understood through the writings of Russian saints, monks, and other figures in the history of Russian Orthodoxy. ROCOR then becomes the vehicle through which these apocalyptical politics have traction in the building of a new world.

Nostalgia, as a political project, is inherently apocalyptic, because the desire is to end one way of being in favor of a life, a world, a reality that never was and can never be. Reactive Orthodoxy is a hybridized form of religiosity that seeks to build a new, arguably caustic future through imagined nostalgia for prerevolutionary Russian Orthodoxy and its monarchic politics, American Christian nationalism, traditionalism, and an apocalyptic disenchantment with democracy. Nostalgic apocalypticism is the grammar Reactive Orthodox Christians use to build out their theo-political futurity.

Kyle: What is the theological and political significance of post-Soviet Russia for the communities of ROCOR? How do they view a figure like Vladimir Putin?

Sarah: The group I lived with in Appalachia was largely taken with Putin’s Russia as a geopolitical compass guiding America back to traditional social morals. The language of culture wars and traditionalism that both Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin have used repeatedly in the last ten to fifteen years appeals to them. This group of converts saw in Russia the social reclamation of traditional values through political policies. One covert told me that only “Russia could save the world.” Not the ROC, but Russia. In the post-Soviet context, the ROC and the Russia state, despite being separate entities, are, for many far-right western actors, loosely participating in a post-modern type of Byzantine symphonia (a reciprocal relationship between church and state). The post-Soviet emphasis on positive, arguably linked, church-state relations was appealing for many of my interlocutors. In the book, I argue that through religio-political conversion, these American believers found in Putin’s New Russia, and its tightly linked Russian Orthodox Church, an ideological haven to weather what they saw as the storms of secularism and neo-Marxism destroying (Christian) morality and truth in the United States. Putin’s support for the ROC and his pro-nationalism, pro-family, and anti-LGBTQ+ policies are seen as ways in which politics is supporting the expansion of religious values in the public sphere. Their enchantment with post-Soviet Russia is ultimately about finding a model for the moral securitization of American society, which they believed was declining because of progressive secularism.  

Kyle: As you discuss in your book, the religious profile of Appalachia is often caricatured and flattened to certain idiosyncratic practices. Can you discuss the pluralistic nature of religion in Appalachia? What are some of the reasons Appalachians, who might have been Calvinist or Holiness Protestants, converted to the ROCOR community?

Sarah: Despite early depictions of snake-handling, trancing, glossolalia, and drinking poison as distinctive practices among Appalachians, religious belief and practice are diverse, with cities, towns, hills, and hollers filled with a wide variety of spiritual communities. Certainly, Protestantism is most prevalent in the southern part of the region, and in West Virginia in particular, but there is a more diverse history of religiosity in the area. We must remember that Appalachia itself is a geopolitical, social, and cartographic creation in the American public consciousness that is a product, in many respects, of President Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign in the 1960s. The linking of poverty and certain religious practices became entrenched in the public discourse and imagery surrounding Appalachia. At the same time, scholars of Appalachian Studies and regional artists, writers, and musicians have worked tirelessly to show the religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity of Appalachia, a region that spreads from parts of New York State through the northern portions of at least three southern states.

In Woodford, small Calvinist and Holiness churches were prevalent, but very few locals from those communities converted to ROCOR. Most of the pastors I spoke with in Woodford were hesitant to engage theologically with the Orthodox community, which they viewed as “Catholic.” The Orthodox community in Woodford gained most of its population from converts outside of the local area. Many were former evangelical Calvinists who were looking for historical Christianity outside of western secularism. They wanted something mystical, something that withstood the test of time, and they believed they had found that in Russian Orthodoxy, since it was able to withstand Soviet persecution and experience a revival in the post-Soviet moment. They also saw Russian Orthodoxy’s unique political ties (both historically in terms of the tsar and in the contemporary moment with Putin) as being a good thing for aiding the return of conservative social values to society broadly. In many ways, the creation of this community, and the continual influx of converts from outside of Appalachia, has enhanced the religious diversity of the county, the state, and the region.

Kyle: In what ways is the ROCOR community set apart from others in Woodford?

Sarah: Certainly, they were set apart by their adherence to a dating rubric known as the Julian Calendar. Russian Orthodox Christians are approximately, dependent upon the year, thirteen liturgical (solar) days behind many other Orthodox Christians around the world for most of their feast days. That dating system creates a rhythm of difference, forming the basis of their Orthodox world, and in Woodford that difference was socially palpable. While Orthodox folks in Woodford did hold jobs, shopped at the local Wal-Mart, and encountered townspeople during their weekly parish food pantry, there was always a sense, at least from interviews with non-Orthodox people, that the Orthodox community was living in their own world. Perhaps that is what [ROCOR theologian Seraphim] Rose meant by creating an Orthodox society that seems to be scandal to the world. Converts saw themselves as citizens of heaven, an idea that allowed them to devote themselves to ROCOR, Russian Orthodoxy, and Putin’s foreign political platform, while also giving them the necessary social clearance to maintain a sense of distance from the surrounding community, for they were, after all, migrants on their way to the celestial kingdom. Where converts lived, worked, and owned property in this corner of West Virginia was not their homeland. The notion of being in but not of the world is a theological way in which converts seemed to make sense of their religious isolationism and their clearly delineated boundaries of social acceptability.  

Kyle: Your book reminds Americans that there are religious and political projects within the United States whose origins lie from outside of U.S. borders, helpfully, I think, reminding Americans that we are not the only players on the international stage. How does the connection between the local and international help to fully sketch our views of religious ideas and practices in the United States? Do you think your book challenges other narratives about the “Americanness” of certain religious practices in the United States?

Sarah: The book asks what is missing in American religion and politics that prompts people in Appalachia to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. For the groups with whom I have worked, conversion opened the door to an enchanted, informative, and even radical world of religious and political possibilities that the United States did not seem to afford them. Reactive Orthodoxy, as a religio-political project, is part of the history of American theologies of exceptionalism that are linked to globalized, dynamic assumptions about what it means to be an American, a Christian, and a conservative. I think throughout the book we find that the world of Reactive Orthodoxy, this nostalgic, ideological reality unto itself, is one of response to relationships that seem dysfunctional to many. Shifting the terms of debate, then, comes in the form of American exceptionalism, on the one hand, as much as self-loathing, on the other, in a world where monarchists, America First members, and fearful (potential) expats are finding safe harbor from the storms of secularism. In showing how Russia becomes an ontological respite from the diversity of democracy for some far-right religious practitioners, the social, globalized dimensions of these American theologies of exceptionalism become more apparent, pushing us to ask: Why now? Why Appalachia? Why Orthodoxy? 

Kyle: In what ways has your work changed how you view the alt-right? And in what ways has your work informed what a theological response to the right would look like?

Sarah: It often seems like scholars use the term “alt-right” when they are unsure of how to categorize a radicalized right-wing community. (The same could be said of the term populism.) I suggest that we might better understand contemporary transformations in political authority if we reframe the political conversations about sociopolitical movements emerging around the globe. Given their far-right political leanings, the community with whom I worked could be considered under the umbrella of the alt-right. Most assuredly there were members of the Appalachian ROCOR community who would self-identify as alt-right. Furthermore, most, aligning ideologically with one of the core tenets of the alt-right, saw little to no value in the American conservative project, which they believed had become too liberal and corrupt to possess the moral standards needed to save the United States. However, while labeling these believers as alt-right might be pejoratively accurate, it does a disservice to understanding the distinct forms of political ideologies springing up around the religious traditions and values these believers held dear; doing so also flattens the layered history and cultural complexities of both Appalachia and the Russian Orthodox Church.

It is important to note that there were quite a few political ideologies floating around within the Russian-Appalachian Orthodox community: paleoconservatism, monarchism, populism, nationalism (for the adopted Russian father/motherland), traditionalism, and even fascism. While all these beliefs are found in clustered formations that seem to constitute the alt-right, this specific Orthodox community rarely indicated the overt racist or supremacist tendencies of those typically associated with alt-right movements, although there were outliers. I suggest in the book that we need to move beyond the term alt-right because it is both too expansive and at the same time too limiting to fully understand the geopolitical, religious dimensions of deep conservatism.

In terms of a theological response, I will leave that to the theologians. However, I will say that the radicalization we see in the turn to Russia and other authoritarian powers cannot be understand only through theological or social analysis. Anthropologists need to listen to theologians, and, in turn, theologians need to take seriously the social processes at work in the transformation of American Orthodoxy.

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict (Arizona State University).

Kyle Trowbridge

Kyle Trowbridge is a Managing Editor of Theology and Society.