Feminine Aspects of Orthodox Traditions of Hagiography and Mysticism in Contemporary Russian Literature

Irene C. McManman, University of Washington

Classical Russian literature was deeply rooted in Russian Orthodoxy. Religious life in modern Russia is not as strictly defined by the Orthodox Church as it was before the communist regime; different religious beliefs try to co-exist on the vast Russian soil. Post-Soviet Russian literature, as always in Russia, plays a significant role in the problems of present-day religious life. Tracing some of the religious traditions and their development in contemporary Russian literature seems a fascinating subject for analysis.


Hagiographic or zitijinaia literature has deep roots in Russian literary tradition, or rather, Russian literature has its roots in a hagiography. One of the best examples is: The Life of the Saints, written by Dimitryi Rostovsky, twelve volumes of which had a long life in all classes of Russian society during the two centuries before the communist revolution, and strongly influenced literature process. However, this line of literature almost disappeared in the Soviet Union. Ironically, forms and cannons of zitijnoi literature served as a foundation for biographies of leaders of the Communism. Tradition wasn’t forgotten, it just acquired new strength. Unexpectedly, soon after the fall of the regime, emerged a new wave of hagiographic literature of a modern time, with a contemporary saints.

First, I’d like to introduce the book titled Father Arseny, which was published after the collapse of Communism (1993) and rapidly became very popular among first Russian and then international readers. The book was translated into English and printed by St.Vladimir Seminary Press vol. 1 in 1997 and vol.2 in 2001. Volume 1 Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father is a compellation of narratives made by “Alexander” and volume 2 Father Arseny: Cloud of Witnesses is a continuation of the first. The Russian Orthodox Church considers the book as fiction, a novel about life and the spiritual journey of the priest Father Arseny and his spiritual children. This book is one of the brightest examples of the hagiographic literature tradition in modern Russia, a continuation of the development of Christian thought, that could be associated not only with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but rather Dimitri Rostovski, Nilus, and many others on that line. Books about Father Arseny seem to present a rebirth of the hagiographic tradition.


The idea of Sofia, the Wisdom of God was one of central themes in Russian religious philosophy and penetrates almost all literature forms in one way or another. The eternal feminine, mother earth, Sofia, Navna are classical variations of the theme. Vladimir Soloviev, Trubetzkoy, Daniil Andreev, Al.Blok and many other prominent figures on the horizon of Russian thought could be named as representatives of the mystical tradition that features the femininity as one of the expressions of the divine. In contemporary Russian literature, books of Vladimir Megre present a new outlook on Sofiology. The first book Anastasia was published in 1995, and rapidly became popular, seven more books appeared in later years. Even though the book couldn’t be placed under the realm of Eastern Orthodoxy, it certainly inherits mystic elements of it as well as elements of some other traditions of Russian Literature. The book was recently (2005) translated into English and found a way to the international readers.