Sacred and profane space in the modern Russian city: a choice of Russian Jews.

Author:Nosenko-Stein, Elena



Some scholars stress the decline of many traditional collective identities, and the emergence of new ones at the same time (Davidman 1991; Giddens 1992; Vermuelen and Govers 1994; Eriksen 1993; Anthias 2001). The deep crisis of some traditional religions and nations is one aspect of the phenomenon (Gans 1994; Smith 1995; Horowitz 2001; Calhoun 2004). The other is the "ethnicity explosion" and the "religious renaissance" in many parts of the world (Bentley 1987; Banks 1996; Brubaker 2004). In any case, a person identifies him or herself more and more with his or her religion or culture, even though some ethnicities and religions are declining. Paradoxically, we can see that personal self-identification, free from many former collective ties, is very widespread (Cavalcanti and Chalfant 1994). These tendencies are also typical of Jewish identities in many countries.

All these processes, including ethnicization and de-secularization, have led to a change--real and perceptive--of urban space. The Soviet homogeneity has been substituted by diversification--ethnic and religious elements of the urban landscape are more evident now in Russian urban centers. "Patterns of popular taste [I would also add, patterns of mass culture, E. N-S] reflect, among other things, attitudes to the city, the state, the nation, the family, money, foreigners, minorities, the arts and the system" (Stites 2000, 2). Temples of various religions (churches, mosques and synagogues), as well as centers for ethnic activities (communal and Diaspora centers, all kinds of clubs for studying ethnic traditions, music etc.), play a more significant role in the lifestyle of modern Russian citizens and in the urban landscape than formerly. These changes, in their turn, result in deformations, sometimes strange ones, in the identities of ex-Soviet people.

This article is dedicated to the choice of sacred and/or profane spaces by modern Russian Jews. These spaces refer to synagogues, Christian churches, and/or other places, mainly spaces of leisure activities and centers of economic support for their members. I will try to demonstrate the perception of these places in the context of Jewish or non Jewish identities of the Jewish population in Russia today.

Modern Russia is a deeply divided society. We can see many splits in the social and cultural spheres of this country so it is impossible to speak about a common sacred myth or a grand narrative in Russia. Russia's Jewry, being a part of this "society in transition," is also a very heterogeneous community (Kochan 1972; Gitelman 1988). As a result, there is no common Jewish identity (Nosenko 2004: 52-53) and no common sacred spaces for Jews in Russia today.

Sources and Methods

In conducting my research I chose to use qualitative methods, such as oral and life history, since they are more useful than quantitative ones in anthropological studies. This article is based mainly on the results of my field research which I carried out from 1999 to 2009 in several Russian cities and towns (Moscow, St Petersburg, Penza, Krasnodar, Smolensk, Veliky Novgorod, and some other urban centers in the European part of Russia). I conducted a total of 250 in-depth interviews. Interviews were informal and indirect, that is, informal conversations where the interviewer tried to minimize her role and give the lead to the narrator. Yet I had a special interview guide that included several areas of topics that I wanted to cover. Interviews lasted from thirty minutes to six hours, depending on the willingness and time of the informant. There is no single representative sampling in qualitative research; I relied on what is known as "theoretical saturation", where the researcher gets enough evidence for his/her theory and new interviews might add details but do not affect the main concepts (see Bertaux 1981; Hummersley 1989). As a result, the main source of this study is texts of interviews with the attendants of different Jewish organizations, as well as with people of Jewish origin who have never visited them. Among the informants 137 were women; their age ranged from seventeen to eighty-eight years old. Out of all the informants 221 had undergone higher education or were students in universities and colleges at the time of the interview. I found the informants as a consequence of my contacts with Jewish organizations and the use of the snowball principle.

In addition, during my research trip, I carried out a survey in order to verify the results of the qualitative research. The general sampling included 300 respondents whom I found mainly in the Jewish organizations. Most respondents were aged between 16 and 30, or older than 60. These age cohorts represent the age structure of attendants and members of Jewish organizations. The data of this survey is, therefore, an additional and important source. In some cases I used the data of sociological surveys conducted by other scholars (Gitelman et al 2000; Chervyakov et al 2003; Ryvkina 2005; Shapiro et al 2006; Osovtsov and Yakovenko 2011).

An additional and very important source was participant observation. It was especially helpful in the Russian periphery because, although my field trips were not very long, they were intense: I stayed in private homes, spent whole days with my informants, listened to their stories and gossip, and learned their routines. All of this added considerably to my understanding of Jewish life in these towns.

Diversity in Singularity

For many centuries to be a Jew meant "to perform ceremonial laws of Judaism." A synagogue was a Jewish sacred place and an opposition to the sacred places of Others (churches, monasteries, mosques) or Jewish/non-Jewish profane spaces, including public places--markets, various offices, etc. The situation had started to change in the 19th and much more so in the 20th century, when a secular Jewish identity had emerged and spread out (Klier 1995; Nathans 2002; Zipperstein 1999; Frankel 1981). In the former USSR Jewishness has been almost totally cut off from Judaism and the Soviet variant of Jewish secular identity was based mainly on the principle of ethnic origins and state anti-Semitism (Shneer 1994; Shternshis 2006; Nosenko-Stein 2009). In modern Russia the crisis of Jewish identity has its unique characteristics. The Jewish population in Russia is culturally diverse and it is impossible to speak about a single Jewish self-identification. There is a set of cultural self-identifications based on different symbols and values (Nosenko 2004). Therefore, it is also impossible to speak about a common Jewish sacred or profane space because its perception depends on the self-identification of many people of Jewish origin.

The analysis of texts enables me to suggest a classification of cultural self-identifications of persons of Jewish origin in Russia and their relationship with their religious choice. It is very important to take into account that most of my informants, like most Russian Jews today, are people of partly Jewish origin (i.e., they were brought up in mixed families).

  1. East European Jewish (East Ashkenazi). Self-identification is often based on the Yiddish language and traditional Ashkenazi culture. The informants were aged 75+. However, this self-identification is actually quasi-traditional, because it is detached from Judaism and represents a Soviet variant of Jewish traditional culture. The main Jewish symbols for these people are events of World War II and the Holocaust.

  2. Russian (or...

To continue reading