• Peripheral Histories

Falling through the cracks of history: Daniil Filimonov and Orthodoxy in Chuvashia

Alison Ruth Kolosova


During a break from working in the State Historical Archive of the Chuvash Republic, I walked out across the new road connecting the centre of the Republic's capital, Cheboksary, with the historic old town situated on a headland jutting out into the river Volga. As I paused to take photographs of the blue-domed monastery and churches against the expanse of the river and the distant forest, I heard a voice calling my name. A car had stopped and Irina came running towards me waving excitedly. It was a joyful, seemingly chance meeting with an old friend after many years, yet one which was to lead me down unexpected remote byways where I was to gain challenging new perspectives on my research.


The road to Cheboksary Old Town on the banks of the River Volga. Photo by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2014.


The Chuvash Republic lies about 700 kilometres directly east of Moscow and takes its name from its Chuvash inhabitants, a Turkic people who are ethnically related to the Tatars of the neighbouring republic of Tatarstan. In the late 1990s I had come to Chuvashia to work as an English teacher in the school where Irina worked. The history and culture of the Chuvash had begun to fascinate me as well as raising many questions: Why were the Chuvash predominantly Orthodox Christian when their Tatar neighbours were mainly Muslim? What and who had inspired Ivan Iakovlev, today known as the 'Enlightener of the Chuvash', to create the Chuvash written language in the late 19th century? Were the Chuvash still pagan in the early 20th century, as many claimed, and what kind of beliefs and rites had they practised? Such questions had eventually led to a PhD in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University (UK), and to my research in the Cheboksary archives.

Chuvash Republic. Wikipedia.


While working with Irina I attended her Chuvash language lessons and this had led to an invitation to spend the weekend at her parents' village in the Tsivilsk district of Chuvashia. As we stood now, overlooking the Volga, I asked her to remind me of the name of her village. 'Pervoe Stepanovo', she replied. 'Now why does that sound so familiar to me?', I thought out loud. 'Well, there was a famous figure in Chuvash history born there, Daniil Filimonov', Irina suggested. 'Of course!', I gasped as I thought of the many archival files which bore that name in all three of the Cheboksary archives where I had worked. 'Could we go back there again?', I asked, trying to contain the excitement in my voice. 'Yes, my mother would love to see you. My father died a few years ago. He often asked about you and wondered if you would come to visit again,' Irina replied with sadness in her voice. I also regretted the opportunities I'd missed to talk with her father and to understand more fully the imprint that Daniil Filimonov had left on both the past and present of Irina's village.


When Filimonov had been born in Pervoe Stepanovo in 1855, his family were state peasants known as 'Old Baptised' Chuvash, those who had adopted Orthodox Christianity in the wake of Tsar Ivan IV's conquest of Kazan in 1552. As a 12-year old boy, Daniil had studied in a nearby village school through the medium of the Russian language until in autumn 1869, a Chuvash teacher, fresh from innovative training courses in Kazan, had turned up to teach reading, writing and prayers in Daniil's native Chuvash language. Daniil later described the arrival of this teacher as a turning point in his life, although he could not have fully grasped where the choices he was about to make would eventually lead him. In 1872 he became the first Chuvash to study at the newly-opened Kazan Native Teachers' Seminary where, inspired by the ideas of the linguist and pedagogue Nikolai Il`minskii, teachers were trained for schools in which the Turkic and Finno-Ugric vernacular languages of the region, written down using newly-created alphabets, were used as the teaching medium. As my research progressed, I became increasingly aware of how much controversy Il`minskii had raised. Soviet historians branded him as an instrument of Tsarist policies of russification, a view which persists to this day among some historians. More recent scholarship has provided more nuanced views, although it is generally agreed that one of his main aims was to prevent the conversion to Islam of Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples who had been baptised as Orthodox Christians between the 16th and 18th centuries, by providing them with Christian texts in their mother tongues.[1]


The entrance to the school named after Daniil Filimonov, Pervoe Stepanovo, Chuvashia. Photo by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2013.


While studying in Kazan, Daniil worked on translating the first biblical and liturgical texts into the Chuvash language with Ivan Iakovlev, the founder of a teaching training school specifically for Chuvash in the nearby town of Simbirsk. Daniil began his career at Simbirsk Chuvash Teachers' School, teaching geography and history, leading the school choir which sang in Chuvash in a nearby church, and serving as the bursar who ran the practical side of the school. His capable handling of the School's affairs earned him respect and popularity and in 1882 he was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood. While serving as priest in Tsivilsk district, he initiated the opening of several primary schools, among them the school in Pervoe Stepanovo which today bears his name. Fr Daniil was especially active when catastrophic famine hit the Volga region in 1891. With Il`minskii's help, he published an appeal in the newspaper Moskovskie Vedomosti and by the end of the year he had received 2800 roubles in charitable donations. Records have been preserved of the names of hundreds of villagers across Tsivilsk district and the amounts of flour, wheat, barley, oats, peas and buckwheat each received as part of the famine relief programme organised by Fr Daniil and his Musirma parish.


The building of the Simbirsk Chuvash Teachers' School (today in the city of Ulianovsk). Photo by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2008.


Yet amidst all the evidence which seemingly indicates a glowing career, there is much that points to the complex and controversial nature of his position as priest and teacher in Chuvash villages. After his appointment as principal of a teacher training school in the large Chuvash parish of Ishaki, he was criticized for inactivity because of the low pupil intake from surrounding hamlets. He explained that the schools had been opened at his own initiative as the villagers were still practicing pagan rites and the parents were indifferent to schools and literacy. The land around Ishaki was of poor quality so the Chuvash earned a living from producing bast matting and bags. As children of both sexes were engaged in this labour from the age of eight, putting children into school caused great financial loss for a family. Soaking the bast meant that homes were damp and prone to disease, and when in 1894 a typhus epidemic broke out in five villages that had no access to a doctor, Fr Daniil had to leave his school for days at a time to visit sick villagers.


Filimonov's appointment to the large parish of Ishaki was resented by local Russian clergy at a time when there were only five native Chuvash priests in the Kazan diocese. He was regarded with even greater suspicion when he defended the right of the Chuvash nuns of the St Alexandra convent near Iadrin to use the Chuvash language in their prayers. When in 1899 a new abbess who did not speak Chuvash was appointed, Filimonov was accused of inciting rebellion and he left to become priest in Samara diocese where the local bishop was a staunch supporter of Il`minskii's use of indigenous languages.


As Irina and I travelled to Pervoe Stepanovo later that summer, she explained to me that in the village there was now an offshoot of the Tsivilsk convent, a farm where nuns grew fruit and vegetables for the main monastery and provided hospitality for pilgrims who came to drink and immerse themselves in the waters of a sacred spring. We agreed it would be interesting to talk to the nuns and even try out the icy waters of the spring. When we entered the wooden farm building we were greeted by one of the nuns who offered us tea and told us the history of the farm and the crops that are grown there. As I told her about my interest in Daniil Filimonov I could see her becoming visibly uncomfortable. 'But isn't studying Filimonov just like studying Lenin? You would not want to waste time on that, would you?' she said sharply. I tried to explain calmly that for almost 40 years Filimonov had been a figure of great authority among Chuvash believers and, on the whole, a respected priest in the mainline Russian Orthodox Church before the events of the 1920s which had blackened his name. Did that not make him worthy of study? But she could not see my point and took me to their bookstall where she found a book on Renovationism and handed it to me as a gift. 'You need to read this!' she snapped sternly. The Renovationists (Obnovlentsy) were a group of progressive clergy who in the early 1920s declared loyalty to the new Bolshevik government as they perceived its aim of combatting socio-economic injustice to be rooted in the Christian Gospel. They took control of the Russian Church after the arrest of Patriarch Tikhon for counter-revolutionary activity in May 1922 and proposed a radical renovation of the Church's life in order to restore creativity and dynamism, as well as the introduction of more inclusive forms of church government at national, diocesan and parish levels.[2]


Typewritten Orthodox Prayer Book in Chuvash (late Soviet period). Photo by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2013.


The book I was given that day still sits on my shelves, although now it is surrounded by the writings of scholars from both Russia and abroad who have sought to present alternative narratives to the stereotypical depictions of Renovationists as secret police agents who sought to betray and destroy Orthodoxy from within in the post-revolutionary years, perceptions which firmly persist in the Russian Orthodox Church today as the nun's opinions made clear to me. Il`minskii's emphasis on indigenous agency meant that many of the Chuvash clergy and teachers who had emerged from the movement threw in their lot with the Renovationists, especially when the latter encouraged the Chuvash to form their own national diocese within the borders of the Chuvash Autonomous Oblast, an administrative unit that was created on 24th June 1920. Aspirations for national church leadership had simmered quietly among the Chuvash after 1905 and the proposal to create a native Chuvash episcopate was voiced openly for the first time at a meeting presided over by Filimonov in Samara diocese in 1909. Daniil Filimonov was consecrated as Renovationist Bishop of Cheboksary in February 1924 and struggled to stop the Chuvash national diocese losing ground as supporters of Patriarch Tikhon restored patriarchal authority over the Chuvash parishes and the wider Russian Orthodox Church during 1924-1925. Filimonov was raised to the rank of Archbishop by the Renovationist Synod in 1929 but released from his post on the grounds of ill health later that year. Before his death in May 1938, he served as priest in Pervoe Stepanovo although spent time in hiding as the persecutions of the late 1930s grew fiercer.


Today in Cheboksary you can visit the impressive monument to Ivan Iakovlev, the founder of the Simbirsk Chuvash Teachers' School, in front of the Chuvash National Library. He sits with an open book in his hand in recognition of his creation of the Chuvash literary language, although he worked together with many priests and teachers, foremost among them Daniil Filimonov. At the sacred spring in Filimonov's home village of Pervoe Stepanovo, the icon of St Hilarion Troitskii, a zealous opponent of Renovationism, is prominent. It is his memory, rather than Filimonov's, that prevails as he was one of the key figures loyal to Patriarch Tikhon in the cataclysms that shook the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1920s. Filimonov's open criticism of Tikhon and his continuing support for the Renovationist cause, even after it had lost the sympathy of the vast majority of Russian believers, mean that there are no icons and monuments to him. Today only a few brave scholars within Chuvashia mention his name and are familiar with the story of the controversial Chuvash national diocese of the 1920s.


Monument to Ivan Iakovlev in front of the Chuvash National Library, Cheboksary. Photo by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2014.


Left: Chapel over the sacred spring Pervoe Stepanovo, Tsivilsk district, Chuvashia. Right: Icon of St Hilarion Troitskii at the sacred spring, Pervoe Stepanovo, Chuvashia. Photos by Alison Ruth Kolosova, 2013.


When I began my research out of fascination with the origins and aims of Orthodox missionary activity in an 'out of the way' place like Chuvashia, I did not expect that it would open up this vital view from the periphery of events which have been written and read about almost exclusively from the perspective of the centre. The reasons why the first generation of the Chuvash intelligentsia turned to the Renovationists to find fulfilment for their aspirations, and the role played by the missionary movement itself in that process, have remained unresearched, largely passed over in silence. This gives me motivation to carry on as such questions, together with Daniil Filimonov himself, have as it were, fallen through the cracks of history.[3]


Alison Ruth Kolosova has been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Ethnology, Institute of Cultural Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia from 2018-2020. Her PhD from the University of Durham (UK) focused on the Russian Orthodox missionary work inspired by Nikolai Il`minskii among the Volga-Kama Chuvash. During her fellowship in Estonia she broadened the scope of her research to include the Mid-Volga Finno-Ugric peoples. She is currently writing a book about the cultural impact of Orthodox mission in the Mid-Volga region.

[1] For recent discussion of Il`minskii and his schools see P.W Werth, At the Margins of Orthodox: Mission, Governance and Confessional Politics in Russia's Volga-Kama Region, 1827-1905 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002); R.P. Geraci, Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2001); A. Kefeli, Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2014).


[2] On Renovationism, see Scott M. Kenworthy “Russian Reformation? The Program for Religious Renovation in the Orthodox Church, 1922-1925” in Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, Volume 16/17, (2000/2001), 89-130.

[3] There is further discussion of Daniil Filimonov and Renovationism in Chuvashia in an article due for publication at the end of 2020: A.R. Kolosova “Sobornost`: its concept, praxis and reception by the Chuvash Orthodox Christians of the Volga-Kama region in the early 20th century” in Sobornost incorporating Eastern Churches Review, 42:1-2 (2020).


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