Negotiating Byzantine Theology and Religious Difference in Russia’s Imperial Borderlands: Intercultural Contacts between the Russian Orthodox Church and Oriental Christianities in the Long Nineteenth Century
Imperial Russia did not only consider itself to be the successor of the Byzantine Empire in political terms, but rather claimed to also be the safe-guardian of the Byzantine theological legacy. This self-perception was, however, challenged by the encounter with Oriental Christianities in the nineteenth century. The incorporation of Transcaucasia into the Russian Empire in the course of the nineteenth century as well as the occupation of northwestern Iran in the early twentieth century, led to the first durable contact of the Russian Orthodox Church with the various Oriental Churches. In the Byzantine theological tradition these Christian communities were considered to be heterodox and were labelled either as “monophysite” (in the case of the Syriac Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox Churches) or as “Nestorian” (in the case of the Church of the East). This “discovery” of Oriental Christianities followed by several attempts to achieve ecclesial unity with them had suddenly made the Byzantine Christology as well as the Byzantine canonical norms regarding the status of the heterodox communities highly topical in late Imperial Russia.
Of special interest in this regard was the intensive theological dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the – supposedly ‘Nestorian’ – Church of the East. This dialogue deserves special attention not only because it resulted in an unprecedented mass conversion of the ‘Nestorian’ Christians of northwestern Iran into the Russian Orthodox Church, but also because it ultimately led to a critical reappraisal of the Byzantine theology itself. The project aims at an examination of forms, practices and discourses involved into the process of negotiating the Byzantine theological legacy as well as its normative concepts of “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy” in the context of the intercultural encounters in Russia’s imperial borderlands.