Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz. Fordham University Press. 2022. Paperback. 288 pp. $28.99.
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz’s Between Heaven and Russia is an ethnography of what she deems “Reactive Orthodoxy” (21, 173)—what others might call “TradOx” (49, 65), “Ortho Trad,” or “Based Orthodoxy,”—and its ostensible, recent growth among young, male Christian converts to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). An anthropologist of religion at Northwestern University, Riccardi-Swartz spent a year between 2017 and 2018 engaged in participant observation in the politically-conservative ROCOR community of Holy Cross Monastery and Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Wayne, West Virginia. Riccardi-Swartz is herself an Orthodox believer. She lived, worked, and broke bread together with monks, parish priests, and congregants in Wayne’s ROCOR community to learn how they “create[d] an alternative Christian utopian future through their Russian Orthodox world building practices in Appalachia” (14).
Reactive Orthodoxy-as-world-building, she argues, is a “reactionary development project” or a politicized “form of the [Orthodox] faith” (3, 173). Through it, politically conservative Christians use the “scaffolding” of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s new position as a transnational conservative actor to combat American progressive politics, liberalization of Christian doctrines, and overall moral decay. (2, 12, 15, 170)
Between Heaven and Russia is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter is a quick overview of ROCOR’s historically separatist position and its post-1917 status as an emigre/exile church. She describes ROCOR’s split with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), its Cold War tensions with other Orthodox branches, and, after 2007, the challenges with reunification with the MP. (23-33). She also covers ROCOR’s elevation of pre-1917 tsarism, its steadfast anticommunism, and the comparatively greater attention ROCOR has paid to monasticism and the use of English. (23-33)
Over the next two chapters, Riccardi-Swartz describes the typical non-Orthodox ROCOR convert, provides a short biography of Seraphim Rose (described later as “a global figurehead for Reactive Orthodoxy”) (180), and offers reasons why conversion to ROCOR has become spiritually and politically attractive. Most ROCOR converts are early-to-late-middle-age males (younger singles; older marrieds) with advanced degrees in the humanities, and have preexisting theologically conservative Christian backgrounds–usually some variant of evangelical Protestantism (50, 66). When it comes to motivations, Riccardi-Swartz says that “in most cases,” the longings behind conversions to ROCOR involve a “quest for true Christianity,” or a deeper love for pre-Reformation church history (39), but, later, she dives into the more political realm, discussing how many converts operate out of “nostalgic apocalypticism,” (14, 78) and want to “protect tradition” and “[create] a better, more Christian, more holy version of the United States” with a return to monarchy, pre-1917 Russian Orthodox practice, and an ‘imagined, utopian agrarian culture” (45-46).
Here, Riccardi-Swartz missed an opportunity to engage with current ex-evangelical theorizing, not to mention older works describing in detail this rather common post-Protestant, low-church-to-higher-liturgy faith trajectory. Scot McKnight, for example, in the early 2000s outlined many reasons Protestants “swim the Tiber,” and in the late 80s, Robert Webber addressed evangelicals taking the Anglican path. Indeed, I was very surprised that she didn’t spend more time on Peter Gilliquist, Jack Sparks, Jon Braun, and other parts of the California Orthodox “explosion” in the 70s and 80s–particularly given how Seraphim Rose, Father Damascene Christensen, and Father Alexey Young also connected to it. Granted, that group of California converts ended up in Antiochian Orthodox circles rather than in ROCOR, but looking at how they described their own motivations, one reads definite longings for a spiritually “pure” and “historical” church, and not, interestingly for her subject matter, a politically pure one.
In Chapter Four, Riccardi-Swartz ties Reactive Orthodoxy’s “nostalgic apocalypticism” and “anti-democratic, anti-modernist” sensibilities to the “key figure” of Tsar Nicholas II (83). After outlining how Nicholas II and the Imperial Royal Family were glorified by ROCOR in 1980, she highlights the importance of Nicholas II for ROCOR converts as a “defender of holiness,” “the ark of safety,” “the Christian father,” and the katehon–the one who restrains–the latter especially with reference to the tsar’s battle against socialism and secular forces (85, 87, 92, 95-97, 106). Riccardi-Swartz’s decision to mask names may actually have hindered the reader’s understanding of the Wayne ROCOR community’s veneration of Nicholas II. Later, in Chapter Six, she describes “Fevronia,” the daughter of an Orthodox priest, who, with her husband “Peter,” donated the land for Holy Cross, and was “the person [responsible] for the development of ROCOR in West Virginia.” (145-146) As others have referenced, Nadya Danilchik-Sill was not the daughter of just any old Orthodox priest, but of Archpriest Michael Danilchik–a “true zealot,” a “staunch anticommunist,” and a “rabid monarchist,” who presided over the 1930s construction of Seattle’s St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was dedicated to “the martyred Tsar Nicholas II [and to] his Royal Family and all the Russian soldiers and people who died defending their faith, tsar, and country.”
Skipping over Chapter Five for a moment, Chapter Six offers Riccardi-Swartz’s best ethnographic surprises. I had been waiting to hear how a ROCOR community came to be planted in the unlikely environs of rural West Virginia. Early on, she shared that 90% of Wayne’s Orthodox Christians were converts, that Holy Cross got its start in 2000 when “Peter” and “Fevronia” offered property, and that Christ the Savior arose two years later out of a need for an accompanying lay community (6). But, in this chapter, there is much more about the historical, ideological tensions between parish and monastery, clashes over church property ownership, class divisions among transplant converts, rural gentrification, and church-civic interactions over social justice. Unsurprisingly, few ethnic Russians actually live and worship in Wayne, yet one of the more unexpected findings was the difference between parish and monastery over language use. Reverend Jonah Campbell (“Fr. Cyril”), the parish priest at Christ the Savior, speaks Russian, prioritizes Church Slavonic in liturgy, and regularly celebrates Russian culture festivals, while Holy Cross–particularly due to the efforts of Father Macarius (Ruegemer) (“Fr. Theodosius”)–has led the charge for translated Russian-to-English Orthodox hymnody (35, 102-103, 110, 143).
Combining the remaining chapters, with the Conclusion and Epilogue, one sees the primary difficulty in Riccardi-Swartz’s concept of “Reactive Orthodoxy”–is the phenomena she wants to cast as widespread in ROCOR really just an active and vocal hard edge? In Chapter Five, she talks again about convert interest in Putin and excitement about Russia’s role in transnational religious conservatism–and on the latter, the reader can now seek greater details in Kristina Stoecki and Dmitry Ulanzer’s The Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars. For all of Riccardi-Swartz’s concern about “Reactive Orthodoxy’s” turn to Putin and Russia’s transnational influence, one of her key interlocutors (who is very involved in online Orthodox discourse), Hieromonk Gabriel (Hooten) (“Fr. Tryphon”), said he thought ROCOR convert interest in Putin wasn’t about Putin per se, but about “father hunger” and “leadership hunger” among young men and about the desire for a strong Christian state. Putin is the stand-in for what Russia is seen to represent – an ally in a global fight against progressive politics (109-110, 117-118)
But what about “Reactive Orthodoxy’s” racism, white nationalism, and/or identitarianism? Riccardi-Swartz concludes that Wayne’s ROCOR community “rarely indicated the overt racist or supremacist tendencies of those typically associated with the alt-right” (112) In fact, she shows how Father Campbell at Christ the Savior kept white nationalist adherents out of the parish (42). Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is a complete absence of white ethnonationalism in ROCOR circles, but after reading Riccardi-Swartz, I am still unclear as to its extent. Granted, though I know the players involved were in a schismatic Orthodox group, I was still surprised that Riccardi-Swartz left out the controversies over Michael Heimbach, the Traditionalist Workers Party, the Legion of St. Ambrose, Matthew Raphael Johnson, and The Orthodox Nationalist. I wonder, too, if Riccardi-Swartz should have waited before publishing, in light of her next project–digital right-wing Orthodox networks–and how she has observed the race issue occurring in online Orthodox discourse (185, 187-189, 192-193).
Altogether, there is more investigative work to be done. Riccardi-Swartz’s connection of “Reactive Orthodoxy” to Rene Guenon’s esoteric Traditionalism is, at best, indirect through Seraphim Rose’s interest in Guenon’s work (55) or via Alexander Dugin’s oeuvre (113, 120-121). It is even more attenuated with respect to Julius Evola, who receives one mention in the book’s final paragraph (193). In conclusion, if one was to consider “reactionary” and/or “traditional” self-identification (e.g. “based” and/or “trad”) to be an active family of counter-progressive, anti-modern, or anti-liberal politicking, and the integration of that identity into Christian (and Christian-adjacent) communities (versus, say, Hindutva) as a genus, then Between Heaven and Russia is an attempt at an ethnography of a particular species. “Reactive Orthodoxy,” then, would be one species alongside “trad” or “based” variants of Catholicism and Protestantism, and, in the Latter-Day Saints community, “Deseret Nation,” “Deseret Nationalism,” or “DezNat.” The ways in which these related species go about their “ideological terraforming,” (78, 193) physically and online, and the extent to which they interact with illiberalism, esoteric Traditionalism, ethnonationalism, identitarianism, and the New Right is calling out for deeper analysis.
Brian J. Auten is employed by the federal government and is an independent scholar of Cold War strategy, politics, and religion. He is the author of Carter’s Conversion: The Hardening of American Defense Policy (University of Missouri Press, 2008). All views, opinions, and conclusions are solely those of the author and not the U.S. government.
Riccardi-Swartz is a member of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), not ROCOR. See pp. 7-8. ↑
A look at a number of Riccardi-Swartz’s interviewees demonstrates the ex-evangelical character of ROCOR converts. Hieromonk Gabriel (Hooten) (“Fr. Tryphon”) was a “hard-core Calvinist” before he converted as a university student in North Carolina (52-53). Father David (Mahand) (“Fr. Damascene”) claimed to be a former evangelical Protestant. (24) Hieromonk Macarius (Ruegemer) (“Fr. Theodosius”) came out of a “simple and traditional” Reformed Calvinist background. (59) Reverend Jonah Campbell (“Fr. Cyril”), the parish priest at Christ the Savior, was raised in North Carolina as a Presbyterian, graduated from Oral Roberts University, and first converted to Catholicism before becoming Orthodox. For Campbell, see p. 147 and https://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2015/11/a-journey-from-pre-med-to-priesthood/. Regarding my use of true names, I am in agreement with a number of Riccardi-Swartz’s reviewers who have argued, given ROCOR’s extremely small footprint in West Virginia, she probably went too far in masking true identities of specific people and places. I respect Riccardi-Swartz’s ethnographic ethics, but I do not believe I am under the same restrictions in this review. See, for instance, Mikel Hill, “What Is Going on with American Converts to Russian Orthodoxy: A Case Study in Misunderstanding,” Hedgehog Review (14 June 2022), https://hedgehogreview.com/web-features/thr/posts/what-is-going-on-with-american-converts-to-russian-orthodoxy. ↑
For this California history, see Peter Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith (Conciliar Press, 1989); https://www.stathanasius.org/about/our-history/; Aaron Josef Sokol, “‘We’re Not Ethnic: Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Identity in Orthodox Christian America” (Ph.D., University of California at Santa Barbara, March 2018); Philip Charles Lucas, “Enfant Terribles: The Challenge of Sectarian Converts to Ethnic Orthodox Churches in the United States,” Novo Religio, Vol. 7, Is. 2 (2003), pp. 5-23; Jeanne C. DeFazio, The Christian World Liberation Front: The Jesus Movement’s Model of Revival and Social Reform for the Postmodern Church (Wipf and Stock, 2022). ↑
See, for example, https://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2022/06/review-between-heaven-and-russia-by.html. On the history of the Danilchik family, see the following URLs: //www.morrisfuneralhome.com/obituaries/Nadya-Danilchik-Sill?obId=10343361; https://www.saintnicholascathedral.org/StNicholas_History_us.html; https://www.facebook.com/HOMBoston/posts/beloved-faithfulwe-are-pleased-to-share-with-you-an-article-written-in-1969-by-t/1875044649378484; https://magazine.atavist.com/the-voyagers-russia-bering-strait-stalin-alaska-ukraine/. Intriguingly, the Atavist Magazine article also asserts that Michael Danilchik was an FBI informant. I do not know if he was or wasn’t, but it seems the kind of story that would make for very interesting digging. And it should be noted that anticommunism ran strong throughout the family. Nadya’s sister, Vera, and her husband, Phillip Spoerry, were scholars of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s (CPSU’s) early civic control methods. Philip Scott Spoerry, “The Central Rabkrin Apparatus: 1917-1925,” Ph. D. Dissertation (Harvard University, 1968); https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/hjnews/name/vera-spoerry-obituary?id=24566797 ↑
See Vegas Tenhold, Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in the United States (Bold Type Books, 2018); https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/legion-saint-ambrose-losa; https://theorthodoxnationalist.wordpress.com/2018/02/21/vor-archive/; https://theorthodoxnationalist.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/response-i.pdf; https://orthodoxmetropolia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Spiritual-Court-Dec-17-OS-Fr-Raphael-Johnson.pdf ↑
See also Katherine (Katie) Kelaidis, “Orthodoxy’s Extremist Appeal” (2019) at https://ocl.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/KelaidisOrthodoxysExtremistAppeal.pdf, and Jacob Lassin, “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Empire of Media,” Canopy Forum (28 March 2022), at https://canopyforum.org/2022/03/28/the-russian-orthodox-churchs-empire-of-media/. ↑
On “Deznat,” see the following: https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/01/31/unholy-war-deznat-troops/; https://kutv.com/news/2news-investigates/deznat-users-say-theyre-defending-the-church-those-they-target-say-its-not-christ-like; https://www.deseret.com/indepth/2021/7/21/22587664/alaska-assistant-attorney-general-under-investigation-for-deznat-twitter-account-jreubenclark; https://web.archive.org/web/20190503030610/https://teancumsjavelin.com/post/deznat-bowie-knives-progmo-s-and-following-the-prophet/. For additional theorizing by Riccardi-Swartz on this type of species, see Riccardi-Swartz, “Trad nationalist a/effects,” Journal of Ethnographic Theory 13:1 (2023), pp. 218-222, which is part of a book symposium on Michael Herzfeld’s Subversive Archaism: Troubling Traditionalists and the Politics of National Heritage (Duke University Press, 2022); https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/725203. ↑