The Life Written by Himself

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Pub Date 06 Jul 2021 | Archive Date 13 Oct 2021

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Moscow in the middle of the seventeenth century had a distinctly apocalyptic feel. An outbreak of the plague killed half the population. A solar eclipse and comet appeared in the sky, causing panic. And a religious reform movement intended to purify spiritual life and provide for the needy had become a violent political project that cleaved Russian society and the Orthodox Church in two. The autobiography of Archpriest Avvakum provides a vivid account of these cataclysmic events from a figure at their center.

Written in the 1660s and ’70s from a cell in an Arctic village where the archpriest had been imprisoned by the tsar, Avvakum’s autobiography is a record of his life, ecclesiastical career, painful exile, religious persecution, and imprisonment. It is also a salvo in a contest about whether to follow the old Russian Orthodox liturgy or import Greek rites and practices. These concerns touched every stratum of Russian society—and for Avvakum, represented an urgent struggle between good and evil.

Avvakum’s autobiography has been a cornerstone of Russian literature since it first circulated among religious dissidents. Its language and style served as a model for writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky. The Life Written by Himself is not only an important historical document but also an emotionally charged and surprisingly conversational self-portrait of a crucial figure in a tumultuous time.

About the author: Avvakum Petrovich (1620/1–1682) was born near Nizhny Novgorod to a priest and a nun. He became a leader in the Old Believers movement. He wrote the earliest version of his biography between 1669 and 1672 while imprisoned in Pustozersk, and was burned as a heretic in 1682.

Moscow in the middle of the seventeenth century had a distinctly apocalyptic feel. An outbreak of the plague killed half the population. A solar eclipse and comet appeared in the sky, causing panic...

Advance Praise

"Avvakum's combination of ecclesiastical and colloquial language transposed into writing the pathos of his oral rhetoric, and has remained a source of inspiration to modern Russian literature ever since the Life was published. "

—Jostein Børtnes, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature

"Avvakum's combination of ecclesiastical and colloquial language transposed into writing the pathos of his oral rhetoric, and has remained a source of inspiration to modern Russian literature ever...

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ISBN 9780231198097
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I could well see this as the most esoteric book I've ever reviewed. The minutest of audiences, then, will care for my thoughts on this story - the life-story of a seventeenth century Russian monk, who begins his script with some religious thoughts and commendations, then alludes to him being turned on by the confession of a fornicating woman, and then, well. Multiple death threats and potential assassinations, imprisonment and torture, being used as a human tow horse as someone moves some boats around in Siberia... Missionary work, interactions with the Tsar, and a heck of a lot of other detail are covered before it kind of drifts to a close. It's not a perfect read, in itself - you have to wonder quite why he's the victim of all these unexplained death threats at first, and whether it's just him at fault or there's a full-on purge. You also only get the cold details - there's nothing too internal, revealing his thoughts or what he might have used or said to affirm his faith under such duress. So while we get some good details of note (the time when Lake Baikal was a lake of much plenty, etc) these "wanderings" (his word) are not perfect. It's too far into it that we learn the whole thing hangs on a debate of whether to use two or three fingers, and a baddy named after a camera brand I knew I was right all along in never using. Luckily, of course, this publishing house knows what it's doing, and the scholarly yet readable introduction is on hand to prove to us the import of all the main text. Nikon (hence my quip about the cameras) and a whole host of followers were indeed trying to change the entirely of religion, from the ceremony right up to the power it had in society. Our author was on the other side, one of what we now call the Old Believers. It turns out he was also a wrong'un, with his lot doing a lot of plugging for the idea of mass suicidal immolation by fire and drowning, but he is quite personable here. I take the miracles he recounts (of asking God for water to drink while walking in the middle of a miles-wide frozen lake, and getting it, and of people whose cut-out tongues reformed perfectly, like a lizard's tail) with more than a pinch of salt, but that's just my inclination. I certainly do think you have to be a believer to get much from his writing, but there is also the fact this text is pretty unique, and quite probably like no other you've ever read. Within the distinct religious timbre that makes a lot of this feel quite antiquated, there is a lot of successful cussing for a man of the cloth. Coming as I always do to this house's books, I consider them for the intended reader and from the point of view of the general browser, chancing their arm here, and/or perhaps persuaded by this being a netgalley freebie. Of the latter, a lot would give either one or two (possibly three) fingers to the whole thing, for this really has a specific reach. But for the target, scholarly purchaser, this is perfect. I've never seen such a fully annotated text, with the notes and introduction by far outweighing what they discuss. It's for that real audience, then, that my star rating is intended - one star for every reader, almost.

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One group of people forced another group of people to literally live in a hole in the ground because the two groups could not agree whether to make the sign of the Cross with two or three fingers. The people in a hole in the ground were the lucky ones – compared to the ones who had the offending fingers cut off. One group believed that saying “Alleluia, alleluia, glory be to thee, O God!” was looked on with favor by divine authorities, but saying “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory be to thee, O God!” would get you damned to hell for eternity. In this case, cutting out the tongue was considered appropriate. The argument over whether religious services should properly be seven hours long, or merely three hours long, led to torture, violence, and death. Your enjoyment of this book will depend on whether you find all of this senseless violence fascinating or infuriating. I am not a scholar of things Russian, but I know more about the topic than the average non-Russian, which was enough to be able to enjoy this book, if “enjoy” is the right word. It will probably be incomprehensible if you are not a bit of a Russian and/or religious history nerd. Surprisingly, this book is an easy read. The translator says the original is written in a style easily comprehensible for native speakers of Russian, so that the average man could read and understand it. This idea seems unremarkable now, but in seventeenth century Russia, it was an unusual idea. The translator, Kenneth Brostrom, attempted – successfully – to duplicate this style in his English translation. This translation was originally published in 1979, and the translator was working on a revised edition when he passed away. His work was completed by another scholar. The original author, Avvakum Petrov, is sort of a Martin Luther-analog for Russian Old Believers, a group which broke off with the mainstream of the Russian Orthodox Church around the years 1650. To this day, they are to be found in pockets all over the world, miraculously surviving centuries in defiance of war, repression by forces both secular and religious, and the temptations of the modern world. In many ways Petrov seems quite a bit like Martin Luther – both alternated between moments of heartfelt humanity and longer periods of monomaniacal intolerance. In other ways, he was the opposite of Luther – rather than change the church for the better, Petrov's mission was to make sure that nothing the church did ever changed. Like Luther, he enjoyed proclaiming loudly that he was a miserable sinner, but he never, ever, forgot a slight given or an offense taken. This all may seem a little grim, but Petrov really comes alive on the page – I enjoyed reading this. This book is very heavily footnoted. The reader will need several bookmarks (either paper or electronic) and will have to shuttle back and forth frequently to keep track of which bloated religious hypocrite Petrov is currently railing against, and why. As for the matters of doctrinal dispute mentioned at the top (e.g., two vs. three fingers): it's easy, from a vantage point of smug modern superiority, to sneer at these people as ignorant yokels and tell ourselves that we are past this type of hair-splitting idiocy now, but every time I hear somebody blather on about how their city, state, country, or skin color are superior to someone else's, it's clear that we haven't really come so far. I received a free electronic copy of this book for review via Netgalley from Columbia University Press.

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I had the chance to read an early copy of an upcoming update to an old book. It’s called The Life Written by Himself by a Russian Archpriest named Avvakum Petrov. The book comes out at the end of May but you can preorder it now. This book certainly isn’t for everyone. That’s to be expected from the fact that it shares the thoughts of a 17th-century priest who lived in poverty and persecution in Russia. Yet the older I get, the more I realize how much we stand to gain from reading really old books. The updated intro itself is worth the book as it offers a fascinating historical setup to Avvakum’s life and times. Avvakum stood up against a version of Christianity that joined itself together with the government of Russia to gain power and influence. This is something the church in America would benefit to reflect on as well. Beyond this, there are two reasons you might find to appreciate this book. The first reason—and the best takeaway from this book—is its perspective on the nature of suffering, especially for a Christ-follower. Despite the difference in culture and times, I was incredibly moved by his account. Avvakum is tortured in numerous ways throughout his lifetime and is eventually killed for his faith. Yet he lives with boldness in the face of suffering. -I came up, and the poor dear started in on me, saying, “Will these sufferings go on a long time, Archpriest?” And I said, “Markovna, right up to our very death.” And so she sighed and answered, “Good enough, Petrovič, then let’s be getting on.” -Neither famine of bread nor thirst for water destroys a man; but a great famine it is for a man to live, not praying to God. -In the Chamber of the Cross the bishops disputed with me, then led me into the great cathedral, and after the Transposition of the Host they sheared the Deacon Fyodor and me, and then damned us, but I damned them in return. Almighty lively it was during that Mass! -Satan besought God for our radiant Russia so he might turn her crimson with the blood of martyrs. Good thinking, devil, and it’s good enough for us—to suffer for the sake of Christ our Light! Most moving of all for me was the way Avvakum boldly lived out his faith, precisely when he recognized what it would cost him. Passages like this one are stunning (and show how amazing his wife was too): "Sitting there feeling heavy at heart, I pondered: “What shall I do? Preach the Word of God or hide out somewhere? For I am bound by my wife and children.” And seeing me downcast, the Archpriestess approached in a manner most seemly, and she said unto me, “Why are you heavy at heart, my lord?” And in detail did I acquaint her with everything: “Wife, what shall I do? The winter of heresy is here. Should I speak out or keep quiet? I am bound by all of you!” And she said to me, “Lord a’mercy! What are you saying, Petrovich? I’ve heard the words of the Apostle—you were reading them yourself: ‘Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.’ I bless you together with our children. Now stand up and preach the Word of God like you used to and don’t grieve over us. As long as God deigns, we’ll live together, and when we’re separated, don’t forget us in your prayers. Christ is strong, and he won’t abandon us. Now go on, get to the church, Petrovich, unmask the whoredom of heresy!” Well sir, I bowed low to her for that, and shaking off the blindness of a heavy heart I began as before to preach and teach the Word of God about the towns and everywhere, and yet again did I unmask the Nikonian heresy with boldness." The second reason you may enjoy this book is if you have an appreciation for Russian literature. Perhaps that is an even smaller category than the first reason I gave to read this book. Yet there is a lot here. In the past six months, I read both the Gulag Archipelago and Crime and Punishment (two iconic Russian books). Both impacted me deeply and continue to stir my thoughts. Avvakum is considered Russia’s first modern writer. Therefore, reading him is a chance to “climb the tree” of ideas and trace many back to an early source (see: Climbing the Tree). The great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (who wrote Crime and Punishment) hilariously said, “I think that if one were to translate a piece such as the narrative of the Archpriest Avvakum, the result would be nonsense, or better, nothing whatever would come of it.” I think he was wrong on both accounts. More favorably, another great Russian writer—Leo Tolstoy—“once said that he could not read the Life without weeping, and one supposes that he perhaps saw in Avvakum an ideal Russian with a Russian capacity to suffer and to remain steadfastly true to his understanding of the good.” I read the book more as Tolstoy did. If reading this book helps us with the capacity to suffer and remain steadfastly true to our understanding of the good, it would be well worth it. Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Two reviewers battle within me: the scholarly one and the cheery, enthusiastic one. Which to choose? Thanks are in order for NetGalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review; I'm afraid you get two. Review One: Of Scholarly Interest "The Life Written by Himself" is the autobiography of the Russian priest Avvakum (1620(?)-1682). A series of hasty reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church lead to a small schism and religious persecution. Avvakum is on the losing side of the Old Believers, who want to keep the old ways intact. His autobiography has many interesting qualities to it. The first is the style: Avvakum writes in the spoken Russian at the time, with a great sense of how to make it compelling to listeners from all walks of life. Whenever he quotes the Bible or saints, however, he switches to the archaic style of ecclesiastic scholarship, so it's always clear when he's deferring to authority. It's an interesting combination - and it actually works. Kenneth Brostrom does a wonderful job here. The English version of this text is superbly readable and compelling. It simply flows and it feels familiar and friendly. Avvakum also combines real events with hagiographic tropes (a hagiography is a biography of a saint), so we have his life and that of other Old Believers, combined seamlessly with miracles and martyrdom. The ill are healed through the power of prayer, captives have their chains fall off, Old Believers speak clearly despite their tongues being cut out - and more. Aside from the details of schismatic life, Avvakum adds descriptions of Russian landscape, as his exiles take him on journeys north, so he gets to marvel at flora and fauna. While the autobiography in itself is quite wonderful to read, this edition of "The Life Written by Himself" is more than accessible to anyone, regardless of their familiarity with any of the topics involved. Avvakum's "Life" is about 90 pages long, but the book is 216, containing everything one needs to understand it thoroughly, from an introduction explaining Russia's context and what the religious schism was all about, to numerous endnotes detailing everything from the lives of those mentioned in the books, to Avvakum's inaccuracies, to facts about the Russian fauna mentioned in Avvakum's writings. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but I got all that and more. Review Two: I'm laughing. They were tortured and killed, and I'm laughing. Oh god, there are so many dumbasses in this book, I can't even... Look. I understand. If you really, truly, deeply, absolutely believe in the existence of God and in there being a Right Way to worship Him, then the slightest change to that is a huge concern and might indeed be worth dying for. I can respect a martyr for the faith. But Avvakum, man. He could be a martyr for the stupid. Aside from any religious concerns, insulting your captors and implying they're the scum of the earth out of the blue is not conducive to a long and peaceful life. Getting whipped badly for it isn't you suffering for the faith. I'm not usually one to vicitim-shame, but have you considered, like, maybe not baiting the people who have power over you? There's also an inherent hilarity in him beating his wife and maid, then realizing he did badly, and having his entire household whip him for penance while everyone cried their eyes out, whipping and crying, crying and whipping. And also, once, when a guy in a position of authority let someone get away with incest, Avvakum decided that was entirely unfair and wanted that guy dismissed... so he accused the guy in a position of authority of incest. That's not how it works, Avvakum! Not even in the 17th century! I feel somewhat like a horrible person, because life in the 17th century was hard and violent. People were tortured and killed, they were burned alive, or they burned themselves alive in the name of faith, there was famine, and brutality at all levels. On a human level, it's chilling and horrifying to think all these things happened to real people. I don't think the actual reality of living back then was in any way funny. But Avvakum's description of events isn't very realistic to begin with. And if you're very impassive and welcoming about being tortured and/or killed, then I'm not about to take it very seriously, either, am I? I mean, you just had a little girl deliver a full prophetic speech and telling you about what edicts the Tsar will be giving, I'm not about to find it any less funny that you got whipped. Also, for a saintly man, Avvakum sure was an asshole. Never mind wanting his own kids to die for the right faith, but all the beatings he himself delivers, praying for people he knew and cared about to die in battle so that someone else's prophecy of them being victorious won't come true and more show him as a relatively vengeful and petty bastard. I'm sure this is all very serious (the introduction tells us that Leo Tolstoy couldn't read "The Life" without weeping), but I think I'm a bit of an asshole, too, because I was much too amused. (Also, important life lesson: if it's a year ending in "666", like 1666, maybe hold off on making major changes to your Christian religion, because that number of the beast thing might be an issue.)

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First of all, many thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for allowing me to read this in advance in exchange for an honest review. There are three distinct sides to this book I want to cover in this review - one concerns the academic work that explains the period in history, the second one the quality of the translation, and the third is, of course, the text itself. First of all, this book starts with a very long and thorough explanation on the context and the facts that the author will talk about in the main body of work. It might feel like a needless thing to do, it might feel redundant, but it is not; in fact, the context set by the introduction is by far the most important part of the book, that allows the reader to really understand the contents of this autobiography. The notes are quite important as well, and if it's one thing that I would change about this book is having the notes in-page rather than separate at the end. It might work at the end for a proper Kindle Edition, but for a printed book it probably would hurt more if the reader has to continually switch from reading the text to reading the notes. There are over 300 notes, and most of them are very useful in understanding the text. I can't be a proper judge of the quality of the translation, although the preface assures us that it's an improvement over the existing translations. However, it does something that I completely hate, which is to use some archaic language - which is generally used inconsistently, and unlikely to be the intention of the original author. While we think it's atmospheric to use a pseudo-archaic language, it only subtracts from the text. The autobiography of Avvakum is written in vernacular, but by translating in an archaic language the book becomes a bit more inaccessible than the original text in Russian probably is. A second complaint relates to the title of Archpriest, which does not exist in Christian Orthodoxy; instead, his proper rank is „Protopope”. And now, the text itself. I'm not sure if the author was using self-irony; but the book, at least in the beginning, is quite funny; slapstick-comedy level of funny. The best example: someone wants to rob him. He has two pistols. Avvakum prays, and the first pistol doesn't fire - God has listened his prayers! The second pistol doesn't fire - God is listening! The robber beats him and robs him anyway. In a sense, I wish it was self-irony. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. If Tolstoy couldn't read Avvakum's Life without weeping, it's probably because Avvakum is a deeply troubled man. The more one advances, the more of his troublesome mind surfaces. After the initial „fun” part, reading The Life becomes oppressive, almost suffocating. We have a growingly troubled mind that leads people to their own demise. Avvakum doesn't seem to be very smart but for certain he is not a very wise man. He is a rebel, absurd in his justifications. While his suffering isn't something to laugh about, there is a feeling that behind his words and justifications there is abuse, oppression, and not-so-subtle brain-washing of the followers. Some things are certainly lies - he talks of miracles, like his condemnation of an expedition, and the saving of the chief's son through prayer alone. People have their tongues cut and they are still able to speak. And there are only two possible ways to handle his self-delusion - either have a laugh, or shudder at the oppressive character. I went for both. After reading his autobiography, the man is still an enigma. I feel that he leaves out of his story the real reasons why he ended up being immolated. You don't burn people for telling you that you use a different number of fingers when making a cross. But perhaps in 17th century Russia you do burn people for being self-absorbed, insulting people all over the place and generally making people revolt against the authority for no good reason. An interesting read overall.

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Poor old Avaakum. He really didn’t have a good time of it. Talk about suffering for your faith – he never seemed to stop suffering. Although he did manage to find time to marry and have children in between bouts of imprisonment, torture, beatings, starvation and so on. His autobiography makes for some fascinating reading. Not only is it an important historical document but a wonderful insight into an era when religious conflict was part of everyday life and disputes about worship could lead to the most horrendous of punishments. Signing the cross? Is it to be 2 fingers or 3? Worth dying for, obviously. Avaakum (1620/1682) was the one of the principal leaders of the Old Believers and in the 1660s and 1670s decided to chronicle his life – his career, religious persecution, torture and imprisonment, making this a unique account, written in everyday language that anyone could understand, in a language and vivid style that served as a model for later writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He lived and died for his religious faith, never flinching from talking truth to power, regardless of the consequences. He was burned as a heretic, never willing to compromise in any way. This edition has been excellently translated, and includes an essential introduction and many useful footnotes and annotations. So yes, it’s a scholarly and academic work but nevertheless, and although obviously not aimed at the general reader, a book that will be of enormous interest to all Russophiles in particular as well as those interested in church and religious history.

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