Daria Eldridge: Time of Heresy – Old Belief in the Writings of Nikolai Leskov

My current project considers Nikolai Leskov’s literary engagement with the space of the anathematized and often itinerant Old Believers (staroobriadtsy/starovery), who occupy a marginal position in the supposedly Russo-European canon. The Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the practices and language of the Church as they existed prior to the Nikonian reforms of the 1650s-1660s. Their anathematization in 1666 produced a schism, called the raskol, between the state church and those who followed the Old Rite. Using minor literature as an optic, this project highlights the specificity of Leskov’s engagement, 200 years after the events of the schism, with the supposed heresy of the Old Believers. The author refuses to assimilate the schismatic group into the progressive history of the Russian state or to stage heresy as an outdated religious excess out of which Russian Orthodoxy—at that time strongly enfolded into the bureaucracy of the state—might commute itself as progressive in its post-Peter-the-Great formation. By avowing the coevality of the heretical minority, Leskov’s writing of the Old Believers anticipates the historicist move that renders heresy already inoperable through a temporal distancing. This is evinced in Leskov’s idiosyncratic skaz style, which eschews the genres of both social history and historical fiction. Skaz, conceptually linked to story-telling, evokes a different temporality than, for example, the novel (as Benjamin has famously pointed out), partly by the use of a non-dominant code—without, however, rendering it as the language of the primitive. Heresy, rendered present as skaz, hence catalyzes a challenge to the premises of (European state) historiography as such. This project takes Leskov’s experimental narrative as a literary provocation which thinks the historicity of the Old Believers as a constellation of interacting images, imbricated in the present and resisting codification as such.

Daria Eldridge is a PhD student in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at Stanford University. Her research focuses broadly on literary, artistic, and filmic engagements with Orthodox Christianity, especially those concerning theologies of the sacred image. Her current project examines Nikolai Leskov’s fiction and non-fiction writings about Old Belief (staroobriadchestvo) within the larger context of heightened interest in the Old Believers/Old Ritualists in 19th century Russia and proposes a reconsideration of the violence perpetrated on sectarians during this period through the lens of religious architectonics.


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