In his introduction to this pioneering, very innovative collection of studies on the phenomenon of conversion in the former Soviet domain, the Editor stresses the dramatic changes that have been taking place in the religious landscape across the region since the early 1990s (Pelkmans Mathijs, “Introduction: Post-soviet Space and the Unexpected Turns of Religious Life,” 1-16). He also underlines the contrast between the vigorous debates of the past two decades on missionary activity and the silence on the matter of social scientists. The singular position of Western Christian missionary activity ― to which the whole volume is, in fact, entirely devoted ― is also underlined, with its role as a diffuser of Western influence and at the same time of a critic of the results of this influence through denunciation of the corruption produced by the capitalist dynamic. Elements of history are provided on the past modern occurrences of Western Christian missionary activity in Central Asia, notably of the German Mennonite mission to the Steppe Territory in the 1900s-10s. M. Pelkmans however reminds that early-twentieth-century Kyrgyz had then either rejected or ignored the Christian message, tolerating the visits of missionaries because of they offered medical aid. Pre-Soviet Muslim-Christian religious encounters had the effect of hardening instead of smoothing the local conceptions of ethno-religious difference. Such an observation only accentuates the extraordinary nature of religious shifts currently occurring in post-Soviet Eurasia. Indeed, the traditionalist Mennonites of the late Tsarist period do not easily compare to the charismatic forms of Christianity that became successful in the early 2000s. From an opposite viewpoint, the transformations of the 1990s have followed Soviet modernisation which had eroded communal ties and instilled new conceptions of selfhood, culture and religion.
Postulating the embedded character of religion, the authors of the volume commonly insist on the fact that conversion and change of confessional affiliation occur most frequently under conditions of social distress. Several suggest that the failure of grand projects of modernisation provide a particularly favourable ground for conversion. In the Altai, the ethnicisation of religion has brought conversion to have social consequences far beyond theological concerns. In this case as in other ones, a nationalised religion has shown vulnerable after the newly independent state failed to deliver on promises of affluence, stability and security (Broz Ludek, “Conversion to Religion? Negotiating Continuity and Discontinuity in Contemporary Altai,” 17-38). In Soviet Chukotka, the Chukchi had adjusted to prevailing norms while covertly continuing to practice shamanic rituals. Virginie Vaté show how discontent with their negative labelling as pagans by Orthodox Church after 1991, Chukchi became responsive to Pentecostal Christianity, which offered them to free themselves from this category without submitting to Russian-imposed values (“Redefining Chukchi Practices in Contexts of Conversion to Pentecostalism,” 39-58). Analysing the interactions between Russian Baptist missionaries and the Nenets, Laur Vallikivi casts light on the fact that the latter valued missionaries as go-betweens providing access to economic markets and transmitters of literacy (“Christianization of Words and Selves: Nenets Reindeer Herders Joining the State through Conversion,” 59-84). In his chapter on Estonia, Jeffers Engelhardt focuses on what he calls ‘right singing’ for showing the emotive characteristics of ‘transition’ in the framework of a quantitatively small group of converters, and the importance of translating these into narratives that resonate with intimate personal experience (“Right Singing and Conversion to Orthodox Christianity in Estonia,” 85-106). Conversion to Christianity as a conversion to religious forms of modernity is illustrated by a chapter on Lithuania that discusses the Pentecostal World of Faith Church. This Church presents the Bible as a ‘modern book’ and its premises as an ‘ultra-modern’ building (Lankauskas Gediminas, “The Civility and Pragmatism of Charismatic Christianity in Lithuania,” 107-28). At the same time, the churches which show the most successful in ex-Soviet Eurasia are those led by local pastors who tend to ‘contextualise’ their religious messages. Missionaries and ‘experienced believers’ translate Christian messages into ‘culturally appropriate terms’ to provide new Christians with the vocabulary needed to deal with negative reactions around them (Clark William, “Networks of Faith in Kazakhstan,” 129-42). About the recent evolution of the Christian-Muslim frontier in Central Asia, Mathijs Pelkmans suggests that ‘context’ is more than just a statistic background against which conversions take place. Showing that conversion does not necessarily entail transformation of spiritual convictions, he also insist on the fact that negative reactions by neighbours and relatives make it impossible that his informants can socially balance between Muslim and Christian communities (“Temporary Conversions: Encounters with Pentecostalism in Muslim Kyrgyzstan,” 143-62). About Ukraine, Catherine Wanner points out that a religious and national resurgence has occurred simultaneously because political leaders had defined religion as a key attribute of nationality (“Conversion and the Mobile Self: Evangelicalism as ‘Travelling Culture’,” 163-82).
Though the bulk of the volume is devoted to new religions and new religious movements, and to the management by those converted of change of confessional and of ethnic community at the same time, the authors have devoted little attention if at all to ‘new born’ phenomena within diverse confessional systems, beginning with Orthodoxy and Islam. Moreover, the focusing of most studies on those populations hit by ongoing economic and social upheavals suggests without proving it that conversion processes touch exclusively lower social classes and those declassed by recent economic and social change. The critic of capitalism as a “seductive but surprisingly empty ideology” expresses indeed the disenchantment of Central Asian opinions, but does not take into account the fact that since 1991 Central Asia at large did not constitute an important object for most Western powers and opinions, especially for those of the European Union. This is probably one of the reasons why absolutely nothing has been undertaken in decades for the promotion of European culture and values in this part of the world ― Brussels preferring to rely on local dictatorships for guaranteeing its own energy supplies, or to help promote ‘moderate’ Islamist parties and organisations in the margins of the installed political systems, as for the IRP in Tajikistan. Last, if the failure of the soviet project of modernisation has paved the way for conversion, the authors do not explain why this phenomenon has ultimately failed after promising starts in such Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris