Saving the Post-Soviet soul: Religion as therapy in the narratives of Russian-speaking migrant women

Kathrin Lofton, scholar of contemporary forms of religion, points to the longstanding interconnection between the religious and therapeutic logics:

Psychology and theology do not offer the same gospels. But it may be useful to think about the gospel function within therapeutic discourse - especially as the therapeutic idiom begins to pervade even the most conservative religious cultures. Religion has long existed within, and been diagnosed by, therapeutic culture, just as therapeutic culture has existed within, and been diagnosed by, religions. Once we understand the interconnection of these two categories we can hope to better interpret their ongoing effects and appropriately critique their transformative limits.

(Lofton, 2015: 36)

Embarking from far-reaching historical interrelations between religion and therapy, this chapter aims to examine the contemporary interplay between the two spheres using the particular case of ex-Soviet immigrants.1 As I will show, these neo-religious subjects simultaneously acquire therapeutic and religious languages through which they perceive themselves and give meaning to their lives. In doing so, they illustrate the constitution of a new type of subjectivity which is at once therapeutic and religious.

Today, the historical correlation between therapy and religion appears in a new form, namely, a therapeutic-religious assemblage emerging alongside the seemingly global triumph of therapeutic culture (Tucker, 2002). The notion of ‘assemblage’ allows us to depict a moment of a contextual and flexible constellation that accompanies the most significant historical processes headed by neoliberal ethos, religious revival and super-individualization. Recalling Weber’s classical ‘elective affinities’ (Weber, 1958) that created a contextual historical assemblage of Calvinism and capitalism, the religious and therapeutic cultures, many of whose elements are mutually antithetical, also share important similarities. Paradoxically, they even serve to strengthen each other. The incorporation of therapeutic language into the religious mindset and the religious way of life creates the possibility of constituting a type of subjectivity that is, at once, wellfunctioning self-managing neoliberal and deeply religiously committed.

This newly emerging assemblage is particularly visible among neophytes of the religious ethos and the capitalist spirit. In the case of the ex-Soviet subjects I study, the therapeutic-religious blend is refracted through the characteristics of the post-Soviet cultural condition as well as through the immigrant experience. Hence, in my examination of the manifestations of their therapeutic religiosity, I consider accounts of post-Soviet religiosity and subjectivity as well as the transformation of religion in migration. Both the transformative post-Soviet experience and the experience of migration prompt a reconsideration of the self and encourage the acquisition of new cultural languages. I suggest that the search for ‘saving the modern soul’ (Illouz, 2008) appears in the narratives of these migrants as ‘saving the post-Soviet person’.

Focusing on three rich biographical cases of Russian-speaking immigrant women, I will probe their narratives of personal well-being and happiness gained through the religious way of life and articulated in therapeutic language. In my interpretative encounter with these narratives, I was interested in not only the personal reasons for their religious transformation, but, first and foremost, the cultural resources and languages that made such a transformation possible and that were adopted for articulating the personal meaning of this transformation. As an outcome of the narrative analysis, I suggest a further discussion of the broader meanings of the subjectivity shaped by therapeutic religiosity: How does this subjectivity relate to the therapeutic and neoliberal model of the subject that dominates contemporary culture and research? How is this self-centred therapeutic subject assembled with a religious identity and way of life? And how does the assembled therapeutic religious subjectivity affect the distinction between religious and secular mindsets?

Explaining immigrant religiosity

This analysis emerges from a longitudinal, ethnographic and narrative study that followed the phenomenology of various routes of Russian-speaking religiosity situated in the wider spectrum of religious groups in Israeli society.2 The study was conducted in nine communities and study groups, including the Hasidic and Chabad communities in Jerusalem and Beer Sheva, through modern Kabbalah studies to Jewish Christians and Seventh-Day Adventists in Beer Sheva and Russian-Orthodox groups in Haifa. In addition to direct observations in the communities and biographical interviews, an interpretative discourse analysis of the selected media texts closely connected to the religious identities under study was conducted.3 Aiming to clarify the particular local Israeli features of new Russian-immigrant religiosity as well as its global post-Soviet characteristics, the study was enriched by a comparative perspective through research exchanges4 and interviewing post-Soviet religious immigrants outside of Israel.

From the very outset of this study, I was puzzled by the question of why mostly irreligious post-Soviet immigrants become religious as part of their relocation experience, and what kind of religiosity they develop. Scholarship on the increasing religiosity that accompanies migration has tended to understand religion as a tool of repair and stabilization. Following this logic, research on immigrant religiosity in the United States and Europe considers religion as a device of integration, due to the many resources (cultural, social, psychological and economic) that religious institutional frameworks offer to immigrants (Cadge & Ecklund, 2007). Thus, immigrants employ religion as a source of identity, as religion provides symbols, rituals and practices that immigrants can use to affirm or reinvent who they are vis-à-vis the host and the home countries (Yang & Ebaugh, 2001). Moreover, established immigrant conununities function as an extended family for their members, symbolically replacing distant relatives (Hagan & Ebaugh, 2003; Warner & Wittner, 1998). This approach stresses the facilitating power of religion in transitional states in general, and considers religion in immigration as a strong device of belonging and well-being (Chen, 2008; Levitt, 2007; Mooney, 2009). Generally speaking, it has described religion as a ‘therapeutic’ device.

The scholarship on Russian immigrant religiosity5 in Israel follows similar lines. Their religious transformation is often explained as Tsraelization’ through religion and seen as a way for Russian speakers in Israel to cope with their doubly questioned Jewishness (Raijman & Pinsky, 2011; Remennick & Prashizky, 2012). Others suggest viewing this multi-variant Russian-immigrant religiosity through the prism of the post-Soviet crisis and the quest for new ideological and spiritual meaning, in the context of the transnational phenomenon of the post-Soviet religious revival (Elias & Lerner, 2016). Presenting the unsettling conditions of civic-political nature as reparable through religion, researchers presuppose the universal psychological character of a religious mindset. The assumption here is that religion, as a way of experiencing the world, stabilizes an unstable condition. As such, the religiosity will intensify in periods of crisis, anomie and transition (generational, family, national, psychological and state). Supplying strength in weakness, it will appear as an answer for traumatic states, whether individual or collective.

In my attempt to account for the religious transformation of Russian speakers in Israel, I have taken a critical stance towards the notion of religiosity as a resource of repair in migration, as I perceived a tendency to over-psychologize both phenomena - religiosity and migration. However, the more I observed the new Russian-speaking religious field in Israel, the more I myself experienced the clear presence of a therapeutic dimension in this immigrant religiosity. I was intrigued by the fact that, in many of my informants' narratives, their religious experience features a therapeutic aspect reflected in the way they articulate themselves. In their narratives they appear as satisfied, autonomous individuals, making their own choices and carrying within an inner harmony. One hears stories of new religiosity combined with success in managing a normative life, including the tasks of profession and family demands, as well as the organization of emotions and time. In other-words, their new religious subjectivity resembles the meanings of a neoliberal, therapeutic individualistic well-being. This intriguing result of my inquiry into accounts of neophyte religiosity confronts us with a therapeutic neoliberal subject. In what follows, I suggest an interpretation of this assemblage of religious and therapeutic languages that emerges in the narratives of immigrant women.

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