Narratives of well-being through religion

In what follows, I present the interpretation of biographical stories of three religious, Russian-speaking immigrant women. The cases examined here represent voices from the wide and multi-vocal empirical corpus of biographical and thematic narratives that comprise the research data (more than one hundred open-ended and focused interviews). In these three cases, I applied narrative ethnography (Holstein & Gubrium, 2011) - an approach that combines interviewing subjects together with a deep ethnographic knowledge of their everyday life absorbed through personal relationship with them. These cases are representative of the narratives of therapeutic religiosity, and I have chosen to use them as illustrations. First, these women share some structural sociocultural similarities, as they all belong to the first post-Soviet generation, as well as to a wide but distinct sociocultural-educational milieu. Second, the three share a professional orientation, namely, one connected to the social sector and institutions of care. And finally, they have situated themselves within dramatically different religious creeds - Orthodox Judaism, Messianic Christianity and Sunni Islam, adopting related religious cosmologies, lifestyles and everyday practices. Two of these women share a Jewish origin and lived in Israel at the time of the interview, and one lives in Finland and is linked to the Israeli context by the Palestinian origin of her husband. The similarities and differences in their biographies and narratives make the joint analysis highly intriguing. Thus, striving to consider not only the typical features of these narratives but also their exceptional characteristics, I shall present them one by one through focused biographical analysis.

Esther and Diana grew up in central Russian cities - Moscow and St. Petersburg, respectively. Elena was raised in a small town in Estonia with a Russian-speaking majority. They were all brought up among Soviet intelligentsia -academics, teachers and engineers. They all describe their families, as do most Russian immigrants of this generation, as a-religious or anti-religious. Esther and Diana discovered their Jewishness during their teenage years, and the discovery was almost devoid of meaning for them. Elena, for her part, describes an encounter with Russian Orthodox church in post-Soviet Estonia as alienated: ‘I grew up in atmosphere of godlessness (bezbozie)’, she says. Esther and Diana came to Israel with a big wave of immigration, while Elena immigrated to Germany as part of her search to study abroad. The three of them are well educated; each earned a master’s degree. Esther and Diana work in the third sector in the area of social support. Elena also dreams about finding work as a cultural broker in the area of immigrant integration in Europe, assisting people to find and fulfil their potential in their new circumstances.

Today, all three women, Esther, Diana and Elena, are deeply religious - on both the levels of doctrinal thought and everyday practice. Esther, a married mother of six, is a member of an ultra-orthodox Chabad community. Diana, who is single, is an active member of a messianic Christian community in Israel. As a type of modern nun, she is celibate for religious reasons and shares a home with two other women from her community. Elena, for her part, is married to a

Palestinian refugee from Gaza; she is Muslim, orthodox and ‘veiled’ (pokritaia as she says in Russian), the mother of three boys. All three women have acquired and developed their religiosity in the course of their migration, as part of the cultural transition and reaching adulthood.

As I listened to the stories of these women, I was struck by the statement, made by one after the other, that they were ‘happy’. Their narratives were anchored in terms of achieving well-being, harmony, psychological calmness and even happiness. In what follows, I seek to unpack this happiness in relation to their religiosity, on the one hand, and to the therapeutic ethos and the imperative for happiness, on the other.

In the course of their biographical stories about the discovery of their true religion, all the women interweave the idea of personal choice and the narrative of the search for the inner self, but also serendipitous reasoning. Something important that happened to them by mistake or absolutely accidentally becomes hashgaha pratit (Hebrew for personal providence), signalling the presence of God in their private lives. All of the stories feature a traumatic mystical experience marking this very presence.

Consider the following story, in which Esther recounts the death of a schoolmate:

I was asking myself questions about death and why we live at all. I took it very, very hard; I could not function, and my parents were worried about me.

Or Diana, who recalls a severe anxiety attack:

I had a very difficult experience in my teenage condition, I did all kinds of silly things.... I did not look for God, just felt very bad. This one time I could not sleep and went crazy. And thought to myself: I will take this magic book ‘Biblia’.. .at that time these books were only beginning to appear in people’s houses. So, I started to read it with the attitude that there is no God and that all this is total nonsense, but I finished convinced that God exists and that I am doing things that do not please Him. And I had a strong feeling that I am going to die here and now.

Elena remembers that ‘things’ she could not explain happened to her all the time. For example, at age fifteen, just after her parent’s divorce, she was biking with her brother in the forest and struggling to ride up a steep hill when she felt an invisible hand pushing her from behind:

This was the moment I discovered that there is something [there].

The paradigm of religion as a response to a personal psychological problem or difficult socioeconomic condition appeared in most of the biographical narratives of the Russian-speaking immigrants who became religious just before or after the migration. This was particularly evident in the narratives of single mothers, lonely elders, those who lost their profession in migration, and people who were

Saving the Post-Soviet soul 79 challenged by serious illnesses or who went through painful divorces. So, in this sense, Russian immigrants articulated their religious transformation by reproducing the classical narrative of conversion or return to religion, or that of a religious conversion that involved overcoming trauma (Rambo, 1993).

Concomitantly, the religious revival of these women is characterized by its specific post-Soviet appearance. The transformation of their late-Soviet mindset into a religious one can be viewed as resistance to the Soviet indoctrination of atheism or as a smooth adaptation to, or even fulfilment of, the exported Soviet ideological and cultural repertoire. First, the Soviet cultural background made Russian immigrants highly ambivalent towards religiosity. Indeed, historically, while Soviet ideology did strive to create a ‘New Man’ inspired by materialist and scientific worldviews, on a more symbolic cultural level, the dogmas and beliefs of Marxist-Leninist ideology operated rather like theological and eschatological religious systems (Frouse, 2008; Thrower, 1992; Zilberman, 1977). Similarly, the Soviet code and rituals worked in the everyday life of the Soviet people as almost religious attributes (Yurchak, 2005). Moreover, not all domains of the Soviet way of life were directly and exclusively determined by atheism and anti-religious views (Luehrmann, 2011). This permitted a peculiar translation of Soviet ideas into the prevailing ideas of spirituality (dukhovnosf in Russian) and encouraged a permanent quest for ‘the meaning of life' rather than for material prosperity and ‘work upon oneself (rabota nad soboi in Russian). In this way, the ‘religious unconscious’ was preserved within the Soviet discourse and experience (Epstein, 1994). Finally, the religious arenas existing at the margins of Soviet ideology and society acquired political and cultural meaning as a counterforce to Soviet collectivistic values. Religion came to be associated with the private sphere and was perceived as embodying resistance to the regime and its indoctrination (Kornblatt, 2004).

Later, the ideological-political but also everyday cultural collapse of the Soviet frame brought about dissolution of limits on religion, and also a moral and ideological vacuum, resulted in a massive post-Soviet religious awakening, described by scholars from the late 1980s as a ‘supermarket of religions’ (Pelkmans, 2009; Wanner, 2012). Faith, disconnected from any particular religious doctrine and lacking a communal framework, can be seen as a response to official Soviet atheism, promoting what the literature calls post-Soviet inclusive or ‘minimal’ religion (Epstein, 1999; Sutton, 2006). While in contemporary Russia the mainstream religiosity takes a statist institutional form, this post-Soviet inclusive and univer-salistic form is manifest today in the religious beliefs and practices found in the broader space of the post-Soviet diaspora, including those in Israel.

Like many other Russian-speaking religious immigrants, Esther, Diana and Elena describe an experience of the post-Soviet ‘religious supermarket’; a chaotic assortment of open religious and spiritual trajectories - all of them eclectic and foreign. Diana first came in her search to a synagogue in St. Petersburg, after which she arrived at a Russian-Orthodox church. Then, a friend took her to one of the newly established evangelical communities in the city. It was there thatshe later met a messianic figure who became her religious guide. Esther went in a different order - a schoolmate took her to a Russian-Orthodox priest, and only after that did she arrive at the circle of Judaism, join a Jewish school and later find her true place in the Chabad movement. Elena recalls how she tried to become part of Russian-Orthodox life in Estonia but ‘something’ did not accept her there, as she describes. She tells how, in her teenage years, their grandmother took her and her brother to baptize them in the Russian church when they visited her in Latvia. Elena took with her a cross on a silver chain but, just as the priest was supposed to place the cross on her neck, the chain broke and the cross fell to the floor. Alienated, she sought other options. She and her mother became interested in esoteric literature and astrology, but the search continued until she found Islam.

Within the post-Soviet religious trajectories, these three women explored the repertoires of different religious doctrines and shaped their lives in accordance with the demands of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Messianic Christianity and Islam. In spite of the deep differences between the women, the narrative of their inner harmony is strikingly similar. All tell a therapeutic story. First and foremost, one hears of a journey to discover their true self, of overcoming a personal difficulty, of gaining control of their lives, time and emotions. The narrative of identifying problems (or finding a pathology), probing the unconscious, making connections with past events or even one’s childhood, and summoning the self onto a path of healing and the elimination of suffering is the basic narrative of the therapeutic culture (Cushman, 1995; Illouz, 2007; Furedi, 2004). The organizing theme of personal choice, the ability to manage one’s successes and take responsibility for one’s failures signals the presence of therapeutic neoliberal subjectivity (Rose, 1990, 1996).

That Diana, Esther and Elena speak in terms of ‘autonomous responsible subjects’ concomitantly with becoming religious is, by itself, a result of a transformation that is both post-Soviet and religious. For them, both sets of assumptions - that of a religious mindset as well as the assumptions of modern psychology - are not obvious at all, nor is the more contemporary therapeutic neoliberal pursuit of happiness.

Despite the enthusiastic early phase that psychoanalysis enjoyed in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century (Etkind, 1993), psychoanalysis and post-Freudian psychology never truly shaped Russian and Soviet culture and social relations. The socialist regime, by contrast, critically shaped the Russian emotional style, and obliged the Soviet person not only to think but also to feel in a specific, socialist way (Steinberg & Sobol, 2011). If, in the Russian and Soviet context, the therapeutic narrative - including its language and model of subjectivity - was absent, today, a version of the therapeutic culture that assembles ‘emotional socialism’ and the global therapeutic language has already become evident in post-Soviet Russian articulations of selfhood, emotions and personal relations (Lerner, 2015; Lerner & Zbenovich, 2013; Leykin, 2015; Matza, 2018; Salmenniemi, 2017). In the case of the narratives of the immigrant women, the post-Soviet therapeutic language is also assembled with post-atheist religious beliefs.

Therapeutic cultural logic appears to clash in several important ways with generalized religious ethos: the high value the former ascribes to individual needs and their satisfaction, its basic belief in self-regulating individual autonomy, its distancing from moral judgement while turning guilt and suffering into weaknesses or even pathologies. However, it appears that, in the contemporary assemblage, the discourse of religiosity is undergoing a ‘personal development’ turn (Heelas, 2009; Tucker, 2002) and the contradictions between modern psychology and religious consciousness are solved on the level of doctrines, theology and in the everyday cosmologies of religious subjects. The assemblage of therapeutic religiosity presents religion as one route towards development and self-management. In what follows, we will see how the religious and the therapeutic logic are assembled in the three cases under study as means to manage the soul and its practice.

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