Article Note: Johannes Due Enstad, “Prayers and Patriotism in Nazi-Occupied Russia: The Pskov Orthodox Mission and Religious Revival, 1941-1944″

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 3 (September 2018)

Article Note: Johannes Due Enstad, “Prayers and Patriotism in Nazi-Occupied Russia: The Pskov Orthodox Mission and Religious Revival, 1941-1944,” Slavonic and East European Review 94, no 3 (2016): 468-96.

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

In this illuminating article, Johannes Due Enstad, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages at the University of Oslo, demonstrates the value of integrating religion into analyses of war and occupation. At the same time, he shows how profoundly religion and religious practice are affected by political and military factors.

Enstad’s focus is the Pskov Mission, an initiative involving about 500 Russian Orthodox priests and other staff that, with permission and support from the Wehrmacht, offered spiritual services to the people, most of them peasants, of northwest Russia under German occupation. As Enstad points out, although important articles by Karel Berkhoff (2000) and Leonid Rein (2005) explored the fate of the churches in occupied Ukraine and Belarus, almost no scholarship exists on Christianity in Russia proper in the years 1941-1944.

Using German and Russian sources—notably Wehrmacht and Security Service reports generated at the time and postwar memoirs by some of the priests involved—Enstad makes a three-part argument. First, he shows that the Mission was not just a German puppet organization. The priests exercised agency, to varying degrees under intensely unstable circumstances, and in their way promoted an anti-Bolshevik strand of Russian patriotism. Second, overall, the Germans in charge were pleased with the Mission, and its efforts helped legitimate the occupation. The Russian Orthodox priests involved prayed for German victory and encouraged their congregants to cooperate with German demands. Third, the Mission had a significant impact at the time and also in the decades that followed. According to Enstad, priests associated with the Pskov Mission opened some 200 churches and provided extensive charitable care for orphans and Soviet prisoners of war. A number of those churches remained open after the war, and although many of the priests went into exile and some were imprisoned and killed, quite a few remained in place under the restored Soviet rule.

At one level, Enstad’s narrative confirms Nazi German claims to have revived Christianity in occupied Soviet territory. But his insightful analysis challenges any simplistic conclusions. The numerous Russian memoirs he examined, so detailed in their descriptions of contact with local populations, say almost nothing about the persecution and murder of Jews and Roma in the region. Enstad attributes this silence to antisemitism, which priests imbibed from their religion and its myth of Jews as Christ-killers, and from their politics, with its related myth of Jews as Bolsheviks. Russian Orthodox priests, Enstad notes, had a vested interest in exaggerating the local support they enjoyed, because after the war, that support was their best defense against charges of collaboration. He makes effective use of German accounts to corroborate the priests’ impact, although it bears mentioning that Germans too benefited from a version of events that presented them as liberators and saviors rather than tyrants and killers.

Enstad succeeds in integrating a wide range of sources and perspectives into an account that is both empathetic and methodologically sophisticated. This fascinating article breaks new ground in the transnational history of Christianity in World War II and the Holocaust. It also alerts readers keen to learn more to the existence of Enstad’s brand-new book: Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile Loyalties in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2018).