Confession is of unique and persistent importance in modern Russian religious and political culture as demonstrated by legal codes, theological treatises, artistic representations, written confessions of the past, and present-day innovations in the practice. Many aspects of confession in Russia today have much in common with past, pre-revolutionary practice. People are still expected to fast before going to confession and communion; they still often schedule these sacraments for the traditional Lenten periods; and the Orthodox Church still publishes large-circulation guides to train penitents to confess properly. Nevertheless, three aspects of confession as it is now practiced represent something new. These are written confessions, the practice of spiritual eldership (dukhovnichestvo or starchestvo), and confession for the sake of confession (without communion as the logical end of the process). The first and third have been adopted extensively and with little fanfare; the second has emerged as so much of a potential threat that the Moscow Patriarchate officially condemned its abuses in 1998. The present study focuses on innovative aspects of these three practices and what they tell us about contemporary Russian religious and political culture.

Written Confessions

Written confessions were extremely unusual in imperial Russia before and after 1917, not only as a matter of low literacy rates. According to the standard tableside companion of the Russian priest, the Church hierarchy thought they were acceptable only for literate deaf-mutes. While there are notable exceptions, such as the written confessions sent to St. John of Kronstadt, written confessions were still mostly rejected as being the easy way out—it was one thing to jot down one’s sins in the privacy of one’s room and put them in the mail and another altogether to utter them face-to-face before a familiar parish priest. The few written confessions that survive from before 1917, then, are anomalies.

The situation has changed sharply since 1988, however. Now, as part of the campaign to re-church the neophyte Orthodox population of Russia, written confessions have been identified as a useful supplement to—though not quite a substitute for—the standard spoken confession. Almost every guide to confession published since 1988 includes a section for writing down one’s sins every day, the idea being that one will bring these notebooks or lists and use them to jog one’s memory. While the published guides warn against rote recitation, many people are apparently still fearful of leaving something out (and thus, they believe, having to come back before they can go to communion), so they prefer to read the list in its entirety. Most interesting here is that it is not considered acceptable for the penitent to hand the list to the confessor and expect him to read it silently. Even in this written form, the confession is meant to be something uttered and generated by the penitent. And, as with pre-revolutionary deaf-mutes, the penitent expects to see his list destroyed before his eyes or to have it given back to him. Thus, the old liturgical phrase asking God to “tear asunder the hand-writing of my sins” (sung in the triparion at the sixth hour during Lent) has acquired a new and literal meaning.

This appears to be part of a larger tendency for both laity and clergy to work from a written text. Just as laypeople are encouraged to confess from a set list, so priests (particularly inexperienced ones) after 1988 tend to read sermons from a book rather than delivering their own. These practices are meant to help the laity to focus and to prevent the priest from saying something incorrect. But they also appear to reflect the new reality of re-schooling and re-churching a largely religiously inexperienced population.

Perhaps one reason why written confessions have attracted little controversy is because their utility is obvious and they do not appear to be doing any damage. The practice of going to confession without automatically going afterwards to communion is slightly more suspect. Although priests frown upon the disjunction and try to steer parishioners away from it, confession pursued as an independent activity persists for at least two reasons. First, communion requires the traditional week-long (or three-day) period of fasting and church attendance; confession does not. Therefore one can do it practically any time the mood strikes, without extensive preparation in advance. Second, confession is practically the only opportunity in present-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, to talk to a priest about oneself. After morning liturgy, priests are usually busy with baptisms and burials and such para-liturgical services as blessing new apartments or cars. Confession, on the other hand, all but requires them to hear people out. While these two new aspects of confession have incorporated themselves relatively seamlessly into post-atheistic Russian religiosity, the practice of spiritual eldership, dukhovnichestvo or starchestvo, has wrought havoc both in people’s personal lives and in their relation to the clerical, especially episcopal, hierarchy.

Spiritual Eldership

The abuses now associated with eldership are something new. To people living outside of Russia, the practice of spiritual elders is linked to such historically positive examples as Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima or St. John of Kronstadt. It is thus difficult to understand how there might possibly be a problem. But after decades of state atheism, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the practice has since mutated into something quite different from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth.

First, there is the matter of numbers and scale. In pre-revolutionary Russia, it was understood that both dukhovniki and elders were extraordinary. The vast majority of the population contented themselves with routine confessions to a parish priest. Such spectacular exceptions as St. John of Kronstadt were just that. This is not to say that people did not take confession seriously, but simply that they did not expect more from either the sacrament or the confessor than a “regular” priest could provide. In contrast, today even partly-churched people have not mere confessors, but full-fledged spiritual fathers; even Vladimir Putin has his own. Their spiritual obedience to these elders, communism.

Church kiosks from Solovki to Pochaev are filled with booklets called, for example, “How to find a dukhovnik according to the counsels of elders and holy fathers of the Church” and “The revelation of thoughts to the elder and confession before a dukhovnik.” All bear the key “po blagoslaveniiu” (“with the blessing of”) phrase on the reverse of their title-pages. And all contain the message that regular confession is necessary and good, but having a true spiritual director—a dukhovnik—is even better. Citing abundantly from such classic works of Orthodox mystical theology and asceticism as the Philokalia or the Ladder of Divine Ascent, they in effect seek to re-create the discipline of monastic obedience in the lay world.

The results are mixed. Even such apparently neutral titles as Chinoposledovanie ispovedi [The Sacrament of Repentance] have questions about sins, or lists of sins, so detailed that they boggle the mind. One reads, for example, “Spent a lot of time doing unnecessary laundry.” That supposed vice, incidentally, prompted the ire of no less an authority than Patriarch Alexii II, who noted with heavy irony that laziness and slovenliness did not in themselves mean a Christian way of life, and added that not everyone had the opportunity to buy imported automatic washing machines which might mean less time at the wash-tub. Another conservative list had people repent of 296 separate kinds of sin. And at least one over-earnest elder asked his spiritual children whether they had had improper relations with a chicken.

Spiritual Eldership—Beyond the Call of Duty

But these illustrations might seem simply anecdotal. More serious, and of particular concern to the church hierarchy, are those cases where the dukhovnik extends his sphere above and beyond the call of duty. Some dukhovniki demand that couples who have only a civil marriage, but who were never married in church, part ways. Others require that Orthodox Christians leave spouses who are not Orthodox. Monastic dukhovniki forbid their spiritual children to enter into matrimony, insisting that the monastic state is higher. Others do not give their blessing for a spiritual child to marry the person he or she has chosen, insisting that out of obedience they marry someone the dukhovnik recommended. Others yet do not bless seeking medical assistance, serving in the army, holding particular political opinions, or pursuing secular literature as a profession. It hardly needs to be underscored that counsels of this sort might eventually undermine the good order of civic and political life.

As a result, as of 1998, the Moscow Patriarchate has officially forbidden dukhovniki to compel their spiritual children to do any of the following: enter monastic life; carry out any sort of ”church” obedience; make any kind of donations; get married; divorce or refuse to marry, except in such cases where there were canonical impediments; refuse their spouses normal marital relations; refuse to serve in the military; refuse to take part in elections or other civic responsibilities; refuse to seek medical help; refuse an education; or change jobs or homes.

But the very fact that these limits had to be spelled out, and the fact that in its decree the Synod recognized that it was addressing explicit and numerous complaints by laity, suggests that the problem had reached significant proportions. To be sure, such “excesses” are clearly a function of inexperience and, correspondingly, naive enthusiasm, on the part of both confessors and penitents. Present-day post-Soviet space offers a perfect illustration of what happens when living traditions are not preserved and both sides seek to re-create an ideal Orthodox reality “by the book.” It becomes all the more problematic if one realizes that the books consulted are in most cases reprints of nineteenth-century translations of even earlier works for ascetics, and not more recent examples of pastoral guidance. The backlash, both personal and official, against such an excessive interpretation, and the wide publication of well-tempered criticisms and counsels by the late, eternally reasonable, Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh, however, suggest that this is a feature characteristic of a transitional period and that in years to come Russian penitents may ask less both of themselves and their confessors.

Sociologist Nikolai Mitrokhin argues that the dukhovnik or starets represents a parallel, or alternative, church within the official Orthodox Church. The starets phenomenon actually began to spread in the Soviet era further than it had in the past precisely because the elder or eldress was not linked to official Soviet church structures, which significant numbers of people still mistrusted after Metropolitan Sergii’s declaration of loyalty to the Soviet regime in 1927 and the collaboration of the Moscow Patriarchate with Stalin from World War II onward. If people did trust the average parish priest before 1917, they were far less likely to during the Soviet period, particularly after the official church reached a concordat with the persecuting regime. On the other hand, the impulse to unburden oneself to someone else persisted—hence the urge to seek out unofficial, even unordained, men and women one could trust. It is precisely the neophites’ exaggerated dependence on the unofficial elder or eldress that undercuts the traditional chain of authority in Orthodoxy.

General Confessions

A final aspect of post-Soviet confessional practice has its roots in the Soviet era—that is, the general confession where the priest’s flock comes together to hear a more or less exhaustive confession read over them as a group. A collective absolution then follows. In the Soviet era this was justified both by a desire for privacy (confessional records could be used against one) and by the shortage of clergy. In the first years after 1988, similar arguments applied. The waves of people coming to church overwhelmed the still-low number of clerical cadres and general confessions seemed to be the only way of coping. Now, after nearly 20 years, equilibrium has been reached, and general confessions appear to be a regular feature chiefly of provincial life, or anywhere there is a shortage of clergy. Where enough parish or monastic clergy serve, general confession has largely died out.

Thus, confession in modern Russia reflects, and helps form, the paradoxes in Russian political and religious culture. From the middle of the seventeenth century onward, state and church authorities have sought to use the sacramental confession as a means of learning about, teaching, in short, controlling the inner lives and public actions of their flocks. Peter I’s initial attempt to get father-confessors to report on their spiritual children for the good of the “father of the fatherland,” applied with a renewed burst of energy by Nicholas I, was pushed far further by the communists of the twentieth century. Yet one cannot assume that these actions irrevocably compromised the sacrament of penance in the eyes of believers, or made it somehow inauthentic. Orthodox Christians inmodern Russia have continued to find their own ways of approaching confession, and thus they control their own spiritual lives.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Nadieszda Kizenko, “Confession in Modern Russian Culture,” National Council for Eurasian and East European Research grant report, June 2007. The original paper’s extensive documentation may be accessed via the NCEEER website, The present article has been revised and updated by the author.F

Nadieszda Kizenko is associate professor of history, University of Albany, Albany, New York.