Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives
Podcast with James Kapaló
Interviewed by David Robertson
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!
James Kapaló (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.
DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.
JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.
DR: And religion at all, in many cases, yes.
JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.
DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . . how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?
JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!
JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . . the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.
DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example, within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?
JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK, it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.
DR: (laughs) Nice!
JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.
DR: I see.
JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.
DR: Yes, yes.
JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . . or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.
DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?
JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so: Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes
from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.
DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?
JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .
DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of When Prophecy Fails from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.
JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.
JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .
DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!
JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.
DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . . we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.
JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.
Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/
All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.