THR Web Features   /   June 14, 2022

What Is Going on with American Converts to Russian Orthodoxy?

A case study in misunderstanding.

Mikel Hill

( The dome of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Juneau, Alaska; Brett Johnson/Unsplash.)

Reviewed here

Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz
New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2022.


Entering an Orthodox church for the first time can be an overpowering experience. Services, which can last for hours, are entirely sung. A heavy cloud of incense hangs perpetually in the air. Every inch of walls and ceiling are covered with religious art—crosses, carvings, and icons. Generally, there is a strong mystique of the Old World. Most Orthodox churches in the United States were founded by immigrants, reflected in such names as St. George Serbian Orthodox Church or St. Mary’s Ukrainian. Yet a growing number of Americans are entering an Orthodox church and liking what they see. A 2010 study found that in two of the largest national Orthodox churches—the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America—conversions from other faith traditions made up roughly half of the number of their total adherents. There are fourteen national churches in the US, most having affiliation with their country of origin—Greece, Russia, Romania, etc.—but each church considers itself to be a member of the worldwide communion of Orthodox churches, which numbers globally some 260 million. In 2010, there were roughly 800,000 Orthodox adherents in the United States.

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, in her study Between Heaven and Russia, focuses on one of these national churches: The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. ROCOR was established by Orthodox émigrés who had fled Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It has since maintained the character of a church in exile. Until recently, its legitimacy was not recognized by the official Russian Church and for many decades ROCOR maintained an isolationist mentality. In 2010, ROCOR had approximately 27,000 adherents in the US, making its membership but a small percentage of the total number of Orthodox in this country. However, Riccardi-Swartz maintains that in the period after 2010, ROCOR experienced an influx of converts who have significantly affected the culture and demographic of ROCOR. She bases this observation on the immersive study of a ROCOR community in rural West Virginia that she undertook in 2017–2018.

Considering West Virginia has only one monastery under ROCOR’s jurisdiction, it took very little effort to surmise the identity of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz’s twin case studies. The author uses pseudonyms for the communities and individuals which appear in her book, but I am all too familiar with the hairpin turns and gaping potholes on what are generously called roads leading to Holy Cross monastery outside of the small town of Wayne. My first visit to the “holy holler” occurred in 2006 and I have repeated the harrowing journey every year or so since. I am well acquainted with many of the thirty-some monks that live at Holy Cross, their soft-spoken chanting in the services, the eclectic construction of their cells, the bleating of their goats, and the rugged beauty of their surroundings. While I have appreciated the monastery’s hospitality and the retreat that its seclusion affords, I have remained reserved in my esteem. Troubled by what I saw as converts’ naive veneration for a white-washed image of tsarist Russia, I was intrigued by the sociological analysis that Riccardi-Swartz’s research promised.

Riccardi-Swartz asserts that over the past decade, through the growth of largely “convert” communities such as Holy Cross, ROCOR has been flooded with a new type of adherent, whom she christens: “Reactive Orthodox.” These converts are described as consisting of mostly white males, who feel morally outraged by the advances made by the LGBTQ+ community. Feeling disenfranchised by mainstream Christianity’s embrace of these advances, Reactive Orthodox gravitate toward “radical ideologies that have damning connotations.” Riccardi-Swartz claims that latent in ROCOR’s new converts are views adjacent to fascism, transphobia, homophobia, nationalism, and white supremacy. They seek a return to what Between Heaven and Russia defines as “so-called family values”—heterosexual marriage, traditional gender roles, and restrictive reproductive laws. These values are typically attributed to far- and alt-right fundamentalists and Riccardi-Swartz is careful to draw strong parallels between ROCOR’s Reactive Orthodox and the growth of these movements in the past decade. The author is convinced that the primary motivating factor for ROCOR’s new converts is political: They seek in Russia’s recent shift toward traditionalism a moral and political ideal from which to pattern the reconstruction of an American holy land in the hollers of West Virginia. Many even look to Russia for a new tsar.

The last tsar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, including four daughters and the heir Alexei, are presented in Between Heaven and Russia as the embodiment of those values which converts to ROCOR are seeking. Riccardi-Swartz observes that in Wayne’s Orthodox communities, photographs of the Royal Family appear abundantly—Nicholas II with his large family, splendidly dressed, the very image of innocence. Their murder in 1918 by the Bolsheviks is seen as the apogee in the war between good and evil, a regicide of cosmic proportion. A lavish shrine containing their relics was recently installed in the monastery’s church. Riccardi-Swartz was shocked to see, on one undated visit, a large flag displaying an image of Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian imperial eagle flying from the monastery’s main building. Finding that several of her interviewees expressed sympathy for a monarchial form of governance, she argues that Reactive Orthodox have apostatized from American democracy and embraced the idea of a heavenly kingdom on earth.

But the circumstances that led to veneration of the tsar and his family cannot be so easily reduced to a reactionary craving for Christian theocracy. Unfortunately, Riccardi-Swartz minimizes the violence against the tsar, his family, and the Russian Orthodox Church in general. She reports that during the Soviet Union, “There were stages of Church suppression, bans on cleric activities, garb, and other aspects of Church life, and, ultimately, some religious officials were imprisoned, persecuted, and even died.” In reality, by even conservative reports, more than 12 million Orthodox Christians were killed for their faith under the Soviets; in 1937 alone, 85,300 Orthodox clergy were shot. Tsar Nicholas II is honored by the Orthodox Church worldwide—not just in ROCOR—as being at the head of this host of new martyrs. But Riccardi-Swartz assumes that monarchism is its guiding principle. She fails to notice that no other tsar in Russia’s history has been canonized or particularly honored; some have been even vilified, the first bearing the title tsar being Ivan the Terrible.

Between Heaven and Russia relates with anxiety that several members of Wayne’s Orthodox community voiced admiration for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. One person is reported to have declared that in its present condition only Russia could save the world. Others suggested that Putin might become the “last tsar.” Considering his championing of “so-called family values,” the wish for the return of a Christian king in the person of Vladimir Putin would be understandably troubling. Exacerbating this fear, Riccardo-Swartz finds in the language of ROCOR’s service to the “God-crowned” Royal Martyrs confirmation that Reactive Orthodoxy is fundamentally “anti-democratic” and essentially monarchic. She further concludes that the desire for a heavenly kingdom on earth, the attraction for strong, patriarchal leaders, and the escape to an idealized Christian society that communities such as Holy Cross afford, constituted the primary motivating factor for recent conversions to ROCOR.

These claims would be indeed alarming, but Riccardi-Swartz struggles to provide convincing evidence that these sentiments characterize a substantial majority of new ROCOR adherents. To begin with, her study directly involved only the monastery and parish communities of Wayne, rendering her sample quite small. A 2020 demographic study found that ROCOR had actually lost adherents in the period between 2010 and 2020, thus casting serious doubt on Riccardi-Swartz claim that it had concurrently seen a significant influx of converts. She reports that “Orthodoxy has a high density of males among its ranks” but provides no statistical study to support this claim. In her case study, Riccardi-Swartz fails to give any sense of the proportion of people she interviewed in relation to the total number of adherents or the overall demographics in the two Wayne communities. Instead, she makes frequent recourse to the descriptors such as “some,” most,” and “many.” This lack of demographic and quantitative data poses more questions than answers. 

Adding further doubt is the apparent bias with which Riccardi-Swartz approached her subjects. Her frequent adoption of the terms such as “extremist,” “radical,” and “so-called” to describe the positions discussed by her subjects suggest a lack of objectivity. Tellingly, when describing progressives and socialists in West Virginia, she commends their efforts to be “more attuned to their [state’s] needs and ideas,” while condemning far-right Orthodox who had “perhaps became radicalized.” Instead of allowing her subjects to speak for themselves, Between Heaven and Russia makes sweeping observations couched in terms such as “seems,” “might,” and “perhaps.” It is no surprise that, after publishing an article on Orthodox conversions in 2019, Riccardi-Swartz reports that she later received several complaints from subjects who claimed they had been misrepresented. 

For the most damning positions—fascism, transphobia, and white supremacy—supposedly held by many in her study, she supplies no concrete evidence. In fact, statements consistently contradict the study’s conclusions. The parish priest in Wayne told two persons holding white supremacist sympathies to renounce their views or leave the church as “ROCOR does not subscribe to hate beliefs or actions.” Politics is purported to be the motivating factor for ROCOR conversions and yet Riccardi-Swartz relates that “numerous times” people would tell her: “I don’t like to talk about politics.” The repeated presentation of a few individuals to demonstrate the radicalization of the whole and the reliance throughout the book on statements made on social media and unaffiliated websites instead of quantifiable, real-world data, makes one wonder if the author became fixated on outliers.

The subject matter of Between Heaven and Russia is both fascinating and relevant for those seeking to explain the exodus of rural Americans from mainstream religious and political thought. I would have loved to have seen the balanced, objective, and deeply researched approach found in, for example, Suzanne Tallichet’s Daughters of the Mountain or Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind. Regrettably, I found Riccardi-Swartz’s book to be predictable in its biases and pedestrian in its presentation of sociology as little more than opinion journalism.