‘Russian Questions’ and the Vatican in the Early 20 th Century
During the first half of the twentieth century—a period marred by wars, revolutions, and social upheaval—Europe almost destroyed itself twice. Despite the apparent closeness of the events of this period and the copious studies that they have inspired, many questions still remain unanswered, and the causes and interrelationships between the events remain unclear. Laura Pettinaroli, a researcher at the Catholic University of Paris, has been conducting research in the archives of the Vatican, Italy, France, Belgium and Russia for more than ten years in order to shed more light on the relationship between the Vatican and Russia during this period.
Laura Pettinaroli, a researcher at the Catholic University of Paris
Photo courtesy of Laura Pettinaroli
At the invitation of the International Laboratory for the Study of the Russian-European Intellectual Dialogue and the Master’s Programme in Philosophy and History of Religion, Laura Pettinaroli gave a talk entitled ‘Research on the Relations between the Vatican and Russia in 1905-1939’ on April 19 in Moscow. Her lecture particularly examined the reaction of the Holy See to the historical events that occurred in Russia in the period beginning with the first Russian Revolution of 1905 and ending with the profound political, social and international transformations in 1930s. For the Roman Catholic Church, ‘Russian questions’ carried both local and global significance. Local questions concerned the plight of Catholics in Russia during the time of transition, while global questions centered on international problems, such as refugees in particular.
HSE News Service spoke with Laura Pettinaroli about her research and the scholarly connections that she has established with researchers at HSE.
— As far as I understand, you have a long-standing relationship with HSE. Last fall you participated in the international research conference 'Downfall of the Empires. 1918'. How did your collaboration with HSE come about?
— In April 2018, I gave a conference at the French-Russian Center of Research here in Moscow—that’s where I met Elena Besschetnova, who was completing research about the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. We talked about our common areas of study, especially those based on Italian and Vatican archives. She also presented me with the various initiatives the International Laboratory for the Study of Russian and European Intellectual Dialogue is currently leading, like the conference held in November 2018, ‘Downfall of the Empires. 1918’.
— What interests you about that particular historical period?
— The first half of the 20th century is a period in which, in just thirty years, Europe destroyed itself twice, and in some regards, almost totally. Despite all the explanations we can give for these events, they still raise many questions.
— What philosophical and sociological aspects of that time period 100 years ago are important for understanding today?
— Obviously, 100 years ago, society was different than today, but we can look to this past (and even more ancient pasts)–not in order to find a magic solution to our current problems–but to identify these problems and their causes. For example, means of communication have changed considerably. However, some phenomena, like the spreading of ‘rumours’, can be studied from an historical perspective. ‘Fake news’, and its political consequences, are not a totally new challenge. The French historian Marc Bloch, who was a soldier during the First Wold War, published an interesting article in 1921 about ‘false news on the war’. Studying history can help identify the problems with a greater certainty, highlighting their differences but also their closeness with previous challenges.
— What is relevant for inter-confessional dialogue between Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church from the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century and today?
— Today, the encounters between the ‘heads’ of these Churches are a reality, even if they are still rare. This was not the case a hundred years ago: the tensions were too intense.
The history of the 19th and 20th centuries reminds us that the dialogue between the Churches does not only come ‘from above’
For decades, it has been, first and foremost, a movement coming ‘from below’. The actors of this difficult—and sometimes ambiguous—rapprochement were, for example, some members of the Catholic clergy who studied Russian history or Orthodox liturgy (like Father Gustave Morel who was a professor at the Catholic Institute in Paris and died in Russia in 1905), or the people who prayed for the ‘unity of the Churches’, within the many associations of prayer that were created in Western Europe since the middle of the 19th century. The Churches are not merely hierarchical institutions, they are, like all the social structures, living bodies, which are never monolithic: that makes the dialogue both complex and rich.
— Your new work is based on archival work in France, Italy, Vatican, Belgium and Russia. I assume you've got tons of information and it was quite hard to compile and analyze it. How did the work go?
— The book La politique russe du Saint-Siège (1905-1939), published in 2015, resulted from more than ten years of research, especially through my doctoral dissertation. Indeed, I found a lot of material, which is still inspiring to me today, getting new projects started, on subjects as different as diplomacy, religious practices, humanitarian actions, theology… Very often, I left some areas open (hoping that I, or others, would one day take them) and concentrated on what had gradually become my main corpus of archives–the Vatican ones.
— What was the most interesting document you managed find in the archives? Was it something in the Vatican archive that was only opened to researchers in 2006?
— There are lots of ‘satisfactory’ documents in the archives – those which confirm our intuitions. However, you are right, some documents are more striking, or surprising, than others: from my point of view, those which, among bureaucratic perspectives, are able to open onto the intimacy of the individual. I will give you one example taken from the Vatican archives opened in 2006. In 1922, a record book of donations sent to the Pope to promote humanitarian action against starvation in Russia quoted, in a marginal note, a letter from a woman of Dayton (Ohio, USA). She gave 25 dollars and wrote: ‘I work in a dry goods store. This money is part of a bonus granted me for unusual success in selling. In thanksgiving I am sending it to you for distribution among the sufferers in Russia’.
I have also been struck by the ‘audience sheets’ (‘fogli di udienze’) of Pius XI, in which the Pope not only conveyed to his counsellors his administrative decisions, but also his feelings, his doubts, and sometimes his sadness or bitterness over a wide range of affairs, including local matters
This kind of document–which can be considered trivial–helps us get a sense of how international relations are internalized and have a deep meaning for the individuals involved, from the humblest persons to the highest authorities. The religious sources are a means to enter this intimacy within social diversity and on a global scale.
— What's next on your research agenda?
— I am working on a book about the free thinkers in France and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and I hope, as many researchers from various countries do, to develop new research projects connected with the archives of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), the opening of which Pope Francis has just announced for 2020!