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Prince Vladimir’s legacy

28 March 2014

This short history is a good idea, declares Michael Bourdeaux, but poorly translated


Near-neighbours: St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, in Moscow

Near-neighbours: St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, in Moscow

Cross and Kremlin: A brief history of the Orthodox Church in Russia
Thomas Bremer
Eerdmans £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT533 )

THE German scholar Thomas Bremer makes a brave attempt in one short volume to cover the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, from the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 988 to (almost) the present day. Nothing else with such ambition exists in English, so this paperback of 178 pages sets out to fill a need. Bremer is a writer of sound judgement and skill in simplifying a complicated story - but, oh dear! something has gone badly wrong.

If you are going to present a work in translation, then the prerequisite is to find a person or a team totally fluent in two languages. Here the English text is so clumsy that I found myself constantly glancing ahead to spy the next disaster.

The basic problem is that the translator, Eric W. Gritsch, who died before publication of his translation, did not have what Bremer claims for him in his prefaceto the English edition: "skills in bringing my German text into fine English". Surely the American publishers, Eerdmans, a house with a good reputation, should have used an editor here?

Let me quote one early example to clear the way for writing about subjects of greater interest. On page 10 one reads: "The Sophia Church in Kiev is an impressive testimony to the early building activity. Noteworthy is the development of building cupolas, which are characteris-tic of Russian churches still today." Apart from being hopelessly stilted, I count here at least three errors in two sentences. St Sophia's in Kiev is always called a "cathedral" in English; there are two redundant definite articles (to be repeated literally hundreds of times in the later text); "still" adds no meaning.

This is so sad, because the original German must have been worth reading. Bremer's method is unusual. Instead of a consecutive history, he chooses themes, and follows each through the centuries. Therefore, after two general chapters on the history (which do contain elements of repetition), there are chapters on structure, Church and State, theology, monasticism, spirituality, relations with the West, and dissidence. This is interesting and enlightening, especially as Bremer's judgements are sound,and in perspective.

My main quibble would be that the account of the horrors of the 20th century fails to state the extent of the devastation. For example, the story of the accession of the Russian Orthodox Church to membershipof the World Council of Churches in 1961 mentions the influential Metropolitan Nikodim, but it omits any reference to his predecessor, Metropolitan Nikolai, who prepared the Church for this, but was then removed by the KGB and probably murdered.

The book relies heavily on German sources, which is not a criticism; but the modest updatingof a text that was originally published in 2007 fails to include a consideration of the administration of Patriarch Kirill, who has now been in office for five years - a subject on which the reader would certainly like to know the author's opinion.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute in Oxford.

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