Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Life Written by Himself: Archpriest Avvakum's Engagements with Kenoticism & Holy Foolishness Enabling Antithetical Inversions

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.' Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (New International Version, 1 Corinthians 1.18-20)

Avvakum Petrov was a Russian archpriest who opposed the reforms to the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgy and theology introduced in the seventeenth century by Patriarch Nikon. For his opposition to the Nikonian reforms, Avvakum and other Old Believers were repeatedly imprisoned, exiled, and persecuted. Avvakum’s The Life Written by Himself offers an autobiographical account of the suffering he endured for the sake of his faith. Avvakum wrote the Life from approximately 1669 to the mid-1670s, but it was not published until 1861. It was one of the first Russian autobiographies, as well as one of the earliest works in the tradition of Russian narratives of incarceration. Yet Avvakum’s Life is not merely a straightforward autobiography, for it was modeled on the hagiographic genre of saints’ lives and through this construction works to paint Avvakum as a saint and a martyr. Avvakum’s self-presentation in the Life evokes a particular kind of saint who displays a particular kind of spirituality, however: namely, a fool in Christ who consciously embodies kenoticism. As a result, Avvakum’s Life draws out the antithetical inversions of perspective which kenosis makes visible, such as the inversion of worldly and divine wisdom and the inversion of animality and humanity, both of which together work to invert incarceration and freedom. 

Kenosis is a “uniquely Russian type of spirituality, centered on the humanity of Christ” (“Penitential Journey” 201). The idea of kenosis derives from the account, described in Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:7, of how “Christ emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (New Revised Standard Version). That Christ emptied Himself for the sake of humanity constitutes His kenosis, and His death on the cross constitutes the fullest expression of His kenotic love of mankind. This kenotic self-emptying, in accordance with which Christ “ma[de] [H]imself ‘of no reputation’ [...] represented a deliberate debasement or loss of status, challenging the worldly notion of hierarchy” (“Penitential Journey” 202).

Avvakum likewise engages in kenosis through his willingness to suffer for his faith. He willingly accepts the consequences of his religious dissent when he responds to the Tsar’s plea that Avvakum “[u]nite with the ecumenical bishops, if only in some little thing” by saying that “[e]ven if God deigns that I die, I will not unite with the apostates!” (Avvakum 94). He puts this conviction into practice throughout his life; one particularly notable instance is when he and other exiled Old Believers are offered the opportunity to soften their dissenting position, but remain steadfast rather than compromise their beliefs, even with the knowledge of the privations that they will inevitably experience as a result. Avvakum proclaims that he and other Old Believers “preserve the ecclesiastical tradition of the Holy Fathers inviolate, and [...] curse the heretical council” of the Nikonians (95). Avvakum is then predictably “led away to a dungeon” and imprisoned “in the earth, in a log frame,” suffering which he willingly accepts and endures—and even enhances, for he refuses to “eat for about eight days” (95). In fact, Avvakum consistently turns down opportunities to avoid or minimize his suffering; instead, he insists on vocally protesting the “Nikonite anathema” and embracing the suffering which follows from this religious dissent (76). For example, he writes that while “it had been nice for [the Nikonians] when [he] kept quiet” for a brief time, “that didn’t sit right with [him]” (85), so he “started grumbling again” (84). He then undergoes an extraordinary series of tribulations: exile for another year and a half, “ten weeks in chains,” the public shearing of his hair in the middle of a Divine Liturgy in Moscow (86), imprisonment “for seventeen weeks in a freezing cell” (87), and captivity “in a dark cell and in feters nigh onto a year,” all of which he willingly accepts (88). In this way, Avvakum’s declaration that “[i]f [the Nikonians] pile stones on [him], then with the traditions of the Holy Fathers will [he] lie even under those stones” is not just a abstract belief, but an article of faith put into kenotic practice, for it is thus that he engages in kenosis: by emptying himself of his health, well-being, and freedom for the sake of his religious convictions (76). 

Kenosis does not end, however, with the “deliberate debasement” of Christ’s acceptance of death on the cross or Avvakum’s acceptance of suffering (“Penitential Journey” 202). Rather, Christ’s simultaneously fully human and fully divine nature reveals that His kenosis both “made [Him] present in [...] what was base, poor, outcast, degraded” and “manifested the transcendent unity of God the Father” (202). In this sense, the example of Christ’s kenosis teaches that “the identification with others in their ‘debased’ humanity is the path to [...] the unity of God the Father,” encouraging an understanding of the paradoxical inversion present in the fact that kenotic self-emptying ultimately leads to being filled beyond measure with God’s grace (204). 

It is here that kenosis intersects with holy foolishness, and in particular with the foolishness of the cross. Holy foolishness, also known as foolishness for Christ, is a particular type of Eastern Orthodox asceticism which has found “unique expression and development in Russia” (“Holy Foolishness” 2). The idea of holy foolishness derives from Saint Paul’s discussion of wisdom and foolishness in 1 Corinthians 1:20, when he writes, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (New International Version). That is, holy foolishness inverts worldly and divine wisdom, such that what appears wise to the world is foolish to God, and what appears foolish to the world is wise to God. Saints who embody this inversion present in holy foolishness are known as holy fools, as they often display behavior so ascetic or irrational that they appear foolish in the surface-level eyes of the world, while in actuality being holy in the eyes of God. In this way, holy foolishness entails an “embrace of Christ-like sacrificial humility”—kenosis—as “an open protest against the worldly definition of wisdom that discounts [holy fools’] actions as foolishness” (“Holy Foolishness” 2). The foolishness of the cross similarly inverts worldly and divine wisdom through its defeat of death by death. Christ’s death on the cross, the pinnacle of His kenosis, when seen with worldly eyes, “signified an ending,” but “from the point of view of [...] Divine Wisdom, it was the opposite of what it seemed,” as it in fact opened the door to eternal life (“Foolishness in the Life” 286). Here, then, emerges the inversion of worldly and divine wisdom which inheres in this—and every—manifestation of holy foolishness: what superficially appears one way in the eyes of the world is in fact the opposite in the eyes of God. 

Avvakum “self-consciously manifest[s] foolishness” by accepting and submitting to the persecution and indignities to which he is subjected (“Penitential Journey” 205). He explicitly adopts holy foolishness during the Ecumenical Council of 1666-67 in Moscow, in the middle of which he “walk[s] over towards the door and flop[s] down on [his] side” immediately after being seized and beaten by the Nikonian patriarchs (Avvakum 93). The Nikonians disparagingly pronounce him “a fool” who “doesn’t respect the patriarchs,” to which Avvakum responds in the affirmative that “[w]e are fools for Christ’s sake! Ye are honorable, but we are despised! Ye are strong, but we are weak!” (93). In deliberately quoting 1 Corinthians 4:10, a continuation of the Pauline discussion of the inversion of worldly and divine wisdom, Avvakum explicitly affirms and endorses his foolishness for Christ. Yet being a holy fool implicitly carries the inversion of divine and worldly perception with it, such that although the patriarchs may indeed be honorable and the Old Believers despised in the eyes of the world, it is in fact the Old Believers who are honorable and the patriarchs despised in the eyes of God.

Inversion of Worldly and Divine Wisdom

Further inversions are also present, to purposeful polemic effect, in Avvakum’s Life, one of which is the application of the inversion of worldly and divine wisdom to the Old Believers’ opposition to the Nikonian reforms. Avvakum presents the Nikonians “as rhetors and philosophers” who reject experiential divine wisdom in favor of engaging in ostentatious displays of “philosophical disputation” (“Autobiography of Avvakum” 157). The Nikonians reject the traditional Russian saints, believing that the Russian Holy Fathers “were stupid [... and…] had no understanding,” a conclusion the Nikonian reformers reach solely on account of the fact that the early saints “weren’t learned people” and “couldn’t even read or write” (Avvakum 93). In doing so, the Nikonians “appeal to abstract, intellectual exercise as a path to Truth,” since their rejection of the Holy Fathers implicitly carries the judgement that without the intellectual knowledge of proper grammar, the saints could not have accessed divine Truth (“Theology in Avvakum’s Life” 134). Yet this is clearly untrue, for union with God is not contingent upon intellectual learnedness nor academic prowess. Furthermore, this Nikonian valuation goes against “the anti-intellectual, experiential orientation of Orthodox tradition” (“Penitential Journey” 206 n9), which emphasizes the way in which “wisdom’s mysterious depth” renders it “accessible to faith alone” and not to intellectual inquiry, reasoning, or discourse (“Foolishness in the Life” 276). In this sense, the wisdom which the Nikonians value highly—being learned in the sense of knowing how to read and write—emerges as worldly wisdom, and thus divine foolishness, for it neither permits communion with nor promotes closeness to God. Rather, the Nikonians’ worldly wisdom in fact reveals their subjection to “‘rationalistic’ values” which “creat[e] differences between men” instead of union among men and with God (“Penitential Journey” 207 n7). Avvakum’s worldly foolishness, by contrast, emerges as divine wisdom, since assuming “the transcendent viewpoint of God [...] inverts the values of the world and reveals the wisdom of ‘foolishness’” (208). 

Inversion of Animality and Humanity

The antithetical inversion of animality and humanity emerges in turn as an extension of the aforementioned inversion of worldly and divine wisdom. Throughout the Life, Nikonian officials are described as perpetrating animalistic violence. For example, one official “rage[s] savagely against [Avvakum]” and “gnaw[s] the fingers of [Avvakum’s] hand with his teeth like a dog” (Avvakum 45-6); Paskov “bellow[s] like a savage beast” before “hit[ting] [Avvakum] on one cheek, then on the other, again on top of [Avvakum’s] head, and knock[ing] [him] down” (60). Similarly, at the Ecumenical Council of 1666-67, the Nikonian patriarchs “shove [Avvakum] around and beat [him] violently” (93). Avvakum then “reproache[s] their behavior” by reminding them of “the gentleness that should inform ecclesiastical authority,” but the fact that the Nikonians resort to engaging in such animalistic violence reveals “their subjection to animal passions” (“Foolishness in the Life” 292). Here, then, emerges the inversion of animality and humanity. Although the Nikonians profess to be in possession of intellectual sophistication, accurate grammar, and knowledge of how to read and write, in actuality, all of their worldly wisdom prevents them from knowing God through experience and faith. Furthermore, although they believe that their worldly ‘wisdom’ elevates them hierarchically above the early Russian saints, their violent actions in fact render them animalistic. In light of the way in which wisdom is often understood as the distinguishing characteristic between humans and non-human animals, the inversion present in the fact that the Nikonians, despite their self-presentation as elevated in ‘wisdom,’ are actually reduced, in and by their lack of divine wisdom, to perpetrate animalistic violence is particularly striking. 

While it may initially seem contradictory that Avvakum includes—and, in particular, concludes the Life with—extended accounts of his own engagements in similarly animalistic violence, this aspect of the text need not undermine Avvakum’s project. Rather, this apparent contradiction in fact allows him to engage in kenotic praxis through his deliberate construction of his autobiography’s form. The fact that Avvakum “would whip [Kirilusko] with prayer beads” (Avvakum 104), “[stuff] [vittles] in his mouth by main force,” and “shackle him through fasting and tame him through Christ” (105) need not oppose the insight—which Avvakum’s spiritual engagements with kenosis and holy foolishness facilitated—of the importance of willingly embracing suffering as the kenotic Christ did, for these encounters occurred chronologically earlier in Avvakum’s spiritual journey. That is, although they appear towards the end of Avvakum’s autobiography, they occurred much earlier in his life. 

However, recognition of this temporal misalignment invites the question of why he recounts this violence at the end of his autobiography—a significant location because it will constitute the most recent memory in the reader’s mind—rather than earlier in the text. Yet including it at the end enables him to mirror his engagements with kenosis in form as well as content. That is, it offers him an opportunity to further partake in kenotic praxis through the formal construction of his autobiography. Avvakum’s project of writing his autobiography “within the hagiographical framework of a saint-martyr’s Life” is, to some degree, inherently self-aggrandizing (“Foolishness in the Life” 275). It is particularly self-aggrandizing to the extent that Avvakum’s Life was written to serve as a polemic against the Nikonians, in which he presents himself—a martyr to be “number[ed] with Zacharias the prophet” (Avvakum 48)—as fighting for the true faith, and Nikon as a “villainous heretic” (85). Including extended descriptions of his own violence at the end, however, works to undermine the image, which may have been emerging throughout the text, of Avvakum as Good or sinless. Instead, it empties him of any feelings of superiority he may have mistakenly acquired during the process of writing down his life experiences as he had “been charged [...] by the monk Epifanij” to do (37), and it re-affirms for the reader his sinfulness, in accordance with which he is “perishing in the condemnation of all men”; though “seeming to be something,” he is in fact “excrement and pus” (104). In other words, recounting the way in which he, too, falls prey to the animalistic violence of holding a man “chained to the wall in a corner of [Avvakum’s] house” empties himself of any constructed positive self-image which may have emerged in either his or the reader’s mind (105). It is characteristic of Avvakum to, in the same sentence, affirm God’s good works through him and his own unworthiness to serve as the vehicle for those good works, such as when he writes, “I, sinner that I am, being zealous in Christ I drove [bears] out” from his village (46); the inclusion of the montage of his own violence towards the end of his autobiography serves a similar function in simultaneously abnegating the self and praising God.

Inversion of Incarceration and Freedom

Finally, facilitated by the aforementioned inversions of worldly and divine wisdom and animality and humanity, there is an inversion of freedom and incarceration. Although Avvakum is imprisoned and exiled while the Nikonians are free and quite literally empowered, in fact, Avvakum experiences internal freedom that transcends the external freedom of the Nikonians. First, Avvakum is free from separation from God in a way that the Nikonians, in falling prey to worldly wisdom, are not. Unlike the Nikonians, Avvakum possesses the divinely wise perspective to criticize the violent behavior of the patriarchs at the Ecumenical Council of 1666-67 for failing to live up to the standard of pastoral grace, modeled by Christ, which they ought to meet (Avvakum 93). The fact that he is able to recognize that the Nikonians’ chosen methods for furthering their faith—“fire, the knout, and the gallows” (99)—are found neither in Christ’s teachings nor in those of the apostles further reveals his divine wisdom. In contrast to the Nikonians, Avvakum displays a “control over his passions” (“Foolishness in the Life” 292), seen, for example, in the way he burns his hand when he experiences lust during a spiritual daughter’s confession, “symbolically cutting off the offending member by scorching his right hand” (“Penitential Journey” 209). This control renders him internally free even when he is externally unfree. Avvakum’s internal freedom originates from the fact that he, unlike the Nikonians, is “an initiate into Wisdom,” due to his preservation of the mystical tradition of seeking union with God through life and experience, rather than though rationality and intellectual discourse (“Foolishness in the Life” 292). Paradoxically, then, Avvakum can feel a greater degree of spiritual freedom, in the sense of experiencing the liberation inherent in union with God, than the Nikonians, even when he is less physically free than they are. Divine freedom—in opposition, here, to worldly freedom—further emerges for Avvakum in the fact that he understands himself as fighting to free the true Church from the captivity of separation from God due to the Nikonians’ insistence on the primacy of worldly wisdom. Avvakum’s kenotic foolishness, then, in seeking closer communion with God and with humanity simultaneously by means of “an inner resurrection” despite external suffering, persecution, and death offers his fellow Old Believers “a liberation theology, freeing them from Nikonian captivity by resurrecting the wisdom of the word” (“Theology in Avvakum’s Life” 135, 140). 


Avvakum Petrov, in The Life Written by Himself, goes on both a physical and spiritual journey. On a literal level, he and his family are exiled to Siberia and endure “many privations on the road” (Avvakum 55). But Avvakum also undergoes “a penitential or spiritual journey,” through which he comes to understand the importance of willingly accepting suffering, as the kenotic Christ did on the cross, to enable inversions of perspective that facilitate union with God (“Penitential Journey” 205). Initially, Avvakum does not understand why Christ would “let [Paskov] beat [Avvakum] so hard that way” without intervening to Avvakum’s aid, for the Old Believer “stood up for [Christ’s] widows” (Avvakum 60). His initial indignation at “a God who would submit him to ‘innocent’ suffering” is what allows him to examine the mystery of Christ’s kenotic suffering and recognize its potential for transcendence (“Penitential Journey” 212). Avvakum then realizes the presumptuous vanity and spiritual blindness in such a position, however, for in “grumbling at God” for permitting him to suffer innocently (Avvakum 61), he actually fails to understand the importance of kenosis and holy foolishness, which in turn prevents him from attaining theosis, or union with God. Insisting that his own righteousness renders such suffering unmerited in fact fails to recognize that “[f]rom the point of view of the sacred, a sense of righteousness is indeed a sin” (“Penitential Journey” 212); that is, that worldly righteousness is in fact divine sinfulness, and divine righteousness begins with the acknowledgement of sin and the acceptance of suffering. Avvakum then starts to understand the role of suffering “as an instrument for spiritual rebirth,” imbuing it with the purposefulness of necessary chastisement from a loving God (216). This understanding is not his final destination on his spiritual journey, however, for he finally “go[es] beyond appreciation of the ‘corrective nature’ of uninvited suffering to celebrate suffering’s redemptive role” (“Penitential Journey” 219). That is, he understands the way in which willingly-accepted suffering contains transformative and transcendent potential through the example of Christ’s kenosis. In doing so, Avvakum "voluntarily takes on martyrdom" (“Penitential Journey” 219), for he embraces the fact that “misery is unavoidable; we cannot pass it by” as a path towards union with God (Avvakum 87). He thus forgoes the self-aggrandizing vanity, self-righteous indignation, and self-praising rationality which separate him from divinity, for it is his willingness to suffer—to participate in Christ’s kenosis—which actually brings him closer to God. 

Avvakum’s praxis of this kenotic foolishness is what enables his worldly foolishness to reveal the Nikonians’ divine foolishness; in other words, it is what empowers Avvakum’s “assumed stupidity” to “[defeat] the Nikonians’ true ignorance” (“Foolishness in the Life” 294). Avvakum’s engagements with kenoticism and holy foolishness throughout The Life Written by Himself enable the revelation of the antithetical inversions of divine and worldly wisdom, animality and humanity, and incarceration and freedom. This final inversion, that of incarceration and freedom, is traceable through later works in the tradition of Russian prison literature as well. Notably, it also appears in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a sprawling work first published in 1973 which brings to light the horrors of the Soviet gulag system through contributions from Solzhenitsyn himself as well as other gulag prisoners. Like Avvakum, Solzhenitsyn suggests that there is a degree of internal freedom accessible only through imprisonment; he writes that being in prison “results in a sensation of freedom of much greater magnitude than the freedom of one’s feet to run along” (Solzhenitsyn 607). In particular, the freedom one obtains through incarceration in the gulag is that of “a free head,” even when one’s body and physical movement are constrained (607). Solzhenitsyn argues that “prison causes the profound rebirth of a human being,” through which one’s personality, character, and soul are transformed (604). This transformation facilitates further inversions, for Solzhenitsyn comes to see that “[w]hat had seemed for so long to be beneficial turned out in actuality to be fatal” (615), echoing Avvakum’s realization that the avoidance of suffering, despite its initial appearance as a good and worthy pursuit, in fact opposes his ultimate goal of transcendent union with God. Just as Avvakum recognizes his former folly in failing to understand the importance of kenotic suffering, Solzhenitsyn recognizes that “[o]nce upon a time [he was] sharply intolerant,” “never forgave anyone,” and “judged people without mercy” (611). It is his experience in the gulag, just as it is Avvakum’s experience of persecution at the hands of the Nikonians, which facilitates these realizations and spiritual transformations. Both Avvakum and Solzhenitsyn argue that incarceration enables the “soul, which formerly was dry, [to ripen] from suffering” and permits a greater degree of internal freedom despite external imprisonment (611). In fact, Solzhenitsyn suggests that this enhanced internal freedom may only be accessible through incarceration. In light of the way in which it is not “possible to liberate anyone who has not first become liberated in his own soul,” then, perhaps both Avvakum and Solzhenitsyn “are ascending” through and by means of the carceral experiences they underwent which gave rise to their contributions to the tradition of Russian narratives of incarceration (606, 611). 

The Bible. New International Version, Bible Gateway,

The Bible. New Revised Standard Version, Bible Gateway,

Hunt, Priscilla. “The Autobiography of the Archpriest Avvakum: Structure and Function.” Ricerche Slavistiche, Vol. XXII-XXIII, 1975-1976, pp. 155-76,

Hunt, Priscilla. “The Foolishness in the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum and the Problem of Innovation.” Russian History, Fall-Winter 2008, Vol. 35, No. ¾, pp. 27-308,

Hunt, Priscilla. “Holy Foolishness as a Key to Russian Culture.” Holy Foolishness in Russia: New Perspectives, edited by Priscilla Hunt and Svitlana Kobets, Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2011, pp. 1-14,

Hunt, Priscilla. “A Penitential Journey: The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum and the Kenotic Tradition.” Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 25, Nos. 1-4, 1991, pp. 201-224. 

Hunt, Priscilla. “The Theology in Avvakum’s Life and His Polemic with the Nikonians.” The New Muscovite Cultural History: A Collection in Honor of Daniel B. Rowland, edited by Valerie Kivelson, Karen Petrone, Nancy Shields Kollmann, and Michael S. Flier, Slavica Publishers, 2009, pp. 125-40,

Petrov, Avvakum. The Life Written by Himself. Translated by Kenneth N. Brostrom, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1979, pp. 35-113. 

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation III-IV. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney, Harper & Row Publishers, 1975, pp. 597-617. 

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