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Institute For Academic Study of Eastern Christianity (INaSEC)

Welcome to the Institute for the Academic Study of Eastern Christianity (INaSEC).

INaSEC is located at the Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. On this page, we will showcase our work in progress, projects and events.

  • Are you interested in religion in a social context? 
  • Do you follow developments in post-Soviet space? 
  • And do you ask questions like: What made the mass religious revival in post-Soviet countries after more than 70 years of state atheism? 
  • How to assess the role of Soviet legacy in the current religious revival? 
  • How communism is not a religion? 
  • What distinguishes religion from ideology? 
  • Where is God in suffering? 
  • Does Russian literature really express the ‘Russian soul’? 
  • What is the relation between academic theology and the humanities? 

Then you are at the right place!

Expertise on religion in post-Soviet societies
Founded in 2010 by Katya Tolstaya, INaSEC offers expertise on religion in post-Soviet societies. We create an open platform for reflection on the most difficult, ‘ultimate’, questions regarding the past and present of religion by way of:

  • Conferences, seminars, workshops 
  • Academic research 
  • Contract research for diplomacy and business 
  • Website and blog Valorisation, e.g. icon and photo exhibitions, public lectures 
  • A global network of top experts 

INaSEC is initiating the entirely new field of an interdisciplinary and interreligious post-Soviet theology and study of religion. In the first phase, we are developing a Theology after Gulag. Theology after Gulag engages with, but is not confined to, a theology ‘in’ or ‘about’ the Soviet system of forced labour camps known as ‘Gulag’. Theology after Gulag deals with the ultimate theological, theoretical, and methodological questions in the religious and political context of post-Soviet societies. Our aim is to learn from and make this theology a true counterpart to ‘theologies-after’ which have changed mentalities, for example in post-Nazi Germany and post-apartheid South Africa (see here, and here).

The Interdisciplinary study of religion
To this end, INaSEC develops new approaches for the interdisciplinary study of religion. By establishing a kaleidoscopic methodology, INaSEC promotes a focused and balanced assessment of socio-political, historical, theological, and anthropological issues in the current Orthodox world. INaSEC inspires engaged dialogue, involves scholars, stakeholders and decision-makers in intellectual debate, and stimulates them to confront the ‘ultimate’ questions (see also here).

Join us in our discussions on issues and developments in post-Soviet space
Currently, the INaSEC team consists of six members. We cooperate with experts from academia, civil society and government to connect international academic expertise on Eastern Orthodoxy and (post-)Soviet studies with stakeholders and policymakers in countries of the former Soviet Union. INaSEC instigates, coordinates and hosts a range of projects: high-level academic case-studies, methodological reflection, educational programs, fieldwork, and international research groups. Our criterion is academic excellence.

We welcome jong and senior academics, clergy, journalists and anyone interested to contribute to the discussion on issues and developments in post-Soviet space. You can do this by participating in the discussions on our Blog and by registering at this website, joining the conferences, applying for the VU Faculty of Religion and Theology (FRT) (Research) Master or PhD-programs, or contacting us via e-mail.

What's in a name?

When pronouncing INaSEC, think of ‘within a second’ or ‘no sooner said than done’, and keep in mind the opposite. This explains the small ‘a’ in the name. When we host debates entitled ‘INaSEC on the Orthodox view of eternity’ or ‘INaSEC on Orthodox attitudes to armed conflict and peace work’, or 'INaSEC about the PAST' the very name stresses that such issues cannot be resolved in the blink of an eye. We are inviting you to join a sustained dialogue.

Method INaSEC

Methodology matters! Methodology matters even more in studying religion after decades of state atheism. Why? 

Because understanding the religious diversity in post-Soviet countries requires a comprehensive, interdisciplinary research effort. On one hand this effort calls for a common ground and language in approaching the phenomena, case-studies, concepts and ideas. And on the other hand, this effort should engage in the dialogue between theology and humanities. 

INaSEC is developing a new kaleidoscopic approach to trace the dynamics of living religious tradition in the changed and changing post-communist space.

As Soviet ideology collapsed, religion, especially Eastern Orthodox Christianity, entered a difficult period of spiritual and institutional reconstruction. The current religious revival resembles a ‘kaleidoscope’ of theological, social, (geo-)political, financial and other aspects that constitute Orthodox life. Academic study of this Orthodox kaleidoscope faces various challenges that call for a solid method: 

  1. The difficulties in post-Soviet space for coming to terms with the Soviet past. Institutional and societal reflection on the past is largely avoided or ideologized by ‘rewriting’ history. 
  2. The conflation of religion and ideology resulting from these difficulties complicates reflection. 
  3. The need to modify Western academic paradigms to the unique context of post-Soviet lived religion. 
  4. No return to either straightforward theism or atheism is tenable due to the Marxist-Leninist legacy. 

These factors call for a new methodology to approach the kaleidoscopic dynamics of the present-day religious revival in post-Soviet societies.

INaSEC about Kaleidoscope 

The image of a turning kaleidoscope represents a reflection on the dynamic interrelationship of religion, politics, ethics, ideology, and other factors involved in post-Soviet religious revival, and on the different 

ways to approach these diverse factors. The coherence between the coloured glass fragments in a turning kaleidoscope cannot be fixed; if one stops its movement, one sees a static pattern. One may describe or analyse this pattern, but the original coherence is in the concurrent movement of all glass fragments. To isolate one glass fragment is to disrupt the coherence; and often it is impossible to perceive all the glass fragments of a kaleidoscope simultaneously.

This kaleidoscopic principle urges us to acknowledge the dynamics of the many factors that shape each case-study. We relate these factors to one another in the awareness of their perpetual movement within each individual case-study and draw connections between the projects and case-studies we host and conduct. 

The kaleidoscopic principle also requires a methodological rethinking of the position of the researcher towards her research object (the ‘other’), and inspires our view of the human person. The image of the kaleidoscope in motion serves to emphasise that the existential dimension of any living person cannot be fixed in a static image. This applies to a spectrum of issues ranging from suppressed Gulag memory to the current war in Ukraine to the Pussy Riot case, all of which are fraught with ideologies, images and myths. Recognising this elusiveness of the 'other' is part of our methodology, and prevents us from perceiving the individuals involved as mere images – even if they present themselves as such. The kaleidoscopic principle functions as an imperative directing our own discourse on the ‘other’. It also informs our scrutiny of controversial terms like ‘Orthodox’, ‘insider’, ‘experience’, ‘normativity’, and ‘identity’.

INaSEC's Interdisciplinary Approach

The kaleidoscopic approach lends itself to be applied across the humanities. It may serve to discuss differing views on the same (Christian) heritage on a methodological basis, but also to analyse the way images and myths function in politics, literature, science, and media, the invention and transformation of religious tradition, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, the science-religion debate, and other topics that shape and influence public discourse.

Members of INaSEC

  • Katya Tolstaya - Director INaSEC

    Katya Tolstaya (officially: Tolstoj) is Chair of Theology and Religion in Post-Trauma Societies at the Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Founding Director Institute of the Academic Study of Eastern Christianity (INaSEC), and Founding President of the Association for Post-Soviet Theology and Study of Religion (PAST). She specializes in the revival of religion, and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, and the impact of the Soviet legacy on religion in post-Soviet societies. Establishing a Theology after Gulag is currently the main focus of her studies, but she is also actively publishing and teaching on Western systematic theology, literature and methodology in study of religion. Read more about Katya Tolstaya.

  • Anna Agaltsova - Affiliate Researcher

    Anna Agaltsova graduated from the Master's programme in Social Research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2013. For this programme she received a VUFP scholarship for talented prospective students. In 2014 she published an article on female collective identities in Russia in the special issue of Religion and Gender dedicated to the Pussy Riot performance. Her research interests lie in the areas of critical discourse analysis, event theory, collective identities, power relations and transitional societies.

  • Frank Bestebreurtje - Senior Researcher

    Frank Bestebreurtje obtained his MA cum laude in 1997 at the University of Utrecht, and his PhD magna cum laude in 2003 at the University of Basel with a thesis on Franz Overbeck and the historiography of the New Testament canon. In 2006-2007 he was Research Fellow at the Faculty of Theology, University of Basel. Laureate of several grants for editorial work, most recently Friedrich Schleiermachers Über die Religion (2012). Since 2010 he is Senior Researcher at INaSEC.

  • Dmitry Melnikov - Affiliate Researcher

    Dmitry Melnikov is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University (ENU), Astana, Kazakhstan. He obtained his MA in 2013 at ENU. During his master course he studied at Vilnius University, Lithuania, and passed a research internship at INaSEC. From 2012-2014 he was a Research Fellow in the research project "Anthropology of Moralities: Discourses and Everyday Practices in Kazakhstan", and since 2015 he is a Senior Research Fellow in the project "Current Memory Practices: the Conceptualization of the Past and the Construction of Identity in Contemporary Culture of Kazakhstan", both at ENU.

  • Borislav Prodanovic - Affiliate Researcher

    Borislav Prodanovic is a theologian, icon painter and musician from Serbia. He studied at the Orthodox Theological Institute in Belgrade, Serbia and at the Protestant Theological Seminary in Novi Sad, Serbia, where he received his bachelor's and M.A. degree in Theology (both summa cum laude). His research interest and vision concern Orthodox theology and praxis in contemporary times. He has been especially interested in dialectical relations, tensions and constitutive dialogues between Orthodoxy and Feminist and Liberation theologies.

  • Stella Rock - Senior Researcher

    Stella Rock has an MA (Distinction) and DPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Sussex, Brighton (UK). Her doctoral research on the medieval language and modern historiography of Russian ‘double-belief’ was funded by the British Academy and published by Routledge. Her broad research area remains Russian Orthodox Christianity, with a particular focus on lived religion, and the relationship between religion, historical memory and identity. She is currently researching the revival of pilgrimage in post-Soviet Russia for a volume contracted in the Routledge Studies in Religion, Travel and Tourism series.

Projects of INaSEC

  • INaSEC's international interdisciplinary research groups

    INaSEC is coordinating two international interdisciplinary research groups: ThaG-group and OK-network.

    • Focus ThaG-group: interdisciplinary theology and study of religion; this cannot do without methodology and theory.
    • Focus OK-network: methodology and theory in the study of post-Soviet religion; this cannot do without theology.

    The ThaG-group and the OK-network started as separate yet interrelated projects with a substantial thematic and methodological overlap, both being informed by knowledge of the socio-political and cultural contexts. As of 2018 they have integrated. The current research group is continuously expanding and attracting further scholars.

  • Theology after Gulag research group (ThaG-group)

    The project “Theology after Gulag” was initiated by INaSEC in 2016. The project deals with the totalitarian Soviet past and its legacy all over the former Soviet bloc. It aims to promote an interdisciplinary and interreligious understanding of the Soviet past that addresses it in its complexity, and to develop building blocks towards processing this past. To this end the project creates new approaches for the interdisciplinary study of religion as a first step towards a post-Soviet theology.

    The first major conference of the project, "Gulag Legacy", was held on 8-9 June 2018 at the Hermitage Amsterdam.

  • Orthodox Kaleidoscope network (OK-network)

    INaSEC has acquired the maximum grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) within the program ‘Internationalisation in the Humanities’. The grant is provided for the network project ‘Orthodox Kaleidoscope: Studying the Russian Orthodox Church. Heterogeneity, Complexity, Dynamics’ (OK-network).

    Together with the INaSEC-team a permanent interdisciplinary network of scholars from at least 17 international institutions will investigate the heterogeneity of post-Soviet religious resurgence. The aim is to develop an appropriate theory and method to study post-Soviet religious resurgence which will be of wider interest for the study of religion in the humanities. The network has the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate, ROCMP) as its main but not exclusive focus. The network takes particular interest in the heterogeneity of theological, social, political, and economic factors shaping contemporary Orthodoxy.

    The OK-network initiative emerged from INaSEC’s vision, which was confirmed in the experience of all researchers involved, that existing approaches in religious studies do not suffice to understand the dynamics and developments of religion in post-Soviet contexts. The resurgence of religion in these contexts and the prominent public and societal role of the ROCMP provide a unique setting and a challenge to test existing academic methodologies and concepts.

    The project runs for three years (October 2015–October 2018) and includes several expert meetings, joint publications, and a research grant proposal.

    The first expert meeting of the OK-network has taken place from 19-21 May at the Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam. The second meeting was held on 6-7 June 2018 in Amsterdam. 

  • INaSEC's Exhibitions

    From 2016 onwards INaSEC organises a traveling exhibition of pictures of contemporary pilgrimage in Russia by the English photographer Sandra Reddin and of icons of the Serbian icon painter and INaSEC fellow Borislav Prodanovic.

    The series was launched during the May 2016 network meetings in the Lloyd hotel Amsterdam. From 8 December 2016 until 4 January 2017, the Lloyd Hotel hosted an extended exhibition. In September 2017, a pop-up exhibition was organised during the "National Monument Weekend"; and on 16 December the major exhibition was opened at the Icon museum in Kampen, where the works will be on display until June 2018.

    In July and August 2018 the exhibition will travel to Castle Hernen, hosted by the A.A. Bredius-Stichting.

  • International Roundtable I: Legacies of Dehumanization

    The international Roundtable on “Legacies of Dehumanisation: A Transnational Perspective” took place on July 13-14, 2020.

    This international Roundtable was the first of a series of scholarly discussions that seek to examine the concept of dehumanisation in the context of historical trauma and memory in post-Soviet Russia and in post-apartheid South Africa as an area of strategic scholarly reflection across disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries. An important objective of the series is to provide space for intellectual dialogue and to foster creative collaboration and research partnerships with a strong focus on the Global South and Russia. Co-hosted by the Financial University under the Government of Russia, Historical Trauma and Transformation, Stellenbosch University, and the Institute for the Academic Study of Eastern Christianity (INaSEC), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Roundtable series is part of the Russia-South Africa Bilateral collaboration jointly funded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the South African National Foundation. 

    What is dehuhumanisation? How do experiences of trauma remain salient long after the original trauma occurred? What are the factors that sustain the memories of these experiences? How are the dehumanising aspects of the trauma experienced and what meanings are constructed from these experiences? How are these meanings reconstructed and passed on transgenerationally? In order to address these questions, we have to engage multiple levels of analysis, including on the societal, community and individual levels, because they are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. By adopting this multifaceted approach, we seek to widen the lens through which we investigate the legacies of dehumanisation trauma, and to open up space for interdisciplinary connection among history, psychology, theology, philosophy, the arts, and other disciplines. In doing so, we are conscious of the fact that in our research in South Africa and Russia we will encounter not only stories of memory of suffering from what Maria Grazia Riva (2013) refers to as violations to human dignity–the “living ghosts” of daily traumas–but also stories of restoration of dignity in spite of the dehumanising past.