Victoria Fomina’s blog

Some reflections on cognitive and social processes in the making of religious traditions.

Public Relations Failures by Russian State Officials: A Botched Cultural Transmission?

In 2018, during a public meeting, Olga Glatskikh, head of the Sverdlovsk Region Youth Politics Department, gave the following response to a question about the lack of state funding for youth projects: “The state owes nothing to you in principle. Your parents who gave birth to you owe you things. The state did not ask for you to be born.” [1] This episode which resulted in Glatskikh’s widespread condemnation and temporary suspension is just one example on a long list of insensitive statements by Russian state officials that have provoked lasting public outrage. Other notable cases included Minster of Labour, Natalia Sokolova’s assertion that one can easily survive on a $56 per month subsistence wage by eating a “balanced” and “slimming” diet of macaroni and seasonal vegetables [2], Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev’s suggestion that teachers should have become businessmen “if they wanted to earn money,” [3] and Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov’s tone-deaf question to survivors of a 2016 canoe accident in Karelia, which claimed the lives of 13 children: “So, how was the swim?” [4] One interesting thing about these statements is how starkly they contrast with the rhetorical style of President Vladimir Putin as well as official state policies of raising birth rates by subsidizing families with children and incentivizing young people to become teachers by promising them higher salaries. From the evolutionary perspective on cultural transmission which predicts selective learning from and imitation of behaviors of “successful” individuals (Atkisson et al. 2012; Henrich and Gill-White 2001; Henrich 2015), such public remarks by Russian state officials that often cost them their careers appear puzzling: after all, why would they not just copy the style of their leader and reproduce the official line of the ruling United Russia Party?


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Reasoning against Faith: When Clerics Intervene in Popular Religion

  In their recent book The Enigma of Reason (2017), Mercier and Sperber debunk the popular view of reason as a source of disinterested, accurate knowledge about the world. The function of reason, they argue, is polemical rather than hermeneutic, as we mostly produce reasons to justify our actions to others and to evaluate the arguments other people use to convince us. This provocative argument opens up interesting avenues for further ethnographic investigations that would flesh out how argumentative reasoning functions across different cultural and socio-historical settings. As an anthropologist of religion, I find the question of how reasoning interacts with belief in the religious context particularly intriguing. 

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How Can a Painting Make One Lose One’s Faith?

In 1867, the deeply religious Fyodor Dostoyevsky visited the Basel Art Museum and saw for the first time the original of Hans Holbein’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. His wife later reported in her memoirs that the painting had such a powerful emotional effect on the writer that, in violation of the museum’s rules, he stepped on a chair to take a closer look. His face turned white, she recalled, and she had to drag him away from the painting fearing he would have an epileptic fit.  “Such a picture might make one lose one’s faith,” Dostoyevsky later told her.

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