The impossible object: Relics, property, and the secular in post-Soviet Russia (Respond to this article at


  • Anya Bernstein

    1. Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University. Her book, Religious bodies politic: Rituals of sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013. Her current project investigates religion and secularism in post-Soviet Russia.
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The article analyzes a recent court case concerning the relics of two 14th-century Russian Orthodox saints, during which the Russian state ruled to confiscate the relics from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church. I examine the church's attempts to fight back, paying particular attention to how the conflicting parties have differently framed the disputed objects' materiality. In doing so, I link the ongoing debates over whether dead bodies can be considered property and who owns the bodies of saints, to the current battles in Russia over the boundaries between the sacred and the secular. The relics affair, I suggest, ultimately points to the issue of how politics itself is constituted through the battles to define these boundaries, who claims the power to draw these lines, and why issues dealing with dead bodies possess a certain affective charge that causes political action. I argue that the case of the Suzdal relics makes visible certain aporias in both secular law and religious discourse, which ultimately make this case impossible for the state to resolve in its favour through conventional judicial means without overruling the law. In this process, the object of dispute itself disappears from the discursive space, becoming buried in a sort of ‘black box’, the interior contents of which are ultimately unnameable and uncategorizable.