History of the Russian Church (Page 3 of 11)

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The Tatar-Mongol Yoke: XIII Century

In 1227 at the frontiers of the vast realm of Kievan Russia there appeared an eastern people that would wreak devastation upon the Russians for the next century and a half: the Mongols. Establishing their headquarters at Saray, the Golden Horde would subject Russian cities to considerable destruction. Princes were obliged to pay tribute to the Khan, and complete political obedience was expected to be paid to the new overlords of Russia. Yet the consequences of the so called Mongol-Tartar yoke for the Church were not necessarily the same as those for the state. The Mongol rulers issued their own edict of tolerance for religious faiths, allowing the Orthodox Church in Russia to enjoy equality with the paganism (and later Islam) of their masters. The Mongols interfered comparatively little with the canonical structure of the Church; many of them were quite open to the message of salvation to be found in Christianity and became converted.

In a sense the Mongol invasion contributed to the preservation of the Byzantine character of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. The thirteenth century was the time of the most violent Crusades organized by Latin Christendom against the Greek Orthodox in the Levant. Now that the most numerous of the Orthodox peoples – the Russians – were kept in obeisance to the Mongol khans, the Pope of Rome saw fit to organize Swedish and Teutonic knights into a crusade against the weakened Orthodox.

It was the young prince of Novgorod, Alexander Nevsky, that organized the defense of the Russian lands against the Western invaders, the most spectacular battle being fought and won by Alexander at Lake Chud on 5 April 1242. The troops were rallied at Novgorod which, along with Pskov, had escaped the Mongol destruction. It was the period of the Mongol domination that finally ruptured Russian Christians from their Western brethren, primarily by the isolation imposed upon them by the Mongols and secondly by the way the Latin Church sought to take advantage of the Russian Church’s weak political position. Alexander Nevsky is popularly credited with having saved the Russian Church during these turbulent years and was numbered among the saints of the Church in Russia in 1380.

During the years of the Mongols’ rule, the Church was obliged to look inwards. The literature of the period tends to concentrate on the tragedy of the destruction of Kievan Russia. There are few if any innovations in the nascent Russian school of iconography and hymnography. Yet the Mongols revered any form of worship to a god and thus the Russian Church remained unmolested; her saints of this period are known mainly to God. 

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