History of the Russian Church

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The Church in Imperial Russia: the XIX Century

The outward life of the Russian Orthodox Church in the nineteenth century differed little from that of the previous century. However, the gap between culture and faith was gradually overcome, most notably in the form of the elders of the monastery of Optina Pustyn. This ancient monastery south-west of Moscow had an undistinguished history until the nineteenth century when into its walls there entered a new caliber of monks seeking to renew spiritual life in Russia. Optina Pustyn became a place of pilgrimage not only for the vast multitude of Russia's peasant wanderers but also for the leading cultural figures of the time. The writers Lev Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol and Feodor Dostoevsky and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov all received counsel from the Optina elders.

Readers of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov will acquire an accurate picture of the monastery and its holy men: the writer was consoled by St. Amvrosy of Optina after the death of his three-year old son. Educational standards in the Church rose as the seminaries produced some of Russia's greatest historians such as Vasilii Klyuchevsky and Sergei Solovyov. A monumental History of the Russian Church was written by Metropolitan Makary (Bulgakov) of Moscow, while earlier hierarchs such as Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov), Bishop Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) and Bishop Theophanes the Recluse (all later canonized) epitomized the return to the patristic tradition of the Church in his sermons. And it was with the Church's cooperation that the liberation of the serfs was proclaimed under Tsar Alexander II in 1862. Outside of the Church's official institutions, too, theology enjoyed a renewal with the works of Alexei Khomyakov and Ivan Kireyevsky, who oversaw the publication of the works of the holy fathers in modern Russian translations at Optina Pustyn. Church censorship did, however, take a dim view of this innovative return to tradition and hindered the publication of Khomyakov in Russia.

The greatest saint of this age was Seraphim of Sarov. His spirituality, like that of Sergius six centuries earlier, focused on internal prayer and compassion for the poor, combined with spiritual insight and guidance. St. Seraphim was at the fount of monastic spirituality known as 'eldership', whereby a monk with charismatic gifts of insight and compassion would become spiritual confessor to thousands of people, occasionally acquiring a reputation as a healer. The elders, although never formally institutionalized by the Church, enjoyed great authority with Orthodox believers, both educated and simple. It is, however, an indication of the divorce between Church and culture that had occurred in Russia by this time that her greatest holy man, Seraphim of Sarov, and her greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, were unaware of each other's existence.

It was in the nineteenth century, too, that Russian Orthodoxy underwent a vast expansion with the foundation of dioceses in Siberia and the Far East and flourishing Epitomizing this outreach of the Church was Metropolitan Innocent (Veniaminov) of Moscow, who, like St. Stephen of Perm before him, emphasized the necessity for the Church of entering native languages and cultures if she was to carry out her mission successfully. Part of Metropolitan Innocent's achievement in bringing Orthodoxy to America was the translation of the liturgical texts and Bible into the Eskimo languages.

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