History of the Russian Church

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A Time of Persecution and Rebirth: the Russian Orthodox Church in the XX Century

As the twentieth century approached, Russia could boast the largest single national Church in the world. In the first decade of the century the Church began to be collectively aware of the disadvantages to her mission that the status of an established Church had brought. It was not unknown, for example, for people to convert to Orthodoxy for purposes of pursuing a career in the imperial administration (only the Orthodox could serve in the state apparatus). For many subjects of the Russian Empire, holy communion was not so much an encounter with the Saviour but a legal obligation. These defects were being raised in the Church's consciousness and such reforms as the russification of the liturgical language of Church Slavonic and the reinstitution of a canonical patriarchate at a future Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (the first in almost three centuries) were discussed. The 1905 Russian Revolution brought with it a decree on religious tolerance, allowing for greater freedom of discussion within the Church and an end to the persecution of the Old Believers.

Saints, too, continued to emerge from among the Russian Orthodox people: Fr. John of Kronstadt won a reputation as a charismatic preacher and a man of prayer and gifts of healing, while the Grand Duchess Elisabeth, after the murder of her husband the governor of Moscow Grand Duke Sergei, devoted her life to caring for the sick through the foundation of her Ss. Mary and Martha Sisterhood; she died a brutal martyr's death at the hands of the communists in 1918. Both Fr. John and Elisabeth were later canonized as saints of the Russian Church.

The aforementioned Local Council was convoked while the country was in the grip of revolutionary turmoil. The communists seized power in October 1917, while a new Patriarch, Tikhon (Belavin), was elected on 5 November of the same year. Many of the reforms proposed by the Council could not be put into effect as the task of the Church, now liberated from the constraints of imperial patronage, was how to survive the greatest onslaught on Christianity since persecution of the pagan Roman emperors. The communists tried to destroy the Church from both within by promoting the so called 'Renovationist movement' or the 'Living Church' (a faction proposing radical reforms that embraced clergy whose motives were mainly opportunist) and from the outside with the plundering of church assets, ostensibly to help fund famine relief, yet in reality little more than a pretext to execute in their tens of thousands clergy and laity who did not comply. Tikhon's response to the violence carried out against the Church was to anathematize the communists.

It fell upon Patriarch Tikhon to guide the Russian Church through her most turbulent period in her history. An advocate of church renewal, he had spent ten years of his episcopal service in the United States and was the first to raise the concept of an independent Orthodox Church in America. Slandered as a reactionary and obscurantist by the Bolsheviks and Renovationist schismatics, he was placed under arrest and on trial, eventually dying under mysterious circumstances (quite possibly murdered by the communists) in April 1925, enjoying great esteem amongst the Orthodox. He was proclaimed a saint in 1989.

Persecution of the Church meant that a successor could not be appointed immediately, the post of locum tenens of the patriarchal throne eventually falling to Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky), a prelate of considerable erudition in the field of theology. The martyrdom continued as senior bishop after bishop faced the firing squad. Examples of Christ-like courage and humility in the face of death found embodiment in such hierarchs as Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd who made the sign of the Cross over his executors. Yet in all of this there remains a spiritual paradox that the Russian Church has still to resolve: how was it that a nation that has produced more martyrs than any other nation in history simultaneously became the nation that has most persecuted the Church

The most controversial step to be taken in these years was the 1927 Declaration by Metropolitan Sergei that obliged Orthodox clergy to proclaim loyalty to the Soviet regime. Many refused to comply, especially bishops and priests who were forced into emigration, thus provoking a synod of Russian bishops in Karlovtsi in Yugoslavia to set up a Russian Orthodox Church in Exile disavowing all links with the Mother Church in Soviet Russia. By the 1930s the Russian Orthodox Church had been brought to her knees. A handful of bishops survived in the administrative structure of the Church, while vast numbers of priests and ordinary believers had met their deaths in Stalin's labour camps. Church buildings, monasteries and schools were subject to wholesale closure and destruction. The monumental Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow (built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon in 1812), the monasteries of the Kremlin, and the numerous parish churches of the Russian capital (said to number forty times forty) fell victim to the communists' enthusiasm for the use of dynamite on objects of beauty.

The entry of the Soviet Union into the Second World War in 1941 changed the Church's fortunes dramatically. Stalin (a former seminarian who trained to be a priest) summoned the aging Metropolitan Sergei to the Kremlin to enlist the Church's help in the war effort. In return a very modest material revival of the Church (the opening of some monasteries and seminaries, the recruitment of priests and the publishing of a church journal) was permitted in return for the Church putting to use her gifts for rallying the Russian people in a time of national crisis. The Church responded with patriotic fervor, financing the St. Dmitry Donskoi and St. Alexander Nevsky tank columns. In 1943 Sergei became Patriarch, but died shortly afterwards to be replaced by Alexy (Simansky).

The years after the war up until Stalin's death in 1953 saw the Church survive relatively unmolested. The Russian Church did, however, face renewed persecution in the form of mass closures of monasteries (most notably the famous eleventh-century Monastery of the Caves in Kiev), churches and theological schools under Nikita Khruschev, although there was no return to the mass executions and imprisonment of priests and believers as there had been under Lenin and Stalin.

The period from the early 1960s to the beginning of Soviet reforms in the mid-1980s saw the Church enter the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches. Enormous restrictions were placed upon the functioning of the Church in Russia, reducing her to little more than a cultic institution. Religious education in Russia had been wiped out to be replaced with compulsory study of 'scientific atheism'. The Church found herself alienated from society with no voice in the communist-controlled media; priests were not even permitted to make pastoral visits to parishioners homes. Yet to characterize this particular period of the Church's history as one of 'stagnation' (the epithet most commonly used when referring to the Brezhnev era in Soviet politics) would be mistaken. The spiritual life did continue in hidden forms. There were pastors and preachers such as Fr. Vsevolod Schpiller and Fr. Alexander Men who disseminated the Word of God to the intelligentsia, often with the risk of imminent arrest by the KGB. The tradition of spiritual eldership was continued in the remarkable figure of Fr. Tavrion (Batozsky, d.1979), who had spent seventeen years of his life in the labour camps. In the 1980s there was a rediscovery of traditional iconography and a renewal of the theology of the icon through the labors of Archimandrite Zenon (Teodor), whose numerous iconostases and icons have now become known beyond the confines of Russia. Sermons preached by Metropolitan Antony (Bloom) of Sourozh, the head of the Russian Orthodox diocese in London, were read (in samizdat form) and listened to by crowds of believers on his occasional visits. Canonical links were reestablished with Orthodox Christians in America with the granting in 1970 of the Tome of Autocephaly to the former Metropolia of the Russian Orthodox Church in America.

The Revolution of 1917 had deprived Russia of the cream of her intellectual talent, and theologians were no exception. Yet as persecution of the Church was applied with less vigour, works by such gifted thinkers as Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky (the so called 'Parisian school' of Russian Orthodox theology), all forced into emigration and the founding fathers of the Orthodox Church in America, seeped into Russia in samizdat form.

The Church celebrated a thousand years of Christianity in Russia in 1988 amidst renewed hope for the future. Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost had been extended to the Church. The war between religion and Orthodox Christianity in particular and communist ideology had been won, the Church emerging as victors in the struggle. The incumbency of Patriarch Alexy (Ridiger) II of Moscow and All Russia has heralded a rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Christ the Saviour Cathedral has been raised from the ashes, parishes and monasteries have been returned and are being renovated. As of late 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church has managed to gain for herself a special status as the traditional religion of the Russian nation and have this status enshrined in the country's laws. Persecution has gone, yet new problems have arisen in the form of the financing of the Church and schisms amongst the Orthodox in the Ukraine.

For a thousand years the Christian faith of the Orthodox Church has shaped the culture and statehood of the Russian people. At times the Church has embodied the vision of Christ the glorious king, projected in the splendid ceremonial ritual of the Byzantine liturgy, accompanied by icons, gold imperial-style priestly vestments and clouds of incense smoke; at other times she has brought to the Russian faithful a different vision of Christ, oppressed and broken, humbly bearing martyrdom, through the crown of thorns she had to endure during the terrible persecutions of the twentieth century. Both these visions form a single image, a single icon of the Saviour from which the Russian Orthodox Church can draw strength for the coming millennium.

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