Table of contents
History of the Russian Church
"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their worship surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty".
The Baptism of Russia: IX-XI Centuries
These words, quoted from the twelfth-century Tale of Bygone Years (more commonly referred to in English as the Primary Chronicle), were relayed back to the pagan ruler of Kievan Rus Prince Vladimir around the year 988 by envoys sent to enquire as to the suitability of faiths for the emerging Russian state. The Russian envoys pointed to the central place that beauty occupied in worship, a beauty of holiness that laid the foundation of a thousand-year culture that arose from the adoption of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity by Vladimir, later canonized as a saint by the Church.
AD 988 is conventionally regarded as the year that Christianity came to the Russian people as the religion of the realm. However, before Vladimir's option for Christianity there had existed among the Russians Christian communities and rulers. The first mention of the Rus or Ros people occurs in seventh century Arab chronicles, describing them as a warlike nation with an eye for trade. Archaeological finds in ancient Russian cities such as Staraya Ladoga and Gorodische (later to become Novgorod) indicate that the Rus were Viking raiders from Scandinavia (mostly likely from Birka in Sweden) who set up trading posts along the rivers running along a north-south axis across the plains of present-day European Russia to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. The Viking Rus ruled over a number of Eastern Slav tribes - the Drevlians, the Radomichi, the Severians and the Vyatichi, introducing Scandinavian customs and military retainers and organizing the occasional raid on Byzantium. By the time of the earliest Russian literature in the eleventh century it had become clear that these erstwhile Viking rulers had adopted the medieval Slav language, while Scandinavian names now became recognizably Slav: Vladimir (the Viking Valdamar), Olga (Helga), Igor (Ingvar). The Russians had now appeared on the scene as a nation.
Which gods did the Russians worship? The Slavs had a well-developed pantheon of pagan gods akin to those of the Vikings: pride of place was taken by Perun, the god of fire and lightning, and whose cult was actively promoted by Vladimir. However, Christianity was a far from unknown entity in the land of the Russians before 988. Indeed, the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church has it that the hilltop upon which the city of Kiev would later arise was visited by the Lord's disciple St. Andrew as early as the first century and who prophesied that the Gospel would be preached in these lands. The story of St. Andrew as the first evangelizer of Russia most likely belongs to the realm of pious legend, a legend which, however, had an effect in the popular choice of the name 'Andrei' (Andrew) among Kievan princes and notables.
Historically, the most important event to have consequences for the taking of root of Christianity in Russia was the evangelizing mission undertaken by two Greek brothers from the Balkans, Ss. Cyril and Methodius. Part of their mission to the Slav lands of Moravia and Bohemia in the ninth century embraced a fundamental aspect of Eastern Christianity: the reception of the faith in the culture and language of the local people. To this end the service books of the Byzantine Church and those parts of the Bible used in worship were translated into the Slav language for which a new alphabet (Glagolithic, later to be replaced by the more familiar Cyrillic) had been devised. The elevation of a vernacular to a sacred language of worship heralded the advent of a new language - Church Slavonic, which became the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the Slavs, most especially the Serbs and Bulgarians, from whom the Russians would import the texts of worship.
The ancient Russian realm centered around the city of Kiev displayed a measure of religious tolerance towards its inhabitants. Jews and Muslims resided in the land of the Rus, as well as Christians, yet it is hard to determine to what extent the Viking Rus or their Slav subjects may have adopted the faith or in what form, Latin or Byzantine. The Primary Chronicle relates that in the late ninth century two Viking warlords, Askold and Dir, were brutally slain by a relative of Ryurik, the semi-legendary founder of the Russian Viking state, and a church was built on the site of their burial mound, thus indicating that they may have received Christian baptism, possibly during a raid on Constantinople. The seeds sown by these two protomartyrs of Russia bore little fruit as the subsequent ruler of Kiev, Oleg, remained a fierce pagan. However, the story of Askold and Dir does have resonance in the later martyr's death of the princes Boris and Gleb in the eleventh century.
During the reign of Igor there is evidence that Christians played a full role in the life of the fledgling Russian state, the Primary Chronicle indicating that they were active in the prince's army and administration. Yet it was left to his widow, Olga, to quicken this process. Anxious to strengthen trade links with Byzantium, Olga traveled with her suite to Constantinople, most probably in 946, to entreat favors from Emperor Constantine VII. Part of the deal was to accept Christian baptism, with which Olga complied in the imperial capital. Constantine acted as godfather to the newly-Christian princess, somewhat ill-advisedly as it later transpired: when he let know his marital designs on Olga, she in turn let him know that Church canon law forbade this. 'You have outwitted me, Olga', lamented the emperor.
Baptism remained, however, little more than Olga's personal initiative. No mission of Greek priests from Byzantium took root; indeed, Olga in 959 turned to King Otto I of the German lands with a request to sent a bishop and priests. The Saxon king's enthusiasm for sending missionaries to the land of the Russians transpired to be less than fervent. The Christianization of the Rus people seemed to stall again when Olga's resolutely pagan son Svyatoslav inherited the throne of Kiev. Attempts were made to convince this ferocious warrior to convert, but to no avail: 'I will be the laughing stock of my retainers', he objected. So Kievan Russia experienced something of a pagan revival in the tenth century, a revival continued by Svyatoslav's son Vladimir.
Vladimir's motives for eventual conversion to Christianity - as well as the events leading up to it - are shrouded in mystery. Why should this proud warrior and reveller (referred to by the German chronicler Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg as a fornicator immensus et crudelis) adopt a faith that he and his father had rejected as going against the grain of pagan manliness? First of all there are the political considerations. By becoming Christian, Russia would be the youngest nation to join a powerful Byzantine commonwealth on equal term: the Eastern Roman empire would have acquired a civilized ally rather than having to live with a huge yet barbarian enemy. The political element in the adoption of Christianity was symbolized by Vladimir's marriage to the Byzantine Princess Anna. And then there are the spiritual and cultural reasons. Christianity had already existed in Kievan Russia for several generations and there was a danger of becoming alienated from his subjects should Vladimir cling tenaciously to the old pagan gods. One could indeed argue that after rigorous enquiry into the viability of other faiths (among the contenders for those wishing to satisfy Vladimir's spiritual search were Khazar Jews and Bulgar Muslims), Vladimir opted to speed up and complete a process that had become irrevocable in previous generations. So Vladimir accepted Christian baptism from the Byzantine Church c.988 at the southern Greek trading town of Chersones on the Black Sea.
The consequences for the further development of Russian culture and statehood were momentous. Russia had been transformed from a pagan country with Christian communities to a Christian state, yet with a strong resistance to parting with the old paganism. This 'dual faith' of the coexistence of Christianity and paganism in medieval Russia would continue to plague the Church's mission in centuries to come: later chronicles would relate uprisings of pagan sorcerers against the Christian Church, while Kievan Christian priests inveighed regularly in their sermons against pagan practices.
There is a far from clear picture of how the Church in Russia was formally organized. Worship assumed the Byzantine form with the regular celebration of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, most likely in Greek, although texts in Church Slavonic were available from the earlier converted Bulgarians and Serbs. Vladimir had built next to the imperial palace in Kiev a Tithe (Desyatnnaya) Church, so called as Vladimir promised to dedicate a tenth of the income from his lands and newly built churches to the Mother of God in whose honour the church had been built. The church was destroyed during the Mongol invasion. The earliest mentioned head of the Russian Church was the Greek Metropolitan Michael (988-992). Further Greek prelates (Leontius, John I, Theopemtus) headed the largest of the ecclesiastical provinces of the Church of Constantinople, which nominated and elected them to their position. Dioceses numbered approximately half a dozen and would be centred around such princely realms as Novgorod and Turov. There were no formally organized monasteries during the reign of Vladimir, although chronicles do indicate the existence of small groups of monks. Vladimir is believed to be the author of the first Statute of the Russian Church which regulated tithes and the appointment of clergy, thus giving an indication of a measure of autonomy within the Church. It has even been suggested that as there is no definite picture of chronological succession of metropolitans in the Russian Church then the Russian Church may have formed part of the Bulgarian metropolitanate in Ochrid or may indeed have been governed from Rome. Be that as it may, the sixteenth-century Nikon Chronicle does mention an exchange of envoys between Kiev and Rome at the turn of the millennium, while the missionary bishop St. Bruno of Querfurt was received in 1007 by Vladimir as a brother in the faith. Vladimir's conscience choice of Byzantine Christianity did not blind him to the universality of the Christian religion and there are no indications of hostility between Latin and Eastern Christians during his reign. Under Vladimir Russia had entered the family of Christian nations.
The period immediately following Prince Vladimir's death in 1015 was one of violent succession to the throne of Kiev. The first Christian ruler of Russia had left no system by which his kin would become rulers. His sons Boris and Gleb died as "passion-bearers", showing Christian serenity in the face of a violent death at the hands of their half brother Svyatopolk "the Cursed". Boris and Gleb were venerated for their humility when confronted by an evil destiny and their example has been upheld as an image of a peculiar "kenotic" type of Russian Christian spirituality whereby evil is conquered not through pragmatism or forced response but by a self-emptying to the point of death.
The Flowering of Kievan Christianity: XI-XII Centuries
The eventual winner of the princely battles for the throne of Kiev was Yaroslav, later called 'the Wise' (1015-1054). It was during his reign that the Church in Russia grew at a pace far outstripping that of Vladimir. If under Vladimir the churches numbered no more than a few dozen, travelers to eleventh-century Russia reported that Kiev alone boasted six hundred churches. The most splendid of these was the Cathedral of St. Sophia, consciously modeled on its namesake in Constantinople. There was no doubt that Yaroslav fancied Kiev as a rival to the Byzantine capital and the enthusiastic building of churches put flesh on this vision.
The reign of Yaroslav saw the first rapid flowering of Christian culture in Russia. The best masters of church architecture were invited from Byzantium, while churches in Pskov and Novgorod betray the influence of Romanesque architecture. Iconography, too, developed and produced the first native Russian genius in this field, St. Alimpy. Yet it was the art of letters that reached its first apogee under Yaroslav. The Primary Chronicle speaks of his love of the 'sweetness of books', meaning the exclusive promotion of the copying and translation of the Bible and other ecclesiastical writings such as the works of the holy fathers of the Eastern Church. The greatest example of early Russian literature is undoubtedly the Sermon on Law and Grace by the first native head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Hilarion (1051-1055). This verbal icon combined a panegyric to Vladimir with a discourse on Russia's place in sacred history. Hymnography, too, grew with the development of the so called Znamenny chant, a refinement of the chants inherited from Byzantium. The first of the great Russian monasteries - the Lavra of the Caves in Kiev - was founded by two Russian ascetics, Ss. Antony and Theodosius, drawing on the spirituality of the monastic peninsula of Mt. Athos in northern Greece. And in spite of the occasional anti-Latin rhetoric in the writings of St. Theodosius, the Western Church was rarely viewed with antagonism, even after the rupture in Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople in 1056. The dynastic marriages between the princes of Kiev and the royal houses of Europe, most notably between Prince Vladimir Monomakh and Princess Ghita, daughter of the English King Harold, would seem to indicate a continuing Christian fellowship between the Western and Russian Churches that would be extinguished only with the Mongol invasion in the early thirteenth century. Between the Russian princes themselves oaths and peace treaties would be taken at a ceremony of the kissing of the Cross and disputes would be arbitrated by bishops of the Church, although this was no guarantee of non-violations of promises made.
Christianity flourished and reached the hearts of medieval Russians differently from the way Christianity spread in the West. There was no separate caste of celibate priests, for parish priests of the Eastern Church were married men. Nor would Kievan Christianity inherit any of the classical learning that was an integral part of Western Christian culture. The ancient Latin and Greek inheritance seemed superfluous in an emerging Christian culture where the language of worship was cognizant with the vernacular language. At a time when the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne were being founded under the direct guidance of Latin monastic orders, there was nothing comparable in Kiev. However, it was to the Christian East of Constantinople, Athos, Syria and Cappadocia that Kiev looked, not Paris or Rome, for its inheritance and found it in an abundance of translations of the holy fathers and the beginnings of native schools of church architecture, icon painting and choral music. Book learning was valued equally at both extremes of the now Christian continent of Europe. Russia had passed the stage of being a young nation among more senior Christian siblings; she had now become a Christian civilization.
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.
St. Sergius and the Church in Moscovite Russia: XIV-XV Centuries
The tide began to turn in the late fourteenth century with the emergence of the principality of Moscow. The central figure in this period of the Russian Church's history is St. Sergius of Radonezh. Born to peasant parents in the northern Russian city of Rostov in 1314, Bartholomew (his name before adopting the monastic name of Sergius) was distinguished for his love of church writings and the Bible. At an early age he sought the life of a solitary; retiring as a monk to the vast forests north of Moscow, he gathered around himself a community of like-minded zealots. to whom he was appointed abbot (hegumen). The community built a small monastery dedicated to the Holy Trinity. St. Sergius attracted the attention of the Metropolitan of Moscow (the primarily see by this time having been transferred to Moscow from Kiev via Vladimir) Alexis, who tried to persuade him to become his successor. Sergius declined, yet his influence on the Russian body politic was idiosyncratically strong for a humble monk. It was Sergius who was the broker for peace between quarreling princes and it was Sergius who gave his blessing to the prince of Moscow Dmitry Donskoi to go into battle with the Mongol khan Mamai at Kulikovo Field in 1380. The Battle of Kulikovo Field was a turning point in Russian history as it shattered the legend of the invincibility of the Mongol army, yet was only the beginning of the Russians' liberation from their Oriental rulers.
St. Sergius' spiritual legacy had consequences for the building up of the Church in Russia that are felt to this very day. Sergius did not leave to the Church any spiritual writings. His spirituality is embodied in his Vita written by Epiphanius the Wise, and it was a spirituality centered on prayer and contemplation serving as the bedrock for service to one's brother or sister in Christ. Sergius gained fame as an exponent of an interior, ascetic style of monastic life, what the Byzantine spiritual masters termed 'hesychasm', the silent prayer of the heart of the recluse. Debate had raged in thirteenth-century Byzantium over whether God could be contemplated and whether the human person was capable of being united with Him. Yes, was the answer to both questions, the hesychasts claimed conditionally: God can be contemplated not in His essence but in His energies and the human person can become united, or deified in Him, but only through the way of the Cross and only by grace: he cannot become a god by nature. St. Sergius' life embodied this teaching by combining a reclusive life with compassion for those whom encountered in the northern forests.
This renewal of the Church's life of prayer found expression in the revival of iconography, the most perfect example of which is Rublev's Trinity, painted in honour of Sergius' vision of the Trinity. Under Sergius' tutelage the hesychastic monastic movement in Russia took root in the far north of Russia. This 'monastic colonization' laid the foundations for the great monasteries of St. Cyril of Beloozero and Solovki and the skete of St. Nil of Sora, who introduced this particular form of monasticism from Mt. Athos.
After Sergius' death in 1392 Russia witnessed an extraordinary renaissance in both the inner and outward life of the Church. The early fifteenth century saw the emergence of the characteristic onion domes of Russian church buildings, while masterpieces of iconography by Andrei Rublev, Theophanes the Greek and Daniel Chorny adorned cathedrals and churches in dioceses that grew across the length and breadth of Muscovite Russia. The Church's mission reached as far as the Ural mountains with the evangelization of Finno-Ugric peoples, especially the Zyrians into whose language St. Stephen of Perm had translated the Gospels and Divine Liturgy.
Contrast in Church Growth: the Possessors and Non-Possessors (XV-XVI Centuries)
The material and spiritual revival of the Church in the two centuries after the Battle of Kulikovo Field, with the two aspects harmoniously complimenting each other, began to pose a dilemma at the turn of the sixteenth century. Two parties emerged: the 'Non-Possessors' led by St. Nil of Sora, who taught that the inner life of prayer accompanied by material poverty should take precedence over the doctrine of monastic wealth accumulated with the aim of building schools, hospitals and churches. This latter vision was propagated by the 'Possessors', the spiritual leader of whom was St. Joseph of Volokalamsk. From the historical point of view, this latter party won the day as the wealthy monasteries expanded into ecclesiastical citadels such as the Lavra founded nearly two hundred years before by St. Sergius. This victory for the Possessors is born out by the canonization of Joseph within a generation of his death; Nil was canonized only in the twentieth century.
The Emergence of an Autocephalous Russian Church (XV-XVI Centuries)
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 compelled the Russian Church to seek a new identity for herself. The monk Philotheos prophesied that 'the first Rome fell because of heresy, the second Rome fell because of infidelity to the true Church doctrine... Moscow will be the third Rome and a fourth there shall not be'. After what the Russians perceived as apostasy by the Greek Church of Constantinople by concluding a union with the Church of Rome in Florence (later repudiated by Constantinople), the Russian Church now viewed herself as the primary, if not sole guardian of the purity of the Orthodox Christian faith.
To underline this stance the Russian Church acquired her first Patriarch Job in 1589, thus procuring full autocephaly (ecclesiastical independence) from the Mother Church of Constantinople, although the ancient metropolitanate of Kiev was to remain under Constantinople for a century more.
The granting of a patriarchate to the Russian Church allowed the latter to adopt the Byzantine model of symphony between Emperor and Bishop. The title of Tsar, a corruption of the Latin 'Caesar', had previously been in use among the Grand Princes of Moscow and became an official designation with the blessing of the Church for the ruler of Muscovy with the advent of the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. Ivan took an active interest in Church affairs, composing hymns and fulfilling punctiliously all of the prescribed ritual. Yet the Church never allowed herself to be enslaved to this tyrant: her voice was heard in the intercessions of Metropolitan Philip of Moscow for all of those who had suffered from Ivan's cruelty. Philip's witness to Christian justice before the Tsar in a sermon preached in the Kremlin cathedral was eloquent: 'We are offering here the pure, bloodless sacrifice for the salvation of men, but outside this holy temple the blood of Christians is being shed, and innocent people are being killed... He who does not love his neighbor is not of God'. Ivan fell into a rage and ordered Philip to be defrocked and put to death by his feared secret police, the Oprichnina. Philip, a martyr for Christian justice rather than the Christian faith, was soon proclaimed a saint.
The Old Believer Schism of the XVII Century
By the seventeenth century the tension between Tsar and Patriarch erupted into overt hostility as Patriarch Nikon appropriated for himself the title of 'Sovereign' and all the concomitant imperial pretensions. Nikon loved church ceremony and ritual, yet introduced a number of reforms into the Church's pattern of worship. The rich Byzantine ritual had been the object of reform at an earlier church council know as the Hundred Chapters, which also laid down rules on iconography. Yet it was not so much reform in itself that provoked the ire of church traditionalists, led by the belligerent Archpriest Avvakuum (1620-1680), author of a autobiographical Vita and a literary masterpiece. The reforms that Nikon wanted to introduce were in themselves relatively minor (making the sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two, the spelling of the name 'Jesus' and how many times to sing 'alleluia'); it was the fact that they were based on recent Greek liturgical books published in Venice that offended Avvakuum's party. 'I am a Russian by birth, but a Greek by faith', Nikon exclaimed, invoking the anger of the Old Believers or, more accurately, the Old Ritualists, who went in a schism that has not been healed to this day.
Much that was good in the ancient Russian traditions of iconography and hymnography was lost as the official Church succumbed to Western influence in matters of ecclesiastical art. The Old Believers preferred to face death rather than surrender their right to worship as the pre-Nikonian service books prescribed. Today, there are approximately five million Old Believers of various denominations in Russia, some of whom, known as 'coreligionists' are in Eucharistic communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. After the schism of 1666, the Old Believers held to the popular belief that the reign of Antichrist had begun in the official Church, which was confirmed in their imagination with the accession to the Russian throne of Peter the Great and the transfer of the capital of the Russian empire to St. Petersburg in the eighteenth century.
The Church in Russia was beset by one further problem in the seventeenth century, that of the so called Unia. The Ukraine, or 'Little Russia' as it was known, saw the development on its soil of a Church worshipping according to the Byzantine rites yet owing allegiance to the Pope of Rome. Hierarchs in the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine had concluded a union with the Roman Church under the influence of Polish Latin-rite Jesuits and took with them a large number of their flock. At times proscribed and at times granted freedom under the emperor's dispensation, the Greek Catholics have experienced a precarious existence within the boundaries of the Russian Empire.
The Church in Imperial Russia: the XVIII Century
By the eighteenth century the Muscovite period of Russian history had waned and had been eclipsed by the spectacular reign of Peter I the Great. Peter was fully aware of the Church's potential political influence and acted as befits a secularizing statesman: he abolished the institution of Patriarch and replaced it with an Ecclesiastical College (later called the Holy Synod) headed by a Procurator on the German Lutheran model and who was answerable to the emperor alone. The Procurator, a lay man, had the power to appoint and transfer bishops at will. In effect, the Russian Orthodox Church, in its outward administration at least, had been turned into an imperial 'ministry of religion' and her voice in society could be heard but faintly. Perhaps the most disastrous consequence of this new arrangement was the confiscation of monastic land-holdings during the reign of Catherine II the Great and the severe restrictions placed upon those wishing to pursue a monastic vocation.
However, to characterize this period of the Church's history (often referred to as the 'Synodal period') that existed until the 1917 Revolution as one of decline or stagnation would be a mistake. It is true that the Church existed under an uncanonical dispensation, even though it was recognized by the other Eastern Orthodox Churches. Church education, formally begun with the academies set up on a Western model in the seventeenth century, became so detached from the true tradition of Orthodoxy that by the beginning of the nineteenth century all teaching was conducted in Latin with Protestant theology being learnt by rote to combat Catholic propaganda and Latin theology being learnt in the same manner to combat the Protestants! Iconography became naturalized religious portrait painting, while hymnography betrayed the influence of European baroque music or even secular opera. Yet behind this facade of decline and compliance, the spiritual life of the Church continued uninterrupted.
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.
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.
- George Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, 2 vols., (London, 1965-1966)
- George Fedotov, editor and compiler, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, (London, 1950)
- John Fennell, A History of the Russian Church to 1448, (London and New York, 1995)
- Simon Franklin and John Shepard, The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200, (London and New York, 1996)
- Nicolas Zernov, The Russians and their Church, 3rd edition (London, 1978)
Courtesy of "Orthodoxy in Russia" at: http://www.or.ru