History of the Russian Orthodox Church

Patriarchate of Moscow and all Russia
The Trinity Cathedral of Troitse-Sergieva Lavra
Founder Apostle Andrew, Vladimir the Great, Michael, 1st metropolitan of Kiev
Independence 1448, de facto in the Muscovy part thereof
Recognition (as a patriarchate) in 1589 by Constantinople
Primate Patriarch Kirill I
Headquarters Moscow, Russia
Territory former Soviet Union territory (except Georgia), China, Japan
Possessions United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia
Language Church Slavonic (basic) and local languages
Members 125,000,000
Website Russian Orthodox Church official website

The Russian Orthodox Church (Russian: Русская Православная Церковь) is traditionally said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, who is thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to one of the legends, St. Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city.[1][2] The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by St. Andrew's Cathedral

Christianization of the Rus'. The Kievan period

Orthodox Christian Constantinople's greatest mission outreach was to areas known as Kievan Rus that are now the states of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Christianity was introduced into Kievan Rus by Greek missionaries from Byzantium in the 9th century. In 863–869, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic language for the first time, paving the way for the Christianization of the Slavs. There is evidence that the first Christian bishop was sent to Novgorod from Constantinople either by Patriarch Photius or Patriarch Ignatius, circa 866-867 AD.[3]

By the mid-10th century, there was already a Christian community among Kievan nobility, under the leadership of Greek and Byzantine priests, although paganism remained the dominant religion. Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity, either in 945 or 957. Undoubtedly influenced by his Christian grandmother and by a proposed marriage alliance with the Byzantine imperial family, Olga's grandson Vladimir I (c. 956-1015) prince of Kiev, from among several options, chose the Byzantine rite. Baptized in 988, he led the Kievans to Christianity. This date is often considered the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1988, the Church celebrated its millennial anniversary.

The Kievan church was originally a metropolitanate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Ecumenical patriarch along with the Emperor, appointed the metropolitan who governed the Church of Rus'. The Metropolitan's residence was originally located in Kiev. As Kiev was losing its political significance due to the Mongol invasion, Metropolitan Maximus moved to Vladimir in 1299; his successors, Metropolitan Peter and Theognostus, moved the residence to Moscow by the 14th century.

Under Mongol rule

While Russia lay under Mongol rule from the 13th (Genghis Khan's army entered Russia in 1220s) through the 15th century, the Russian church enjoyed a favoured position, obtaining immunity from taxation in 1270. This period saw a remarkable growth of monasticism. The Monastery of the Caves (Pecherska Lavra) in Kiev, founded in the mid-11th century by the ascetics St. Anthony and St. Theodosius, was superseded as the foremost religious centre by the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which was founded in the mid-14th century by St. Sergius of Radonezh (in what is now the city of Sergiev Posad). Sergius, as well as the metropolitans St. Peter (1308–26) and St. Alexius (1354–78), supported the rising power of the principality of Moscow. The church enjoyed protection for its land and buildings as well as freedom from taxes. In addition it was guaranteed freedom from persecution in accordance with Islamic religious law. To that extent, there was even a legal relationship between the Golden Horde and the Russian Orthodox Church since these rights had been conceded in a formal document (jarlig). The church was only required to pray for the Khan. This continuation of the "symphony" corresponded with the Orthodox idea of a state that protected the Orthodox Church and, therefore could call for loyalty. Centuries later, the ecumenical patriarchs dealt hardly differently with the Ottoman rulers. In 1261, the Russian church established an eparchy in Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde. The increasing importance of Moscow and the growing power of the political system also created ideas that contributed to a theological basis of the stature of Moscow. References have already been made regarding the perception of Moscow as a Third Rome. From that moment the sources began to use more the notion Tsarstvo, tsardom, representing a translation of the Greek basileia. The metropolitan of Moscow, Makariy (1483-–1563) contributed above all, to the strengthened emphasis of the Moscow idea of the state. He emphasized the Russian ecclesiastical tradition. He made brief readings available, Menaions, which were arranged according to the calendar so that they could be read continuously in the liturgy and in the monasteries. These had strong Russian features and supported a providential view of the Russian political system.

15th century

During the 15th century the Russian Church was pivotal in the survival and life of the Russian state. Such holy figures as Sergius of Radonezh and Metropolitan Alexis helped the country to withstand years of Tartar oppression, and to expand both economically and spiritually.

At the Council of Florence 1439, a group of Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification with Papacy. The Moscow Prince Vasily II, however, rejected the concessions to the Roman Church and forbade the proclamation of the acts of the Council in Moscow in 1452. The Russian Metropolitan Isidore, who had signed the Union act, was in the same year expelled from his position as an apostate.

In 1448, the Russian Church in Moscow became effectively independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople — when the Russian bishops in Moscow elected their own primate, Jonas, a Russian bishop, without recourse to Constantinople. The Russian church within the bounds of the Grand Duchy of Moscow was thenceforth effectively autocephalous.

Metropolitan Jonas was given the title of Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus', but his successors styled themselves as Metropolitans of Moscow and All Rus'. Five years later, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. From this point onward the Russian Orthodox Church saw Moscow as the Third Rome, legitimate successor to Constantinople, and the metropolitan of Moscow as head of the Russian Church.

Changes and reforms

Tsar Alexis praying before the relics of Metropolitan Philip

The reign of Ivan III and his successor was plagued by numerous heresies and controversies. One party, led by Nil Sorsky and Vassian Kosoy, called for secularisation of monastic properties. They were oppugned by the influential Joseph of Volotsk, who defended ecclesiastical ownership of land and property. The sovereign's position fluctuated, but eventually he threw his support to Joseph. New sects sprang up, some of which showed a tendency to revert to Mosaic law: for instance, the archpriest Aleksei converted to Judaism after meeting a certain Zechariah the Jew.

Monastic life flourished in Russia, focusing on prayer and spiritual growth. The disciples of St. Sergius left the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra to found hundreds of monasteries across Russia. Some of the most famous monasteries were located in the Russian North, in order to demonstrate how faith could flourish in the most inhospitable lands. The richest landowners of medieval Russia included Joseph Volokolamsk Monastery, Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and the Solovetsky Monastery. In the 18th century, the three greatest monasteries were recognized as lavras, while those subordinated directly to the Synod were labelled stauropegic.

In the 1540s, Metropolitan Macarius convened a number of church councils, which culminated in the Hundred Chapter Council of 1551. This assembly unified Church ceremonies and duties in the whole territory of Russia. At the demand of the Church hierarchy the government canceled the tsar's jurisdiction over ecclesiastics.

Autocephaly and reorganization

The growing might of the Russian state contributed also to the growing authority of the Autocephalous Russian Church and during the reign of Tsar Fyodor I his brother-in-law Boris Godunov contacted the Ecumenical Patriarch, who "was much embarrassed for want of funds,"[4] with a view elevate the status of the Russian Orthodox Church to an independent autocephaly. On January 23, 1589 the Moscow Patriarchate was created, making the Russian Church autocephalous, and Job, Metropolitan of Moscow became the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus'. During the next half a century, when the tsardom was weak, the patriarchs (notably Germogen and Philaret) would run the state along with (and sometimes instead of) the tsars.

17th century

The beginning of the 17th century proved to be a hard time for Russia. The Poles and Swedes invaded Russia from the west. At this time of trouble the Russian Church fulfilled its patriotic duty before the people with honor, as it did before. Patriarch Germogen (1606–1612), the leader of an insurrection against invading Poles, and later starved to death imprisoned, was the spiritual leaders of the mass levy led by Minin and Pozharsky. The defense during the siege of Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra from a Polish-Lithuanian irregular army between 1608 and 1610 has been inscribed forever in the chronicle of the Russian state and the Russian Church.

Schism of the Old Believers

An Old Believer Priest, Nikita Pustosviat, Disputing with Patriarch Joachim the Matters of Faith. Painting by Vasily Perov

The main and tragic event in the 17th century was the great schism, the schism of the so-called Old Believers, who seceded from the main Church in protest against ecclesiastical reforms of Patriarch Nikon. In the period after the invaders were driven away from Russia, the Russian Church was engaged in one of the most important of its internal tasks, namely, introducing corrections into its service books and rites. A great contribution to this was made by Patriarch Nikon, a bright personality and outstanding church reformer. Some clergymen and lay people did not understand and did not accept the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon and refused to obey the church authority. This was how the Old Believers' schism emerged.

Nikon, pursuing the ideal of a theocratic state, attempted to establish the primacy of the Orthodox church over the state in Russia, and he also undertook a thorough revision of Russian Orthodox texts and rituals to bring them into accord with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In 1652 Nikon resolved to centralize power that had been distributed locally, while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church. For instance he insisted that Russian Christians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the then-traditional two. This aroused antipathy among a substantial section of the believers who saw the changed rites as heresy, although they had only a minor ritual significance. This group became known as the Old Ritual Believers or Old Believers, who rejected the teachings of the new patriarch. Tsar Aleksey (who was simultaneously centralizing political power) upheld Nikon's changes. During the so-called Raskol, the Old Ritual Believers were separated from the Orthodox Church. Avvakum Petrov, Boyarynya Morozova and many other dissidents were burned at the stake, either forcibly or voluntarily.

Millions seceded from the official church and were strongly persecuted by the state. In order to escape persecution, they migrated to more remote areas of the realm and even abroad. Many went to Siberia and other inhospitable lands, where they would live in semi-seclusion until the modern times. The schism peaked in 1666 when Nikon was deposed but the Russian church retained his reforms and anathematized those who continued to oppose them. The Old Believers had formed a vigorous body of dissenters within the Russian Orthodox church for the next two centuries.


In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced phenomenal geographic expansion. In 1684, Moscow Patriarchate requested Constantinople that the Metropolia of Kiev be made subordinate to Moscow but the request was declined. . Eventually, in 1686 after patriarch Parthenius IV was succeeded by Dionysius IV it was agreed to subordinate the Metropolia of Kiev to Moscow. But just a year later in 1687 such subordination was denounced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and those in charge were defrocked because of the bribe.

In any case this brought millions of faithful and a half dozen dioceses under the pastoral and administrative care of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. Leaders learned local languages and translated the gospels and the hymns. Sometimes those translations required the invention of new systems of transcription.[5]

However, the success was superficial and quickly reversed. Empress Catherine the Great issued an Edict of Religious Freedom in 1773, which allowed other religious organizations to operate in the Empire. The edict marked the end of significant missionary activity, and saw the rise of apostasy among the new Christian communities. In particular, areas that had previously been under Islamic influence reverted to Islam. Stephen Neill argues that:

the figures of apostasy....are so overwhelming as to amount to a grave condemnation of the whole Russian method of evangelism, through government pressure and favor without the kind of Christian teaching that could make conversion anything more than nominal,[6]

In the 19th century, there were small-scale missionary efforts in Russian possessions in Asia and Alaska, as well as in Japan and China. The Japanese mission was the most successful, reaching about 35,000 baptized members in 1914.[7]

Reform and the Holy Synod

In 1700, following the death of Patriarch Adrian, Peter I prevented a successor from being named. In 1721, following the advice of Feofan Prokopovich, the patriarchate of Moscow was replaced with the Most Holy Governing Synod to govern the church instead of a dating permit The Holy Governing Synod was modeled after the state-controlled synods of the Lutheran Church of Sweden and in Prussia and was tightly intertwined with the state. The chief procurator of the synod, a lay official who obtained ministerial rank in the first half of the 19th century, henceforth exercised effective control over the church's administration until 1917. This control, which was facilitated by the political subservience of most of the higher clergy, was especially marked during the procuratorship (1880–1905) of the archconservative Konstantin Pobedonostsev.

The Synod remained the supreme church body in the Russian Church for almost two centuries. In the Synodal period of its history from 1721 to 1917, the Russian Church paid a special attention to the development of religious education and mission in provinces. Old churches were restored and new churches were built. The beginning of the 19th century was marked by the work of brilliant theologians. Russian theologians also did much to develop such sciences as history, linguistics and Oriental studies.

In 1762 Peter III secularized all church land and serfs, henceforth state property. Catherine the Great promised to return the land if the church supported her coup, she reneged on the promise paying stipends with just 1/4 of the value of the seized land. She closed 569 out of 954 monasteries and only 161 got government money.[8] Only 400,000 rubles of church wealth was paid back. In 1785 the Orthodox clergy did not receive a single seat in Catherine's legislative commission.[9] By 1786, Catherine chose to simply exclude all religion and clerical studies programs from lay education.[10] In 1797 the Holy Synod banned the election of priests who were now appointed by bishops.[11]

The 18th century saw the rise of starchestvo under Paisius Velichkovsky and his disciples at the Optina Monastery. This marked a beginning of a significant spiritual revival in the Russian Church after a lengthy period of modernization.

Fin-de-siècle religious renaissance

Russian Orthodox Church in Dresden, built in the 1870s

During the final decades of the imperial order in Russia many educated Russians sought to return to the Church and revitalize their faith. No less evident were non-conformist paths of spiritual searching known as God-Seeking. Writers, artists, and intellectuals in large numbers were drawn to private prayer, mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy, and Eastern religions. A fascination with elemental feeling, with the unconscious and the mythic, proliferated along with visions of coming catastrophe and redemption. The visible forms of God-Seeking were extensive. A series of 'Religious–Philosophical Meetings' were held in Saint Petersburg in 1901–1903, bringing together prominent intellectuals and clergy to explore together ways to reconcile the Church with the growing if undogmatic desire among the educated for spiritual meaning in life. Especially after 1905, various religious societies arose, though much of this religious upheaval was informal: circles and salons, séances, private prayer. Some clergy also sought to revitalize Orthodox faith, most famously the charismatic Father John of Kronstadt, who, until his death in 1908 (though his followers remained active long after), emphasized Christian living and sought to restore fervency and the presence of the miraculous in liturgical celebration. In 1909, a sensation-creating volume of essays appeared under the title Vekhi (Landmarks or Signposts), authored by a group of leading left-wing intellectuals, mostly former Marxists, who bluntly repudiated the materialism and atheism that had dominated the thought of the intelligentsia for generations as leading inevitably to failure and moral disaster. One sees a similarly renewed vigor and variety in religious life and spirituality among the lower classes, especially after the upheavals of 1905. Among the peasantry we see widespread interest in spiritual-ethical literature and non-conformist moral-spiritual movements; an upsurge in pilgrimage and other devotions to sacred spaces and objects (especially icons); persistent beliefs in the presence and power of the supernatural (apparitions, possession, walking-dead, demons, spirits, miracles, and magic); the renewed vitality of local "ecclesial communities" actively shaping their own ritual and spiritual lives, sometimes in the absence of clergy, and defining their own sacred places and forms of piety; and the proliferation of what the Orthodox establishment branded as 'sectarianism', including both non-Orthodox Christian denominations, notably Baptists, and various forms of deviant popular Orthodoxy and mysticism.[12]

Russian revolution

In 1914 in Russia, there were 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29,593 chapels, 112,629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 convents with a total of 95,259 monks and nuns.

The year 1917 was a major turning point for the history of Russia, and also the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government - which had granted the Church numerous privileges – was overthrown. After a few months of political turmoil, the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 and declared a separation of church and state. The government seized all church lands. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history. One of the first decrees of the new Communist government (issued in January 1918) declared freedom of "religious and anti-religious propaganda". This led to a marked decline in the power and influence of the Church. The Church was also caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War that began later the same year, and many leaders of the Church supported what would ultimately turn out to be the losing side (the White movement).

The Russian Orthodox Church supported the White Army in the Russian Civil War (see White movement) after the October Revolution. This may have further strengthened the Bolshevik animus against the church. According to Lenin, a communist regime cannot remain neutral on the question of religion but must show itself to be merciless towards it. There was no place for the church in Lenin's classless society.

Even before the end of the civil war and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church came under persecution of the Communist government. The Soviet government stood on a platform of militant atheism, viewing the church as a "counter-revolutionary" organization and an independent voice with a great influence in society. While the Soviet Union officially claimed religious toleration, in practice the government discouraged organized religion and did everything possible to remove religious influence from Soviet society.

The Russian Orthodox Church supported tsarist Russia, therefore creating another reason the Bolsheviks would attempt to diminish their influence on the Russian people and government.

Under Communist rule

Further information: Enemy of the people
The three-barred cross of the Russian Orthodox Church

"As early as August 1920 Lenin wrote to E. M. Skliansky, President of the Revolutionary War Soviet: "We are surrounded by the greens (we pack it to them), we will move only about 10-20 versty and we will choke by hand the bourgeoisie, the clergy and the landowners. There will be an award of 100,000 rubles for each one hanged." He was speaking about the future actions in the countries neighboring Russia.[13]

The Soviets' official religious stance was one of "religious freedom or tolerance", though the state established atheism as the only scientific truth (see also the Soviet or committee of the All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Scientific and Political Knowledge or Znanie which was until 1947 called The League of the Militant Godless).[14][15][16] Criticism of atheism was strictly forbidden and sometimes led to imprisonment.[17]

The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. The establishment of the gulags was an integral part of carrying out this objective as many Orthodox clergy and laymen were sent to camps like Svirlag and Solovki.

Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture being sent to these prison camps and or labour camps or also mental hospitals.[18][19] Many Orthodox (along with peoples of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation, in order to force them give up their religious convictions (see Piteşti prison).[20][21]

Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or used as warehouses, recreation centers, "museums of atheism", or even Gulags. It was impossible to build new churches.

Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Dmitri Egorov as an example, was removed from his prominent position and sent to the gulag, over his outspoken criticisms of the governments anti-Orthodox campaigns. Egorov later died in prison from complications caused by a protracted hungerstike. Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored (funded) and encouraged by the government, which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond to. The government youth organization, the Komsomol, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox Churches and harass worshippers. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press.

The history of Orthodoxy (and other religions) under Communism was not limited to this story of repression and secularization. Bolshevik policies toward religious belief and practice tended to vacillate over time between, on the one hand, a utopian determination to substitute secular rationalism for what they considered to be an unmodern, "superstitious" worldview and, on the other, pragmatic acceptance of the tenaciousness of religious faith and institutions. In any case, religious beliefs and practices did persist, in the domestic and private spheres but also in the scattered public spaces allowed by a state that recognized its failure to eradicate religion and the political dangers of an unrelenting culture war.[22]

In November 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches and the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church, restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.

The result of state sponsored atheism was to transform the Church into a persecuted and martyred Church. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.[23] This included people like the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna who was at this point a monastic. Along with her murder was Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; the Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; Grand Duke Sergei's secretary, Fyodor Remez; and Varvara Yakovleva, a sister from the Grand Duchess Elizabeth's convent. They were herded into the forest, pushed into an abandoned mineshaft and grenades were then hurled into the mineshaft. Her remains were buried in Jerusalem, in the Church of Maria Magdalene.

Russian Religious Renaissance

In the early 1920s, Lenin expelled the leading Russian religious thinkers. Forced to leave Russia, these intelligentsia settled in various European cities. The vessels which carried these intellectuals to Europe came to be known as the Philosophers' ships. With the establishment of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1925, these émigré theologians began to teach and write about Orthodox theology in a distinctive new way. The Fin de siècle intellectual movement in theology and philosophy actually reached its full expression outside Russia in what is now called the Russian Religious Renaissance.

Theologian Paul L. Gavrilyuk explains that the Russian Religious Renaissance was an attempt to interpret all aspects of human existence: culture, politics, even economics, in Christian terms. This Renaissance was brought about by the generation of Nicholas Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov, Nicholas Lossky, and Lev Shestov. [24]

Anti-religious campaign and persecution in the 1920s and 1930s

The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.

The sixth sector of the OGPU, led by Yevgeny Tuchkov, aggressively arrested and executed bishops, priests, and devout worshippers, such as Metropolitan Veniamin in Petrograd in 1922 for refusing to accede to the demand to hand in church valuables (including sacred relics). Some 20,000 people were executed just outside Butovo, including many clergy, ascetics and laymen.[25]

The church survived underground, and Freeze argues that the persecution in some ways made it stronger:

Indeed, the party's anti-religious policy arguably had a certain salutary effect: if nothing else, it helped to expunge the clerical dead wood, those who served from convenience rather than conviction. More important, the Bolsheviks unwittingly helped to foster religious revival in the 1920s: by demolishing the institutional church and shifting the authority to the parish, they helped to empower parishioners, above all, religious aktivisty. It was precisely because these non-clerical tserkovniki so aggressively propagated the faith and defended their church that they would become a prime target of repression in the 1930s.[26]

The mass closure of churches continued until 1939, by which time there was only a few hundred left. According to the official data of the government Commission on Rehabilitation:[27] in 1937 136,900 Orthodox clerics were arrested, 85,300 of them were shot dead; in 1938 28,300 arrested, 21,500 of them shot dead; in 1939 1,500 arrested, 900 of them shot dead; in 1940 5,100 arrested, 1,100 of them shot dead.

The Solovki Special Purpose Camp was established in the monastery on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea.[28] Eight metropolitans, twenty archbishops, and forty-seven bishops of the Orthodox Church died there, along with tens of thousands of the laity. Of these, 95,000 were put to death, executed by firing squad. Father Pavel Florensky was one of the New-martyrs of this particular period as well as Metropolitan Joseph (Ivan Petrovykh).

Many thousands of victims of persecution were subsequently recognized in a special canon of saints known as the "new-martyrs and confessors of Russia".

Patriarch Tikhon

Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow.

Patriarch Tikhon anathematized the communist government, which further antagonized relations.

The Soviet authorities sponsored I Renovationist (officially called II All-Russian Council) in Moscow from April 29 to May 8, 1923, which apart from confirming the decisions concerning changes in the canonical rules of ordinations and clerical marriage, put Patriarch Tikhon (then under house arrest, awaiting civil trial) on ecclesiastic trial in absentia, dethroned him, stripped him of his episcopacy, priesthood and monastic status. The Council then resolved to abolish the Patriarchate altogether and to return to the "collegial" form of church government. Tikhon refused to recognize the authority of the Council and the validity of the "court" decision. The Council's decisions had no effect on the life of the Patriarchal or "Tikhonite" Church, which continued to exist, albeit on an illegal footing.

Metropolitan Sergius

When Tikhon died in 1925, the Soviet authorities forbade patriarchal elections to be held.

Patriarchal Locum Tenens (acting Patriarch) Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky, 1887–1944), going against the opinion of a part of the Church's parishes, in 1927 issued an Appeal to the faithful, widely known as The Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, which proclaimed loyalty towards the Soviet state and condemned political dissent within the Church. The Appeal made it clear that its purpose was "legalisation" of the Patriarchal Church's structures, namely The Temporary Patriarchal Synod. The legalisation had been granted by the authorities shortly thitherto. Moreover, he demanded pledges of loyalty to the Soviet state from all Russian Orthodox clergy abroad.

This, as well as the fact that his actions were seen by many as usurpation of the power that he was not entitled to, being a deputy of imprisoned Metropolitan Peter (Polyansky) (according to the XXXIV Apostolic canon), solidified the already existing split with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia abroad and provoked another split with the Russian True Orthodox Church (Russian Catacomb Church) within the Soviet Union. The latter claimed to remain faithful to the Canons of the Apostles, declaring the part of the Church led by Metropolitan Sergius schism, sometimes coined as sergianism (сергианство). Due to this canonical disagreement it is disputed which church has been the legitimate successor to the Russian Orthodox Church that had existed before 1925.[29][30][31][32]

World War II rapprochement

After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius (Stragorodsky), Alexius (Simansky) and Nicholas (Yarushevich) were officially received by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. They received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, that elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus'. A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary which had been closed since 1918 was re-opened.

Postwar era

Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. It is estimated that 50,000 clergy were executed by the end of the Khrushchev era.[23] Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB.

In the postwar era, having changed its political orientation, the Orthodox Church reviewed its traditional positions. It went on to approve the accomplishments of the socialist state, and it called on believers to participate in the international peace movement. Modernist tendencies grew stronger, even in the religious aspects of ideology and practice. For example, the church no longer glorified senseless suffering, which it once considered as a road of "salvation."[33]

Relations between the church and state improved considerably. For his work, Patriarch Pimen was awarded testimonials and personal medals by the Soviet Peace Fund (1969 and 1971) and the gold Fighter for Peace medal from the Soviet Peace Committee. His predecessor Patriarch Aleksy was awarded four Orders of the Red Banner of Labor and other medals of the USSR.[33]

By 1987 the number of functioning churches in the Soviet Union stood at 6893 and the number of functioning monasteries to 18.[34]

Citizens of the USSR were permitted to form religious societies for their religious needs if at least 20 believers reached the age of 18. Believers who composed an association performed religious rites, organized meetings for prayer, and other purposes connected to worship. They hired ministers and other persons to meet their needs, collected voluntary contributions in houses of worship for the support of their property. The Government granted the free use of houses of worship and other publicly owned property of the USSR. Russian Orthodox priests were trained at theological academies and seminaries[33]

In the Soviet Union the charitable and social work formerly done by ecclesiastical authorities were regulated by the government. Church owned property was nationalized. Places of worship were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. After the advent of state funded universal education, the Church's influence on education declined. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it was restricted from evangelizing.


Then, beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 with the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus': Throughout the summer of that year, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities. The 1988 Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Zagorsk; many older churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.

Post-Soviet recovery

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world and has seen a resurgence in activity and vitality since the end of Soviet rule. Up to 90% of ethnic Russians and Belarusians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox (although to a large degree this is a cultural identification, rather than a religious one). In keeping with other Orthodox churches, which do not place a high importance on weekly church attendance, the number of people regularly attending services is relatively low, however it has grown significantly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In December 2006 the Church had over 27,000 parishes, 169 bishops, 713 monasteries, two universities, five theological academies and 75 theological schools in the territory of the former Soviet Union and has a well-established presence in many other countries all over the world. In recent years many church buildings have been officially returned to the Church, most of these being in a deteriorated condition.

There have been difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, especially since 2002, when Pope John Paul II created a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory. The leadership of the Russian Church saw this action as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is but one of many equal Christian organizations, and that as such it is straying into territory that was already Christianized by the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believes that the small Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the 18th century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy with a presence and status in Russia, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is present in other countries (including constructing a cathedral in Rome, near the Vatican).

The issue of encroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to many members of the Russian Orthodox Church. They argue that the Orthodox Church now finds itself in a weakened position as a result of decades of secular Communist rule, and is therefore unable to compete on an equal footing with Western Churches. Thus, proselytizing by mostly foreign-based Catholics, Protestant denominations, and by many non-traditional sects can be seen as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church. On the other hand, many of these groups have argued that the position of Russian Orthodoxy is today no weaker than that of most Western European Churches. Smaller religious movements, particularly Baptists and members of other Protestant denominations, that have become active in Russia in the past decade claim that the state provides unfair support to the Orthodox Church and suppresses others, referring to the 1997 Russian law, under which those religious organizations that could not provide official proof of their existence for the preceding 15 years were seriously restricted in their rights and ability to worship. The law was formally presented as a way to combat destructive cults, but was condemned by representatives of other religions and human rights organizations as being written in a manner that explicitly favored the Russian Orthodox Church, as the Soviet Union had prohibited the establishment of other religions. Consequently, this law gave full rights only to a small number of "first-rank" religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The situation is expected to normalise as the 15-year window starts to slide over the post-Communist period.

A 17th-century Stroganov icon

Due to its deep cultural roots, many members of the Russian government are keen to display their respect for the Church. It is common for the President of Russia to publicly meet with the Patriarch on Church holidays such as Easter (Paskha or Пасха in Russian). Meetings with representatives of Islam and Buddhism occur less frequently.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), based in New York City, is a jurisdiction of the church which was separated from Moscow for several decades. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was formed in the 1920s by Russian communities outside Communist Russia who refused to recognize the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, as they believed it had fallen under the influence of the Bolsheviks. Relations between the two churches began improving in the 1990s, and there was a formal reconciliation in 2007 through the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate This agreement made the Church Abroad a mostly self-governing branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In November 2013 large group of Russian entrepreneurs, public figures and scientists have called for defining a special role of Orthodoxy in the Constitution. The appeal has been submitted to the president, the two houses of the Russian Parliament and Russian regional parliaments. The petitioners say their address was the final document of the conference titled "The Triumph and Collapse of an Empire: Lessons from History". According to them "The state sovereignty of the Russian Federation is law. Our call is for backing up its spiritual sovereignty, too, by declaring the Orthodoxy's special role in the Russian Constitution".[35]

Mission in America

Russian traders settled in Alaska during the 18th century. In 1740, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated on board a Russian ship off the Alaskan coast. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska—to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Their missionary endeavors contributed to the conversion of many Alaskan natives to the Orthodox faith. A diocese was established, whose first bishop was Saint Innocent of Alaska. The headquarters of this North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from Alaska to California around the mid-19th century.

It was moved again in the last part of the same century, this time to New York. This transfer coincided with a great movement of Uniates to the Orthodox Church in the eastern United States. This movement, which increased the numbers of Orthodox Christians in America, resulted from a conflict between John Ireland, the politically powerful Roman Catholic Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Alexis Toth, an influential Ruthenian Catholic priest. Archbishop Ireland's refusal to accept Fr. Toth's credentials as a priest induced Fr. Toth to return to the Orthodox Church of his ancestors, and further resulted in the return of tens of thousands of other Uniate Catholics in North America to the Orthodox Church, under his guidance and inspiration. For this reason, Ireland is sometimes ironically remembered as the "Father of the Orthodox Church in America." These Uniates were received into Orthodoxy into the existing North American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time large numbers of Greeks and other Orthodox Christians were also immigrating to America. At this time all Orthodox Christians in North America were united under the omophorion (Church authority and protection) of the Patriarch of Moscow, through the Russian Church's North American diocese. The unity was not merely theoretical, but was a reality, since there was then no other diocese on the continent. Under the aegis of this diocese, which at the turn of the 20th century was ruled by Bishop (and future Patriarch) Tikhon, Orthodox Christians of various ethnic backgrounds were ministered to, both non-Russian and Russian; a Syro-Arab mission was established in the episcopal leadership of Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, who was the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in America.

Churches in America

The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. One of its effects was a flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Revolution of 1917 severed large sections of the Russian church—dioceses in America, Japan, and Manchuria, as well as refugees in Europe—from regular contacts with the mother church.

In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that dioceses of the Church of Russia that were cut off from the governance of the highest Church authority (i.e. the Patriarch) should continue independently until such time as normal relations with the highest Church authority could be resumed; and on this basis, the North American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church (known as the "Metropolia") continued to exist in a de facto autonomous mode of self-governance. The financial hardship that beset the North American diocese as the result of the Russian Revolution resulted in a degree of administrative chaos, with the result that other national Orthodox communities in North America turned to the Churches in their respective homelands for pastoral care and governance.

A group of bishops outside the boundaries of Russia gathered in Sremski-Karlovci, Yugoslavia, and adopted a clearly political monarchist stand. The group claimed to speak as a synod for the entire "free" Russian church. This group, which to this day includes a sizable portion of the Russian emigration, was formally dissolved in 1922 by Patriarch Tikhon, who then appointed metropolitans Platon and Evlogy as ruling bishops in America and Europe, respectively. Both of these metropolitans continued to entertain relations intermittently with the synod in Karlovci, but neither of them accepted it as a canonical authority. Between the World Wars, the Metropolia coexisted and at times cooperated with this independent synod, later known as Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), sometimes also called the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The two groups eventually went their separate ways. ROCOR, which moved its headquarters to North America after the Second World War, sought unsuccessfully to establish jurisdiction over all parishes of Russian origin in North America. The Metropolia, as a former diocese of the Russian Church, looked to the latter as its highest church authority, albeit one from which it was temporarily cut off under the conditions of the communist regime in Russia.

After World War II, the Patriarchate of Moscow made unsuccessful attempts to regain control over these groups. After resuming communication with Moscow in the early 1960s, and being granted autocephaly in 1970, the Metropolia became known as the Orthodox Church in America.[36][37] However, recognition of this autocephalous status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with the OCA. The Patriarchate of Moscow, through its agreement with the OCA, renounced its former canonical claims in the United States and Canada; it also acknowledged an autonomous church established in Japan that same year, the Orthodox Church of Japan.

On 17 May 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia signed the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the provisions of the Act, the Moscow Patriarchate guarantees that ROCOR will maintain its independent hierarchy, continuing to be "an indissoluble, self-governing part of the Local Russian Orthodox Church," the only change being that when she elects a new First Hierarch, his election must be confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow. In turn, ROCOR recognizes the Patriarch of Moscow as the head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church.

See also


  1. Damick, Andrew S. "Life of the Apostle Andrew". chrysostom.org. Retrieved 2007-07-12.
  2. Voronov, Theodore (2001-10-13). "The Baptism of Russia and Its Significance for Today". orthodox.clara.net. Archived from the original on 2007-04-18. Retrieved 2007-07-12.
  3.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "The Religion of Russia". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  4. Karl August von Hase. A history of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1855. Page 481.
  5. Kenneth Scott Latourette, Eight History of the Expansion of Christianity (1939) 3:369-71
  6. Stephen Neill , A history of Christian missions (1964). p 439
  7. Neill , A history of Christian missions (1964). p 439-49
  8. Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, page 242
  9. Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, page 231
  10. Marc Raeff, Catherine the Great: A Profile (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 298.
  11. Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, page 229
  12. A. S. Pankratov, Ishchushchie boga (Moscow, 1911); Vera Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Gregory Freeze, 'Subversive Piety: Religion and the Political Crisis in Late Imperial Russia', Journal of Modern History, vol. 68 (June 1996): 308-50; Mark Steinberg and Heather Coleman, eds. Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007)
  13. Christ Is Calling You : A Course in Catacomb Pastorship by Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa Published by Saint Hermans Press April 1997 ISBN 978-1-887904-52-0
  14. Dimitry Pospielovsky, History of the Orthodox Church in the History of Russia 1998 St Vladimir's Press ISBN 0-88141-179-5 pg 291
  15. Dimitry Pospielovsky, A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Antireligious Policies, Palgrave Macmillan (December, 1987) ISBN 0-312-38132-8
  16. Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless (Cornell University Press 1998 ISBN 978-0-8014-3485-3)
  17. Sermons to young people by Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa. Given at the Chapel of the Romanian Orthodox Church Seminary, The Word online. Bucharest http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/resources/sermons/calciu_christ_calling.htm
  18. Father Arseny 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Introduction pg. vi - 1. St Vladimir's Seminary Press ISBN 0-88141-180-9
  19. The Washington Post Anti-Communist Priest Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, November 26, 2006; Page C09 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/25/AR2006112500783.html
  20. Dumitru Bacu, The Anti-Humans. Student Re-Education in Romanian Prisons, Soldiers of the Cross, Englewood, Colorado, 1971. Originally written in Romanian as Piteşti, Centru de Reeducare Studenţească, Madrid, 1963
  21. Adrian Cioroianu, Pe umerii lui Marx. O introducere în istoria comunismului românesc ("On the Shoulders of Marx. An Incursion into the History of Romanian Communism"), Editura Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2005
  22. John Shelton Curtis, The Russian Church and the Soviet State (Boston: Little Brown, 1953); Jane Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Dimitry V. Pospielovsky, The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime 1917-1982 (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984); idem., A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Anti-Religious Policies (New York; St. Martin's Press, 1987); Glennys Young, Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997); Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); William B. Husband, "Godless Communists": Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000; Edward Roslof, Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 1905-1946 (Bloomington, Indiana, 2002)
  23. 1 2 Ostling, Richard. "Cross meets Kremlin" TIME Magazine. June 24, 2001. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,150718,00.html
  24. New York Times article on Shrine to Stalins killing fields
  25. Freeze, "Recent Scholarship on Russian Orthodoxy" (2008) p 276
  26. Дамаскин (Орловский). Гонения на Русскую Православную Церковь в советский период
  27. Solovetsky Camp. Solovki Camp. Solovetsky Island
  28. Alekseev, Valery. ИСТОРИКО-КАНОНИЧЕСКАЯ СПРАВКА о причинах, побуждающих верующих покидать Московскую патриархию (in Russian). Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-07-12. (Created for the government of Moldova).
  29. Talantov, Boris (1968). "The Moscow Patriarchate and Sergianism". Orthodox Christian Information Center (orthodoxinfo.com). Retrieved 2007-07-12. (English translation).
  30. Belikow, Yaroslav (December 11, 2004). "The Visit of His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus to the Parishes of Argentina and Venezuela". Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (russianorthodoxchurch.ws). Retrieved 2007-07-12.
  31. "Patriarch Tikhon's Catacomb Church. History of the Russian True Orthodox Church". Церковные Ведомости Русской Истинно-Православной Церкви (catacomb.org.ua). Retrieved 2007-07-12.
  32. 1 2 3 http://slovari.yandex.ru/dict/bse/article/00062/16200.htm
  33. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia pg.313
  34. "Proposal for enshrining special role of Orthodoxy in Constitution sparks". Itar Tass. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  35. Matusiak, John. "A History and Introduction of the Orthodox Church in America". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 2007-07-12.
  36. "ROCOR and OCA". OrthodoxWiki. Retrieved 2007-07-12.

Further reading


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