The Russian Orthodox Church, also known as the Church of Russia, is one of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches, ranking fifth after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. It exercises jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in Russia and surrounding Slavic lands, as well as exarchates and patriarchal representation churches around the world. It also exercises jurisdiction over the autonomous Church of Japan and Orthodox Christians in China. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia is currently His Holiness Alexei II.
According to tradition, St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called, while preaching the Gospel, stopped at the Kievan hills to bless the future city of Kiev. But it was Photius Patriarch of Constantinople (858 – 886) who first initiated missionary work on a large scale among these Slavs.
The south of Russia was blessed with the work of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Equal-to-the-Apostles, the Illuminators of the Slavs. Although their work was around 863 in Moravia (roughly equivalent to the modern Slovakia), the benefit was to all the Slavic lands (particularly Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia).
The Kiev period (988-1237)
They not only brought Christianity in a common language, they brought Byzantium. The Slavs received a fully articulated system of Christian doctrine and a fully developed Christian civilization. The age of the Seven Councils was complete and the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation had already been worked out. Because people were preached to in their own tongue, and of taking services in Slavonic, they truly could make Christianity their own.
Around 864 Patriarch Photius sent a bishop to Russia, but this was stopped by Oleg, who assumed power at Kiev (the chief Russian city at this time) in 878. Christian ideas from Byzantium, Bulgaria, and Scandinavia, still came into Russia.
In 954 Princess Olga of Kiev was baptized. This paved the way for what is called the greatest events in the history of the Russian, the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the Baptism of Russia in 988. Olga’s grandson Vladimir (reigned 980-1015) was converted to Christianity and married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor. Orthodoxy became the State religion of Russia, and remained such until 1917. (Russia was not completely converted to Christianity at this time, and the Church was at first restricted mainly to the cities, while much of the countryside remained pagan until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.)
The 10th and 11th centuries majestic churches and monasteries were built. St. Anthony of the Caves brought the traditions of Athonian monasticism to Russia in 1051.
The Russian Church during the Kievan period was subject to Constantinople, and until 1237 the Metropolitans of Russia were usually Greek. The Russian Church continues to sing in Greek the solemn greeting to a bishop, eis polla eti, despota ("Many years to you, Master"), in memory of the days when the Metropolitan came from Constantinople. Most of the rest of the bishops were native Russians.
Mongol Tartars over Russia (1237-1448)
In the 12th century, the period of feudal divisions, the Russian Church remained the only bearer of the idea of unity of the Russian people, resisting the centrifugal aspirations and feudal strife among Russian princes. Even the Tartar invasion, this greatest ever misfortune that struck Russia in the 13th century, failed to break the Russian Church. The Church managed to survive as a real force and was the comforter of the people in their plight. It made a great spiritual, material and moral contribution to the restoration of the political unity of Russia as a guarantee of its future victory over the invaders.
The Russia which emerged from the Mongol period was a Russia greatly changed in outward appearance. Kiev never recovered from the sack of 1237, and its place was taken in the fourteenth century by the Principality of Moscow. It was the Grand Dukes of Moscow who inspired the resistance to the Mongols and who led Russia at Kulikovo. The rise of Moscow was closely bound up with the Church. When the town was still small and comparatively unimportant, Peter, Metropolitan of Russia from 1308 to 1326, decided to settle there; and henceforward it remained the city of the chief hierarch of Russia.
Russian principalities began to unite around Moscow in the 14th century. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to play an important role in the revival of unified Russia. Outstanding Russian bishops acted as spiritual guides and assistants to the Princes of Moscow. St. Metropolitan Alexis (1354-1378) educated Prince Dimitry Donskoy. He, just as St. Metropolitan Jonas (1448-1471) later, by the power of his authority helped the Prince of Moscow to put an end to the feudal discords and preserve the unity of the state. St. Sergius of Radonezh, a great ascetic of the Russian Church, gave his blessing to Prince Dimitry Donskoy to fight the Kulikovo Battle which made the beginning of the liberation of Russia from the invaders.
During these years, Russian painters indigenized the iconographic traditions which they had received from the Eastern Christian Empire. Icon painting flourished above all among the spiritual children of Saint Sergius. One of the finest of all Orthodox icons, from the artistic point of view, the Holy Trinity Icon, by Saint Andrei Rublev (1370?-1430?) is from this period.
Autocephalous Russian Church
Liberating itself from the invaders, the Russian state gathered strength and so did the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1448, not long before the Byzantine Empire collapsed, the Russian Church became independent from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.
The Russian Church thus gained its independence, more by chance than from any deliberate design. Hitherto the Patriarch of Constantinople had appointed the head of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan. At the Council of Florence the Metropolitan was a Greek, Isidore. A leading supporter of the union with Rome, Isidore returned to Moscow in 1441 and proclaimed the decrees of Florence, but he met with no support from the Russians. He was imprisoned by the Grand Duke, but after a time was allowed to escape, and went back to Italy. The chief see was thus left vacant; but the Russians could not ask the Patriarch for a new Metropolitan, because until 1453 the official Church at Constantinople continued to accept the Florentine Union. Reluctant to take action on their own, the Russians delayed for several years. Eventually in 1448 a council of Russian bishops proceeded to elect a Metropolitan without further reference to Constantinople. After 1453, when the Florentine Union was abandoned at Constantinople, communion between the Patriarchate and Russia was restored, but Russia continued to appoint its own chief hierarch. Henceforward the Russian Church was self-governing, but its autocephaly was not ratified by the rest of the Church until 1589.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there was only one nation that saw itself as capable of assuming leadership in Eastern Christendom. The growing might of the Russian state also contributed to the growing authority of the autocephalous Russian Church. To the Russian people, it was a sign from God, that at the very moment when the Byzantine Empire was ending, they themselves were throwing off the few remaining vestiges of Tartar control. To them, Moscow became the Third Rome, a status never acknowledged by the remainder of the Church but nevertheless which served to inspire Russian Orthodox Christians.
Saint Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorsky, 1433?-1508), a monk from a remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries. Saint Joseph, Abbot of Volokalamsk (1439-1515), replied in defense of monastic landholding. This became known as the dispute between the "the Possessors" and the "Non-Possessors". (Note that both are saints of the Church.)
As the "Third Rome", the tsar derived his power and right to rule from being God's chosen representative on earth. So, to keep his status, he needed to protect and promote the church. In the Byzantium tradition, the relationship between the church and the state acted as a check on the power of the tsar. The metropolitan and the tsar were equals, and the metropolitan had the right to censure the tsar. The dispute between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors challenged this idea because about a third of the land in Russia belonged to monasteries at this time.
The Possessors and the Non-Possessors held different views about the role the church should play in society and in politics. When the Possessors triumphed, the church gained the right to wealth at the expense of political influence. The tsar became superior to the metropolitan, and could now interfere in secular matters of the church. The tsar was cut off from any source of accountability. Also, behind the question of monastic property lay two different conceptions of the monastic life, and ultimately two different views of the relation of the Church to the world. The Possessors emphasized the social obligations of monasticism. Monks argued that they did not use their wealth on themselves, but to care for the sick and poor, to show hospitality, and to teach. To do these things efficiently, monasteries needed money and therefore they must own land. (Possessors emphasized unity in preaching and worship, beauty and dignity in ritual.)
The Non-Possessors argued on the other hand that almsgiving is the duty of the laity, while a monk’s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example. To do these things properly a monk must be detached from the world, and only those who are vowed to complete poverty can achieve true detachment. Monks who are landowners cannot avoid being tangled up in secular anxieties, and because they become absorbed in worldly concerns, they act and think in a worldly way. (Non-Possessors were more concerned with freedom in religious practice and taught that God was most pleased with a simple, contrite heart, even in the absence of an elaborate Liturgy. They were the scholars and mystics, who upheld evangelical poverty.)
In 1589 Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Russian patriarch, and the autocephaly of the Church of Russia was officially acknowledged by the Church. The patriarchs of the ancient churches recognized the Russian patriarch as the fifth in honor, defining the canonical boundaries of the Church of Russia as being that of the Russian Empire.
When Nikon of Moscow was the primate, the Russian Church was engaged in 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.
The Synodical Church (1700-1917)
The beginning of the 18th century in Russia was marked by sweeping reforms carried out by Peter I. The reforms did not leave the Russian Church untouched. After the death of Patriarch Adrian in 1700, Peter I delayed the election of the new Primate of the Church because he did not want another Nikon. He established, in 1721, a collective supreme administration known as the Holy and Governing Synod. The constitution of the Synod was not based on Orthodox Canon Law, but copied from the Protestant ecclesiastical synods in Germany. Its members were not chosen by the Church but nominated by the Emperor; and the Emperor who nominated could also dismiss them at will. Whereas a Patriarch, holding office for life, could perhaps defy the Tsar, a member of the Holy Synod was allowed no scope for heroism: he was simply retired. The Synod remained the supreme church body in the Russian Church for almost two centuries.
In the Synodal period, the Church paid a special attention to the development of religious education and mission in the provinces. Old churches were restored and new churches were built.
The Holy Synod, consisted of the most influential Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops. Moscow itself was administered by a territorial Archbishop, combined with Vladimir (1721-1745), with Sevsk (1745-1764), with Kaluga (1764-1799), then Metropolitan, combined with Kaluga, (1799-1917).
The early Synodical period is sometimes represented as a time of decline, with the Church in complete subservience to the State. A time of ill-advised westernization in Church art, Church music, and theology.
The Synodical period of the nineteenth century, was far from being a period of decline, it was a time of great revival in the Russian Church. People turned away from religious and pseudo-religious movements in the contemporary west, and fell back once more upon the true spiritual forces of Orthodoxy. With this revival in the spiritual life went a new enthusiasm for missionary work, while in theology, as in spirituality, Orthodoxy freed itself from a slavish imitation of the west.
20th century the Russian Church
Early in the 20th century the Russian Church began preparations for convening an All-Russian Council. But it was to be convened only after the 1917 Revolution. Among its major actions was the restoration of the patriarchal office in the Russian Church. The Council elected Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (1917-1925). St. Tikhon of Moscow exerted every effort to calm the destructive passions kindled up by the revolution.
When in 1921-1922 the Soviet government demanded that church valuables be given in aid to the population starving because of the failure of crops in 1921, a conflict erupted between the Church and the new authorities who decided to use this situation to demolish the Church to the end. By the beginning of World War II the church structure was almost completely destroyed throughout the country. There were only a few bishops who remained free and who could perform their duties. Some bishops managed to survive in remote parts or under the disguise of priests. Only a few hundred churches were opened for services throughout the Soviet Union. Most of the clergy were either imprisoned in concentration camps, where many of them perished, or hid in catacombs, while thousands of priests changed occupation. World War II forced Stalin to mobilize all the national resources for defense, including the Russian Orthodox Church as the people's moral force. This process, which can be described as a "patriotic union", culminated in Stalin's receiving on September 4, 1943, Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergiy Stragorodsky and Metropolitan Alexy Simansky and Nikolay Yarushevich.
- DECR Communication Service Communication service of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate
- Patriarchia.RU official portal of the Moscow Patriarchate (Russian only)
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