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NIKON (16051681), patriarch of Moscow, Russian Orthodox church reformer. Nikon briefly dominated the Russian political and ecclesiastical scene in the mid-seventeenth century. Not least of his achievements was that he rose from utter obscurity to do so. He served a Moscow parish for ten years but turned his back on the capital in the early 1630s when his three children all died suddenly. Both he and his wife decided to become monastics. Much of the time Nikon lived as a solitary (16341643). He was, however, elected abbot of the Kozheezero hermitage and by 1646 was abbot of an important monastery in Moscow. There he was befriended by the tsar. Hardly three years later he was appointed metropolitan (archbishop) of Novgorod and by 1652 was in line for election to the patriarchal throne itself.

By this time Nikon was clearly aligned with the reformers of the Russian church, the "God-seekers." They had encouraged a notable revival in the moral and liturgical life of the Russian people. At the time of his election Nikon had elicited an unusual promise of obedience from the tsar and boyars of the realm. He was now to implement it in an unprecedented fashion. He proceeded at an accelerated paceand at his own initiativewith new liturgical reforms. The principle on which he based these reforms was that Orthodoxy was universal rather than merely Muscovite; that Russia gained its Orthodoxy from the Greeks; and that Greek models should be followed wherever any discrepancy could be detected between Greek and Russian practice. Nikon did not pause to consider that such discrepancies could well be legitimate and that seventeenth-century Greek practice might not be any more "authentic" than Russian.

Popular piety was outraged by some of Nikon's earliest reforms, not least because they involved the use of three fingers instead of two for the frequently used sign of the cross. In any case, Russians had long been used to thinking of Muscovite faith and practice as normative. Within a few years a schism developed. Whereas Nikon's own commitment to his reforms seems to have wavered within a few years, Old Ritualists (otherwise known as Old Believers) consistently accepted persecution rather than tolerate the new ways.

Paradoxically, the Russian church councils of 1666 and 1667, which accepted the Nikonian reforms and excommunicated the conservative Old Ritualists, also sat in judgment on Nikon himself. Their hidden agenda was the question of authority. Nikon was seen by the councils as having too readily accepted papal standards of authority. For example, he had published in Russian the spurious Donation of Constantine (a ninth-century document fabricated to strengthen the power of the Roman see), and he advocated the medieval formulation of the "two swords," which was held to justify the pope's authority over church and state alike. He insisted that the priesthood possessed primacy vis-à-vis the ruler and resisted any secular challenge to church prerogatives or ownership of land. All this caused resentment among the boyars and eventually also in the tsar. It was Tsar Aleksei himself who saw to it in 1666 that the church council depose his former friend Nikon. He thus paved the way for the 1720 reforms of Peter the Great, which involved the absolute (administrative) subjugation of church to state.

Nikon was subsequently exiled to the north and his status reduced to that of a simple monk. When the new tsar, Fedor, permitted him to return to Moscow (1681) it was already too late: Nikon died on the journey south at Yaroslavl. Nonetheless, his burial was that of a patriarch.


A wide range of contemporary documents relating to Nikon (some of them from his own hand) were translated by William Palmer as The Patriarch and the Tsar, 6 vols. (London, 18711876). A number of these have yet to appear in the original. An important study of Nikon's ideas is provided in M. V. Zyzykin's Patriarkh Nikon: Ego gosudarstvennye i kanonicheskie idei (Warsaw, 19311938). A vivid and authoritative picture of the age is provided by Pierre Pascal in Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol: La crise religieuse au dix-septième siècle en Russie, 2d ed. (Paris, 1963).

Sergei Hackel (1987)

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