In early Greek sources (eleventh and twelfth centuries), the term signified a province, either secular or ecclesiastical. In Rus', and later in Russia, the term was used only in the ecclesiastical sense to mean the area under the jurisdiction of a prelate.
Church organization evolved along with the spread of Christianity. The metropolitan of Kiev headed the Church in Rus'. Bishops and dioceses soon were instituted in other principalities. Fifteen dioceses were created in the pre-Mongol period. Compared with their small, compact Greek models centered on cities, these dioceses were vast in extent with vague boundaries and thinly populated, like the Rus' land itself.
The Mongol invasions changed the course of political and ecclesiastical development. The political center shifted north, ultimately finding a home in Moscow. Kiev and principalities to the southwest were lost, although claims to them were never relinquished. Church organization adapted to these changes. In the initial onslaught, several dioceses were devastated and many remained vacant for long periods. Later new dioceses were created, including the diocese of Sarai established at the Golden Horde. By 1488 when the growing division in the church organization solidified with one metropolitan in Moscow and another in Kiev, there were eighteen dioceses. Nine dioceses (not including the metropolitan's see) were subordinated to Moscow; nine dioceses looked to the metropolitan seated in Kiev.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the elevation of the metropolitan of Moscow to patriarch (1589), periods of reform directed at strengthening church organization and raising the spiritual level of parishioners, and the subordination of the see of Kiev with its suffragens to the Moscow patriarch (1686). Ecclesiastical structure responded to these profound changes. By 1700 the number of dioceses had increased to twenty-one (excluding the Patriarchal see) as the Church struggled to create an effective organization able to meet the spiritual needs of the people and suppress dissident voices that had emerged. Thirteen of these dioceses were headed by metropolitans, seven by archbishops, and one by a bishop.
In 1721 the patriarchate was abolished and replaced by the Holy Synod. Despite this momentous change in ecclesiastical organization, the long-term trend of increasing the number of dioceses continued. In 1800 there were thirty-six dioceses; by 1917 the number had grown to sixty-eight. More and smaller dioceses responded to increased and changing responsibilities, particularly in the areas of education, charity, and missionary activity, but also in the area of social control and surveillance as servants of the state.
The Bolshevik Revolution destroyed the organization of the Russian Church, making prisoners, fugitives, exiles, and martyrs of its prelates. The catastrophes that characterized the beginning of World War II prompted Stalin to initiate a partial rapprochement with the Church. This permitted a revival of its organization, but under debilitating constraints. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church entered a new period institutionally. Constraints were lifted, the dioceses revived and liberated. By 2003 there were 128 functioning dioceses.
See also: russian orthodox church
Cracraft, James. (1971). The Church Reform of Peter the Great. London and Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan and Co. Ltd.
Fennell, John. (1995). A History of the Russian Church to 1448. London and New York: Longman.
Muller, Alexander V., trans. and ed. (1972). The Spiritual Regulation of Peter the Great. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Popielovsky, Dmitry. (1984). The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime 1917–1982. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Russian Orthodox Church. <http://www.russianorthodox-church.org.ru/en.htm>
Cathy J. Potter
So diocesan XV.