Orthodox Church of Russia

views updated


The Russians are an East Slavic people whose ancestors moved into the vast plain between the Baltic and Black Seas in the sixth century. Initially the East Slavic tribes formed a large number of warring city-states, but in the ninth century political power began to consiolidate first at Novgorod and later at Kiev (882). Christianity became the official religion under the Grand Prince Vladimir I (d. 1015) who married Anna, sister of Byzantine Emperor Basil II. Prince Vladimir was baptized along with many of his followers in the waters of the Dnieper river in 988 a.d. according to the Greek rite. Thus, Byzantine Christianity became the faith of the three peoples who trace their origins to Rus' of Kiev: the Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Russians.

The Russian Church became semi-autonomous in 1037 when the patriarch of Constantinople consecrated

Theopemptus metropolitan of Kiev. When the city was destroyed during the Mongol invasions (123740), large numbers of people moved northward. By the fourteenth century a new center grew up around the principality of Moscow, and the metropolitans of Kiev took up residence there. In 1448 Metropolitan Isidore was deposed for having accepted, on behalf of his Church, the union with Rome that had been ratified at the Council of Florence. His successor changed the primatial title to metropolitan of Moscow.

Third Rome. About the time that Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia was throwing off Mongol rule and becoming an independent state. Because the old Rome was said to have fallen into heresy, and the New Rome, Constantinople, had fallen under control of the Turks, some Russians began to speak of Moscow as the "Third Rome" that would carry on the traditions of Orthodoxy and Roman civilization. The czar (caesar) was now the champion and protector of Orthodoxy just as the Byzantine emperor once had been. The Russian Church had already begun to develop its own style of iconography and church architecture and its own theological and spiritual traditions.

A Russian Orthodox patriarchate was officially established by Constantinople in 1589, but it was abolished by Peter the Great in 1721. The Church was then administered by a holy synod under regulations that brought the Church under close state supervision. During this period, especially in the nineteenth century, a great revival of Russian Orthodox theology, spirituality, and monasticism took place.

In August 1917, after the abdication of the czar but before the Bolshevik Revolution, a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church began in Moscow. It reestablished the Russian patriarchate and elected Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow to that office. But before the synod ended, it was learned that the metropolitan of Kiev had been murdered and that persecutions had begun. Patriarch Tikhon was outspoken in his criticism of the Communists in his early years as patriarch, but moderated his public position after a year in prison.

Patriarch Tikhon and his successor Patriarch Sergius worked out a modus vivendi with the government that set the tone of church-state relations under Communism. In 1927 Patriarch Sergius declared loyalty to the Soviet government and promised the support of the Russian Orthodox Church on all issues. In return, the state allowed the Church a very restricted sphere of activity, limited in practice to liturgical worship. Persecution and repression of religion in the U.S.S.R. took different forms in different periods: virtually all the theologians and leaders of the Orthodox Church were either exiled in the 1920s or executed in the 1930s. Conditions improved somewhat during World War II and in Stalin's later years, but Khrushchev, intent on "abolishing" religion by 1980, began to intensify the persecutions in 1959.

Many churches were closed after the revolution, and another massive wave of church closings took place under Khrushchev in 1959 to 1962. In 1914, 54,457 churches were registered, but in the late 1970s there were only about 6,800. The number of functioning monasteries (1,498 in 1914) was down to 12, and the 57 theological seminaries operating in 1914 had been reduced to three in Moscow, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), and Odessa, with theological academies of higher studies in the first two cities.

Perestroika and Glasnost. With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985 the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church began to improve dramatically. His policies of perestroika ("restructuring") and glasnost ("openness") gave the Church greater freedom and recognition. Early in 1988 Gorbachev received the leaders of the Orthodox Church in the Kremlin on the eve of the millennium celebrations commemorating the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988. Patriarch Pimen of Moscow and All Russia presided over the Divine Liturgy, surrounded by members of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and witnessed by Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Vatican secretary of state who represented Pope John Paul II, Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury, and representatives of other Christian bodies. When aged and ailing Patriarch Pimen died May 3, 1990, the Church moved rapidly to name his successor. A council composed of bishops and elected priests and laity, using secret ballots for the first time since 1918, selected the 61-year-old metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod as Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia.

In October 1992 the Saint Tikhon of Moscow Theological Institute opened in Moscow for training Orthodox laity. The students, more or less evenly divided between women and men, numbered some 650 in the first year. On Feb. 24, 1993, the Russian Orthodox Church established Saint John the Theologian University in Moscow to continue the Russian humanist educational tradition and to offer an in-depth study of the theological disciplines as well. In 1994, Patriarch Aleksy II stated that there were 15,985 churches in the territory of the former Soviet Union, served by 12,841 priests and 1,402 deacons. His Church now had three theological academies (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev), 14 seminaries, and a total of 47 schools with about 4,000 students. Two hundred eighty-one monastic communities existed or were being formed.

The membership of the Orthodox Church of Russia is estimated at 60 million. In December 1993, the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center released the results of a poll that documented an extraordinary growth of religious faith in Russia. It showed that between one half and three quarters of the Russian people believed in God, depending on how the question was worded. Although 11 percent; said they were Orthodox when growing up, 28 percent reported themselves as Orthodox now, indicating that the Russian Orthodox Church had more than doubled its membership. The trend towards theism was strongest in the 17 to 24 age group, where 30 percent had converted from atheism to belief in God. An astonishing 75 percent of those surveyed reported having "a great deal of confidence in the Church." But another survey conducted by the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies in August 1994 revealed that while 52 percent of those surveyed considered themselves believers, only 2 percent attended Church services at least once a week.

New Freedom, New Challenges. The Russian Church is struggling to adapt to the rapid changes taking place in Russian society. The Church has strictly enforced a ban on the participation of clergy in politics and seems to be developing a closer relationship with the Russian military. The patriarchate has vigorously opposed proselytizing activities of other religious groups in the country and supported a bill passed by the parliament but unsigned by President Yeltsin restricting the activity of such groups. In the fall of 1994 the Russian government agreed to help finance the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a massive nineteenth-century structure leveled by Stalin in 1931 that once dominated the Moscow skyline. Patriarch Aleksy laid the new cornerstone on Jan. 7, 1995.

An assembly of the entire Russian Orthodox episcopate took place in Moscow from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 1994. Patriarch Aleksy told the bishops that the Church had gone through a very difficult period since their last meeting in 1992, having had to deal with problems relating to liturgical practice, proper theological and pastoral formation, and ecclesial service to society. The assembly turned down a call from conservative elements for the Moscow patriarchate to withdraw from all ecumenical organizations, but it condemned the missionary activity being carried out in Russia by American Methodist, Evangelical, and Presbyterian groups and by certain South Korean Protestants. The bishops sanctioned the beginning of a vast effort to catechize and evangelize the Russian population and set up a special commission to review liturgical practice and texts to make the liturgy more easily understood by the faithful.

The gradual disintegration of the Communist system and the Soviet Union created centrifugal forces that threatened the unity of the Moscow patriarchate. In January 1990, when conditions were already changing, the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Moscow and decided to grant a certain measure of autonomy to the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and Byelorussia (now Belarus). Each of these were made exarchates of the Moscow patriarchate, with the optional names "The Ukrainian Orthodox Church" and "The Byelorussian (now Belarussian) Orthodox Church." Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991, and the independence of the various successor states, the patriarchate granted similar autonomous status to the Orthodox Churches in Estonia, Latvia, and Moldova.

But because the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was demanding greater freedom, on Oct. 27, 1990, another session of the Bishops' Council granted "independence and self-government" to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and abolished the title "Ukrainian Exarchate." The Church remained autonomous, with the metropolitan of Kiev still a member of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate. After Ukraine declared its independence on Aug. 24, 1991, Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev began to seek complete separation of his Church from the Moscow patriarchate. This, however, was refused at a meeting of the Russian Orthodox Bishop's Council in April 1992. Matters came to a head in May 1992 when the Moscow patriarchate deposed Filaret and appointed Metropolitan Vladimir (Volodymyr) (Sabodan) of Rostov as new metropolitan of Kiev. Subsequently, Filaret joined the noncanonical Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.

Another problem arose in the newly-independent ex-Soviet republic of Moldova. Before 1812 and again from 1918 to 1944, Moldova (then known as Bessarabia) had been part of Romania. In spite of the fact that the Moscow patriarchate had granted autonomous status to its Moldovan diocese, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church decided in December 1992 to reconstitute its own metropolitanate of Bessarabia in the same territory. Thus, the Orthodox in Moldova split between the two rival jurisdictions, but the great majority of parishes remain loyal to the jurisdiction linked to the Moscow patriarchate.

In Estonia, an autonomous Orthodox Church under the patriarchate of Constantinople existed from 1923 until it was absorbed into the Moscow patriarchate in 1945 after the country was annexed by the Soviet Union. In the wake of Estonian independence in 1991, there were calls for the reestablishment of this Church, which had maintained its headquarters in Stockholm in exile. Later the Estonian government officially recognized it as the legal continuation of the Estonian Orthodox Church that existed in the interwar period. But on Oct. 5, 1994, the Holy Synod of the Moscow patriarchate expressed support for its autonomous Estonian diocese and protested that it was in danger of losing ownership of its parish churches and the large Piukhtitsy Convent of the Assumption. Altogether there are eighty Orthodox parishes with about 40,000 faithful in the country, half of them Estonian-language, eight bilingual, and the rest Russian-language. Fifty of the parishes support the reestablishment of the autonomous church under Constantinople. In February 1995 a delegation from the patriarchate of Constantinople visited both Estonia and the Moscow patriarchate in an effort to facilitate a solution to the problem.

Bibliography: n. davis, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy (Boulder, Colorado 1995). j. ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History (London 1986). d. pospielovsky, The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime 19171982, 2 v. (Crestwood, New York 1984). r. g. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches (revised 6th ed. Rome 1999).

[r. g. roberson]