The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Orthodox Church of Russia

In the late 10th century, according to the legend, the pagan Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent envoys to different parts of the world to examine the local religions and to advise him which would be best for his kingdom. When the envoys returned, they recommended the faith of the Greeks, for they reported that when they attended the divine liturgy in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, “we did not know if we were in heaven or on earth.” After the baptism of Prince Vladimir, many of his followers were baptized in the waters of the Dnieper river in 988. Thus Byzantine Christianity became the faith of the three peoples who trace their origins to Rus’ of Kiev: the Ukrainians, Belarusans, and Russians.

Christian Kiev flourished for a time, but then entered a period of decline that culminated in 1240 when the city was destroyed during the Mongol invasions. As a result of the Mongol destruction, large numbers of people moved northward. By the 14th century a new center grew up around the principality of Moscow, and the Metropolitans of Kiev took up residence there. Later, Moscow was declared the metropolitan see in its own right.

When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia was throwing off Mongol rule and becoming an independent state. Because the first Rome was said to have fallen into heresy and the New Rome had fallen under the Turks, some Russians (first clearly expressed by the monk Philotheos in the early 16th century) began to speak of Moscow as the “Third Rome” which would carry on the traditions of Orthodoxy and Roman (Byzantine) civilization. With the coronation of Ivan IV as the first tsar (Slavic for “Caesar”) in 1547 and the enthronization of Metropolitan Job as the first Patriarch of Moscow by Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah in 1589, the two main Byzantine institutions had been recreated in Russia. The tsars came to see themselves as champions and protectors of Orthodoxy just as the Byzantine Emperors once were.

The Russian church gradually developed its own style of iconography and church architecture and its own theological and spiritual traditions. In the mid-17th century a schism took place in the Russian church when Patriarch Nikon reformed a number of Russian liturgical usages to make them conform with those of the Greek church. Those who refused to submit to the reform and insisted on continuing these uniquely Russian traditions came to be known as “Old Believers.”

The Russian Patriarchate was abolished by Peter the Great in 1721. For the next 196 years, the church was administered by a Holy Synod presided over by a government official according to regulations that brought the church under close state supervision. During this period, especially in the 19th century, a great revival of Russian Orthodox theology, spirituality, and monasticism took place. There was also extensive missionary activity that extended deep into the Russian territories in the east, reaching as far as Alaska and even the coast of northern California.

In August 1917, under the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky (after the abdication of the tsar but before the Bolshevik Revolution), a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church began in Moscow. It reestablished the Russian Patriarchate, elected Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow to that office, and considered a number of reforms in the life of the church. But before the synod ended, it was learned that the Metropolitan of Kiev had been murdered and that persecutions had begun. Initially, Patriarch Tikhon was an outspoken critic of the new atheistic communist government, but he 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: the Russian Orthodox Church publicly supported the government on all issues, and the state agreed to allow the church a very restricted sphere of activity, limited in practice to liturgical worship.

The persecution took different forms in different periods: virtually all the theologians and leaders of the church were either exiled in the 1920s or executed in the 1930s. In 1937 alone some 136,000 clerics were arrested and 85,000 killed. In the period from 1917 to 1939, between 80% and 85% of the pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox clergy disappeared. Conditions improved somewhat during World War II and in Stalin’s later years.

Nikita Khrushchev intensified the persecutions again and triggered another massive wave of church closings from 1959 to 1962. While in 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church had 77,767 churches (parishes and monasteries), 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 (St. Petersburg), and Odessa, with theological academies of higher studies in the first two cities.

After 1990, however, thanks to the reforms set in motion by President Mikhail Gorbachev, the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church began to improve dramatically, and it has gradually recovered from the period of persecutions. By 2007 the Church reported having five theological academies (in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Minsk, and Chisinau) two universities (in Moscow and Volgograd), two theological institutes (in Novosibirsk and Chernivtsi), 29 seminaries, and 34 theological preparatory schools. In 2019 official statistics released by the Moscow Patriarchate indicated that the church now had 314 dioceses, 38,649 parishes, 382 bishops, 35,677 priests, 4,837 deacons, and 972 monasteries (474 male and 498 female).

Polls taken soon after the end of communism in Russia revealed an extraordinary growth of religious faith in the country. The situation was volatile, however, and it was often difficult to distinguish real religious faith from a mere cultural identification with Orthodoxy or a vague desire to return to pre-communist ways of thinking. In late 2006, a poll taken by Izvestia and the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion revealed that 84% of the Russian population believed in God. Sixty-three percent of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox. The number of Orthodox in Russia who regularly practice their faith is much smaller but rising: while immediately after the end of communism they were about 4% of the population, the number is now about 7%. It was also noted that while the average age of church-goers in the late 1980s was about 60, by 2006 it had dropped to 48, close to the average age of the Russian population as a whole. According to a 2017 survey published by the Pew Research Center, 71% of the Russian population self-identified as Orthodox.

The supreme power in the field of doctrine and canonical order in the Russian Orthodox Church today is the Local Council. It is convened periodically and is made up of all the bishops, as well as elected delegates from among clergymen, monastics and laymen. The Local Council also elects the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The Council of Bishops, which gathers together the entire episcopate as well as the heads of Holy Synod departments and rectors of the theological academies and seminaries, must convene at least every four years and also on the eve of a Local Council. Ordinary administration of the church is carried out by the Holy Synod. It is composed of the Patriarch and six diocesan bishops, three of them permanent and three temporary members.

In the fall of 1994 the Russian government agreed to help finance the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a massive 19th-century structure leveled by Stalin in 1931 that once dominated the Moscow skyline. Patriarch Aleksy II (1929-2008) laid the new cornerstone on January 7, 1995, and Easter services were held in the structure for the first time in 1996. It was formally consecrated on August 19, 2000.

At the late 1994 meeting of the Russian Orthodox Council of Bishops, Patriarch Aleksy commented that the church had gone through a very difficult period since the previous meeting in 1992. It had 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 Council of Bishops met again in February 1997 and decided against recommending the proposed canonization of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The bishops again turned down efforts to bring about the withdrawal of the Russian church from the World Council of Churches, and called for pan-Orthodox discussions on the advisability of WCC membership. The bishops also took account of the bilateral dialogue with the Catholic Church, assailed what they perceived as Catholic proselytism among the Orthodox, and asked the Synodical Theological Commission to study the Balamand Document produced by the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. High-level delegations from the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate were meeting regularly twice each year. The bishops also warmly acknowledged progress in relations with the Oriental Orthodox churches and called for greater clarity in the christological formulations produced by the dialogue.

The perceived threat from foreign religious groups was one of the factors that led the Russian Orthodox Church to support a new Law on Religion that President Yeltsin signed on September 26, 1997. The law identifies Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity as traditional religions, and restricts the activity of new groups by imposing a 15-year waiting period for registration. It limits the activity of unregistered groups to informal, private practice, and places severe constraints on the activity of foreign missionaries. The law’s restriction of religious freedom raised concerns in the West but appeared to reflect a consensus on the question within Russian society. There are reports that the new law is being applied more or less rigorously in different parts of the country.

A major event in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church was the meeting of the Jubilee Council of Bishops from August 13 to 16, 2000, in Moscow. There the bishops canonized 1,154 people, among them 1,090 new martyrs and confessors who died in the 20th century. The bishops also decided to canonize Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were murdered by the communists in 1918. They were canonized as “passion-bearers,” which referred not to their political role in Russia but to the fact that they bore their final sufferings in a Christian manner. The bishops also adopted a lengthy document, The Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, which outlines the position of the church on a wide range of social issues. In addition, the bishops revised and adopted a new Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church, and issued a very important ecumenical document, Basic Principles of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Attitude to the Non-Orthodox.

This last document commits the Russian Orthodox Church to participation in the ecumenical movement. In response to the concerns of the Russian and other Orthodox Churches, an agreement was reached with the World Council of Churches in 2002 to replace its parliamentary voting procedures with a consensus model of decision-making, to more clearly distinguish between “confessional” and “inter-confessional” worship, and to create two categories of WCC participation: members and churches in association. This agreement appeared to ensure continued Russian Orthodox participation in the organization.

Relations with the Catholic Church, however, had sharply deteriorated. The Moscow Patriarchate reacted angrily when the Holy See established four dioceses in Russia in February 2002, and broke off the semiannual meetings that had been taking place with Vatican officials. The Russian Orthodox Church also opposed a visit by the Pope to Russia, insisting that any such visit could take place only after agreement has been reached on issues concerning what is perceived as Catholic proselytism in the country, and relations between Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholics in western Ukraine. In the following years a slow but steady improvement in relations eventually made possible a historic meeting in Havana, Cuba, between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on February 12, 2016. At the end of the meeting, the Pope and Patriarch signed a Joint Declaration in which they lamented the long separation of their churches and pledged to work together to address the challenges that today’s world faces, especially the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Since the end of communism the Moscow Patriarchate has enforced a strict ban on the participation of clergy in politics, but has also entered into a number of cooperative agreements with the government. An agreement was signed on August 30, 1996, with the Ministry of Internal Affairs that provided for a Russian Orthodox pastoral presence in prisons around the country (there are now over a thousand prisons with Orthodox chaplains), and also in the police force. It concluded a cooperation agreement with the Russian Ministry of Defense on April 4, 1997, that committed both sides to “work together to revive the Orthodox traditions of the Russian army and navy.” A number of churches have been constructed in military installations, and 2,072 military units had Orthodox chaplains by 2007. A cooperation agreement was formalized with the Ministry of Education on August 2, 1999, in which the two parties pledged to work together to educate young people “in the spirit of high moral values.”

The new freedoms enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church created the conditions for reconciliation with two groups outside Russia that had broken away in the years immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution: the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the wake of the revolution, over a million Russians had found themselves outside Russia in exile, scattered in many countries. A significant number of bishops and clergy came with them. In 1920 there was a meeting of over 20 of these Russian Orthodox bishops in Constantinople. They decided temporarily to create an autonomous church for the émigré Russians, intending to re-establish canonical links with the Moscow Patriarchate in the new Soviet Union when conditions permitted. At the invitation of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a headquarters for the new synod in exile was set up at Karlovci, Yugoslavia, in 1921.

The monarchist political views of this group of exiles became clear when in 1921 it formally called for the restoration of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. (It would canonize Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1982.) In the same year, Russian Patriarch Tikhon appointed Metropolitan Evlogius as his representative in Western Europe, based in Paris. But in 1927 the Karlovci synod suspended Metropolitan Evlogius and broke communion with him. This effectively split the Russian émigré community in Europe between those loyal to the Karlovci synod in exile and those loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate through Evlogius. In 1928, after the Karlovci Synod flatly refused to accept the call of Metropolitan Sergius (patriarchal locum tenens) for all Russian bishops to refrain from political activity, Sergius ordered that it be dissolved. In 1934 Sergius and the Russian Orthodox Synod in Moscow formally suspended all the bishops of the Karlovci Synod pending an ecclesiastical trial which, in fact, never took place. By this time the Karlovci Synod had begun to refer to itself as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).

Most of the ROCOR bishops either did not survive World War II or were reconciled individually to the Moscow Patriarchate. But the group was reinforced after the war by Orthodox bishops who had ministered in the Nazi-occupied regions of the Soviet Union and who subsequently fled the country. The headquarters moved from Karlovci to Munich in 1946, and in 1950 it moved to New York City in the United States.

By the mid-1990s, proposals for a reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate were causing lively debate. But the ROCOR bishops were insisting that there could be no agreement unless the Moscow Patriarchate renounce its “apostasies” of “Sergianism” (the way it describes the church’s modus vivendi with the Soviet government) and ecumenism, which it characterized as a “repudiation of the purity of Orthodoxy.” But in November 2003 a ROCOR delegation paid an official visit to the Moscow Patriarchate, and in May 2004 Metropolitan Laurus himself visited Moscow and met with Patriarch Aleksy.

A commission was later established to examine ways of reconciling the two churches. Its work bore fruit, and on May 17, 2007, full communion was reestablished between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the terms of the agreement, ROCOR remains independent in pastoral, educational, administrative, management, property and civil matters, but is an “indissoluble part” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Election of new ROCOR bishops and its primate are confirmed by the Russian patriarch and Holy Synod, ROCOR receives the Holy Myrrh from Moscow, and the highest ecclesiastical authority in ROCOR is the Local Council and Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Altogether the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has about 400 parishes, plus a number of monasteries and convents, spread throughout the world. Metropolitan Laurus, who had headed the church since 2001, died on March 16, 2008. Archbishop Hilarion of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand (born 1948) was elected his successor on May 12 and confirmed by the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate on May 14, 2008.

In the meantime, the group of Russian émigrés who remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate through Metropolitan Evlogius had a very different history. In 1928 Metropolitan Sergius (then patriarchal locum tenens) called on all Russian bishops to refrain from political activity and to recognize the Soviet regime. Evlogius initially accepted this, but in 1930 he took part in an Anglican prayer service in London for persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union. In response, Metropolitan Sergius removed Evlogius from office and appointed another bishop for patriarchal parishes in Western Europe.

Most Russian Orthodox bishops and faithful of this jurisdiction remained loyal to Evlogius, however, and rejected Metropolitan Sergius’ call for acceptance of the Soviet regime. Evlogius then turned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for assistance. In 1931 Patriarch Photius II received Evlogius and his followers as an Archdiocese under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

Relations between the Archdiocese and the Russian Orthodox Church improved after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the first time since it was received into the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1931, an official delegation from the Archdiocese visited the Moscow Patriarchate in November 1994. This was followed by a historic visit of Archbishop Sergius (died 2003) to the Russian Orthodox Church in May 1995. Relations were now friendly, and in practice the Archdiocese was in full Eucharistic communion with the Moscow Patriarchate.

In June 1999 the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a Tomos to the Archdiocese, granting it the status of Exarchate, a rank it had held between 1931 and 1965. The Exarchate was henceforth to be governed by its own set of statutes approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In practice, the Exarchate would elect its own Archbishop and auxiliary bishops, who must then be confirmed by Constantinople. The Archbishop would be independent of the Patriarchate in administrative and financial matters, but he would take part in the General Assembly of the Bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at two or three year intervals and meet with the Patriarch regularly to keep him informed about the life of the Exarchate.

On November 27, 2018, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate revoked the 1999 Tomos, effectively dissolving the Exarchate. All of its parishes were requested to transfer to the jurisdiction of the mostly Greek local Bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This caused considerable dismay in the community, and a majority of the parishes decided instead to transfer to the new Archdiocese that the Moscow Patriarchate had created for them. It has become a multinational diocese, comprising around 120 parishes and monastic communities, served by 104 priests and 24 deacons, mainly in France, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain and recently the United Kingdom. In France there are 40 parishes, including the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris.

The best-known institution of the archdiocese is St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. It was founded by Metropolitan Evlogius in 1925 and is recognized worldwide as an intellectual center of Orthodox theology.

At home, however, in the countries of the former USSR, the unity of the Moscow Patriarchate was threatened by centrifugal forces set in motion after the disintegration of the communist system and the breakup of the Soviet Union. In January 1990, when conditions were already changing, the Russian Orthodox Council of Bishops met in Moscow and decided to grant a certain measure of autonomy to the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Belarus. Each of these was made an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate, with the optional names “the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and “the Belarusan Orthodox Church.” Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 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.

There was a problem in the former Soviet republic of Moldova which (then known as Bessarabia) had been a part of Romania before 1812 and again from 1918 to 1944. During that time there was one Orthodox church in the country, linked to the Russian Orthodox Church. In December 1992 the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church reestablished its own metropolitanate in Moldova, thus splitting the Orthodox in the country between the two rival jurisdictions. The church linked to Moscow is known as the Moldavian Orthodox Church, while the Romanian metropolis is known as the Bessarabian Orthodox Church. The Moldovan government supported the Moscow jurisdiction and did not allow the Bessarabian Metropolitanate to register officially until 2002. In 2019 it was estimated that about 90% of the Orthodox in the country belonged to the Moldavian Orthodox Church with the remaining 10% belonging to the Bessarabian Orthodox Church.

In Estonia, an autonomous Orthodox church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate 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, some Orthodox in the country called for the re-establishment of this church, which had maintained its headquarters in Stockholm in exile. The newly independent Estonian government officially recognized this group as the legal continuation of the autonomous church that existed in the interwar period, and on February 20, 1996, the Ecumenical Patriarchate formally resumed its relationship to the church, known officially as the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. This provoked a major crisis in relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, which suspended its commemoration of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the diptychs. The crisis was resolved on May 16, 1996, when the two Holy Synods announced an agreement sanctioning the existence of two overlapping jurisdictions in Estonia. In 2019 it was estimated that 13.1% of the country’s population belonged to the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate while 2.3% belonged to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

After Ukraine declared its independence on August 24, 1991, Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev began to seek complete separation of his church from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Bishop’s Council turned down this request in April 1992. But Filaret continued to seek autocephaly for his church, and matters came to a head in May 1992 when the Moscow Patriarchate deposed Filaret and appointed Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) of Rostov as new Metropolitan of Kiev. In June the Patriarchate defrocked Filaret and returned him to the lay state. Filaret then joined the non-canonical Ukrainian Autocephalous Church which, a short time later, split into two separate non-canonical churches. There were now three Orthodox churches in Ukraine: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (canonical), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (non-canonical) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (non-canonical). Filaret was elected Patriarchate of this last church in 1997. Such was the situation until early 2018 when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople intervened.

He set in motion a process that resulted in the unification of the two non-canonical churches and a relatively small portion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate into a new “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate bitterly protested this move, seeing it as an unjustified intrusion into the internal affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. On October 11, 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced its intention to grant autocephaly to the new Ukrainian church, and the Moscow Patriarchate severed communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate four days later. Nevertheless, on January 5, 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew and the members of his Holy Synod signed a Tomos that formally created the new autocephalous Ukrainian church. For a more detailed presentation of this situation, see The Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Bishop Matthew of Sourozh is Interim Administrator of the 36 Patriarchal Parishes in the USA. (15 East 97th Street, New York, New York 10029). He is also Interim Administrator of the 25 Patriarchal parishes in Canada, 19 of which are in rural areas in Alberta (St. Barbara Cathedral, 10105 96th Street, Edmonton, Alberta T5H 2G3). The Russian Patriarchate’s diocese of Sourozh (founded in 1962) includes 20 places of worship in Great Britain and Ireland, currently overseen by Bishop Matthew (Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, 67 Ennismore Gardens, London SW7 1NH). Since 2018 it has been part of the Patriarchal Exarchate of Western Europe. There are two Russian patriarchal parishes in Australia, in Sydney and in Melbourne. They are under the supervision of Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, who resides in Moscow. The pastor in Melbourne is Fr. Igor Filianovsky (Church of the Holy Trinity, 4 Park Road, Oakleigh, 3166). The pastor of Holy Protection Church in Sydney is Rev. Samuel Vichnevskii (135 Kildare Road, Blacktown, NSW 2148).

The membership statistics of the Russian Orthodox Church below were posted on the web site of the World Council of Churches as of early 2021. It provided this membership breakdown according to countries: Russian Federation (113,500,000), Ukraine (30,000,000), Belarus (8,200,000), Moldova (4,100,000), Kazakhstan (5,900,000), Central Asia (1,000,000), and the Baltic states (1,400,000).

Location: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, other former Soviet republics, diaspora
Head: Patriarch Kirill (born 1946, elected 2009)
Title: Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Residence: Moscow, Russia
Membership: 164,100,000
Websites: and

Last Modified: 19 February 2021

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