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The Russian Orthodox Church

More than 10 years since the unraveling of the Soviet Union, the concerns that once plagued its Communist leaders – apathy, corruption, crime, cynicism and underemployment, as well as the deterioration of industry – continue to scourge its political and spiritual heirs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, while consolidating the authority of Russia’s central government, has enlisted the assistance of the Orthodox Church to address some of these issues. Mr. Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church resurrects a tradition that, except for a violent gap of some 70 years, dates to the origins of the Russian state. So intimate is this link between state and church, it is difficult to determine which came first.

Origins. Russians, Belarussians, Ruthenians and Ukrainians claim descent from the Eastern Slavs of central Europe and the Varangians of Scandinavia. Collectively known as the Rus’, these peoples intermarried and, from their center in Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) on the banks of the Dnieper River, asserted control of the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas, establishing Kievan Rus’ as a regional force by the ninth century.

The grand prince of Kiev controlled the city and its surroundings, while relatives, scattered as far northeast as Novgorod (a city near modern St. Petersburg) and as far southwest as Halych (now a town in southwestern Ukraine), swore him allegiance. Kiev first flexed its muscles during the reign of Oleg, who in 907 attacked the capital of Byzantium, New Rome (or Constantinople), forcing it to recognize Kievan Rus’ as a trading partner. This relationship would have significant repercussions.

Christianity is adopted. According to the 12th-century Rus’ Chronicles, Grand Prince Vladimir I (956-1015), eager to abandon the polytheism of his ancestors, sent out emissaries to learn about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Vladimir’s search, so as not to offend his neighbors and allies, was a tactful exercise in diplomacy; Christianity, particularly in its Byzantine incarnation, was not unfamiliar to Vladimir or his people.

Vladimir’s powerful grandmother, the regent Olga (879-969), had embraced Christianity. Hers was only a personal conversion, however, for she failed to instruct her son or her people in the Christian faith.

Another likely source for Vladimir’s interest in Byzantine Christianity was the work of two missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Charged by the patriarch of Constantinople to work among the Slavs of Moravia (862), the brothers created a Slavonic alphabet, translated scriptural works into the language of the Slavs and introduced a Slavonic liturgy patterned after the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. While the disciples of Cyril and Methodius were later banished from Moravia, they established Byzantine Christianity among the Bulgars of the Bulgarian kingdom. Buttressed by an autonomous church, the Bulgarian state developed into a powerful empire modeled on Byzantium.

But it was Vladimir’s interest in cementing an alliance with Byzantium by marrying the sister of the emperor that finally compelled the grand prince to make a decision. Denied her hand for being a pagan, Vladimir’s embrace of Byzantine Christianity eventually won him his bride and his alliance, albeit a fragile one. Yet the Rus’ Chronicles credit the Divine Liturgy, as celebrated in the empire’s Church of Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), as the inspiration for Vladimir’s acceptance in 988 of Byzantine Christianity: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth,” the annals record the emissaries as saying, “surely God dwells with the Greeks [as the Byzantines were known].”

Golden age of Kievan Rus’. The rapid development of Byzantine Christianity among the Rus’ – which Vladimir pursued with vigor throughout his reign – coincided with the rise of the Kievan state. Vladimir and his successors consolidated their authority and augmented their dominion. They built important churches; promulgated the first code of law of the Eastern Slavs; supported monasticism, theological learning and the arts. Using Bulgaria’s church as a model, Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054) achieved some independence from Constantinople for the church of Kiev, overseeing the installation of a metropolitan archbishop in 1037.

Eventually, Rus’ natives dominated the episcopacy, whose sees were centered in various regional centers governed by the family of the grand prince, such as Chernigov, Novgorod and Smolensk.

Very little remains from this period. The Mongols, a nomadic people from central Asia, swept through the dominions of the Rus’ in the early 13th century, burning and sacking its cities, including Kiev. They killed much of the population and enslaved most of the rest. But several churches survived. Modeled after the grand churches in Constantinople, these structures reinterpreted traditional Byzantine architectural forms, adapting them to suit a less temperate climate. The mosaics and frescoes that cover the walls, while following Byzantine iconographic rubrics, attest to the high level of sophistication and artistic skill in Kievan Rus’, inspiring generations of Russian iconographers and painters and, ultimately, serving as symbols of Russia.

Rise of regional centers. The Mongol invasions merely accelerated the demise of Kievan Rus’, which began to disintegrate when the family of the grand prince challenged his authority. Without a communications network, rival cities – Novgorod, Vladimir and Suzdal in the northeast, Polotsk and Smolensk in the northwest, Halych in the southwest and even nearby Chernigov – grew more autonomous, fracturing the unity of Kievan Rus’, making it susceptible to invasion and subjugation. For over two centuries these communities – the nucleus of the Russian, Belarussian, Ruthenian and Ukrainian peoples – lived as vassals under the Mongols.

With the decline of princes, church leaders quickly filled their roles, patronizing the building of churches and monasteries far removed from the centers of Mongol power. The Rus’ of Kiev sought refuge in the north (nominally under the Mongols), migrating in succession to Rostov, Suzdal and, finally, Vladimir. The effective leader of all the Rus’, the metropolitan archbishop of Kiev, left it for Vladimir in 1300. Rostov, Suzdal and Vladimir all eventually fell under the influence of Muscovy, a minor principality led by ambitious princes. Just eight years after the move to Vladimir, the metropolitan archbishop of Kiev moved his court to the city of Moscow.

The Third Rome. Bolstered by a “golden ring” of fortified monasteries and towns, Moscow grew wealthy. Guided by such great figures as the sainted metropolitan archbishops Alexis (1292-1378) and Jonas (?-1471) and the founder of Trinity Monastery, St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-92), its princes paid tribute to the Mongols while forging the principalities of the Rus’ into a cohesive force.

As Muscovy’s star crested, Byzantium’s declined. Controlling a handful of villages from an impoverished Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor petitioned the pope in 1438 for help in warding off the hostile Ottoman Turks. The emperor offered a carrot: Should the papacy summon a crusade to aid him, he would ensure the healing of the schism that, since 1054, had divided the churches of Orthodox Constantinople and Catholic Rome.

In 1439, in the cathedral of Florence, the act of union between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was formally declared in the presence of pope, patriarch and emperor. Though the Rus’ representative, Metropolitan Isidore, endorsed the union, he was chased from Muscovy after returning to implement it. Ironically, the de facto division of the churches of Rome and Moscow dates to this period.

Despite the act of union and the papacy’s promises of support, Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Five years later Kiev and much of ancient Kievan Rus’ fell to the Catholic Poles and Lithuanians. Consequently, Moscow was declared – in its own right – the metropolitan see of all the Rus’.

Suddenly Orthodox Muscovy stood alone. This was a crucial period in the development of the Russian state. Grand Prince Ivan the Great (1440-1505) married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, adopted the Byzantine insignia of the double-headed eagle as his own, defeated the Mongols and increased the size of his realm. “Two Romes have fallen,” wrote the monk Philotheos to Ivan’s son and heir, Vasili III (1479-1533). “A third, Moscow, yet stands. A fourth there shall not be.”

Vasili’s son and heir, Ivan the Terrible (1530-84), ruthlessly absorbed the lesser Rus’ principalities and cemented the concept of Muscovy as Byzantium’s successor, formally adopting the title of tsar (Slavonic for caesar) when crowned in 1547. Russia’s tsars, from Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II (1868-1918), understood they were the protectors of Byzantium’s autocracy and Orthodoxy.

Time of Troubles. The policies of Ivan the Terrible – whose reign has been compared to Stalin’s – may have succeeded in the gathering of the Rus’, but he died leaving a weak heir. Tsar Fyodor relied on his ambitious brother-in-law, Boris Godunov (c. 1551-1605). Godunov furthered Ivan’s policies, securing in 1589 the title Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus’ for his confidant, Job, Metropolitan Archbishop of Moscow. Godunov secured the throne itself after Fyodor’s death in 1598.

Famine plagued Godunov’s short reign. Coupling this tragedy was the “resurrection” of the Tsarevitch Dmitri, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who died mysteriously in 1591. With Polish and Lithuanian military support, the “False Dmitri” charged Godunov with attempted murder and invaded Muscovy, occupying much of the country. The death of Boris Godunov, followed by the murder of his wife and 16-year-old son, paved the way for the reign of the pretender.

“Tsar Dmitri” and his allies, who were eager to impose Catholicism in Muscovy, were soon deposed, but the Time of Troubles lasted another seven years: Another false Dmitri, allied with the king of Poland, invaded Muscovy; the Poles occupied and later scorched Moscow; and war, famine and pestilence ravaged the country.

But Muscovy did not collapse. Led by Patriarch Hermogen and Abbot Dionysios, the superior of Trinity Monastery, a national army was raised and Moscow was retaken. After the defeat of the pretender and his allies, a synod composed of representatives from all classes met in February 1613 and elected as tsar a distant relative of Ivan the Terrible’s wife, Anna. Mikhail Romanov and his family would govern Russia until revolution in 1917.

Church and state. Muscovy was a devastated realm. The 16-year-old tsar had no treasury, few allies and many enemies. The Orthodox Church naturally bolstered the embattled state; Mikhail’s father, Metropolitan Philaret (who was forced into holy orders by Boris Godunov), returned from imprisonment in Poland and, in 1619, was elected Patriarch of Moscow. Proclaimed “Great Sovereign” by his son, Philaret and Mikhail ruled together for 14 years, reconsolidating the country and securing peace. Never had church and state, even in Byzantium, been wedded as it had in the earliest days of the Romanov dynasty.

Eventually, Peter the Great (1672-1725), would abolish the patriarchate and absorb responsibility for the governance of the Russian Orthodox Church, establishing its Holy Synod as a department of the state. During this 200-year period (until the restoration of the patriarchate in 1918), the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a surge in missionary activity, monasticism, spirituality and theological learning – this despite a schism in the church in the mid-17th century over liturgical reforms imposed by patriarch and enforced by tsar. Many of those who insisted on following the “Old Belief” were burned at the stake or exiled to Siberia.

Revolution and repression. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was at the height of its influence. A revival in traditional architecture and iconography spawned similar secular movements. Advances in theological learning and spirituality impacted philosophical and political groups, higher education and literature. Learned Orthodox clergymen espoused the world views of the Slavophiles – who believed in Russia’s “salvific” role in human history – and the Westernizers – who urged Russia to embrace the West or risk annihilation.

Russia’s Orthodox Church did not merely observe this national revival, or “Silver Age,” but actively engaged in it. But how could a national institution that once dominated the lives of millions find itself gasping for air, nearly extinguished, less than 25 years later?

The Bolsheviks did not disguise their hatred for the church or any pillar of the ancien régime. Their persecution began with the murder of Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev in 1918, and extended throughout the civil war until Stalin, a former seminarian, enlisted the church’s support for Soviet Russia’s war with the Nazis. From 1959 to 1962, Khrushchev reignited the persecution, infiltrating the church hierarchy with agents to destabilize it.

Between 1917 and 1939, more than 80 percent of the Russian Orthodox clergy disappeared; many languished in labor camps, but most were executed. Those not exiled or shot ministered to the elderly.

In 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church administered 77,767 churches. By the late 1970’s it oversaw just 6,800. Monasteries, the backbone of the church, were bulldozed or converted to prisons. Before World War I, 1,500 monasteries dotted the landscape; by the 1980’s, only 12 survived.

Revival and its challenges. Amazingly, in an official report based on the never published Soviet census of 1936, more than 55 percent of Soviets identified themselves as religious. A significant number, fearing reprisals, chose to keep their faith to themselves.

The millennial celebrations of the baptism of the Rus’ (1988-89) coincided with the last years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiments with restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost). Overnight, the Orthodox Church was cast in the limelight; the celebrations were high profile events drawing great crowds of devout Orthodox, theists and the curious.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Many Russians – frightened by Gorbachev’s failure to prevent civil and economic chaos – turned to the church as a pillar of stability, for which the church was totally unprepared.

While perhaps 50 percent of Russians today (some 75 million people) consider themselves Orthodox, less than 2 percent attend services regularly. Alcoholism, rampant corruption, escalating divorce rates, suicide, abortion as birth control and other social ills further demoralize an already demoralized society.

Catechesis of the community, despite the founding of 5 theological institutes, 2 universities, 29 seminaries and numerous catechetical centers for the laity, has only scratched the surface. The number of priests has risen dramatically (in March 2003 there were 17,480 priests), but the numbers fall far short of what is needed to staff the increasing number of reopened parishes (now 16,200) and other ministries, such as hospital, military and prison chaplaincies. The number of monasteries and dependent houses has also increased dramatically, counting some 812.

This leaves the patriarch, Alexei II, and his church in an awkward position. Flocks of preachers from various sects, well financed and zealous, work among the people, winning large numbers of converts. The government, with full support of the Orthodox hierarchy, has passed a law restricting these movements and their activities, earning censure from the West. Once monitored, the Russian Orthodox Church is now accused of sanctioning the same kind of activity for all non-Orthodox.

Relations between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches are poor. The cause of much of this pain, the rebirth of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is not just the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to Eastern Catholicism, but an even greater reluctance to let go of its patrimony, for Ukraine is rich in human and natural resources. A truly independent Ukraine will abandon Moscow for the West, fear Russian nationalists allied to the Orthodox Church.

While such fears may be justified, the Russian Orthodox Church has no other choice but to adapt – just as it has in the past. Gone are the days of Soviet-sanctioned persecution. But the pre-Bolshevik days, when the church enjoyed a state-sanctioned dominion over the land, are gone as well. Thus, today the Russian Orthodox Church faces a new challenge: finding its way in a religiously heterogeneous, market-driven Russia.

Michael La Civita is executive editor of ONE magazine.

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