The Russian Church: An Overview

Around 900 A.D.

Russia shifted to Christianity. Grand Prince Vladimir of Novgorod, dissatisfied with his pagan faith, sent agents to investigate the four principal faiths of the time -- Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In awe of Constantinople's Byzantine Orthodox service, the agents reported back to the prince and Vladimir ordered his people christened immediately, using force if necessary, and adopted Orthodox Christianity.

The Church led Russia away from barbarism, provided a sense of unity, and inspired Russian artists to create beautiful treasures. The early Russians were drawn to Christianity both through the aesthetic appeal of its liturgy and the ideals of its theology. Church art was not added to religion from without, but emanated from within. By the 11th century, the church was firmly established in Russia. The great cathedrals in Kiev and Novgorod already were erected and fashioned after the Hagia Sophia, the famous church in Constantinople. How deeply Christianity penetrated the masses at that period is difficult to say. But on the top level, Christian culture already was flowering.

Around 1200-1400

The Russian Orthodox Church originally was centered in Kiev, but shifted to Moscow after the Mongol invasions, and Moscow became the residence of the patriarch. Soon, Moscow was seen as the Holy City by its people, and the Prince who ruled was a man who ruled by the "grace of God". This was the dynasty of Prince Rurik. On the whole, however, the Muscovite cultural effort was concentrated in the field of religious art, and the great art of icon painting reached its climax in the 14th century. The unique perfection of the Russian icon is now commonly recognized. It is usual to put the greatest of Russian masters at the time, Andrei Rublev (c. 1370-1430), in line with the Italians, Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelica, 1387-1455) and Paolo Vocello (1397-1475), and the Flemish brothers Hubert (1366-1426) and Jan (1370-1440) Van Ecyk. This rise of the art reflected a deep spiritual movement in the church, a new monastic revival. It is true that this creative level was not retained and one may witness a certain decline of icon painting, especially in the 17th century, but even at that time, such great masters can be mentioned as Simon Ushakov (1626-1686) and Procopius Chyrin.

What was important was that Russian icon painting was not just an art, but a philosophy of colors. It was an artistic confession of the searching soul.

Around 1500-1600

Many monastic clergy favored the theocratic solution and sought to strengthen the ecclesiastical hierarchy, increasing both the discipline and educational level of clergy, and central control of Russian monasteries. In general, they actually sought to elevate the spiritual state over the temporal state by greatly increasing the power of the Moscow Patriarch.

The increased strength of the clergy and continued weakness of the new dynasty offered temptations for establishing virtual clerical rule. Although the position of patriarch had indeed only been established in 1589, the position immediately assumed political and ecclesiastical significance.


Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible, regarded himself as head of both the church and the state, and through a czar's reign, he managed to control the production of all icons by founding the first government workshop for the craft. One structure, the Cathedral of the Dormition, enjoyed a different authority. As the seat of the Metropolitan of Moscow, and by inference the primary church of Russia, it was used as a model for many late urban and monastic structures. It came to be known as the traditional, conservative and basically Orthodox pattern from which no deviation was permitted.

Sixteenth to Seventeenth Century

Under Boris Godunov's rule, (1598-1605) an attempt at Westernizing Russia was made but was unsuccessful because of opposition from an Orthodox clergy fearful of Western contamination.

During the 17th century, an unusual coincidence increased the factual authority of the Church. Under Czar Mikhail (1613-1645), the first of the Romanov dynasty, the patriarchal throne was occupied by his father, Filaret, from 1619-1633. The czar was weak but the patriarch was a great statesman and of strong character.

Alexei, Mikhail Romanov's son, (1645-1676), encouraged icon painters to study Western paintings resulting in icons with a three-dimensional perspective instead of only two-dimensional figures. Alexei's taste for Westernized religious art set him on a collision course with the Russian clergy. One particularly strong-willed, stubborn and steadfast Orthodox metropolitan, Nikon, clashed with Alexei. Nikon, patriarch of Moscow, ordered the new icons seized from public places and from the homes of high officials. They gouged out the eyes of the icon paintings and paraded them through the streets, warning the artists that the same fate would befall them if they continued to create such works. Nikon also set up his own political bureaucracy to carry out his conservative program. Alexei countered, banishing Nikon to a monastery.

The best example of Nikon's will was his own Church of the 12 Apostles, which adjoined the palace in the Kremlin and created visual affirmation of the political theory that the czar and patriarch were joint rulers of an autocratic and theocratic monarchy.

Nikon's second church, Monastery of the New Jerusalem, was also a monument to his conviction, as it was intended as a demonstration and assertion of the Russian patriarch's position as actual if not titular leader of the entire Orthodox community. But, by the middle 1600's, after the final deposition and exile of Nikon, Ukranian and Western Russian hierarchy were replacing the older great Russian church administration, and a sovereign secular state similar to those of western Europe was evolving.

A large number of clergy and laymen had refused to accept the reforms Nikon put into effect and separated themselves from the official Church, insisting that they alone were the true heirs of Orthodoxy. This caused a great upheaval, forever severing the official Church from many of the most sincerely religious and intelligent churchmen. It was so weakened that it could not hope for support from any quarter of the state. The main and tragic event of Church life in Moscow in the 17th century was the great schism, the schism of the so-called Old Believers, who seceded from the main Church in protest against ecclesiastical reforms of Patriarch Nikon. Millions seceded from the official church and were strongly persecuted by the state, hence, moving to more remote areas of the realm and even abroad. The schism peaked in 1666, considered by Old Believers to be the year of the Antichrist. By the end of the 17th century, the cultural life of Moscow was strongly colored by the increasing influence of the West, coming chiefly from Poland. It was a preparation for the Westernization of Russia which was undertaken by Peter the Great (1682-1725).

Links with the West never were fully missing. In Novgorod, the influence of the West was felt through trade and in the fields of religious art and literature. Western influence was quite obvious in Moscow: Several of the Kremlin cathedrals were built by Italian masters.

This soon was seen when Peter I allowed the office of patriarch to lapse after the death of Adrian in 1700. Through the reunion of the Ukraine with Great Russia in 1667, a constant flow of clergy who had been educated in more liberal, latinized academies in Kiev began to bring with them many Western ideas. Peter I, through an obsession of Western ways and ignoring the opposition of the Church, brought Russia up to date with the rest of civilization, revising the alphabet, opening vocational schools, schools in math, navigation, engineering, medicine and establishing a Russian naval academy. Nothing better indicates Peter's preoccupation with state and secular problems than his complex religious policies. And through his sometimes conflicting views of ecclesiastical reforms and activities, he ultimately created a Church that was more than ever before a subordinate instrument of the national state.

Source: Treasures of the Czars education guide by Teri Terry.

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