Historical considerations on the Moscow Patriarchate: part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this series appeared in the Voice of the Family Digest on 22 February 2023.

The religious history of Russia is the history of a people whose leaders turned their backs on their baptismal promises, first professed in Kiev by St Vladimir, in order to create a instrumental national religion for the new state whose centre was Moscow.

The first patriarch of Moscow, appointed in 1589 by Tsar Feodor I, was Iov (Job). He was succeeded by Hermogenes and by Feodor Nikitich Romanov (1553–1633), who took the religious name Filaret. In 1613, Filaret placed his son, Mikhail Romanov (not yet seventeen years old), on the throne of the tsars. For Russia, this created a unique situation in which the tsar was the son of the patriarch, who was the real de facto ruler of the kingdom. The period from 1613 to 1917 saw the reign of twenty Romanov-dynasty rulers, who personified a despotic coupling of political and religious power unknown to the Christian West.

Tsar Peter “the Great” I (1672–1725), a descendant of Patriarch Filaret, began an effort to secularise Russia which culminated on 25 January 1721 with a manifesto announcing the abolition of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

“[This,] founded exclusively by the civil power and for purely political reasons, over the course of a century did not set down firm roots in Russian soil, did not have a living and organic bond with the people, was born by whim of the civil power, and by whim of this ceased to live.”1

In the place of the Moscow Patriarchate, Peter the Great set up the “Holy Synod”, a collegial ecclesiastical government in which all the member bishops were appointed by the tsar. At their head was a layman procurator general, he too of sovereign appointment. In 1723, the Holy Synod was officially recognised by the patriarchs of Constantinople, who transferred all the rights of the Moscow Patriarchate to the new structure. From then on, the life of the Russian Church was entirely commingled with the life of the state, taking on the character of a bureaucratic institution. 

“For almost two centuries the Russian Church would no longer have a history of its own, because its history is the same as that of the state.”2

Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg, strengthened the centralised and autocratic state and was the first to use the title of “Emperor of all the Russias”. This title was a fusion of Mongol-style absolutism, Byzantine caesaropapism and the Muscovite ideology of the Third Rome.3 The basileus, meaning the tsar and emperor, presented himself as the only representative of God on earth.

After Peter the Great, who subjected the Orthodox Church to the state, Empress Catherine II (1762–1796) wanted to subject the Greek Catholic Church to the state as well, and in 1793, decreed the suppression of the Latin diocese of Kiev. In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I officially abolished the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the regions of Poland that had returned to Rome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Pope Pius IX showed his concern over the tsarist policy of wiping out Eastern Catholicism with the encyclicals Amantissimo humani (8 April 1862), Ubi urbaniano (30 July 1864), Levate (7 October 1867) and Omnem sollicitudinem (12 May 1874). In the Russian Empire and the Polish Kingdom, he wrote in the encyclical Levate:

“[T]he Catholic bishops, the ecclesiastics, and the lay faithful are exiled, thrown into prison, harassed in every way, robbed of their possessions, and oppressed with severe penalties. The canons and laws of the Church are completely trampled underfoot. And not at all content with this, the Russian government continues with its long-standing plan to violate the teaching of the Church and to break the chain of union and communication between those faithful to Us and the Holy See. The government strives to overthrow the Catholic religion completely in regions, separating the faithful from the Church in order to draw them into a disastrous schism.”

The Russian autocrats, like the Byzantine emperors, saw the Church and religion as a means they could use to guarantee and expand political unity. One great Russian convert, Fr Ivan Gagarin (1814–1882) of the Society of Jesus, wrote that, in order to bring the Orthodox back to the unity of the Church, it was above all necessary to combat their political-religious conception, founded on three pillars: the Orthodox religion, autocracy and the principle of nationalism, under the banner of which the ideas of Hegel and the German philosophers had made inroads into Russia.4

Russian religious life experienced an ever greater decline, becoming purely formal and external, while, alongside institutional piety, there developed the individualistic and charismatic piety of the startsy, monks venerated as saints for their thaumaturgical qualities. In reality, their practice of “hesychasm” (named after the eighth-century ascetic, St Hesychius) or “prayer of the heart” disfigures the ancient spiritual tradition of the monks of Mount Athos. The very founder of the Great Lavra monastery on Athos, St Athanasius, did not permit the mystical practice of prayer of the heart except to five (out of 120) of the most perfect monks. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) democratised this practice, introducing grave doctrinal errors that the Catholic Church has condemned in numerous documents.[5] The startsy became vagabond monks, following in the footsteps of ancient spiritualistic sects, sometimes dissolute in their ways. Such was certainly the case with the starets Grigori Efimovich Rasputin (1869–1916), who exerted a nefarious influence over the court of Emperor Nicholas II. Moreover, the safeguarding of the liturgy, the only form of catechesis for the faithful, went together with corruption and immorality among the Orthodox clergy. The priesthood became a profession that was handed down from father to son, with a dearth of instruction accompanied by a meagre sense of sin and the idea that only through the experience of sin is spiritual rebirth possible.

One great orientalist, Aurelio Palmieri (1870–1926), denounced the evils afflicting the Russian Church: stagnation, bureaucratic formalism, political servility, writing in 1908:

“The Russian Church has not existed since the era of Peter the Great: it is dead, bereft of guidance, it has no leader. It has become a department of the ministry of religious affairs, which with its bureaucratic documents rules over Russian Orthodoxy.”6

The collapse of the Tsarist Empire was at the gates. The period of chaos in 1917 that followed Kerensky’s February Revolution and Lenin’s October Revolution seemed to offer the Holy Synod the possibility of recovering its independence by reintroducing the figure of the patriarch. A Council held in Moscow between August and November 1917 approved, on 28 October (10 November), the re-establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate after more than two centuries. Tikhon, born Vasily Ivanovich Bellavin (1865–1925), was elected to the position of Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. But the illusion of emancipation from political power was short-lived. The Bolshevik regime began a systematic persecution of every form of religion. Patriarch Tikhon, despite having recognised the Soviet government, was imprisoned, and on 7 April 1925 he died, murmuring, “The night will be very long and dark”. The Russian Orthodox Church would find itself still without a patriarch until the Second World War. 

This series will continue next week with part 4.


  1. Aurelio Palmieri O.S.A., La chiesa russa. Le sue odierne condizioni e il suo riformismo dottrinale (L.E.F., Florence, 1908) pp 64-65.
  2. Juljia Nikolaevna Danzas, La coscienza religiosa russa (Morcelliana, Brescia, 1946) p 63.
  3. Karl Bosl, L’Europa nel Medioevo (La Scuola, Milan, 1975) p 330.
  4. Jean Gagarin, La Russie sera-t-elle catholique? (Charles Douniol, Paris 1856) p 74.
  5. Martin Jugie, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. XI, coll. 1735–76.
  6. Op. cit., p 304.