Historical considerations on the Moscow Patriarchate: part 4

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

The Moscow Patriarchate — instituted by Ivan IV in 1589, and suppressed by Peter the Great in 1721 — was revived in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, but its life was cut short. After the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky came to power, it proposed the annihilation of the Russian Orthodox Church and of every other religious confession. Patriarch Tikhon’s efforts at an agreement achieved nothing and, after being imprisoned in the Lubyanka, he died in a Moscow hospital on 7 April 1925.

The Orthodox Church was left without a patriarch. Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow (Ivan Nikolaevich Stragorodsky, 1867–1944), arrested in 1926 by the secret police and set free the following year, published a “Declaration” on 29 July 1927 in which he recognised the Soviet state and the past “political errors” of the Orthodox clergy. When, on 9 February 1930, Pius XI announced the convening of a day of prayer at St Peter’s for the Russian Church, Sergius responded in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia that there was no religious persecution whatsoever in the Soviet Union, and if some churches were being closed, this was being done “not on the initiative of the authorities but at the request of the people and sometimes of the faithful themselves”.

Meanwhile there was no end of arrests, deportations and executions of bishops, priests and ordinary faithful. On 5 December 1931 the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown up and its marble used to face the new Moscow subway. Stalin’s campaign of atheisation was ruthless. Before 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church had about 210,000 clergy members. In the years of terror from 1917 to 1941, about 150,000 of them faced the firing squads. Of the 300 Russian bishops, at least 250 were assassinated by the communists. The condition for their survival was to become informants for the regime.

The situation changed with the German attack on Russia in 1941. Stalin understood that, in order to create a climate of national unity and collective resistance, he needed the support of the surviving clergy, and decided to “reinvent” the Moscow Patriarchate. After the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, in the night of 4–5 September 1943, the Soviet dictator summoned to the Kremlin Metropolitan Sergius of Moscow, Metropolitan Alexy of Leningrad and Novgorod, and Metropolitan Nikolay of Kiev and Galicia, in the presence of Molotov and the highest authorities of the secret police (NKGB). The historian Adriano Roccucci identifies this meeting as a turning point in relations between the Church and Soviet power.1 In order to involve the Russian church in the “great patriotic war”, Stalin granted authorisation for the election of a new patriarch. Four days later, on 8 September, there gathered in Moscow a council of 19 Russian Orthodox bishops, some of them brought in by military aircraft. Metropolitan Sergius was elected patriarch of Moscow and all Russia; the first since the death of Tikhon. A synod of six members was also elected, among whom was Alexy I (Sergey Vladimirovich Simansky, 1877–1960), who was in turn appointed patriarch in 1945, after the death of Sergius. Alexy was responsible for the disbanding of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946. In fact, in March of that year, the Soviet authorities imposed the convening of a council in Lviv which annulled the Union of Brest of 1596, forcing the Greek Catholics under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. In April 1945, Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj was arrested, spending 18 years in Soviet prisons and gulags. All the churches of the Greek Catholics — roughly 3,000 — were given to the Orthodox, and almost all the bishops and priests were killed or imprisoned. 

Pius XII repeatedly intervened on behalf of the Ukrainians and their metropolitan, encouraging them to resist the persecutions. But after his death, relations between Russia and the Vatican began to change. When John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, he asked for the participation of representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, but the Kremlin authorities imposed the condition that the Council remain silent on communism. In August 1962, in the French town of Metz, Vatican representative Cardinal Eugène Tisserant and Orthodox Bishop Nikodim (Boris Georgievich Rotov) signed an agreement by virtue of which the Patriarchate of Moscow would accept the pontifical invitation, while the pope guaranteed that the Council would abstain from condemning communism. Archbishop Jan Willebrands made a secret trip to Moscow from 27 September to 2 October 1962 and, in the afternoon of 12 October, Archpriest Vitaly Borovoy and Archimandrite Vladimir Kotlyarov, representatives of Patriarch Alexy, arrived in Rome as observers of the Council, which had just opened.2

The Russian Orthodox Church, governed after Alexy I by Patriarch Pimen (Sergey Mikhailovich Izvekov, 1910–1990), renewed its loyalty to the Soviet regime and supported the policy of the international expansion of communism. After the collapse of the Soviet regime, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, obtained decisive support from patriarchs Alexy II (Alexy Mikhailovich Ridiger, 1929–2008) and Kirill (Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev), his old comrade from the KGB.

Speeches by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill have repeatedly invoked and developed the ideology of the Russkiy mir, or “Russian world”, a teaching according to which there is a transnational civilisation that includes all peoples of Russian ethnicity or language, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union. They have a common church, the Moscow Patriarchate, and a common political unity, identified with the president of the Russian Federation.

The Moscow Patriarchate wants to defend the identity of the Russkiy mir against Western relativism, but also against Roman Catholicism. In Russia today, Orthodoxy is the only “state religion”. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and recently shamanism are tolerated as “traditional” religions, but not the Catholic Church, which is barred from any form of “proselytism”.3

While, in the West, since the Revolution of 1968, the nihilistic dimension of communism has expanded in the form of Freudo-Marxism, in Russia, Putin wants to recover the messianic dimension of Marxism, within a political line that runs from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin. The “way of salvation” that Putin proposes to Europe consists in cutting ties with the United States and with the Church of Rome in order to submit to the political and religious protectorate of Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine should be interpreted from the perspective outlined in Putin’s keynote address of 12 July 2021 at the Valdai Club.4 The reality that emerges from this document is that Putin is fighting the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with the utmost force, because it constitutes the living testimony of the possibility of rediscovering the authentic religious soul of Russia, which is not that of the Moscow Patriarchate but of the baptism of Kiev.

Today, the Patriarchate of Moscow — which in its 430 years of history has always been subject to the reigning tsar — is spiritually worn out, and eternal Rome awaits the Russian people’s return to the true faith, proclaimed by Our Lady in Fatima in 1917.


  1. Adriano Roccucci, Stalin e il patriarca. Chiesa ortodossa e potere sovietico 1917–1958 (Einaudi, Turin, 2011), pp 173–174.
  2. See Roberto de Mattei, Il Concilio Vaticano II: Una storia mai scritta (Lindau, Turin, 2019), pp 174–177.
  3. Stefano Caprio, Lo Zar di Vetro (Jaca Book, Milan 2020), p 181.
  4. V. Putin, Sulla storica unità tra Russi e Ucraini, in Di fronte alla storia (Pgreco, Milan, 2022), pp 273–290.