Russian Orthodox Church and Its History
A Russian Orthodox Mission was established in Jerusalem in 1858. The 19th-century Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem was built by Tsar Alexander III in 1888 in the traditional Russian style. The Russian church’s seven golden domes have been newly gilded and combined with its multiple levels and sculpted white turrets, the church looks similar to an Islamic mosque. The church stands in a tranquil garden and is filled with Orthodox icons and wall paintings inside. Gold is the color which resembles the Heavenly Kingdom. It is also used to add a sense of indefinite depth to icons, which would otherwise be perceived as flat.
Russian Orthodox church and Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel
The crypt holds the remains of Tsar Alexander’s mother, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who was killed in the Russian revolution of 1917. Also buried here is Princess Alice of Greece (Queen Elizabeth’s mother-in-law), who harbored Jews during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Russian Christians had begun visiting the Holy Land in the 11th century, after the Conversion of Kiev. Such visits continued over the next 900 years, eventually growing into the great annual pilgrimages of the late 19th century, which continued until World War I and ended with the Russian Revolution.
Russian Orthodox Church buildings differ in design in that their interiors are enriched with many sacramental objects including holy icons, which are hung on the walls. In addition, murals often cover most of the interior. Some of these images represent the Theotokos (who is revered in the Russian Orthodox Church); saints and scenes from their lives.
Painted icons are intentionally composed in a two-dimensional, non-perspective fashion to allow equal viewing regardless of the placement, position, and/or angle of the observing person, as well as to emphasize that the depiction is primarily of a spiritual truth rather than of visible reality (which emphasis is also achieved through other iconographic techniques and traditions). Most Russian Orthodox churches have an iconostasis, which separates the nave from the holy altar and signifies the Heavenly Kingdom. Covered with icons, the iconostasis is intended to stop physical sight, and allow the worshipers to achieve spiritual sight.
Russian Orthodox Churchs have the icon screen, which may reach all the way up into the dome (or domes). On the ceiling of many churches (inside the main dome) is the iconography of Christ as Pantokrator (“Ruler of All”). Such images emphasize Christ’s humanity and divinity, signifying that Christ is a man and yet is also God without beginning or end. There are no pews. Most churches are lit with candles rather than electric light and all churches have multiple votive candle stands in front of the icons. It is customary for worshippers to purchase candles in church stores, light them up, and place them on the stands. This ritual signifies a person’s prayer to God, the Holy Mother, or to the saints or angels asking for help on the difficult path to salvation and to freedom from sin.
The bottoms of crosses found in Russian Orthodox churches are adorned with a crescent. The common assumption was that in 1552, Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered the city of Kazan which had been under the rule of Muslim Tatars and in remembrance of this, he decreed that from henceforth the Islamic crescent be placed at the bottom of the crosses to signify the victory of the cross (Christianity) over the crescent (Islam). Crescents on crosses were widespread during the pre-Mongolian period of Russian history. The crescent symbol is meant to resemble an anchor, which symbolizes the hope for salvation.
Since 1949, title to Russian church properties in what is the territory of Israel have been held by the Russian Orthodox Mission (Patriarchate of Moscow); title to properties in areas then under Jordanian control (1948-67) remains with the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission representing the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The two missions have each been led by an archimandrite, who is assisted by a number of monks and nuns. Since 2001 the two parent churches have been engaged in a process of rapprochement and reconciliation, marked in 2007 with the formal signing in Moscow of the Act of Canonical Unity.
Cross of the Russian Orthodox Church
Gethsemane Convent, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene: The Church of St. Mary Magdalene was built by Emperor Alexander III in 1888 in memory of his mother. Around this church in Gethsemane Garden in 1934, with the blessing of Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky), a small monastic community of nuns formed. Some of the nuns established a school in Bethany for Arab girls. Gradually it became possible to organize daily services in Gethsemane and to strengthen monastic life there. The Church of St. Mary Magdalene contains the relics of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna the New Martyr and of St. Varvara. The head of the Convent is Abbess Elizabeth. The nuns have many obediences: singing, cleaning, tending to children and greeting visitors.
Mount of Olives Ascension Convent: The plot of land upon which our convent is located was acquired by archimandrite Anthony (Kapoustin) at the end of the 19th c. In 1906 the Convent of nuns was recognized by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the First World War, Jerusalem was declared a war zone and the clergy was expelled. In 1919 the clergy returned and the church was unsealed. All the care over the preservation of the convent was assumed by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. At the convent, besides the Church of the Ascension, are a chapel of St. John the Forerunner and the trapeza church in honor of St. Philaret the Merciful. The head of the Convent is Abbess Moisseia. The nuns assume many obediences: church singing, cleaning, embroidery in gold and greeting pilgrims.
Wadi Fara: the Skete of St. Chariton: The Lavra of St. Chariton was the first in the Holy Land. The founder of the monastery in the beginning of the IV c. was St. Chariton the Witness. Now on the place of the lavra is a small men’s skete with a cave church. The Skete is under the auspices of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.
History of the Russian Church: The Christian community that became the Russian Orthodox Church is traditionally said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, who is thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to one of the legends, Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
By the end of the first millennium AD, eastern Slavic lands started to come under the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 863-869, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic language for the first time, paving the way for the Christianization of the Slavs. There is evidence that the first Christian bishop was sent to Novgorod from Constantinople either by Patriarch Photius or Patriarch Ignatios, circa 866-867 AD.
By the mid-10th century, there was already a Christian community among Kievan nobility, under the leadership of Greek and Byzantine priests, although paganism remained the dominant religion. Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity, either in 945 or 957. Her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Kievan Rus’ a Christian state.
As a result of the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in 988, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted Byzantine Rite Christianity; the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, as the state religion of Kievan Rus’. This date is often considered the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1988, the Church celebrated its millennial anniversary. It therefore traces its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The Kievan church was originally a Metropolitanate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Byzantine patriarch appointed the metropolitan who governed the Church of Rus’. The Metropolitan’s residence was originally located in Kiev. As Kiev was losing its political, cultural, and economical significance due to the Mongol invasion, Metropolitan Maximus moved to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.
Monastic reform of St. Sergius: Following the tribulations of the Mongol invasion, the Russian Church was pivotal in the survival and life of the Russian state. Despite the politically motivated murders of Mikhail of Chernigov and Mikhail of Tver, the Mongols were generally tolerant and even granted tax exemption to the Church. Such holy figures as Sergius of Radonezh and Metropolitan Alexis helped the country to withstand years of Tatar oppression, and to expand both economically and spiritually.
Tsar Alexis praying before the relics of Metropolitan Philip
The monastic reform of St. Sergius, which culminated in the foundation of the monastery known as Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, was one of the defining events of medieval Russian history. The monastery became the setting for the unprecedented flourishing of transcendent, spiritual art, exemplified by the work of Andrey Rublev, among others. The followers of Sergius founded four hundred monasteries, thus greatly extending the geographical extent of his influence and authority.
The spiritual resurgence of the late 14th century, associated with the names of St. Sergius, the missionary Stephen of Perm and the writer Epiphanius the Wise, contributed to the consolidation of the Russian nation. Lev Gumilev has observed that, having received the blessing of St. Sergius to make a stand against the Tatars, “the Suzdalians, Vladimirians, Rostovians, Pskovians went to the Kulikovo Field as representatives of their principalities but returned after the victory as Russians, although living in different towns”, a dictum which has been endorsed by modern church functionaries.
At the Council of Florence (1439), a group of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification of the two branches of Christianity. The Russian Prince Basil II of Moscow, however, rejected the concessions to the Catholic Church and forbade the proclamation of the acts of the Council in Russia in 1452, after a short-lived East-West reunion. Metropolitan Isidore was in the same year expelled from his position as an apostate.
In 1448, the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia. This was just five years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. From this point onward the Russian Orthodox Church saw Moscow as the Third Rome, legitimate successor to Constantinople, and the Primate of Moscow as head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Consolidation and codification: The reign of Ivan III and his successor was plagued by numerous heresies and controversies. One party, led by Nil Sorsky and Vassian Kosoy, called for secularisation of monastic properties. They were oppugned by the influential Joseph of Volotsk, who defended ecclesiastical ownership of land and property. The sovereign’s position fluctuated, but eventually he threw his support to Joseph. New sects sprang up, some of which showed a tendency to revert to Mosaic law: for instance, the archpriest Aleksei converted to Judaism after meeting a certain Zechariah the Jew.
Monastic life flourished in Russia, focusing on prayer and spiritual growth. The disciples of St. Sergius left the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra to found hundreds of monasteries across Russia. Some of the most famous monasteries were located in the Russian North, even as far north as Pechenga, in order to demonstrate how faith could flourish in the most inhospitable lands. The richest landowners of medieval Russia included Joseph Volokolamsk Monastery, Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and the Solovetsky Monastery. In the 18th century, the three greatest monasteries were recognized as lavras, while those subordinated directly to the Synod were labelled stauropegic.
In the 1540s, Metropolitan Macarius codified Russian hagiography and convened a number of church synods, which culminated in the Hundred Chapter Synod of 1551. This assembly unified Church ceremonies and duties in the whole territory of Russia. At the demand of the Church hierarchy the government canceled the tsar’s jurisdiction over ecclesiastics. Reinforced by these reforms, the Church felt strong enough to challenge the policies of the tsar. Philip of Moscow, in particular, decried many abuses of Ivan the Terrible, who eventually engineered his defrocking and murder.
During the reign of tsar Theodor I his brother-in-law Boris Godunov contacted the Ecumenical Patriarch, who “was much embarrassed for want of funds,” with a view to establishing a patriarch see in Moscow. As a result of Godunov’s efforts, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became in 1589 the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, making the Russian Church autocephalous. The four other patriarchs have recognized the Moscow Patriarchate as one of the five honourable Patriarchates. During the next half a century, when the tsardom was weak, the patriarchs (notably Hermogenes and Philaret) would help run the state along with (and sometimes instead of) the tsars.
At the urging of the Zealots of Piety, Patriarch Nikon resolved in 1652 to centralize power that had been distributed locally, while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church, as interpreted by pundits from the Kiev Ecclesiastical Academy. For instance he insisted that Russian Christians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the then-traditional two. This aroused antipathy among a substantial section of the believers who saw the changed rites as heresy, although the extent to which these changes can be regarded as minor or major ritual significance remains open to debate. After the implementation of these innovations at the church council of 1666–1667, the Church anathematized and suppressed those who acted contrary to them with the support of Muscovite state power.
These traditionalists became known as “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists”. Although Nikon’s far-flung ambitions of steering the country to a theocratic form of government precipitated his defrocking and exile, Tsar Aleksey deemed it prudent to uphold many of his innovations. During the Schism of the Russian Church, the Old Ritualists were separated from the main body of the Orthodox Church. Archpriest Avvakum Petrov and many other opponents of the church reforms were burned at the stake, either forcibly or voluntarily. Another prominent figure within the Old Ritualists’ movement, Boyarynya Morozova, was starved to death in 1675. Others escaped from the government persecutions to Siberia and other inhospitable lands, where they would live in semi-seclusion until the modern times.
With the ascension of Emperor Peter the Great to the throne of Russia (1682–1725), with his radical modernization of Russian government, army, dress, and manners, Russia became a formidable political power. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced phenomenal geographic expansion.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Ottomans (supposedly acting on behalf of the Russian regent Sophia Alekseyevna) pressured the Patriarch of Constantinople into transferring the Metropoly of Kiev from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to that of Moscow. The controversial transfer brought millions of faithful and half a dozen dioceses under the pastoral and administrative care of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, leading to the significant Ukrainian domination of the Russian Orthodox Church, which continued well into the 18th century, with Theophanes Prokopovich, Epiphanius Slavinetsky, Stephen Yavorsky and Demetrius of Rostov being among the most notable representatives of this trend.
In 1700, after Patriarch Adrian’s death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named and in 1721, following the advice of Feofan Prokopovich, Archbishop of Pskov, the Holy and Supreme Synod was established under Archbishop Stephen Yavorsky to govern the church instead of a single primate. This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, at which time the Local Council (more than half of its members being lay persons) adopted the decision to restore the Patriarchy. On November 5 (according to the Julian calendar) a new patriarch, Tikhon, was named through casting lots.
The late 18th century saw the rise of starchestvo under Paisiy Velichkovsky and his disciples at the Optina Monastery. This marked a beginning of a significant spiritual revival in the Russian Church after a lengthy period of modernization, personified by such figures as Demetrius of Rostov and Platon of Moscow. Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, and other lay theologians with Slavophile leanings elaborated some key concepts of the renovated Orthodox doctrine, including that of sobornost. The resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was reflected in Russian literature, e.g., the figure of Starets Zosima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.
During the final decades of the imperial order in Russia many educated Russians sought to return to the Church and revitalize their faith. No less evident were non-conformist paths of spiritual searching known as “God-Seeking”. Writers, artists, and intellectuals in large numbers were drawn to private prayer, mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy, and Eastern religions. A fascination with elemental feeling, with the unconscious and the mythic, proliferated along with visions of coming catastrophe and redemption.
The visible forms of God-Seeking were extensive. A series of ‘Religious-Philosophical Meetings’ were held in St. Petersburg in 1901–1903, bringing together prominent intellectuals and clergy to explore together ways to reconcile the Church with the growing of undogmatic desire among the educated for spiritual meaning in life. Especially after 1905, various religious societies arose, though much of this religious upheaval was informal: circles and salons, séances, private prayer. Some clergy also sought to revitalize Orthodox faith, most famously the charismatic Father John of Kronstadt, who, until his death in 1908 (though his followers remained active long after), emphasized Christian living and sought to restore fervency and the presence of the miraculous in liturgical celebration. In 1909, a sensation-creating volume of essays appeared under the title Vekhi (“Landmarks” or “Signposts”), authored by a group of leading left-wing intellectuals, including Sergei Bulgakov, Peter Struve, and former Marxists, who bluntly repudiated the materialism and atheism that had dominated the thought of the intelligentsia for generations as leading inevitably to failure and moral disaster.
After the upheavals of 1905, renewed vigor and variety in religious life and spirituality, spread amongst the peasantry with interest in spiritual-ethical literature and non-conformist moral-spiritual movements; an upsurge in pilgrimage and other devotions to sacred spaces and objects (especially icons); persistent beliefs in the presence and power of the supernatural (apparitions, possession, walking-dead, demons, spirits, miracles, and magic); the renewed vitality of local “ecclesial communities” actively shaping their own ritual and spiritual lives, sometimes in the absence of clergy, and defining their own sacred places and forms of piety; and the proliferation of what the Orthodox establishment branded as ‘sectarianism’, including both non-Orthodox Christian denominations, notably Baptists, and various forms of deviant popular Orthodoxy and mysticism
1917 was a major turning point for the history of Russia, and also the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government – which had granted the Church numerous privileges – was overthrown. After a few months of political turmoil, the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 and declared a separation of church and state. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history. One of the first decrees of the new Communist government (issued in January 1918) declared freedom of “religious and anti-religious propaganda”. This led to a marked decline in the power and influence of the Church. The Church was also caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War that began later the same year, and many leaders of the Church supported what would ultimately turn out to be the losing side (the White movement).
The Russian Orthodox Church supported the White Army in the Russian Civil War after the October Revolution. This may have further strengthened the Bolshevik animus against the church. Even before the end of the civil war and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church came under pressure from the secular Communist government. The Soviet government stood on a platform of antireligion, viewing the church as a “counter-revolutionary” organization and an independent voice with a great influence in society. While the Soviet Union officially claimed religious tolerance, in practice the government discouraged organized religion and did much to remove religious influence from Soviet society.
Before and after the October Revolution of November 7, 1917 (October 25 Old Calendar) there was a movement within what became Soviet Union to unite all of the people of the world under Communist rule. This included the Eastern European bloc countries as well as the Balkan States. Since some of these Slavic states tied their ethnic heritage to their ethnic churches, both the peoples and their church were targeted by the Soviets.
The Soviet Union had an ideological objective with the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. Orthodox priests and believers were variously tortured, sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals, and executed. Many Orthodox (along with people of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions.
Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use. It was impossible to build new churches. Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored and encouraged by the government, which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond to. The government youth organization, the Komsomol, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox Churches and harass worshippers. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press.
The history of Orthodoxy under Communism was not limited to this story of repression and secularization. Bolshevik policies toward religious belief and practice tended to vacillate over time between, on the one hand, a utopian determination to substitute secular rationalism for what they considered to be an unmodern, “superstitious” worldview and, on the other, pragmatic acceptance of the tenaciousness of religious faith and institutions. In any case, religious beliefs and practices did persist, in the domestic and private spheres but also in the scattered public spaces allowed by a state that recognized its failure to eradicate religion and the political dangers of an unrelenting culture war.
In November 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches and the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon’s church (the Josephites and the Russian True Orthodox Church), restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
The Stalin era: The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.
The sixth sector of the OGPU, led by Yevgeny Tuchkov, began aggressively arresting and executing bishops, priests, and devout worshippers, such as Metropolitan Veniamin in Petrograd in 1922 for refusing to accede to the demand to hand in church valuables (including sacred relics). In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death. Many thousands of victims of persecution became recognized in a special canon of saints known as the “new martyrs and confessors of Russia”.
In January 1918 Patriarch Tikhon proclaimed anathema to the Bolsheviks (without explicitly naming them), which further antagonized relations. When Tikhon died in 1925, the Soviet authorities forbade patriarchal elections to be held. Patriarchal locum tenens (acting Patriarch) Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky, 1887–1944), going against the opinion of a major part of the church’s parishes, in 1927 issued a declaration accepting the Soviet authority over the church as legitimate, pledging the church’s cooperation with the government and condemning political dissent within the church.
Patriarch Tikhon granted himself with the power that Sergius, being a deputy of imprisoned Metropolitan Peter and acting against his will, had no right to assume according to the XXXIV Apostolic canon, which led to a split with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia abroad and the Russian True Orthodox Church (Russian Catacomb Church) within the Soviet Union, as they allegedly remained faithful to the Canons of the Apostles, declaring the part of the church led by Metropolitan Sergius schism, sometimes coined Sergianism. Due to this canonical disagreement it is disputed which church has been the legitimate successor to the Russian Orthodox Church that had existed before 1925.
After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius, Alexy and Nikolay had a meeting with Stalin and received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, which elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. This is considered by some violation of the XXX Apostolic canon, as no church hierarch could be consecrated by secular authorities. A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened.
Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. This decline was evident from the dramatic decay of many of the abandoned churches and monasteries that were previously common in even the smallest villages from the pre-revolutionary period.
Persecution under Khrushchev and Brezhnev: A new and widespread persecution of the church was subsequently instituted under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. A second round of repression, harassment and church closures took place between 1959 and 1964 during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev.
The Church and the government remained on unfriendly terms until 1988. In practice, the most important aspect of this conflict was that openly religious people could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which meant that they could not hold any political office. However, among the general population, large numbers remained religious.
Some Orthodox believers and even priests took part in the dissident movement and became prisoners of conscience. The Orthodox priests Gleb Yakunin, Sergiy Zheludkov and others spent years in Soviet prisons and exile for their efforts in defending freedom of worship. Among the prominent figures of that time was Father Aleksandr Men. Although he tried to keep away from practical work of the dissident movement intending to better fulfil his calling as a priest, there was a spiritual link between Fr Aleksander and many of the dissidents. For some of them he was a friend, for others, a godfather, for many (including Yakunin) a spiritual father.
By 1987 the number of functioning churches in the Soviet Union had fallen to 6893 and the number of functioning monasteries to just 18. In 1987 in the Russian SFSR, between 40% and 50% of newborn babies (depending on the region) were baptized and over 60% of all deceased received Christian funeral services.
Glasnost and KGB links: Beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 – the millennial anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus’. Throughout the summer of that year, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many older churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.
Gleb Yakunin, a defrocked Priest and critic of the Moscow Patriarchate who was one of those who had access to the KGB archive documents in the early 1990s, argued that the Moscow Patriarchate was “practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB”. Critics charge that the archives showed the extent of active participation of the top ROC hierarchs in the KGB efforts overseas. George Trofimoff, the highest-ranking US military officer ever indicted for, and convicted of, espionage by the United States and sentenced to life imprisonment on September 27, 2001, had been “recruited into the service of the KGB” by Igor Susemihl (a.k.a. Zuzemihl), a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church (subsequently, a high-ranking hierarch – the ROC Metropolitan Iriney of Vienna, who died in July 1999).
The Moscow Patriarchate consistently denied that its bishops were in fact KGB Agents. Konstanin Kharchev, former chairman of Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, explained: “Not a single candidate for the office of bishop or any other high-ranking office, much less a member of Holy Synod, went through without confirmation by the Central Committee of the CPSU and the KGB”. Professor Nathaniel Davis points out: “If the bishops wished to defend their people and survive in office, they had to collaborate to some degree with the KGB, with the commissioners of the Council for Religious Affairs, and with other party and governmental authorities.”
Under Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008): After the fall of the Soviet Union, Alexy II led a spiritual revival of his church, assuming the role of patriarch as the officially atheistic Soviet Union collapsed. He rebuilt a national religion from the ground up, developing Russian Orthodoxy as a quasi-national religion with deep nationalistic sentiment.
With the Russian Orthodox Church’s history of pogroms and forced baptism of Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Jews worried about its renewed ascendancy. The Patriarch Alexy II pushed for compulsory Russian Orthodox education in Russia, and he also become an early clarion voice calling for an end to historical virulent anti-Semitism among Russian Orthodox believers.
Metropolitan Alexy of Leningrad, ascended the Patriarchal throne in 1990 and presided over the partial return of Orthodox Christianity to Russian society after 70 years of repression, transforming the ROC to something resembling a state religion; some 15,000 churches had been re-opened or built by the end of his reign. The Church also sought to fill the ideological vacuum left by the end of communism, and even, in the opinion of some analysts, became “a separate branch of power”.
Patriarch Alexy II, acknowledged that compromises were made with the Soviet government by bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate, himself included, and publicly repented of these compromises: “Defending one thing, it was necessary to give somewhere else. Were there any other organizations, or any other people among those who had to carry responsibility not only for themselves but for thousands of other fates, who in those years in the Soviet Union were not compelled to act likewise? Before those people, however, to whom the compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty permitted by the leaders of the church in those years caused pain, before these people, and not only before God, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers.”
Under Patriarch Alexy, there were difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, especially since 2002, when Pope John Paul II created a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory. The leadership of the Russian Church saw this action as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic.
This point of view was based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is in schism, after breaking off from the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believed that the small Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the 18th century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy with a presence and status in Russia, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is present in other countries (including constructing a cathedral in Rome, near the Vatican).
On December 28, 2006, it was officially announced that the Act of Canonical Communion would finally be signed between the ROC and ROCOR. The signing took place on the May 17, 2007, followed immediately by a full restoration of communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, celebrated by a Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, at which the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexius II and the First Hierarch of ROCOR concelebrated for the first time.
Throughout Patriarch Alexy’s reign, the massive-scale program of costly restoration of re-opened churches and monasteries (as well as the construction of new ones) was criticized for having eclipsed the Church’s principal mission of evangelizing. On 5 December 2008, the day of Patriarch Alexy’s death, the media reported that, “While the church had been a force for liberal reform under the Soviet Union, it soon became a center of strength for conservatives and nationalists in the post-communist era. Alexei’s death could well result in an even more conservative church.”
There had been increasing friction between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church, one example of such friction could be observed at the meeting in Ravenna in early October 2007 of participants in the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue: the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, walked out of the meeting due to the presence of representatives from the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church which is in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. At the meeting, prior to the departure of the Russian delegation, there were also substantive disagreements about the wording of a proposed joint statement among the Orthodox representatives. After the departure of the Russian delegation, the remaining Orthodox delegates approved the form which had been advocated by the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The disagreement occurred because Moscow insists that Estonia is its canonical territory for historical reasons, and has incorporated Orthodox parishes in Estonia into the Orthodox Church of Estonia, a self-governing part of the Church of Russia. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, however, has setup its own jurisdiction in Estonia, called the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, an action that prompted the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia to announce, in 2000, that it will not take part in any pan-Orthodox meeting where members of the EAOC are present. The Ecumenical See’s representative in Ravenna said that Hilarion’s position “should be seen as an expression of authoritarianism whose goal is to exhibit the influence of the Moscow Church. But like last year in Belgrade, all Moscow achieved was to isolate itself once more since no other Orthodox Church followed its lead, remaining instead faithful to Constantinople.”
In 2008, a Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine was accused of fomenting anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Kamenets-Podolsky through leaflets accusing Jews of being behind the masterminds of the 1917 Russian Revolution and of the 2004 Orange Revolution and also questioning the right of Ukraine to exist as a separate nation-state from Russia.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux, former president of Keston Institute, believed in January 2008 that “the Moscow Patriarchate acts as though it heads a state church, while the few Orthodox clergy who oppose the church-state symbiosis face severe criticism, even loss of livelihood.” Such view is backed up by other Russia’s political life observers.
Clifford J. Levy of New York Times wrote in April 2008: “Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working “in symphony.”
Under Patriarch Kirill: On January 27, 2009, the ROC Local Council (the 2009 Pomestny Sobor comprised 72 women, both nuns and lay members; the majority of its delegates were not Russia’s citizens) elected Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus; he was enthroned on February 1, 2009.
Based on an ukase (decree) issued by Patriarch Tikhon, which stated that dioceses of the Church of Russia that were cut off from the governance of the highest Church authority (i.e. the Holy Synod and the Patriarch) should be managed independently until such time as normal relations with the highest Church authority could be resumed, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was established; by bishops who had left Russia in the wake of the Russian Civil War. They first met in Constantinople, and then moved to Sremski-Karlovci, Yugoslavia. After World War II, they moved their headquarters to New York City, New York, where it remains to this day.
Under the Act, the ROCOR remains a self-governing entity within the Church of Russia. It is independent in its administrative, pastoral, and property matters. It continues to be governed by its Council of Bishops and its Synod, the Council’s permanent executive body. The First-Hierarch and bishops of the ROCOR are elected by its Council and confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow. ROCOR bishops participate in the Council of Bishops of the entire Russian Church.