Russian Orthodox Church

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Christ the Redeemer, a well-known Russian Orthodox icon from Zvenigorod.
Christ the Redeemer, a well-known Russian Orthodox icon from Zvenigorod.

The Russian Orthodox Church (also known as the Orthodox Catholic Church of Russia) (Русская Православная церковь) is that body of Christians who are united under the Patriarch of Moscow, who in turn is in communion with the other patriarchs and primates of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this way Russian Orthodox believers are in communion with all other Eastern Orthodox believers.



The Russian Orthodox Church traces its roots to the Baptism of Kiev in 988, when Prince Vladimir I officially adopted the religion of the Byzantine Empire as the state religion of the Rus' state. Thus, in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its millennial anniversary. It therefore traces its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The 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 moved from the Rus' capital of Kiev to Vladimir, then to Moscow in 1326 following Kiev's devastation by the Mongols. The 14th century was the time when the Russian Church was pivotal for the national survival. Such holy figures as Sergey of Radonezh and Metropolitan Alexis helped the country to withstand the years of Tatar oppression and to expand both economically and spiritually.

In 1439 at the Council of Florence, a meeting of the Catholic and some Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification of the two branches of Christianity. The Russian people, however, rejected the concessions to the Catholics and Metropolitan Isidore was expelled from his position.

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 Rus'. This was just five years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Thereupon the Russian Church became the successor of Constantinople, and the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome signifies its position as the spiritual center of The One, Holy, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

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 properties. The sovereign's position fluctuated, until he threw his support to Joseph.

Monastic life flourished in Russia it focused on prayer and spiritual growth. Monasteries produced innumerable number of bright examples of holiness, which may be attained by people, who fully devote their lives to the search of God and salvation. Monasteries largely contributed to spiritual growth and purification of souls of all people in Russia. Some bright examples of monastic holiness are Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, Joseph Volokolamsk Monastery , Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and the Solovki.

In the 1540s, Metropolitan Macarius 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 cancelled the tsar's jurisdiction over ecclesiastics.

In 1589, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus'; making the Russian Church autocephalous. The other Eastern 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 Germogen and Philaret) become very respectable and influential figures.

An Old Believer Priest Disputing with Patriarch Joachim the Matters of Faith. Painting by Vasily Perov.
An Old Believer Priest Disputing with Patriarch Joachim the Matters of Faith. Painting by Vasily Perov.

In 1652, Patriarch Nikon resolved to centralize power that had been distributed locally while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church. For instance he insisted that Russian Christians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the then-traditional two. This aroused antipathy among a small section of the believers who saw the changed rites both as heresy, although it only had a minor ritual significance. This group became known as the Old Ritual Believers or Old Believers and they reject the teachings of the new Patriarch. Tsar Aleksey (who was simultaneously centralizing political power) upheld Nikon's changes. The Old Ritual Believers were separated from The Orthodox Church. Avvakum Petrovich, Boyarynya Morozova and many other dissidents were burned at the stake, either forcibly or voluntarily.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced phenomenal geographic expansion. In the 1686, the Metropolia of Kiev passed from Constantinople's control to that of Moscow bringing millions more faithful and a half dozen dioceses under the pastoral and administrative care of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. In the following two centuries, missionary efforts stretched out across Siberia into Alaska, then into the United States at California. Eminent people on that missionary effort included St. Innocent of Irkutsk, St.Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent of Siberia and Alaska. They learned local languages and translated the gospels and the hymns. Sometimes those translations required the invention of new systems of transcription.

In 1700 following Patriarch Adrian's death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named, and in 1721, after the advice of Feofan Prokopovich, he established the Holy and Supreme Synod to govern the church instead of a single primate. This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, at which time the bishops elected a new patriarch, Patriarch Tikhon. The 19th century saw the rise of starchestvo under Paisiy Velichkovsky and his disciples at the Optina Monastery. This marked a beginning of the significant spiritual revival in The Russian Church after the period of excessive inflow from Western Europe of spiritually and morally destructive philosophies and fashions.

In 1914 in Russia there were 55 173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29 593 chapels, 112 629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 nunneries with a total of 95 259 inmates.

Tsar Alexis praying before the relics of Metropolitan Philip.
Tsar Alexis praying before the relics of Metropolitan Philip.

During most of the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church had to coexist with deeply atheist government of Soviet Union. Although freedom of religious expression was formally declared by one of the first decrees of revolutionary government in January 1918, both the Church and its followers were heavily persecuted and deeply disadvantaged. Prior to the Russian Revolution, there were some 54 000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. Bloody and cruel killing of bishops and priests, massacres of believers during the officially sanctioned Red Terror and following years of repressions are shocking. These persecutions were even greater then the persecutions of the Ancient Christian Church both in the number of holy martyrs and the cruelty and ingenuity of persecutionists. Many religious hierarchs fled the country during the revolution and the civil war that followed, and contributed to the Christian witness of the Orthodox Church in many countries. However, some hierarchs formed their own organisation that became known as Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and were splitted away from the Russian Church. During the 1920-30s, most church buildings were blown, burned or converted into secular buildings; over 50 thousand priests were either executed or sent to labor camps ( many of these suffered as part of the Great Purge of 1936-37 ). By 1939, there were less than 100 functioning parishes and only four bishops.

During World War II, the religious persecution in Soviet Union became less pronounced, in part due to cooperation of the Church with the state on national defense issues. Years 1944-45 saw the reopening of the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary that had been closed since 1918. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, relations between the Church and the state started to deteriorate again. Until Perestroika, public expression of religious beliefs - Christian or otherwise - was frowned upon; known churchgoers were deprived of some social rights, they could not become members of the Communist Party, which, in turn, severely limited their career opportunities and many lost their jobs and any privileges. All Soviet university students were required to take courses in so-called "Scientific Atheism". Finally, well into 1970-80's some priests of Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other churches in Soviet Union, were secretly employed by the KGB for the government to inspect who is going to Church. At the same time, large number of people remained overtly or covertly religious. In 1987 in Russian Federation between 40% and 50% of newborn babies (depending on the region) were baptized and over 60% of all deceased received Christian funeral services. This marked an expansive spiritual growth and a great revival of The Orthodox Christianity in Russia and in the whole World, which presently continues.

A pivotal point in the history of Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennial anniversary of Baptism of Kievan Rus'. It appears now that the government had realized fruitlessness of its efforts in war against religion and, instead of that, tried to use religion to gain support of people. Throughout the summer of 1988, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban of religious propaganda on state TV ( or, indeed, of any portrayal of religion that wouldn't be critical or mocking ) was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could use their TVs to see live transmissions of services from central churches.

Modern condition

Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world. Over 90% of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. The number of people regularly attending church services is considerably lower, but growing every year. The Church has over 23,000 parishes, 154 bishops, 635 monasteries, and 102 clerical schools in the territory of former Soviet Union and has a well-established presence in many other countries all over the World. In recent years some of the church buildings were officially returned to the Church, most of these being in a deteriorated condition.

Vladimir Putin and Alexius II
Vladimir Putin and Alexius II

Since 2002, when Patriarch Alexius II condemned the Vatican's creation of a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory, there have been difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican. 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 is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is but one of many equal Christian organizations, and that as such it is straying into the territory, which was already christianized by the Christian Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believes 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.

The issue of encroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to many members of the Russian Orthodox Church, since The Russian Orthodox Church has christianized the many peoples inhibiting Russia and was their spiritual Mother for over a thousand years, contributing to the formation of Russia as an organized country and to the development of its great history and culture. Only recently the Church has come out from under considerable persecution during the regime of the Soviet Union. Thus, proselytizing by mostly foreign-based Catholics, Protestant denominations, and by many destructive sects can be seen as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church, having just come out of 70 years of Communist oppression. On the other hand, smaller religious movements ( particularly, Baptists and members of other Protestant denominations, brought into Russia by western missionaries in the past decade claim that the state provides unfair support to one religion and suppresses others. They refer to the 1997 Russian law, under which, those religious organizations that couldn't provide official proof of their existence for the preceding 15 years were significantly restricted in their rights and abilities to proselytize. The law was formally intended to combat the destructive cults. Nevertheless, it was worded in such a manner that any organisation, no matter how ancient, that couldn't document its presence in the Soviet Union before the fall of Communism was automatically affected by this law. Consequently, this law gave full rights only to a small number of "first-rank" religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The situation is expected to normalise as the 15-year window starts to slide over the post-Communist period.

A 17th-century Stroganov icon.
A 17th-century Stroganov icon.

There is also, due to its deep cultural roots, a noticeable respect of the Church by many members of the Russian government. It is common for the President of Russia to publicly meet with the Patriarch on the Church holidays such as The Holy Pascha (in non-Orthodox Christianity called Easter). Meetings with the representatives of Islam and Buddhism happen less frequently. Catholic and Protestant denominations don't have much merit in Russian history and have a very small presence in the country.

The Russian Orthodox Church should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), which was formed by some Russian communities outside of Russia, which refused to recognize the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in then-Communist Russia.

Russian Orthodox Church also has a history in China.

Russian Orthodox churches

Russian Orthodox church buildings differ in design from most western-type churches. First, their interiors are very enriched with sacramental objects, including holy icons, which are painted or made like frescos and often cover most of the interior. Some of these are icons of Saints and scenes from their lives. One particularly inspiring feature of many Russian churches is that the interior reaches all the way up into the dome or domes of the church (most Orthodox churches have the shape of domes). On the ceiling of many churches (inside the main dome in a domed church), an icon of Christ as Pantokrator (Ruler of All). Pantokrator icons emphasize Christ's humanity and divinity simultaneously, signifying that Christ is a Man and yet is also The God without beginning or end.

There are no pews. Most churches are lit with candles rather than electric light. Virtually all churches have many votive candle stands in front of the icons. It is customary for worshipers to purchase candles in church stores, light them up and place them on the stands ( this ritual signifies person's prayer to The God, or to His Holy Mother, or to the saints or angels asking for help in the difficult way to salvation and to freedom from sin).

Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, the spiritual heart of Russian Orthodoxy.
Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, the spiritual heart of Russian Orthodoxy.

All Russian Orthodox churches have an iconostasis which separates the large hall of the church from the holy altar, which signifies the Heavenly Kingdom. Covered with icons, it is intended to stop physical sight, but to allow the spiritual sight of the worshipers through.

The colours of the domes of a Russian Orthodox church having meaning, as follows:

  • Black - submission. Black domes are found in monasteries.
  • Green - the Holy Trinity.
  • Blue - the Spirit of God.
  • Gold - Jesus. Gold domes on top of tall drum-like towers also intentionally look like candles from a distance.

Silver domes are also found, but these simply indicate that the dome is modern, and has not been painted.

The number of domes also has meaning:

  • One on its own indicates Jesus.
  • Three indicates the Holy Trinity.
  • Five indicates Jesus and the Four Evangelists.

The crosses on top of the domes have a crescent shape with the horns upturned as part of their base. This is actually an anchor, indicating that the church is a ship of faith, which sails to Salvation through the sea of vanity and earthenly turmoil.

Gold is a colour of The Heavenly Kingdom. When used as the background of an icon it is not flat, but is instead intended to be of infinite depth. Icons are drawn in a flat, non-perspective style. This is intentional, not just a reflection on the skills of the icon painters. The flat style of the painting allows the icon to be viewed equally by all, regardless of position.

Some churches were funded by merchants. These often have large crypts, which were intended to serve as warehouses for those merchants.

Most churches are symmetric in architecture and interior design, since in The Heavenly Kingdom everything must have an order. Only a few churches, such as Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, are not symmetric structures.

See also

External link

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