The establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church dates to the year 988, when the Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, accepted the Orthodox Christian faith. Until this time Vladimir had been a ruthless ruler, involved in much treachery and bloodletting. He kept many wives and concubines, and had many pagan statues erected. However, Vladimir was troubled about his way of life and that of his compatriots, and therefore sent emissaries to lands inhabited by Muslims, Jews, German Christians and Greek (that is, Roman) Orthodox Christians in Constantinople to report on each of those religions. His emissaries brought mostly negative reports on the first three of these religions, but they were in awe about what they had experienced in Constantinople. They described their attending the liturgy at the great church of the Hagia Sophia, or Divine Wisdom, as not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth. This report convinced Vladimir that the true God can be found in Orthodoxy, more so than in any other religion.
Thus, it came about that Vladimir was baptised in the town of Kherson that he had recently captured from the Greeks. He was given the Christian name Basil as a compliment to the Eastern Roman Emperor Basil II, whose sister Anna he promptly married. There can be no doubt that political considerations played a role in Vladimir’s decision to embrace Orthodoxy, but then it has to be seen as providential. It should also be noted that the Prince of Kiev was not the first member of the Russian nobility to accept the Orthodox Christian faith. His grandmother Princess Olga had been baptised some years earlier, and her example and prayers undoubtedly contributed to her grandson’s conversion.
From the time of his baptism in the Orthodox Church, Vladimir devoted the remainder of his rule to building up the Christian faith in the Russian lands. He destroyed pagan statues and established many churches, as well as monasteries on Mount Athos. His earlier territorial expansion in Galicia, along the Kama and elsewhere appears providential, since these lands would now become Orthodox. By the time of Vladimir’s death in 1015 the Orthodox Church had been established in Russia, which at the time included the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas. Saints Vladimir and Olga are justly venerated with the title Equal to the Apostles.
Prince Vladimir’s death was followed by several years of fratricidal war between his sons Yaroslav and Svyatopolk, the latter being in alliance with the Poles. At the beginning of this strife Vladimir’s sons Boris and Gleb, both being Orthodox Christians, were murdered apparently on order of the pagan Svyatopolk. By 1019 Yaroslav had won the throne of Kiev, after which he set about consolidating his father’s legacy. Among his notable achievements were the foundation of the Novgorod Republic, the promulgation of the first law code in the eastern Slavic lands, breaking the power of the Pecheneg nomads and constructing the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. Of lasting significance is the fact that Yaroslav had a Russian monk enthroned as Metropolitan of Kiev, thereby taking the first step in the gradual independence of the Russian Orthodox Church from Constantinople.
The legacy of Princess Olga and Princes Vladimir and Yaroslav was to be a lasting one, due to the ever-present grace of God. Over the thousand years since 988, neither the invasions of Muslim Tartars, Catholic Germans and Poles, atheist French or Fascist Germans, nor the intense persecutions of the Leninist and Stalinist eras, could destroy the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church was founded on the near 2000-year old apostolic legacy of the whole Orthodox Church. A difference between the Greek and Russian Churches is of course that both use older versions of the local language, the Russian Church using from the beginning Church Slavonic. This uses the Cyrillic script, which is based on the Greek, Latin and Hebrew alphabets. Further outward differences would arise between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, notably with regard to Church music. While the Greek Church strove to preserve its Middle Eastern musical legacy, Russian Church music developed in a different direction, one that would assimilate polyphony. It should be noted that such differences pertain to practice and not to doctrine, the various Orthodox Churches all holding the same beliefs.
During the centuries following the reign of St Vladimir and his son Yaroslav the Wise, the Church in the Russian lands continued to grow in extent and influence. This was the mirror image of the Church of Constantinople, the Second Rome. This was the centre of the Roman Empire that was waning, due to the relentless rise of the Muslim Turkish Empire in the east and the barbaric invasions of Catholic States in the west. The growth of the Russian Church at this time of the decline of the Roman Empire, centred in Constantinople, can be seen as providential. This is affirmed by the fact that when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Church in Russia was in a position to assume the leadership of the Orthodox world.
Some time later, while western European nations were building up commercial empires all over the inhabited world, the Russian Church embarked on a wide-ranging project of establishing the Orthodox Christian faith among the peoples of China, Japan and Alaska. Great evangelists such as Sts Innocent of Irkutsk, Herman of Alaska and Nicholas of Japan played prominent roles in this activity stretching over several centuries. Not even the anti-Christian policies of Peter I, who abolished the Patriarchate of Moscow and attempted to reduce the Church to the status of a government department, could prevent this missionary expansion. Divine providence once again overcame human sinfulness. The impetus provided by St Vladimir was being carried far and wide across the northern hemisphere.
Also within Russia did the Church during this time of Western empire-building and ever-accelerating apostasy from Christ produce a number of spiritual giants whose grace-filled influence is reaching far and wide. One only has to think of St Xenia of St Petersburg, the humble fool-for-Christ wandering the streets of her city for decades; St Seraphim of Sarov, the ascetic forest-dweller who communed with wild animals as in Paradise; St Theophan the Recluse, whose writings have been providing spiritual direction to millions of Christians; St John of Kronstadt, whose preaching and social outreach drew many thousands to Christ throughout his long ministry; and St Matrona of Moscow, whose physical blindness and paralysis did not preclude constant spiritual labour in the Russian capital at the height of the Stalinist tyranny. More recently we have witnessed the grace of God working abundantly through Russian Orthodox living in the Western world. The most notable example of these is St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the wonderworker who reposed in 1966.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 at first made it possible for the Patriarchate of Moscow to be re-established after two centuries of domination of Peter I’s Protestant system. However, this new hope for the Church was quickly dashed as within a few months the atheistic Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. One of the greatest tragedies in Christian history occurred in 1918 when the Russian royal family of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children were murdered by the Bolsheviks. From this time the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky waged a campaign against religion in the new Soviet State, and since the bulk of the population were Orthodox the Church would bear the brunt of the anti-religious onslaught. The legacy of St Vladimir would be severely tried and tested during Stalin’s tyranny lasting until 1953, with 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, 120,000 monks and nuns and countless millions of Orthodox Christian laypeople paying with their lives for their faith.
During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and afterwards more than a million Russians emigrated and settled in various other countries. The main centre of the Russian diaspora was initially France, with Paris becoming the intellectual and cultural nerve centre thereof. This mass exodus brought with it the benefit of establishing the Russian Orthodox Church in parts of the world where it was hitherto unknown. In this way numerous Russian Orthodox parishes and monasteries, and even theological seminaries, were founded in Western Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere.
Two events that occurred in the Orthodox world in the 1920s would have lasting consequences, one of them for the Orthodox Church as a whole and the other for the Russian Church in particular. Firstly, from the late sixteenth century on the western world, both Catholic and Protestant, began to adopt the Gregorian calendar for the fixed feasts of the Church in place of the Julian calendar that had formerly been used. However, the Church had already adopted the Julian calendar at the First Ecumenical Council in 325, and therefore only another Ecumenical Council could authorise the use of a different calendar by the Church. In spite of this conviction, in 1924 parts of the Orthodox Church were forced by politicians to use the Gregorian calendar in order to be in step with the western world, although they tried to soften the impact on their members by disguising their new calendar with the name of ‘Revised Julian’ instead of Gregorian. This decision was forced on the Greek, Romanian and Antiochian Churches, later on the Bulgarian Church. In contrast, the 80% of Orthodox in the Russian, Serbian and Georgian Churches, as well as in Jerusalem, Sinai and Mount Athos, remained faithful to the Orthodox calendar. This calendar was henceforth referred to as the ‘old’ calendar by users of the Gregorian or new calendar. In practice this divergence means that those on the new calendar are out of step with the majority of the Orthodox Church for all fixed feasts by 13 days.
Of more importance for the Russian Orthodox Church was the establishment of a Synod to oversee the Church outside Russia. This was provided for by the new Patriarch of Moscow, Tikhon (who was later canonised), due to the increasing limitations imposed on the Church in Russia by the Bolshevik regime. The Synod consisted of 34 refugee-bishops from several countries outside Russia, their clergy and flock. Initially, it was based in Yugoslavia, the Serbian Church always having enjoyed close relations with the Russian Church. With the communist take-over of Yugoslavia after the Second World War the Synod ended up in New York where it is still based. This part of the Church is known as the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR). It has a well-known seminary at Jordanville in New York and nearly 400 parishes and monasteries, especially among the Russian diaspora in North America, Germany and Australia. ROCOR has over the years also engaged in missionary work in many countries, of which Indonesia now has the strongest Russian Orthodox presence.
In 1988 the Russian Orthodox Church worldwide celebrated the millennium since its founding, dating back to the baptism of St Vladimir. By that time the Soviet restrictions on the Church were coming to an end, and with the election of Alexei II as Patriarch of Moscow in 1990 the Church in Russia began what would become a spectacular rebirth. During his 18 years as Patriarch tens of thousands of parishes would be founded, hundreds of monasteries would be re-activated, and many seminaries would be re-opened for the training of clergy. This rebirth of by far the largest Orthodox Church was due to a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The rebuilt Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, of which the original had been destroyed by Stalin in the 1930’s, was consecrated in 2000. This coincided with a Jubilee Council of all the Russian Orthodox bishops of the Patriarchate of Moscow, who duly began canonising the new martyrs and confessors, including the royal family that had been martyred in 1918. Although the Church had regained its independence from the Russian State when the Patriarchate was re-established in 1917, it was only now in a position to exert a positive Christian influence on government and society and so to de-secularise it. This influence has prevented Russia from rejecting Christian values to the same extent as the secular humanist West, the still rampant alcoholism, crime and corruption in post-Soviet Russia notwithstanding.
Since the 1990s a second large-scale outflow of Russians to the rest of the world has been occurring. This time the motivation for the mass emigration has been economic rather than religious or political. As in the case of the earlier exodus in the 1920s, the new emigration has led to numerous Russian Orthodox parishes being established outside the Russian lands, but this time on a much larger scale. This applies particularly to western European countries such as the USA, Germany, Austria, France, Britain and Ireland. In recent years new Russian churches have also appeared in countries far away from the initial diaspora, including Thailand, Iceland, North Korea, Cuba and Mexico. In this way the truth of Orthodoxy is reaching peoples who had previously never heard it at a time of rampant secularisation and spiritual decadence.
During the first decade of the new millennium the Russian Orthodox Church continued to experience marvellous events. In 2004 the famous Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God was returned to the rebuilt monastery in its hometown, after an absence of more than 60 years due to the Second World War and its aftermath. Three years later the long-awaited reunion of ROCOR with the Patriarchate of Moscow took place. The Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had throughout his term of office co-operated closely with Patriarch Alexei, played no mean role in this happy event. The agreement was signed in Moscow on the feast of the Lord’s Ascension by Patriarch Alexei and the ROCOR hierarch, Metropolitan Laurus. Both Church leaders would repose within a year or two of their flocks being reunited. May their memory be eternal!
Finally, September 2009 sees the opening of a new Russian Orthodox seminary in Paris, for the training of clergy in Western Europe. Let us hope and pray that this will enable more of the large numbers of secularised Russian-speakers in the West to be brought into the Church, as well as western Europeans wishing to be Orthodox Christians. Undoubtedly, St Vladimir must be delighted with the expansion of Russian Orthodoxy into many parts of the world.
Vladimir de Beer
28 July 2009
Feast of St Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles