The Russian Orthodox Church’s history and development, which established it as an arm of the Tsarist state and an instrument of the perpetuation of Russia’s unequal class system and anti-reform policies, made it a necessary object of destruction for the security of the Bolshevik revolution.
The myth of the Holy Russian land was the founding idea of the Muscovite tsardom as it was developed by the Romanovs from the start of the seventeenth century. After the civil war and Polish intervention during the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Mikhail Romanov, as the legend went, was elected by the entire Russian population, therefore reuniting the Holy Russian land behind the Romanov dynasty and saving Orthodox Russia from the Catholics. (Carr 125). The idea of Russia as a holy land contributed to the Tsar s position not as a king ruling with a divine right, but a god on earth. There was, in fact, a tradition in Russia of canonizing princes who died pro patria et fides. Tsars used Church laws to persecute political opponents, unlike the Western rulers of this time. Peter the Great later tried to reform relations between Church and state in an attempt to Westernize Russia, transferring the Church s administration from the patriarchate to the Holy Synod (this was completed by Catherine II). This body of laymen and clergy, with its secular representative being the Procurator-General, was appointed by the Tsar and served as a faithful tool. It was in the Church s best interests not to protest this subordination to the state, as during the latter half of the eighteenth century it had lost most of its land and now relied on the state to support its 100,000 parish clergy and their families (Curtiss Russian Church… 21) . With most of the population being illiterate, the Church was an essential propaganda weapon and a means of social control. Priests were ordered to denounce from the pulpit dissent and opposition to the Tsar, and informed police of subversive activities within their parish, even if that information was obtained through the confessional. Through about 41,000 parish schools, the clergy were expected to teach peasant children to show loyalty, deference, and obedience to the Tsar and officials, as wells as their elders and betters (Figes 62-63). The Church s influence remained dominant and sometimes even took precedence over secular authorities in certain moral and social issues such as adultery, incest, bestiality and blasphemy. Convictions resulted in exclusively religious, even medieval punishments such as penance and incarceration in a monastery. Though the church was left some power, the subordination of the Church to the state resulted in the questioning of the holiness of Russia and the Church by ecclesiastical leaders (Seton-Watson 411). From this concern came the call for reform from many of the more liberal clergy during the last decades of the old regime. After 1917 there were many Christians, like Brusilov, who argued that the revolution was caused by the decline of the Church s influence, but this is only a simplistic view. It is accurate to say, however, that social revolution was closely connected with, and somewhat dependent on, the secularization of society (Figes 64).
Urbanization was the root cause, in that the growth of cities was faster than the church building in them. Millions of workers who had relocated to the cities were forced to live in a state of Godlessness. The Church also failed to address the new problems of city life and was too conservative to allow for religiously inspired social reform, despite attempts by a few radical clergy, such as Father Gapon with his workers march to the Winter Palace in January 1905. Urbanization was a pressing force toward secularization, with young workers leaving their villages for cities and finding there socialist groups who influenced their thinking (Figes 65). What about the countryside, which boasted the holiness of Russia and was supposedly the stronghold of the Church? The religiosity if the Russian peasants was one of the greatest myths. They displayed a great deal of external devotion, continually crossing themselves, regularly attending church, always observing the Lenten fast, never working on religious holidays, and sometimes even going on pilgrimages to holy sites, but their actual religion was far from that of the clergy (Cherniavsky 114). The peasants, in actuality, very often had not been completely converted from Pagan beliefs and developed a vernacular religion mixing Christian dogmas and Pagan cults and magic (Figes 66). In addition, peasants saw parish priests not so much as spiritual guides or advisors, but as a class of tradesmen with wholesale and retail dealings in sacraments. (Shanin 66). Priests were often greedy, asked fees for services and haggled with poverty stricken peasants, harming the prestige of the Church. The low educational level of many of the priests, their tendencies toward drunkenness, their well-known connections to the police and their subservience to the gentry all added to the low esteem of the Church (Pipes, Russian Revolution 68). Everywhere , wrote a nineteenth-century parish priest, from the most resplendent drawing rooms to smoky peasant huts, people disparage the clergy with the most vicious mockery, with words of the most profound scorn and infinite disgust. (Freeze 330) When this is compared to the respect and deference shown by the peasants of Catholic Europe toward their priests, it becomes more clear why peasant Russia had a revolution, and, for example, peasant Spain had a counter-revolution (Figes 67). Towards the end of the nineteenth century a growing number of Orthodox clergy realized that the Church was in no position to shield the peasants from the secularization of urban society, and it was from this concern that new calls for a radical reform of the Church were made. New clerical liberals inspired by Great Reforms of the 1860s were better educated and more conscientious than their predecessors, and wanted to revitalize the Church by bringing it closer to the peasants lives. It was their belief that parishioners should have more control of their local church, there should be more parish schools, and priests should be able to concentrate on religious affairs without being burdened by bureaucratic tasks. In January 1881 Alexander II instructed his Minister of the Interior, Count Loris-Melikov, to draw up plans for a limited constitution which would give invited members of the public an advisory role in legislation. On the other hand were the supporters of the traditional tsarist order. The only way, they argued, to prevent a revolution was to rule Russia with an iron hand. This meant defending the autocracy, the unchecked powers of the police, the supremacy of the nobility and the moral domination of the Church, against the liberal and secular challenges of the urban-industrial order. The arguments of the reactionaries were greatly strengthened by the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881. Alexander III was persuaded by the Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, his tutor and adviser, that continuing with the liberal reforms would only help to produce more revolutionaries like the ones who had murdered his father. He soon abandoned the project of a constitution , claiming he did not want a government of troublesome brawlers and lawyers ; forced the resignation of his reformist ministers (Abaza from Finance, Loris-Melikov from the Interior, and Dmitry Miliutin from War); and proclaimed a Manifesto reasserting the principles of autocracy (Whelan 32). This was the signal for a series of counter-reforms during the regime of Alexander III, their purpose being to centralize control, rolling back the rights of local governments; to reassert the personal rule of the Tsar through the police and his direct agents; and to reinforce the patriarchal order, headed by the nobility, in the countryside. Nothing was more likely to bring about a revolution. (Figes 41). Still, more problems arose. After a year of meteorological disasters, the peasants of the Volga region found themselves facing starvation in the summer of 1891. By autumn the area threatened by famine had spread to seventeen provinces, in an area twice the size of France with thirty-six million inhabitants. Then, in addition to the deaths by starvation of people and animals, cholera and typhus struck, killing half a million people by the end of 1892. The government was unprepared to handle such a crisis, and a general impression of official carelessness arose. For example, there were widespread rumors that the bureaucracy was holding back food deliveries until it had received statistical proof that the people for which the food was intended had no other means of feeding themselves, by which time it was usually too late (Figes 157-8). On November 17th, the government issued an order calling on the public to form voluntary organizations to help with famine relief. Count Leo Tolstoy was one who made sacrifices to join the relief campaign, but as the Church had recently excommunicated him, they forbade the starving peasants to accept food from his organization. Tolstoy blamed the crisis on the social order, the Orthodox Church, and the government. He wrote to a friend in December, We have cut ourselves off from our own brothers, and there is only one remedy – by repentance, by changing our lives, and by destroying the walls between us and the people. (Figes 160) It became clear by 1900 that the Church had no hope of being revitalized until it could be free from its obligations to the state. The demands of the liberal clergy then broadened to a movement for the reform of the whole Church-state relationship. The movement climaxed in 1905 with calls for a Church Council (Sobor) to replace the Holy Synod. Also called for was the decentralization of ecclesiastical power from St. Petersburg and the monastic hierarchy to the dioceses and then to the parishes. This movement in some ways paralleled the 1905 democratic revolution, in that the clergy s demands for church reform were similar to the liberals demands for political reform. Like the zemstvo men, the liberal clergy wanted more self-government so that they could better serve society in their local communities. The conservatives within the ecclesiastical hierarchy supported the notion of self-government by the Church, but were not prepared to see the power of the bishops or monastic clergy weakened in any way, particularly if religious toleration were the price of such autonomy (Figes 68). Prime Minister Count Witte proposed the Law of Religious Toleration in 1905, arguing that ending discrimination against the rivals of Orthodoxy would not harm the Church provided it accepted the reforms that would actually revive its religious life. Instead, senior hierarchs of the Church allied with the court and extreme Rightist organizations (such as the Union of the Russian People) after 1905 to oppose further attempts at reform and extension of religious toleration. This can be seen in 1909 when Petr Arkadevich Stolypin, Russia s Prime Minister from 1906 until his assassination in 1911 and condemned by socialists as one of the last bloody defenders of the tsarist order, proposed a reform of the tsarist system in order to save it (Figes 221). In his view, the state stood above the interests of the aristocracy, even above the dynasty. His essentially Western view was that everyone who owned property was a citizen. If his reforms were allowed to succeed, the Tsar s rule would be overshadowed by the institutions of the state, and traditional social order would be undermined. Fears like these were fuelled by old institutions such as the State Council, the United Nobility , the Orthodox Church, and the Union of the Russian People, all of which had their own reasons for opposing Stolypin s reforms. The Church specifically opposed (and defeated) his proposals to expand the state system of primary education, as reactionaries in the Church had interest in the schools; and his legislation to ease discrimination against religious minorities, the Old Believers and Jews in particular (Figes 227). This clash of ideologies was one of the most decisive in shaping Russian history between 1905 and 1917. In 1915, the liberals were in a precarious situation. The recent dissolution of the Duma had shown them that power lay firmly under the tsarist regime, and nothing short of a revolution would transfer power into their hands. However, the First World War was already in progress, and they feared that excessively radical movements would throw them in an equally bloody social revolution. Their greatest chance at success was to try to hold out until an Allied victory which would present new opportunities for reform, while they witnessed the dismissal of the main rebel ministers by Nicholas. This included Samarin, the new Procurator of the Holy Synod and a prominent critic of Rasputin (Figes 276). With the defeat of the liberal clergy, the Church was divided and weak, and with that the central ideological pillar of the tsarist regime was finally beginning to crumble. Rasputin s rise in influence within the Church signaled its final fall (Figes 69). As one former minister told the French Ambassador in February 1916, The Most Holy Synod has never sunk so low! If they wanted to destroy all aspect for religion, all religious faith, they would not go about it in any other way. What will be left of the Orthodox Church before long? When Tsarism, in danger, seeks its support, it will find there is nothing left (Curtiss Church… 71), and indeed, when the tsarist state fell with the onset of communism, the Orthodox Church did as well. The February Revolution of 1917 marked the end of the monarchy. All its main institutions of support, the bureaucracy, the police, the army, and the Church, collapsed virtually overnight. The relationship between the Tsar and the institutions of the government was a mutual one. He was at the same time an officer, a priest, a governor, and a policeman, so once he was removed, the system couldn t hold. Equally, he was greatly supported by those institutions, so if they fell, the tsarist state would quickly lose power. The Church was undermined by internal revolution. In the countryside there was a strong anti-clerical movement in which village communities took away the church lands, removed priests from the parishes and refused to pay for religious services. The Holy Synod called on the priesthood to support the new government. Religious freedoms were introduced, schools were transferred to the control of the state, and preparations were made for the separation of Church and state, although with the new state under the Bolsheviks came the rejection of religion (Figes 349-50).
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Freeze, Gregory. The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
- – - . The Russian Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.
Seton-Watson, Hugh. The Russian Empire, 1801-1917. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.