Most people assume that Russia is a Christian Orthodox country and that the Russian Orthodox Church is the spiritual leader of the Russian people. This is a very superficial view and, I would even say, a fundamentally mistaken one. To explain what I mean by this, I will have to explain something absolutely crucial and yet something most fundamentally misunderstood by the vast majority of people, including many Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church as an institution and the Orthodox spirituality of the Russian people have been severely persecuted since at least 300+ years. So crucial is this phenomenon that I will need to make a short historical digression into the history of Russia.
From the moment Russia was baptized into Christianity by Saint Vladimir in 988 to the 17th century rule of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the Orthodox Church was the organic core of the Russian civilization. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
In its past, Russia did know a time when the social ideal was not fame, or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in an Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries. The Orthodoxy of that time knew how to safeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries, while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders. During those centuries the Orthodox faith in our country became part of the very pattern of thought and the personality of our people, the forms of daily life, the work calendar, the priorities in every undertaking, the organization of the week and of the year. Faith was the shaping and unifying force of the nation.
The 17th century, however, saw an abrupt and violent change to this state of affairs. Again, in the words of Solzhenitsyn:
But in the 17th century Russian Orthodoxy was gravely weakened by an internal schism. In the 18th, the country was shaken by Peter’s forcibly imposed transformations, which favored the economy, the state, and the military at the expense of the religious spirit and national life. And along with this lopsided Petrine enlightenment, Russia felt the first whiff of secularism; its subtle poisons permeated the educated classes in the course of the 19th century and opened the path to Marxism. By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened.
By the time Tsar Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1896 the Russian society was suffering from a deep spiritual crisis: most of the ruling class was highly secularized if not completely materialistic, almost every single aristocratic family had joined the Freemasonry, while the rest of the country, still mostly composed of peasants, was nominally Christian Orthodox, but not in the deep way the Russian nation had been before the 17th century.
Russian Tsars often ended up being real persecutors of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular those upon whom the Russian aristocracy and the West bestowed the title of “Great”. Peter I, the so-called “Great” decapitated the Russian Orthodox Church by abolishing the title of Patriarch from the head of the Church and replacing him by “Synod” run by a laymen bureaucrat with the rank of “Chief Procurator” who did not even have to be Orthodox himself. De-facto and de-jure in 1700 the Russian Orthodox Church became a state institution, like a ministry. Under Catherine I, also called the “Great”, monastic were persecuted with such viciousness that it was actually illegal for them to possess even a single sheet of paper in their monastic cell, lest they write something against the regime.
Other Tsars (such as Alexander II, or Alexander III) were far more respectful of the Church and Tsar Nicholas II, who was a deeply religious and pious man, even restored the autonomy of the Church by allowing it to elect a new Patriarch.
And yet, by and large, the Russian Orthodox Church underwent a process of quasi-continuous weakening under the combined effects of overt persecutions and more subtle secularization from the 17th to the 20th century.
In the 20th century during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, Russian Orthodoxy saw a short but amazing rebirth immediately followed by a mass persecution under the Bolshevik rule whose viciousness and scale was previously unheard of in the history of the Church. Again, in the worlds of Solzhenitsyn:
The world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot. The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between. For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies…
This is a complex and tragic history which I cannot discuss in any details here so I will insist on only one important consequence of these events: the Russian Orthodox Church eventually split into at least 4 distinct groups:
a) The “official” or “state” Orthodox Church, which eventually became the Moscow Patriarchate. Largely composed of modernist clergymen, this “official” Soviet Church not only denied the reality of the persecution of Christians in Russia, it often actively collaborated with these persecutions (by denouncing “subversive” clergymen, for example). They are often referred to as the “Sergianists” because their leader was Metropolitan Sergius Stragorodsky.
b) The “Josephites” composed of the followers of Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd, they openly refused to submit the Church to Bolshevik regime and were eventually martyred for their stance. Some joined the following group:
c) The “Catacomb Church”. This was an illegal, underground, organization, lead by secret bishops, which rejected the right of the Bolsheviks to take over the Church and which went into deep hiding, practically disappearing from public view.
d) The “Russian Orthodox Church Abroad”: composed of exiles, this was organization created by Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev who, with the blessing of Patriarch Tikhon, united around itself most of the Orthodox Russian who had fled the Soviet Union.
It is important to stress here that even though the Josephites, the Catacomb Church and the Church Abroad did have very few practical means to communicate with each other, they were all in communion with each other and recognized each other as legitimate branches of the One Russian Orthodox Church, although each one in unique and specific circumstances. Not so with the first entity, the official “Soviet” Church which was denounced by all three groups as at the very least illegal and possibly even as the satanic tool of the Bolsheviks.
Why is all this so important?
Because the current official “Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” is a direct descendant of this first group, which was unanimously rejected by literally tens of thousands of saints who were martyred for their faith by the Bolshevik regime. In patristic theological terms, the Moscow Patriarchate and its members are “lapsed“, i.e., those who did not have the courage to resist the persecutors of the Church and who therefore severed their communion to the Church. The fact that they created an ecclesiastical entity in conditions prohibited by canon law makes them “schismatics“. The fact that they developed a specific teaching (“Sergianism“: the idea that the Church can be “saved” by way of comprimise with evil) to justify such actions makes them “heretics” (please note that in a theological discourse terms like “heretic” are not insults, but simply indicators of a specifc spiriual condition/status).
The above is an extremely superficial and even simplistic mini-overview of a long an extremely complex topic and I ask for the understanding of those who know about this and who might be appalled at how much I have not discussed here. I am aware of that, but this is simply not the time and place to write a halfway decent history of Russian Orthodoxy in the 20th century. The only other historical detail I will add here is that during WWII, Stalin did very substantially ease some of the worst persecutions against the Church and that these persecutions did, in part, resume under Krushchev. Again, I apologize for the extreme “shorthand” of the outline above, and I ask that you take only the following two important concepts with you:
a) Russian Orthodoxy has been continuously weakened for the past 300+ years
b) The organization currently officially representing Russian Orthodoxy has major legitimacy issues and is often viewed with deep suspicion, even by very religious people.
I now need to say a few words about the modern “Moscow Patriarchate” as it is today, over two decades since the end of any anti-religious persecutions.
First, it is by far the most “Soviet” institution of the Russian polity. Or, to put it in other words, it is by far the least reformed “leftover” of the Soviet era. To make things worse, it is also currently run by a notoriously corrupt individual, “Patriarch” Kirill I, a sly and utterly dishonest individual, known for his shady business dealing and for his rabid adherence to the so-called “Ecumenical Movement” (a heresy from the Orthodox point of view). To top it all off, there is some pretty good evidence that Kirill I might be a secret Papist Cardinal, something called a “cardinale in pectore” which, if true, is probably used against him by the Russian security services to make sure that he does whatever the Kremlin says.
For all its faults, the Moscow Patriarchate fulfills and extremely important role for the Russian state: that of ideological substitute for the now officially abandoned Marxist ideology.
One often can hear the statement that about 70% of Russians are Orthodox Christians. This is wrong and highly misleading. According to data published in Wikipedia, about 40% of Russians are Orthodox Christians. Better. But what does that really mean? Mostly that these Russians identify with the Russian Orthodox traditions, that they try to live by Christians ethics and that they refer to themselves as “Orthodox”. But if we take the figures published annually by the Moscow city authorities on the attendance of the single most important religious service in the Orthodox tradition – Easter (called “Paskha” in Russian) we see that only about 1% of Moscovites actually attended it. What about the remaining 39%?!
It is impossible to come by one “true” figure, but I would estimate that no more than 5% of the Russian population could be considered as “deeply/consciously, religious“. And yet, the Moscow Patriarchate plays a crucial role in the Kremlin’s power structure: not only does it provide a substitute for the now defunct Marxist ideology, it serve as a “patriotic education” organization, it offers a series of well-recognized symbols (beautiful churches, religious singing, icons, crosses, etc.) which can all be used a national symbols (rather than spiritual symbols). Those national symbols are recognized, if not necessarily fully endorsed, by far more than the 40+ percent of Russians which are nominally Orthodox. To paraphrase the American expression “to rally around the flag”, Russians are nowadays encouraged to “rally around the cross” even if on a deep internal level they don’t really understand, or care, what the symbol of the Cross really means in Orthodox Christianity.
Let me give you an example of what all this ends up looking like. Read the transcript of the speech which Vladimir Putin made at the Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate (click here). It is all about patriotism, patriotism and more patriotism. Not a single word in all this is devoted to spiritual topics. Not one. This speech could have been made to an assembly of officials of an ideological department of the CPSU.
For the Moscow Patriarchate, this tight collaboration with the Kremlin also has an immense advantage: it grants it a legitimacy which history so unambiguously denies it. While there are still remnants of the Catacomb Church in Russia, and while outside Russia there still is an Orthodox Church Abroad, these organizations are tiny compared to the huge Moscow Patriarchate, with its 100+ bishops, 26’000+ parishes and 100’000’000+ official members. And when any of these small groups succeeds in gathering the funds to open a small parish somewhere in Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate can always count on the local riot police to expel them and “return” the building to the Moscow Patriarchate.
I apologize once again for the extreme degree of over-simplification I had to settle for to write this (already too long!) overview. What I have done is mention what I believe are essential background factors which must be kept in mind when looking into the topic of Russia and Islam.
In particular, it has to be clearly understood that the official Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, is not an important factor at all in the dialectical relationship between the Russian society and Islam, if only because inside the Russian society the status of the Orthodox faith is an extremely weakened one. In other words, the topic of “Russia and Islam” should not be confused with the topic “Orthodox Christianity and Islam”. In many ways, modern Russia is neo-Orthodox, para-Orthodox or even post-Orthodox but most definitely not truly Orthodox.
This, however, begs the obvious question: if the dominant ethos of the Russian society is not Marxist any more, and if it is not really Orthodox Christian either, than what is it? Other than being predominantly anti-Western or anti-capitalist, what does the Russian society today stand for (as opposed to against) and how does Russian society react to the values offered by Islam. This will be the topic of the next installment of this series.
The Essential Saker IV: Messianic Narcissism's Agony by a Thousand Cuts
The Essential Saker III: Chronicling The Tragedy, Farce And Collapse of the Empire in the Era of Mr MAGA
I have no issue with any of that; so far as it goes. There is a glaring ommission though: The role of Judaism in the rise of the Bolsheviks and their subsequent roles in Christian peasant persecutions and WWII – I suggest that is the elephant in the room which still cannot be honestly and accurately researched or debated
Sorry to be somewhat off-topic, but what do you make of the meteorite that hit Chelyabinsk?
I’ve seen comments like these:
Any rock falling from the sky will be rotating, either fwd n back or left to
right, or a combination of all. NOTHING will knuckleball straight in thru
the atmosphere. Two straight trails exposes an unnatural linear
controlled flight path. The object is man made n controlled. DA14
is political cover for the test.
“According to unconfirmed reports, the meteorite was intercepted by an air defense unit at the Urzhumka settlement near Chelyabinsk. A missile salvo reportedly blew the meteorite to pieces at an altitude of 20 kilometers.”
Do you think there is any truth to either of these?
@wikispooks:There is a glaring ommission though: The role of Judaism in the rise of the Bolsheviks and their subsequent roles in Christian peasant persecutions and WWII
True. I had to prioritize so I excluded this, and many other, important topics.
I suggest that is the elephant in the room which still cannot be honestly and accurately researched or debated
That is not very fair. I did cover this topic many times, including in this post:
and I also discussed it in many other posts and comments. While one can disagree with my opinions and conclusions, I assure you that I do research this topic honestly and as accurately as I can. Do you find the article I mention above dishonest?
@anonymous: Sorry to be somewhat off-topic, but what do you make of the meteorite that hit Chelyabinsk?
Never worry about being off-topic :-) we are here to freely talk about whatever we find interesting! As for the reports that the object was intercepted, it was immediately denied by the Russian Air Defenses. As far as I know, only Zhirinovsky claims that this was a “US missile experiment” (whatever that means) and I do not take anything “Zhirik” (as he is known in Russia) says seriously, though I always find him entertaining…
Sorry for conveying any impression of dishonesty on your part. That was NOT intended.
The ‘elephant’ metaphor was aimed squarely at Western Establishment historiography where ANY mention of Jews, in the context of 20th century events, as other than victims remains strictly verboden – German useage being aposite since in that country (plus a good few others) it also risks a prison sentence.
@Wikispooks: Thanks for clarifying and reassuring me :-)
What did you think of my piece on the role Jews played in the Soviet era and their current influence on NATO and the USA?
That 2008 article is impressive. At 2 years and counting, it is standing the test of time on the fundamental rationale for NATO expansion too.
On issues very much related to the WWII aspects of the article, these two pieces should be of interest. I thought I was pretty clued up on the true nature of the West’s ‘just war’ against Hitler; I was wrong. The vistas opened by these articles shocked me and has lead to a lot more reasearch that continues to shock. The notions that history and justice belong to the victors are more than just trite cliches; thay are fundamentally true. The result is that, at a fairly fundamental level, both justice and history are compromised.
Eisenhowers Death Camps
On the Katyn massacre – a little-known fact: In 1988, ex-pat Poles arranged a public dedication of a memorial in West London. The MOD forbade UK service personnel to attend on pain of court martial. It was not until the opening of the Moscow archives in 1990 had made continued public adherence to the risible ‘Germany did it’ tale untenable, that the official UK position surrepticiously changed
See also Did the Allies Starve Millions of Germans?
@Wikispooks: That 2008 article is impressive.
I am glad that you liked it.
The notions that history and justice belong to the victors are more than just trite cliches;
Oh God yes! Take the expulsions of Germans from what is nowadays Poland, the mass torture and murder of Germans by US Jews after the war, the forcible repatriation of 2 million Russians to Stalin, the deliberate mass bombings of civilans by the Anglos, etc. To me this just show that there were no “good” parties to WWII, and that De Gaulle was probably the only decent person amongst the victors (though the “victory” of France is really more a reflection of De Gaulle’s diplomatic skills than any reality on the ground). The Soviets, the Brits, the Americans were all mass murderers very much in the same league as Hitler and much more than Mussolini. I never had any sympathies for the Nazis or the Fascists, but I am totally aware that they have been demonized while the victors were lionized. The sad reality was, of course, that at the time of WWII the world was pretty much lead by bloodthirsty and fundamentally evil and immoral men.
And I am not even sure that this is much better now…
I’m from India, your blog is just wow! Thank you! I did not know much about Russia, now trying to learn..
Saker, during the period that the Orthodox church was the heart of Russian life and society, what about the non Christian “Russiikii” (did I get that word correct?). i.e., Tartar/Tatar/Turkic/Mongols, etc? OR…. when you speak of Russians/heart of Russia, do you mean what one would term indigenous, white skinned people (western Russia?)?
One other question (I have so many but there isn’t the space or time!): How did Ukraine (from what I gather, where Russia really was born) become separate from Russia and when did that happen?
Excellent history. Thank you.
You left out a pretty important piece. The Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR) re-united with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007.
While you are struggling with the Patriarch’s legitimacy, apparently ROCOR is not.
ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarch reunited in 2007. That’s a pretty important piece that you left out.
Part of the ROCOR did, part did not. I know. I was ROCOR in the past. And I personally know all the actors of this shameful union. And I don’t struggle with the MP’s legitimacy simply because I cannot struggle with something which does not exist.
But yes, a large chunk of the ex-ROCOR did unite with the Sergianists making itself wholly irrelevant in one short move. Now they even have to concelebrate with their previously much hated OCA. They told us that by means of this union they would reform the MP from the inside. Now they got Kirill Gundaev as boss.
Poor them, really.
Many thanks to The Saker for this brief history of the Russian Orthodox Church during the last 300 years.
Given that the Moscow Patriarchy is heretical and that “a large chunk of the ex-ROCOR did unite with the Sergianists”, is there anywhere that a person outside of Russia can establish contact with a Russian Orthodoxy which (in Solzhenitsyn’s words) has “remained true to the Church of the first centuries”? Perhaps a chunk of ROCOR which has not united with the Sergianists?
I am curious how you got to the conclusion that about 1% of Russians are regularly Orthodox. You chose the Wiki data that supports about 40%, but base the trend from Moscow to say that it is only about 1%. Is it instead possible that Moscow, like other major cities such as New York, boasts an extremely high “progressive” population (and by that I mean highly secular, which it pretty much does)that is not religious? The difference would be made by the thousands of religious communities in smaller Russian towns just like it does in the USA (you can debate the actual Christian following of most American Protestant sects, but they are still infinitely more religious than those in the megacities).
Either way an interesting article, and thank you for sharing it.
Wait a minute! I get that you are saving space and that the topic is as complicated as sensitive, but why not mention that the Church Abroad is as of 2007 reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate, that you are now in the communion? That is of out most importance to stress. That the rest of Orthodoxy was in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate all along, if I am not mistaken? Do you really believe ecumenical movement has any real chance in Russia? The last one is off topic, I am just struck with the undertone of this piece…
I see know that you addressed the matter, sorry shock got to me. But one thing is rotten bishops and the heads of church, that is no novelty. But my question is, do you believe the worshipers in the MP are not in the Church, that liturgy there is void? This is far from just being a Russian question. Do you consider that the rest of the Orthodox world should not pray with them and take communion with them? Considering that they do and that lots of patriarchs and bishops from other Orthodox countries are also part of the ecumenical dialog, do you not deem the 14 autocephalous churches the Orthodox Church? The phrasing of question is bad because I do not know to use English in these matters, but I hope you get my question and my sincere worries.
As a US Catholic who sought refuge in a non-Russian Orthodox congregation in my city, following the priestly sex scandals, !’m horrified by your incredibly ultra-sectarian and divisive stance. I have sometimes joked that if our Lord Jesus were to return physically to us today, He would be persecuted as not being “Christian” enough! Sadly your tendency seems to confirm this possibility. I am also reminded of the times in the past when I was approached by certain street proselytizers and when I refused to accept any of their pamphlets with the response that I was Catholic and preferred to adhere to the teachings of that faith, they would ask me if I was also “Christian”?! Yes, to my utter shock, there are indeed some who do not consider Catholics as “Christians”! Where does this “purist” rigidity end? Is there not ultimately a danger of the development someday of a Christian version of the barbaric Wahabbi jihadism of “ISIS”/ “Al Qaida”?
Ah, Saker, you are way over the top with your astounding statement that there is evidence that Patriarch Kiril is a Cardinale in Pectore in the Catholic Church. If you like, I have a bridge in New York I can sell you cheap!
I have heard a lot of funny things in my life, but this one is absolutely amazing. Don’t go bonkers and believe whatever you may have heard. The source(s) are drinking funny stuff and make fools out of everybody.
Regarding the negative comments about the various Orthodox entities, I am amazed to read them. Basically what you are saying is that practically none of the Orthodox Churches are true Christian, have no true Sacraments and therefore cannot attain eternal life in heaven.
Very sad! Whatever happened to “mea culpa, miserere mei”. Cheer up! Pax Christi.
“. . . the so-called “Ecumenical Movement” (a heresy from the Orthodox point of view). ”
Nowhere in the linked article at wikipedia is the word heresy mentioned in discussion concerning Orthodox church relationships with other churches. I can only conclude that you are claiming this position for one group of Orthodox communities. In the interest of responsible supporting information on this claim, that group ought to be identified. Most Orthodox communities do not make this charge.
Impressive article. We are very surprised to know that the real Orthodox Christians are basically underground as us true Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church has been eclipsed by the same Judeo-Masonic Kabal that brought about the 1917 revolution. Our French Revolution was called Vatican 2, where a new and false religion was created. What the world sees as the Roman Catholic Church is not Catholic at all.
Our Lady spoke of this at the apparition of LaSalette. It would make perfect sense that the head Moscow honcho Kyrill could be a secret papist as Francis is in fact an antipope and does not even hold the Catholic faith. I know “our” fake pope is working towards the One World false religion, and this must be Kyril’s standing orders as well.
True Orthodox, we believe are interested in the secrets of Fatima ,which all antipopes have hidden from us (the true secret being that the apostasy begins at the top), the last true Roman Pontiff being Pope PIUS XII who died in 1958. The true Catholics who have held on to the true Catholic faith and her traditions are waiting for a true pope to lead us. At this point, we believe that Sts Peter and Paul will come down from Heaven and elect this pope. This is deep in our true prophecies.
Our Lady has great compassion and love for Russia, and we believe true Christians will recognize a true successor of St Peter for what he truly is, the Vicar of Christ. This true pope will be civically defended and protected by the Great Monarch of France who will descend from the Royal House of David. We also believe that this Great Monarch will be supported by a true and legitimare Russian tsar. This is also strongly prophesied by our saints and martyrs.
If you want more information on the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church,see the excellent website, Novus Ordo Watch. Many think we are at end times, but true Catholics know that we are on the verge of a new era, the beginning of the Church of Philadelphia (see 7 Ages of Church). In this age, the Immaculate Heart of Mary will triumph and Holy Mother Church will be restored and include all.
We believe this era will last for hundreds of years. Up until now, we don’t know if Putin is truly a true Orthodox Christian or just part of modernist empty church, and then necessarily, a part of the latest generation working toward NWO. We would like to think the former.
A very fine overview of the historical and current situation as I understand it. Of course I have an advantage in that my family’s ‘communion’ was with the Church-in-exile.
I am rather sorry that the exile ended – I hope for not entirely the wrong reasons.
At the risk of being accused of ‘whataboutery’ I still have to say though that any analysis of the religious atmosphere and situation in the USA must surely come up with something substantially worse.
I am sending your article on to several orthodox and near-orthodox friends.
It could start an interesting conversation.
A factual mistake – Catherine II is called “The Great”. Not Catherine I.
Thanks again for the link to the wikipedia account of the life of Father Antony of Kiev. Again, I did learn much that I did not know, especially with respect to the divisions forced upon the elite who were Orthodox as they were exiled, as you say, at the height really of a new intellectual awakening of interest in the Church at the time of the Russian Revolution. I wish you could see those divisions as having gradually healed, rather than as entrenched animosities, but I respect your position, grounded as it is in faith.
To support what you say concerning Orthodoxy as it finds itself currently in Russia, here is an article (written before the Ukraine crisis but still relevant I think):
Sorry for the long link – it can also be accessed at http://www.wheeljournal.com/ (look in ‘archives’ for the article by Mr. Chapnin “They Never Met”)
do you know the break down of religions: categories that are important to me, 1-“Christians” who pray to mary, and 2-Christian who do not, 3-wicca, 4-shia-or-sufi-islam, 5 non-sufi-sunnis, 6-others 7-i think those who call themselves masons, lower degres, fit closer to the cateory of wicca.