4 Not-So-Holy Russia

God grant health to the Orthodox Tsar Grand Prince Mikhail Fedorovich May he hold the Muscovite tsardom And all the Holyrussian land.

According to popular song, Mikhail Romanov had been blessed by his father, the Metropolitan Filaret, in 1619 with this prayer, six years after ascending the Russian throne. The myth of the 'Holyrussian land' was the founding idea of the Muscovite tsardom as it was developed by the Romanovs from the start of the seventeenth century. The foundation of their dynasty, as it was presented in the propaganda of the 1913 jubilee, symbolized the awakening of a new Russian national consciousness based on the defence of Orthodoxy. Mikhail Romanov, so the legend went, had been elected by the entire Russian people following the civil war and Polish intervention during the Time of Troubles (1598—1613). The 'Holyrussian land' was thus reunited behind the Romanov dynasty, and Mikhail saved Orthodox Russia from the Catholics. From this point on, the idea of 'Holy Russia', of a stronghold for the defence of Orthodoxy, became the fundamental legitimizing myth of the dynasty.

Not that the idea of Holy Russia lacked a popular base. Folksongs and Cossack epics had talked of the Holy Russian land since at least the seventeenth century. It was only natural that Christianity should become a symbol of popular self-identification for the Slavs on this flat Eurasian land-mass so regularly threatened by Mongol and Tatar invasion. To be a Russian was to be Christian and a member of the Orthodox faith. Indeed it was telling that the phrase 'Holy Russia' (Sviataia Rus') could only be applied to this older term for Russia, from which the very word for a Russian (russkii) derived; it was impossible to say Sviataia Rossiia, since Rossiia, the newer term for Russia, was connected only with the imperial state.* Even more suggestive is the fact that the word in Russian for a peasant (krest'ianin), which in all other European languages stemmed from the idea of the country or the land, was coupled with the word for a Christian (khrist'ianin).

But where the popular myth of Holy Russia had sanctified the people and their customs, the official one sanctified the state in the person of the Tsar. Moscow became the 'Third Rome', heir to the legacy of Byzantium, the last capital of Orthodoxy; and Russia became a 'holy land' singled out by God for humanity's salvation. This messianic mission gave the tsars a unique religious role; to preach the True Word and fight heresies across the world. The image of the tsar was not just of a king, mortal as a man but ruling with a divine right, as in the Western medieval tradition; he was fabricated as a God on earth, divinely ordained as a ruler and saintly as a man. There was a long tradition in Russia of canonizing princes who had laid down their lives pro patria et fides, as Michael Cherniavsky has shown in his superb study of Russian myths. The tsars used Church laws, as no Western rulers did, to persecute their political opponents. The whole of Russia became transformed into a sort of vast monastery, under the rule of a tsar-archimandrite, where all heresies were rooted out.34

It was only gradually from the eighteenth century that this religious base of tsarist power was replaced by a secular one. Peter the Great sought to reform the relations between Church and state on Western absolutist lines. In an effort to subordinate it to the state, the Church's administration was transferred from the patriarchate to the Holy Synod, a body of laymen and clergy appointed by the Tsar. By the nineteenth century its secular representative, the Procurator-General, had in effect attained the status of minister for ecclesiastical affairs with control of episcopal appointments, religious education and most of the Church's finances, although not of questions of theological dogma. The Holy Synod remained, for the most part, a faithful tool in the hands of the Tsar. It was in the Church's interests not to rock the boat: during the latter half of the eighteenth century it had lost much of its land to the state and it now relied on it for funding to support 100,000 parish clergy and their families.* Still, it would be wrong to portray the Church as a submissive organ of the state. The tsarist system relied on the Church just as much as the Church relied on it: theirs was a mutual dependence. In a vast peasant country like Russia, where most of the population was illiterate, the Church was an essential propaganda weapon and a means of social control.35

* The difference between Rus and Rossiia was similar to that between 'England' and 'Britain'.


The priests were called upon to denounce from the pulpit all forms of dissent and opposition to the Tsar, and to inform the police about subversive elements within their parish, even if they had obtained the information through the confessional. They were burdened with petty administrative duties: helping the police to control vagrants; reading out imperial manifestos and decrees; providing the authorities with statistics on births, deaths and marriages registered in parish books, and so on. Through 41,000 parish schools the Orthodox clergy were also expected to teach the peasant children to show loyalty, deference and obedience not just to the Tsar and his officials but also to their elders and betters. Here is a section of the basic school catechism prepared by the Holy Synod:

Q. How should we show our respect for the Tsar?

A. I. We should feel complete loyalty to the Tsar and be prepared to lay down our lives for him.

2. We should without objection fulfil his commands and be obedient to the authorities appointed by him.

3. We should pray for his health and salvation, and also for that of all the Ruling House. Q. What should we think of those who violate their duty toward their Sovereign?

A. They are guilty not only before the Sovereign, but also before God.

The Word of God says, 'Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.' (Rom. 13: 2)36

For its part the Church was given a pre-eminent position in the moral order of the old regime. It alone was allowed to proselytize and do missionary work in the Empire. The regime's policies of Russification helped to promote the Orthodox cause: in Poland and the Baltic, for example, 40,000 Catholics and Lutherans were converted to the Orthodox Church, albeit only nominally, during the reign of Alexander III. The Church applied a wide range of legal pressures against the dissident religious sects, especially the Old Believers.* Until 1905, it remained an offence for anyone in the Orthodox Church to convert from it to another faith or to publish attacks on it. All books on religion and philosophy had to pass through the Church's censors. There was, moreover, a whole range of moral and social issues where the Church's influence remained dominant and sometimes even took precedence over the secular authorities. Cases of adultery, incest, bestiality and blasphemy were tried in the Church's courts. Convictions resulted in the application of exclusively religious, not to say medieval, punishments, such as penance and incarceration in a monastery, since the state left such questions in the Church's hands and abstained from formulating its own punishments. Over divorce, too, the Church's influence remained dominant. The only way to attain a divorce was on the grounds of adultery through the ecclesiastical courts, which was a difficult and often painful process. Attempts to liberalize the divorce laws, and to shift the whole issue to the criminal courts, were successfully blocked in the late nineteenth century by a Church which was becoming more doctrinaire on matters of private sexuality and which, in upholding the old patriarchal order, forged a natural alliance with the last two tsars in their struggle against the modern liberal world. In short, late imperial Russia was still very much an Orthodox state.3'

* Unlike their Catholic counterparts, Russian Orthodox priests were allowed to marry. Only the monastic clergy were not.


But was it still holy? That was the question that worried the leaders of the Church. And it was from this concern that many of the more liberal Orthodox clergy called for a reform in Church—state relations during the last decades of the old regime. After 1917 there were many shell-shocked Christians — Brusilov was a typical example — who argued that the revolution had been caused by the decline of the Church's influence. This of course was a simplistic view. Yet there is no doubt that the social revolution was closely connected with the secularization of society, and to a large extent dependent on it.

Urbanization was the root cause. The growth of the cities far outstripped the pace of church-building in them, with the result that millions of workers, having been uprooted from the village with its church, were consigned to live in a state of Godlessness. The industrial suburb of Orekhovo-Zuevo, just outside Moscow, for example, had only one church for 40,000 residents at the turn of the century. Iuzovka, the mining capital of the Donbass, today called Donetsk, had only two for 20,000. But it was not just a question of bricks. The Church also failed to find an urban mission, to address the new problems of city life in the way that, for example, Methodism had done during the British industrial revolution. The Orthodox clergy proved incapable of creating a popular religion for the world of factories and tenements. Those who tried, such as Father Gapon, the radical preacher of St Petersburg who led the workers' march to the Winter Palace in January 1905, were soon disavowed by the Church's conservative leaders, who would have nothing to do with religiously inspired calls for social reform.38

* The Old Believers rejected the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon during the 1660s as well as the government that enforced them. Fleeing persecution, most of them settled in the remote areas of Siberia, where they remain to this day. At the turn of the century there were estimated to be as many as eighteen million Old Believers. The other main religious sects, closer in spirit to Evangelicalism, were the Stundists (Baptists), the Dukhobortsy ('Fighters for the Spirit') and the Molokane (Milk-Drinkers). They had about one million followers between them. Many of these sects had a radical tradition of dissent, which is both explained by and helps to explain their persecution by the state.


The experience of urbanization was an added pressure towards secularization. Young peasants who migrated to the cities left behind them the old oral culture of the village, in which the priests and peasant elders were dominant, and joined an urban culture where the written word was dominant and where the Church was forced to compete with the new socialist ideologies. One peasant who made this leap was Semen Kanatchikov during his progress through the school of industry and into the ranks of the Bolsheviks. In his memoirs he recalled how his apostasy was slowly nurtured in the 1890s when he left his native village for Moscow and went to work in a machine-building factory where socialists often agitated. To begin with, he was somewhat afraid of these 'students' because 'they didn't believe in God and might be able to shake my faith as well, which could have resulted in eternal hellish torments in the next world'. But he also admired them 'because they were so free, so independent, so well informed about everything, and because there was nobody and nothing on earth that they feared'. As the country boy grew in confidence and sought to emulate their individualism, so he became more influenced by them. Stories of corrupt priests and 'miracles'-cum-frauds began to shake 'the moral foundations with which I had lived and grown up'. One young worker 'proved' to him that God had not created man by showing that, if one filled a box with earth and kept it warm, worms and insects would eventually appear in it. This sort of vulgarized pre-Darwinian science, which was widely found in the left-wing pamphlets of that time, had a tremendous impact on young workers like Kanatchikov. 'Now my emancipation from my old prejudices moved forward at an accelerated tempo,' he later wrote. 'I stopped going to the priest for "confession", no longer attended church, and began to eat "forbidden" food during Lenten fast days. However, for a long time to come I didn't abandon the habit of crossing myself, especially when I returned to the village for holidays.'39

And what about the countryside itself? This was the bedrock of 'Holy Russia', the supposed stronghold of the Church. The religiosity of the Russian peasant has been one of the most enduring myths — along with the depth of the Russian soul — in the history of Russia. But in reality the Russian peasant had never been more than semi-detached with the Orthodox religion. Only a thin coat of Christianity had been painted over his ancient pagan folk-culture. To be sure, the Russian peasant displayed a great deal of external devotion. He crossed himself continually, pronounced the Lord's name in every other sentence, regularly went to church, always observed the Lenten fast, never worked on religious holidays, and was even known from time to time to go on pilgrimage to holy shrines. Slavophile intellectuals, like Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, might wish to see this as a sign of the peasant's deep attachment to the Orthodox faith. And it is certainly true that most of the peasants thought of themselves as Orthodox. If one could go into a Russian village at the turn of the century and ask its inhabitants who they were, one would probably receive the reply: 'We are Orthodox and from here.' But the peasants' religion was far from the bookish Christianity of the clergy. They mixed pagan cults and superstitions, magic and sorcery, with their adherence to Orthodox beliefs. This was the peasants' own vernacular religion shaped to fit the needs of their precarious farming lives.

Being illiterate, the average peasant knew very little of the Gospels. The Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments were unknown to him. But he did vaguely understand the concepts of heaven and hell, and no doubt hoped that his lifelong observance of the church rituals would somehow save his soul. He conceived of God as a real human being, not as an abstract spirit. Gorky described one peasant he encountered in a village near Kazan, who:

pictured God as a large, handsome old man, the kindly, clever master of the universe who could not conquer evil only because: 'He cannot be everywhere at once, too many men have been born for that. But he will succeed, you see. But I can't understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned. There is God and that's enough. But now there's another! The son, they say. So what if he's God's son. God isn't dead, not that I know of.'

The icon was the focus of the peasant's faith. He followed the Bible stories from the icons in his church and believed that icons had magical powers. The corner in the peasant's hut, where he positioned the family icon, was, like the stove, a holy place. It sheltered the souls of his deceased ancestors and protected the household from evil spirits. Whenever the peasant entered or left his house he was supposed to take off his hat, bow and cross himself in front of it. And yet, as Belinsky pointed out to Gogol, the peasant also found another use for this sacred object. 'He says of the icon: "It's good for praying — and you can cover the pots with it too." '40

The peasant shared in the Church's cult of the saints in a similarly down-to-earth fashion, adding to it his own pagan gods and spirits connected with the agricultural world. There were Vlas (the patron saint of cattle), Frol and Lavr (the saints of horses), Elijah (the saint of thunder and rain), Muchenitsa Paraskeva (the saint of flax and yarn), as well as countless other spirits and deities — household, river, forest, mountain, lakeland and marine — called on by midwives, healers, witch doctors, bloodletters, bonesetters, sorcerers and witches through their charms and prayers. The peasants were proverbially superstitious. They believed that their lives were plagued by demons and evil spirits who cast their spells on the crops and the cattle, made women infertile, caused misfortune and illness, and brought back the souls of the dead to haunt them. The spells could only be exorcised by a priest or some other gifted person with the help of icons, candles, herbs and primitive alchemy. This was a strange religious world which, despite much good research in recent years, we can never hope to understand in full.41

The position of the parish priest, who lived on the constantly shifting border between the official religion of the Church and the paganism of the peasants, was precarious. By all accounts, the peasants did not hold their priests in high esteem.* The Russian peasants looked upon their local priests, in the words of one contemporary, not so much as 'spiritual guides or advisers but as a class of tradesmen with wholesale and retail dealings in sacraments'. Unable to support themselves on the meagre subsidies they received from the state, or from the farming of their own small chapel plots, the clergy relied heavily on collecting peasant fees for their services: two roubles for a wedding; a hen for a blessing of the crops; a few bottles of vodka for a funeral; and so on. The crippling poverty of the peasants and the proverbial greed of the priests often made this bargaining process long and heated. Peasant brides would be left standing in the church for hours, or the dead left unburied for several days, while the peasants and the priest haggled over the fee. Such shameless (though often necessary) bargaining by the clergy was bound to harm the prestige of the Church. The low educational level of many of the priests, their tendency to corruption and drunkenness, their well-known connections with the police and their general subservience to the local gentry, all added to the low esteem in which they were held. '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.'42

* When one compares this with the respect and deference shown by the peasants of Catholic Europe towards their priests then one begins to understand why peasant Russia had a revolution and, say, peasant Spain a counter-revolution.


This was hardly a position of strength from which the Church could hope to defend its peasant flock from the insidious secular culture of the modern city. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a growing number of Orthodox clergy came to realize this. They were worried about the falling rate of church attendance which they blamed for the rise of 'hooliganism', violent attacks on landed property and other social evils in the countryside. It was from this concern for the Christian guidance of the peasants that calls were increasingly made for a radical reform of the Church. They were first voiced by the generation of liberal clergymen who had emerged from the seminaries during the middle decades of the century. Better educated and more conscientious than their predecessors, these 'clerical liberals' were inspired by the Great Reforms of the 1860s. They talked of revitalizing the life of the parish and of instilling a 'conscious' Christianity into the minds of the peasants. This they thought they could achieve by bringing the parish church closer to the peasants' lives: parishioners should have more control of their local church; there should be more parish schools; and parish priests should be allowed to concentrate on religious and pastoral affairs instead of being burdened with petty bureaucratic tasks. By the turn of the century, as it became clear that the Church could not be revitalized until it was liberated from its obligations to the state, the demands of the liberal clergy had developed into a broader movement for the wholesale reform of the Church's relations with the tsarist state. This movement climaxed in 1905 with calls from a broad cross-section of the clergy for a Church Council (Sobor) to replace the Holy Synod. Many also called for the decentralization of ecclesiastical power from St Petersburg and the monastic hierarchy to the dioceses and indeed from there to the parishes. While it would be wrong to claim that this movement was part of the 1905 democratic revolution, there were certainly parallels between the clergy's demands for church reform and 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.43

This was much further than the conservatives within the ecclesiastical hierarchy were prepared to go. While they supported the general notion of self-government for the Church, they were not prepared to see the authority of the appointed bishops or the monastic clergy weakened in any way. Even less were they inclined to accept the argument put forward by the Prime Minister, Count Witte, on proposing the Law of Religious Toleration in 1905, that ending discrimination against the rivals of Orthodoxy would not harm the Church provided it embraced the reforms that would revive its own religious life. The senior hierarchs of the Church might have flirted for a while with the heady ideas of self-government being bandied about by their liberal brethren, but Witte s insistence on making religious toleration the price of such autonomy (a policy motivated by the prospect of wooing important commercial groups in the Old Believer and Jewish communities) was guaranteed to drive them back into the arms of reaction. After 1905 they allied themselves with the court and extreme Rightist organizations, such as the Union of the Russian People, in opposing all further attempts by the liberals to reform the Church and extend religious toleration. The old alliance of Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality' was thus revived against the threat of a liberal moral order. This clash of ideologies was one of the most decisive in shaping Russian history between 1905 and 1917.

With the liberal clergy defeated, the Church was left in a state of terminal division and weakness. The central ideological pillar of the tsarist regime was at last beginning to crumble. Rasputin's rise to power within the Church signalled its own final fall from grace. 'The Most Holy Synod has never sunk so low!' one former minister told the French Ambassador in February 1916. 'If they wanted to destroy all respect 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.'44

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