Century of Rebellion: Church Schism

Author: Linda DeLaine - Century of Rebellion; Church Schism

In 1667, Russia retained control of Kiev. This was the beginning of the decline of Poland's power in Europe and dramatically changed the relationship between the Turks and Moscow. It, also, opened the door for an influx of scholarly individuals from Ukraine to Russia. The first hospital and poorhouse were founded and Ukrainian style of education was introduced at the new school at the Andreev Monastery.

Tsar Alexis displayed a different outlook as well. This was due, in part, to his marriage to his second wife in 1671. Natalia Cyrilovna Narishkina was only twenty years old when she married Alexis who was ca. 42. She was the mother of Peter the Great (June 10, 1672), Theodora Alexenova (Sep 11, 1673) and Natalie Alexinova (Sep 4,1674). Natalia was far more open and interested in the ways of the West, an active advocate for change and had a profound influence upon the tsar. Alexis died in 1676 and Natalia lived until 1694.

The first theatrical production in Russia was presented in 1672 and the tsar's palace at Preobrazhenskoe. Titled Ahasuerus and Esther (ref. Book of Esther), this nine hour play was written by Johann Gottfried Grigorii, a Lutheran clergyman. This marked the beginning of the court theatre at which plays and ballets were staged.

Predictably, the Orthodox Church objected to Western influences. The West represented the Church of Rome and the Protestant movement. The unified Christian Church had suffered the Great Schism in 1058 which divided Christianity between Rome (Catholic) and Constantinople (Orthodox). The liturgy, dogma and traditions of the West grew to become quite different from that of the East.

Orthodoxy had limited influence over the tsar or the people when it came up against the growing fasination with Western culture. In the mid-1600's, the Orthodox Church was successful in having foreigners; specifically Germans and Poles; relocated to separate districts and away from Moscow. But, the power of the Church, in regards to matters of society, was seriously reduced by the, so called, Nikon affair and a Church schism.

Nikon was born to peasant stock in 1605 and went by the name of Nikita. He was schooled in a monastery, got married and served as a parish priest in Moscow. After ten years of marriage and the death of their children, Nikon convinced his wife to become a nun and join a convent. This allowed Nikon to enter the Solovetski monastery on the White Sea in the north. He soon became a hermit monk on one of the neighboring islands. He soon found the Solovetski community disagreeable and joined the nearby Kojeozerski monastery in 1643.

In 1646, Tsar Alexis appointed Nikon to the office of Archimandrite of the Novospaski Lavra in Moscow. Soon after, in 1649, Nikon became the Metropolitan of Novgorod. He had won the favor of the tsar, founded several poorhouses and was known for many good works within the secular community. Nikon remained in constant correspondence with Alexis and spent part of each year at court.

Nikon's primary goal was the revise the existing Slavonic Bible and other liturgical books. Patriarch Iosif died in 1652 and Alexis appointed his friend Nikon to this, the highest office of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nikon's first concern was with the reunification of the Ruthenians; Little Russians; with Orthodoxy. Poland had control of this area until 1667. Thanks to the Synod of Brest (1596), the people had been forced to enter into communion with Rome and the Catholic Church. The Ruthenians rose against Poland in 1653 and united with Russia. The Metropolitan of Kiev and most of his clergy united under the Patriarchate of Moscow. This greatly increased the scope of the Patriarchate's ecclesiastical power.

The reformation of the Russian Orthodox liturgical books was the primary goal of Nikon's tenure as Patriarch. The Bible that was being used in the Church was a translation from the original Greek texts to Slavonic; language created for just this purpose by the brothers, Sts Cyril and Methodius (mid to late 800s). Over the centuries, changes to the Scriptural details and rituals appeared in the translations. Nikon believed that the Russian Church had gone too far away from the original Orthodox tradition of Constantinople (Byzantium) during the some 200 years since the latter's fall as an empire. Nikon's idea was to revert back to the original Byzantine tradition, foregoing much of the developments of the Russian Church.

Nikon was in close contact with the Greek Patriarchs on this matter. Possibly the most controversial issue of ritual was the act of crossing oneself. Over the years, the Russians had been taught to make the Sign of the Cross using two fingers after the Catholic fashion. In Orthodoxy, the Sign is made with three fingers; the thumb and the first two fingers placed together; symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

Nikon's reforms were met with loud and often violent opposition. Makarios, Patriarch of Antioch, traveled to Moscow and attended Nikon's synods in 1654 and 1655. Finally, in 1655, with the blessings of the Eastern Patriarchs, Nikon published his revised liturgical books and laws regarding unity with the Greek traditions and rituals. The next synod, 1656, endorsed Nikon's measures and even excommunicated anyone caught making the Sign of the Cross with anything other than three fingers. These harsh and swift measures begged rebellion. Nikon was accused of being a traitor to Russian and for trying to Hellenize the nation and corrupting the old faith.

While a member of the Solovetski community, Nikon belonged to a group known as Friends of God and later the Zealots of Piety. This group called for a focus on individual and internal spirituality. Nikon's reforms brought considerable anger from this group. With their leader, archpriest Avvakum Petrovich, they became known as the old ritualists or old believers, steadfastly loyal to the old Russian rites and traditions. Still in the good graces of the tsar, Nikon was able to see to it that, by 1653, Avvakum and his followers were banished. A year after Nikon's death (1681), Avvakum was burned at the stake, a martyr of the Russian Church schism.

The Old Believers represented a much broader revolt and, thus, problem than simply the issue of the old rites. They protested against serfdom, the centralized nature of the government and the tainting of the nation by allowing Western traditions and ideals to enter Russia. The Old Believers' stronghold was the Solovetskii monastery, Nikon's first community, on the White Sea. The group was made up of over 500 sympathetic monks and fugitives from the Razin rebellion.

What happened to cause Nikon to fall so quickly out of the good graces of the tsar is a bit of a mystery. Most agree that it had to do with Nikon's campaign to make the Church separate from the state. In fact, Nikon proposed that the tsar himself should be subordinate to the Patriarch. He, evidently, was not content with the duel authority of tsar and patriarch; the first being concerned with matters of the material world and the latter matters of a spiritual nature. Alexis tried to appease Nikon by granting him the title of Great Sovereign in 1654. This was not enough and the two former friends entered into a personal feud. The leaders of Russia's secular and spiritual lives were at war. Alexis demanded Nikon's resignation but could not force it. By canon law, only the Eastern Patriarchs could remove Nikon from his office.

In 1667, Tsar Alexis called for a great synod for the purpose of bring charges against Nikon. The synod was attended by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, as well as several Greek and Russian bishops and metropolitans. The Patriarch of Alexandria not only endorsed Nikon's dismissal, but went to far as to advocate a stronger role of the tsar in Church affairs.

Tsar Alexis showed up, in person, to act as the official accuser of Nikon who attended the synod in his patriarchal vestments. The official charges against Nikon included neglect of his spiritual duties since 1658, betraying the Church by complaining to Constantinople about the Russian clergy and unjust actions towards his bishops. The synod lasted a week and, ultimately, voted to strip Nikon of the patriarchate and all the duties and privileges that came with this office. He was demoted to a mere monk and sentenced to confinement in the Therapontof monastery on the White Sea. Nikon was replaced by Joasaph II (1667 - 1672), formerly the archimandrite of the Trinity Lavra in Moscow.

Tsar Alexis died in 1676. His son and heir, Fedor II (1676 - 1682) withdrew the sentence invoked on Nikon and released him from his confinement. Enroute to Moscow, Nikon died (Aug. 17, 1681), was buried in the Cathedral Church of Moscow with full honors given the patriarchs and all charges against him were revoked.

The whole affair of Nikon's fall, the anger of Alexis towards him and harsh sentence imposed by the 1667 synod remain a bit of a mystery. The issue at hand was not Nikon's reform of the liturgical books. In fact, this was endorsed by the synod and upheld by Nikon's successor. Nikon is known for his stubborn will and quick and often harsh actions. His attempt to separate the Church from the state and, in fact, make the latter subordinate to the first, probably was the Nikon's greatest offense, in the eyes of his critics. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is for certain. The actions of Nikon and controversy surrounding him caused a schism within the Russian Church. Old Believers still exist today and consider themselves both the true heirs of Orthodoxy and separate from the Church of Moscow.

Tsar Alexis' lifetime and reign were characterized by rebellion and the introduction of Western culture. When he died (1676), Russia was primed to enter the era of modernity (1676 - 1689). Alexis' heir, Alexis Alexeiovich, (b. 1653) died on January 17, 1670. The younger Alexis and been well groomed to follow in his father's place. Instead, the tsar's second son, Fedor III (b. 1661), a sickly and physically weak youth, became the next tsar of Russia. Fedor's reign was uneventful and he passed away just six years later in 1682. Next in line was Ivan V (b. Aug. 27, 1666) who was mentally retarded and reigned fourteen years until his death on January 29, 1696.

The only remaining male heir of Alexis I was Peter I (the Great). During Ivan's reign, Peter's mother was encouraged to make a case for her son as a more capable ruler of Russia. This caused considerable friction between Natalia's family, the Naryshkins, and the family of Alexis' first wife, the Miloslavskiis. It, also, meant the banishment of A. S. Matveev, the foreign chancellor at the time who supported Natalia's claim. Matveev was well educated and familiar with the leaders and cultures of the West. Ivan V's reign suffered greatly the loss of this advisor.

Eventually, Peter I became tsar in 1696, at the age of 24, but not without a deadly struggle with his half-sister, Sophia, Regent of Russia.