Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Russian Wars of Religion


The religious terror-state of Henry VIII was not the only case in which political ambition overwhelmed paradisiacal culture.  Russia, which had almost no contact with Tudor England, was another example.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

Like Henry’s England in regard to Catholicism, Russia was a strong anchor for the Orthodox Church.  Like Henry, Ivan the Great would set in motion events that would cost the Russian Church the ability to withstand political intrusion. 

The Metropolitan, Daniel, would implement a radical subservience of the Church to the state.  He would intervene in the succession to the throne, on behalf of Ivan’s son Vasily III.  When this new ruler initiated a purge of rivals, Daniel assisted.  When he wanted to divorce his wife without canonical justification, Daniel blessed the subsequent marriage.

This was all prelude for Ivan the Terrible, who reigned for over 50 years in the mid-sixteenth century.  Strickland divides his reign into a good period and a bad period – almost equally split in years.  During the good period, Ivan conquered the Muslim city of Kazan, securing the eastern borders against the Mongols.  He oversaw the continued development of an independent Russian Church, presiding over the Stoglav Council of 1551.  During this council…

…Ivan declared himself the ruler of the Church and accountable only to God.  in the absence of other legitimate witnesses to God’s will, this meant in practice that he was totally unconstrained.

The “good” part of Ivan’s reign came to an end in 1560.  His wife, Anastasia, suddenly died, and Ivan believed she was poisoned.  In his grief, he would lash out.  He launched a new institution, the oprichnina, representing a reorganization of the state’s military and economic resources.  This organization would be administered via terror, putting thousands to death on charges of treason.

Like Henry, Ivan went through many wives – perhaps up to seven.  After the third, the clergy refused to recognize any more – unlike their counterparts in England.  Some lasted only days before being sent off to a monastery or dying mysteriously.

Red Square became the site of regular public executions:

Increasingly sadistic in his efforts to destroy perceived enemies, he nevertheless maintained a strong attachment to Christianity.

His reaction to criticism was complex: when criticized by one who could do little harm, he welcomed it.  However, if it came from a powerful quarter, he could be ruthless.  When Metropolitan Philip of Moscow refused Ivan the blessing cross due to Ivan’s unrestrained bloodletting, Ivan had him arrested and killed.  Unlike the wars in Western Europe following the Protestant Reformation, the violence in Russia was internal: “a case of ‘civil massacre, not civil war.’”

Orthodox bishops found it difficult to maintain proper order – frequently being harried by the authorities.  They grew open to advance from the Roman Church, which promised freedom of worship in exchange for submission to the papacy.  Despite little support from their flocks, a group of four bishops signed on with the Jesuits who delivered the negotiations.  As these East Slavic lands were not part of the Muscovite state, this Union of Brest had little immediate impact on Russia.

This time, the filioque was optional; purgatory and papal supremacy were not; leavened bread could be used; they could continue Eastern liturgical practices.  This Uniate Church, an Eastern-Rite Roman Catholic Church, partially healed the schism.

Meanwhile, Ivan produced no healthy and long-lived male heir – certainly he had himself to blame here.  He did have a promising eldest son, but one day the tsar flew into a rage and beat the young lad to death.  His only heir was a “half-wit” named Fyodor, and after Fyodor…nothing (well, one other heir, Dmitry, was murdered).  The long Rurik line, to include Vladimir, was no more, and soon Russia would face a time of difficulty not seen since the Mongol invasions: the Time of Troubles.

Soon, false Dmitrys would appear.  The first, claiming to be Ivan’s heir was a Russian monk.  He convinced the Roman Catholic King Sigismund, who received counsel from the Jesuits, to give him a small army such that he could take the throne.  Pope Paul V saw the possibility of a wholesale conversion of Orthodox Russia.

This false Dmitry was successful, and he began to advance the interests of the Roman Church.  Even the mother of the dead Dmitry said this was her son.  But this was too much for the Russians, who overthrew him within the year.  They burned his body to ashes, and sent these back to the West by firing them from a cannon.

Two more false Dmitrys would appear during the troubled times.  Polish soldiers would invade, turning Russia into a puppet state; Jesuit advisors would appear.  But, in 1613, fifteen years after Fyodor’s death, Michael Romanov would command a Russian army and bring this period to a close.  His family would rule for three centuries, until the Russian Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Russian Church was growing complacent.  Convinced that their Church was superior to even the Orthodoxy of the Greeks, Serbians, or Arabs, they held little openness to Christianity’s transformational imperative.  Few Russians from this period would be canonized as saints.

Attempts were made to conform the Russian Church to the practices of other Eastern Churches, but these were rebuffed. 

By the end of the seventeenth century, many of Russia’s most zealous Christians had chosen division over unity.  The stage was set for the introduction of a new, secular version of Russian Christendom.


The Time of Troubles had been a calamity for Russia, but it was mild in comparison to what was about to befall Western Christendom.

And this will be the subject of my next, and final, post from this volume of Strickland’s work. 

1 comment:

  1. Russia has been a backwards, violent place for a very long time I see.