Peter the Great (r. 1682 – 1725) was the emperor of Russia and came to the French capital to negotiate an alliance against the Ottoman Turks, the conquerors of Constantinople.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
The first Orthodox ruler to visit the West since Byzantine Emperor John VIII attended the Council of Florence…under quite similar circumstances.
Where the Byzantine Emperor John failed to bring the West to the East, Peter would succeed. Of course, the West had been moving East for some time before this, with the Union of Brest in 1596 having brought Eastern Churches under the pope – Uniate, or Byzantine-Catholic Churches.
Their services continued according to the Byzantine rite, their priests remained married, and the original form of the Nicene Creed was confessed without the controversial filioque.
Sounds a bit quirky, I know. But it gets even quirkier. Patriarch Cyril I (d. 1638) of Constantinople didn’t like this Uniate arrangement, spending years advocating against it. As patriarch, he found Jesuits to be quite active in the Ottoman capital. Nothing really quirky so far…until he decided to make the enemy of his enemy his friend:
He established contacts with the Protestants in England and Geneva, even sending his most gifted clergy to study Calvinist institutes there.
What came of this? While the authenticity of the work is challenged, it appears that in 1629 he issued a “notorious Confession” that strongly endorsed Calvinist principles, including the doctrine of faith alone and predestination. In 1672, an Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem unequivocally condemned this work.
Yet, the turmoil continued in the Slavic regions. Many of the nobles would follow their bishops, converting to Roman Catholicism in either the Latin or Uniate form. Further, Jesuits were building schools; with this, the Orthodox couldn’t compete.
Until Peter Mogila (d. 1646). He hoped to save the Orthodox Church by embracing the Western model of Scholasticism (a “tragic flaw,” according to Strickland), building an Orthodox Kievan Academy for this purpose.
Until this time, Orthodoxy had relied mostly on the church fathers and not on grammar or logic to express itself. Mogila changed this.
Strickland describes this as a distortion of the understanding of the faith. Further compounding the situation in the East, Russians were becoming isolated from international Orthodoxy due to the collapse of Byzantium. What would result was an effort to build a strong nationalism, with a strong absolutist monarch to defend against the Mongols.
Now, what follows sounds an awful like the caricature of Putin being painted in the West – some points closer to truth than others, perhaps, but a caricature nonetheless. And the story regards Peter the Great.
Raised in the German quarter of Moscow, he would develop a fascination with the West. Everything around him seemed backwards compared to what he heard of other lands. He would form a strong antireligious temperament, directing his passions to absolutist statecraft.
He would rebuild Russia’s military. He decided a warm water port and a strong navy were necessary. He would go to Amsterdam to study shipbuilding, working in the dockyards dressed as a common carpenter. He would study government and the military in England. He would further visit Germany and France. His overriding desire was to build a military on par with that of France.
Failing to make meaningful progress against the Ottomans, he would turn his attention north, to Sweden. The Great Northern War, started in 1700, would finally result in victory more than twenty years later. Sweden would never again be a great power.
Desiring to improve his backward homeland, he would launch a massive program of reforms. A full-blown autocracy; anyone standing in his way would be eliminated. Even his own son would not escape arrest, torture, and execution.
In 1717, Russia’s capital would be relocated to the newly built St. Petersburg – formally named after the Apostle Peter, but…. The land was barren and frozen, but it afforded access to the ocean. A skyline worthy of any in Europe – and an architecture as foreign to the Eastern tradition as it was to the Western. Thousands of peasants would die building it; scores of nobles were forced to abandon ancestral homes in Moscow to populate it.
He tried to abolish the growing of beards. Failing this, he imposed a beard tax! He would use religion as an instrument of rule. He created a body called the Holy Synod, hand-chosen hierarchs who could be trusted to properly run church affairs for the benefit of the autocracy.
Feofan Prokopovich would be his advisor in these and other church reforms. Born in Kiev, he was educated by the Jesuits in Poland and would convert to Uniatism – later returning to the Orthodox faith, “or at least a westernized form of it.”
Religious authority would be transferred to the secular state. Even the local parish priests fell under this secular authority, required (although apparently few complied) to report whenever a tendency toward sedition was admitted. The church was becoming known as the “handmaiden of the state.”
While I understand this could be troubling, it doesn’t seem a big stretch from the religious authority being under a Christian emperor. This was the preferred model in the East, known as “Symphony.” Yet, once the Church is under the state, well, you take your chances.
The empire created by Peter would change an isolated principality into “the mistress of the Baltic.” It would be a constant player in the diplomatic affairs of Europe:
From the Napoleonic wars to World War II, no great European conflict would be resolved without her participation.
Probably a lesson the West would be wise to remember.