Cathedral of the Assumption,
In the years when the Grand Duchy of Moscow transformed itself into an Imperial monarchy under the successive rulers Ivan the Great, Vasily III, and Ivan the Terrible, expanding its power from Moscow over the various defeated Mongol Khanates of central Asia and then expanding its power eastward into the Ukraine, the Tsars gradually asserted total control over the Church. Christianity had first come to the Rus peoples in the Ukraine in the late 10th century and spread eastwards into what we today call Russia. The church was centered in Kiev but in the fourteenth century the Metropolitan Peter of Kiev and all the Rus, the primate or leading bishop of Russia, moved from the Ukraine to Moscow to put himself under the protection of the Grand Princes of Muscovy because of the constant warfare between the Poles and Lithuanians on the North and West and the Tatars of the East and South. In 1589, Tsar Boris Gudonov persuaded Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople to raise the Moscow See to a Patriarchal See. Constantinople and its Emperor had fallen in 1453 and Moscow already had its eye on claiming succession to the old empire as “the third Rome,” (Constantinople claiming to have inherited the imperium from Rome when Constantine moved the capital there in the fourth century). In 1700 Tsar Peter the Great suppressed the Patriarchate because he saw it as a threat to his Imperial power. Whereas the Grand Dukes who had welcomed the transfer of Church leadership from Kiev to Moscow, and Boris Gudonov who first established the Patriarchate, had seen the patriarchal honors as strengthening their own political power, Peter the Great wanted the Church to understand that there was one Power in Russia, and it was the Tsar. Moreover, in leaving Moscow behind and establishing his new capital at his city of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic, Peter did not want anyone so powerful as a Patriarch in the old capital lest Moscow and its citizens think that they could go off on their own, independent of the Tsar. The Tsars still traveled down to Moscow and its Kremlin for their coronations but power now resided on the Baltic.
The tradition of the subordination of the Patriarch to the Imperial Power was inherited from the Constantinople where the Patriarchs traditionally had little to say and were made and broken at Imperial will. The concept was that the Emperor, not the Patriarch, was the Lord’s anointed and Vicar of Christ. Icons depicted Christ dressed in imperial robes to bring home this point. The Holy Roman Emperors in the West had tried to assert this same sort of control over the Church and it led to the Investiture controversy of the 11th century, epitomized in the struggle between the Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. Popes and emperors would struggle over control throughout the 12th century and into the 13th and it was only with the collapse of the Hohenstaufen dynasty with the execution of Conradin of Swabia in 1268 that the Catholic Church was able to shake off the threat of Caeseropapism. In fact there would be certain situations in the West where the Church would fall under the power of the Crown—the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella is one example that comes to mind—but the lack of an effective Empire in the West (the operative word being “effective”) was one factor in preserving the independence of the Church. The Russian Church was not so blessed.
One of the first acts of the Russian Orthodox Church after the fall of the Tsars in the February Revolution of 1917 was to reconstitute the Patriarchate that Peter the Great had abolished. Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow was elevated to the restored office. Unfortunately for Saint Tikhon this was a disastrous time to lead the Church as the very month in which the Patriarchate was restored the Bolsheviks seized control of the government, and their anti-religious policies cause a persecution of believers in the new Soviet State. Tikhon himself was charged with a variety of crimes, but because the new government was not yet secure and was afraid of the influence he might exercise among the Russian people (and his reputation abroad) he was not imprisoned but confined to the Donskoy monastery where he died in 1925. Several years before his death he had been compelled to sign a statement that he “was not opposed to the Soviet Government.” He had spoken out against the murder of the Imperial Family and tried to speak on behalf of the peasants during the famine of 1921 but was effectively blocked by the Soviet Regime from any real opposition to the government and its repressive policies. Saint Tikhon may have been unable to make his voice heard over the Revolution, but he was a brave man who said and did what he could.
The Soviet Government abolished the Patriarchate with Tikhon’s death in 1925. Tikhon was succeeded, not as Patriarch but as “Metropolitan of Moscow” by Peter of Krutitsy. (“Metropolitan” is the title Orthodox Christians use for what we call an Archbishop.) To his credit he resisted Soviet control and was consequently first exiled, then imprisoned, then—on October 10 1937—martyred.
Hieromartyr Saint Peter of Krutitsy was succeeded by a Metropolitan more amenable to the Stalin Regime, Metropolitan Sergius. Sergius was somewhat complicit in the exile, imprisonment, and death of Peter of Krutitsy—not that he took any direct part but stepping in to take over when Peter was arrested he not only usurped Peter’s authority but made no protest at the hieromartyr’s fate. The 1930s were a time when there was a great destruction of the art and treasures of the Church and a persecution of bishops, clergy, and faithful by the Stalin Regime. In 1931 the magnificent cathedral of Christ the Savior in the Kremlin was dynamited to be replaced by a projected “Palace of the Soviets.” The palace was never built and revised plans put a huge outdoor swimming pool on the site. (The Cathedral was rebuilt after the fall of Communism.) Sergius was able not only to avoid arrest himself, but to be able to establish a certain amount of collaboration with the regime in which the Church was supposedly “protected” while in fact he was protected but ordinary Russian faithful were suffering greatly. The outbreak of World War II and the German invasion of Russia did change the scene drastically and Stalin needed the support of the Church. Stalin met with a delegation of bishops and forged an agreement with the Church. Stories circulate that when German troops arrived on the outskirts of Moscow in 1941, Stalin authorized that the Divine Liturgy secretly be sung in the Kremlin’s then closed Assumption Cathedral to ask God’s help in the crisis. During the War the Orthodox Church was given legal status and there was a lessening of persecution. Stalin restored the Patriarchate and Sergius assumed the title. He died within the year.
Sergius was succeeded as Patriarch by Alexi I. Alexi had been one of the bishops who met with Stalin in 1943 to win some measure of relief for the Church during World War II. Alexi’s election to the Patriarchate was approved by Stalin and the two seem to have had a sufficiently amiable working relationship in return for the Church’s loyalty during the War. This situation deteriorated when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1953 and by 1958 the persecution of the Church was renewed. Alexi was always compliant with the regime, however, so that the Church could at least survive—on whatever limited scale the Soviets would permit—if not flourish. During this time the clergy and monasteries were infiltrated with government priests and monks who spied on bishops, clergy, and monastics and reported any suspect of anti-government behavior, including the catechesis of people under the age of 18. During the patriarchate of Alexi I, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was forcibly separated from the Roman Communion and subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Alexi I was succeeded by Pimen I who was the most open collaborator with the Soviet Regime. He was little more than a shameless tool of the Government, but in doing so he won a slowly increasing measure of relief for the Church. Pimen sponsored or participated in numerous “peace conferences” hosted by the Church to show European and North American Christians that the Church had great freedom in the Soviet State and that the Soviet Union was anxious to live in peace with the other nations of the world. It was all propaganda as the Soviet power was crumbling both in Russia and abroad while in fact the Church was still under great restrictions. Pimen’s death in 1990 more or less coincides with the collapse of the Soviet Union. His successor, Alexi II, was elected without overt government interference. When there was an attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Leader and the man responsible for the transition from the Soviet Union to a post-Marxist Russia, Alexi sprang into action, calling for Gorbachev’s release from imprisonment by the plotters and demanding Gorbachev be given access to radio and television. Alexi II also had a very good relationship with Boris Yeltsin in building a new Russia. Alexi and his successor, Patriarch Kirill have done much to revive the “soul” of Russia and rebuild the cultural ties between Orthodoxy and the Russian People and Culture. Overall this sort of spiritual revival—which has met with significant but limited success—is a noble ideal and parallels Benedict XVI’s less successful attempts to awaken the soul of Western Europe, but it does run the danger of the Church and its faith being manipulated for political purposes. And that was what led to the overthrow of the Church in Russia by the Soviets ninety years ago.