Sunday, January 3, 2016

What was the Raskol or the Great Schism?

Boyarina Morozova by Ivan Surikov
Explore the event that split the Russia Orthodox Church forever – the Great Schism or Raskol.

Russia found time to recover under the reign of Tsar Michael Romanov, but divisions later appeared during the reign of his son Alexis Mikhailovich Romanov. This division, however, came not from any rival to the throne; but rather, a division in one of the greatest institutions in Russia – the Russian Orthodox Church. His desire to reform the country led to his appoint of one of the most controversial Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church – Nikon. Their reforms led to what became known as the Raskol or the Schism or simply the Split.

The Start of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church had been part of Russian history and culture since the time of Kievan Rus during the 10th century. It was and still Russia’s major religion. Russia Orthodox Church began when Olga, widow of the Prince of Kiev, became known as the first Christian ruler of Kiev.

In 988, Prince Vladimir adopted the Greek Orthodox Church of the powerful Byzantine Empire as his religion and that of his people. The decision came from the result of a search for a state religion. He found Judaism a religion for nationless and defeated people (when Jews wandered in diaspora across Europe without a place they could call home). He felt Islam to be too strict with its limitations in actions as well as food and beverages (especially ban on alcohol). For Vladimir, Catholicism lack the grandeur and greatness he aspired. And so he landed with the Orthodox Church whose magnificent artworks and churches incited awe to onlookers. From that point on, he led the growth of the Russian Orthodox Church.

About six hundred years later, under Tsar Feodor and his chief adviser Boris Godunov, the Russian Orthodox Church had been granted its own Patriachate. However the position never became strong, especially during the Time of Troubles. It only became a formidable, influential, and powerful position under the Patriarch Filaret, the father of the reigning Tsar Michael Romanov. By the time of Filaret’s death in 1633, the position of Patriarch became one of the most important position in the land and the Russian Orthodox Church stood as one of the most vital institution of the land.

Problems of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Church, nevertheless, faced problems. After the Time of Troubles, morality and discipline disintegrated within the clergy, prompting some followers to be dismayed and questioned their beliefs and even some went as far as rejecting the religion. Moreover, after 600 years since taking its roots, modification had made to many rituals and practices of the Russian Orthodox Church. For instance, the church practiced the Mnogoglasie, where multiple parts of the mass were sang simultaneously. In effect, it made the mass shorter but it sounded irritating and also chaotic.
Russian Skomorkhi in the 18th Century
Pre-Christian and paganic festivals also continued to be celebrated. The greatest example came were the skomorkhi, carnival-like performers who travelled from one village after another, giving multiple types of entertainment. It originated from Pagan Kiev, thus, they reenacted some pagan rituals through dancing and singing. Because of the skomorkhi, many peasants watch their performances rather than going to church.

Attempts had been made to address some of this problems. Patriarch Iosif (Joseph) acted against the practice of Mnogoglasie. But a huge wave of opposition from peasants, nobles and clerics forced the Patriarch to back down. But reforms soon returned with the support of the new Tsar.

Tsar Alexei

Tsar Alexei or Alexis Mikhailovich Romanov ascended to the throne in 1645. He ruled as the second Romanov Tsar and intended to build a more powerful Russia from the foundations of peace and stability brought by his father Tsar Michael. Well-educated, young, and very passionate for reforms, he became involved in solving numerous problems of Russian society including the church. He welcomed intelligent reform minded men like Ivan Neronov of Kazan, Archpriest Avvacum, and the Archmandrite of the Novospassky Monastery, Nikon. Alexis moved towards reform of the church by banning the skomorokhi. In 1649, the creation of the Sobonoye Ulozheniye (the basic law of Russia until the 19th century) gave the state powers to intervene in church affairs including the prosecution of clerics accused of criminal and administrative crimes such as corruption. In February 1651, Alexis banned the mnogoglasie and replaced it with the edinoglasie, where parts of the service were done one at a time and not simultaneously in a terrible ruckus of sounds. Opposition sounded but not strongly as would be fighting the greatest power in the land. But it took another man’s strength to truly institute reforms that Alexis wanted.

Patriarch Nikon and His Reforms

Nikon, one of the Zealots of Piety (a reform minded organization), became the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1652. Born in Nizny Novgorod, northeast of Moscow, he took his vows in the frigid coast of the White Sea, in the Anzesky Skit Monastery. In 1646, he went to Moscow and got introduce to the young Tsar Alexis. In 1649, he became the Metropolitan of Novgorod, the second highest position in the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1650, he showed remarkable talent in leadership and administration when he controlled riots that flared in Novgorod and brought back order. Alexis knew he needed Nikon. He then offered him the position of Patriarch but Nikon, an ambitious and overbearing man, gave conditions before accepting the position. He wanted his power to be above that of Tsar. He wanted the state to back off from Church affairs by suspending state authority as mentioned in the Sobonoye Ulozheniye. He also gave a term for himself, three years as patriarch. If the Tsar support satisfied him, he would continue.

Reforms immediately began under Nikon. His reforms aimed in re-aligning the Russian Orthodox Church to its Greek or Byzantine roots. He believed that modification made by the Russian Orthodox Church for the past centuries had made the rituals of the church heretical, especially after hearing reports from other Orthodox Churches. A report made by a Russian traveler from his exploits from 1649 to 1653 mentioned followers of Greek Orthodox priest burned Russian Liturgical books as heretical. In 1649, the visiting Patriarch of Antioch Paisos also commented about the difference of Russian liturgy and rituals compared to other Greek Orthodox Churches. For Nikon, it meant that Russian Orthodox Church had deviated far from its roots and became heretical. In 1654, he made numerous correction in the religious text of the church. He used the state monopoly of the printing press in order to standardize the printing and contents of the said text.

Patriarch Nikon
Changes, which seemed minor practices, also started to be made by Nikon. In February 11, 1653, Nikon ordered the changing the way that Russians made the sign of the cross, instead of two crossed fingers it became three fingers. Procession to the churches made into east instead of west. The saying of Alleluia became thrice rather that twice. The number of bows during Lent were also changed. Nikon edited the wordings of the Nicene Creed as well as the spelling of Jesus. Other than that, he ordered the excommunication of members of Skomorokhi in 1657, reinforcing the ban by Tsar Alexis. He also banned the selling of vodka and other alcoholic drinks during holy days. He reduced the number of taverns. He banned foreign non-Orthodox artworks. He made non-baptized foreigners to stay only in a suburb outside in Moscow, in what later became known as the German Suburb.

Alexis supported much of Nikon’s reform. For him, realigning of the Russian Orthodox Church to its Greek origin would made Russia indeed the leading and only free Eastern Orthodox Church. It would bring huge prestige and increase the authority of Russia in the Orthodox Church and even in the world stage.

Nikon also increased the powers of the patriarch and its wealth. He wanted to revive the power that the former Patriarch Filaret had. In 1653, he took on the title of Veliky Gosudar or Great Sovereign, a title only previously used by the Patriarch Filaret. He also expanded the lands owned by the Patriarch hence increasing his wealth tremendously. Nikon played a key role in court of Tsar Alexis because of this. He became the most powerful man in Russia next only to the Tsar.

The Great Schism (Raskol)

A split, however, followed as a result of Nikon’s reforms. A group of traditionalist opposed the reforms and became known as the Staroobriadtsy or the Old Believers. They wanted to maintain the old centuries old practices of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1654, Pavel, Bishop of Kolomna, criticized the reforms. Some members of the Zealots of Piety, like Ivan Neronov and Avvacum showed their opposition in many of Nikon’s reforms, such as the changing of signing of the cross. Neronov, in particular, said that a holy icon in his church had told him to oppose Nikon’s reforms. Both man deemed Nikon’s reforms as heretic. Both of them paid a huge price. Neronov found himself incarcerated in an isolated far flung monastery. Avvacum, meanwhile, suffered exile to Siberia along with his family. His children passed away due to hardship. Avvacum himself suffered beating and hunger in the hands of his wardens. Others followed to oppose the reforms even though they knew they could lose their position, freedom, and even lives.

Natural events that happened next flared up further opposition. Tsar Alexis won victories against the Poles in 1654. However, back in the capital city, a plague broke out, killing thousands. Hysteria and panic rampaged across the city causing order to breakdown. Soldiers, especially the Streltsy, failed to maintain peace because they themselves suffered from the plague. Many started to believe that the plague had been brought by the heretic reforms of Nikon. Nikon’s popularity dwindled, exacerbated by his evacuation of Moscow alongside the royal family under the orders of Tsar. The plague began to subside in 1655.

Split between Nikon and the Tsar

Nikon drastically changed after the plague. He became even more arrogant, domineering, and even a huge spender. He built a new Patriachal palace and two new monasteries. He became an authoritarian leader of the church as well as the state. He humiliated high ranking officials and nobles in public. At one time, he even rampaged in front of the Tsar, breaking foreign art works in front of the altar during a service. In 1656, he declared all those who did not conform to the reforms as heretics. This brought him more notoriety as well as enemies.

Nikon began also to lose favor in the eyes of the Tsar. In winter of 1655, Alexis faced the prospects of war against Sweden. His advisors urged him to negotiate and opted for dialogues. Nikon said otherwise and pushed for armed confrontation. By this time, Tsar Alexis, even though he knew Nikon’s fiery attitude, listened to the Patriarch and declared war. The decision soon caused Alexis to regret listening to Nikon. In 1656, the Russian army faced stalemate against the Swedes and in a deal, Russia lose all its latest conquest. His frustration of Nikon became even more inflamed with reports of the Patriarch’s huge wealth gained from Patriarchal lands. As a result, Tsar Alexis knew, Nikon had loss touch and had to go.

A split between Nikon and Tsar Alexis followed. In 1657, the two quarreled over the appointment of important church positions and authority of the state over church affairs. The Tsar, who had matured as a result war, wanted to re-impose the absolute rule of the Tsar, but Nikon opposed it. Tsar Alexis then began to snub the Patriarch. First, he did not invite him in important state banquets. He also stopped addressing the Patriarch as the Great Sovereign as agreed in 1653. By June 1658, Tsar Alexis went further to show his discontent towards Nikon by refusing to attend masses officiated by Nikon. As a retaliation, Nikon withdrew to the New Jerusalem Monastery awaiting the apology of the Tsar and also delaying state affairs as many government decision must pass him.

The Tsar reacted otherwise to Nikon’s assumptions. Alexis appointed an “interim” Patriarch, Piturim. He then began to disregard Nikon in state affairs. He also took control of Nikon’s source of wealth by confiscating Patriarchal lands. Finally, the Tsar plotted to remove Nikon from his post. But to do so, he needed the consensus of the Church.

The Tsar convened a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in early 1660 to discuss the removal of Nikon from his post. He presided the synod and presented two witness, which he deemed to have heard Nikon resigning from his position. But a monk named Epifani Slavinetsky defended Nikon and discredited the witnesses’ statements. As a result, the synod failed to meet Tsar Alexis’ expectation.

Alexis then planned a much larger synod to meet his wants. He called for a Great Synod of all Eastern Orthodox Church to be conducted in Moscow, aimed in removing Nikon. The Synod had been planned for 1666. But before that, Alexis looked for easier alternative. He look towards the greatest adversary of Nikon, the archpriest Avvacum. The Tsar authorized the return of Avvacum to Moscow in 1660, but lack of coordination and contact resulted for a long delay and the exiled archpriest only returned in 1664. Alexis hoped for Avvacum to denounce Nikon publicly but still accept the reformation of the Church. Alexis suffered yet another disappointment. Avvacum did condemned Nikon but refused to accept the reforms and continued to label it as heretic. It continued to enflamed the division between the reformed Russian Orthodox Church and the Old Believers.  Alexis once again ordered the arrest of Avvacum.

The Great Synod of Moscow

Defrocking of Patriarch Nikon by Segey Miloradovich
The Great Moscow Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Church convened in 1666. It included many high officials of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as the whole Eastern Orthodox Church. The Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem attended the event. After much deliberation, the Great Synod, presided over by the Tsar Alexis, came up with their stand. As expected, the Synod deposed Nikon and imprisoned him to the Ferapontov Monastery and demoted him to the rank of monk. Patriarch Iokim took over as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, Archpriest Avvacum was also found guilty of heresy and was imprisoned in Pustozesk in the coast of the Arctic Ocean, where he languished in a deep hole for the next 12 years until the next Tsar Feodor II ordered his burning at a stake.

Although the Synod deposed Nikon, they maintained the integrity of his reforms. They declared the one true form of the Russian Orthodox to be the reformed one. In addition the Synod also made the power of the Tsar above the Church, hence it justified the contents of the Sobonoye Ulozheniye. The Synod ended the conflict between Alexis and Nikon but not the conflict between the Old Believers and the reformed church.

The Old Believers

The Old Believers continued their opposition regardless of the Synod’s decision. Many Old Believers started to believe and spread rumors that the Tsarist Regime embodied the Anti-Christ. For the following years up to 1690’s, many Old Believers tragically and dramatically self-immolated themselves with their church instead of submitting to the reforms.

Some Old Believers took the courage to rebel against the government. The Solovetsky Monastery, which looked like a fortress, rejected the reforms and started an armed uprising. Government forces besiege the monastery from 1668 and lasted until 1676 ending with the death of the defenders.

Even within the nobility, some opposed and became Old Believers. The most prominent was Feodosia Morozova. She kept following the long Russian tradition of Orthodox Church and for it, Tsar Alexis had her and her sister arrested. His arrest became the subject of the powerful painting of Vasily Surikov in the 19th century, the Boyarina Feodosia Morozova. It depicted Morozova being carried away in a sled but defiantly raised her hands with her two fingers cross depicting the traditional singing the cross. The two suffered torture, assault, and hunger. In 1675, the two passed away, locked up in a dungeon in the Pafnutev Monastery in Borovsk. 

The great lengths of courage and steadfastness of the Old Believers captured the respect and empathy of many Russians. It had the same impact when Romans persecuted the Christians. Many Russians admired the strength of Old Believers to accept torture and hardship just to protect what they deemed as the correct and true way of practicing the Orthodox Church. Many Old Believers fled rather than being captured. They fled east to Siberia while some headed north towards the Arctic. They stayed in isolated communities where they felt that the government could not reach and where they could continue to practice the traditional Russian Orthodox religion. The persecution of the Old Believers continued even after the reign of Alexis.

Persecution only began to waiver as the government started to become secular from the Tsar Peter the Great, who had no strong sentiments or interest to the church. And so, the Old Believers continued to live on. By 1720, Old Believers encompassed one-sixth of the population of the Russian Empire. Even today, there are still Old Believers within modern Russia.

Summing Up

The Raskol of the Split had a profound impact in Russia. First, it caused the Russian Orthodox Church to be divided into two major factions – the reformed Orthodox Church and the Old Believers. It also cemented the authority of the state above the church, thus weakening its influence to the Russian society and the Tsars. The Raskol created a split that continued in Russia even to this day.

Explore also:

Julicher, Peter. Renegades, Rebels, and Rogues Under the Tsars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

Taruskin, Richard. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Volume II. Los Angeles, California: University of California, 1996.

Ziegler, Charles. The History of Russia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.

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