A Tour of the Orthodox World at the Turn of the 20th Century: The Church of Russia

Adrian Fortescue

In 1908, a Roman Catholic priest and writer, Adrian Fortescue, published his landmark book The Orthodox Eastern Church, presenting Orthodoxy to the English-speaking world through the eyes of a very well-informed but also very papist Roman Catholic from England. In one section of the book, Fortescue surveys the Orthodox world, telling the recent history and then-current situation in each of the world’s autocephalous churches. Previously, we published the first section of that survey, covering the four remaining members of the ancient Pentarchy (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), along with the Church of Cyprus. Today, we are publishing Fortescuse’s account of the Church of Russia, and then we’ll move on to the rest of the Orthodox world. The full text of Fortescue’s book is available for free at The Internet Archive.

Fortescue’s contempt for Russia, and especially the Tsar, comes through very clearly in the account that follows. He makes no pretense of being an unbiased, objective observer. He regards the Russian Church as being completely under the thumb of the Tsar, and he has utter disdain for the God-pleasing missionary work of Russian saints such as Innocent of Alaska and Nicholas of Japan. I present Fortescuse here not as some kind of authoritative source, but as an important contemporary witness — albeit a highly biased Roman Catholic one — of Russian Orthodoxy at the turn of the 20th century.


The Church of Russia

There is only space here for the merest outline of the story of the Church that is really the infinitely preponderating partner of all this Communion. The Russians date their conversion since the year 988. In the 9th century a Norman dynasty of rulers set up the first monarchy over Russians. Novgorod was their original capital. Soon after they made Kiev “the mother of all Russian cities.” One of these Norman kings, Vladimir, the son of Svyatoslav, after having defeated his brothers and made himself the only king (984-1015), became a Christian and forced all his people to be converted too. (There had been Christians in Russia before, of whom Vladimir’s grandmother St. Olga was one.) He is said to have hesitated between various religions — Judaism, Mohammedanism and Christianity — and to have at last settled on Christianity in its Byzantine form. The fact has deeply affected all Russian history.

The daughter-Church of Constantinople has always looked toward that city as her ideal, has shared the Byzantine schism, and Russia is an Eastern European Power, whereas Poland, who got her faith from Rome, is to be counted among the Western nations. St. Vladimir, the Apostle of Russia, was baptized with great crowds of his subjects in 988. A hierarchy was set up under the Metropolitan of Kiev, and was added to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The first Russian-born metropolitan was Hilarion (1051-1072); but all Russia used the Byzantine Liturgy. That liturgy, still read in Old Russian (Church Slavonic), is the only one used in this Church. After the schism of Cerularius, Russia remained in communion with Rome for about a century; eventually, however, she took the side of her Patriarch.

After the Mongol invasion (1222-1480) the centre of gravity shifted from Kiev to Moscow, and Moscow had a metropolitan, the rival of him of Kiev. Feodor Ivanovitch the Czar (1581-1598) in 1589 bribed Jeremias II of Constantinople (1572-1579, 1580-1584, 1586-1595) to acknowledge the Metropolitan of Moscow as a Patriarch and the Russian Church as no longer subject to Constantinople. A synod of the other Orthodox Patriarchs in 1591 confirmed this acknowledgement and gave the Patriarch of Moscow the fifth place, after Jerusalem. The classical number of five Patriarchs was now happily restored to the Orthodox, and they said that God had raised up this new throne of Moscow to make up for the fallen one of Rome.

However, that state of things did not last long. The third epoch of Russian history is marked by the change of the centre of gravity to Petersburg. Kiev, Moscow, and Petersburg stand for the three periods. Peter the Great (1689-1725), as is well known, set up his capital on the Neva and reformed the whole administration of his Empire. Among other things he reformed the Church so as to bring it under the power of the civil government. For this purpose he abolished the Patriarchate of Moscow and established the Holy Directing Synod to rule the Church of Russia in 1721. Jeremias III of Constantinople had to make the best of it and to acknowledge the Russian Holy Synod as his “Sister in Christ.” The constitution of this Holy Synod remains unchanged since its formation, and under it the Russian Church is the most Erastian Christian body in the world. No sovereign has ever been more absolutely master of a Church than is the Czar.


Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the powerful Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod of Russia from 1880 to 1905.

In the first place the Holy Synod decides every ecclesiastical question in Russia, the preservation of the faith, religious instruction, censorship of all books that concern religion, all questions of ritual. It is the last court of appeal for all questions of Canon Law, and all metropolitans, bishops, clerks of every rank, monasteries and convents, are under its jurisdiction. And the Holy Synod is the shadow of the Czar. It is composed of the Metropolitans of Kiev, Moscow, and Petersburg and the Exarch of Georgia; the Czar then appoints five or six other bishops or archimandrites to sit in it at his pleasure; the Czar’s chaplain and the head chaplain of the forces are also members. And the chief man in the Holy Synod is the Procurator (Ober-Prokuror), a layman, generally a soldier, appointed by the Government to see that its laws are carried out. Russians themselves realize how completely their Church now lies under the heel of the autocracy. When Mr. Palmer was in Russia, the common joke was to point to the Procurator in his officer’s uniform and to say, “That is our patriarch,” and one continually hears of their hope of restoring the old independence of their Church by setting up the Patriarchate of Moscow again.

Meanwhile the Russian Church is governed by Imperial Ukazes. It would be quite untrue to say that she recognizes the Czar as her head. Every Russian would indignantly declare that the Head of his Church is our Lord Jesus Christ, which is, of course, just what Catholic children learn in their Catechism too, and what a member of any of the numberless Christian sects would affirm. As far as practical politics are concerned, however, that answer leaves things much as they were. The question only shifts one degree, and one asks through whom our Lord governs his Church. And the Russian must answer: “Through the Holy Synod.” Possibly he would first say: “Through the bishops “; but there is no question that the synod rules the bishops, and the synod is its Procurator, and he represents the civil government. The incredible thing is that Russians boast of the freedom of their Church from the yoke of Rome, just as the Orthodox in Turkey do. If the Church is to have any visible government at all, one would imagine that, even apart from any consideration of theology or antiquity, the first Patriarch would be a more natural governor than the Czar or the Sultan.

The Czar’s Empire contains about 130 million victims of his government. Of these from eighty to eighty-five millions are members of the Orthodox established Church. So the Church of Russia is enormously the greatest part of the Orthodox Communion; she alone is about eight times as great as all the other Churches together. She is ruled by eighty-six bishops, of whom three (Kiev, Moscow, and Petersburg) are always metropolitans, and fourteen archbishops. In Russia the title of metropolitan, which in most Eastern Churches has come to be the common name for any bishop, is much rarer. Besides the three above mentioned, others have it given to them as a compliment or reward by the Czar. In any case it has quite lost its real meaning, and is only an honorary title. No Russian bishop has any extra-diocesan jurisdiction; the Holy Synod rules all equally. There are also thirty-seven auxiliary bishops, whom they call vicars. There are 481 monasteries for men, and 249 convents of nuns.

The last Saint canonized by the Holy Synod is the monk Seraphim, who was an ascetic like those of the first centuries. He spent a thousand days and nights under the shelter of a rock, doing nothing but repeating: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”; then for five years he spoke no word, and he died in the odour of sanctity at the monastery of Sarov in 1833. The Holy Synod examined his cause and proved the miracles he had wrought, and the Czar ratified his canonization in January, 1903.


St. Nicholas of Japan

The Russian Church has missions throughout Siberia, and in Japan, Alaska, and the United States. A Russian bishop with the title of Revel lives at Tokio and governs twenty-five thousand Orthodox converts ; the Bishop of Alaska, who resides at San Francisco, has fifty thousand subjects in the States, mostly Uniates from Hungary and Galicia who have left the Catholic Church.

It is impossible to wish well to the Russian missions anywhere. Undoubtedly one would rejoice to see heathen baptized and taught the faith of Christ, if only it were done by any one except by Russians. But Russian missions, enormously subsidized by the Government, are, always and everywhere, the thin end of the wedge for Russian conquest.

Look at the countries where Russia has political interests or ambitions — Syria, Persia, Manchuria, China, Japan, Alaska — there you will find Russian missionaries; look at places where the Czar has no policy — Egypt, Africa, South America, &c. — there the Church of Russia is unheard of. And Russia, even when it has only a protectorate, means at once intolerance and persecution of every other form of Christianity. One remembers the long list of crimes wrought by the tyrants at Petersburg and by their servant the Holy Synod, the ghastly story of Poland, the Ruthenian persecution, the dead Georgian Church, the Roumanian Church crushed in Bessarabia, the ruthless harrying of the Armenians, and one realizes that Russia and her ecclesiastical arrangements are the common enemy of the rest of Christendom. (Even of her Orthodox sisters. Nothing can exceed the hatred now shown by the Phanariote and Greek Orthodox for Russia, who is responsible for all the Bulgarian trouble, and for the gradual destruction of their supremacy everywhere.) And of all the millions of people who rejoice at the crushing defeat of this barbarous State in the late war no one has more reason for joy than the Catholic missionaries who can now again breathe in peace in Manchuria.


It is wonderful that, in spite of the intolerance of the Government, Russia should teem with dissenters. Leaving out of account at present the Latin and Uniate Catholics, the Armenians, Jews, and Moslems, we find twenty-five millions of Russians who live in schism from the established Church. These people are the Raskolniks and the members of the numberless sects that have grown out of that movement. The Raskol schism began in the 17th century when Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow, reformed the Russian liturgical books. Gradually a number of errors, misspellings, and mistranslations had crept into these books. Nikon carried out his correction of them very conscientiously; he sent an Archimandrite to Constantinople to collect copies of the original Greek books from which the Russian ones had been translated, and his only object was to restore the correct text. The changes that he made were that people should make rather fewer prostrations during service, should sing Alleluia twice instead of three times in the liturgy, and should make the sign of the Cross with three instead of with two fingers.

It is characteristic of the Slav mind that these changes should have produced an uproar all over Russia. The Patriarch was tampering with the holy books, was changing the faith of their fathers, was undermining the Christian religion; he had been bought like Judas by the Jews, the Mohammedans, and the Pope of Rome (this was specially hard, because Nikon could not abide the Pope of Rome). So numbers of people left his communion, calling themselves Starovjerzi (Old Believers); they were and still are commonly known in Russia as Raskolniki (apostates). From the very beginning these absurd people were most cruelly persecuted by the Government, and the persecution produced the usual result of making them wildly fanatical. Peter the Great was tolerant to every sect except to the Raskolniks; he had them hunted down in the forests and massacred, shut up in their churches and burnt, tortured, flogged, and exiled.

The whole Raskolnik movement forms the weirdest and most unsavoury story of religious mania in the world; not even the maddest Mohammedan sects have gone to such an extreme of lunacy as these Old Believers. When a Slav peasant gets religious mania he gets it very badly indeed. Their original indictment against Nikon and the State Church was that he had introduced these abominations: to make the sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of with two, to pronounce the Holy Name Iisus instead of Isus, to say in the Creed, “the Holy Ghost, Lord and Lifegiver,” instead of “true one and Lifegiver,” as well as various other changes of the same importance. Because of these innovations and heresies they declared that the established Church had become the kingdom of Antichrist, New Rome (which, of course, stood by Nikon and his reform) had fallen as low as Old Rome, they, the Raskolniks, alone were the true Church of God, and Noah’s ark in the universal flood.

The Raskolniks then split into two chief factions, the “Priestly” and ” Priestless” Old Believers. They had few priests and no bishops at first, so the question soon arose : How were they to go on? Some determined to do the best they could and to manage with the few priests who occasionally joined them, or even, in the case of necessity, to receive Sacraments from the clergy of the established Church. These priestly Raskolniks are the less radical party; they have stayed where they were when the schism began, and still differ from the Orthodox only in the matter of Nikon’s changes. In 1846 a deposed Bosnian metropolitan joined them, set up a see at Belokriniza in Bukovina, and ordained other bishops; so they got a hierarchy of their own at last. They also, after centuries of persecution, now receive some measure of toleration in Russia, and about a million of them have joined the State Church as Uniates (the only Uniates in the Orthodox world), that is, they are allowed to go on using their ante-Nikonian books. These Uniates, the Edinoverz (“United Believers”), have about two hundred and forty-four churches. When Russians speak of Raskolniks they usually mean the priestly sect, and they are always anxious to convert them all to the established Church. One of the chief arguments used by Russian bishops against any new proposal, such as, for instance, official recognition of the Church of England, is that it would tend to frighten away the Raskolniks.

It is among the priestless Raskolniks that the wildest beliefs have arisen. They made a virtue of necessity, and declared that now that Antichrist is reigning the ministry of priests and bishops must cease; they baptize their children and hold prayer-meetings led by elders. And they have broken into endless sects on all sorts of points. One great quarrel was about what letters should be put on the crucifix ; where we write INRI, some of them, in spite of John xix. 19, &c, insisted on ICXC (Iesus Christ) only. They began all manner of strange abstinences — tobacco, sugar, potatoes, cooked hare were unclean and never to be touched. Some of them, to hasten the Second Coming of our Lord, preached suicide, and then quarrelled as to whether suicide by fire or by hunger were more pleasing to God. They were all the wildest Millennianists, miracle-mongers, and seers. Horrible licence alternated with suicidal mortifications. In a wild anarchy of mad opinions and mutual cursing they were held together only by their insane fury against the Orthodox. And these sects, sprung out of the old Raskol movement, still exist, are still horribly persecuted, and, as usual, answer that persecution by a tenfold fanaticism.

There are the Philipovzi, whose Gospel is suicide by fire, the Beguni, who always wander, will eat from no stranger’s plate, and practise the abominations of “free love” instead of marriage; there are the Moltshaljniki, who never speak; the Chlysti, who believe that in 1645 God the Father came down in a chariot of fire, and was incarnate in a peasant named Daniel Philippov. Their service consists in dancing and in nameless horrors that follow. There are the Skopzi, whose god is a man named Selivanov, whom they believe to have been a reincarnation of our Lord and of the Czar, Peter III; they practise self-mutilation, and hope that when they have converted 144,000 virgins (Apoc. xiv. 1-4) the end of the world will come. The Duchoborz believe in successive reincarnations of our Lord, and worship a number of their own prophets who claimed to be the Son of God. In 1898, after a very sharp persecution, they fled to Canada, and gave endless trouble to its Government by going out to meet the Second Coming in a place where they would have all died of cold and hunger. But one need not go on describing the blasphemous madness of these unhappy lunatics. That there are about twenty-five millions of Russians who belong to such sects is the only point that is significant. The Stundists lastly are people of quite different kind, simply Protestants of the Lutheran type, and entirely respectable in every way.


William Palmer, a prominent Anglican who had close ties with the Orthodox Churches. He died in 1879.

Returning to the established Church of Russia after these fanatics, one finds in it as a vivid contrast the profoundest peace. We have seen some — and we shall unfortunately see more — of the quarrels that now rend various branches of the Orthodox Communion ; it is relief to be able to point out that there are no quarrels in the Church of Russia. The Holy directing Synod and the Imperial Russian police take care of that. But it would not be fair to say nothing about the Russian clergy but the servility of its hierarchy. Throughout that enormous Empire there must be thousands of village priests who stand for the cause of Christ among their people, who baptize the children, celebrate the holy liturgy, and bring the last comfort to the dying; who (when they can resist its temptations themselves) do at any rate something towards putting down the drunkenness that is the curse of the Russian peasant; and who, since they are married and so can never hope to become bishops, know nothing of higher Church politics, but lead simple godly lives in the care of souls.

When Mr. Palmer was in Russia he lodged for a time with a parish priest named Fortunatov. M. Fortunatov was a charming example of his kind. His house swarmed with vermin, and the windows could not be opened all the winter. But he was a person of some culture, speaking Latin and a little German. He had studied the Bible as well as many other things at the Spiritual Academy, and he always helped himself to food before his wife on the strength of Gen. i.3. When his little daughter, looking at a picture-book, pointed to each woodcut and delightedly called them “little god!” he could not understand Mr. Palmer’s pious horror. Such “sheer and gross ignorance” he found natural in peasants and women. He could discourse on philosophy, and had a perfect genius for aphorisms: “Aristotle goes only on experience (!), Plato is imaginative, Socrates religious.” He was no truckler to modern science : “All the modern geologists overturn religion, especially by interpreting the six days of Creation to be six periods.” And he had a most engaging way of putting an end to religious controversy. When Mr. Palmer showed him a controversial letter he had written to the President of Magdalen “Mr. F. criticized it freely and ended by going to his piano and singing the Trisagion, the Cherubicon, the Ter Sanctus, the hymn, Nunc dimittis and Te Deum.” When one learns that so much talent and tact were developed on an income of about £9 a year, 8 one realizes that the Russian clergy cannot be accused of teaching things which they ought not for filthy lucre’s sake.

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