The RussianChurch Until The Middle of the 17th Century:
The baptism of Russia in 988 by the Equal-to-the-Apostle saint Price Vladimir was
the single most important event in our nation’s history. The quest for the True Faith
of Christ had already been present in the soul of the Russian people. Princess Olga,
the grandmother of Vladimir, had already received the Holy Baptism and, according
to the chronicles, “had lead many to the Faith”.
Ever since the times of Saint Vladimir, the Russian Orthodox Church had grown
and prospered during more than 600 years, while remaining united and in peace.
The efforts of the enemies of the Church, who on numerous occasions attempted to
subjugate the Russian Church or to break it up, did never succeed: the harrowing yoke
of the Tatar invaders which lasted over 200 years never succeeded in destroying or
even corrupting Russian Orthodoxy. On many occasions Roman Popes attempted to
subjugate the Russian Church to their power, but they also always failed. The
Russian people remained faithful to their Orthodox Church and successfully foiled the
The efforts to corrupt the purity of the Christian Faith itself by introducing
heretical teachings were equally fruitless. The most notorious of these heresies were
the “Strigol’niki” and the “Zhidovstvuiushchie” which appeared in the city of
Novgorod during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The “Strigol’niki” rejected the need for any clergy, they claimed that laymen could
lead the believers, and they repudiated the Holy Mysteries (usually called
“sacraments” in the West) and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. The
“Zhidovstvuiushchie” rejected the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of our
Lord Jesus Christ, monasticism, the holy icons and many church rites. These heresies
Such assaults against the unity and the holiness of the Russian Church resulted in
an even more acute awareness by the Russian people that their faith needed to be
guarded with an even greater zeal.
Initially, a Metropolitan whose see was in the city of Kiev ruled the Russian
Church. The first Metropolitans where Greeks sent from Constantinople by the Greek
Patriarchs. Later, following their election by a council of Russian clergy Russian
Metropolitans traveled to Constantinople to be consecrated by the Greek Patriarch. It
was the Metropolitan of Kiev who appointed the bishops to the most important
After the destruction of Kiev by the hordes of the Tatar Khan Batyi (in 1240), the
Metropolitan’s see was moved to the city of Vladimir. Later, under Metropolitan
Peter, the see was moved to the city of Moscow.
In 1439, a council was convened in the city of Florence (Italy) with the purpose of
uniting the Western and Eastern Churches. The Byzantine Emperor and Patriarch
desired such a union because they hoped to gain the support of the Roman Pope
against the increasingly threatening Turks. The Council of Florence resulted in a
Union, which recognized the Roman Pope as the head of both the Orthodox and the
Roman Churches. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church was to accept all the newsprung
dogmas introduced by the Papacy. The only thing left to the Orthodox Church
was the permission to continue to use the eastern rites.
The Patriarch of Constantinople sent the Greek Metropolitan of Moscow, Isidore,
to the Council of Florence and Isidore swiftly agreed to openly support the Union.
Upon the return of Isidore to Moscow a council was called which condemned Isidore
and which deposed him. A new Metropolitan was subsequently elected: the
Archbishop of Riazan’ Iona (Jonas) who, for the first time, was appointed in 1448
without the approval of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Ever since, the Russian
Metropolitans were chosen by a Russian council independently, without approval or
consecration by the Byzantine Patriarch. The Russian Orthodox Church thus obtained
its independence from the Greek Church.
During the tenure of Metropolitan Iona, the southwestern part of the Russian
Orthodox Church was separated from its northeastern part. The Princes of Lithuania
were irritated by the subordination of their people and clergy to the Metropolitan of
Moscow and upon their insistence a new Metropolia was established in Kiev. The
Metropolitan of Kiev continued to be appointed by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Thus, two Russian Metropolia were created: one oversaw the northeastern part of
Russia while the other the southwestern one. The latter one soon fell under the
influence of the Papacy. The Russian Orthodox Church in the northeastern part of
Russia with its center in Moscow, became the Church of a powerful, independent and
growing state continued to preserve the purity of the Orthodox faith.
In 1453 the Turks overran Constantinople and all of Byzantium fell under the
Ottoman yoke. This was, according to the popular belief in Moscow, “God’s
punishment for the betrayal of Orthodoxy and for the Union with the Papacy”.
In 1551, during the reign of Czar Ivan Vassilievich, called “the Terrible”, a most
important Church council was convened. This council was later called the “Hundred-
Chapter” council, or “Stoglav”, because its decrees consisted of one hundred chapters.
The council confirmed the correctness of the text of the books used in the Church’s
services making only very minor corrections, unified the rituals and decreed harsh
punishments for those who would transgress the rules laid down by the holy Apostles,
resist the strict respect of the “ustav” (or “rule”, the correct description of the religious
services) or transgress the rites and traditions of the Church.
In 1589, during the reign of Czar Fedor Ioannovich, the oriental Patriarch Jeremiah
traveled to Moscow. Although the Russian Metropolitans were already independent
of the Patriarch of Constantinople, this visit was used by the Russian Church to obtain
the creation of a Russian Patriarchate. In the course of the same year, the
Metropolitan Iov (Job) was elected to the rank of Patriarch of Russia. In his address
to Czar Fedor Patriarch Jeremiah said: “The old Rome fell because of its heresies; the
second Rome, Constantinople, was overrun by the Arab’s successors, the Turks; but
your great Russian kingdom is now the Third Rome, more magnificent by its piety
than the two others” (V.O. Kliuchevskii, Course of Russian History, Moscow, 1957,
vol. III, p.293).
But it is precisely at the time when the Russian Orthodox Church reach the high
point of its glory that it was shattered by a schism which split the Russian people.
This sad vent occurred in the second half of the 17th century during the reign of Czar
Alexei Mikhailovich and under Patriarch Nikon.
The Reforms of Patriarch Nikon and the Beginning of the “Raskol”
Patriarch Nikon introduced new rites, new service books other innovations without
conciliar approval, on his own authority. This was the cause for the “Raskol” (church
schism). The followers of Nikon were called the “Nikonians” or “New Ritualists”.
As for the proponents of Nikon, they used the support of the State to declare their
Church the “Orthodox” or “ruling” one; they insultingly and erroneously labeled their
opponents “schismatics” and put the blame for the schism upon them. In reality,
however, the opponents of Nikon’s innovations did not cause any schism: they simply
remained faithful to the old traditions and rites of the Church without relinquishing
any aspect of their faith. This is why the called themselves “Orthodox Old
Ritualists”, “Old Believers” or “Old Orthodox Christians”. Who then were the real
instigators and main leaders of the schism?
Patriarch Nikon was elected to the patriarchal throne in 1652. Even before his
election he befriended Czar Alexei Mikhailovich. Together they planned to reform
the Russian Church by introducing new rites, services and books to make it similar to
the Greek Orthodox Church which, by then, had already lost much of its piety.
Proud and presumptuous, Patriarch Nikon did not have much education. He
therefore surrounded himself with learned Ukrainians and Greeks among which the
most influential became Arsenii the Greek, a person with rather dubious religious
credentials. He was raised and educated by Jesuits; upon his arrival to the East, he
first converted to Islam, then became an Orthodox Christian and later a Roman
Catholic. Upon his arrival to Moscow, he was exiled to the Solovki Monastery as a
dangerous heretic. This is where Nikon took him from to make him his senior advisor
on religious affairs, much to the discontent of the faithful Russian people. One could
not, however, openly challenge Nikon’s decisions. The Czar granted Nikon limitless
powers in Church matters and with this support, Nikon did whatever he pleased
without consulting anyone. Having the support and power of the Czar, Nikon began
his reforms in a decisive and bold manner.
Nikon had a harsh and unyielding character, his manner was haughty and
unfriendly. He liked to call himself the “supreme prelate”, like the Roman Pope, or
the “great sovereign”, and he was one of the richest men in Russia. He had little
respect for the other bishops, he did not want to call them his brethren, and he often
harassed and humiliated the rest of the clergy. Everybody was fearful of him. The
historian Kliuchevskii called Nikon a “clerical dictator”.
In the old days, books were copied by hand rather than printed. In Russia, Church
books were copied in monasteries by especially skilled craftsmen. This art was
considered sacred, comparable to the painting of icons, and it was performed with
much zeal and piety. The Russian people loved books and preserved them as sacred
objects. Any small mistake or trivial inaccuracy was considered as a grave
transgression. This is the reason why the numerous ancient manuscripts that have
been preserved until today are notable for the purity of their text, their beauty and
their accuracy. It is very rare to find any corrections or alterations in them. In fact,
they had fewer mistakes in them than modern printed texts. The mistakes that had
been noticed in these books had already been corrected before Nikon, at the time of
the creation of the fist printing press in Moscow. The revision of these books was
then conducted with great care and prudence. The editing of these books by Patriarch
Nikon was done in a totally different manner.
While the Council of 1654 decided to revise the books by comparing them to the
old Greek and Slavonic texts, recent texts printed by Jesuits in Venice and Paris were
in reality used. Even the Greeks at that time rejected these texts as corrupted.
It must therefore be said that the activity of Nikon and his supporters cannot be
called a “correction” of books: what took place was in reality an alteration and even a
corruption of these books. Subsequently to these revisions, other innovations were
gradually introduced in the Church rituals.
The main innovations were the following ones:
1)Instead of the making of the sign of the Cross with two fingers, as Russia had
been taught to do since receiving Orthodoxy from the Greeks according to the
apostolic traditions, the three-fingered sign of the Cross was introduced.
2)In the ancient books, and in accordance to the spirit of the Slavonic language, the
Name of our Savior was written “Isus” while in the new texts this was now
spelled in a Greek-like fashion with two letters “i”: “Iisus”.
3)In the ancient books, it was decreed that the religious processions around the
church during baptisms, marriages and the consecrations of churches should be
done in the same direction as the sun to show that we follow the Sun-Jesus. In
the new books it was decreed that this should be done against the sun.
4)In the ancient books, in the Symbol of Faith (or “Credo”), the 8th article read
“and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, true and life-giving”; after the revision the
word “true” was deleted.
5)Instead of the twice-repeated “Alleluia” which was known to the Russian
Orthodox Church since the ancient times, a new triple “Alleluia” was
6)In ancient Russia, the Holy Liturgy was celebrated with on seven breads
(“prosphora”) whereas in the new books this was done with five breads, two
breads were thus eliminated.
These examples illustrate how impudently Nikon and his followers introduced
alterations in the Church rules and traditions, and even in the apostolic traditions,
which Russia had received from the Greeks at the time of the Baptism of Russia.
Such revisions were bound to trigger a strong negative reaction from the Russian
people who had piously kept the old books and traditions.
Beyond the revisions and innovations themselves, the methods used to enforce
them also triggered a strong reaction from the people. Harsh persecutions and
executions were used against the Russian people whose conscience could not accept
these innovations and alterations. Many chose to die rather than betray the faith of
their fathers and ancestors.
Patriarch Nikon began his reforms with the abolition of the two-fingered sign of
the Cross. Until then, the entire Russian Church made the sign of the Cross in the
following manner: three fingers (the thumb, and the last two smaller fingers) were
folded together as a sign of the Holy Trinity, while the other two fingers were
extended as a sign of the two Natures of Christ: human and divine. This was also the
way the ancient Greek Church used to teach Orthodox dogmas by the sign of the
Cross. The two-fingered sign finds its origin in the apostolic traditions. The Holy
Fathers attest that even Christ Himself blessed His disciples in this manner. Nikon
abolished this. He did this unilaterally, without a conciliar decision, without the
agreement of the rest of the Church and without asking for the opinion
of another bishop. Simultaneously, he decreed that the sign of the Cross should be
made with three fingers: by folding the thumb and the next two fingers together as a
sign of the Holy Trinity and by leaving the last two fingers folded and “idle” i.e.,
without representing anything. Christians then said, “the new Patriarch has abolished
The three-fingered sign of the Cross was a clear innovation. It appeared in Greece
for the first time shortly before Nikon’s time and it is the Greeks who brought it to
Russia. Not one Holy Father or a single council attests to the prior existence of the
three-fingered sign of the Cross and this is the reason why the Russian people rejected
it. Furthermore, since the two Natures of Christ are not symbolized in it, it is
incorrect to represent the Holy Trinity in a manner, which does not confess the human
Nature of Christ. It might appear that it was the Trinity that was crucified on the
Cross and not the human Nature of Christ. Patriarch Nikon was not concerned by
such conclusions. He used the opportunity of the visit to Moscow of the Patriarch of
Antioch Makarios, as well as other oriental bishops, to make them state their position
on this issue and they wrote the following: “we have received the tradition from the
beginning of the faith and the holy apostles, the holy Fathers and the Seven Holy
Councils to make the sign of the Cross with the first three fingers of the right hand.
He who among Christians does not make the sign of the Cross in this manner as
taught by the Tradition which has been upheld from the beginning of the Faith until
our times is a heretic and an imitator of the Armenians. Because of this we hold him
to be separated from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and accursed”. This
judgement was first read in the presence of the people, then written down and later
printed in Nikon’s book “The Tablet”. These irresponsible excommunications and
maledictions had the effect of a thunder upon the Russian people.
The Russian people and the entire Russian Church could not accept such extremely
unjust condemnations made by Nikon and his supporters – the Greek bishops in
particular, because they were most obviously not speaking the truth when they
claimed that the apostles and the Holy Fathers had proclaimed the three-fingered sign
of the Cross. But Nikon did not stop at that. In his book “the Tablet” he added even
further condemnations to these ones: he went as far as to stigmatize the two-fingered
sign of the Cross as containing the freighting “heresies and immorality” of ancient
heretics condemned by the Ecumenical Councils (the Arians and the Nestorians).
In the “Tablet”, Orthodox Christians are condemned and anathematized because
they confess in the Symbol of Faith the Holy Spirit is “true”. The fact is that Nikon
and his supporters condemned the Russian Church not for heresies or other faults, but
for a completely Orthodox confession of faith and the upholding of the ancient
traditions of the Church. The deeds by Nikon and his supporters have made them
heretics and apostates from the True Faith in the eyes of the pious Russian people.
The reformist policies of Nikon were met with a strong opposition from many
distinguished spiritual figures from the 17th century: Bishop Pavel from Kolomna,
Archpriest Avvakum, Ivan Neronov, Daniel from Kostroma, Logan from Murom and
many others. These personalities enjoyed a great deal of popularity among the people
because of their pastoral activities. The Archpriests Ioann Nerenov and Avvakum
were endowed with great speaking skills. They could speak simply and clearly, yet
with passion and inspiration. They had no fear of speaking the truth to the face of the
big and mighty, the openly criticized the sins and crimes of the authorities, they were
dedicated and totally honest, without any concern for their personal well being. They
were servants of the Church and of God Whom they served with dedication, sincerity
and zealous love. They were always ready to face martyrdom for Christ and for the
Truth of God. In their sermons, they openly challenged the innovators, with no fear
of anyone including the Patriarch or the Czar. But neither the Czar nor the Patriarch
took heed of the appeals of these champions of the Holy Faith.
Upon the orders of Patriarch Nikon and Czar Alexei Mikhailovich, the zealous and
firm defenders of the old faith were soon subjected to cruel tortures and executions.
The first martyrs for the true faith were the Archpriest Ioann Neronov, Login, Daniil,
Avvakum and the Bishop Pavel of Kolomna. They were all exiled away from
Moscow during the first year of the reforms of Nikon (1653-1654).
During the church council of 1654 which dealt with the issue of the correction of
the books, the Bishop Pavel of Kolomna courageously told Patriarch Nikon: “we shall
not accept a new faith”, and for these words he was removed from his diocese.
During a council meeting Patriarch Nikon himself tore away Bishop Pavel’s
vestments and ordered him to be immediately exiled into a monastery were Bishop
Pavel was cruelly tortured and finally burned at the stake.
The Russian people began to think that a Patriarch-tormentor and a killer had taken
the highest position in the Russian Church. Nikon began his reforms not with God’s
blessing, but with condemnations and anathemas, not with the prayer of the Church
but with bloodshed and killings. Everybody was afraid of him and none of the
Bishops dared to oppose him with courageous words of denunciation. Timidly and
silently, they agreed with his demands and decrees.
Nikon did not remain at the head of the Russian Church for very long, only for
seven years. His pride and thirst for power turned everybody against him. He even
eventually lost the support of the Czar because Nikon involved himself in state
matters, considered himself higher than the Czar and because he wanted to
subordinate the Czar to his will. Alexei Mikhailovich began to resent this state of
affairs; he distanced himself from the Patriarch and eventually withdrew his support
and friendship. Nikon then decided to pressure the Czar by means of a threat. He
publicly resigned in the hope that the Czar would plead with him and ask him to
reconsider his decision. Nikon wanted to obtain a promise from the Czar that Alexei
Mikhailovich would submit to him in all matters; only in this case would he
reconsider his decision and remain at the head of the Church. This time, however,
Nikon greatly miscalculated his move. During a liturgy celebrated in the Dormition
Cathedral in the Kremlin on June 10th, 1658, he declared to the assembled faithful and
clergy: “idleness has made me sick, and you have become sick of me. From now on I
shall not be your Patriarch any more. Should I ever become Patriarch again then I
shall be anathema”. Nikon proceeded to take of his Bishop’s garments and left the
Cathedral dressed as a simple monk. When the Czar learned about Nikon’s
resignation he did not do anything to make him change his mind. Nikon left for the
Resurrection monastery, which he called the “New Jerusalem”. He could not,
however, get used to his new life as a simple monk. Restless and prideful, Nikon
tried to return to his previous role. Once he returned to Moscow in the middle of the
night and joined the church service in the Cathedral of the Dormition. He ordered that
the Czar be notified of his return. But the Czar did not show up and nobody dared to
ask Nikon to come back. Disappointed by all this, Nikon returned to his monastery.
Nikon’s departure from the Patriarchal see created another upheaval in the Russian
Church and the Czar therefore decided to convene another council in 1660 and to
elect a new Patriarch. Nikon created an uproar at this council when he insulted it by
referring to it as a “demonic assembly”. While in his monastery Nikon behavior was
also a cause for scandal: he performed ordinations, condemned and accursed other
Bishop and even cursed the Czar and his family. The Czar and the other bishops did
not know what to do about Nikon.
At that time the Greek Metropolitan Paisii Ligard arrived from the East.
Ligard was a covert Jesuit who had been educated in Rome and the Eastern
Patriarchs had condemned and defrocked him for being a Jesuit. He arrived in
Moscow with forged documents and he succeeded in deceiving the Czar whose
confidence he gained. It was to this cunning and resourceful man that Nikon’s case
was entrusted. Paisii immediately took charge of Russian church matters. He
declared that “Nikon should be accursed as a heretic” and that a major council should
be convened in Moscow with the presence of the Eastern Patriarchs. Nikon
understood very well who Ligard was and helplessly called him a “thief”, a
“Christless person”, a “dog”, a “impersonator” and a “peasant”. Soon information
was received from the East that Ligard was, indeed, a Roman Catholic, that he was
serving the Pope of Rome, and that he had been defrocked and accursed by the
Eastern Patriarchs. But since the Czar had nobody to rely upon in his struggle against
Nikon, Ligard remained in charge of Church matters.
Czar Alexei convened another council to deal with Nikon’s case and other issues in
1666 (the work of this council was continued by another council in 1667). The
Eastern Patriarchs Paisii from Alexandria and Makarii from Antioch attended this
council. The idea of inviting these Patriarchs was not a successful one. As it was
later learned, a council of Eastern Patriarchs had already deposed these two Patriarchs
and they had no right to become involved in the matters of the Russian Orthodox
Church. Nonetheless, Nikon was put on trial and the council found him guilty of
abandoning his patriarchal see and of other offences. The Patriarchs called him a
“liar”, a “deceiver”, a “tormentor”, a “killer”, they compared him to Satan and found
him “even worse” and concluded that he was a heretic for ordering that the
confessions of thieves and bandits should not be heard before their deaths. Nikon did
not remain passive and he called these Patriarchs “impostors”, “Turkish agents”,
“vagrants” and “corrupted”. The council sentenced Nikon to be reduced to the rank
of a simple monk.
Nikon cast aside his innovations. While he was still Patriarch Nikon had already
said that “the old church books are good” and that they could be used for church
services. When he left his see he not only completely forgot about his reforms but
even began publishing books in his monastery according to the Old Rite and this
return to the ancient texts can be seen as a verdict against his own reforms: by
publishing these books he showed that these reforms were vain and without real merit.
Nikon’s reform of the Old Faith broke up the unity of the Russian people and was
thus not only useless, but also harmful.
Nikon died in 1681 without having reconciled himself with either the Czar, the
bishops or the Church.
The Trial of the RussianChurch:
Having deposed Nikon, the council elected a new Patriarch: the Archimandrite
Ioasaf, the abbot of the Trinity Monastery. The council then proceeded to the
settlement of the issues involved in the church reforms. Paisii Ligard was the key
player of this council and it would have been unreasonable to expect him to stand up
for the old faith. It would have been equally unreasonable to expect this from the
Eastern Patriarchs as the reforms had been done in complete conformity with
contemporary Greek texts. Furthermore, following the reunification of the Ukraine to
Moscow, the influence of the southwestern part of Russia began to be felt and
Moscow was soon filled with various monastics, teachers, politicians and merchants
all of whom had been exposed to a very strong Roman-Catholic influence. This did
not prevent them from acquiring a strong influence at the court of the Czar. In the
meanwhile, Paisii Ligard was conducting negotiations with the Roman-Catholic West
for the incorporation of the Russian Orthodox Church into the Papacy. He also
attempted to convince the Eastern Patriarchs to do likewise. As for the Russian
bishops, they were obedient to the Czar in all matters. It is under such circumstances
that the council, which was to judge Nikon’s reforms, was convened.
The council approved the new texts, confirmed the new rites, and imposed
frightening condemnations and anathemas against the old books and rites. The
council also declared that the two-fingered sign of the cross was a heresy and
proclaimed the three-fingered sign of the cross as an eternal and major dogma. Those
who confessed the Holy Spirit as “true” in the Symbol of Faith (or “Credo”) were
condemned as were those who would use the old books for church services. In its
conclusions the council declared that: “if any person should dare to oppose us or
disobey, and if this person is a clergymen, we decide that he be defrocked, cut away
from the Grace of the Holy Spirit and accursed; if he is a laymen, that he be cut off
from the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, accursed and declared
anathema as a heretic and a rebel. Such a person we cut off as the “sick member”. If
someone remains unrepenting until his death, let him be cut off from the Church and
remain with Judas-the-betrayer, with Arius the heretic and with the rest of the
accursed heretics. Steel, stones and woods will be shattered but he shall remain
unforgiven for the ages to come. Amen”.
Such odious condemnations revolted even Nikon who himself had issued many
condemnations in the past. He declared that they condemned the entire Orthodox
people and that they were irresponsible.
In order to force the pious Russian people to accept the new faith, the council
decided that its opponents should be subjected to frightening penalties: imprisonment,
exile, floggings or have their ears, noses, tongues or hands cut-off.
All these decisions made the crisis even worse and the divisions among the
Russian people deepened1.
Hopes for the reinstatement of the old Orthodox faith:
The schism of the Russian Church did not happen at once. The decisions of the
council were so outrageous and they contained so much folly that the Russian people
decided that they were the result of demonic deception. Many also thought that the
Greeks and the Westerners had deceived the Czar and that he would, sooner or later,
realize this and that he would return to the old ways and expel those who had
deceived him. As for the bishops who participated in the council, the people decided
that they were unsure about their faith and that fearing the Czar’s power, they were
willing to believe whatever the Czar told them. One of the supporters of
the new faith, the Archimandrite of Chudov Ioakim (who later became Patriarch of
Moscow), openly declared: “I know no new faith or old faith, and in all things I shall
do what my leaders tell me to do”.
During the first 15 years following the council numerous disputes took place
between the supporters of the old faith and those of the new faith, between the
advocates of the people’s ancient Church and the advocates of the Czar’s new Church.
1 The Modern Russian Orthodox Church in its council of 1971, in the presence of foreign
representatives, decreed that Nikon and his friend the Czar Alexei Mikhailovich had been wrong about
their reforms that led to the tragic schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. The council also declared
that the old rites were “pious and salvific” and that, therefore, the reforms of Nikon and Czar Alexei
Mikhailovich were illegal because they lacked canonical and historical legitimacy (“Journal of the
Moscow Patriarchate”, 1971, number 6, and the report of Metropolitan Nikodim in number 7 of the
The proponents of the old faith had hopes that eventually conflict could be overcome
and that the Czar would reconsider and return to the sacred old ways. The Archpriest
Avvakum wrote many letters to the Czar and called him to repentance. This priestchampion
used his inspiration and passion to try to convince the Czar that the old
Orthodoxy which had been accursed by the council did not have anything heretical:
“We uphold the true and authentic faith and we shed our blood for the Church of
Some begged the Czar to gather a public debate with the clerical authorities for all
to hear and see which faith was the true one, the old or the new one.
Czar Alexei Mikhailovich did not listen to these petitions. After his death, the
throne passed to his son Feodor Alexeevich. The defenders and confessors of the old
faith passionately appealed to the new Czar asking him to return to the faith of his
pious and holy ancestors. But this plea remained unanswered. To all the petitions of
the pastors of the Church, who only sought peace and unity in the Church, the
government answered with exiles and executions.
The Persecution of the Old Orthodox Christians:
The deportation and executions of Old Orthodox Christians began immediately after
the council finished its work. Famous champions of the old faith, such as the
Archpriest Avvakum, the priest Lazar, the Deacon Feodor or the monk Epifanii, were
deported to the far North and imprisoned into an earth pit in the Pustozersk region (of
the Arkhangelsk oblast). With the exception of Avvakum, they were all subjected to a
special punishment: they had their tongues and right hand cut-off to make it
impossible for them to either speak or write against their persecutors. They spent
more then fourteen years in a humid earth pit but none of them wavered in their belief
that the old faith was correct. The pious people believed that these were invincible
defenders of Christ, that they were wonderful passion-bearers and martyrs for the holy
faith. Pustozerks soon began to be considered as a holy site. The martyrs of
Pustozerks were eventually burned at the stake at the insistence of the new Patriarch
Ioakim. The execution took place on Good Friday, the day of the suffering of Christ,
on April 14, 1682. They were all lead to a square where a large pile of wood had
been prepared and they joyfully and courageously climbed upon it. The crowd took
off their hats and watched in silence as the fire was lit. The holy martyr Avvakum
then lifted his hand making the two-fingered sign of the cross and addressed the
crowed with the following words: “you shall pray with this sign of the cross and you
shall never perish”. After the martyrs were finally burned, the crowd rushed to the
fire to collect the holy bones to send them all across the Russian land as relics.
Tortures and executions were also taking place in other parts of Muscovy. Six years
before the execution of the Pustozersk prisoners, close to one hundred monks of the
famous Solovki monastery were also executed. This monastery had, as many others,
refused to accept the new books and continued to celebrate using the old ones. In the
course of several years, the monastics of the Solivki monastery had sent five petitions
to the Czar asking for only one thing: the right to continue to life by the old faith.
They wrote to the Czar: “we appeal to you with tears in our eyes, have mercy on us,
destitute orphans, and allow us to remain with the same faith as the one of your father,
of the pious Czars and Grand Dukes, of the holy fathers of the Solovki monastery
Zosima, Savvatii, German and Filip the Metropolitan, and all the holy fathers”. The
Solovki monks were convinced that the betrayal of the old faith was tantamount to a
betrayal of the Church and of God Himself and they therefore preferred to become
martyrs themselves rather than abandon the faith of their ancestors. The boldly
declared to the Czar: “we would prefer to suffer a momentary death rather than
eternally perish. We shall never abandon the Apostolic Tradition even if we are
burned, tortured or cut into pieces for this”.
In response to the petitions of the destitute monks, the Czar sent and armed group
against them to force them to accept the new books. The monks refused to let these
men inside, and they barricaded themselves inside the monastery’s strong walls. The
Czar’s soldiers laid siege to the monastery for eight years (from 1668 to 1676).
Finally, on the night of January 22, 1676, the soldiers broke into the monastery and a
horrible slaughter its inhabitants began. Over four hundred people were executed:
some were hanged, others were cut in pieces, and others drowned below the ice. The
monastery’s grounds were covered with the blood of the monks who died calmly
without pleading or asking for mercy. Only fourteen monks survived. The bodies of
the monastics were remained scattered for half a year until they were buried on the
orders of the Czar. The monastery was soon reoccupied with monks sent from
Moscow who had accepted the government’s faith and the nikonian books.
Shortly before the execution of the Solivki monks, two sisters of the noble family
Sokovnin, Lady Feodosia Prokopieva Morozova and Lady Evdokiia Prokopieva
Urusova were executed in the Borov prison (of the Kaluga oblast). From their early
days the two sisters had lived in honor and respect and they were often present at the
court of the Czar. But for the true faith they gave up the worldly glories and riches.
They were arrested and horribly tortured. Upon the Czar’s orders, they were deported
to the city of Borovsk were they were kept in a gloomy and humid underground cell
were they were subjected to hunger. Their forces gradually declined and on
September 11, 1675 Evdokiia died. Fifty-one days later, on November 2, 1675, her
sister died having just had the time to take the monastic vows under the name
Many confessors of the old faith were then executed. Some died flogged, others died
of hunger and others were burned.
The flight of the Church into the wilderness and the forests.
The situation of the Christians in the 17th century was in many ways similar to the
situation of Christians of the Roman Empire. During the Roman Empire Christians
were forced to hide in catacombs or in rural hiding places. During the Russian 17th
century Orthodox Christians had to hide into the Russian wilderness and into Russia's
forests to protect themselves from the persecutions of the government and the Church
Upon the insistence of the Patriarch of Moscow Ioakim, Princess Sofia issued 12
menacing decrees against the Old Believers. In these decrees the Old Believers were
called “thieves”, “schismatics”, “enemies of the Church”, and frightening
punishments were imposed upon them. If someone was to secretly keep the old faith
he was to be flogged and deported to remote locations. It was also decreed that
anyone rendering any support to the Old Believers, such as providing food or water,
was to be whipped and flogged. Those who would give shelter to Old Believers were
also to be whipped and deported. All the property of the Old Believers was to be
confiscated and given to the Grand Lords. Only a total forsaking of the old faith and a
slave-like submission to the authorities could save the persecuted Christians from
harsh punishments, personal ruin and death. All the Russian people were expected to
believe exactly as their new rulers told them. In the decree of Princess Sofia there
was even an article which said that if an Old Believer who had previously baptized
anybody already baptized in the new faith, he was to be “executed without any
mercy” even if he sincerely repented after confessing to his spiritual father and after
he received the Holy Sacraments.
The government ruthlessly persecuted the followers of the old faith: everywhere
scaffolds were erected and hundreds and thousands of people were burned; others had
their tongues cut-off, their ribs broken with pliers while others were quartered.
Prisons, monasteries and detention-pits were filled with martyrs for the old faith. The
clergy and the civil authorities were mercilessly exterminating their own brothers: the
Russian people. Nobody was shown any mercy: not only were men killed, but also
women and children. This great sufferer, the Russian Orthodox people, showed an
enormous amount of courage in truly horrifying times and even though some of them
were eventually broken by the tortures and persecutions and renounced their faith,
most of them went to their death boldly and decisively.
The vast majority of the persecuted Christians fled to the wilderness, to the forests,
and to the mountains where they arranged a refuge for themselves. But even there
they were found, their dwellings destroyed and they themselves brought to the clerical
authorities to be reprimanded and, should they not agree to renounce their beliefs, be
tortured and executed. Four years after the publication of the decrees of Princess
Sofia, Patriarch Ioakim decreed that it must be checked that “ the schismatics should
not remain in the districts and forests and, should they be found, they must be deported
and their dwellings destroyed, their belongings confiscated and the money sent to
In order to escape that persecutions and tortures, the Russian people began to burn
themselves. “There is not other solution than to escape through fire or water”. In
many places where the soldiers were expected special places, such as chapels,
churches or homes, were prepared with tree sap and wood for a rapid self-immolation.
As soon as the news of the imminent arrival of the soldiers broke, people could
gather there and tell the soldiers: “leave us alone or we will burn ourselves”.
Sometimes the soldiers left and no self-immolation took place. But in most cases, the
persecuted people perished. This is the degree of desperation to which the merciless
persecutions and tortures brought the believing Christians.
The Old Believers were persecuted for more than two hundred years. Sometimes,
these persecutions grew harder, and sometimes they weakened, but they never really
stopped altogether. The Czar Peter I proclaimed the principle of religious tolerance in
Russia, and many religious groups used it for their benefit including Roman-
Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. But only the Old Believers could not enjoy
freedom in their own country. During the reign of Peter, mass burnings did not take
place, but cases of burnings, or other forms of execution, still took place. The Czar
Peter did allow the Old Believers to live in cities, but he imposed a double tax upon
them. Bearded men were taxed for the beards, and priests were taxed simply for
performing their pastoral duties. Consequently, the Old Believers became a source of
revenue for the government and clergy. In the meanwhile, the Old Believers could
enjoy no civil rights. They were divided into two categories, the so-called
“registered” ones and the “not registered” ones. The first ones were registered and
they paid the double taxes while the second ones were not registered and they were
living in hiding. The latter ones were actively sought, and arrested and deported as
enemies of the Church and the State regardless of the fact that in reality these were the
most loyal sons of the nation.
The life of Orthodox Christians under this Czar was very difficult indeed and they
remained in the same situation with the successors of Peter. It was only during the
reign of Katherine II (1762-1796) that the Old Believers felt somewhat more freedom.
But already during the reign of Alexander I more decrees which limited the religious
freedom of the Old Believers were issued. During the reign of Czar Nicholas I (1895-
1855) the Old Believers were, once again, severely persecuted. It was only the events
surrounding the Revolution of 1905 which made it possible for the Old Believers to
openly organize in their own country religious ceremonies, ring their church bells, and
organize communities. Nonetheless, even up to 1917 the Old Believers could not be
freed from religious restrictions: their clergy was never recognized, the criminal code
still contained a provision banning the conversion of a new ritualist to the old rite, the
Old Believers could not openly advocate their faith, they were denied positions in the
administration and their teachers were banned from teaching in public schools.
The Church administration:
Because of the persecutions against it, the Orthodox Old Rite Church was unable to
function normally: services were often conducted not in churches but in forests or in
the wilderness, the Church had been deprived from its foremost leaders, the bishops,
but it was nonetheless capable of surviving and steering away from any heretical
The Russian Church never had a great number of bishops. Their number never
exceeded 15, and during Nikon's time it was even smaller. The bishop Pavel of
Kolomna took and open and courageous stand against Nikon's reforms and died a
martyr's death for this. The rest of the bishops, fearing the same consequences,
preferred to silently approve of the reforms. This is how the Holy Church found itself
without bishop with only priests and deacons.
According to the rules of the Church, priest must be subordinated to their bishops.
But the very same rules allow priests to oppose their bishops if the latter erred into
some misconception, openly advocate some heresy or create a schism. The Old
Believer's priests acted correctly when they refused to submit to Nikon and the other
bishops who had betrayed the old faith. These priests had the right to celebrate
without their bishops, the right to consecrate the Holy Sacraments and to guide their
flock. But they could not ordain successors for themselves, new priests, while they
themselves could not live on forever. What could they do? Where could they find
new priests? This is the issue with which the Old Believers had to struggle with soon
after the schism and they found the answer in the rules of the Church.
In the early days of the Christian Church such issues had to be struggled with and
there had been cases in which entire local churches had found themselves without a
bishop because all bishops had erred into heresy. Once they had joined the heretics,
these bishops continued to celebrate, to consecrate other bishops and ordain priests.
The Ecumenical Councils had decreed that such bishops and priests should, after their
repentance and renunciation of their errors, be received back into the Church as
priests and bishops (8th canon of the 1st Ecumenical Council). The Council also
decreed that envoys should be sent to heretical clergymen to attempt to convince them
to renounce the company of heretics and rejoin the Church of Christ (80th canon of the
Carthage Council). Guided by these canons, the Old Rite Church decided to accept
repenting clergymen ordained in the new rite Church with their ranks, as bishops and
priests. Such clergymen were called “runaway” by the government because they
literally had to run away and constantly hide to escape persecutions.
These priests performed all the rituals which they could for the Old Rite Church:
baptisms, chrismations, confessions, giving the Eucharist, marriages and last rites, the
burial of the deceased and so on. They could not sanctify the Holy Myrrhon (oil) as
this was of the sole competence of the bishops. The priests had large reserves of
Myrrhon which had been blessed by the pious Patriarch of Moscow Iosif: even
Myrrhon blessed by Patriarch Filaret still was kept. But these stocks were obviously
gradually being depleted and Myrrhon was therefore mixed with oil, which is also
allowed by Church canons.
Priests also cannot consecrate Churches in which there is no antimins (the antimins is
a piece of cloth in which some relics are placed and which is blessed by a bishop;
such an antimins is indispensable for the consecration of a church). But the Orthodox
Church had kept also antimins which had been blessed by pious bishops. It is upon
these antimins that the Old Rite priests consecrated new churches and celebrated the
Any difficult issue which had to be regularly decided upon by the Old Believers were
ruled upon in a conciliar manner by the voice of the entire Church. Such councils
were attended by the abbots of various monasteries, by monk-priests and parish
priests, respected monastics, representative laymen from various parishes who were
well versed in the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Canons. These councils united the
entire Church hierarchy, and they decided upon the administration of the Church,
ruled upon the seniority of clergymen, oversaw their pastoral activities and rendered
judgment upon any disagreements or misunderstandings. Such councils were
gathered in special spiritual centers which had emerged within the Old Rite Church.
The Spiritual Centers:
The places in which the spiritual forces of the Old Believers were concentrated and
where it was possible for them to live their spiritual lives were called “spiritual
centers”. These were principally monasteries and sketes (smaller monastic
Christians were often forced to flee Moscow and relocate to remote, often uninhabited
places. As soon as they settled in some place, monasteries and sketes were built and
began to function as the core of the Old Believers' spiritual lives. The Church was
administered from these places and priests were sent to the parishes. Holy myrrh,
appeals to the Christians, and treaties in defense of the Old Rite were sent from these
spiritual centers and it is also here that the main defenders of the old Faith were
educated. In certain places tens of such monasteries and sketes were founded,
inhabited by of hundreds of monastics. All of them were united under the guidance of
the largest and most authoritative monastery. The Old Believers had several such
spiritual centers. The most famous ones were: Kerzhenets, Starodub'e, Vetka, Irgiz
and the Rogozh cemetery in Moscow.
Kerzhenets: this is the name of a river flowing across the Semenev district of the
Nijni-Novgorod oblast and which eventually flows into the Volga river. This river
gave its name to the entire territory through which it flows. In the 17th century, it was
largely covered with a thick, almost impenetrable forest which offered a very good
refuge to Christians fleeing from their merciless persecutors. By the end of the 17th
century, over one hundred monastic communities, for men and women, already
dwelled in the Kerzhenets region. During the reign of Peter I, persecutions against
these communities began. The main persecutor of the Old Believers in the
Kerzhenets region and the Novgorod oblast was Archbishop Pitirim who endeavored
to turn the Czar against the Old Believers. Many Old Believers from the Kerzhenets
were then sent to forced labor, tortured and even executed. In Nijni-Novgorod, the
famous deacon Alexander, author of a famous book containing answers to questions
raised by Pitirim, was beheaded, his body burned (translator's note: body cremation is
against the Traditions of the Orthodox Church) and the ashes were thrown into the
Volga river. Following such persecutions, many Old Believers fled to the Perm
region, to Siberia, to Starodub'e, to Vetka and to other places.
Starodub'e: this is the name of the region around the Starodub city, which in the past
comprised several counties of the northern part of the Chernigov guberniia (or canton)
including Starodub'e, Novozybsk, Surozhsk). In modern times there are still many
cities and townships where numerous decedents of Old Believers live: Klintsy,
Sviatsk, Klimovo, Mit'kovka, Voronok, Luzhki, Novozybkov (they are currently all
part of the Briansk oblast). The natural environment and the benevolence of the local
authorities made it possible for the Old Believers to find a refuge here. Nonetheless,
the Czar's authorities did not leave the Old Believers in peace even here and when
persecutions started to take place their priests and the faithful had to flee further to
Vetka in Poland.
Vetka: the Old Believers found freedom in Poland where nobody persecuted them.
Old Believers from Starodub, but also from the rest of Russia, found refuge here.
Soon, about twenty monasteries, each with its own name, grew around the first
settlement. This entire region inhabited by the Old Believers became known by one
name: Vetka. For a long time, this became the most important spiritual center of the
Old Believers. The Czar's government took notice of this center of the Old Believers
but could do little about it since it was located outside Russia's borders. As soon as
the Polish kingdom weakened, the Russian government took action to destroy Vetka.
This happened in 1735 during the reign of Anna Ioannovna. Acting under order from
this Russian Czaritsa, the Russian armed forces surrounded the Vetka monasteries and
the Old Believers were all captured; none of them could flee. The monasteries,
sketes, houses and cells were thoroughly searched and all which was found was
confiscated. All buildings were burnt to the ground and fifteen thousand people, men,
woman and children, were arrested. Over one thousand monastics were also detained
and sent to numerous monasteries in Russia where they were kept under strict
supervision. The detained laypeople were relocated to various cities and townships
all over Russia. This destruction of Vetka has become known as “vygonka” which
can be translated as “eviction”. Soon after, new settlers appeared on the ash-covered
region and again new monasteries and sketes were erected. During the reign of
Catherine II, another such eviction of Vetka took place, and later a third one. But
Vetka resurrected each time.
Irgiz: this is a large affluent of the river Volga, which flows across the southeastern
half of the Saratov and Samara oblast. During the reign of Catherine II, many Old
Believers settled here and founded numerous monasteries and sketes which were
collectively known under the name Irgiz. The monasteries and their surrounding
villages were heavily populated by Old Believers who had been invited by Catherine.
During the terrible persecutions which had taken place in the past, many Old
Believers had left their country for Poland, Sweden, Romania, Turkey, Prussia, Japan
and even China. After her accession to the throne, Catherine issued a proclamation in
which she called upon the Old Believers to return to Russia promising them a
peaceful life. The Old Believers joyfully responded to this proclamation and returned
to Russia in very large quantities. The government offered to settle them in the region
of Irgiz and soon the Irgiz monasteries acquired an immense importance for the
spiritual life of the Old Believers. But during the reign of Nicholas I the Irgiz
monasteries were totally destructed.
The Rogozh cemetery in Moscow: this cemetary was founded during the reign of
Catherine II. In 1771 Moscow was suffering from a terrible plague and the Old
Believers were granted a special place beyond the Rogozh gatepost. An important
spiritual center grew here with cells, prayer-houses and churches. The first church
built was consecrated to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. Thereafter, a large
summer church of the Protection of the Mother of God was started. By its size, it
would have no equivalent in all of Moscow. The Old Believers were not given the
opportunity to finish it according to their plans. The Metropolitan Gabriel stated to
the Empress that the Old Believers were dangerous people and that they were trying
to use the construction of this church as an opportunity to undermine the state Church.
An investigation was launched into this issue and as a result of it, the church was
eventually built, but in a much-reduced size with only one cupola instead of the five
planned, the dimensions of the altars were much reduced and the height of the
building itself was lowered. When seen from the outside, the church now simply
looked like any other building. Inside, however, the church astounded by the beauty
of its frescoes and exceptionally ancient icons.
During the Napoleonic invasion, the French also reached the Rogozh cemetery, but
the Old Believers had had the time to leave the cemetery and to conceal its most
sacred objects. When Napoleon was expelled from Moscow, the capital was occupied
mainly by Don Cossacks who were largely Old Believers themselves. The famous
hero of the Patriotic War (translator's note: as the war against Napoleon and his
European allies is called in Russia) Platov, who was a Don Cossack, was also an Old
Believer, and he donated to the Rogozh cemetery his field church.
The Rogozh churches were often the victims of the hostility of the secular and Church
authorities. During the reign of Alexander I, all the Rogozh churches were closed, but
they were allowed to reopen soon thereafter. In 1854, the Saint Nicholas church was
taken away from the Old Believers and given to the “Edinovertsy” (translator's note:
the word “Edinovertsy” can be literally translated as “Same-believers” in reference to
individuals having the same confession of faith while keeping to a distinct church rite
– see below). Two years later, the altars were sealed in the church of the Protection of
the Mother of God. These seals were taken off only 49 years later, in 1905.
During its entire existence, the Rogozh cemetery was the leading spiritual center for
the Russian Old Rite Church. This has remained unchanged to this day.
Divisions among the Old Believers:
The reforms of Patriarch Nikon and the subsequent persecutions resulted in much
confusion and anguish in the minds of the pious people. Many Christians began to
think that the last times had come and that the end of the world would soon happen.
Other circumstances also favored this type of thinking. In 1754 the plague killed a
large amount of people in Russia and many cities were emptied from their inhabitants,
the survivors fled, there was nobody available to bury the dead and their corpses were
abandoned decaying in the open leaving a awful smell and spreading the infection
further. Some villages were thus totally wiped out, and their fields left abandoned.
The country was suffering from famine and the prices were rising very rapidly. To
make matters even worse, the temperature fell below freezing and thunderstorms and
hail hit the fields. The faithful were so shocked by these events that many among
them came to the conclusion that these were the signs of the beginning of the Last
Judgment Day of God. The faithful prayed at night, the children were weeping, some
were lying down into coffins expecting the imminent arrival of Christ. As the Holy
Scripture clearly states that before the end of the world the Antichrist must come,
some Christians began to think that Patriarch Nikon displayed the signs of being him.
This is what they thought: according to the Scripture, the Antichrist will be a terrible
persecutors of Christians and Nikon was such a persecutor; the Antichrist will be a
king and Nikon was given the title of “great sovereign”; the Antichrist will be
enthroned in Jerusalem, and Nikon build the Resurrection monastery which he called
the “New Jerusalem”. But when Nikon left the Patriarchal see and was subsequently
reduced to the rank of simple monk and become a powerless exile, it became clear to
all that he did not match the Scripture's description of the Antichrist.
The persecutions against the Old Believers did not end with Nikon, but they continued
and many continued to believe that the Last Times had come. Among the persecuted
Christians and new interpretation began to appear: the personality of the Antichrist
should be understood in a spiritual sense and no one individual called the Antichrist
will ever appear, but the kingdom of the Antichrist itself has already begun. This new
teaching about the Antichrist caused a deep division among the Old Believers. This
division could possibly have been overcome if the Old Believers had had the
possibility to freely meet and discuss these matters among themselves and seek a
common understanding of this issue. But they had to live in the wilderness and in the
forests, in great poverty and sorrows. They were therefore unable to prevent a
division to appear inside their Church.
Concurrently with the new teaching about the Antichrist, a new teaching about
priesthood also emerged. Some Old Believers began to teach that the institution of
priesthood could no longer exist and that it has disappeared forever: there are no more
real priests, and the remaining priests have all become servants of the Antichrist. This
is how the movement which was later called the “Bezpopovtsy” (or “priestless”
The priests which had been ordained before the reforms lived until the last decade of
the 17th century and thus, they remained alive after the Moscow council of 1667. All
the Old Believers recognized these priests and there were practically no priestless Old
Believers at that time. They appeared only after the death of the last pre-reform
ordained priests at the very end of the 17th century.
The Old Believers who rejected the newly ordained priests began to be called the
Priestless as they remained without any priests whatsoever. They created their own
communities having decided that not only could someone not accept the priests
ordained by the followers of Nikon, but that the baptisms of such priests had to be
rejected also. They decided that all those who would join them from ranks of the new
ritualists should therefore be re-baptized and this is the reason why these Priestless
Old Believers are also called the “rebaptisers”.
Having remained without priests, these Priestless Old Believers also were left without
the Sacraments of the Church: the Holy Communion, the Chrismation, marriage or the
consecration of oil. As for the two other remaining Sacraments, baptism and
confession, the Priestless Old Believers began to allow laypeople to administer them.
Laypeople also directed religious services. With time, a special type of lay dignitaries
appeared among these Old Believers who were elected by the communities and who
were tasked with pastoral duties such as the performance of baptisms and confessions
and religious services.
The issue of marriage was also a cause of division this time among the Priestless Old
Believers . Initially, these Old Believers had accepted the idea that there cannot be
any marriage at all as only priests can perform marriages and since, according to the
Priestless Old Believers, there were not more priests left. Their conclusion was that
all Christians should lead a life of celibacy. Besides, since the end of the world was
near, what would have been the point of marriage anyway? In 1694, a council of
Priestless Old Believers was gathered and decided marriage should be totally rejected.
The followers of this council became known as the marriageless. They are also called
the “Fedoseevtsy” as one of the main proponents of the rejection of marriage was one
Feodosii Vasiliev. The Fedoseevtsy founded the famous Transfiguration monastery
in Moscow at the same time as the Rogozh cemetery was created, in 1771.
However, a complete absence of marriage could not be fully acceptable to most
Priestless Old Believers as such a lifestyle is only adapted to a monastic community
among ascetics. As for those who remained living in the worldly communities, they
ended up living in unchastity. In reaction to this state of affairs, a segment of the
Priestless Old Believers then came to the conclusion that marriages could be
performed also by laymen. These Old Believers became known as “Priestless-
Marriers” and simple lay elders celebrated their marriages.
Another distinct faction of the Priestless Old Believers are the members so-called
“Repudiating Fellowship” (translator's note: their name in Russian “netovtsy” comes
from the word “net”, meaning, “no” and they form “soglasie” which can me
translated as “fellowship of one-minded people”). The Repudiators have no churches,
they do not celebrate the Hours or the Vespers. They have nothing equivalent and are
therefore called the Repudiators. They refer to themselves as “Spasovtsy” (from the
Russian word “spas” or Savior), because they place all their hopes in the Savior alone.
One distinct feature setting them aside from all other Priestless Old Believers is that
that do not re-baptize those who have been baptized in the New Rite churches but
accept their baptisms as valid.
In the life of the 18th century Priestless Old Believers a central role was played by the
Vygov wilderness as a cultural and spiritual center for the Priestless Old Believers, in
particular thanks to its very dynamic publishing activity. The Vygov wilderness was
created by the famous Denisov brothers, Andrei and Semen. This is also the place
were the famous “Pomorskie Otvety”, or “Pomorie-region Answers” were written,
which contained most of the fundamental doctrines of the Old Believers. During the
reign of Nicholas I, the Vygov wilderness was mercilessly destroyed.
A special religious group existed somewhere in between the Old Believers and the
new ritualists: the “Same-Believers”. The Same-Believing Church was subordinated
to the bishops of the official state Church, but celebrated its services according to the
old rites and, more generally, kept all the old practices. Christians belonging to this
Church were called Same-Believers because they shared the same confession of faith
as the members of the official Church. The Edinoverie movement was founded in the
late eighteen hundreds in Moscow. In 1799, a small group of Muscovite Old
Believers submitted a request to the Moscow Metropolitan Platon to be granted the
right to receive their own churches and priests from the new rite Church. They added
a number of conditions under which these priests would be given to them. First, they
demanded that the Synod of the official Church revoke all the anathema pronounced
against the old rites, and that their churches be consecrated according to the old rite
and that, likewise, their priests be allowed to celebrate only according to the old
books. These priests also had to be ordained solely according to the old rites. They
demanded that the bishops and priest bless their faithful with the two-fingered sign of
the cross. The also demanded that their clergy not be forced to participate in the
religious services of those who make the sign of the cross with three fingers.
Evidently, the petitioners wanted to create a new Church which would be distinct
from both the Old Believers and the new ritualist Church. This is also exactly how
Metropolitan Platon understood their plea. He agreed to their demands, but added
some conditions of his own: he decreed that no member of the new rite Church could
ever participate in the religious services of this new Church or Communion there,
unless his death was imminent. Metropolitan Platon was mistrustful of the members
of this new Church. He did not refer to them as schismatics, but neither did he
consider them fully orthodox, hence the new name “Same-Believers”. He also stated
that the new rite Church had not changed its view of the old books, that they were still
considered as flawed and that it therefore considered the Edinovertsy as not really
enlightened by God and that they will become truly enlightened only once they
accepted all new rites and books. This was the basis upon which the Edinoverie was
Only a small amount of Old-Believers joined the Edinovertsy and initially, its
beginnings were modest. The rest of the Old-Believers shunned them as victims of a
trap, while the new rite bishops looked at them with condescension. The Edinovertsy
were referred to in official publications as semi-schismatics or even simply as
schismatics. It was only during the reign of Nicholas I that the number of Edinovertsy
significantly increased due to the increasing number of forcefully confiscated
churches, chapels, monasteries, sketes, icons and other religious objects which were
given to the Edinovertsy.
The Edinovertsy always suffered from their peculiar status: they were neither Old
Believers nor new ritualists, they used the ancient texts, had their own priests
ordained for them by the official Church according to the old service books, and they
wanted to have their own bishops. During their entire existence, the Edinovertsy
repeatedly requested that they be granted their own bishops, but the Synod of the
official Church always turned down this request. Only in 1918 did the Church
council of Moscow finally agree to give the Edinovertsy their own bishops, but only
so called vicar-bishops who are assistants for the ruling new rite bishops. This is a
further proof that the new rite Church always considered the Edinovertsy with
suspicion as members of a distinct Church not fully united to the ruling Church.
The Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy:
The persecution of the Old Believers lasted about 200 years, sometimes weakening,
sometimes becoming stronger, in particular during the reign of Nicholas I. This is the
reason why the Old Believers thought that it was impossible to establish a diocese
within Russia, right under the ever-watchful eye of the authorities who were even
keeping a close control of officially authorized priests.
The Old Believers which accepted priests from the new rite Church were constantly
striving towards re-establishing a three tiered church hierarchy (translator's note: the
Orthodox Church has three constituent ranks: deacons, priests and bishops). Finally,
this dream came true on October 28th, 1846 when the Metropolitan of Bosnia-
Sarajevo Ambrose joined the Old Rite. This most important event of the history of
the Old Believers happened in the city of Beloia Krinitsa in Austria. This event
marked the end of the long quest of the Old Believers to obtain their own bishop who
would reoccupy the vacant episcopacy of the Old Rite Church.
The emergence of the Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy, and the personality of Metropolitan
Ambrose, were soon at the center of many allegations, calumnies and fabrications
which had at their origin both the official Church as well as certain Old Believers, in
particular the Priestless ones. Not all Old Believers accepted Metropolitan Ambrose
as opinions diverged on this matter. The Old Believers which accepted Metropolitan
Ambrose become known as those who had “accepted the Belokrinitskaya priesthood”
or as the “Austrian hierarchy”.
A lot has been written and said about Metropolitan Ambrose; the famous Russian
author Mel'nikov-Pecherskii, who worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the
department dealing with the issues of the Old Ritualists, dedicated a great deal of
research to the personality of Metropolitan Ambrose. Professor Subbotin, one of the
most distinguished specialists of the Raskol, as the 17th century schism became
known, wrote a special report about the modalities of the acceptance of Metropolitan
Ambrose into the Old Rite Church and about the personality of the Metropolitan. In
this report, Professor Subbotin acknowledges the personal and pastoral qualities of
Mel'nikov-Pecherskii wrote in his report to the Ministry that “all the information
about the personality of Ambrose, and about the way the schismatics have found him,
all the information contained in the Ministry's documents, published in journals and
books turns out to be totally false”. He added “that Ambrose is certainly not to a
mediocre personality, he is no idiot and no crook and he is not the apostate that some
Russian authors have described”. He concluded by saying “for these authors, if
somebody is a schismatic he is necessarily a villain”.
He who really studied the biography of Metropolitan Ambrose will objectively say
that he truly was the kind pastor who will sacrifice himself for his sheep. This was a
man of truly holy life, a faithful servant of God, a righteous confessor, and a kind
pastor and shepherd of the Church of Christ.
Ambrose, who was baptized with the name Andrei, was a Greek (according to some
authors, he was Bulgarian). He was born in 1791 in the small town of Maistra, five
kilometers away from the city of Enos which then was part of the Turkish Empire and
which is not part of Bulgaria. His father, Georgii Popovich was a priest in the Greek
Church. The Popoviches had been priests for twenty-one generations. Andrei's father
trained him for priesthood and since his early years and Andrei enrolled in a religious
school where he studied theology.
He married and was ordained in 1881. He only lived with his wife for three years,
because she died in 1814 leaving him a son, Georgii. Three years after the death of
his wife, Andrei became a monk with the name Ambrose. Matthew, one of the
Metropolitans of the Greek Church called Ambrose to him and Ambrose rapidly rose
in the ranks of the Church. Already in 1823 he was appointed as the Abbot of the
Trinity Monastery on the island of Khalki, one of the famous Prince Islands in the
northeastern part of the Sea of Marmara. At the time Konstantine was the Patriarch of
Constantinople. Historians speak of him as a “pious person with spiritual and earthly
wisdom” who “shone on the Patriarchal See as the sun in the daylight”. Konstantine
noticed the abbot of the Trinity monastery and he called him to the Patriarchate and
appointed him to the position of “protosingel” (special Patriarchal representative) of
the Church of Constantinople. Professor Subbotin wrote “here he clearly was
entering the path towards the episcopal consecration” and, indeed, he soon was
chosen as the successor of the Bosnia-Sarajevo Metropolitan Benjamin who died in
1835. In his appointment decree, the Holy Synod wrote that “he was chosen over all
the other possible candidates because he was found as the most worthy of taking over
the archbishopric authority and pastoral staff of the holy Metropolia of Bosnia”.
Patriarch Grigorii and four other bishops ordained Ambrose Metropolitan.
Having received his appointment decree on September 9th, 1835, Metropolitan
Ambrose traveled to the capital of his diocese Bosnia-Sarajevo which was under the
control of the Turks. This new appointment brought many temptations and suffering
to Ambrose. Bosnia was under the control of the Turks and they mercilessly
plundered and tormented the defenseless Slavic people. Usually, the Greek bishops
were cooperating with the Turkish authorities and also oppressing the people.
However, Professor Subbotin writes that “Ambrose was an exception among the
Bosnian bishops of the Constantinople Patriarchate. As a naturally kind person, he
could not look with indifference upon the suffering of the people with whom he sided
and whose plight he did the best to improve. This was such a unique phenomenon
that the local people could not bring themselves to accept the thought that Ambrose
was a Greek bishop because his stance was so radically different of what they had
seen in the past. The rumor then originated that he was in reality of Slavic extraction
and, specifically, a Bulgarian. These are the wonderful words which have been
written about Ambrose in a Bosnian chronicle: “This bishop was a holy person
compassionate with the poor. He was of Bulgarian extraction, totally selfless, and he
only cared about peace and justice for the people” (Subbotin, N.I., History of the
Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy, Moscow 1874, p 365).
Such a Metropolitan was not appreciated by the Turkish authorities who demanded
his removal from Sarajevo. The Patriarch Anfim II, fearing for his see, agreed to
recall Ambrose to Constantinople on September 12, 1840. The Turkish bullying
tactics had proved effective. Ambrose had to leave his flock with sorrow and with
tears in his eyes. The Russian representative in Constantinople asked the Patriarch
why Ambrose had to be recalled. The Patriarch answered that he had to agree to the
demands of the Turks who “had made many unjust accusations against
Ambrose”. Upon his return to Constantinople, Metropolitan Ambrose joined the
ranks of other bishops who did not have a diocese and who received a “decent
income” from the Patriarch.
While the Slavic people of Bosnia were suffering from the persecutions of the Turkish
yoke, the Russian people were suffering under the oppression of their own
government. Emperor Nicholas I was enthroned in 1825. He issued a number of
decrees which aimed at the total elimination of the Old Believers from Russia: their
religious services were banned, their churches and monasteries either confiscated or
destroyed and their civil rights revoked. Their situation was worse than the one of
Slavs under the Turks. The clergy of the Old Believers was persecuted with particular
harshness: they were hunted down all over Russia, then arrested, jailed, exiled or
otherwise repressed. The Old Believers did not have any bishops for many years
already and the authorities were using all their means to eliminate their priests. But,
thanks to God's intervention, this did not happen.
Driven by their concern to have a three tiered hierarchy, the Old Believers decided to
create a diocese outside Russia. This decision was debated in all the main spiritual
centers of the Old Believers and in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Irgiz, Kerzhenets, in
the cities along the Volga river, in Starodub, Vetka, and in the numerous Old Rite
monasteries and sketes. The fervent hope to establish a diocese in exile united all the
Old Believers. In Moscow, a large council was convened which took the decision to
establish such a diocese in exile.
Two monks, Pavel and Alimpii, were sent abroad were they achieved great honor by
their feats at the service of the Old Rite Church. They traveled to Austria where the
Old Believers lived freely and were even enjoying some privileges. There, in the
Bukovina region, they stayed at the Belokrinitsa monastery (thus called because it
was located right next to the Belokrinitsa village). Pavel and Alimpii, acting on
behalf of this monastery, requested the authorization of the authorities for the
Austrian Old Believers to have their own bishop. They had to wait a long time, but
their demand was finally granted.
Having received the right to establish a diocese for their monastery, Pavel and Alimpii
traveled to the East to establish whether a pious bishop still could be found and,
should that be the case, to convert to the Old Rite several Orthodox bishops, or at
the very least one. To be deemed acceptable, prospective candidates must have been
baptized by triple complete immersion and have apostolic succession. The
representatives of the Russian Old Believers traveled throughout the entire East:
Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople and other places.
Everywhere they sought a bishop who would have kept the old piety, but could find
none. They also observed the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in particular the Greek one
from which Russia had received the Orthodox faith. They carefully studied its
religious services and customs and, in particular, the behavior and life of its clergy.
They observed that everywhere the Greeks considered the baptism by aspersion as a
heresy and that they re-baptized the Roman Catholics who wished to join the
Orthodox Church. The Old Believers also appreciated the Greek clergy whose
simplicity, devotion and beautiful services which they perceived as closer to the spirit
of the Old Rite. In their contacts with the Greeks and, more generally, during their
travels, Pavel and Alimpii were greatly assisted by a Nekrasov Old Rite Cossack
named Osip Semenovich Goncharov. Goncharov was fluent in the Turkish language
and was well connected in Constantinople and other Turkish cities.
While visiting Constantinople, the Old Believer monks met Metropolitan Ambrose.
They discussed many subjects with him, including theology, ecclesiastical issues and,
most importantly, the situation of the Old Believers and their needs. Metropolitan
Ambrose listened to them with great attention, and the Grace of God reached his
heart. He understood that the Old Believers suffered innocently in Russia. The
monks Pavel and Alimpii began to convince him to join the Orthodox Old Rite
Church. They outlined for Ambrose all the fundamentals of the Old Rite, its history,
customs and rituals. They did not conceal from him the fact that, should he decide to
join them, he would have to accept to perform the ritual of condemnation of heresies.
Neither did they conceal from him the fact that his future path would be difficult and
sorrowful. Ambrose received their plea as the voice of God calling him to spiritual
feats and salvation.
The monk Pavel later said about Ambrose, “he listened to the calling from above
rather than to our voices, he decided to abandon everything, including his own
fatherland, and he was filled with the strong resolve to follow the narrow and
sorrowful path shown by Christ the Savior”. While they were having discussions
with Ambrose, the Old Believers also scrutinized his services. He often participated
in solemn patriarchal services and he even took part in the consecration of a bishop.
Metropolitan Ambrose, who entrusted himself to the Will of God, departed for
Austria with the two envoys of the Old Believers. This happened during the end of
the month of May 1846. On June 11, they were presented to the Austrian Emperor.
In the petition he submitted to the Emperor Metropolitan Ambrose wrote that he had
decided to join the Old Believers because he: “completely convinced himself that all
the dogmas and rites of the Greek Church had remained in their original purity only
with the Old Believers. I have decided to accept the election of the Old Believer's
community to the highest pastoral function because I clearly see the Providence of
God which choose me for this mission: to lead the Old Believers, who number up to
three million people in Austria and the neighboring states, and who had so far been
deprived of bishops, on the path of eternal blessedness. I am therefore sincerely and
readily willing to lovingly and piously sacrifice all my forces and life for the well
being of this community”.
On October 28th, 1846, Metropolitan Ambrose was solemnly united to the Old
Believers' Church. The minutes of the council which received Ambrose into the Old
Believer's Church read: “Metropolitan Ambrose stood in front of the Royal Doors
and, speaking in Russian (he knew the Slavonic language), began to condemn all
heresies. Having condemned all heresies, he accepted the Hieromonk (priest-monk)
Ieronim as his spiritual father, having already confessed to him in the Holy Altar, and
did everything else as is prescribed in the second rite” (translator's note: this refers to
the second rite of acceptance into the Orthodox Church). Thus, the Belokrinitsa
Hierarchy was established.
The Old Believers Church was exhilarated, and everywhere prayers were said with
tears and fervor in response to this important event. The joy of the Old Believers was,
however, shaken by another blow. The Russian Czar Nicholas I upon learning of the
events, demanded that the Austrian Emperor ban Metropolitan Ambrose from serving
and that he close the Belokrinitsa monastery; should these demands not be accepted,
he threatened to go to war. In December 1847, Metropolitan Ambrose was suddenly
summoned to Austria's capital Vienna where the authorities gave him the choice of
either accepting to go into exile forever, or to return to the Patriarchate of
Constantinople. He was also given a letter from the Patriarch who called upon him to
return to the Greek Church and promised him a magnanimous treatment and
patronage. Metropolitan Ambrose categorically refused this offer, remained true to
the Old Believers Church and was exiled to the German town of Tsilli.
While remaining away from his flock, Metropolitan Ambrose did not loose the
spiritual link to it. Even though he had been unjustly condemned, mistreated and
humiliated, he bore his suffering with patience without complaining or becoming
angry. He accepted the will of God and carried his pastoral cross until his death. He
often wrote letters to Belokrinitsa. He rejoiced when all was “peaceful and well” with
the Old Believers and he was sorrowful when disputes or disturbances took place. In
each letter he sent he offered his flock his “pastoral forgiveness, peace and blessing”.
He reminded his correspondents that “he was separated from them because of the hate
of enemies but that he remains spiritually united to them” and sent some object as a
sign of his unity: “I am sending you my ecclesiastic robe and my staff to my
successors, beginning with Kirill and others, as a visible sign of my blessing and
eternal remembrance. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus-Christ and the love of God
the Father and the Communion of the Holy Spirit remain with you. Amen”. Rarely, a
clergyman succeeded reaching the Metropolitan's place of exile. Then deeply moving
scenes took place: the Metropolitan would cry with joy like a child, and the visitors
would do likewise. Each such visit gave new strength to the Metropolitan, he would
become more energetic, stronger and more peaceful. His last visitors came during his
severe disease were two representatives of a council of Old Believers: bishop Iustin
and the Hierodeacon (deacon-monk) Ippolit. They left Tsilli on October 18th, 1863. On
October 30th, God recalled the righteous and long-suffering soul of Metropolitan
Ambrose. Before his repose, he received the Holy Communion. His body was buried
in the city of Trieste and Metropolitan Kirill celebrated his funeral in the Belokrinitsa
The union of Metropolitan Ambrose to the Old Believers Church was a major
celebration for the Church of Christ. The Russian authorities did everything in their
power to destroy the Belokrinitsa Hierarchy. They did not confine themselves
persecutions but also used rumors, inventions, and calumnies directed against the Old
Believer clergy and against Metropolitan Ambrose. The enemies of the Old Believers
said that Metropolitan Ambrose had been baptized by aspersion, that he was banned
from serving and that he had joined the Old Believers for money. The defenders of
the Old Believers Church did not have the possibility to refute in a timely manner
such ugly calumnies as it was strictly forbidden to print anything in defense of the Old
Believers. The Old Believers were also prohibited from meeting together to discuss
urgent church or public matters, to clarify any misunderstandings or doubts.
Therefore, no matter how obviously far-fetched these rumors were, they did have
some impact and certain credulous people believed them and a number of Old
Believers parishes did not accept the Belokrinitsa Hierarchy. The parishes continued
to accept clergymen who had left the new rite Church. These Old Believers which did
not accept Metropolitan Ambrose began to be known by the name “Beglopopovtsy”
or “fleeing-priests”. In the past, many of them had traveled to the East in the
motherland of Metropolitan Ambrose, they had seen how the Greeks baptize and they
had obtained references about Metropolitan Ambrose at the chancellery of the
Patriarchate in Constantinople. These travels and the information obtained convinced
them that Ambrose had been baptized by triple immersion, that he had never been
banned from serving and that he had joined to Old Believers only because of his deep
belief that they were right.
Nowadays, the former Beglopopovtsy have their own distinct three-tiered hierarchy
with its spiritual center in Novozybka. This hierarchy has its origin in the Archbishop
of Saratov and Petrov Nikola (Pozdnev) who in 1923 left the new rite schismatic
group called the “renovators”. The other bishops of the former Beglopopovtsy
received their episcopacy from Archbishop Nikola. Currently, the head of this
Church is Archbishop Gennadii of Novozybka, Moscow and all of Russia.
Another dispute arose in the Church of Christ. Having lived for a long time without
any pastoral supervision, among the priestless Old Believers and influenced by them,
numerous Old Believers erred in their understanding of the dogma of the Church.
Having noticed such deviances among themselves, a number of Old Rite bishops
issued in 1862 a special document condemning such false teachings. This document
was written by an Old Believer author of great knowledge and intelligence called
Ilarion Georgievich Kabanov (Ksenos). The Old Believers which advocated the
aforementioned deviances revolted against this document and created a controversy.
They were called the “Neokruzhniki” because they rejected this document. Sadly, a
number of bishops joined them. Presently, this dispute has lost its relevance because
there are no more clergymen or churches left with the Neokruzhniki.
The Belokrinitsa Hierarchy in Russia:
Metropolitan Ambrose appointed several successors: Metropolitan Kirill and other
several other bishops in Austria; Metropolitan Kirill consecrated Archbishop Antonii
(Shutov) for the city of Moscow. Thus the Moscow Archbishopric Diocese was
established in 1853. By his unrelenting work, intelligence, education and kind nature,
Archbishop Antonii was truly a remarkable pastor. He remained at the head of the
Moscow Archbishopric Diocese for almost 29 years and he reposed on November 8th,
1881. He was succeeded by Archbishop Savvatii of Tobol'sk whom himself died on
September 8th, 1898 and was succeeded by Ioann (Kartushin), bishop of Don who was
greatly respected by the Old Believers for his intelligence and ascetic life. He
reposed on April 24th, 1915. He was succeeded by Archbishop Meletii and, later, by
Archbishop Vikentii of the Caucasus. From 1941 to 1952 the Old Believers Church
was headed by Archbishop Irinarkh (Parfenov). He died on February 23rd (March,
7th) 1952. In the same year, he was succeeded by Archbishop Flavian (Slesarev), who
died on December 12th (25th), 1960. His successor was Archbishop Iosif (Morzhakov)
who headed the Old Believers Church until 1970. After his death, he was succeeded
by Archbishop Nikodim (Latyshev). He died on January 29th (April 11th), 1986.
Bishop Anastasii (Kononov) became the deputy to the Archbishop of Moscow and all
of Russia. After the death of Anastasii on March 29th (April 9th), Archbishop Alimpii
was elected to head the Moscow Archbishopric Diocese. In 1988, a council dedicated
to the 1000-years of the Baptism of Russia took place in Moscow. It was decided at
this council to inaugurate a Metropolia of Moscow and Archbishop Alimpii was
chosen to become the Metropolitan of Moscow. The second Metropolitan was Andrian. Currently it is Metropolitan Kornilli who currently heads the Old Believers
Church of Russia.
The most famous bishops of the Old Rite Church were:
1.Arsenii (Shevtsov) bishop of the Urals and Orenburg. He was a famous author and
apologist. He died on September 10th, 1908.
2.Mikhail (Semenov) of Canada. A former professor of the Saint Petersburg
Theological Academy who left the new rite Church and joined the Old Rite. He
was a very talented author and a famous preacher. He died in 1916.
3.Gerontii (Lakomkin) of Kostroma and Iaroslavsk. A distinguished preacher and
Church activist. He died on July 7th, 1951.
From the first days of the Great Patriotic War (translator's note: this is how the
Second World War is often referred to in Russia) the hierarchs of the Old Believers
Church appealed to their faithful to raise up united in defense of the Russian
motherland. Such appeals of Old Believer bishop were issued several times during
the war, they were read from the ambon of churches and they were disseminated in
thousands of copies. Funds were collected within Old Rite parishes and by
individuals and donated to the fund for the defense of the motherland.
Nowadays, the Metropolitan of Moscow and Russia Kornilli in his sermons regularly calls upon the Old Believers to preserve the Traditions and
dogmas of the Church, to relentlessly witness to the truth of the Old Rite and to a true
and sincere patriotism.
Because of the cruel repressions of the Czar's government and due to the struggle
against religion and forceful collectivization which took place in the 1920s and 1930s,
many Old Believers fled abroad. Their descendants now live in Australia, Canada,
the USA, Argentina, Brazil and other countries. An especially large number of Old
Believers live in Romania where a Old Rite Metropolia was established and which is
currently headed by Metropolitan Lionti.