Russian Orthodox Church

, a well-known Russian Orthodox church situated in
Saint Basil's Cathedral, a well-known Russian Orthodox church situated in Moscow

The Russian Orthodox Church (Русская Православная церковь) is that body of Christians who are united under the Patriarch of Moscow, who in turn is in communion with the other patriarchs and primates of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this way Russian Orthodox believers are in communion with all other Eastern Orthodox believers.



The Russian Orthodox Church traces its roots to the Baptism of Kiev in 988, when Prince Vladimir I officially adopted the religion of the Byzantine Empire as the state religion of the Rus' state. Thus, in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its millennial anniversary. It therefore traces its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The Church was originally a subsidiary of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Byzantine patriarch appointed the metropolitan who governed the Church of Rus'. The Metropolitan moved from the Rus' capital of Kiev to Suzdal, then to Vladimir, then to Moscow in 1326 following Kiev's devastation by the Mongols.

In 1439 at the Council of Florence, a meeting of the Catholic and Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification of the two branches of Christianity. The Russian people, however, rejected the concessions to the Catholics and Metropolitan Isidore was expelled from his position. The Russian Church remains independent from the Vatican.

In 1448, the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus'. This was just five years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

In 1589, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus'; making the Russian Church autocephalous. The other Eastern patriarchs recognized the Moscow patriarchate as fifth in honor.

In 1652, Patriarch Nikon attempted to centralize power that had been distributed locally while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church. For instance he insisted that Russians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the traditional two. This aroused great antipathy among a large section of the population who saw the changed rites both as heresy and as a pretext for Nikon's usurpation of power. This group became known as the Old Believers and they reject the teachings of the new Patriarch. Tsar Aleksey (who was simultaneously centralizing political power) upheld Nikon's changes, however, and the Old Believers were persecuted until the reign of Peter the Great who agreed to let them practice their distinct flavour of Orthodoxy.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced phenomenal growth. In the 1686, the Metropolia of Kiev was transferred from Constantinople to Moscow bringing millions more faithful and a half dozen dioceses under the general control of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. In the following two centuries, missionary efforts stretched out across Siberia into Alaska, then into the United States at California. Eminent people on that missionary effort included Innocent of Irkutsk, Herman of Alaska, Innocent of Siberia and Alaska. They learned local languages and translated the gospels and the hymns. Sometimes those translations required the invention of a new system of transcription.

In 1700 following Patriarch Adrian's death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named, and in 1721 he established the Holy and Supreme Synod to govern the church instead of a single primate (see Caesaropapism). This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, at which time the bishops elected a new patriarch, Patriarch Tikhon. In 1914 there were in Russia 55 173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29 593 chapels, 112 629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 nunneries with a total of 95 259 inmates.

During most of the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church had to coexist with deeply atheist government of Soviet Union. Although freedom of religious expression was formally declared by one of the first decrees of revolutionary government in January 1918, both the Church and its followers were deeply disadvantaged and sometimes persecuted. Prior to the Russian Revolution, there were some 54,000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. During the 1920-30s, most churches were razed or converted into secular buildings; over 50 thousand priests were either executed or sent to labor camps ( many of these suffered as part of the Great Purge of 1936-37 ). By 1939, there were less than 100 functioning parishes and only four bishops. During World War II, the religious persecution in Soviet Union became less pronounced. Years 1944-45 saw the reopening of several seminaries that were closed in 1918. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, relations between the Church and the state started to deteriorate again. Until Perestroika, public expression of religious beliefs - christian or otherwise - was frowned upon; known churchgoers would be unlikely to become members of the Communist Party, which, in turn, severely limited their career opportunities. All Soviet university students were required to take courses in "Scientific Atheism". Finally, well into 1970-80's many priests of Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other churches in Soviet Union, were secretly employed by the KGB. At the same time, large number of people remained overtly or covertly religious. In 1987 in Russian Federation between 40% and 50% of newborn babies (depending on the region) were baptized and over 60% of all deceased received Christian funeral services.

A pivotal point in the history of Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennial anniversary of Baptism of Kievan Rus'. It appears now that the government had realized fruitlessness of its efforts in war against religion and, instead of that, tried to use religion to gain support of people. Throughout the summer of 1988, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban of religious propaganda on state TV ( or, indeed, of any portrayal of religion that wouldn't be critical or mocking ) was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could use their TVs to see live transmissions of services from central churches.

Modern condition

Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Over 90% of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. The number of people regularly attending church services is considerably lower, but growing every year. The Church has over 23000 parishes, 154 bishops, 635 monasteries, 102 clerical schools, primarily in the territory of former Soviet Union ( however, there is also a small number of parishes in other countries ). Prior to the revolution of 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church was the largest landowner in Russia, owning over 12 million acres (49,000 km²); much of that land was officially returned to the Church by 2004. All this wealth raises some concerns about corruption - for example, it is known that Patriarch Alexius II, prohibited by his status to own any property, commutes in an armored Mercedes-Benz, estimated to cost over $500,000.

 and Alexius II
Vladimir Putin and Alexius II

Since 2002 there is considerable friction between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, when Patriarch Alexius II condemned the Vatican's creation of a Catholic diocesean structure for Russian territory. This is seen by the leadership of the Russian church as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is but one of many equal Christian churches, and that as such, it is straying into the territory "belonging" to another co-equal church. The Catholic Church on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believes that the small Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the 18th century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy.

The issue of enroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to some in the Russian Orthodox Church, since the church has only recently come out from under considerable persecution during the regime of the Soviet Union. Those holding this point of view in the Russian Orthodox Church, see the proselytizing by Catholic and Protestant denominations as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church, having just come out of 70 years of Communist oppression. On the other hand, smaller religious movements ( particularly, baptists and members of other Protestant denominations, brought into Russia by western missionaries in the past decade ) perceive that the state provides unfair support to one religion and suppresses others. Indeed, under the 1997 Russian law, those religious organizations that couldn't provide official proof of their existence for the preceding 15 years were significantly restricted in their rights and abilities to proselytize. The law was formally intended to combat the destructive cults. Nevertheless, it was worded in such a manner that any organisation, no matter how ancient, that couldn't document its presence in the Soviet Union before the fall of Communism, was automatically considered a destructive cult. Consequently, this law gave full rights only to a small number of "first-rank" religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The situation is expected to normalise as the 15-year window starts to slide over the post-Communist period.

There is also, due to its deep cultural roots, something of a favoritism towards the Church from the Russian government. It is common for the President of Russia to publicly meet with the Patriarch on the church holidays such as Easter. Meetings with the representatives of Islam and Buddhism happen much less frequently. Protestant denominations don't enjoy any recognition from the government at all.

The Russian Orthodox Church should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), which was founded by Russian communities outside of Russia, which refused to recognize the authority of the then-Communist-dominated Russian church.

Russian orthodoxy has had a history in China as well.

Russian Orthodox churches

Russian Orthodox churches differ in design from most western-type churches. First, their interiors are very highly decorated, with frescos of many kinds covering every square centimetre of the interior. Some of these are of saints, others of more commonplace scenes. One particularly striking feature of many Russian churches is that the interior reaches all the way up into the dome or domes of the church (most Orthodox churches have the shape of domes). On the ceiling of many churches (inside the main dome in a domed church), an icon of Christ as Pantokrator (Ruler of All) is almost always there. Pantokrator icons emphasize Christ's humanity and divinity simultaneously, signifying that Christ is a man and yet is also God without beginning or end.

There are no pews. Most churches are lit with candles rather than electric light. This means that in many places the frescos and so on still suffer from the ill effects of smoke. Virtually all churches have many votive candle stands in front of the icons. It is customary for worshippers to purchase candles in church stores, light them up and place them on the stands ( this ritual signifies asking the saint for a favor or commemorating a dead friend or relative ).

Missing image
Closeup of some of the domes atop Saint Basil's Cathedral

All Russian Orthodox churches have an iconostasis which separates the main body of the church from the altar. Covered with icons, it is intended to stop physical sight, but to allow the spiritual sight of the worshippers through.

The colours of the domes of a Russian Orthodox church having meaning, as follows:

  • Black - submission. Black domes are found in monasteries.
  • Green - the Holy Trinity.
  • Blue - the Spirit of God.
  • Gold - Jesus. Gold domes on top of tall drum-like towers also intentionally look like candles from a distance.

Silver domes are also found, but these simply indicate that the dome is modern, and has not been painted.

The number of domes also has meaning:

  • One on its own indicates Jesus.
  • Three indicates the Holy Trinity.
  • Five indicates Jesus and the Four Evangelists.

The crosses on top of the domes have a crescent shape with the horns upturned as part of their base. This is actually an anchor, indicating that the church is a ship of faith in the sea of vanity.

Gold is God's colour. When used as the background of an icon it is not flat, but is instead intended to be of infinite depth. Icons are drawn in a flat, non-perspective style. This is intentional, not just a reflection on the skills of the icon painters. The flat style of the painting allows the icon to be viewed equally by all, regardless of position.

Some churches were funded by merchants. These often have large crypts, which were intended to serve as warehouses for those merchants.

Many churches, such as Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, are not symmetric structures. This is also intentional, and is based on the belief that symmetry is the enemy of beauty. (This interesting idea finds parallels in the modern analog to the cathedral at Fermilab where a sculpture depicting the physical principle of broken symmetry is at the entrance. [1] (

See also

External link

nl:Russisch-orthodoxe Kerk ja:ロシア正教会 no:Den russisk-ortodokse kirke ro:Biserica ortodoxă rusă ru:Русская Православная Церковь


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