Note: There are many different ways of transcribing Russian words and names into the Western alphabet. For example:
Alexei may be spelt Alexey, Alexi, Alexii, Alexios, Alexius, Alexy, Alexiy, Akexis, Aleksey, Aleksi.
Sergey may be spelt Sergei, Serge, Sergios, Sergius, Serguei, Sergii
I have not myself settled on any given principle and in what follows transcriptions will vary according to the different sources I am using.


The centenary of the Bolshevik revolution is also the centenary of the institution of the Moscow patriarchate. The Bolshevik seizure of power took place on October 25th (November 7th) 1917 (1)  and the church council that was meeting in Moscow at the time voted to ‘restore’ the patriarchate two days later on October 27th (November 9th), the day the Kremlin fell to the Bolshevik forces. The actual choice of patriarch took place on November 4th (17th). The choice fell on Tikhon (Belavin) (2), Metropolitan of Moscow. Actually Tikhon had only recently become Metropolitan of Moscow earlier in the year when, in the mood of the February (March) Revolution, Makary, Metropolitan of Moscow and Pitrim, Metropolitan of Petrograd (3) – both appointed by the Tsar under the influence of Grigoriy Rasputin – were deposed by ‘diocesan assemblies’ of local clergy and laity.

(1)  I am trying to observe the convention by which both Julian and Gregorian calendar dates are given until 14th February 1918, when the new government formally adopted the Gregorian calendar.

(2)  I am trying to observe the convention by which the family names of monastics are put in brackets. Monastics in principle have rejected their family connections. In the Orthodox Church all the Bishops are chosen from among those priests who have taken monastic vows.

(3)  St Petersburg became ‘Petrograd’ during the war for much the same reason that the Saxe-Coburg family became the Windsors.


A patriarchate of Moscow had been instituted in 1589, under the Tsar Theodore, son of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’). As the institution of the patriarchate in 1917 was immediately followed by the long battle with the Soviet government, a period of intense persecution, so the institution of the patriarchate in 1589 was soon followed by the ‘time of troubles’ – the Polish and Swedish invasions of the early seventeenth century which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Romanov dynasty.

The period of the seventeenth century patriarchate, even after the Polish invasion, was turbulent, marked by the violent schism with the ‘Old Believers’ or ‘Old Ritualists’ and by the claims of some of the patriarchs, notably Filaret (1619-1933), Nikon (1652-1658, but only replaced in 1667) and Adrian (1690-1700) to a form of co-sovereignty with the Tsar. (4) Indeed something of the kind may be implicit in the title ‘patriarch’. On the one hand it suggests that the Church is independent of any other patriarchates – most particularly the Patriarchate of Constantinople with its claim to be the ‘ecumenical’ (by implication universal) patriarchate. Russia, or Rus’, centred at the time in Kiev, was received into Orthodoxy under the aegis of Constantinople in 988 but it had been de facto if not de jure independent since Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

(4)  Filaret’s claim was especially strong since he was actually the father of the first Romanov Tsar, Mikhail. He had been forcibly tonsured and imprisoned in a monastery under Boris Godunov. According to the Wikipedia account: ‘From 1619 to 1633 there were two actual sovereigns, Tsar Michael and his father, the most holy Patriarch Filaret. Theoretically they were co-regents but Filaret frequently transacted affairs of state without consulting the tsar … His most important domestic measure was the chaining of the peasantry to the soil, a measure directed against the ever-increasing migration of the down-trodden serfs to the steppes, where they became freebooters instead of taxpayers.’

Patriarch Nikon with monks of the New Jerusalem Monastery, which he founded. I don’t have a source for this painting (apparently a collage).

The other role of the patriarch was to preside as a single sovereign over the Church in a given national territory but this was a role that could also be claimed by the Tsar as previously, in the case of Constantinople, it was the prerogative of the Emperor.

The patriarchate was suppressed by Peter I (‘the Great’). Initially, when Adrian, the last of the seventeenth century patriarchs, died in 1700, Peter simply declined to make the necessary arrangements for replacing him. He had only recently returned from his tour of the Netherlands and England and had been particularly impressed by conversations with Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury and one of the leading theorists of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the Dutch William III. Peter would undoubtedly have seen parallels between the religious turbulence of England and of Russia in the seventeenth century, drawing the conclusion that the Church should not be allowed to act as a power independent of the state.

In the absence of a patriarch, Peter launched a series of measures designed to break the spirit of the Bishops. For example in 1718, following the defection of his son and heir, Alexei, to Vienna ‘All the bishops with whom Alexei had communicated in any way were brought to Petersburg. Submitted to violent torture they confessed having formed a plot to restore the old traditions in Russia upon Peter’s death. The Metropolitan of Rostov was broken on the wheel, the Metropolitan of Kiev died while being transported to Petersburg in chains, and several bishops were exiled in chains to distant monasteries.’ (5)

(5)  Dmitry Pospielovsky: The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, p.110.

Finally, in 1721, Peter instituted a ‘Spiritual Regulation’ drawn up by Feofan (or Theophan) (Prokopovich), a professor in the Kiev Academy. The Kiev Academy in the seventeenth century was on the fault line between the Catholic world and the Orthodox world. On the one hand it held the line for Orthodoxy against the ‘Uniate’ tendency (churches which practised the same rites as the Orthodox churches but acknowledged the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the Pope); but on the other it adopted a very western-influenced scholastic theology, taught in Latin. Feofan himself had studied in Catholic colleges and in Rome but had turned violently anti-papist, and, by extension, strongly opposed clerical power within the Orthodox Church. According to George Florovsky: ‘Theophan wasn’t close to Protestant theology, he was totally part of it.’ (6)

(6)  Georges Florovsky: Les voies de la théologíe russe, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1991, p.134. My translation from the French, the only copy I have to hand though an English translation does exist.

Theophan Prokopovitch. All I know of the painting (all Wikipedia tells me) is that it was done in the eighteenth century but after Theophan’s death.


The Spiritual Regulation replaced the Patriarch with a ‘Holy Synod’ completely dominated by an ‘overprocurator’ appointed by and responsible to the Tsar. This was the system that prevailed until 1917. According to Dmitri Pospielovsky:

‘Externally, the pre-revolutionary Church appeared to be very powerful. She was the official state Church, and until 1905 other religions were legally tolerated only as faiths of national minorities. Orthodox religion was an obligatory discipline in all general schools for all pupils born of the Orthodox faith, and children born of mixed marriages in which one of the parents was Orthodox had to be baptised Orthodox … In 1914 the Orthodox Church of the empire officially had 117 million members organised into 67 dioceses with 130 bishops and 48,000 functioning parishes with a total of over 50,000 clergy of all ranks. It ran 35,000 primary schools …’ (p.20) (7)

(7)  Dmitry Pospielovsky: The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime 1917-1982, Volume 1, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984. This is my major source for writing this article and page references will be given in the text not in footnotes.


‘The bishops in this system, living in an external luxury, were in fact like captive birds in a golden cage: a hierarch could not leave his residence to visit peripheral parishes in his diocese without theoretically having the tsar’s and practically the overprocurator’s special permission, requested and granted via the channels of the Ruling Synod in St Petersburg. The priests were in a particularly contradictory position. On the one hand they depended for most of their livelihood on the donations of their parishioners (which in many rural areas were extremely meagre because of the poverty of many peasants) and on the harvests from the piece of land allotted to the parish which they farmed like any other peasant. On the other hand, legally and according to the oath given at the time of their ordination, they were ex officio agents of the state, required to supply the Ministry of Defence with information on prospective recruits for the army and, in theory, obliged to inform the authorities on all confessions of an anti-state nature – even though the church canons ban this on the pain of immediate defrocking. Obviously, in this constrained position the Church as an institution could offer little moral leadership to the nation.’

Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907). Photograph 1903. Pobedonostsev was Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 until shortly before his death in 1907. He was notable as a theorist of absolute autocracy (and friend of Dostoyevsky).

‘After the nationalisation of the monastic estates by Catherine II in 1763-1764, the Church as an institution became economically poor, receiving from the state but 10 per cent of her former annual income from those properties as compensation. It was only since the 1890s that a substantial regular state subsidy to support the clergy in the poorer parishes began to be paid. By 1916 it reached 18.8 rubles – 58 million short of making the Russian clergy economically independent from their parishioners.’ (pp.19-20)

It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances a movement for reform had developed within the Church. In the aftermath of ‘Bloody Sunday’, January 1905, the event that sparked the 1905 revolt, a group of 32 priests in St Petersburg, with the approval of their Metropolitan, Antony (Vadkovsky), published a memorandum calling for the immediate convocation of a council in which all sections of the Church would be represented:

‘We must hear the voice of the Russian church, the voice of ecclesial conscience that will embrace, under its authority, pastors and flock alike. For 200 years we have no longer heard that voice. For 200 years, the Russian Church has not assembled in a local council, even though for a long time the necessity of such a council has been felt and is now urgent.’ (8)

(8)  Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (translated from the French by Jerry Ryan): The Moscow Council (1917-1918), University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, p.26.

The proposal had the support of Sergei Witte, President of the Committee of Ministers, Nicholas II’s most important adviser at the time, who was behind the ‘October Manifesto’, instituting the Duma and converting Russia, in theory at least, into a constitutional monarchy. In December, Nicholas asked Metropolitan Antony, together with the Metropolitans Vladimir of Moscow and Flavian of Kiev, ‘to determine the time for the convocation of this council, earnestly desired by all the faithful members of the Church’ (Destivelle, p.33).

A preconciliar commission was established which (in a report that ran to six volumes) proposed among other things the restoration of the patriarchate, working in conjunction with a council in which (albeit on a purely consultative basis) lower clergy and laity would be represented.

According to Destivelle (p.44): ‘On April 25, 1907, the Emperor ratified the commission’s decisions, the most important being the convocation of a local council of the Russian Church.’ But according to Pospielovsky (p.23): ‘these hopes and dreams … were, however, dealt a heavy blow by the refusal of Nicholas II to permit its convocation in the foreseeable future. This resolution by the Tsar was issued on April 25, 1907 …’


For the full article, please follow: