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Emperor of Russia as Temporary Head of the Orthodox Church

In 1700, Russian Emperor Peter the Great became the temporary head of the Orthodox Church after the death of the Patriarch Adrian of Moscow. Peter’s refusal to appoint the patriarch’s successor was one of the reforms he introduced into the Orthodox church. He replaced the patriarchate with a deputy and later, a Holy Synod made up of bishops.  This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster around that time period.

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From the Rurikids to the Romanovs

Russia became the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church after the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans in 1453. In 1598, Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople traveled to Moscow to seek financial help but was forced to create a Patriarchate of Moscow in exchange for money. The Orthodox form of Christianity had been a part of the Rus’ people’s life since AD 988, but the people’s devotion to it intensified during and after the Times of Troubles. Patriarch Hermogen used the Orthodoxy to unite the Russians during a time when the existence of the state was threatened by the absence of a legitimate tsar and the invasion of the armies of Catholic Poland and Protestant Sweden.

The Times of Trouble had died down by 1613 and a distant relative of the last Rurikid tsars soon acceded the throne as Michael I. After securing peace with Poland in 1618, the Tsar had his father, Patriarch Philaret, freed from a Polish prison. Philaret then came home and resumed his responsibilities as Patriarch of Moscow. He was more than an ordinary Patriarch as he was also his son’s co-ruler. Patriarch Philaret continued to co-rule with the Tsar until his death in 1633.

Alexis I became Tsar upon the death of his father in 1645. This youthful and energetic tsar was nicknamed the “Young Monk” early in his reign because of his religious devotion. It was not long before a group called Zealots of Piety joined him in reforming the church. The group was led by the Tsar’s own confessor and included prominent members such as the priests Ivan Neronov and Avvakum Petrov, and later, the abbot Nikon Minin.

Alexis, with the support of the Zealots of Piety, banned some folk entertainments and festivals to promote religious devotion. These constricting reforms did not sit well with the Muscovites who were not above beating clerics in retaliation. In 1649, Alexis created the Monastery Chancellery and gave it the power to try clergymen and those who lived on the land of the Church. Those who lived in the domain of the Patriarch, however, remained under his power.

The abbot Nikon Minin steadily became a powerful figure in Alexis’s court after the fall from grace of his former tutor Morozov. More zealous than Alexis, Patriarch Nikon soon became high-handed in his reforms and eventually angered some members of the Zealots themselves. Avvakum, one of the most prominent leaders of the group, opposed Nikon and paid for it with his life. Nikon also lost his prestige after a falling-out with the Tsar and was soon forced to return to the life of an ordinary monk.

Alexis‘s death in 1676 was followed by a succession crisis. His sickly son Feodor inherited the throne, but the tsar died six years later without an heir. His brother Ivan, sister Anna (though unofficial and unpopular), and half-brother Peter co-ruled from 1682. Sophia ruled for some time on her own but was deposed in 1689. Peter’s mother, Natalya Naryshkina, ruled briefly as regent until her own death in 1694. Peter and Ivan V co-ruled from then on, but it was cut short when the sickly Ivan V died in 1696. His death without an heir left Peter to rule Russia on his own.

Peter the Great’s Reforms and Takeover of the Church

Peter the Great of Russia, shown here in 1838.

As a child, Peter received his education from some of the best tutors, including the Scotsmen Paul Menesius and Patrick Gordon. Thanks to his own intelligence and the Western European education he received from his tutors, Peter was able to modernize Russia and turn it into an empire. He wore Western European clothes and shaved his face. He even forbade other men from growing their beards and from wearing traditional Russian clothing. He also kept Russia up to date by ordering his people to discard the old style calendar and adopt the Julian Calendar instead.

Peter had no sympathy for the clergymen his father and grandfather so revered. He was not a religious person, and he was not above to using his power to bring the clergymen to heel. Moscow’s conservative Patriarch Adrian died in 1700, but the Tsar left the position of the patriarch empty and appointed a deputy to temporarily act as head of the church.

Russia’s hostilities with Sweden finally flared up into the Great Northern War in 1700. He restored the Monastery Chancellery in 1701 and used the office to take the church’s income which he used to fund his war. He also raised funds for the war by creating new taxes for clergymen and the church.

Peter knew that getting rid of the Orthodox Church was impossible, so what he did instead was to place himself at the top of the hierarchy. He replaced the Patriarchate in 1721 with a Holy Synod which was composed of bishops who answered to him. In 1722, the Tsar created an office and hired agents who would spy on erring clergymen. Many of his reforms, however, were abandoned by his successors when he died in 1725.


Picture by: Paul Delaroche – 1. – 4. Unknown 5. Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur, object 00031228., Public Domain, Link

Bromley, J. S., ed. The New Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 6. The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521075244.

Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. 2. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521815291.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.


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