The Russian Church

The Russian Church was the social cement of autocracy in Russia. However, even such a powerful body as the church was not unaffected by the 1905 Revolution and there were some in the church who wanted a programme of  modernisation. This was primarily found in the seminaries and religious academies. It was the religious academics of Russia who saw the need for change. Such a belief was seldom found at parish level.

The hierarchy of the church itself was split. The spiritual leaders of St Petersburg were seen as semi-reformers while the equivalent bodies on Kiev and Moscow were seen as reactionaries. In December 1904, Witte invited those who led the church in St Petersburg to express their views as to the direction the church should go. As a result of this, Witte proposed to Nicholas II that an assembly (a Sobor) of clergy be called so that issues could be raised in a public debate. Witte also proposed that the clergy at parish level should receive a regular salary and that parishioners should be allowed to select their priest and that they should have some say in the running of the parish. Witte also suggested that the subjects taught in church schools be broadened. Church schools were still teaching the views on the universe as stated by Aristotle and Geography as stated by Ptolemy.

Pobedonestsev, Procurator of the Holy Synod, opposed these changes, as he believed that there was no need for them.  When Witte managed to persuade Nicholas to agree to a pre-Sobor conference (Nicholas was not yet agreeable to a Sobor as he felt that it would lead to a church being ruled by an assembly), Pobedonestsev resigned, thus ending his domination of the Russian Church from 1881 to 1906. Pobedonestsev had been a supporter of Russification – so his loss was quite marked for Nicholas.

In 1906, a pre-Sobor conference met. 10 bishops and 25 professors of theology attended it. There were no representatives from the lower clergy present. The new Procurator of the Holy Synod, Prince Obolenski, led the proceedings. He proved to be an enlightened choice as Procurator as it was Obolenski who prompted the pre-Sobor to propose that a Sobor should be the ruling body of the church as a whole. Obolenski even supported the idea that the Procurator should become a mere observer of proceedings.

The future Sobor was to consist of one priest and one layman from each diocese elected by a bishop from a list of people chosen from a diocese conference. Only bishops would have the right to vote in a Sobor. Bishops themselves would be elected by assemblies that were to held in the metropolinates found in St Petersburg, Kiev, Moscow etc. Obolenski planned to increase the number of metropolinates from 4 to 7. The church was to have a patriarch who would preside at the meetings of the Sobor and of the Holy Synod. The Holy Synod was to remain the main liaison between the church and the government.

In fact, a Sobor was never called and the planned for reforms never materialised in full. In 1912, another pre-Sobor was planned. This never took place. In 1913, the 300th anniversary of the Romanov’s coming to power, it was expected as part of the celebrations, that a Sobor would be announced. It never was.

The Duma questioned the new Procurator about this in 1913 and 1914. Sabler, appointed in 1911, gave evasive and non-committal answers. Sabler admitted that reform of the dioceses was needed but told the Duma that he did not know how to go about it.

The curriculum in religious academies remained just about the same. In 1909, the Holy Synod abolished the ruling that only 10% of pupils in religious academies could come from non-priestly families. This failed to attract any more recruits.

Though much was spoken about with regards to church reform, there was clearly a lack of commitment to any genuine reforms that would change the church for the better.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, the Holy Synod pleaded for bishops and priests to ask for civil peace and obedience to the tsar. This was not a call that linked the Holy Synod to one side or the other. It was a call simply for peace. When in October 1905, the Metropolitan Vladimir called on his people to crush the revolutionaries, he was formally reprimanded by the Holy Synod. The abbot Arseni of Yaroslavl was exiled in 1906 for anti-Semitic agitation among his people. He was also said to have called the liberal Bishop of Yaroslavl, Yakob, a “dung smelling Jew”.

However, such examples are rare. When Peter Stolypin came to power, the Holy Synod’s policies dropped into line with the government, which was to give its full support to Russification. Yakob was sent to Simbirsk, some 800 miles east from Yaroslavl. Other liberal bishops were also sent to remote places in Russia – far enough away not to cause trouble. The monastery at Pochavskaya in Volhynia became notorious for its anti-Semitic paper called ‘Listok’. In August 1907, the Holy Synod stated that the people of Russia had to conform to the rules of the Orthodox Church.

With pressure from the government, the hierarchy of the church was forced to conform to support the status quo. The suggested reforms of Obolenski were a thing of the past. The Holy Synod returned to as it had been under Pobedonestsev between 1881 and 1906 – a stringent supporter of Russification and the government.

There is little evidence of what the lower clergy felt about this. Their position in the church depended on those in higher authority. If those above you were concerned that you might be liberal, you could be removed to a parish far away from European Russia. Such a threat was usually enough to persuade priests to conform. However, the call for reform in the countryside had to be led by educated men – and only the parish priest would fit this description. Therefore, it seems likely that there were liberal priests who did not move in the manner the Holy Synod wanted, but that they were difficult to police in such a vast country where transport and communication was poor.

Much of the evidence points to the fact that the hierarchy of the Russian Church had little desire to make far reaching changes and that the suggested reforms of Obolenski were no more than suggestions made in the full knowledge that they would never be implemented. Ironically, amongst this seeming conservatism was the Decree of 1905 that gave all Russians the right to leave the Orthodox Church and join another church without penalties or loss of civil rights.