The Russian Orthodox Church has been through many evolutions and challenges along the way to being more than a thousand years old. The Church originally emerged from a pagan society and was greatly influenced by existing Christian beliefs from other regions. This paper reviews the changes that the Church has gone through -- including the attacks on its beliefs and buildings and its monasteries by the Bolsheviks, who advanced the strict atheistic philosophy that communism promoted at that time.
The Founding of the Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church is believed to be over a thousand years old; author Alexander Negrov offers that as an approximate time frame, explaining that Christianity was first introduced to this "pagan Slavic nation" in the tenth century (Siebeck, 2008, p. 25). What helped to bring Christianity to "Old Russia" was that fact that among her neighbors was the Byzantine Empire, Negrov explains. And resulting from that proximity, SS. Cyril (Constantine) brought word of Christ to the south of Old Russia between 826 and 869. Another event that launched Christianity into Old Russia was the baptism of Princess Olga of Kiev in roughly 954 or 955, Negrov continues on page 25 of his book.
Negrov offers two of what he calls the "…greatest event in the history of the Russian people," the baptism of Prince Vladimir I (c. 956-1015), and the "Baptism of Russia in 988" (25). These two pivotal events are given credit for the launch of "Eastern Christendom in Russia," Negrov explains, and subsequent to those two events, Russian Orthodoxy can be viewed as an "organic part of the universal church" (25).
As to the question of when the Holy Bible become available in Old Russia, Negrov writes that that brothers Cyril and Methodius Thessalonian translated the Bible into the old Slavic language around 862-863 (26). Those initial translations were "handwritten," Negrov continues, and it wasn't until the last part of the 16th century that the printed Bible became available in Russia (26). There were famous men who spent a goodly amount of their time reading and re-reading the Holy Scriptures, and among those men was Iaroslav the "First" (or "the Wise"), who was known as the Grand Prince of Kiev from 1019" (Negrov, 27). It is said that Iaroslav read Scripture "…continually day and night," and his practice made an impression on other scholars.
Moreover, the history of the Russian Orthodox Church that Negrov presents includes the fact that the Biblical studies and the spread of the word of God -- initially intended to "impact the lives and morals of the Russian people" -- was also used "for educational purposes" (30). The author asserts that the Russian culture was positively impacted by Christianity and that Christianity in fact "…shaped the very manner of thinking" (30).
Meanwhile, Genghis Khan's military forces took over Russia in 1220; hence, Russia was under Mongol (Tarter) authority from the 13th to the 15th centuries, according to research by the University of Toronto. During that time the Russian Orthodox Church had a "favored position" because the Church was granted immunity from taxation, and there was a "remarkable growth of monasticism" in that era (www.cs.toronto.edu). A very important religious centre was established in the mid-fourteenth century by the Russian Orthodox Church -- The Monastery of the Holy Trinity. And in 1448 the Russian Bishops of the Orthodox Church elected their own patriarch; this was pivotal in the growth of the Church because previously all decisions regarding bishops needed to be approved by Constantinople. It meant that the Russian Orthodox Church was "…thenceforth autocephalous" (autonomous, independent of outside authority) (www.cs.toronto.edu).
Russian Orthodox Church Architecture
The architectural focus of all Orthodox churches is the altar, according to the organization called "Orthodox Church in America" (OCA). The altar is set apart from the rest of the church by an "icon screen," also known as the iconostasis (OCA). In the center of the altar -- which is known as the "holy of holies" -- there is a table from which the Eucharist is celebrated, and only those spiritually gifted individuals are allowed to enter the altar (OCA). Every Russian Orthodox Church has a "nave," where worshipers gather and where choirs and chanters carry out their duties; in other denominations the nave would be known as the sanctuary. After the alter and the nave, the third pivotal portion of a Russian Orthodox Church is the "vestibule or narthex," which is where people enter the church (OCA). Typically, the Russian Orthodox Church narthex is larger and more dramatic that might be expected in North American churches.
Outside, the archetypal Russian Orthodox Church has distinctive domes, sometimes one but often several domes, and based on the number of domes an observer can discern certain meanings. For example, it is believed that an Orthodox Church with five domes is thought to be "…representing Christ surrounded by the four evangelists" (apostles) (OCA). And an Orthodox Church with three domes is believed to represent the Holy Trinity.
The Russian Orthodox Church and Russian / Soviet Politics
An article in the peer-reviewed Russian Studies in History points out that when Nikita Khrushchev was dictator in the Soviet Union he tried to "…destroy the power and appeal of organized religion" (Shkarovskii, 2011-12, p. 71). Between the years 1958 to 1964, the U.S.S.R. made its transition from socialism to communism and that led dictators to try and abolish the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), but Shkarovskii explains that while Khrushchev did manage to cut down on the number of churches, monasteries, and ordained clergy, the people who attended services "…became more religious" (71).
Soviet leaders referred to the Russian Orthodox Church as the nation's "religious problem," and the leaders engaged in what Shkarovskii calls a "radical manner" -- and hence there was a "strained" relationship between the state and the Church (71). Indeed, the basic tenets of communism are atheistic, and so it was no surprise that when the country went from socialism to strict, hard-line communism, there was an attempt by the state to wipe out religion.
According to the Global Museum on Communism, Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought the Soviet Union from communism to something resembling democracy, said that "Atheism took rather savage forms in our country at that time" (Kengor, 2008). The Soviet Union was not necessarily "irreligious or unreligious," but it took the position "…that there was no God," Kengor writes. The campaign to rid the country of religion was "brutal" and it included an effort to "eliminate belief" in God through propaganda and intimidation (Kengor, p. 1).
The Central Committee of the Soviet Union had an agenda in 1957 that included waging a "…decisive battle with religion," Shkarovskii explains on page 72. The central leaders of the communist nation described the relationship with the ROC as an "erroneous legacy," and while they sought to stamp out the Church, they also feared a "religious revival," which in fact was beginning to take place in the early 1950s.
In 1958 an international convention was organized based on the desire by ROC leaders to make a stand against "…nuclear testing and the manufacture and stockpiling of atomic weapons" in the Soviet Union. But things did not go well for the participants -- nine delegations that traveled to Russia to come together as a united Christian front against nuclear weapons, Shkarovskii writes on page 72. The attempt to appeal to "Christians all over the world" to join the movement for peace was denounced by some; in fact, because the international delegations did not include the heads of the Orthodox churches -- only unofficial representatives from those Churches were there (Shkarovskii, 73).
Meanwhile, the antireligious campaign by Khrushchev included: a) closing monasteries and taxing monasteries heavily; b) cutting the pay of priests; c) conducting a "mass purge of church libraries"; d) halting pilgrimages to "holy places" and arresting people who tried to attend any of the "…seven hundred sites deemed sacred in the U.S.S.R."; and e) the site of a "holy spring" in the town of Viazovoe "…was turned into a place for pigs to spend the summer" (Shkarovskii, 75).
The End of Communism, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Russian Orthodox Church
The leaders in the world's democracies were enthusiastic about the emergence of Soviet Union reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, because he brought with him hope that the hard-line communistic country would change into a nation that believed in social equality, fairness, and tolerance of religious views and religious institutions. Author Zoe Knox, a professor of Russian History at the University of Leicester in England, explains that after Gorbachev basically orchestrated the demise of Soviet Marxism-Leninism, the legal / political obligations and limitations imposed on the Church slowly ended. Believers enjoyed the new freedom to discuss their faith outside of the Church, and the fact that it was no longer "hazardous" to freely express religious issues anywhere in Russia brought unity and joy to Church officials and members of the Orthodox congregations (Knox, 2013).
During the 1988 Millennial celebrations authorities in the…