Vasily Ivanovich Surikov - Boyarina Morozova

The Old Belief – Raskol

Our stomach lining is replaced every three days, our skins sheds and regrows every month, every ten years we have a new skeleton, our liver is renewed every six month. Due to this fast change inside our body, how many years do we need to adopt the changes sociologically? Are we successful to renew our mentality in the constantly changing world as our cells? Let’s leave the answer to the sociologists, but the one thing that is certain is there are too many people who are not very successful to adjust themselves to the changes unlike their continuously renewing cells. Adopting new things is very hard thing for early modern societies even sometimes for modern societies.

Seventeenth century is a very dynamic and chaotic in the history of humanity. The increases in population and prices which was began in sixteenth century continued in the seventeenth century, as well. Some historians argue that seventeenth century crisis marks a turning point in the history of capitalism, or of the absolutist state.[1] And the Romanov Russia has taken its share from this turmoil. After the introduction of reforms to Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Nikon, the voice of opposition to the changes began to be raised within the church, which eventually led a schism in Russian Orthodox Church that would not be removed from Russia’s agenda for a long time. Did this schism emerge simply because of changes in religious rituals or did it contain more complex reasons but occurred under the guise of religion just as in past? The answers of these questions are tried to be given in this paper.

To understand the reformation of Nikon, we should know Russia before the coming of Patriarch Nikon. The beginning of the seventeenth century with the end of Rurik dynasty was very harsh times for Russians; therefore these years were named as “Times of Trouble”. In the Times of Trouble, lack of political authority, famine which caused widespread death and banditry, and Polish invasion to Russian lands put Russians under great pressure. These times of turmoil was ended by the coming of Romanov dynasty but the only left behind was debris. The tribulations of Times of Trouble were accepted by devout Russians as a manifestation of the wrath of God, and there came about a renewal of religiosity.[2] This led a religious movement called Zealots of Piety. Their aims were a moral reformation of the clergy and the people, a liturgical revival, and renewed piety.[3] This religious movement is very interesting because of its proximity of time of Catholic Reformation. Thus, the demands of the members of this movement were very close to those of their Catholic counterparts. Zealots of Piety, including parish priests such as Neronov and Avvakum, and in time the future patriarch Nikon, everyone in this diverse group agreed that parish life must be revitalised through effective preaching, the full and orderly celebration of the liturgy, and strict enforcement of the church’s moral teachings – all objectives they shared with the Catholic Reformation.[4] For that purpose some devout priests tried to correct the behaviours of their community members and the people around the church. They tried to prohibit drunkenness, gambling and some sorts of immorality. But those people were not as willing to reform their life as those devout priests. So, many of them including Avvakum who would become the leader of the Old Believers later could barely manage to save their lives from the wrath of their community.

The leader of Zealots of Piety was Archpriest Stephen who was offered to Tsar Alexis as the new patriarch by his followers after the death of Patriarch Joseph, but he belonged to white clergy which means he did not have the necessary qualification for patriarchal office because he was a monk. In addition, he refused to become a candidate and incited for the appointment of Nikon as a new patriarch. Soon after becoming patriarch, Nikon undertook an ambitious reform project: under the influence of high-ranking clerics from Constantinople and the Greek diaspora he entrusted Jesuit-trained scholars Ukraine and White Russia with a critical review of the forms of Russian worship.[5] The reforms included those:

  1. The Eucharist was celebrated by Russians with seven wafers, while Greeks with five.
  2. The word Hallelujah was repeated twice by Russians, while thrice by Greeks.
  3. The procession of the cross was performed against the sun (clock-wise) around the church by Russians, while according to sun (counter clockwise) by Greeks.
  4. In making the sign of the cross, Russians held the index finger and middle finger erect with the latter slightly crossed, while the thumb, ring and little fingers were together. The Greeks held the thumb, index and middle fingers erect with the ring and little fingers down.
  5. The word Jesus was spelled Iisus by Russians, and Isus by Greeks.[6]

So, the history of Old Belief began. The state which was willing to control its subjects through the church supported the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. The causes of the reforms had political dimensions. The reunion of the Ukraine and White Russia with Muscovy and the plans for the eventual unification of all Orthodox peoples under the aegis of the Russian Tsar required the unification of Orthodox practices and the adaptation by the Russian church of the ritual and the customs common to Greek-Orthodox tradition, which had been introduced in the Ukraine in the mid-seventeenth century.[7] However, Michael Cherniavsky claims that there is little evidence to support the hypothesis that the reforms were motivated by foreign policy ambitions of the Russian government.[8]

First oppositions to the reforms were not very harsh and widespread and focused on mainly not its content but the way of implementation. This innovation, issued solely by the Patriarch himself with no accompanying explanation and without the consultation of the Church Assembly, met with the vigorous opposition of the Zealots of Piety as well as the disapproval of Tsar Alexis.[9] However, Patriarch did not back down but chose to deal with the opposition step by step and eliminated them. First, he succeeded to convince to tsar and once he took the support of the tsar, he managed to deal with others by sending them into exile or persuading them personally. But, the scale of opposition was very small. The archive of the Iverskii Monastery, which contains the richest surviving information about Nikon’s activities during the 1650s, provides no information on protests against the new sign of cross but issues such as land distribution and taxation.[10] There is certain that in the term of Nikon there is a dissent among parish priests because they were in a bad position economically but there is no evidence of protest by these priests against Nikon’s liturgical revisions.[11] This makes sense when it is thought together with the crisis of the seventeenth century all over the world. Additionally, those dissenters had no any intention to organize a popular movement against the church. So, during the patriarchate of Nikon, opposition was reduced to a small number of the Moscow preachers led by the archpriest Avvakum who were exiled into Siberia; the official document ordering his exile does not make a single reference to his opposition to the new liturgies, but rather condemns him for “unruly behaviour”.[12]  But after the abdication of Nikon from patriarchate in 1658, those dissenters were allowed to come back, and they began to argue the reforms. So far, then, no issue of schism; at most, an ecclesiastical controversy and a problem of discipline – priests enjoined to obey their hierarchic superiors and the Russian Tsar.[13]

Abdication of Nikon from the chair of patriarchate was the beginning of the organization of Old Belief until the Council of 1666. Active proponents of the new liturgies during Nikon’s patriarchate, these hierarchs became Old Believers for a variety of reasons including declining political and financial fortunes; personal encounters with victims of Nikon’s violence; anti-Catholic sentiments; disgust with moral corruption within the church; or simply, strong religious conviction.[14] The Council of 1666 was the turning point in the history of Russian Orthodox Church which is the beginning of schism or raskol. The members of the Council who defrocked Nikon tried to compromise with Avvakum, they offered that the new rituals should exist along with the previous ones; none of these groups would condemn the other’s ritual. The compromise fell through when Avvakum refused the new rituals. So, the Church Council condemned all king of old rituals and Avvakumians and began to persecute the Old Believers.

The one thing that the Old Believers could not accept was that the old Russian saints who were the founders of the Muscovite church could not be anathematized. The most important thing why Old Believers did not accept the new liturgies was the belief of Russia as the Third Rome. The doctrine of “Moscow the Third Rome” means to them that Moscow was the spiritual capital of Christianity and that her unique and exclusive orthodoxy was historically proven and divinely confirmed; and, as the Third Rome was also the last, this meant that Muscovite Orthodoxy was the only currency of the economy of salvation; if Moscow were to fall from grace, betray the faith as had the first two Romes, it would mean not only the fall of Moscow as a state, as divine punishment, but the end of the whole world; a fourth Rome there could not be, and Moscow’s fall would signify the end of the possibility of salvation for all men, and the coming of the last days.[15] After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, there was no Orthodox state on the world except Muscovy. Thus, Russia was seen as Third Rome, the protector of the true faith of Orthodoxy, not only by Russian clerics but also the Eastern patriarchs. As they believed, Greeks were fallen to the infidels because of their false practices, because if their practices which were tried to be imposed to faithful Russians had been true, then God would have helped them against the infidels. Russia was now not the bearer of piety and the true faith but rather the guardian of foolish errors, for which they were now anathematized and excommunicated; for the Old Believers the Nikonian reform signified the disintegration of the Muscovite Church and the old way of life, the collapse of the state ideology of the Orthodox tsardom.[16] As the literate persons of the Russian population, Old Believers were also willing to reform the religious life but unlike the Nikonians, they believed the supremacy of the Russian customs over the Greek ones. To them, Nikon’s reforms represented a betrayal of the “Moscow, the Third Rome” tradition, and a substitution of the tainted Orthodoxy of the Greeks for the genuine, sound native Orthodoxy.[17]

When the Avvakumians split from the official Russian Orthodox Church by declaring that they were the holder of the true faith, Russian hierarchs began to fear that the Old Believers might find allies in Russian society and thus undermine the power of the Russian Orthodox Church; and to any opposition, they became convinced that Old Believers posed a tremendous threat to the unity and stability of the church.[18] Anyone who raised his voice against the church was potentially considered a schismatic, that is, an agent of Old Belief.[19] In fact, subsequent events proved that their fears were not in vain. In 1668, Solovetskii Monastery rebelled against the new liturgies and managed to endure the eight year siege. The second event was the Cossack Rebellion led by Stephen Razin in 1670-71 which included Old Believer elements. And the last occasion and perhaps the most important one was the streltsy uprising in 1682 which was occurred at the heart of the realm. Despite all these big events, the central authority managed to suppress those oppositions in time. But the last event included the secular authority to this religious problem. Shortly afterwards the government demonstrated its conviction that the theology of the Raskol was primarily a political one; a law of 1684 made adherence to the schism a secular, state crime with the punishment of death for the non repentant schismatic.[20]

In 1666 Church Council, Russian clerics had paranoia about the Old Believers as mentioned above, because they were aware of that Russia was too vast to control. But, to ensure official church they began to overcome this issue. They immediately re-organize the church life by tightening the relative independence of the local parishes. This process was made to subjugate the local churches under the official church to prevent them to fall into Old Belief, but it made an effect diametrically opposed to what was meant to be. Thus, the Raskol was most widespread in the areas where the power of the central government was less effective than elsewhere.[21] They were opposed the new liturgies because they were far enough to central authority, and they were opposed to these because the official church tried to disturb their peace by interfering. “Three principal features of small monasteries and hermitages explain why they were particularly likely to develop incidents of liturgical dissent. First, these communities had been viewed by the church with suspicion even before the introduction of the new liturgical books; in fact, throughout the seventeenth century small monasteries were in constant danger of losing their autonomy. Second, the leaders of these monastic communities wielded considerable influence over their clients, be they monks or laymen. I have observed that local attitudes toward the Nikonian reforms were often shaped by an abbot’s personal stand. Third, these monasteries were usually located in isolated villages or trading settlements beyond the reach of church authority.”[22]

The religious dissent in the places far from the centre has another simple reason which is priests didn’t know about the new liturgies. Much has been written about these reforms and their intrinsic problems, but little attention has been paid to the great logistical challenges the church confronted: tens of thousands of old liturgical books such as Service Books, Psalters, Lectionaries (prologi); Books of Need (potrebniki), and others had to be confiscated from Muscovy’s provinces, and tens of thousands of new liturgical books had to be shipped from Moscow to provincial churches and monasteries.[23] Russia did not have a lot of printing press unlike its counterparts in Europe where printing press had very important place to spread Protestant ideas, so centre could not carry its ideas to the periphery. Actually those places were where Old Believers were sent into exile. Moscow had one printing press and it was also working full time but could not supply the demand.

Another thing that fed the Old Belief movement was a characteristic of Russia which was serfdom. Together with serfdom and Old Belief was the two mainstream of opposition to the state. The social rebellions in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had elements of Old Believers and peasants who suffered from serfdom. And in those times, religious matters were usually a tool for other discontents. Religious issues provided the opportunity for the expression of social and political protest: social, against the ever-increasing importations from the West-clothes, customs, institutions; political, against the central fact of seventeenth-century Russian history-the legalization in 1649 of the complete enserfment of the peasants.[24]

To sum up, “the Russian Schism of the seventeenth century represented an amalgamation of diffuse phenomena: a serious crisis in the monastic world involving the rebellion of numerous monasteries and monks; the emergence of a significant surplus of unemployed and defrocked priests; the existence of strong anti-church sentiments in isolated villages and towns; the fusion of social banditry and religious radicalism; quasi-Protestant quests of individual peasants, artisans, and merchants for religious salvation; the disillusionment of women with the church; and a widespread lack of popular knowledge about the basic tenets of the Orthodox faith. These features of seventeenth century society point to a deep alienation between ordinary Russians and their church, which led to emergence of the Russian Schism.”[25] Russia was the country in which the question of belonging to the west or east has long been argued by Russians throughout its history. But the one thing that is certain Russia was isolated from the development of the west for a long time. However, in the seventeenth century Russia lived something quite looks like to its European counterparts. There was a group which wanted to be more religious and there was a group which wanted to be more centralized, and there was another group which was occurred against or from the demands of these two groups.


Cherniavsky, Michael, “The Old Believers and the New Religion”, Slavic Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, March, 1966, pp. 1 – 39

Crummey, Robert O., “Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia and Ukraine in the age of the Counter-Reformation”, The Cambridge History of Christianity: Eastern Christianity, Vol.5, edt. Michael Angold, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Goldstone, Jack A., “East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey, and Ming China”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 30, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 103 – 142

Michels, Georg B., At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999

Michels, Georg B., “The Patriarch’s Rivals: Local Strongmen and the Limits of Church Reform during the Seventeenth Century”, Modernizing Muscovy: Reform and Social Change in Seventeenth Century Russia, edt. Jarmo Kotilaine, Marshall Poe, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp. 309 – 333

Shubin, Daniel H., A History of Russian Christianity: The Patriarchal Era through Peter the Great 1586 to 1725, Vol. II, New York: Algora Publishing, 2005

Spinka, Matthew, “Patriarch Nikon and the Subjection of the Russian Church to the State”, Church History, Vol. 10, No. 4, December, 1941, pp. 347 – 366

Zenkovky, Serge A., “The Russian Church Schism: Its Background and Repercussions”, Russian Review, Vol. 16, No. 4 October, 1957, pp. 37 – 58

[1] Jack A. Goldstone, “East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey, and Ming China”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 30, No. 1, (Jan., 1988), p.103

[2] Serge A. Zenkovky, “The Russian Church Schism: Its Background and Repercussions”, Russian Review, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Oct., 1957), p.39

[3] Robert O. Crummey, “Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia and Ukraine in the age of the Counter-Reformation”, The Cambridge History of Christianity: Eastern Christianity, Vol.5, edt. Michael Angold, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.303, 313; Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism”, p.39; Michael Cherniavsky, “The Old Believers and the New Religion”, Slavic Review, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar.,1966), p.7

[4] Crummey, “Eastern Orthodoxy”, p.313

[5] Georg B. Michels, At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.2

[6] Daniel H. Shubin, A History of Russian Christianity: The Patriarchal Era through Peter the Great 1586 to 1725, Vol. II, (New York: Algora Publishing, 2005), p.135

[7] Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism”, p.46

[8] Cherniavsky, “The Old Believers and the New Religion”, p.9

[9] Zenkovsky, p.41

[10] Georg Michels, At War with the Church, p.24

[11] Michels, At War with the Church, p.31

[12] Michels, At War with the Church, p.50

[13] Cherniavsky, p.8

[14] Michels, At War with the Church, p.102

[15] Cherniavsky, p.10

[16] Zenkovsky, p.42

[17] Matthew Spinka, “Patriarch Nikon and the Subjection of the Russian Church to the State”, Church History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Dec., 1941), p.358

[18] Michels, At War with the Church, p.220

[19] Michels, At War with the Church, p.114

[20] Cherniavsky, p.20

[21] Cherniavsky, p.4; Michels, At War with the Church, p.147; Georg B.Michels, “The Patriarch’s Rivals: Local Strongmen and the Limits of Church Reform during the Seventeenth Century”, Modernizing Muscovy: Reform and Social Change in Seventeenth Century Russia, edt. Jarmo Kotilaine, Marshall Poe, (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), p.319

[22] Michels, At War with the Church, p.122

[23] Michels, “The Patriarch’s Rivals”, p.312

[24] Cherniavsky, p.2

[25] Michels, At War with the Church, p.229

Ahmet İlker Baş