How Russia came to be a Christian Nation

by Dr. Steve Elwart

Putin declaring Christian faith

Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-KGB head raised eyebrows across the globe by declaring his Christian faith.

In remarks made at the Valdai Forum in September 2013, in front of representatives from most European countries, he said:

Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.

Russian Orthodox Church Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin chimed in. “The separation of the secular and the religious is a fatal mistake by the West. It is a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally.”

Putin went on to say:

We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their historic roots, including the Christian values that constitute the very basis of Western civilization.

The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia.

People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation.

And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world.

Today almost all developed nations are no longer able to reproduce themselves, even with the help of unlawful migration.

Without the values embedded in Christianity, without the standards of morality that have taken shape over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity.

The Russian President’s comments seemed to echo what many Christians in the West have been saying for a number of years.

Continuing in his remarks, Putin stated that he has championed Russian laws that:

  • Essentially outlawed abortion in Russia (no abortions after the 12th week, and before that time in limited cases, and also the end of financial support for abortions, reversing a previous Soviet policy);
  • Strongly support traditional marriage, especially religious marriage, with financial aid to married couples having more than two children;
  • Established compulsory religious instruction in all Russian schools;
  • Made religious holidays now official Russian state holidays;
  • Instituted a nationwide program of rebuilding churches that were destroyed by the Communists, the most notable being the historic Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Whether Putin’s faith is sincere or a point of political theater is a matter of debate. What his remarks did do was tap into a vein of Russian culture that is centuries deep.

In 1988 Russia celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of Christianity in that country. Although 988 was indeed a pivotal year for Russian Christians, it isn’t quite accurate to describe it as the birth year of Christianity there.

Christianity had, in fact, penetrated “Russia” by the early 900s, when at least one church had been built in the ancient city of Kiev. In the 950s, Olga, the grandmother of Vladimir, seen still by many Russians as the founder of Russian Christianity was baptized. She asked German King Otto I to send missionaries to her country, but apparently they met little success.

Introduction of Christianity to Russia

The 9th and 10th centuries were important for the development of Russian Christianity.

Russia was peopled by northern tribes from Scandinavia who moved down the Dnieper and Volga rivers to the surroundings of the Black Sea and the Caspian. Two Greek missionaries, Constantine (826–69), later named Cyril, and Methodios (c. 815–85), were asked to respond to a request from Ratislav, prince of Moravia, for teachers.

Constantine believed on principle that the Slav peoples should have the Bible in their own languages rather than in Latin. He translated the Gospels, daily services and the liturgy of John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), one of the great figures of the Eastern Church known as ‘golden tongue’ (Greek: chrysostomos) for his eloquent preaching, for the use of the Slavs. Constantine had even composed a special script, Glagolitic. (Cyrillic script, named after him may not have been his creation, though contemporary with him). He and Methodios completed the Slav Bible in 881.

In about 900 Kiev became the cradle of Russian Christianity. Queen Olga was baptized at Constantinople in 957. Her grandson, Vladimir was baptized after marriage to a Christian princess, Anne, sister of the emperor, around 988.

The Russian church identified with Constantinople and its tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. It was to survive Mongol invasions and Muslim pressures from the Turks as an enduring Christian tradition of worship, monastic life and peasant piety, giving also national coherence and unity.

The Baptism of Russia

The historical event known as the “baptism of Rus’” occurred around 988, when Vladimir I (ruled 980–1015), grand prince of Kiev, ordered the conversion of all Russians to Byzantine Christianity, beginning in Kiev. All this occurred around the time of his marriage to Anne.

Literacy came to Russia with baptism. This conjunction eventually led to an interesting claim by the 19th-century Russian Slavophiles, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) and Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900). They claimed that Russia was the most Christian of nations, since it had had no pagan civilization in its background; its birth sprang directly from the baptismal font.

For Vladimir, the change of religion became more than an act of political calculation. According to the chronicle of Nestor, a monk of Kiev (11th–12th cent.), Vladimir’s lifestyle changed after his baptism. He adopted a church statute that gave the church broad judicial powers in matters of family law and morals, assigned 10 percent of state income for the church, built churches, and established a welfare system of sorts by ordering horse carts loaded with food and clothes to circulate in urban areas to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He invited the poor and the hungry to share banquet tables with him.

Anton Kartashev, a leading Russian church historian, has argued that the defect of the Russian baptismal process was that the nation was introduced to the church by emphasizing rites and rituals, rather than the teaching of Christ.

The conversion of the country to Greek Orthodoxy, instead of to the Roman Catholic Church, had at least two advantages for the Russian people. First, Byzantium at the time was the most civilized country in Europe and a very useful trading partner for Russia. Second, Eastern Christians prayed in the vernacular or, in the case of Slavs, in a language based on a Slavic dialect turned into a literary language by Cyril and Methodius. At the time all Slavs could understand this language. Thus, for example, an average parishioner was able to become familiar with the Bible. In fact, the relationship among church, clergy, and laity became much more intimate than in the Western churches, where only the clergy and a tiny minority of the educated upper class knew what was going on.

A disadvantage of the use of the vernacular, however, was that lacking a widespread language like Latin or Greek, the literate Russian had no direct access to material in classical languages, and translations took time. This factor helps explain the slowness of Russia’s overall cultural progress.

Domination by Byzantium

By the time of the conversion of Russia, the Western Roman Empire had been replaced by a Carolingian empire that was essentially hostile to Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) Christianity. The Great Schism of 1054, represented a break of communion between what is now the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Russian princes chose to stay with the Byzantine Empire and its church, rather to follow Rome. With the political power represented by the princes, the Byzantine church remained the highest spiritual and theological authority for all Eastern Orthodoxy. In the early centuries bishops and metropolitans, consecrated for Russia in Constantinople by its patriarch and approved by the emperor, commanded a much higher status than the local barbarian princes.

In 1589, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople granted the Russian church the status of patriarchate equal to that of the Eastern patriarchs. In practice, this decision did not add power to the church, since the head of the Russian church was merely a subject of the czar.

The Time of Troubles, during which Poland and Sweden invaded Russia, was the first massive encounter of Russians with what they considered to be Western Europe. The result of the encounter was a split in society: some wanted to turn their back on Europe, accepting only Western know-how; others wanted to completely imitate Europe and to reject all Russian traditions. The latter were the early Russian Westernizers.

The Church under the Romanovs

The first of the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great’s childhood and adolescence progressed under the shadows of power intrigues carried on by his half-sister Sophia and also of rebellions of the old court guard. The young Peter was fascinated with the technical knowledge of Western Europe, and he saw Old Russia as an enemy of progress. Patriarch Adrian (1627–1700), who had crowned Peter, was an extreme conservative and opposed Westernization.

Peter the Great was finally able to take full control of the reins of government and with that control came a time of secularization in the country while he was pushing to Westernize the nation.

When Adrian died, Peter decided against electing a new patriarch. Instead, under threat of torture, Peter forced the Orthodox clergy, to pledge loyalty to the czar as the earthly head of the church and the bishops’ ultimate judge. They were also required to abide by the new regulations, which replaced the patriarchate with a Holy Synod officially presided over by the most senior bishop, who was controlled by an emperor-appointed lay chief procurator. The church became merely a government “department of Orthodox confession,” deprived of the right to speak with its own voice, let alone pass judgment on state policies.

The superficially Westernized and poorly educated first generation of Russian gentry under Peter the Great saw the Orthodox Church as irrelevant to the age of reason until the Age collapsed in the carnage of the French Revolution in France and in the Pugachov Rebellion (1773–74) in Russia.

By the end of the 18th century the mood among the gentry changed from self-confident rationalism to pessimism. A thirst for religion again began to appear in the upper classes. However, the gentry was too rationalistic to be comfortable with a church dominated by the lower classes; instead, a mystical Germanic version of Freemasonry became the new religion of the upper classes.

Essentially, the church survived in villages and on the periphery of the empire.

During the 18th century Catherine II (1762–96) continued the secularization of the country with the confiscation of land owned by monasteries. The secularist worldview continued to pervade Russia for almost 200 years until Nicholas II came to power.

Nicholas II and Cries for Reform

While secular in nature, Russia still allowed the Orthodox faith, but only by native Russians. Before 1906 Protestants in Russia could be only Germans, Estonians, Latvians, or other nationalities that had a historic Protestant identity. Roman Catholicism was legally identified only with Polish, Lithuanian, and other nationalities recognized as historically Roman Catholic.

Children born into families where either parent was Orthodox had to be baptized Orthodox, and the parents were required to marry into the Orthodox faith. Much more complicated was the status of Russian converts to such denominations as Baptists or Pentecostals.

As a result of public discontent and the pressure of the first Russian revolution of 1905–6, Nicholas II (1894–1917) was forced to issue his Edict of Religious Tolerance, on October 17, 1906. As early as 1904 the church leadership had pointed out to the czar that granting religious freedom to independent faiths while keeping the Orthodox Church on the government’s leash, would make the Orthodox Church the only shackled church in the empire.

The first “wake-up call” to the Russian elite was the 1905–6 revolution. Then, in 1907, came the book “Landmarks”. The book argued that the Russian constitution of 1906 had opened the way to gradual political and institutional reforms. The message, however, was not heeded at the time, and that would come back to haunt the Romanovs.

Restoration of the Patriarchate

Since Czar Nicholas II was formally the earthly head of the Russian Orthodox Church, his abdication during the second Russian Revolution in March 1917 “decapitated” the church. According to a 1995 Russian presidential committee report, Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums.

Nevertheless, the collapse of the monarchy caused a general euphoria. The Provisional Government declared religious freedom, recognized the Orthodox Church as first among equals, and enabled it to receive subsidies from the state.

The 564 All-Russian Ecclesiastical Council, consisting of bishops, monastics, parish clergy, and laity convened in August 1917 in Moscow. That May, however, the synod, now consisting of liberal bishops and priests, permitted local diocesan assemblies of priests and laity to depose or reelect bishops. This action led to the forced retirement of bishops who had colluded with the infamous Rasputin (1872–1916), including the metropolitans of St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Politically, the patriarch and the council tried to maintain neutrality during the revolution. Patriarch Tikhon and his council repeatedly appealed to both sides in the fighting to stop the bloodshed and to be merciful to prisoners of war. Finally, as news about the Bolshevik mass murders of clergy and laity multiplied, the patriarch issued his famous anathema of February 1, 1918, to be read in every church condemning the entire Bolshevik Party, though he did not mention the party by name.

The letter read, in part:

By the authority invested in me by God, we forbid you [the Bolsheviks] to approach the Mysteries of Christ (the liturgy and sacraments); we declare you anathema, if you still bear the name of Christians, even if merely on account of your baptism you still belong to the Orthodox Church.

Communism in Russia

The first bishop to be killed by the Bolsheviks was Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, on January 26, 1918. This was followed ultimately by the execution or death in concentration camps of several hundred bishops, well over 50,000 priests, close to 100,000 monks and nuns, and unaccounted millions of other active servants of the church.

The All-Russian Council was closed by the Bolsheviks in September 1918, when they confiscated the building in which it had been meeting. In October 1919, as the anti-Bolshevik White Russian army was approaching Moscow from the south, Patriarch Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, issued an encyclical that forbade his clergy to take sides in the civil war or to publicly greet the Whites. At the same time the patriarch declared his own and the church’s civic recognition of, and loyalty to, the Soviet regime, adding that “nobody and nothing can deliver Russia from disorder … until the Russian has purified and reborn himself spiritually into a new person.”

Lenin and the Church

According to Karl Marx (1818–83), religion is a superstructure built on a material base; once this base is removed, religion will disappear. Lenin’s decree of February 2, 1918 (January 20, old style), removed the physical base of the church. The government confiscated all church properties, including its places of worship, seminaries, schools, and bank accounts, and deprived the church of any legal status. Overnight the Church as an institution ceased to exist. The Soviet state recognized only groups of lay believers (no fewer than 20 persons), who could negotiate with local governments to lease a building for worship. Since the church and believers were the last of society’s priorities, they would get the church only if it was not needed for some secular use.

It is said that the Church flourishes in times of persecution and the same held true for the Russian Orthodox Church. After Lenin’s decree, the Soviet press had to admit that the church was showing signs of growth. Having seen the inaccuracy of Marx’s predictions, Lenin turned to a policy of “divide and conquer”: tolerance of Protestant sects, but persecution of the Orthodox Church for being a part of the Old Regime. In 1920, Protestant sects and other minority religions began to be favored by the Soviet leadership. They were treated as victims of czarist persecutions and as socialists at heart. Baptists, Pentecostals, and other sects were allowed to form Christian agricultural communes. Aiming at diplomatic recognition by Western powers, the Soviets claimed in their press that the Orthodox Church was being repressed not as a church but as a former czarist partner in the suppression of the sectarians.

In March 1922, the Politburo (the executive committee of the Bolsheviks) accepted a plan of Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) to take advantage of the division in the Orthodox Church between the so-called Renovationists and those loyal to the patriarch. The Renovationists were a collection of radical leftist groups of clergy that appeared with the fall of the monarchy. Known also as the “Living Church” movement, they declared themselves socialists, praised Lenin, and attempted to jump on the Soviet bandwagon.

Stalin and Khrushchev

After the (suspicious) death of Patriarch Tikhon, widespread persecution of the church prevented the election of a successor. The patriarchal Orthodox Church continued to be refused any form of legal status until 1927. The Soviets refused to grant any legal recognition to the Church’s named replacement Patriarch Sergius; not until after four imprisonments, when he finally agreed to all Soviet demands and issued a self-serving declaration of loyalty in which he denied that the church was being persecuted and even thanked the Soviet government for “its care and concern for the needs of the church.” At that very time thousands of bishops, priests, monks, and nuns were lingering away in the Arctic Solovetski Islands concentration camp. (Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death. Many thousands of victims of persecution became recognized in a special canon of saints known as the “new martyrs and confessors of Russia”.)

It was World War II that saved the Russian Orthodox Church. The German attack on the USSR occurred on Sunday, June 22, 1941. Although Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) waited ten days before addressing the nation, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986) waited 20 hours to announce the beginning of the war, the patriarchal administrator, Metropolitan Sergius, announced the war to his parishioners that morning during the liturgy, delivering a fiery patriotic sermon calling the nation to its patriotic duty and hinting that the coming trials might blow away “poisonous fumes.” The Church started a massive campaign of collecting donations for war needs, with Sergius informing Stalin of all these church activities. Stalin responded with a telegram of thanks but took no further action with the church for the next two years.

Finally, in 1943, Stalin realized that the church could be of use to him. In September he met with three of the four surviving metropolitans. The result of the talks was a hurried semblance of a local Church Council at which the seventy-year-old Metropolitan Sergius was unanimously elected patriarch. The church was allowed to reopen eight seminaries and two theological academies and to reopen fewer than 2,000 churches, a sharp contrast with the 7,000 churches opened in the German-controlled territories of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

This turnaround in Stalin’s religious policies was motivated by several factors. First, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill told Stalin that the Western public would be much better disposed toward helping the USSR if it had been assured of religious freedom there. Second, the Church of England petitioned the Soviet government to permit it to visit the USSR to familiarize itself with the religious situation there. Third, with all the Orthodox churches that had been reopened in territories occupied by the Germans, Stalin needed to somewhat match that gesture when the territories would fall to the Soviets in order to placate the population in those areas. Additionally, the Teheran Conference was scheduled shortly after Stalin’s encounter with the bishops, and Stalin wanted to appear there as a supporter of democracy.

Although Stalin’s religious policies became somewhat tougher after the end of the war, on the whole he held to the 1943 agreement with the church; accordingly, the church had to repay Stalin by praising him in speeches by its hierarchs at all international peace congresses. The Russian bishops were forced to condemn “capitalist imperialism” and to present the Soviet Union as a supremely peace-loving state, publicly denying that the church encountered any problems in the USSR. In 1961, under Nikita Khrushchev (1953–64), the church was allowed to join the World Council of Churches.

Although after the end of World War II some churches and monasteries began to be closed, real persecutions with the obvious aim of total annihilation of the church began under Khrushchev. He closed five of the eight seminaries that had been reopened under Stalin. At the 1961 Communist Party Congress he promised to liquidate all traces of religion by 1980, when Communism was to be fully achieved, which, according to Karl Marx, could happen only after all religious belief had withered away. Of the almost 14,000 Orthodox churches surviving at the time of Khrushchev’s ascent to power, fewer than 7,000 remained open by the 1980s. A similar fate befell all other religious confessions.

An End of Repression

The 21 years between Khrushchev’s forced retirement in October 1964 (the first bloodless coup in Soviet history) and the ascendancy in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev are known as the era of stagnation and gerontology-in-power. Khrushchev’s antireligious assault continued but at a much slower pace.

Things began to change radically in favor of the church in 1987–88 with the approach of the millennium of Russia’s conversion to Christianity. The church was allowed to hold international conferences on the history, culture, and theology of Orthodox Christianity.

For the first time since the 1920s, Russian scholars in secular fields were allowed to participate, including Boris Rauschenbach (1915–2001), a leader of the Soviet space program, who was not only a believer but a theologian of note.

The turning point in church-state relations came in April 1990, at a reception by Gorbachev of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter requested civil rights for all religious believers equal to those of the atheists and the right to open as many churches and theological schools as the church needed. All requests were granted, and later that year a new law declared the Soviet Union a secular state, with equal rights for believers and atheists.

On August 19, 1991, a group of Communist die-hards attempted a coup against Gorbachev but failed. The anti-Communist forces headed by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, prevailed when the special paramilitary forces went over to his side. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow from an enforced rest in Crimea, power was already in Yeltsin’s hands. Shortly thereafter, on December 26, the Soviet Union officially dissolved.

Post-Soviet Russia

In contrast to Gorbachev, Yeltsin openly sided with the Orthodox Church and attended services on main feast days.

As Russia opened its borders in the early 1990s, thousands of evangelists flocked to Russia, mostly from North America. The Russian Orthodox Church began to pressure President Yeltsin to rewrite the religious law in favor of the Orthodox Church. The new law, passed in 1997, which Yeltsin signed reluctantly under the pressure of Orthodox Patriarch Alexis and the Russian Parliament, gave full rights to only four so-called historical religions, namely, Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Of these four, Orthodoxy alone is described as “having played a special role in the history of Russia, in the assertion and development of her spirituality and culture.” The other three religions are mentioned as “respected by the State as an inseparable part of the Russian historical legacy.” All other religions would have to prove their existence in Russia for 15 years as private organizations before they could apply for state recognition.

The Bishops’ Council of 2000, dedicated to the second millennium of Christianity, adopted the first-ever “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church”. A notable point of document is an affirmation of the right and Christian duty to resist evil and to disregard the state’s orders if they contradict Christ’s teaching. The document is also realistic in admitting that believing Christians are a minority in Russia.

The post-Soviet Russian government recognizes its responsibility for the previous destruction of churches and other church-owned buildings. By now most of the church buildings have been returned to the church, and local governments, as well as some wealthy individuals, have been donating generous subsidies for the construction and renovation of churches and monasteries. But most of the secular buildings that used to belong to the church have not been returned—this process is much slower and rather erratic.

Since the collapse of Communism numerous public opinion polls have been taken concerning the beliefs of contemporary Russians. According to the polls, among ethnic Russians, about 70 percent describe themselves as religious believers, over 80 percent describe themselves as Orthodox Christians, but only 2–3 percent regularly attend church services. In an interesting note, in some surveys the percentage of people calling themselves Orthodox Christians exceeds those who believe in God.

The Russian Church Today

Today the Russian Orthodox Church is, by far, the most conservative, traditional and anti-Communist religious body in the world. It has gone so far as to canonize dozens of martyrs killed by the Communists and celebrate the Romanov tsar and his family who were brutally murdered by the Reds in 1918.

Significantly, since 1991 over 26,000 new Christian churches have opened in Russia, and the fact that Christianity is being reborn in Russia has not gone unnoticed among some Christian writers in the America and Europe, although generally ignored by the secular press.

If Russia can salvage their society from the atheist philosophy of Communism, surely the West can do the same. To salvage their culture and their individual salvation, those countries that practice and export all that God deplores need to heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14:

… when my people humble themselves—the ones who are called by my name—and pray, seek me, and turn away from their evil practices, I myself will listen from heaven, I will pardon their sins, and I will restore their land. (ISV)

One can only pray that it is not too late.

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