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A Brief Summary of the
Russian Patriarchal Period
by Rdr. (now priest) Michael A. van Opstall

This paper was submitted during the Fall '05 semester as a class assignment for course “102 — The Russian Church”. Reader (now priest) Michael A. van Opstall is a professor of Mathmematics at the University of Utah.

Much like the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1918, the establishment of the Patriarchate came at a time that could not have been worse, nor better. Shortly after the first Patriarch, Job, was enthroned, the infamous “Time of Troubles” (smutnoye vremya) began, and Russia was pressured from outside by Polish forces, and its own people were duped by pretenders (samozvantsy) to the throne of Russia. Patriarch Job was dethroned unlawfully. Patriarch Hermogenes was starved to death in prison. But the Patriarchate was a powerful unifying device for Russia, which finally became obvious under Patriarch Philaret, father of Michael, the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty. The 1918 reinstitution of the Patriarchate came at a time not of external invasion, but of internal unrest, but the saintly figure of Patriarch Tikhon was incredibly important in preserving the Orthodoxy of the Russian Church against the Renovationists (obnovlentsy).

The Patriarchal period was very complex, spiritually and politically. These complexities are incredibly relevant to this day. Patriarch Hermogenes acted practically as Tsar after the death of Tsar Basil (Shuisky) (1610-1612), and Tsar Michael (Romanov) greatly influenced Church policy in the period between Hermogenes and Patriarch Philaret (1612-1620), as the questions of caesaropapism of the Second Rome became increasingly relevant in the Third. In our times, there is administrative separation of Church and State in Russia, but the cooperations between Patriarch and President recall the better days of the relationship between Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexis. Hardened by their experience (starting in the Patriarchal period) with the Unia, the Russian Church is a much more cautious participant in any sort of ecumenical discussion, condemning the so-called “branch theory” clearly in Moscow in 2000: “Completely unacceptable…is the so-called ‘branch theory’, which asserts the normalcy and even providence of the existence of Christianity in the form of separate ‘branches’” (Principles of relations with the heterodox, II.2.5). Part of the Old Ritualist schism remains to this day, and the questions of an independent Ukranian Church have their roots in the joining of the Kieven Metropolitanate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to Moscow during the Patriarchal period.

Sts. Job and Hermongenes, and the Pretenders

One ideology is important to recognize in the Patriarchal period. This is the notion that Moscow was to become the Third Rome, that is, the third (temporally) seat of a universal Christian empire. It was this thinking that first brought about the idea of elevating the Russian Church to a Patriarchate. The idea that the Second Rome, Byzantium, had fallen because of “heresy”, a claim that could only be substantiated by pointing to differences in ritual, helped fuel the Old Ritualist [1] (staroobryadcheskoye) movement. The dying Second Rome’s struggle with the Council of Florence is partially repeated in the Unia of Brest-Litovsk, as Russia was weakened by the pretenders. Finally, for Sts. Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium and their dreams of a Christian empire, there is the Russian pair of Tsar Michael and his father Patriarch Philaret as an example of harmony of Church and State.

The patriarchal period in Russia began at the request of Tsar Theodore [2] to the Antiochian Patriarch Joachim to elevate the autocephalous Russian Church [3] to a Patriarchate. At this time, the other Eastern Patriarchs were constantly making trips to Russia to beg alms, since their situation under the Turkish yoke was becoming unbearable. Joachim agreed, and when the Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople was in Russia on a similar mission, he saw to the election and enthronement of a Patriarch. Here the second patriarchal period parallels the first, in that the Metropolitan of Moscow kept his throne, and was elevated to Patriarch. However, in 1587, Job was chosen by the Tsar, whereas in 1918, Tikhon’s lot was drawn from underneath the Vladimir icon.

As is proper, the elevation of Job to Patriarch gave Job essentially no new administrative powers, but only ceremonial privileges. He was met with more honor outside of his diocese. During services, he stood at the center, with his brother bishops on either side. He alone sat in the High Place during the Epistle reading. The other bishops communed from his hands in concelebrations (Smirnov). The formation of the Moscow Patriarchate, however, gave the Church the power of a sort of administrative unity that it did not have before, not a papism, but an administrative body with a strong figurehead. This gave the Church a unified answer to the Tsar: in Byzantium, the Patriarch of Constantinople could be a visible sign of unity and answer erroneous teachings promulgated by ill-intentioned emperors. In the first Russian Patriarchal Period, Patriarchs Job and Hermogenes could stand up on behalf of the whole Church against the pretenders. In the second, Patriarch Tikhon could pronounce anathema against the enemies of the Church with authority. Avoiding papism, however, lessened the ability of an evil Patriarch to do damage in the Church.

Not long after Job’s elevation, the troubles (smuta) began. There were some initial skirmishes with the Swedes, foreshadowing greater battles later. Then, in the city of Uglich, Theodore’s brother Demetrius died young. The blame for this death is disputed. Most older sources agree that Demetrius was murdered by the ambitions Boris Godunov, who hoped to stamp out the line of Riurik and start a new dynasty himself. At the time, Theodore blamed the citizens of Uglich, and punished them harshly. Some more modern historians (Kartashov, for example) doubt the claims that the murder was instigated by Godunov.

The connection of the miracle-working icons of the Theotokos with the reign of the Patriarch Job (continued in Hermogenes) followed soon after, as the Tartars, greatly weakened by the efforts of Great Prince Ivan III and Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible), attacked Moscow. Job went out in procession with the Don icon of the Theotokos and the city was saved. The Don Monastery was built in commemoration of this event, as earlier the Sretenski monastery commemorated salvation worked by the Vladimir icon. Both recall the defeat of Oskold and Dir in Byzantine times at the protection of the Greeks by the Most Holy Theotokos. Sadly, such defeats did not bring about repentance among the Tartars.

Meanwhile in the West, the failed union of the council of Florence returned at a council in Brest-Litovsk. This council (actually two councils) established the Unia in Western Russia, which torments the Ukraine to this day. Orthodox were encouraged to recognize the supremacy of the Pope and accept his doctrines, while keeping their own rites and services. Those in areas disputed by Poland-Lithuania [4] who did not accept were persecuted by the Jesuits (Mouravieff, 142). During the second Patriarchal Period, due to government influence, there was much communication between Moscow and Rome, culminating in the agreement of Balamand. It is sad that this agreement was not rejected by the Russians as they had bravely rejected such agreements in the past, but the Russian Church has never actually subscribed to the ecclesiological errors in this document [5], and the administrative provisions have been largely ignored by the Romans, who agreed to end the Unia and stop proselytism in the East, and have done no such thing. Thus the spirit of the first Patriarchal Period remains in the second, but sadly, under government oppression, the hierarchy was afraid to let this spirit show.

Tsar Theodore died without an heir. Eventually the throne was accepted by Boris Godunov. Great difficulties followed. This is the time most properly called the “Time of Troubles”. Godunov died as the first pretender, a hierodeacon who claimed to be Theodore’s brother Demetrius came to Moscow. As the people of Israel accepted the golden calf, the Muscovites, longing for the restoration of the Ryurikian dynasty, were quickly deceived by the pretender. Job was assaulted during the Liturgy. In the second famous episode in his life involving an icon of the Theotokos, Job placed his Panagia on the Vladimir icon and said “For twelve [6] years have I preserved the purity of faith; I now see that misery is coming upon the kingdom, that fraud and heresy are to triumph. Oh, Mother of God, do Thou preserve Orthodoxy”(Mouravieff, 150). Job was deposed and imprisoned. The similarity with the case of St. Patriarch Tikhon and the Bolsheviks needs no comment.

In his place, a Greek bishop Ignatius was raised up to be Patriarch, without Job’s blessing. Most historians do not number him among the patriarchs of Moscow. Kartashov disagrees, and claims that his enthroning was lawful, and that the Russians were simply angry to have a Greek as their second patriarch. He also notes that he was enthroned according to Greek rite, which differed from the Russian consecration, and hence was not recognized by some, especially those who held that the Greeks were “heretics”. This at first seems somewhat unlikely, since Job was unlawfully dethroned, and refused to accept Ignatius. However, the election of Patriarch Photius of Constantinople during the unlawful exile of Patriarch Ignatius was similar, and recognized as lawful in the end. Meanwhile, Ignatius did a lot of good; for example, he attained the release of the monk Philaret Romanov (later Patriarch) from the imprisonment by the Poles engineered by Boris. Mouravieff writes off these good deeds as a way to win over the populace, which is quite likely (p. 151). The “elections” of the Russian Patriarchs of the twentieth century, with the exception of St. Tikhon and of Alexei II were all parallels of this act: the Patriarchs were essentially government appointed. Although most of the Orthodox world accepted these Patriarchs, the division between Kartashov and other historians was repeated among members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia: its second First Hierarch, Metropolitan Anastassy used the title of Patriarch when referring to Patriarch Alexei I, but his successor, Metropolitan Philaret wrote in his “Sorrowful Epistles” that Alexei should not be regarded as the true head of the Russian Church.

Finally, under the leadership of Prince Basil Shuisky, the pseudo-Demetrius was overthrown [7], and Moscow was recaptured from the pretender and his Polish cohorts. Basil was made Tsar in his place, and the people invited Job to return as Patriarch. Meanwhile, however, Job had gone blind, and refused the office. Instead, he blessed Hermogenes, metropolitan of the newly-enlightened Kazan’ to take his place. Finally, as the Israelites of ancient times, the Russian people gathered in the Dormition Cathedral of the Kremlin to ask absolution of Job for their sins under the pretender. Job pronounced the absolution, but the repentance was short-lived. Job was added to the canon of saints in 1989.

Hermogenes’ life was also connected with a great icon of the Theotokos. While he was a hieromonk in Kazan’, the wondrous Kazan’ icon was found. In 1594, as bishop of Kazan’, Hermogenes wrote an account of the finding of this icon and subsequent miracles (Minea, February 17). Like Job, he was zealous for the glorification of Russian saints, especially those of his land of Kazan’.

His patriarchate was also troubled. Moscow was burned by the Poles. A second pretender appeared, and the people quickly forgot their repentance and turned again to disobedience. If Job’s forgiveness of the people is an image of the Heavenly Father, Hermogenes is the Only-begotten Son, killed by the people he tried to save from their lawlessness. He was imprisoned and starved to death. If we consider Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsa to be the lawful second Patriarch of the modern patriarchal period, we see the parallels with the first period continue. He too was imprisoned and martyred for his outspokenness against a pretended government. Hermogenes, like Job and Peter, is a saint of the Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Philaret and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty

After the death of Hermogenes, the patriarchal throne remained vacant for seven years. When Theophanes, patriarch of Jerusalem was visiting in 1620, he restored the patriarchate by consecrating Philaret as the third patriarch of Moscow. Philaret’s son, Michael was reigning Tsar at the time. The cooperation between Philaret and Michael was significant, and influenced affairs of both Church and State. Philaret helped make peace with the Poles and the Swedes. Smirnov even credits him with increasing tax revenues.

It is difficult to parallel the experience of Philaret with that of the “third” Patriarch of the modern period, Sergius. Boris Godunov, out of fear that Philaret would become Tsar forced him away from his wife and children and had him forcibly tonsured a monk. Later, when Philaret was on a mission to convince Vladislav, the Polish heir (a Swede, see note above), to accept Orthodoxy in exchange for nominally more power in Russia, he was imprisoned. Sergius was also imprisoned by the communist forces in the 1920s. Here is where the similarities end. When his son, Tsar Michael, inquired about his well-being, Philaret asked that nothing be done for his well being that would lose anything for Russia. The results of Sergius’ imprisonment on the other hand, are unfortunate and well-known. The cooperation between Church and State under Tsar Michael recalls the ideals of the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s Novellae, where the Church receives protection from barbarians from the State, and the State receives moral enlightenment and prayer from the Church [8]. In the twentieth century, the State and the barbarians were one and the same.

After the relative peace instituted by Patriarch Philaret and Tsar Michael, there was a calm before the storm. Consequently, little is written about Patriarchs Joasaph I and Joseph. Smirnov dedicates only three sentences to them, and only to excuse himself from writing about them at all! Mouravieff’s chapter on Joasaph is primarily concerned with the work of Metropolitan Peter Mogila of Kiev. Similarly, Nikon is mentioned far more times in the chapter on Patriarch Joseph than Joseph himself. We essentially only learn from Mouravieff that Joseph was a supporter of the Old Rite, but fairly weak. Although the storms were different, the period of Justinian and Theodora was followed by some peace before the outbreak of iconoclasm, and in twentieth century Russia, the Declaration of Patriarch (then Metropolitan) Sergius in 1927 brought some external peace (but not ecclesiastical peace) until the purges of Stalin in the mid-1930s and finally World War II.

It is worth mentioning a few of the matters which concerned the Church at this time between strong Patriarchs in Russia. As Protestantism and Roman Catholicism became more of a threat, the Eastern Churches took time in putting Orthodox teaching in writing. However, as the west was coming out of the Dark Ages, the East was heading in, as the Turks still controlled much of Orthodox Territory and Russia had been so long fighting with the Swedes and Poles. Consequently, the Orthodox used heterodox examples to learn how to write about theology. The result was that Patriarch Cyril of Constantinople wrote an essentially Protestant catechism to ward off Latin tendencies, and Metropolitan Peter of Kiev countered this with a catechism that is accused of being overly Roman. Revisions were made, and this catechism was accepted by the Orthodox (after some revision), but it suffers even in our days together with the catechisms of Metropolitans Macarius and St. Philaret of Moscow from those who seek Romism in everything they read. In this case the parallels of the Church of Russia with the Byzantine Church are contemporary, and not a repetition of history (catechisms were rarely written, with the exception of St. John of Damascus’ Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which is considered irreproachable). In the Russian diaspora of the twentieth century, the catechism of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) was criticized for an innovation in the dogma of redemption, but eventually revised.

Nikon and the Old Ritualists

The successor of Joseph was the infamous patriarch Nikon. Nikon was an extraordinary ascetic, who accepted the Patriarchal title under the condition that the people would be in complete submission to him. He wore rich and extremely heavy vestments [9], and increased the size of the patriarchal court that had developed already under Job. For these reasons, he is often reviled as a ritualist (obryadets) and a person concerned with comfort. However, the fact that he read the Psalter in its entirety every day, made one thousand prostrations daily, and eventually built himself an island in the New Jerusalem monastery by dragging stones hardly supports the view that Nikon wanted to live like a king (Billington, 158). Billington also cites a reference that Nikon’s personal library consisted purely of Slavic books, which is a blow to the charges of Hellenism often leveled against him [10]. Rather, Nikon sought the (temporal) glory for the Church which the state already possessed. He is said to have formulated the ideology of Moscow as the “Second Jerusalem” — a universal spiritual center of Orthodoxy which could coexist with and eventually swallow up the Third Rome. For this reason, Fr. Andrew Phillips writes that Nikon is the greatest man in the history of Russia!

However, Nikon will be most remembered for holding the Patriarchal throne at the time of the schism of the Old Ritualists. Already under the last Metropolitan of Moscow, Dionysius, the errors that had crept in to the Slavonic service books began to be corrected. This work continued under all the Patriarchs, although Joseph eyed it suspiciously.

Nikon insisted on unity with the other Orthodox Churches in ritual, and pursued it vigorously initially. Eventually, he valued the unity of the body of the Church over questions of ritual, and would have allowed the Old Rite. However, it was too late, and a great persecution of those that held to the Old Rite began. It is not at all clear that Nikon called for this persecution or supported it. Eventually, controversy over his perceived excesses led to his deposition in 1653, which left the Russian Church without a patriarch for twelve years. Infighting was extremely violent in the Church in this time, and was only pushed under the rug by the Moscow Council of 1666-1667. The choice of year of this council was a bit unfortunate for the Church, since the Old Ritualists, who already saw Nikon as the antichrist, saw his sign in the digits of the date. Nikon was allowed to be commemorated as patriarch, and the Old Rite was anathematized.

What, if anything, of the reign of Nikon is reflected in Byzantium or in our day? Perhaps the book reforms and their consequences are similar to the problems in the days of iconoclasm, although the errors in the books did not constitute a heresy. They did bring about fierce opinions and violence from both sides. However, no Russian Tsar ever opposed the book reform as some of the Isaurian emperors fought against the veneration of icons. In modern times, the future remains to tell if the closeness of Patriarch Alexei with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow is similar to the friendship of Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexei. In the 17th century, the support of the Tsar helped complete the reform of the books. In the 20th century, the government of Russian and the local government of Moscow has helped enormously in the restoration of Churchs. Mayor Luzhkov is cooperating with the Patriarch to produce a phenomenal Orthodox Encyclopedia. Meanwhile, Patriarch Alexei has to tread carefully regarding tax registration numbers and the support of a vocal minority for the glorification of Ivan the Terrible and Gregory Rasputin. Both issues have threatened to produce a schism similar to that of the Old Ritualists.

The end of the Patriarchal period

Meanwhile, Joasaph II succeeded Nikon as Patriarch. During his tenure, the fruits of the Old Ritualist schism continued. The movement grew in the northwest parts of Russia and eventually took over the Solovetsky monastery. One sees how long the pains of the Old Rite affected Russia in the writings of historians. Mouravieff’s account (written in the early nineteenth century) has a scent of propaganda. For example, troops were sent to retake the Solovetsky monastery from the schismatics. What ensued is generally called the Solovetsky Uprising (solovetsky bunt). In fact, the troops killed nearly 500 monks in the monastery; Mouravieff simply notes that they took the monastery back. Even almost two hundred years later, there was fear of criticism of action taken on behalf of the Church, even if the Church did not overtly support it.

The patriarchate of Pitirim, Joasaph’s successor was not terribly noteworthy. However, under Joachim, the Old Ritualist movement gained more strength, despite his great work in opposing it. The Old Ritualist priest Nikita tried to oppose the canonical hierarchy and was executed. The madness of the Old Ritualists increased, and numbers of them burned themselves, hoping that their suicides would be pleasing to God (Mouravieff, Smirnov).

However, Joachim’s patriarchate was not completely unhappy (and the unfortunate events of the time were not at all his fault). The wars in the western parts of Russia were somewhat calmed (Sweden was finally almost annihilated by Peter the Great). The Church in the present-day Ukraine was also reunited with the Russian Church. Of course, this Church had been the source of the Russian Church, but disappeared for many years after the plunder of Kiev by the Tartars. The Kievan Church was reestablished under Constantinople in the 15th century. Finally under Joachim, almost one hundred years after the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate, the care of the Kievan Church was rightly entrusted to the Patriarch of Moscow.

The final patriarch of the first patriarchal period was Adrian. The life of the patriarch himself is mostly overshadowed in the history books by the life of Peter the Great, who was the young Tsar of the time. Volumes could be written about Peter’s effect on the Church, but his role in the patriarchal period was primarily to end the patriarchate. Fearing that Adrian was an old man with antiquated ideas, and that his successors would be of the same ilk, Peter did not allow Stephen, the locum tenens, to be enthroned, and later dissolved the patriarchate in support of the western-inspired Holy Synod. Peter hoped this new sort of Church government would be more “progressive” and allow the laity and white clergy a greater role in the ruling of the Church, which underwent many internal changes at his hand. However, a discussion of Peter belongs in a discussion of the Synodal period, so nothing further will be said here.


The Patriarchal period was probably the most important periods of Russian Church History, and features of most other periods can be found there. Russia was united under a Tsar at almost the same time as the Russian Church received its autocephaly and subsequent elevation to a Patriarchate.

This period was a true proving ground for the newly autonomous Church. The Russian Patriarchs proved their readiness for the task by fighting off the Unia, preserving the Church amidst schism, and even standing in the place of the Tsar when none was to be found. The monasticism that had grown under St. Sergius now served the spiritual needs of the country as well as being a political voice against the Poles, who besieged the Lavra and were finally repulsed.

At the same time, many of the questions that arose in the Patriarchal period are still acute issues in the current second Patriarchal period. The Moscow Patriarchate declared in 2005 that the most important issues in its relationship with other Orthodox bodies are its communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and its relations with the Old Ritualist churches in Russia that maintain their own unlawful hierarchy. The question of autocephaly for Ukraine is especially divisive. The uniting force of the Patriarchate will be invaluable in dealing with these concerns.


1. This is a more accurate translation of the standard Russian term. “Old Believer” is pejorative (although frequently also used in Russian) and inaccurate.

2. Tolstoy lists him as “St. Theodore”.

3. Autocephaly was granted in 1452 after Constantinople finally rejected the Council of Florence, which had been rejected by Russia immediately upon the return of the Russian legate, Metropolitan Isidore.

4. The Swedes referred to above and the Poles-Lithuanians were in fact a common enemy of Russians. They are referred to as Swedes sometimes in this period due to the fact that their leader was Sigismud, king of Sweden.

5. The Principles of Relations with the Heterodox (Printsipy Otnosheniya k Inoslaviyu) of the 2000 Bishop’s Council in Moscow clearly rejects the “branch theory” of the Church, and hence the language of the Balamand Council about “sister Churches”.

6. According to Kartashov, Tolstoy, and a check of dates. Mouravieff mistakenly writes nineteen.

7. And assassinated, but not by Shuisky and his men.

8. This is obviously an oversimplified summary of Justinian’s work.

9. These can be viewed at the armory in the Moscow Kremlin.

10. This Hellenism follows from the quote “I am a Russian and the son of a Russian, but my religion is Greek” attributed to Nikon.


2000 Hierarchical Council of the Moscow Patriarchate. Printsipy Otnosheniya k Inoslaviyu (Principles of Relations with the Heterodox). Available at: http://www.mospat.ru/index.php?mid=91

Billingham, James H. The Icon and the Axe: an Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Kartashov, A.V. Ocherki po Istorii Russkoi Tserkvi. (Notes on the History of the Russian Church). Internet edition under the general editing of Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

Mouravieff, A.N.. A History of the Russian Church. Translated by Rev. R.W. Blackmore. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842. Photo reproduction by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1988.

Schmemann, Archpriest Alexander. The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc., 1963.

Smirnov, Archpriest Peter. Istoriya Tserkvi. (History of the Church). Internet edition under the general editing of Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

Tolstoy, Count M.V. Rasskazy iz Istorii Russkoi Tserkvi. (Tales from the History of the Russian Church). Internet edition under the general editing of Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos), The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books, 1963 (1984 reprint).

Znamensky, P.V. Istoriya Russkoi Tserkvi. (History of the Russian Church). Internet edition under the general editing of Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

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