Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

As the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church met this week in Moscow to discuss church policies for the future, many tough issues from the past also demanded attention. To understand the bishops' stated positions on church-state relations and their guarded canonization of Bolshevik-era New Martyrs, we have to look at what happened to the church in the early 1900s and before.

Orthodoxy became Russia's official religion in 988, when Prince Vladimir authorized/ordered a mass baptism of the citizens of Kiev, and until recently the church's identity was always largely determined by its relation to the state. Orthodox patriarchs grew in power and esteem until the mid-17th century, when the reforming Patriarch Nikon attempted to assert ecclesiastic independence from he government. In 1721, Czar Peter I abolished the patriarchate of Moscow and replaced it with a state-controlled synod modeled on those of other European countries (like Germany and Sweden) with state churches. There would not be another patriarch for nearly 200 years.

In 1917, six days after the Bolshevik takeover, metropolitan Tikhon was elected patriarch and given the difficult responsibility of defining the church's relationship to a new government. Since Marxist ideology considers religion merely the "opium of the people," revolutionaries moved swiftly to bring down the church. In 1918 the church lost all its legal rights, including the right to own property. Tikhon initially resisted, excommunicating the "open or disguised enemies of Christ" (without naming the government specifically), but persecution soon overwhelmed him. His official position during the civil war was neutrality, ...

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