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The Orthodox Church of Russia

In the late 10th century, according to the legend, the pagan Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent envoys to different parts of the world to examine the local religions and to advise him which would be best for his kingdom. When the envoys returned, they recommended the faith of the Greeks, for they reported that when they attended the divine liturgy in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, “we did not know if we were in heaven or on earth.” After the baptism of Prince Vladimir, many of his followers were baptized in the waters of the Dnieper river in 988. Thus Byzantine Christianity became the faith of the three peoples who trace their origins to Rus’ of Kiev: the Ukrainians, Belarusans, and Russians.

Christian Kiev flourished for a time, but then entered a period of decline that culminated in 1240 when the city was destroyed during the Mongol invasions. As a result of the Mongol destruction, large numbers of people moved northward. By the 14th century a new center grew up around the principality of Moscow, and the Metropolitans of Kiev took up residence there. Later, Moscow was declared the metropolitan see in its own right.

When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia was throwing off Mongol rule and becoming an independent state. Because the first Rome was said to have fallen into heresy and the New Rome had fallen under the Turks, some Russians (first clearly expressed by the monk Philotheos in the early 16th century) began to speak of Moscow as the “Third Rome” which would carry on the traditions of Orthodoxy and Roman (Byzantine) civilization. With the coronation of Ivan IV as the first tsar (Slavic for Caesar) in 1547 and the enthronization of Metropolitan Job as the first Patriarch of Moscow by Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah in 1589, the two main Byzantine institutions had been recreated in Russia. The tsars came to see themselves as champions and protectors of Orthodoxy just as the Byzantine Emperors once were.

The Russian church gradually developed its own style of iconography and church architecture and its own theological and spiritual traditions. In the mid-17th century a schism took place in the Russian church when Patriarch Nikon reformed a number of Russian liturgical usages to make them conform with those of the Greek church. Those who refused to submit to the reform and insisted on continuing these uniquely Russian traditions came to be known as “Old Believers” [see The Old Believers].

The Russian Patriarchate was abolished by Peter the Great in 1721. For the next 196 years, the church was administered by a Holy Synod under regulations that brought the church under close state supervision. During this period, especially in the 19th century, a great revival of Russian Orthodox theology, spirituality, and monasticism took place. There was also extensive missionary activity that extended deep into the Russian territories in the east, reaching as far as Alaska and even the coast of northern California.

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Tags: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church