This photograph, taken from the Prokudin-Gorskii collection at the Library of Congress shows the Cathedral of St. Nicholas towering over residential structures in the outskirts of Mozhaisk, an ancient town 68 miles west of Moscow. I chose the photograph because of the striking contrast between the imposing, brightly-colored cathedral and the quaint scene of a dirt road and modest houses below it. The cathedral is just one of many beautiful religious structures constructed in and around cities in the predominantly Christian western part of Imperial Russia. By the turn of the 20th century, Christianity had been established in Russia for over 1000 years. Brought by Greek missionaries in the 9th century to the Kievan Rus’, a medieval state that later became part of the Russian Empire, it was quickly adopted by the Kievan nobility by the middle of the 10th century. As the Kievan state lost power, church leaders moved their jurisdiction to Moscow and eventually established an independent Russian Orthodox Church in 1448. The Church held great authority in medieval and Tsarist Russia, enjoying a great deal of independence from the power of the Tsars and expanding its reach to other parts of the Russian Empire. This autonomy lasted until the reign of Peter the Great.
Famous for his reforms to modernize and westernize his new Russian Empire at the beginning of the 18th century, Peter the Great saw the Church as a bastion of the past as well as the primary threat to his absolute power. In an attempt to gain more control over the Church, he abolished the Patriarchate and instituted a new governing body for the Church composed of bishops and bureaucrats appointed by the Emperor. Other reforms brought church property under state jurisdiction, limited the power and wealth of monasteries, reorganized parishes, and formalized the education of new monks and priests. He also ordered clergy to report any subversive information revealed in confession. Later, in the latter half of the 18th century Catherine the Great brought the Church even closer to the state by expanding formal education and paying clergy members through the state, effectively making them state employees. Overall, these reforms turned the Church into a bureaucratic department of the state, sapping its authority and alienating the clergy from their parishioners. Historian Gregory Freeze suggests that the weakening of the Church may have inadvertently led to the discontent that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Church was unable to help maintain order across the Empire.
Indeed, when Alexander II instituted his Great Reforms of the 1860s, emancipating the serfs and opening church schools to all people regardless of class, a shift occurred in the culture of the less powerful parish clergy. They began to preach more on social and moral issues, often arguing that the Church should become more involved in societal issues. They teamed up with left-leaning intelligentsia and other reform-minded individuals and began pushing for reform. Vladimir Lenin recognized this movement in his work Socialism and Religion writing, “[the clergymen] have now been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia.” These “awakened” clergymen played important roles in the push towards revolution. Unfortunately for them, their efforts would have disastrous consequences for the Church in the end.
Hatala, J. (2016, February 26). Religion and the Russian Revolution. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/religion-and-the-russian-revolution.html#_edn6
Prokudin-Gorsky, S. (n.d.). [General View of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from Southwest. Mozhaisk]. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/5668/#q=Prokudin-Gorskii Mozhaisk&qla=en