The weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church can be traced back to the establishment of the Petrine reforms during Peter the Great’s reign, which forced an unrequited dependence of the church upon the tsarist state



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Historians tend to focus on the economic or political issues that contributed to the initial start as well as the eventual success of the Bolshevik Revolution, yet little consideration has been taken in regards to how the loss of power of such a prevalent pillar of society, that is the Russian Orthodox Church, could have such a profound effect upon Russian society. A blending of the Russian Orthodox Church and the tsarist state that initially began with Peter the Great’s reforms and continued until Nicholas I caused the Russian Orthodox Church to suffer a crucial loss of power and persuasion that eventually allowed corruption and hypocrisy to filter into this pillar of Russian society. The existence of such corruption and the absence of power that once characterized the Russian Orthodox Church alarmed members of the Russian intelligentsia and philosophers began to sanction new religious philosophies and ideologies, namely Russian Nihilism. This prevalent new philosophy that enraptured so many Russian philosophers paved the way for the later acceptance of Karl Marx’s and eventually, Lenin’s radical ideologies, which were the very foundation of the Bolshevik Revolution. An argument can be made that as a result of the disenchantment felt by so many Russian intelligentsia due to the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church, Lenin’s offer of a new “religion”, that of Marxism with the concern of the class struggle a main focus, was a appealing promise to a brighter future, which can be counted as one of the contributing factors for the subsequent success of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church can be traced back to the establishment of the Petrine reforms during Peter the Great’s reign, which forced an unrequited dependence of the church upon the tsarist state. Under these newly created reforms, the Holy Synod was established in 1721 replacing the office of the patriarch of Moscow and this new body was responsible for a series of duties, those including “the preservation of the uncorrupted doctrine of Orthodox Christianity and proper norms for the conduct of church services, the combating of heresy and schism…the supervision of preaching, the choice of worthy hierarchs (bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans), the supervision of ecclesiastical schools” and they continue so on and so forth.1 Essentially, the Orthodox Church not only began to emulate characteristics that of a bureaucracy, but power that the clerics once had were subsequently transferred to lay officials. In addition to the apparent transfer of power, the “Synod itself was in a state of turmoil not unrelated to the procession of coups d’etat and consequent demotion and promotion, exile and recall, of high governmental and also ecclesiastical personages”.2 The Orthodox Church began to represent a mere bureaucratic organ within the tsarist state in not only allowing for the infiltration of corruption due to the increased governmental influence, but also in regards to ecclesiastical laws. The Church essentially lost all legislative influence and authority as all “laws on ecclesiastical matters were expressions of the emperor’s authority, sometimes drafted by the Synod, yet at others prepared by a special non-synodal committee for submission to the emperor by the over procurator”.3 Although the reforms were originally designed to instigate modernization, the Church began to become overly secularized, to the point that not only were individual clergymen losing power to regulate issues, specifically legislative ones, within the church’s own walls, but the Church as a whole was becoming a belittled imperial institution. One might question where the line between church and state really began and ended because as time passed the boundaries continued to become blurred, to the point of no recognition. Moreover, the Church might have appreciated the newly gained protection guaranteed by being closely tied to the imperial state, but the costs at which were incurred resulting in a significant loss of power, prestige and persuasion outweighed the supposed benefits.4



Although the creation of the church as a “tsarist bureaucratic department” began in Peter I’s reign as tsar, it continued to Nicholas I, where the imperial oppression reached new heights. David A. Edwards in his essay “The System of Nicholas I in Church-State Relations” contends that the argument, although somewhat subjective, does exist to say that “during Nicholas’s reign the state controlled and directed the church more than at any previous period in the history of Russian church-state relations”.5 There is evidence to suggest that this claim may be true, despite the tentative subjectivity previously revealed by Edwards‘s concession. The methodical steps that Nicholas I took in molding the Church to full conformity and submission under the imperial state illustrates how truly powerless the Russian Orthodox Church had become. Not only did Nicholas I carefully build a “loyal and responsive” staff of synodal bureaucrats, but he made precise “efforts to remold the church to suit his administration conceptions and to deemphasize those points where disagreement might emerge”.6 Furthermore, the measures that Nicholas I employed continued to include the careful study of imperial laws involving the church, the remolding of the administrative structure to more closely align to that of other state ministries and lastly, he stole more powers from the hierarchy to fully suppress them to almost complete dependence upon the tsarist state.7 The manipulation that Nicholas I employed continued with the creation of new legislation, specifically the Statue on Ecclesiastical Consistories published on March 27, 1841.8 Edwards claims that the establishment of this new law “marked a fundamental shift…designed to make the church administration resemble a government ministry” and evidence of this “shift” was illustrated with the complete overhaul of the consistories, which helped to increase the power of the over procurator and minimized the “diocesan bishop’s role in the church’s management”.9 Although the Church gradually loss power to the imperial government that began in the reign of Peter I, specific legislation enacted by the tsar to limit the actual role of bishops clearly illustrates just how bold Nicholas I was in fully suppressing and submitting the Church to state domination. The measures, however, taken by Nicholas I to suppress and control individual hierarchs did not end with that newly created legislation, but continued with the initiation of investigations and recommendations of disciplinary actions in hopes of scaring the bishops into silence submission.10 The exhaustive efforts of Nicholas I to manipulate the Church under the imperial umbrella of control illustrates just how detrimental the loss of power was to the Church structure as a whole as well as individual hierarchs. The supposed benefits of such bold moves taken by Nicholas I were clearly lost because of the severe negative affects upon the Church. The once powerful and independent Russian Orthodox Church was reduced to a mere counterpart of the tsarist bureaucracy subject to the whims of the various emperors with a depilating dependence upon the tsarist state. The Church could no longer stand alone in its mission to preserve and teach the Russian Orthodoxy faith, but must mirror any other state ministry in regards to the fully dependent nature of them upon the emperor for guidance and at what cost to the Russian society as a whole? Were Peter the Great and the Nicholas I fully considering the ramifications for the Russian public as they allowed the blurring of the boundaries of state and church relations to occur? Although these questions may appear to be ambiguous at first, one should consider them as further illustrations are revealed as to how the Church was affected by its gradual loss of power.

Moreover, it must first be recognized that the initial emergence of the Church as a bureaucratic puppet in the imperial government during the reign of Peter I and the continuation until the reign of Nicholas I allowed for corruption to seep into the Church structure. Gregory L. Freeze notes in his essay entitled “Revolt from Below: A Priest’s Manifesto on the Crisis in Russian Orthodoxy” that the Church, specifically in 1858, was indeed suffering because “its problems were legion, its resources meager, its influence waning”; not to mention that the “Diocesan administration suffered from venality, malfeasance, and arbitrariness; the seminaries were a shambles, afflicted with poverty and pedagogical disarray; the parish clergy had become a virtual caste, impoverished, isolated, and disparaged”.11 As Freeze contends in his essay, the problems within the Church were becoming rampant, to the point that laymen and officials were recognizing that radical reform needed to be implemented and they began to compose secret proposals calling for reformative measures. An argument could be proposed that the Church’s lack of ability to deal with the apparent problems were an indirect result of the extreme measures taken by the tsars to mold the Church into an organ of the tsarist state bureaucracy. Nonetheless, exposure of the Church’s problems reached a new depth when a provincial priest, Ioann Stepanovich Bellustin, composed an expose entitled Description of the Rural Clergy, which alerted the public to the Church’s corruptive sufferings. The composition of this radical memoranda reflects a more significant issue, in that a clergyman not only recognizes the apparent corruption within the Church, but that he writes the plain truth, despite the controversies that it reveals. Specifically, Bellustin exposed his strong disappointment and dislike of the clergy in an 1849 diary entry that proclaimed “ ‘O monks, an evil greater than any other, Pharisees and hypocrites: junoesque tandem abutere with your rights? Quousque tandem will trample law and justice? You promote and award distinctions to those who have the means to feed you, like oxen; you reward those who can pay; you persecute and destroy the poor…Quousque tandem?’”.12 Although this diary entry does reveal blatantly how disgusted Bellustin was with the clergy’s hypocrisy and their desire for monetary gain at the cost of poor, a more well-rounded exposure of the Church’s clerical problems are illustrated in his untitled zapiska that was written in compliance with the consultation of various other priests.13 Freeze notes that the zapiska was a “comprehensive analysis of the church and its problems and raised questions about virtually every facet of clerical life and service…structured as a chronological account of a priests life” with concise details critiquing the church schools and seminaries as well as referencing specific problems in administration, faculty, student life and curriculum.14 Moreover, the grievances continued to range from how the actual entry into priestly service was plagued by unfairness to the diocesan authorities indulging in “rampant extortion and corruption-- the ’gifts’ and ’incidental fees’ that greased the wheels of administration and `justice”.15 Clearly, Bellustin’s truthful explication illustrates how the Church was indeed faced with far ranging corruption and hypocrisy that had a profound affect upon not only individual lower clergymen, but the Russian public as a whole. In addition, the exposure of such hypocrisy also reveals just how inadequately the Church was able to deal with such corruption within its walls and the fact that it took a public alert of its problems to really initiate any real move to offer resolutions demonstrates its lack of motivation to be an effective religious institution. The public awareness of the existence of such corruption also had other more detrimental effects that would ultimately shape the future for not only the Russian Orthodox Church, but Russia as a whole country.

Obviously the grievances that Bellustin addressed in his truthful composition shed an extremely bright light upon the problems of the Church, yet the newly gained public awareness allowed for the recognition of a more prominent, if not urgent problem. According to V. A. Ternavtsev, a member of the Religio-Philosophical Assemblies of 1901-03, he recognizes and admits to the widening of a “more pronounced gulf between the intelligentsia and the Church”16. This concession may not seem so significant, but if put in a boarder perspective, this reveals just how powerless and inept the Church was becoming. The gradual loss of persuasion was accumulating into a bigger, more long ranging quandary. Furthermore, Treadgold in “Russian Orthodoxy and Society” recognizes that “the church was failing to meet the religious needs of a substantial segment of the people of Russia. Not only did it fall short in satisfying the intelligentisa, or those among the group who were open to religious issue, but it could not hold many simple people”.17 This is an extremely significant statement because it directly reflects the boarder issue of the Church’s loss of power and how its influence was not only being discredited, but entirely disregarded. When Treadgold remarks that it “could not hold many simple people”, he is acutally making a profound realization as to the situation unfolding in Russia at that time. The Church, a prominent pillar of society that was supposed to offer guidance and stability, was not only finding itself riddled with corruption and hypocrisy, but because of those very obstacles, was distancing itself from the powerfully persuasive intelligentsia and the “simple people” of Russia. The crumbling of the Church and its structure can be directly linked to the forced submission imposed upon by the various tsars to bring the Church under the tsarist bureaucratic umbrella.



The weakening of the Church was no longer a hidden quandary, but one that the Russian public, specifically the intelligentsia, recognized and enacted significant reactions that followed the unveiling of the rampant corruption and hypocrisy. The initial and most noteworthy reaction felt by so many philosophers that made up the intelligentsia was a disenchantment towards the Russian Orthodox Church. This debilitating disenchantment was most notably expressed in the writings of Dobroliubov and Chernyshevsky, who popularized a prevalent new type of religious thought, known as Russian Nihilism.18 Specifically, Berdyaev notes that Dobroliubov “was wounded by the decadent, unspiritual life of the Russian clergy [and] he lost his faith because he could not stand the scandal and injustice of the world, or the baseness of his Orthodox Christian surroundings” and so he finds answers in this radical new religious psychology.19 In addition to Dobroliubov, Chernyshevksy was referred to as the chief theorist of Russian Nihilism and of atheistic Socialism and was credited to composing the novel entitled What’s to be Done, which recommends a Nihilist social Utopia.20 This religious philosophy was especially significant because it was “characterized by the quest of truth at all costs, a protest against every conventional lie and hypocrisy” as well as an “asceticism without grace; asceticism not in the name of God, but in the name of the future welfare of mankind, in the name of a perfect society“, which can be translated into the renunciation of the Church or the Orthodox faith for that matter, by the intelligentsia after the unveiling of the various atrocities that troubled the Church.21 The reason that this newly prevalent religious philosophy is so noteworthy in the sequential events relating to the Church’s loss of power and the disenchantment of the intelligentia was the connection to the emergence of “Russian narodnichestvo”, which was the “belief that the real truth of life is to be found in the working people (narod), especially in the peasantry”.22 The intelligentsia newly found obsession with the working people and their well being could arguably be the very roots of the subsequent socialist Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, Berdyaev proposes that Nihilism “brought forth the main themes that operate and triumph in the Bolshevik Revolution: [namely],..the creation of a better social order; substitution of social utilitarianism for all absolute morality; exclusive domination of natural science and exclusive domination of natural science and political economy; together with suspicion of the humanities; recognition of the laborers, workmen and peasants, as the only real men; oppression of interior personal life by the social principle and social utility; the Utopia of a perfect social structure…”.23 Although these themes were arguably the basis of Russian Nihilism according to Berdyaev, they were never explicitly divulged as the thematic foundation for the Bolshevik Revolution until Lenin expressed such dogmatic beliefs in his various speeches and writings. It is important to recognize the apparent connection revealed, but one must first examine how a search to answer the pressing “religious question” began to unfold as Russian Nihilism became a prevalent religious philosophy that began to enrapture the Russian intelligentsia. The very idea that Russian Nihilism was becoming an accepted philosophy among the intelligentsia reveals how apathetic they felt towards the Church, or more specifically religion in general. The Russian intelligentsia were disheartened and disenchanted by the appalling discretions of the Church and so they began to look elsewhere for answers and direction. Russian Nihilism were the foremost appealing religious philosophy to capture their attention, but one must realize how profound this initial acceptance of such a radical religious philosophy was and the implementations that were thus created. Basically, if the Russian intelligentsia would accept the theories of this new religious philosophy, what else would they accept to govern their lives? This question, although somewhat ambigious, was answered when the ideologies of Karl Marx and later, Lenin began to monopolize the attention of the Russian intelligentsia. The roots for such acceptance of these radical ideologies must be found from somewhere, and one could argue that Russian Nihilism helped to lay the initial groundwork for the subsequent compliance to such ideologies.

The radical ideologies of Karl Marx and later, Lenin are quite expansive and the examination must be merely limited to their specific views on the “religious question”, which one can gather the Russian intelligentsia were in search for the answers to such a pressing matter. The reason why it is essential to examine Karl Marx ideology in response to the “religious question” was because of how influential his ideologies were in shaping those formulated by Lenin. According to Kline in Religious and Anti-Religious Though in Russia, he claims that Marx not only believed that “religion is a historically conditioned and transitional phenomenon”, but it “was fated to give way to a total, and totally non-religious, truth”, which reveals how closely connected his ideology was to that of Russian Nihilism.24 In addition, Marx proclaims in relation to this notion that there is “truth beyond religion”, that “religious attitudes and values and religiously based morality are to tbe superseded by secular attitudes and values and by ‘socialist morality’”, which “provide a support for the class struggle of the proletariat…before the social revolution”.25 In other words, the Marxist theory affirms that religion changes and transforms as time transcends, which offers no real stability or guidance to society; thus, it is “doomed to whither away”.26 To further extend this crucial point, Marx clearly points out that “the basis of irreligious criticism is this: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. And indeed religion is the [defective] self consciousness and self-regard of man who has either not yet found or has already lost himself”. 27 Marx’s theory demonstrates the belief that religion not only changes with time, but because of this the reliance that humankind had supposedly had on this supernatural force is in fact void, because to state again for further emphasis, religion “is doomed to whither away”.28



Although Lenin’s theories closely emulate Marx’s theories of class struggle and social revolution, they do differ slightly. Lenin strongly affirms that “religion is not historically self-liquidating--or at least does not disappear quickly or completely enough”, which causes him to call for the suppression of “every sign and symbol of divine transcendence”.29 Moreover, Lenin asserted that “ ‘the oppression of mankind by religion is merely a product and reflection of economic oppression within society’, the proletariat must be ‘enlightened’ not by ‘books or preaching’ but by ‘its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism’”, which reveals how he believed that religion was so closely tied to the economic obstacles that obstructed the working classes from obtaining economic success. To further reveal just how negatively Lenin felt towards religion, one must examine two basic assumptions that first alleged that “religion is generated by human insecurity and fear of unanticipated and uncontrollable socio-economic change, due…to the fluctuations of the ‘free market’…[and] religion invariably functions as a tool of the exploiting classes”.30 Basically, Lenin believed that religion was contrived during the apparent class struggle to further oppress the working class and it serves no higher purpose then to distract the proletariat from gaining economic equality in the ensuing class struggle. He blatantly insists that “Religion is the opium of the people. Religion is a kind of spiritual booze or schnapps in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demands for a life in some degree worthy of man”31. Lenin’s theories in general formed the philosophical foundation for the Bolshevik revolution and specifically, his assertions in relation to the “religious question” helped to further persuade the Russian public that a genuine class struggle did indeed exist. The root of that class struggle where the proletariat was being mercilessly oppressed in the socioeconomic realm was religion, which was merely an “opium” of people.32 To further exemplify how his anti-religious views had an affect upon the Bolshevik revolutionary movement, Lenin made clear that in the ranks of the party there would be no allowance for any sort of religious affiliation or commitment in that he stated, “We demand that religion should be a private matter so far as the state is concerned, but under no circumstances can we consider religion a private matter so far as our own Party is concerned”.33 Although Lenin advocated for a separation of church and state as well as initial religious freedom to have a personal choice in the matter of the pursuance of religion, he clearly asserts the importance of the Bolshevik party commitment first and foremost. In other words, it could be argued that the Bolshevik party was a religion in its own regard, where the proletariat had a responsible to upheld the party prerogatives and its Leninist doctrine as a primal priority.

When Peter the Great first instigated the monumental Petrine reforms, little did he know just how colossal the effects would have upon the church as well as the whole of Russia. The reforms initiated a detrimental blending of church and state that forced the church to move from an independent institution to one fully dependent upon the tsarist state. This dependence resulted in a crucial loss of power for the church resulting in the transformation of a once autonomous religious institution into a mere sate ministry that was forced to comply under a restrictive bureaucratic umbrella. To make matters worse, the belittling of the Church continued to occur and the gradual loss of power came to a headway under Nicholas I. He instrumentally pushed the already wavering Church structure over causing it to crumble under complete state dominance. As a result of this crushing loss of power, the hierarchy within the Church faced an increased amount of corruption and hypocrisy. One could argue that the state’s involvement in Church affairs caused such secular atrocities to seep into the religious institution causing a corruptive uproar of religious instruction, policies and essentially, the clergy’s way of life. The crisis that ensued as a result of the corruption reached new heights when an obscure priest revealed the Church’s in-congruencies in a full public disclosure, known as the zapiska. This honest composition was ground-breaking in the fact that a priest openly reveals the blatant truth about the corruptive atrocities occurring as well as how the hierarchs within the Church lacked the ability of resolve such rampant moral issues. The state dominance had truly taken a toll upon the Church and debilitated it to the point where it fully lacked any sort of cohesive organization. The public awareness that ensued after the publication of the zapiska not only revealed a widening of the gap between the Church and the intelligentsia, but how the Church was truly ineffectively equipped to close the gulf. The intelligentsia were also made aware of this depressing truth and a sense of disenchantment with the Church as well as the Orthodox faith followed. The hypocrisy and corruption was too domineering and no immediate resolutions were proposed or applied, so many intelligentsia members began to rely upon a new religious philosophy, that of Russian Nihilism. This newly established religious philosophy offered a way to escape the prevalent uncertainty that the Church was riddled with, which essentially affected the Orthodox faith in general. In the search for answers to the prevalent religious problems, the basis behind Nihilism seemed to offer a necessary outlet to escape the problems associated with the Orthodox faith and so many members became enraptured by its appealing ideologies. The very fact that the intelligentsia accepted this rather obscure and entirely new religious philosophy illustrates how lost they had become because of the Church’s powerless inability to offer any sort of necessary direction, religious or otherwise. Not to mention, the foundational basis of Russian Nihilism can be closely linked with the religious or lack there of ideologies, that Marx and Lenin created. Although the ideologies of Marx and Lenin differed slightly, the appeal of each were equally effectual in changing the beliefs of in not only the role of religion in an individual’s life, but about religion itself. The members of the intelligentsia were greatly affected by the Church’s loss of power and the eventual corruption that began to be such a domineering force; thus causing them to search outside the Orthodox faith for answers and direction. The initial search led them to Russian Nihilism, but the effectiveness of such an obscure, newly formulated religious philosophy did little to answer the most burning issue of all, how religion could be such a guiding, instrumental force in one’s life and when led astray, where does one turn? This was the place that several members of the intelligentsia found themselves at and this is where Lenin’s ideologies became so significant. He offered pliable answers to guide the lost members of intelligentsia and provided them with a new purpose, that which centered upon the idea of a prevalent class struggle oppressing the proletariat and their economic potential with a complete disregard and rejection of the power of religion. Essentially, Lenin called for the intelligentsia to look beyond the idea that religion could provide necessary direction and to focus their attention on the more pressing matter of a socialist revolution, more specifically the Bolshevik revolution. Therefore, an apparent connection could be made that the Church’s loss of power and prestige caused by the state’s bureaucratic dominance attributed to the intelligentsia’s acceptance of ideals of Leninism, their subsequent dismissal of religion with the replacement of an adherence to the objectives of a proletariat, socialist revolution; thus, being one of the contributing forces that resulted in the subsequent success of the initial Bolshevik Revolution in 1905 and later the more long lasting one of 1917.


1 Donald W. Tread gold “Russian Orthodoxy and Society” pg 23

2 Ibid pg 24

3 Marc Szeftel “Church and State in Imperial Russia” pg 132

4 Ibid, pg 136

5 pg 155

6 Ibid 156

7 Ibid pg 156

8 Ibid pg 157

9 ibid pg 157

10 ibid pg 162

11 Gregory L. Freeze ‘Revolt from Below: A Priest’s Manifesto on the Crisis in Russian Orthodoxy” pg 90.

12 Freeze pg 95

13 ibid pg 100

14 ibid 100.

15 ibid 100-101.

16 Donald W. Tread gold “Russian Orthodoxy and Society” pg 29

17 Ibid 29

18 Nicolas Berdyaev “The Russian Revolution” pg 14

19 ibid 14-15

20 ibid 15

21 ibid 16

22 ibid 21

23 ibid 17

24 Kline “Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia” pg 130

25 ibid 130

26 Ibid 131

27 Ibid 132

28 Ibid 131

29 Ibid 134

30 ibid 140

31 VI Lenin “Socialism and Religion” Collected Works pg 142

32 kline 144

33 ibid 145



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