Russian Orthodox Church

Anastasia V. Mitrofanova


1589:  Iov was elected the first Patriarch of Moscow.

1654:  Patriarch Nikon’s ecclesiastical reform and the Schism took place.

1666-1667:  The Great Moscow Council anathematized the Old Rite.

1686:  The Metropolitanate of Kiev joined the Moscow Patriarchate.

1700–1917:  The Synodal Era occurred.

1811:  The Georgian Orthodox Church was included into the Russian Church as an Exarchate.

1917:  The Patriarchate was reinstated.

1918-1939: The Church was persecuted by the atheist Soviet state.

1921:  The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was formed.

1922-1946:  Tthe Renovationist movement in the Church took place.

1927:  The Synodal Epistle (“Declaration of Loyalty”) was written by Metropolitan Sergii.

1939-1941:  Parishes on the new territories returned to the Moscow Patriarchate.

1943:  Metropolitan Sergii was instated as Patriarch.

1943-1948:  The Russian Orthodox Church recognized Georgian and Polish autocephalous churches.

1945:  Aleksii I (Simanskii) was installed as Patriarch.

1956:  An autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church was created as a part of the ROC.

1958-1961:  The “Khrushchev persecution” took place.1961:  The ROC joined the World Council of Churches.

1971:  The Local Council elected Patriarch Pimen (Izvekov) and de-anathematized the Old Rite.

1970-1971:  Autonomous churches in America and Japan were created as parts of the ROC.

1988:  The Soviet government changed its attitude toward the Church.

1990:  Aleksii II (Ridiger) was elected the Patriarch.

1989-1992:  Autonomous churches in Estonia, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine, and the Belorussian Exarchate were created as parts of the ROC.

1997:  The ROCOR rejoined the ROC.

2000:  The Bishops’ Council adopted the new Statute and the Basis of the Social Concept.

2009:  Kirill (Gundiaev) was elected the Patriarch.

2019:  Some parishes from the Archdiocese of the Constantinople Patriarchate in Western Europe joined the ROC.


The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) belongs to the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches. Orthodox believers proclaim that Jesus Christ is the founder, but each of the local churches has its own history. Even though the name Russian Orthodox Church was adopted only in 1943-1945, its history began with the formation of a sovereign (autocephalous) Moscow Patriarchate. Legendary Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev is venerated for planting Orthodox Christianity in Rus’ in 988, together with his grandmother Ol’ga believed to be baptized in 957. [Image at right]

With his support the Metropolitanate of Kiev was created, although the first Metropolitans, usually of Greek origins, as well as the Holy Myrrh, used to be sent to from Constantinople. Information about the early period of Christianity in Russia is fragmented and unreliable. Around 1300, due in large part to the Mongolian invation, the Metropolitan See was moved from Kiev to Vladimir, and in 1325 to Moscow (it was still called “of Kiev”). In, 1441, Metropolitan Isidor, appointed by Constantinople, was banished on the basis that in 1439 he had signed the Florence Union with Roman Catholics. The next Metropolitan, Iona, was elected in1448 by the council of Russian bishops. He was the last one to use the title “Metropolitan of Kiev.” The Church in Russia, in fact, proclaimed autocephaly. In 1589, the Patriarch of Constantinople instated Metropolitan Iov as the Patriarch of Moscow; in 1590, he was recognized by the other partriarchs and his name was inscribed in the diptychs (lists of bishops to be commemorated during the Liturgy) as the name of the fifth Patriarch. In 1654, ambitious Patriarch Nikon initiated a reform of liturgical texts and rituals; in particular, he prescribed making the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two. The Old Believers schismatic movement emerged that exists till now.

In 1700, after the Patriarch had died, Peter the Great prevented the election of his successor. In 1721, the Spiritual Regulation came into force, indicating that the Russian Church was collegially governed by the Most Holy Synod under the supervision of a state official called “Chief Procurator.” The Synod possessed patriarchal power, but was subordinated to mundane authorities. In fact, the Emperor of Russia became the administrative head of the Church. Peter the Great also initiated the first stage of secularizing the ecclesiastical property (land and serfs); the number of priests was downsized, and some of them downgraded to serfs. Strict legislation prevented the monastics from leaving their monasteries. Catherine the Great continued this secularization policy in 1764.

Ecclesiastical and political life in the Synodal Era was inseparable: offences against the Orthodox faith were subject to criminal punishment. Once a year each Orthodox believer had to make confession and to take communion. On the one side, the Empire protected the Church. For example, it was forbidden to change from Orthodoxy to other faiths. On the other side, the Church paid back by lost independence. Priests were obliged to break the secret of confession in case someone plotted against the state and the Emperor. Private religious life, especially that of the educated classes, was becoming more and more formal. At the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century there was an outburst of interest in Orthodoxy (including iconography and church architecture), but the 1917 revolution brought this renaissance to an end.

The Council of the Russian Church, held from August 1917 to September 1918 reinstalled the Patriarchate and elected Patriarch Tikhon (Belavin). It also made many decisions concerning modernization of the ecclesiastical life, but they were never implemented. In January 1918 the Soviet government finalized the process of secularizing the possessions of the Church by stripping it of legal personality altogether (it was forbidden to own property, to employ personnel, etc.). In 1918-1922 the government initiated a campaign for the exposure of relics with subsequent utilization of the remains of saints or transferring them to anti-religious museums. 1922 also faced a campaign for confiscation of valuables, including liturgical vessels, from churches under the pretext of the need to combat the famine. In this period many bishops, priests and lay people were arrested or executed on the basis of various accusations.

Multiple ecclesiastical organizations alternative to the Moscow Patriarchate mushroomed in the former Russian Empire. The churches of Estonia, Poland and Finland split, and were recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Churches in Georgia, Ukraine and Byelorussia proclaimed autocephalies. At the same time, civil war hampered the communications between bishoprics and the Patriarch; on November 20, 1920 Patriarch Tikhon granted to the bishoprics the right to proclaim temporary autocephaly in case the connections with the center were broken. Leaning upon this permission, some representatives of the Russian Church, who happened to be abroad for different reasons, gathered in November 1921 in a Serbian city of Sremski Karlovci to establish the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).

Modernizing trends within the Church, which manifested in the preparation period for the 1917 Council, engendered diverse “Renovationist” groups, openly supported by the Soviet government for being loyal to it. In May 1922, the Renovationists established the Higher Church Administration headed by bishop Antonin Granovskii. Their representatives seized power in all bishoprics, and on April 29, 1923 the Renovationist Local Council dismissed Tikhon and initiated ecclesiastical reform (it included permitting the second marriage for priests, married bishops, etc.). Centralized ecclesiastical administration collapsed; temporarily autonomous bishoprics and those in communication with Patriarch Tikhon split from the Renovationists. [Image at right] To handle the collapse, on June 29, 1927 Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodskii), Locum Tenens after Patriarch Tikhon’s death in 1925, proclaimed in his Synodal Epistle that the Church was loyal to the Soviet government; he also ordered to pray for civil authorities and the armed forces of the USSR during the Liturgy.

The Epistle led to the emergence of “non-mentioning” believers, who did not pray for authorities and the army, as well as for Sergii and his successors. They are also known as “the catacomb communities” and “the true Orthodox Christians.” It was not a new church, but multiple separated groups, which could later merge or retain autonomy. “Declaration of Loyalty” also made the ROCOR that remained on its anti-Soviet and monarchist positions split from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Relative normalization of church-state relations and mitigation of repression occurred in 1939-1941, when the USSR adsorbed new western territories, where normal ecclesiastical life was flourishing. In that period, the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Soviet state coincided.  With the help of the state, parishes in the Baltics, in Western Ukraine and Belarus, and in Bessarabia were transferred under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church.

Immediately after the USSR entered the Second World War (1941), the Church articulated its patriotic position. On September 4, 1943, during a meeting with Metropolitan Sergii and two other bishops, Stalin permitted election of the Patriarch. On September 8, the Bishops’ Council was urgently summoned to instate Sergii as the Patriarch. On September 14, the Council of the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church was created at the Sovnarkom (cabinet of ministers) of the USSR. This meant that the state no longer intended to eliminate the Church altogether. This change in Soviet policy was partly the product of the state’s plan to use the Church for warming up patriotic feelings of the population, partly by the pressure from the Allies, concerned about Christianity in the Soviet Union, and by the prospect of postwar territorial expansion. To assist the state, the Church in the postwar period started to participate in the international peace movement and in the ecumenical initiatives.

In 1945, the Church was granted a limited legal personality; it was also given back some buildings of the Trinity-St.Sergii Lavra and the relics of St Sergii of Radonezh. Mitigation of the state’s anti-religious policy made the Church organizationally stronger. The Renovationist Movement was shrinking; by 1946, its last activists had repented and joined the Moscow Patriarchate. On March 8-10, 1946, the assembly of Greek Catholic priests in Lvov voted for rejoining the Orthodox Church. Since the ROC became involved in international activities and needed professionally trained employees, its administrative structure became more complicated. In 1946, the first Synodal Department of External Church Relations was established.

In the second half of 1948, church-state relations cooled down: the state ceased to give permissions for opening new churches. This trend either disappeared or reappeared up to 1958, when a new massive attack on the Church started, comparable in its scope and intensity to the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s-1930s (the so called “Khrushchev persecution”). This implied shutting down monasteries, churches and seminaries; liquidation of pilgrimage sites; increased control over ordinary believers. For the first time in Soviet history, the government was able to secure marginalization of the Church and visible secularization of everyday life. New civil rituals (marriage, funeral, name-giving, etc.) were expected to replace religious rites. Open repression stopped in 1964 after Nikita Khrushchev had been dismissed from office, and the Church continued to function within a state-permitted niche. The 1980s presented a slight resurrection of public interest to the cultural (meaning, Russian rural culture) and spiritual (search of life’s meaning) heritage of the Church. Some religious items (cross necklaces, icons) even became fashionable, although disapproved of by Soviet propaganda.

The attitude of the Soviet state toward the Church changed abruptly in 1988, when the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ was officially celebrated. The Church was given back many of its historical churches, monasteries, and relics. The new Law on Freedom of Consciousness and Religious Organizations, which was adopted on October 1, 1990, granted full legal personality to the Church.Democratization and the subsequent collapse of the USSR had an impact on the Church as well. According to the 1988 Statute, the ROC was defined as a “multinational” church; later it granted full or partial autonomy to the bishoprics in the newly independent states. This did not fully prevent the emergence of new jurisdictions. For example, in 2018 the Orthodox Church of Ukraine proclaimed unilateral autocephaly, and was recognized by the Constantinople Patriarchate and some other sister-churches.


The doctrines of the ROC do not differ from those of the other Orthodox Churches. They assent to the the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and their doctrines can be briefly summarized as beliefs that God is One in Three Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit); that He became incarnate on Earth as Jesus Chirst; and that He was crusified and rose again on the third day. The Church envisions incarnation and resurrection of Christ through the lens of restoring an image of God in human beings that opens the way to their salvation (i.e., to restoring likeness to God), or divinization (Greek: theosis). Believers are expected to follow the path of Christ; this means to die (in the sense that they put to death their passions and sinful intentions) and to resurrect as new, deified human beings. The Church provides Christians with supprort on this path as Orthodox doctrine cmphasizes synergy, i.e. on the mutual movement of God and a believer toward each other.

The Orthodox believe in the virgin birth of Jesus; His Mother, the Most Holy Theotokos, is Ever Virgin. The doctrine teaches about the two coexisting natures of Christ (divine and human), which  makes Him perfectly divine and perfectly human. Unlike Christ, the Theotokos and the saints are mortals who have reached likeness to God. The Theotokos is unique due to being the second and only human being, not counting Christ, the God-Man, who has already risen from the dead in the flesh. The bodies of the other people, according to the Orthodox beliefs, will resurrect only for the Last Judgement. Orthodoxy has no elaborated concept of what happens with the dead in-between. It is commonly accepted that their souls go to hell or to heaven (or to the “hallway” of heaven).

Beliefs and practices of the ROC are based not only on the Holy Scripture, but also on the tradition of the Church, both written and oral. Most of the oral tradition is already written down; educated believers and religious professionals often label what remains orally transmitted as “folk” Orthodoxy, or even as “paganism.”


Rituals and practices of the Orthodox Churches, unlike the doctrines, allow for some degree of local and cultural specificity.

The ROC has specific rituals depending on climate, such as Epiphany bathing in cross-shaped ice holes, untypical in warmer countries (although all Churches have some Epiphany-related bathing traditions). [Image at right] Some practices emerged in the period of repression. Since churches were closed and holy relics not accessible, believers turned to the sacred sites of secondary significance, such as water springs. Instead of divine service, people attended cemeteries.

The ROC, as well as several other Churches, keeps to the Old, or Julian, calendar, thirteen days behind the Gregorian one. This fact engenders some everyday problems, for example, the New Year Day (one of the most popular and merry holidays in the postsoviet area) falls on the Christmas fast. Divine service can be Lenten, Paschal and regular. Paschal service is called to manifest the joy of the Resurrection, although it only slightly differs from the regular one. For example, there is a specific Paschal canon (hymn), and it is not chanted, but sung by a choir. Lenten and pre-Lenten service is unlike the regular ones: some hymns (for example, “By the Waters of Babylon”), or whole rituals (Taking out the Holy Burial Shroud) can be heard and performed in this period only.  It is specific to the ROC that the matins is served in the evening, following the vespers, while the Liturgy is celebrated in the morning next day.

The Church differentiates between the rituals, performed by people (such as the blessing of fruits or Paschal cakes) and the mysteries, performed with God’s participation. Commonly, Orthodoxy counts seven mysteries: Baptism, Chrismation, Communion (the Eurcharist), Penance, Unction, Marriage, and Ordination. The Eucharist is the central mystery, where bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. In the ROC, as well as in the other Orthodox churches, both lay people and clerics are offered the Body and Blood. Consuming the Holy Gifts, believers are united with God and with the Church; it is how they can reach divinization. The Eucharist can be celebrated only by an ordained priest having apostolic succession. Some other mysteries can be performed by lay people, including women (Baptism).

Divine service in the ROC is mostly conducted in Church Slavonic, although other languages can also be used in the event that the congregation does not consist exclusively of ethnic Russians. Church Slavonic is an artificially composed language; it has never been used for vernacular purposes. Many Church Slavonic words became part of the Russian language; they are often used in classical poetry, for example, by Aleksandr Pushkin. A contemporary native speaker of Russian, who never studied Church Slavonic, understands sixty to eighty percent of what is recounted \ written in this language. There are intra-church initiatives in support of changing to the Russian liturgical language, but they are supported by only a few believers. At the moment, renouncing Church Slavonic would be difficult, because most of hymns and prayers are tailored to be sung in accordance to specific musical modes (glasy). It is hardly possible to create Russian translations of equal value for all of them. Commonly, prayer books and liturgical texts for lay people are printed in Church Slavonic but use the modern Cyrillic alphabet. Texts intended for priests are printed in the Old Slavonic alphabet.

In the Synodal Era even pious people took communion just several times a year. Rare communion engendered specific three-day preparation that implies fasting and extensive prayers. Transition to more frequent communion (every week or even more often) in the second half of the twentieth century was, most likely, caused by the anti-religious repression, because every Liturgy could have become the last. Currently the communion rythm of the Synodal Era is considered unacceptable, and the preparation period became needless for believers who live normal ecclesiastical lives and fast every Wednesday and Friday. Rare communion also resulted in the practice of obligatory confession before each communion in the Russian Church. Now it is also seen as needless for frequent church-goers who have spiritual advisors.

As it is in the other Orthodox Churches, informal spiritual guidance is important in the ROC. Ideally, each believer should have a spiritual advisor (father),  a priest, a monk, an experienced lay person (a woman can be a spiritual mother). Only ordained priests have the right to hear the confessions. There is a practice of discussing one’s spiritual life with an advisor and to confess to a priest later. Many believers, however, claim that they do not have spiritual advisors. Some congregations preserve the practice of group confession that emerged in late nineteenth century, introduced by St Joann of Kronstadt (d. 1908). In group confession, the confessor names various sins before a group of penitents, and everyone is expected to confirm committing them.

In the Synodal Period the Church started to print Prayer Books that contained morning and evening sequences of prayers for lay people to use at home. There is an important pan-Orthodox practice of constantly chanting (using prayer ropes, or bracelets) of a short Prayer of Jesus. [Image at right] It is expected that believers deeply involved in this practive can reach the state of ceaseless prayer that continues even while sleeping. The “Prayer Rule of St Seraphim of Sarov” is specific for the ROC and implies chanting short prayers three times a day.

Orthodox rituals include veneration of the Theotokos and of the saints. Every city, bishopric, or country has its own locally born saints, who provide special protection to their compatriots. St Sergii of Radonezh, who is called the Hegumen of the Russian Land, is particularly venerated by the ROC. Official canonizaton often results from veneration from below. Historically, religious processions in the name of sainst\icons became a popular post-Soviet Orthodox practice, although as early as in mid-1800s their usefulness was seen as questionable. Some routes for the processions have long histories (for example, the 150 km Velikoretskii route with the icon of St Nickolas from the city of Kirov to a village where the icon used to be found), while some other are relatively new (the twenty-one km route to the place near Yekaterinburg where the Romanovs Royal Family was executed in 1918). Piligrims walk to accompany a specific highly venerated icon, or to commemorate some event, singing hymnes and prayers. Contemporary processions normally imply pre-organized free food and camping, as well as medical assistance to participants.

Fasting in the ROC varies from full abstention from food to abstaining from meat only, while dairy and eggs remain permitted. Most commonly, fasting means abstaining from all animal products. The Eurcharistic fast before communion is assumed (at least six hours without food and water). The other fasts in Russia are debated by the Orthodox public. Apart from various fasts throughout the year, believers are expected to fast every Wednesday and Friday; pious adherents fast on Monday as well.

The ROC clergy, as well as of the other Orthodox Churches, can be white (married) or black (monastic). Non-monastic celibate priests are an innovation. Clerics include priests (presviters) performing the mysteries and rituals; deacons, who assist the priests; and bishops, who ordain priests and other bishops. Women cannot be ordained. Traditionally, only black priests are promoted to bishops; married priests may be decorated with a mithre, which makes them somehow equal to bishops. Ordinary monastics are considered lay persons, but in the ROC monks often hold the priesthood.

A monastic without the priesthood, including women, can go through the stages of novice, rassophore (‘robe-bearer’), ‘mantle-bearer’, and hegumen (m) \ hegumena (f). [Image at right]  Rassophores are tonsured and wear monastic robes, but without taking the vows; mantle-bearers take the monastic vows; hegumen (a) is a senior monastic able to provide spiritual guidance for the others. It is possible to tonsure into the Great Schema (this person would then be called schema-monk (nun) or schema-hegumen). Schema-monastics take stronger vows, sometimes they live isolated lives in sketes. One monastic may change up to three names (as a rassophore, as a mantle-bearer and as a schema-monk). Monastics holding the priesthood (hieromonks) can be promoted to Archimandrites. If tonsured into the Schema, this person would be called Schema-Archimandrite.

The ROC’s architectural style is characterized by distinctive onion-shaped (sometimes golden) domes, zakomars (semicircular vaults of external walls), etc. [Image at right] Although in the nineteenth century the Church generally abandoned this architecture in favor of Classicism and Gothic-revival, this style is associated with Russia, and Russian churches internationally are built this way. Interiors of Russian churches are also recognizable: a high iconostasis divides the altar from the nave; walls and ceiling are brightly painted, etc.

Russian iconography mostly follows the patterns of general Orthodox Christianity, especially since some local ways to depict divine images (such as, for example, painting St. Christopher with dog’s or horse’s head) had been forbidden. What remains specific is the abundance of so-called Akafisti icons of the Theotokos, i.e. those based on selected verses from the hymns in Her honour (“Inexhaustible Chalice,” “Unfading Flower,” “The Joy of All who Sorrow,” etc.). Such icons are so highly venerated that it is not uncommon in Russia to consecrate churches in their names. Most of them also originate from Russia.





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