20 years under Putin: a timeline

In the past few months, we have witnessed a resurgence of public debate on the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church ("ROC") on the Russian political and ideological landscape. On one hand, there are Russians that have increasingly embraced the church's ways of life and observances, with fervent support for its hierarchs' activities. On the other, numerous ROC actions and statements have led to increasing criticism by progressively-minded members of society.

In January 2012, the church began openly denouncing the 2011-2012 protest ralliesVladimir Legoyda, Chair of the ROC Synodal Department, explained that the church was "concerned with the danger of revolutionary upheaval." Moreover, on a condition of anonymity, one of the Russian priests stated to Gazeta.ru that "[...] this spring, the leadership of the church designated its strategic target audience within the Russian society. This target audience is to consist of average people with average interests, and thus to coincide entirely with the pro-Putin majority. A number of harsh broadsides against the intelligentsia and speculations about its responsibility before the fatherland for the revolution of 1917, recently made by representatives of the church, signal an attempt to push the intelligentsia to the margins of church life, since it is the intelligentsia who forms the core of the protest movement."

All of these developments significantly exacerbate the split in Russian society. In light of this, Institute of Modern Russia is launching a debate about the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church. We begin with the publication of Alexander Yanov's essay. In this column, Prof. Yanov analyzes ROC activities stemming from the 13th century, reminding us that over the past six hundred years, a cynical and sycophantic current within the ROC known as the Josephites, took hold of Russia. The Josephites' chief priority has always been cooperation with the authorities, whoever they may be.



In one of many debates about the future of the Pussy Riot band I overheard a comment seeping with self-assurance: “But think of the traditional moral values of the church!” Being a historian, my interest was piqued by a specific issue emerging in that discussion: exactly which church are we talking about? If we mean the present-day Russian Orthodox Church (“ROC”), there surely must be a misunderstanding: since the mid-13th century the ROC had no moral values to boast about. It simply has no such traditions, and anyone familiar with its history can easily prove this.

As we know from our high school history lessons, Rus’ (an ethno-cultural region in Eastern Europe inhabited by Eastern Slavs, comprising the northern part of Ukraine, the north-western part of Russia, Belarus, and some eastern parts of Poland and Slovakia), was conquered by the Mongol Horde in the mid-13th century. What the Soviet history classes did not mention was that from the time of its conquest, the ROC quickly found favor with the Horde rulers. Most of us have no idea why on earth the “Mongol Tsar” (for this was how he was known in Russian Orthodox churches at the time, where priests prayed for the well-being of the Horde’s Khan as the Tsar of the Russian lands) bestowed such generous privileges and exemptions upon the ROC – exceeding those enjoyed by other churches in medieval Europe.

This was the decree issued by the Mongol Khan, a.k.a. Russian Tsar, to his army: “We don’t require the church to pay any tribute, nor any tax per plough, nor any duty, nor provide horses, nor recruits, nor food supplies, of all the Tsar’s levies, we don’t need any one from them.” In today’s terminology, this meant that the ROC was fully tax-exempt and relieved of all duties imposed upon the rest of the population of the conquered country.

In addition, and most importantly, the ROC was bestowed with the supreme power of governing and dispensing justice on its properties. And were these properties vast: under the protection of the conquering army, ROC monasteries seized over a third of all agricultural land in the country. As stated in another edict of the Tsar: “Let it have the power to investigate the truth and to administer justice and to rule over its own people in all matters concerning: robberies, theft, and all other cases, let it be decided by the Metropolitan himself, alone, or whomever he directs to do so.”

Imagine the Russian Orthodox Church standing like a prosperous fairy temple in the midst of a desolate and impoverished country. And yet the conquerors, as the reader might have already guessed, were no philanthropists. They simply paid the ROC off – for its collaborationism. Rewarded the church for having put the spiritual sword of Orthodox Christianity down at their feet, and for preaching obedience to the Mongol “Tsar” and his “glorious army.” For distancing the church from the people who rose up out of despair and were drowned in blood by ferocious Mongol military.

Naturally, as soon as the power of the Horde in Rus' became shaky, the content of pulpit prayers changed drastically: now the priests were cursing “the pagans” who had enslaved their country. That is, with barely a blink, the ROC betrayed its yesterday’s patron. As a matter of course, it expected the winning party, i.e. Muscovy, to reaffirm all the written privileges issued by the Horde and to protect the ROC’s corporate property just as fervently as it was done by the Horde.

Specifically, the ROC was concerned with mass-scale peasant flights from church-owned to boyar-owned lands, due to the fact that the latter, as a rule, imposed no corvée obligations on their peasantry. What value would the land now have without any peasants to till it? So, the ROC felt that peasants should be prohibited from switching landowners and being legally attached to the land. After all, over the centuries of the Mongol Yoke, the church became accustomed to putting its private property interests front and center - as well as to having these interests satisfied by the powers-that-be (i.e. by the Horde) upon first demand. But, all of a sudden, the ROC met its match in the new Russian authorities.

Josephites vs. Non-possessors

Ivan the Third, the founding father of the Muscovite state, found that the claims of the post-Mongol ROC were not to his liking. His stance was that the church needed to be behooved - to serve as the people’s shepherd, not a landowner, a usurer, or an entrepreneur – and not function as a state within the state. Even historians such as Andrei Sakharov, known for his extremely loyal stance toward the ROC almost to the point of servility and crediting the church for its primary role in “the struggle against Catholic aggression from the West,” are compelled to admit that “given [ROC’s] religious influence, land wealth, and multiple privileges, the church started to compete, from time to time, with the power of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy.”

So the monarch decided to bring the church to its senses. As a first step, during the drafting of the Legal Code of 1497, he secured the inclusion of a provision on the so-called Yuri’s Day (encompassing two weeks in November), during which peasants were allowed to leave monastic lands without any impediment. Upon the enactment of this law, the confinement of peasant’s mobility solely to the owner’s land was out of the question. Unsurprisingly, from that day forth the ROC harbored hatred toward the boyars, the Yuri’s Day, and the monarch.

At the time, the ROC’s chief ideologist was Iosif (Joseph) Volotsky, the Hegumen (the equivalent of an abbot in Western Europe) at the Volokolamsky Monastery. In the 15th and 16th century, the ROC called itself “the Josephites.” For the Josephites, a government that they could not rely upon, nor manipulate, and one would not grant endless privileges to the church, as the Horde Tsar did, was unwelcome.


Left: Saint Nil Sorsky (secular name Nikolay Maykov; b. 1433, Moscow; d. 1508), leader of the Non-Possessor movement. Right: Saint Josif Volotsky (secular name Ivan Sanin; b. 1439; d. 1515, Iosif-Volokolamsky Monastery), leader of the Josephites. Nil Sorsky prioritized inner perfection of a monk in the atmosphere of genuine asceticism. He spoke of raising generations of monks in this spirit of Christianity, even if they meant to serve in the secular world. Saint Iosif Volotsky, instead, saw monastic asceticism primarily as means for preparing monks for the fulfillment of administrative ecclesiastical tasks. He encouraged the maintenance of close ties between church and state, while Nil Sorsky urged the separation of the two and their complete autonomy from each other.


Yet, resentment spewing from the enactment of Yuri’s Day was only part of the story. Ivan the Third summoned his fellow thinkers to his side: the highly venerated “Trans-Volga Elders,” who had split off the Josephite monasticism and viewed the acquisitive drive of the church, let alone the enserfment of the peasantry, as a mortal sin and heresy. Very soon these “non-possessors” morphed into a powerful movement within the church and found their leaders in Nil Sorsky and Vassian Patrikeyev.

This was the non-possessors’ response to Iosif Volotsky: ”Find out and think about it, whoever among those shining with saintliness and erecting monasteries cared about acquiring villages? Who begged princes for privileges for themselves or to harm peasants? Who tortured human flesh with whips or bound it with shackles?” The non-possessors appealed to the raw simplicity of the church’s morals during the pre-Mongol era. For them, the Josephites’ acquisitive rush represented divine punishment for the betrayal of the original tradition and for the trampling on ancient Russian customs.

Along these lines, the non-possessor movement persisted over four generations – from early 1480s to the mid-1560s. Their struggle continued with varying degrees of success. Occasionally they managed to place their own bishops and even their own metropolitans. But the Josephites – whom the present-day ROC has proclaimed to be its predecessors - were more affluent, more cunning, and less bound by moral compunctions.

The Josephites’ eventually prevailed:  the chief political adversary of the Josephites – Russia’s land-owning aristocracy, the boyars – was defeated; the non-possessor movement was proclaimed heresy and destroyed; Yuri’s Day was abolished; and Russian peasantry was enserfed for good – spanning the length of three entire centuries.

As late as in the middle of the 16th century, the outcome of this epic struggle set to define all of Russia’s subsequent history was not yet clear. Monasteries were the scene of “the grand confusion.” Monastic discipline was being consumed by greed, spiritual aims by corruption, human decency by revelry and lewdness. This was evident to all, even to the young new Tsar Ivan the Fourth.

Ivan’s inquiries to the Church Council of 1551 unambiguously conveyed his mistrust toward the monastic-centered ROC. The audience is welcome to make its own deductions based on the following statement posed in the spirit of the non-possessors’ movement: “People join monasteries not for the salvation of their souls but for the sake of lifelong partying. Archbishops and hegumens purchased their positions, unconcerned wth the Divine service and the brotherhood. They purchase villages, one by one, and plead with me for landholdings. Where are those profits they get, and who benefits from them? Who will pay for all this sin? And where should lay people turn to benefit their souls and be diverted from all evil? If in the monasteries they don’t follow God’s will in anything they do – what good should we expect from ourselves, their lay flock? And through whom should we seek Divine mercy?”

The Josephites’ Pyrrhic Victory


For the Josephites, these proclamations were harrowing. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that in addition to the new Legal Code of 1550 reaffirming the law of the Yury’s Day, its last, 58th chapter also prohibited the Tsar from adopting new laws without “deliberation and consent” of the boyars. At this instance, nothing short of a coup d’etat suspending all the legislation of the Muscovite State could rescue the interests of the church establishment. Recognizing the situation for what it was, the Josephites mobilized all their formidable resources to mount such a coup.

The Josephites struck good fortune in having a Metropolitan aligned with their interests. Metropolitan Makarius was a teacher of the young Tsar and knew his weaknesses well. Ivan IV was in no way similar to his great grandfather: he was easily influenced, pathologically cruel, and desperately vainglorious. Using these valuable bits of insider information to their advantage, the Josephites preyed upon these weaknesses.

The plan of the coup consisted of three points. First, the Tsar was manipulated to believe that he was a direct descendant of no other but Caesar Augustus and had no equals in Europe, except for the Caesar of the Holy Roman Empire.

Second, provided that all “small fish” among European monarchs – mainly the Polish, Swedish, and Danish kings – denied Ivan IV recognition of his tsardom, he was convinced that he ought to teach them a lesson. Such a lesson would be taught by forcefully seizing the lands of the disintegrating Livonian Order (the territory of today’s Baltic states) – a decision that would turn into a war categorically opposed by his government.

And, finally, the Josephites suggested that the Tsar should follow the wonderful example of the Turkish Sultan Mehmet: not only did this monarch defy the opinion of his government, but also, believed in a rule based on fear. As a Josephite author wrote approvingly, “he ordered to peel their skins off alive, and so he said: if their skins grow back, then they will be forgiven. And he ordered to stuff their skins with paper and write on their skins the following: without such a fear, it is not possible to instill justice in a kingdom. A kingdom without fear is like an unbridled horse under a Tsar.”

It is hard to imagine that the most farsighted among the Josephite hierarchs were unaware of the risks of the forthcoming coup. It was evident that they were creating a monster – a power defying all laws and all limitations, capable of “peeling skins off” anyone who dared to raise an objection, an arbitrary, autocratic authority. Perhaps they weren’t blind to the consequences of their actions, but the Mongol-era thirst for having a government they could fully embrace as “their own,” that Mongol curse, so to speak, was already so deeply ingrained in most of these hierarchs that they found the risk worth taking.

Their plan was a success. As soon as the coup (known in Russian history as oprichnina) occurred, as Russia became enveloped in fear, Ivan the Fourth became Ivan the Terrible. Heads began to roll, with those of the Josephites provided no exception.

From that time forward, the ROC chose to present itself as a victim. For this purpose, it focuses upon the murder of Metropolitan Philip suffocated by the chief of oprichnina Malyuta Skuratov, or the 20th-century persecutions of the church by Lenin and Khrushchev. Yet ROC says nothing of its own role in shaping the rule of Ivan the IV, whose metamorphosis was best described by one of the brightest minds of the Decembrist movement, Mikhail Lunin, as “a rabid Tsar who washed himself for 24 years in the blood of his subjects.” The ROC also won’t tell you about their failure to do anything to assist the Provisional Government of 1917, in spite of its decision to let the church restore its Patriarchate – the inaction that contributed to the Bolshevik victory in October.

The insidious attempt of the 16th-century Josephites to rescue their privileges by resorting to a coup did not turn out in their favor: Ivan the Terrible forced them to pay for this self-invented autocracy with three instances of incomparable fear and humiliation. First, he forced their entire Council to take part in a repulsively farcical trial of their own Metropolitan. After that, he looted their monasteries in Pskov and Novgorod, leaving them penniless. And finally, the jester quasi-Tsar Simeon, handpicked by Ivan the Terrible as his own temporary substitute, took away all certificates of rights and privileges issued to them by the Horde, and demanded a prohibitively costly payment for their return. Such was the Tsar’s ironic joke.

Unfortunately, the Russian peasantry paid a much higher price for the “Mongol curse” of the church. Of course, as we remember from the history of the Mongol Yoke, the ROC was least of all interested in the fate of its own people, especially when its worldly riches were at stake. It should never be forgotten that in defending this wealth, the church caused immense suffering to its people for the second time in its history (Russia’s distinguished 19th-century historian, Nikolay Karamzin, equated the rule of Ivan the Terrible to the Mongol invasion).

And so it goes: the rolls of paper chronicling human plight, are as endless as the landscapes of Russia. Yet another field emptied, yet another possession looted, yet another person vanishing without a trace. And to think of it, all these Ignatkas, Eremeykas and Melenteykas were not boyars, not the enemies of the Tsar – just ordinary peasants who had some possessions to loot, had wives and daughters to be raped, and fields to be taken away.

The Unrepentant Church

This is the limit of my expertise as an historian of the ROC. From now on, my only advantage over the reader is that of an historic retrospect. And the latter, alas, unquestionably indicates that in the course of three and a half centuries the ROC hierarchy cared exclusively about its materialistic acquisitions/possessions. For the sake of these riches, the ROC willing to not only sell its loyalty and collaborate with a foreign invader, but also, if we are to believe Karamzin’s characteristic, to inspire a circumstances with semblances to the Mongol invasion. Moral values ceased to be recognized. If the non-possessors dared to remind the ROC about them, the church declared them “Judaizing” heretics and destroyed them. Where would “a tradition of moral values” spring from in such a context?

In theory, the Russian Orthodox Church could have acquired it in the centuries that followed. It could have done it, for example, on condition of having repented the sins that we just mentioned. But, have we ever heard a single word of repentance from any of the ROC hierarchs? To the contrary, the church officials hired a veritable army of mercenary writers to work on the justification of all its sins as ROC continued to sin – in the same spirit as it did it in the early 13th century. We can see the the same “Mongol curse” in action in 1943, when the ROC embraced Joseph Stalin, just as it had embraced the Mongol Tsar centuries earlier. Once again, the ROC sold its loyalty by collaborating with intelligence agencies of the tyrant. And we can see it now, in 2012, using its medieval canons to promote the ideological emptiness of the intelligence agencies’ rule under Vladimir Putin.


Left: Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow greets Joseph Stalin on the occasion of his 70th birthday (1949). Right: Icon portraying Joseph Stalin, where he (following a totally unsubstantiated legend) is asking St. Matryona of Moscow for her blessing. The icon appeared several years ago at the St. Princess Olga Church in the city of Strel'na of Leningrad Region. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have frequently urged the canonization of "the great leader" as a saint. They justify this rationale by stating that Stalin was deeply religious. Meanwhile, leaders of the Communist Party in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region have also addressed the Patriarch with a proposal to canonize Stalin.


In conclusion, let me add that, fortunately, present-day Josephites have not been able to destroy the tradition of the pre-Mongol Orthodox Christianity nor the non-possessors’ legacy. This heritage is carefully preserved in the hearts of thousands of priests as well as lay believers. Admittedly, their parishes are poor and their voices barely audible, silenced by the noise of the official propaganda. Yet, these parishes exist. And the very presence of this alternative ensures the future of the moral values of Russian Orthodoxy – the starting point of which is transcending the Mongol curse and acquiring independence from the powers-that-be.


Dr. Alexander Yanov is a renowned historian who has studied the Russian opposition from the beginning of its existence. Prof. Yanov, who is also a prominent expert in the field of Russian nationalism, has taught at the University of California in Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the City University of New York. Dr. Yanov is an author of twenty books translated into numerous languages, including "After Yeltsin: Weimar Russia?", published in 1995. Dr. Yanov inspired the name of an entire branch of historical science in the West. From 2007 to 2009, the New Chronograph published Prof. Yanov’s final fundamental three-volume research, "Russia and Europe: 1492–1921."