The Christian community that developed into what is now known as the Russian Orthodox Church is traditionally said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, who is thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to one of the legends, Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by St. Andrew's Cathedral.
By the end of the first millennium AD, eastern Slavic lands started to come under the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 863–69, the Byzantine Greek monks Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, both from Greek Macedonia, translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic language for the first time, paving the way for the Christianization of the Slavs and Slavicized peoples of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Southern Russia. There is evidence that the first Christian bishop was sent to Novgorod from Constantinople either by Patriarch Photius or Patriarch Ignatios, c. 866–67.
By the mid-10th century, there was already a Christian community among Kievan nobility, under the leadership of Byzantine Greek priests, although paganism remained the dominant religion. Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus′ to convert to Christianity, either in 945 or 957. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus' officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus' is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Kievan church was a junior metropolitanate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Ecumenical patriarch appointed the metropolitan, who usually was a Greek, who governed the Church of Rus'. The Metropolitan's residence was originally located in Kiev itself, the capital of the medieval Rus' state.
As Kiev was losing its political, cultural, and economical significance due to the Mongol invasion, Metropolitan Maximus moved to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.
Following the tribulations of the Mongol invasion, the Russian Church was pivotal in the survival and life of the Russian state. Despite the politically motivated murders of Mikhail of Chernigov and Mikhail of Tver, the Mongols were generally tolerant and even granted tax exemption to the Church. Such holy figures as Sergius of Radonezh and Metropolitan Alexis helped the country to withstand years of Tatar oppression, and to expand both economically and spiritually. The Trinity monastery founded by Sergius of Radonezh became the setting for the flourishing of spiritual art, exemplified by the work of Andrey Rublev, among others. The followers of Sergius founded four hundred monasteries, thus greatly extending the geographical extent of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
In 1439, at the Council of Florence, some Orthodox hierarchs from Byzantium as well as Metropolitan Isidore, who represented the Russian Church, signed a union with the Roman Church, whereby the Eastern Church would recognise the primacy of the Pope. However, the Moscow Prince Vasili II rejected the act of the Council of Florence brought to Moscow by Isidore in March 1441. Isidore was in the same year removed from his position as an apostate and expelled from Moscow. The Russian metropolitanate remained effectively vacant for the next few years due largely to the dominance of Uniates in Constantinople then. In December 1448, Jonas, a Russian bishop, was installed by the Council of Russian bishops in Moscow as Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia (with permanent residence in Moscow) without the consent from Constantinople. This occurred five years prior to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and, unintentionally, signified the beginning of an effectively independent church structure in the Moscow (North-Eastern Russian) part of the Russian Church. Subsequently, there developed a theory in Moscow that saw Moscow as the Third Rome, the legitimate successor to Constantinople, and the Primate of the Moscow Church as head of all the Russian Church. Meanwhile, the newly established in 1458 Russian Orthodox (initially Uniate) metropolitanate in Kiev (then in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and subsequently in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth) continued under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical See until 1686, when it was transferred to the jurisdiction of Moscow.
The reign of Ivan III and his successor was plagued by a number of heresies and controversies. One party, led by Nil Sorsky and Vassian Kosoy, called for the secularisation of monastic properties. They were opposed by the influential Joseph of Volotsk, who defended ecclesiastical ownership of land and property. The sovereign's position fluctuated, but eventually he threw his support to Joseph. New sects sprang up, some of which showed a tendency to revert to Mosaic law: for instance, the archpriest Aleksei converted to Judaism after meeting a certain Zechariah the Jew.
In the 1540s, Metropolitan Macarius codified Russian hagiography and convened a number of church synods, which culminated in the Hundred Chapter Council of 1551. This Council unified church ceremonies and duties throughout the Moscow Church. At the demand of the church hierarchy, the government lost its jurisdiction over ecclesiastics. Reinforced by these reforms, the Moscow Church felt powerful enough to occasionally challenge the policies of the tsar. Metropolitan Philip, in particular, decried the abuses of Ivan the Terrible, who eventually engineered his deposition and murder.
During the reign of Tsar Fyodor I his brother-in-law Boris Godunov contacted the Ecumenical Patriarch, who "was much embarrassed for want of funds," with a view to establishing a patriarchal see in Moscow. As a result of Godunov's efforts, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became in 1589 the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus', making the Russian Church autocephalous. The four other patriarchs have recognized the Moscow Patriarchate as one of the five honourable Patriarchates. During the next half a century, when the tsardom was weak, the patriarchs (notably Hermogenes and Philaret) would help run the state along with (and sometimes instead of) the tsars.
At the urging of the Zealots of Piety, in 1652 Patriarch Nikon resolved to centralize power that had been distributed locally, while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church, as interpreted by pundits from the Kiev Ecclesiastical Academy. For instance, he insisted that Russian Christians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the then-traditional two. This aroused antipathy among a substantial section of believers, who saw the changed rites as heresy, although the extent to which these changes can be regarded as minor or major ritual significance remains open to debate. After the implementation of these innovations at the church council of 1666–1667, the Church anathematized and suppressed those who acted contrary to them with the support of Muscovite state power. These traditionalists became known as "Old Believers" or "Old Ritualists".
Although Nikon's far-flung ambitions of steering the country to a theocratic form of government precipitated his defrocking and exile, Tsar Aleksey deemed it reasonable to uphold many of his innovations. During the Schism of the Russian Church, the Old Ritualists were separated from the main body of the Orthodox Church. Archpriest Avvakum Petrov and many other opponents of the church reforms were burned at the stake, either forcibly or voluntarily. Another prominent figure within the Old Ritualists' movement, Boyarynya Morozova, was starved to death in 1675. Others escaped from the government persecutions to Siberia.
Several years after the Council of Pereyaslav (1654) that heralded the subsequent incorporation of eastern regions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth into the Tsardom of Russia, the see of the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus' was transferred to the Moscow patriarchate (1686).
Peter the Great (1682–1725) had an agenda of radical modernization of Russian government, army, dress and manners. He made Russia a formidable political power. Peter was not religious and had a low regard for the Church, so he put it under tight governmental control. He replaced the Patriarch with a Holy Synod, which he controlled. The Tsar appointed all bishops. A clerical career was not a route chosen by upper-class society. Most parish priests were sons of priests, were very poorly educated, and very poorly paid. The monks in the monasteries had a slightly higher status; they were not allowed to marry. Politically, the church was impotent. Catherine the Great later in the 18th century seized most of the church lands, and put the priests on a small salary supplemented by fees for services such as baptism and marriage.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a vast geographic expansion. Numerous financial and political incentives (as well as immunity from military service) were offered local political leaders who would convert to Orthodoxy, and bring their people with them.
In the following two centuries, missionary efforts stretched out across Siberia into Alaska. Eminent people on that missionary effort included St. Innocent of Irkutsk and St. Herman of Alaska. In emulation of Stephen of Perm, they learned local languages and translated gospels and hymns. Sometimes those translations required the invention of new systems of transcription.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Ottomans (supposedly acting on behalf of the Russian regent Sophia Alekseyevna) pressured the Patriarch of Constantinople into transferring the Metropoly of Kiev from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to that of Moscow. The controversial transfer brought millions of faithful and half a dozen dioceses under the pastoral and administrative care of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus', leading to the significant Ukrainian domination of the Russian Orthodox Church, which continued well into the 18th century, with Theophanes Prokopovich, Epiphanius Slavinetsky, Stephen Yavorsky and Demetrius of Rostov being among the most notable representatives of this trend.
In 1700, after Patriarch Adrian's death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named, and in 1721, following the advice of Feofan Prokopovich, Archbishop of Pskov, the Holy and Supreme Synod was established under Archbishop Stephen Yavorsky to govern the church instead of a single primate. This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, at which time the Local Council (more than half of its members being lay persons) adopted the decision to restore the Patriarchy. On November 5 (according to the Julian calendar) a new patriarch, Tikhon, was named through casting lots.
The late 18th century saw the rise of starchestvo under Paisiy Velichkovsky and his disciples at the Optina Monastery. This marked a beginning of a significant spiritual revival in the Russian Church after a lengthy period of modernization, personified by such figures as Demetrius of Rostov and Platon of Moscow. Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky and other lay theologians with Slavophile leanings elaborated some key concepts of the renovated Orthodox doctrine, including that of sobornost. The resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was reflected in Russian literature, an example is the figure of Starets Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.
During the final decades of the imperial order in Russia many educated Russians sought to return to the church and tried to bring their faith back to life. No less evident were non-conformist paths of spiritual searching known as "God-Seeking". Writers, artists and intellectuals in large numbers were drawn to private prayer, mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy and Eastern religions. A fascination with primitive feeling, with the unconscious and the mythic was apparent, along with visions of coming catastrophes and redemption.
In 1909, a volume of essays appeared under the title Vekhi ("Milestones" or "Landmarks"), authored by a group of leading left-wing intellectuals, including Sergei Bulgakov, Peter Struve and former Marxists. They bluntly repudiated the materialism and atheism that had dominated the thought of the intelligentsia for generations as leading inevitably to failure and moral disaster. The essays created a sensation.
It is possible to see a similarly renewed vigor and variety in religious life and spirituality among the lower classes, especially after the upheavals of 1905. Among the peasantry there was widespread interest in spiritual-ethical literature and non-conformist moral-spiritual movements, an upsurge in pilgrimage and other devotions to sacred spaces and objects (especially icons), persistent beliefs in the presence and power of the supernatural (apparitions, possession, walking-dead, demons, spirits, miracles and magic), the renewed vitality of local "ecclesial communities" actively shaping their own ritual and spiritual lives, sometimes in the absence of clergy, and defining their own sacred places and forms of piety. Also apparent was the proliferation of what the Orthodox establishment branded as "sectarianism", including both non-Orthodox Christian denominations, notably Baptists, and various forms of popular Orthodoxy and mysticism.
In 1914 there were 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29,593 chapels, 112,629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 convents with a total of 95,259 monks and nuns in Russia.
The year 1917 was a major turning point in Russian history, and also the Russian Orthodox Church. In February the Tsar was forced to abdicate, the Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government - which had granted the Church numerous privileges - was overthrown. After a few months of political turmoil, the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 and declared a separation of church and state. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history. One of the first decrees of the new Communist government (issued in January 1918) declared freedom from "religious and anti-religious propaganda". This led to an aggressive communist campaign to destroy the church by mass arrest and execution of clergy, closure of churches and other religious institutions and bans on all activity except for church services. The aim was to bring about a decline in the power and influence of the Church by separating it from the people, especially the younger generations. The Church was also caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War that began later the same year, and many leaders of the Church supported what would ultimately turn out to be the losing side (the White movement).
The Russian Orthodox Church supported the White Army in the Russian Civil War (see White movement) after the October Revolution as it was not advocating an anti-religious policy. As early as 1905, Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik party, berated religion in Novaya Zhizn in 1905 "... Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man..."
Even before the end of the civil war and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church came under pressure from the secular Communist government. The Soviet government stood on a platform of antireligion, viewing the church as a "counter-revolutionary" organization and an independent voice with a great influence in society. While the Soviet Union officially claimed religious tolerance, in practice the government discouraged organized religion and did much to remove religious influence from Soviet society.
After the October Revolution of November 7, 1917, the officially proclaimed objective of the Soviet Union was to unite all of the people of the world in a Communist state free of "capitalist exploitation" (see Communist International). With such a view of the world any ethnic heritage closely tied to traditional religion and its clergy was targeted by Soviet authorities.
The Soviet Union was the first state to have elimination of religion as an ideological objective. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. Orthodox priests and believers were variously tortured and sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals. Many Orthodox (along with people of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions.
Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use. It was impossible to build new churches. Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored and encouraged by the government, which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond to. The government youth organization, the Komsomol, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox churches and harass worshippers. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press.
The history of Orthodoxy (and other religions) under Communism was not limited to this story of repression and secularization. Bolshevik policies toward religious belief and practice tended to vacillate over time between, on the one hand, a utopian determination to substitute secular rationalism for what they considered to be an unmodern, "superstitious" worldview and, on the other, pragmatic acceptance of the tenaciousness of religious faith and institutions. In any case, religious beliefs and practices did persist, not only in the domestic and private spheres but also in the scattered public spaces allowed by a state that recognized its failure to eradicate religion and the political dangers of an unrelenting culture war.
In August 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon, the former Metropolitan of All America and Canada, as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and also nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches, as well as the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church (also see the Josephites and the Russian True Orthodox Church), restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.
In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest congregation. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.
The sixth sector of the OGPU, led by Yevgeny Tuchkov, began aggressively arresting and executing bishops, priests, and devout worshippers, such as Metropolitan Veniamin in Petrograd in 1922 for refusing to accede to the demand to hand in church valuables (including sacred relics). In the time between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death. Many thousands of victims of persecution became recognized in a special canon of saints known as the "new martyrs and confessors of Russia".
In January 1918 Patriarch Tikhon proclaimed anathema to the Bolsheviks (without explicitly naming them), which further antagonized relations. When Tikhon died in 1925, Soviet authorities forbade patriarchal elections to be held. Patriarchal locum tenens (acting Patriarch) Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky, 1887–1944), going against the opinion of a major part of the church's parishes, in 1927 issued a declaration accepting the Soviet authority over the church as legitimate, pledging the church's cooperation with the government and condemning political dissent within the church. By this declaration Sergius granted himself authority that he, being a deputy of imprisoned Metropolitan Peter and acting against his will, had no right to assume according to the XXXIV Apostolic canon, which led to a split with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia abroad and the Russian True Orthodox Church (Russian Catacomb Church) within the Soviet Union, as they allegedly remained faithful to the Canons of the Apostles, declaring the part of the church led by Metropolitan Sergius schism, sometimes coined Sergianism. Due to this canonical disagreement it is disputed which church has been the legitimate successor to the Russian Orthodox Church that had existed before 1925.
Moreover, in the 1929 elections, the Orthodox Church attempted to formulate itself as a full-scale opposition group to the Communist Party, and attempted to run candidates of its own against the Communist candidates. Article 124 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution officially allowed for freedom of religion within the Soviet Union, and along with initial statements of it being a multi-candidate election, the Church again attempted to run its own religious candidates in the 1937 elections. However the support of multicandidate elections was retracted several months before the elections were held and in neither 1929 nor 1937 were any candidates of the Orthodox Church elected.
After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius, Alexy and Nikolay had a meeting with Stalin and received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, which elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus'. This is considered by some as violation of the XXX Apostolic canon, as no church hierarch could be consecrated by secular authorities. A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened.
Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. This decline was evident from the dramatic decay of many of the abandoned churches and monasteries that were previously common in even the smallest villages from the pre-revolutionary period.
A new and widespread persecution of the church was subsequently instituted under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. A second round of repression, harassment and church closures took place between 1959 and 1964 when Nikita Khrushchev was in office.
The Church and the government remained on unfriendly terms until 1988. In practice, the most important aspect of this conflict was that openly religious people could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which meant that they could not hold any political office. However, among the general population, large numbers remained religious.
Some Orthodox believers and even priests took part in the dissident movement and became prisoners of conscience. The Orthodox priests Gleb Yakunin, Sergiy Zheludkov and others spent years in Soviet prisons and exile for their efforts in defending freedom of worship. Among the prominent figures of that time were Father Dmitri Dudko and Father Aleksandr Men. Although he tried to keep away from practical work of the dissident movement intending to better fulfil his calling as a priest, there was a spiritual link between Fr Aleksandr and many of the dissidents. For some of them he was a friend, for others - a godfather, for many (including Yakunin) - spiritual father.
By 1987 the number of functioning churches in the Soviet Union had fallen to 6893 and the number of functioning monasteries to just 18. In 1987 in the Russian SFSR, between 40% and 50% of newborn babies (depending on the region) were baptized. Over 60% of all deceased received Christian funeral services.
Beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennial anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus'. Throughout the summer of that year, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many older churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.
Gleb Yakunin, a critic of the Moscow Patriarchate who was one of those who briefly gained access to the KGB archive documents in the early 1990s, argued that the Moscow Patriarchate was "practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB". Critics charge that the archives showed the extent of active participation of the top ROC hierarchs in the KGB efforts overseas. George Trofimoff, the highest-ranking US military officer ever indicted for, and convicted of, espionage by the United States and sentenced to life imprisonment on September 27, 2001, had been "recruited into the service of the KGB" by Igor Susemihl (a.k.a. Zuzemihl), a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church (subsequently, a high-ranking hierarch—the ROC Metropolitan Iriney of Vienna, who died in July 1999).
Konstanin Kharchev, former chairman of the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, explained: "Not a single candidate for the office of bishop or any other high-ranking office, much less a member of Holy Synod, went through without confirmation by the Central Committee of the CPSU and the KGB". Professor Nathaniel Davis points out: "If the bishops wished to defend their people and survive in office, they had to collaborate to some degree with the KGB, with the commissioners of the Council for Religious Affairs, and with other party and governmental authorities.". Patriarch Alexy II, acknowledged that compromises were made with the Soviet government by bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate, himself included, and publicly repented of these compromises
Metropolitan Alexy (Ridiger) of Leningrad, ascended the patriarchal throne in 1990 and presided over the partial return of Orthodox Christianity to Russian society after 70 years of repression, transforming the ROC to something resembling its pre-communist appearance; some 15,000 churches had been re-opened or built by the end of his tenure, and the process of recovery and rebuilding has continued under his successor Patriarch Kirill. According to figures released on March 2, 2011, the Church had 164 dioceses, 217 bishops, and 30,675 parishes served by 28,934 priests and 3,625 deacons. There were 805 monasteries and 30 theological schools.
The Russian Church also sought to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism and even, in the opinion of some analysts, became "a separate branch of power".
In August 2000 the ROC adopted its Basis of the Social Concept and in July 2008 its Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights.
Under Patriarch Aleksey, there were difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, especially since 2002, when Pope John Paul II created a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory. The leaders of the Russian Church saw this action as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view was based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is in schism, after breaking off from the Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believed that the small Roman Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the 18th century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy with a presence and status in Russia, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is present in other countries (including constructing a cathedral in Rome, near the Vatican).
There occurred strident conflicts with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, most notably over the Orthodox Church in Estonia in the mid-1990s, which resulted in unilateral suspension of eucharistic relationship between the churches by the ROC. The tension lingered on and could be observed at the meeting in Ravenna in early October 2007 of participants in the Orthodox–Catholic Dialogue: the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, walked out of the meeting due to the presence of representatives from the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church which is in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. At the meeting, prior to the departure of the Russian delegation, there were also substantive disagreements about the wording of a proposed joint statement among the Orthodox representatives. After the departure of the Russian delegation, the remaining Orthodox delegates approved the form which had been advocated by the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical See's representative in Ravenna said that Hilarion's position "should be seen as an expression of authoritarianism whose goal is to exhibit the influence of the Moscow Church. But like last year in Belgrade, all Moscow achieved was to isolate itself once more since no other Orthodox Church followed its lead, remaining instead faithful to Constantinople."
Canon Michael Bourdeaux, former president of the Keston Institute, said in January 2008 that "the Moscow Patriarchate acts as though it heads a state church, while the few Orthodox clergy who oppose the church-state symbiosis face severe criticism, even loss of livelihood." Such a view is backed up by other observers of Russian political life. Clifford J. Levy of The New York Times wrote in April 2008: "Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin's surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. […] This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin's tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working 'in symphony'."
Throughout Patriarch Alexy's reign, the massive program of costly restoration and reopening of devastated churches and monasteries (as well as the construction of new ones) was criticized for having eclipsed the church's principal mission of evangelizing. However, when viewed from the extremely small base remaining in 1988 when just 6893 churches and 16 monasteries were functioning in the whole of the USSR, there was an obvious and immediate need to rebuild and restore as many places of worship as were needed by the population.
On 5 December 2008, the day of Patriarch Alexy's death, the Financial Times said: "While the church had been a force for liberal reform under the Soviet Union, it soon became a center of strength for conservatives and nationalists in the post-communist era. Alexei's death could well result in an even more conservative church."
On January 27, 2009, the ROC Local Council (the 2009 Pomestny Sobor) elected Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus; with 508 votes out of 700. He was enthroned on February 1, 2009.
Patriarch Kirill introduced significant changes in the administrative structure of the Church: On 27 July 2011 the Holy Synod of the Church established the Central Asian Metropolitan District, reorganizing the structure of the Church in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In addition, on 6 October 2011, at the request of the Patriarch, the Holy Synod introduced the metropoly (Russian: митрополия, mitropoliya), administrative structure bringing together neighboring eparchies.
In February 2011 the official spokesman of the Synodal Department of the Patriarchate denied reports that the Church was about to merge with the Russian State. He said, "The Russian Church has never in its history been so independent of the state as it is now. It treasures this independence. However, it also treasures the dialogue that it has with the modern state. No doubt, this dialogue cannot be called easy, but it can be called constructive". At a conference at the Moscow State University on September 2012 Patriarch Kirill said church is not interested in obtaining state powers or even a state status "as in certain European countries".
The Church has close ties with the Kremlin including the patronage of Vladimir Putin, who has mobilized religion both inside and outside Russian borders. In cultural and social affairs Putin has collaborated closely with the Church. Patriarch Kirill endorsed Putin's election in 2012, stating Putin's terms were like "a miracle of God." Steven Myers reports, "The church, once heavily repressed, had emerged from the Soviet collapse as one of the most respected institutions....Now Kiril led the faithful directly into an alliance with the state." Mark Woods provides specific examples of how the Kirill has backed the expansion of Russian power into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. More broadly the New York Times reports in September 2016 how that Church's policy prescriptions support the Kremlin's appeal to social conservatives:
A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.
While the ROC officially is critical of nationalism, in practise it does promote fundamentalism and anti-liberalism and is host to numerous groups that promote nationalist, xenophobic and antiwestern tendencies.
The ROC constituent parts in other than the Russian Federation countries of its exclusive jurisdiction such as Ukraine, Belarus et al., are legally registered as separate legal entities in accordance with the relevant legislation of those independent states.
Ecclesiastiacally, the ROC is organized in a hierarchical structure. The lowest level of organization, which normally would be a single ROC building and its attendees, headed by a priest who acts as Father superior (Russian: настоятель, nastoyatel), constitute a parish (Russian: приход, prihod). All parishes in a geographical region belong to an eparchy (Russian: епархия — equivalent to a Western diocese). Eparchies are governed by bishops (Russian: епископ, episcop or архиерей, archiereus). There are 261 Russian Orthodox eparchies worldwide (June 2012).
Further, some eparchies may be organized into exarchates (currently the Belorussian exarchate), and since 2003 into metropolitan districts (митрополичий округ), such as the ROC eparchies in Kazakhstan and the Central Asia (Среднеазиатский митрополичий округ).
Since the early 1990s, the ROC eparchies in some newly independent states of the former USSR enjoy the status of self-governing Churches within the Moscow Patriarchate (which status, according to the ROC legal terminology, is distinct from the ″autonomous″ one): the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, Latvian Orthodox Church, Moldovan Orthodox Church, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the last one being virtually fully independent in administrative matters. Similar status, since 2007, is enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (previously fully independent and deemed schismatic by the ROC). The Chinese Orthodox Church and the Japanese Orthodox Churches were granted full autonomy by the Moscow Patriarchate, but this autonomy is not universally recognized.
Smaller eparchies are usually governed by a single bishop. Larger eparchies, exarchates, and self-governing Churches are governed by a Metropolitan archbishop and sometimes also have one or more bishops assigned to them.
The highest level of authority in the ROC is vested in the Local Council (Pomestny Sobor), which comprises all the bishops as well as representatives from the clergy and laypersons. Another organ of power is the Bishops' Council (Архиерейский Собор). In the periods between the Councils the highest administrative powers are exercised by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which includes seven permanent members and is chaired by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Primate of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Although the Patriarch of Moscow enjoys extensive administrative powers, unlike the Pope, he has no direct canonical jurisdiction outside the diocese of Moscow, nor does he have single-handed authority over matters pertaining to faith as well as issues concerning the entire Orthodox Christian community such as the Catholic-Orthodox split.
Russian traders settled in Alaska during the 18th century. In 1740, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated on board a Russian ship off the Alaskan coast. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska—to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Their missionary endeavors contributed to the conversion of many Alaskan natives to the Orthodox faith. A diocese was established, whose first bishop was Saint Innocent of Alaska. The headquarters of this North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from Alaska to California around the mid-19th century.
It was moved again in the last part of the same century, this time to New York, New York. This transfer coincided with a great movement of Greek-Catholics to the Orthodox Church in the East of the United States. This movement, which increased the numbers of Orthodox Christians in America, resulted from a conflict between John Ireland, the politically powerful Roman Catholic Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Alexis Toth, an influential Ruthenian Catholic priest of St. Mary's church in Minneapolis. Archbishop Ireland's refusal to accept Fr. Toth's credentials as a priest induced Fr. Toth to convert St. Mary's to the Orthodox Church, and further resulted in the conversion of tens of thousands of other Greek-Catholics in North America to the Orthodox Church under his guidance and inspiration. For this reason, Ireland is sometimes ironically remembered as the "Father of the Orthodox Church in America". These Greek-Catholics were received into Orthodoxy into the existing North American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time large numbers of Greeks and other Orthodox Christians were also immigrating to America. At this time all Orthodox Christians in North America were united under the omophorion (church authority and protection) of the Patriarch of Moscow, through the Russian Church's North American diocese. The unity was not merely theoretical, but was a reality, since there was then no other diocese on the continent. Under the aegis of this diocese, which at the turn of the 20th century was ruled by Bishop (and future Patriarch) Tikhon, Orthodox Christians of various ethnic backgrounds were ministered to, both non-Russian and Russian; a Syro-Arab mission was established under the episcopal leadership of Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, who was the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in America.
In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that dioceses of the Church of Russia that were cut off from the governance of the highest Church authority (i.e. the Holy Synod and the Patriarch) should be managed independently until such time as normal relations with the highest Church authority could be resumed; and on this basis, the North American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church (known as the "Metropolia") continued to exist in a de facto autonomous mode of self-governance. The financial hardship that beset the North American diocese as the result of the Russian Revolution resulted in a degree of administrative chaos, with the result that other national Orthodox communities in North America turned to the churches in their respective homelands for pastoral care and governance.
A group of bishops who had left Russia in the wake of the Russian Civil War gathered in Sremski-Karlovci, Yugoslavia, and adopted a pro-monarchist stand. The group further claimed to speak as a synod for the entire "free" Russian church. This group, which to this day includes a sizable portion of the Russian emigration, was formally dissolved in 1922 by Patriarch Tikhon, who then appointed metropolitans Platon and Evlogy as ruling bishops in America and Europe, respectively. Both of these metropolitans continued to entertain relations intermittently with the synod in Karlovci.
Between the World Wars, the Metropolia coexisted and at times cooperated with an independent synod later known as Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), sometimes also called the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The two groups eventually went their separate ways. ROCOR, which moved its headquarters to North America after the Second World War, claimed but failed to establish jurisdiction over all parishes of Russian origin in North America. The Metropolia, as a former diocese of the Russian Church, looked to the latter as its highest church authority, albeit one from which it was temporarily cut off under the conditions of the Communist regime in Russia.
After World War II the Patriarchate of Moscow made unsuccessful attempts to regain control over these groups. After resuming communication with Moscow in early 1960s, and being granted autocephaly in 1970, the Metropolia became known as the Orthodox Church in America. However, recognition of this autocephalous status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with the OCA. The Patriarchate of Moscow thereby renounced its former canonical claims in the United States and Canada; it also acknowledged an autonomous church established in Japan that same year.
Russia's Church was devastated by the repercussions of the Bolshevik Revolution. One of its effects was a flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Revolution of 1918 severed large sections of the Russian church—dioceses in America, Japan, and Manchuria, as well as refugees in Europe—from regular contacts with the main church.
Based on an ukase (decree) issued by Patriarch Tikhon, which stated that dioceses of the Church of Russia that were cut off from the governance of the highest Church authority (i.e. the Holy Synod and the Patriarch) should be managed independently until such time as normal relations with the highest Church authority could be resumed, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was established; by bishops who had left Russia in the wake of the Russian Civil War. They first met in Constantinople, and then moved to Sremski-Karlovci, Yugoslavia. After World War II, they moved their headquarters to New York City, New York, where it remains to this day.
On December 28, 2006, it was officially announced that the Act of Canonical Communion would finally be signed between the ROC and ROCOR. The signing took place on the May 17, 2007, followed immediately by a full restoration of communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, celebrated by a Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, at which the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexius II and the First Hierarch of ROCOR concelebrated for the first time.
Under the Act, the ROCOR remains a self-governing entity within the Church of Russia. It is independent in its administrative, pastoral, and property matters. It continues to be governed by its Council of Bishops and its Synod, the Council's permanent executive body. The First-Hierarch and bishops of the ROCOR are elected by its Council and confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow. ROCOR bishops participate in the Council of Bishops of the entire Russian Church.
In response to the signing of the act of canonical communion, Bishop Agafangel and parishes and clergy in opposition to the Act broke communion with ROCOR, and established ROCA, or the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Some others opposed to the Act have joined themselves to other Greek Old Calendarist groups.
Currently both the OCA and ROCOR, since 2007, are in communion with the ROC.
The Russian Orthodox Church has four levels of self-government.
- Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), a special status autonomy close to autocephaly
- Self-governed churches (Estonia, Latvia, Moldova)
- Belarusian Orthodox Church
- Metropolitan Districts (Kazakhstan, Middle-Asian)
In accordance with the practice of the Orthodox Church, a particular hero of faith can initially be canonized only at a local level within local churches and eparchies. Such rights belong to the ruling hierarch and it can only happen when the blessing of the patriarch is received. The task of believers of the local eparchy is to record descriptions of miracles, to create the hagiography of a saint, to paint an icon, as well as to compose a liturgical text of a service where the saint is glorified. All of this is sent to the Synodal Commission for canonization which decides whether to canonize the local hero of faith or not. Then the patriarch gives his blessing and the local hierarch performs the act of canonization at the local level. However, the liturgical texts in honor of a saint are not published in all Church books but only in local publications. In the same way these saints are not yet glorified and venerated by the whole Church, only locally. When the glorification of a saint exceeds the limits of an eparchy, then the patriarch and Holy Synod decides about their canonization on the Church level. After receiving the Synod’s support and the patriarch’s blessing, the question of glorification of a particular saint on the scale of the entire Church is given for consideration to the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the period following the revolution, and during the communist persecutions up to 1970, no canonizations took place. Only in 1970 did the Holy Synod made a decision to canonize a missionary to Japan, Nicholas Kasatkin (1836–1912). In 1977, St. Innocent of Moscow (1797–1879), the Metropolitan of Siberia, the Far East, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and Moscow was also canonized. In 1978 it was proclaimed that the Russian Orthodox Church had created a prayer order for Meletius of Kharkov, which practically signified his canonization because that was the only possible way to do it at that time. Similarly, the saints of other Orthodox Churches were added to the Church calendar: in 1962 St. John the Russian, in 1970 St. Herman of Alaska, in 1993 Silouan the Athonite, the elder of Mount Athos, already canonized in 1987 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In the 1980s the Russian Orthodox Church re-established the process for canonization; a practice that had ceased for half a century.
In 1989 the Holy Synod established the Synodal Commission for canonization. The 1990 Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church gave an order for the Synodal Commission for Canonisation to prepare documents for canonization of new martyrs who had suffered from the 20th century Communist repressions. In 1991 it was decided that a local commission for canonization would be established in every eparchy which would gather the local documents and would send them to the Synodal Commission. Its task was to study the local archives, collect memories of believers, record all the miracles that are connected with addressing the martyrs. In 1992 the Church established 25 January as a day when it venerates the new 20th century martyrs of faith. The day was specifically chosen because on this day in 1918 the Metropolitan of Kiev Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) was killed, thus becoming the first victim of communist terror among the hierarchs of the Church.
During the 2000 Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, the greatest general canonization in the history of the Orthodox Church took place: not only regarding the number of saints but also as in this canonization, all unknown saints were mentioned. There were 1,765 canonized saints known by name and others unknown by name but "known to God".
The use and making of icons entered Kievan Rus' following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in AD 988. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by Byzantine art, led from the capital in Constantinople. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere in the Orthodox world. Russian icons are typically paintings on wood, often small, though some in churches and monasteries may be much larger. Some Russian icons were made of copper. Many religious homes in Russia have icons hanging on the wall in the krasny ugol, the "red" or "beautiful" corner. There is a rich history and elaborate religious symbolism associated with icons. In Russian churches, the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by an iconostasis (Russian ikonostas, иконостас), or icon-screen, a wall of icons with double doors in the centre. Russians sometimes speak of an icon as having been "written", because in the Russian language (like Greek, but unlike English) the same word (pisat', писать in Russian) means both to paint and to write. Icons are considered to be the Gospel in paint, and therefore careful attention is paid to ensure that the Gospel is faithfully and accurately conveyed. Icons considered miraculous were said to "appear." The "appearance" (Russian: yavlenie, явление) of an icon is its supposedly miraculous discovery. "A true icon is one that has 'appeared', a gift from above, one opening the way to the Prototype and able to perform miracles".
Bell ringing, which has a history in the Russian Orthodox tradition dating back to the baptism of Rus', plays an important part in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In May 2011, Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, stated that Orthodox and Evangelical Christians share the same positions on "such issues as abortion, the family, and marriage" and desires "vigorous grassroots engagement" between the two Christian communions on such issues.
The Metropolitan also believes in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity as the two religions have never had religious wars in Russia. Alfeyev stated that the Russian Orthodox Church "disagrees with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly" and "believes that it destroys something very essential about human life."
The Russian Orthodox Church today has ecclesiastical missions in Jerusalem and some other countries around the world.
The ROC is often said to be the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world. Including all the autocephalous churches under its supervision, its adherents number more than 150 million worldwide—about half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Among Christian churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of numbers of followers. Within Russia the results of a 2007 VTsIOM poll indicated that about 75% of the population considered themselves Orthodox Christians. Up to 65% of ethnic Russians as well as Russian-speakers belonging to other ethnic groups from Russia (Ossetians, Caucasus Greeks etc.) and a similar percentage of Belarusians and Ukrainians identify themselves as "Orthodox". However, according to a poll published by the highly respected church related website Pravmir.com in December 2012, only 41% of the Russian population identified itself with the Russian Orthodox Church. Pravmir.com also published a 2012 poll by the respected Levada organization VTsIOM indicating that 74% of Russians considered themselves Orthodox.