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Although Christianity was introduced into Russian lands in the first century a.d. and had some success, it was not lasting. Very little penetration of Christianity took place in the next 700 years until in the ninth century the Church of St. Elias was established at Kiev, where there was a minority of Christians. In 867 the first Russian metropolitanate was set up by the patriarch of Constantinople and was probably located at Tmutorakan.

The first Kievan ruler to accept Christianity is usually considered to be Olga, who was regent between 945 and 964. The traditional account states that she was converted and baptized in Constantinople, refused an imperial offer of marriage, and returned to Kiev where her faith had little influence upon either her son or her people. Because of problems in reconciling the Byzantine records with the Russian Chronicle, many historians believe Olga was probably converted in Kiev around 955 and went to Constantinople in 957 to plead for autonomy for the Russian Church. Because she did not gain what she sought, the pagan party remained in power in Kiev under her son Sviatoslav.

Vladimir,* the grandson of Olga who reigned from 978 to 1015, was the man responsible for the Christianizing of Russia. After a strong pagan revival, the story is told of Vladimir's sending out missions to study the religions of Judaism, Islam, Roman Christianity, and Greek Christianity. His acceptence of Greek Christianity was supposedly on the basis of the beauty of its worship. It could be argued, however, that political and economic ties with Constantinople were advantageous to the Kievan state at this time. Included in the agreement of conversion for Vladimir was his marriage to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor. In 988 Christianity was proclaimed the official faith of the realm, and baptism was ordered for Vladimir's subjects. The upper classes and those in the cities accepted the faith, but only slowly did it penetrate the lower classes and the countryside, which remained pagan until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Orthodoxy became the state religion and remained so until 1917. The church was under the leadership of the metropolitan of Kiev until the fourteenth century, when the leadership changed to Moscow. The Russian Church also remained subject to Constantinople during the Kievan period, and the metropolitans chosen for the Russians were usually Greek.

Monasticism played an important role in early Russian Christianity. The most significant monastery was the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. It was founded in the eleventh century by Antony and then reorganized by his successor, Theodosius, who emphasized poverty and humility.

The Mongol invasions of Kievan Russia started in 1237, and by 1240 Russia was under the Tartar yoke. Christianity survived, and the church helped to keep alive Russian national consciousness. Three men, all canonized by the church, are significant in the Mongol period. Alexander Nevsky, the victor over the Swedes and Teutonic Knights in the 1240s, is credited with saving the church from the papacy. Stephen of Perm in the fourteenth century became a missionary to the Zyrian tribes, and Sergius of Radonezh established the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which became the greatest religious house in the land. Sergius encouraged resistance to the Mongols in the fourteenth century and helped the advance of Moscow by inspiring colonist monks to go into the forest regions.

With the rise of Moscow, Peter, the metropolitan from 1308 to 1326, moved the seat of the church there. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Moscow increasingly advanced the claim of being the “third Rome.” Ivan III's marriage to Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, helped to enhance that claim. After 1448 a council of Russian bishops elected the metropolitan. The Mongols were finally defeated in 1480, and a powerful Russian state developed under Ivan IV.

At a church council in 1503 a dispute between Nilus of Sora and Joseph, abbot of Volokalamsk, resulted in the formation of two groups. The Possessors, Joseph's followers, emphasized the social obligations of monasticism in caring for the sick and poor. The Non-Possessors, Nilus's followers, insisted that almsgiving is the duty of the laity, while a monk's major work is prayer and detachment from the world. The Possessors supported the ideal of the “third Rome” and believed in a close alliance between church and state. Their victory eventually led to a great subservience of the church to state, especially during the reign of Ivan IV. In 1589 the head of the Russian Church was elevated from the rank of metropolitan to patriarch.

Following the “Time of Troubles,” the election of Michael Romanov as ruler in 1613 initiated a dynasty that was to reign until World War I. Church reforms were started by Abbot Dionysius, Philaret,* and Avvakum.* Then in 1652, during the reign of Czar Alexis, the new patriarch, Nikon,* attempted to reform the Russian Church by bringing it in line with the ideas of the four ancient patriarchates. There was great opposition to the reforms, especially among those of the Josephite traditions who eventually formed a separate sect known as Old Believers.* They were the conservatives opposing an official church which they thought had carried reform too far. Old Believers still remain in Russia and are divided into the Popovtsy who have kept the priesthood and the Bezpopovtsy who have no priests. The church accepted Nikon's reforms, but he was deposed and exiled.

Under Peter the Great, no new patriarch was appointed when Adrian died in 1700. In 1721 Peter abolished the patriarchate and set up a Holy Synod composed of twelve members. Its members were nominated by the Czar, and thus the church became a department of state. This system of church government continued until 1917. The synodal period is often described as a period of decline and of Westernization, but others would say true Orthodox life continued, and in the nineteenth century there was a revival in the Russian Church. New enthusiasm for missionary work occurred. The religious renewal began at Mt. Athos, where a monk named Paissy laid emphasis upon continual prayer and obedience to an elder, or starets. This was the age of the starets, and the greatest of them was Seraphim of Sarov. He was followed by the elders of Optino. In theology Russia broke with the West, and Aleksei Khomyakov,* leader of the Slavophile circle, became the first original theologian of the Russian Church.

In 1917, after the abdication of Nicholas II, an all-Russian church council met in Moscow and began a program of church reform which eventually restored the patriarchate and elected Tikhon* to that office in November. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet government decreed the separation of “church from state, and school from church.” Tikhon was arrested following his criticism of Communist policies. The “Living Church” was organized with Communist recognition and was used by the regime for political purposes. It convened a council which unfrocked Tikhon and abolished the patriarchate. Tikhon was released after promising not to oppose Soviet rule. Following Tikhon's death in 1925, Peter was named head of the church, but was exiled the next year. The League of the Militant Godless was formed in 1925 and grew rapidly, claiming a membership of five million in 1932. When Sergei succeeded Peter, the Soviet regime refused to recognize him until 1943.

Stalin attacked the church directly, closing churches and monasteries. The Soviet constitution of 1936 guaranteed freedom of religious worship but at the same time granted freedom of antireligious propaganda. With the coming of World War II the regime eased its antireligious campaigns and got the church to cooperate with the war effort. In May 1944 Sergei died, and Metropolitan Aleksei of Leningrad was elected patriarch early in 1945. No statistics are available as to the number of Christian believers still in Russia and as to the number involved in persecutions and purges.

Besides the Orthodox Church in Russia, other forms of Christianity have existed. Roman Catholicism entered Russia mainly from Poland* and was propagated by Jesuits and Dominicans. Protestantism entered from Germany in the sixteenth century and from France and Holland in the eighteenth century. Out of the Protestant groups and some of the dissenting sects native to Russia have come strong evangelical groups. There is some evidence to indicate that such evangelical groups have grown in numbers and religious zeal even under Communist restrictions.

See also Eastern Orthodox Churches.

G. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (1948); J.S. Curtiss, The Russian Church and the Soviet State, 1917-1950 (1953); M.T. Florinsky, Russia (2 vols., 1953); The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text (tr. and ed. by S.H. Cross and O.P. Sherbowitz, 1953); F.C. Conybeare, Russian Dissenters (1962); T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (1963); G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (2 vols., 1966).