Orthodox Social Thought in Pre-Petrine Russia

One cannot overstress the social aspect of Russian religious ethics…. [O]ne must keep in mind that through all the centuries of medieval and Muscovite Russia her religion was predominantly social…. An enforced individualism enters the Russian Church life only since the reform or revolution of Peter I. ~ G. P. Fedotov

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Low estimates count roughly 10,000 killed, nearly 4,000 of those civilians. The reality is likely much higher, and the fighting continues. Fleeing for their lives, 5.8 million have become refugees. I have views about this tragic bloodshed between predominantly Orthodox Christian peoples, but as the British lord and Roman Catholic historian John Acton put it, “Each age is worthy of study—to be understood for its own sake … not as a stepping stone to the present.” The history of the Church among the Rus’ is firstly Orthodox Christian history, and we deprive ourselves of a great resource for Christian social thought today if we let the present overshadow our reception of the past. Justice demands it “be understood for its own sake.” Yet as Acton said elsewhere, “History is not a master but a teacher. It is full of evil.” If I faithfully give the past its due, “full of evil” though it be, I hope to disappoint any who would so abuse it in order to celebrate and justify, rather than mourn, our own evils today. As St. Maria Skobtsova put it, “We have no right to wax tenderhearted over all our past indiscriminately…. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful.”

In that light, let us agree for now to make the prophecy of Isaiah our prayer:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

This prophecy of the Day of the Lord actually fits well the biblical motif of this essay: the apocalyptic character of the Russian reception of the Gospel and the kenotic love derived from it.

Vladimir, prince of Kiev, after uniting the warring Slavic and other clans and towns of ancient Rus’, became convinced that they needed a new religion. He accepted envoys from Muslims, Latin Christians, Jews, and finally the Christian Byzantines. And he sent envoys to them to investigate their religions. Reporting the glory of Hagia Sophia to Vladimir, his envoys to Constantinople famously declared, “[W]e knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” The Primary Chronicle, however, also records that the Byzantine envoys to Kiev made the best impression upon Vladimir through their teaching on salvation history and the Last Judgment: “Happy are they upon the right,” sighed Vladimir, “but woe to those upon the left!” To which the Byzantine emissary replied, “If you desire to take your place upon the right with the just, then accept baptism!”

In 988, the Rus’ did accept baptism, becoming at the eleventh hour “a new Christian people,” and they recorded this legend because these details mattered to them. Jesus himself taught that those “on the right” will be “happy,” because whatever “you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). By all accounts, St. Vladimir, as we know him, took that condition seriously. “Vladimir died in the orthodox faith,” records the Primary Chronicle. “He effaced his sins by repentance and by almsgiving, which is better than all things else.” Such is the common assessment of good princes, who “constantly accepted advice, guidance, and instruction from the Church, and recognized it as the authority of conscience,” as Fr. Alexander Schmemann noted. The Primary Chronicle also calls Vladimir “the new Constantine of mighty Rome”—an image the Rus’ would revisit at a later time.

The writing of such chronicles evinces an early concern for scholarship and history. Sts. Cyril and Methodius created the Cyrillic alphabet for Old Slavonic in their mission to Bulgaria, and the Bulgarians passed it, along with their books, to the Rus’, who took to them eagerly. Indeed, in the eleventh century, Metropolitan St. Ilarion of Kiev would say, “we do not write for the ignorant, but for them that have feasted to fulfillment on the sweetness of books!” While the Pope and the Patriarchs of the East said to one another, “I have no need of you,” the Rus’ fell in love with books. But which books?

“The poverty of intellectual culture in ancient Russia is amazing,” wrote G. P. Fedotov. “For seven centuries … we know of no scientific work in Russian literature, not even a dogmatic treatise.” Rather, “Most of the translations pursued merely practical and edifying aims.” That included, however, “Most of the genuine treatises and sermons of the ancient fathers concerning the end of the world, the coming of the Antichrist and Christ….” All books were unquestionably viewed as sacred because nearly all were Christian religious works, and they lacked the common distinction today between Scripture and other works of Holy Tradition. By Fedotov’s account, the Rus’ do not even seem to have had a full translation of the Bible until the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, at a time when biblical Latin and Greek had become incomprehensible to many hearers, “only the Slavic nations of Europe listened to the Gospel and could understand something of it.”

Practical yet apocalyptic, scholarly yet unscientific, historical yet eschatological—what result did this strange mixture yield? While the Monastery at the Caves had Athonite connections, in general Russian piety and sainthood in this period already had a character of its own—what Fedotov and others refer to as “kenoticism”: “In the kenotic religion, which takes its pattern in the humility of Christ, man humiliates himself not only before God but before the lowest members of society.” The term refers to Philippians 2:7, in which St. Paul tells us that Christ “made Himself of no reputation [eauton ekenosen], taking the form of a bondservant.” Visitors to St. Sergei of Radonezh’s Holy Trinity monastery, for example, were alarmed to discover the filthy gardener was also the abbot.

We may see this kenotic ideal on a social level as well. Compared to Byzantium, which had inherited and baptized a highly stratified social order from Rome, the Rus’ were barely literate before their baptism. True, their cities had princes and boyars (landed aristocrats), but in the Kievan and Mongol periods the seed of the Gospel found far more egalitarian soil. Russian chronicles, infused with a strong sense of the eschatological, do not hesitate to characterize even peasant revolts as divine judgment for the sin of a prince. Moreover, several cities had a citizens’ council, called a veche, where even peasants participated in government.

Though the Tatar conquest of Kievan Rus’ mostly cut short this unique civilizational trajectory, we do not need to speculate as to what it might have become. Novgorod and the cities and territories subject to it escaped the devastation of the Golden Horde by preemptively surrendering. While the rest of the Rus’ faced humiliating abuse as vassals of the pagan Mongols, Novgorod remained free at the price of a tax. As a result, “Novgorod was not an outlandish growth in Russian life,” claimed Fedotov, “but the most Russian element in it, the element which was most free of Tatar admixture, and in addition contained, as it were, the possibility for a free culture to develop in the future.”

“Was Novgorod a republic?” asked Fedotov. “Yes, at least for three and a half centuries of its history, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries.” The Novgorod republic included one other republic as well: Pskov, which later enjoyed its own independence from 1348 to 1510. “The territory of Novgorod was immense,” notes Fedotov, “all Northern Russia as far as the Urals and even a section of Siberia lay under her authority and her law,” excelling the territory even of Moscow.

We can surmise some of Novgorod’s theological underpinnings from what we know of how it functioned. “Hieromonk Feofil,” begins the Novgorod Charter of 1471, “who was appointed to the archbishopric of Novgorod the Great and Pskov, is to conduct his own court, the church court, according to the canons of the Holy Fathers [of the Church], [and] according to the Nomocanon; and he is to judge everyone equally, whether boyar, [a man of] middling means, or a poor man [lit., a young man].” Equality before the law comes first. And lest anyone think this is only an ecclesial matter, “the president of the council of masters was the archbishop,” says Fedotov. “In effect, he was the one who was ‘president’ of the republic, to draw a modern analogy…. [H]is name was drawn by lot from those of the candidates elected by the veche. The three lots on the altar in the Cathedral of St. Sophia symbolized the divine will for the fate of the city-state.” Thus, while “[s]upreme authority in the Novgorod republic belonged … to the veche,” which “elected the entire administration,” in the case of the archbishop, God cast the deciding vote.

Yet Novgorod had its darker side as well. The first Russian heresy, the Strigolniki, arose in Pskov, spread to Novgorod, and bore a strikingly egalitarian and democratic character. Protesting the charging of fees for sacramental services, the Strigolniki rejected the sacramental and hierarchical aspects of the Church. Novgorod was a commercial republic, relying on international trade for its economy. This, too, was the basis of peaceful relations with Moscow, including eventually accepting the authority of its grand prince. “Without the supplies of wheat from the South,” notes Fedotov, “Novgorod could not have existed.” Of necessity, it no doubt had a larger merchant class—and thus a larger middle class—than many societies of the time. But as is often the case, a taste for freedom and equality only grows the desire for more of it, and sometimes this manifests itself in the sin of envy. Thus, the Strigolniki harshly condemned the rich along with the Church.

Pskov and Novgorod did not respond with tolerance. Fleeing persecution in Pskov, the Strigolniki settled for some time in Novgorod, yet that did not bring an end to their troubles. In a 1375 peasant riot—one of many in Novgorod’s history—three Strigolniki were thrown from a bridge and drowned in the Volkhov River. Perhaps these riots evince a dark instability underlying democratic Novgorod, but to be fair, it is worth noting Fedotov’s observation that “less innocent blood was shed in Novgorod in all the centuries of its existence than in the few days that Ivan the Terrible visited it in 1570.” What led to that?

Moscow occupied a precarious place during the Mongol period. The metropolitan transferred to Moscow from Kiev, which by the fourteenth century was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Moscow’s grand prince negotiated a sort of haven for the Rus’ by becoming the Golden Horde’s chief deputy. The Rus’, for their part, not only faced Mongol oppression but ongoing internecine conflicts with each other. The political unity established under St. Vladimir had been lost, despite a unity of faith. Under these circumstances, Moscow grew in influence and attracted many Russians who wished simply to better their conditions.

By the fifteenth century, major events molded the self-identity of Russian Orthodox Christians. Many felt betrayed by the Council of Florence. In 1453, Constantinople fell. There was no longer an Orthodox “tsar,” as they called the emperor, despite many liturgical references to such a personage. But Moscow, meanwhile, had to deal with another “tsar”—the Mongol khan. The grand prince of Moscow, having slowly built his power for centuries, made a stand in 1480 at the Ugra River and in effect declared to the Mongols independence for all the Rus’—and their subjugation to Moscow.

Centuries of Mongol dominance could not but leave a deep psychological impression. “‘Tatarism’—lack of principle and a repulsive combination of prostration before the strong with oppression of everything weak—unfortunately marked the growth of Moscow and the Muscovite culture from the very beginning,” noted Schmemann. It is under these circumstances that the mythology of Moscow as “Third Rome” arose. Contrary to popular appropriation, its intention was to remind the prince that the Christian sovereign had a duty to both the Church and the people. Such protest was embodied in the enterprising abbot-turned-metropolitan St. Philip II, who spoke out against Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) and his brutal oprichnina, ultimately resulting in the saint’s martyrdom.

Thus, by the end of the pre-Petrine era of Russia, the Orthodox world within and without looked terribly dark. All other Orthodox lands fell to the Ottoman Turks and the Time of Troubles followed Ivan IV. Yet Orthodoxy proved adaptable to several political forms, resilient in the face of tyranny, and uniquely concerned with kenotic, self-giving care for the poor, including in its purest and most lofty polities, economies, and laws, however imperfect and sinful they, to their credit, admitted themselves at times to be. Moreover, here already we see the seeds of both good and ill in the Russian Empire, but that must wait for my next essay.


  1. Thank you for this historical background. At University in Scotland in the 1960.s we learned of the trade routes used by Vikings and others from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Vikings had control of city states like York in England . York like London , though not Viking ,is still independent. Was Novgorod also a Viking influenced state? It seems to have been a city state like the others ? Kiev, on the same trade route, was supposed to be the settlement which had access to ports serving Constantinople . Was Kiev a city state, too? Looking forward to the next posting

  2. City states — a city that with its surrounding territory forms an independent state — were fairly common throughout history. Not all city states are republics, though.

    It’s my understanding that Novgorod bears some similarity to Swedish polities, but whether or not there was influence of one upon the other is not clear. I don’t think there is much connection to the Vikings. The Germans and Lithuanians were major trade partners at various times with Novgorod. It makes sense that Kiev would have meant access to Constantinople at least before the Mongols invaded. I’m not sure about whether that would have continued or not. The republics of northern Italy in the late middle ages are also comparable to Novogord, but there isn’t likely any direct connection there.

    Hope that helps! Thanks for reading!

  3. Just for your own interest.


    Novgorod is just mentioned ,though. It was unlikely that the Viking traders had much influence. They had goods to portage and probably just had commercial contacts with Novgorod.
    York in England was a commercial site ,too t,hough the Vikings settled in part of the old Roman City of Eboracum. other trading cities in England and ireland were all linked. The other city states in Italy were relics , sometimes, of old Roman towns except Venice.
    Just for your own interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC8JcWVRFp8&list=PLMptTpi3a4bcCCmZbrK8d-IxCGBGiubYq&index=2 Course Introduction: Rome’s Greatness and First Crises Freedman . Yale 2011
    It is worth watching again and again if you know someone who may possibly interested. not many Americans are, unfortunately. My own interests are Late Roman Britain. but I love this series.

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