Orthodox Social Thought in Imperial Russia

‘Moscow at the Turn of the Century’ by Aleksei Evstigneev

“All the best that Russia has created is the result of the inward reconciliation of “Eastern” and “Western,” of all that was true and immortal that sprouted from Byzantine seed, but could grow only by identifying itself once more with the general history of Christian humanity.” ~ Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Note: For a disclaimer about historical terms in light of current events, see my previous essay on Pre-Petrine Russia.


In an episode of the Simpsons titled, “The Seemingly Never-Ending Story,” Moe, owner of the local bar, tries to lose his friends and sometime bar denizens to win a woman’s love. He proceeds to throw them out of his tavern one-by-one, until he stops before evicting Barney, the town drunk, realizing that he had already in the same scene thrown him out twice before. “Barney, how do you keep getting back in?” he asks before tossing him out again. The scene ends with Barney emerging behind Moe in the doorway for a fourth time.

In the Old Testament, we see a similar story. The Maccabean revolt against Greek rule led to the Hasmonean dynasty in Israel. Its non-Davidic lineage caused some to question its legitimacy—after all, the Messiah would be of David’s line—yet it afforded the Jewish people a renewed hope for freedom and self-determination. But the Hasmoneans quickly adopted many of the ways of the Greek elites they had evicted, and the Romans, who helped them secure their independence, eventually came and took over Judaea. Hellenic influence can be seen in Jewish works written around this time, even in anti-Greek polemics. No matter how hard God’s people sought to isolate themselves from the outside world, the outside world kept coming back, whether they were ready for it or not.

The story of the Russian Empire follows this same trajectory. After the fall of Constantinople and other Orthodox lands to the Ottoman Turks, Russia alone remained free. Despite anti-Western attitudes, Western ideas kept popping back up in new forms, including in ways that would transform the Church’s senior leadership from a Patriarch to a Holy Synod. Moreover, generation after generation sought to expel Western ideas while simultaneously embracing other Western ideas. Like Moe trying to evict Barney from his tavern, the task proved a fool’s errand (and in my view continues to be one today). If we can take a step back from polemical impulses, we can see a way of engaging with the West, and the modern world it bequeathed to us, in non-reactionary terms. The question is not what is Western and what is Eastern, but what is Orthodox? In the principle of sobornost’, Orthodox thinkers of this era gave us an answer that has implications not only for ideological debates but service to the poor in the modern world.

Temporarily in 1667, then long-term in the Treaty of Perpetual Peace of 1686, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceded Kiev to Russia. Despite all the violence and turmoil in Western Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth excelled in religious liberty, including for the Orthodox. Orthodox encounter with the West in the seventeenth century consists mostly of brief enthusiastic embrace of, then widespread polemical reaction to, the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation.

Metropolitan Peter Mohyla of Kiev founded the academy that bears his name, raising the theological standard in Russia to carry on the scholasticism long before embraced in medieval Byzantium. Mohyla’s 1645 catechism gained pan-Orthodox acceptance and use over the following decades, establishing a basis for generalization about the common person’s exposure to Orthodox teaching. Largely influenced by the Tridentine Catechism, but still preserving distinctive Orthodox theological commitments, here we see an attempt to think deeply about Christian duties in our social and economic life, especially in Mohyla’s treatment of familial, civil, and Church authority in the Fifth Commandment, and of property and charity in the Eighth Commandment, among others.

Kiev Lavra

Despite Moscow’s expanding territory, civil unrest broiled at home. Rioters murdered boyars, military personnel, and several members of the royal family in the Moscow Uprising of 1682, in front of the ten-year-old heir Peter, known to history as Peter the Great, the first Russian Emperor. When he came of age, he determined to modernize Russia, inclusive of the Orthodox Church, into a kingdom of law and order. To reform the Church, he promoted the most educated bishops, most of which at that time were Kievan, ultimately favoring Feofan Prokopovich, who became Metropolitan of Novgorod and Pskov.

Though educated in Rome, unlike others who followed the same path, Prokopovich encountered a profound spiritual crisis upon seeing the ecclesiastical corruption of the Eternal City and reading Martin Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church after an elderly Jesuit priest gave him access to a library of banned books. He eventually fled Rome, scandalizing East-West relations there, and he spent time in German lands, presumably absorbing more Lutheran theology, including political theology. It is fair to say that most Orthodox historians do not remember Prokopovich fondly and also that he deserves much of their criticism. But we ought to consider his circumstances as well.

As Andrei V. Ivanov points out in his book A Spiritual Revolution (reviewed here), Russia did need reform and modernization. Tatar despotism continued on in Moscow’s Tsars, reaching its height in Ivan the Terrible and the Time of Troubles (which resulted in part from a succession crisis after the death of Tsar Feodor Ivanovich). The absence of higher education during this period meant that despite a genuine flowering of monasticism at this time, the rest of society remained feudal, often hard and cruel, with few other pathways for upward mobility. Indeed, serfdom become widespread only during the Muscovite period. The era of St. Petersburg’s ascendancy, including Prokopovich’s Church reform, sought to solve real and serious problems.

The merits of the means chosen, however, certainly deserve debate. In 1721, following Lutheran examples, the Spiritual Regulation replaced the Patriarch of Moscow with the Holy Synod. While many view this as one-sided dominance of the state over the Church, Prokopovich successfully campaigned to make the Holy Synod equal, rather than subject, to the Senate, arguably giving the Church greater influence in the Empire, at least for its first century. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann put it, “state and Church interpreted the imperial authority in different ways.” While other Russian hierarchs signed on to this restructuring, and other Patriarchates recognized its legitimacy, its acceptance came in part through imperial coercion. In any case, we may view it as an ecclesiastical aberration. That said, the Church of Greece originally followed a similar structure, and technically all modern autocephalous Churches have only recently come to the arrangements in which we know them today. Like anything in history, we should expect to find some good, some bad, and some ugliness in the Synodal period of Russian Orthodoxy.

On the positive side, while the Protestant Reformation led to the permanent fracturing of the Western Church, many of these same ideas, as well as some Roman Catholic counterpoints to them, passed into Orthodoxy comparatively peacefully. Furthermore, nothing came uncritically. By the eighteenth century, many Western Christian traditions had already distinguished themselves from one another and solidified their perspectives. Within and across these traditions, various movements also developed, often specifically in response to developments in modern philosophy, science, and society. Not only Prokopovich, but others after him incorporated what doctrines they believed compatible with Orthodoxy, while keeping the liturgy unchanged. This led, as Fr. Georges Florovsky has noted, to a disconnect between Slavonic worship and Latin theology. Yet Schmemann points to the positive side: “mental discipline returned for the first time to the Church, and education and the inspiration of creative work returned as well.”

Prokopovich incorporated Lutheran ideas into his catechism, using Luther’s Smaller Catechism as its basis. One of the sharpest contrasts to Mohyla’s catechism comes in Prokopovich’s treatment of the Fifth Commandment, where he lists duties to the Emperor and civil authorities “in the first place,” i.e., before the honor due to fathers and mothers (which gets third place after ecclesiastical authority). After him, Metropolitan Platon Levshin of Moscow took the Westminster Larger Catechism as inspiration for his own 1763 catechism. And Metropolitan St. Filaret of Moscow followed a more Pietist line in his 1830 catechism, albeit begrudgingly adding some aspects more in line with Roman Catholicism due to shifting pressures in the Empire in his day. Collectively, rather than merely parroting Western ideas, these, along with Mohyla’s work before them, should be viewed as Orthodoxy’s first entrance into the broader theological conversation of modern Christian civilization. In addition to theology proper, all of them give us insight into Orthodox social thought at the time and remain useful references.

Prokopovich’s monastic and ascetic reforms, however, involved both bad and ugly circumstances. Ascetic practices were often minimized or dismissed as superstitious, failing to see them as the essence of the Gospel in action, dying and rising with Christ daily. Moreover, the number of monasteries and monks dropped to less than a quarter of what they had been. Further, the state misappropriated monasteries for supposedly “practical” uses—for example, as military retirement homes, hospitals, and even prisons—assuming wrongly that monks pursuing the kingdom of God had no benefit for the common good.

Nevertheless, far more disgracefully, the Church, principally monastic estates, owned over a million male serfs and their families and treated them harshly, to the point that by the mid-eighteenth century, peasant revolts against the monasteries led to state intervention. The Empress Catherine the Great freed all ecclesiastical serfs with her February Manifesto of 1764. After that time and up to the twentieth century (not coincidentally, in my view), Russia saw a monastic revival, and the bishops became defenders of the remaining serfs against abuse by landowners.

Under the influence of Enlightenment ideas, many boyars and bishops hoped through the eighteenth century that Russia would adopt a constitution. Any outside observer at the time would guess that Russia (rather than Greece, as it actually happened), would be the first traditionally Orthodox polity to adopt liberal rights and freedoms. Metropolitan Platon openly called for a constitution. Alexander Pushkin earned himself a brief exile with his “Ode to Liberty.” When the Decemberists sought to take advantage of the brief interregnum in 1825, some of them had copies of the poem with them. But the Empire’s short-lived constitution remained nearly a century away. After the Decemberists murdered Emperor Nicholas I’s negotiator, he ordered his soldiers to turn their cannons on the crowd.

While reform continued after this time—Alexander II finally ended serfdom during his reign, for example—for many the wind of progress had left their sails. The dashed hopes of the intelligentsia contributed to the creation of a classic Russian literary type: the “superfluous man.” Again, think of Pushkin—his Eugene Onegin would have joined the civil service in a previous age. Instead, he lives a profligate life, waiting for his uncle to die so he can inherit his estate. He represents a generation who saw their vocation robbed from them by a monarch whose rule they rejected. Pushkin’s characters become stuck going through the motions of social custom out-of-sync with whatever ideals they may have left. “Habit was given us in distress,” wrote Pushkin, “By Heaven in lieu of happiness.” The Jews got the Pharisees during the Hasmonean Dynasty and the Zealots under Roman rule; the Russians got Ivan Karamazov and, ultimately, the Bolsheviks. Yet Dostoevsky, at least, had further influences that deserve our attention today as much as his novels.

First, Nicholis I’s suppression of Enlightenment ideas, including the Russian Bible Society, didn’t come from nowhere. The intellectual tide had been turning for more than a decade. Yet this was not the end of creative Orthodox intellectual endeavor. Slavophiles such as Alexsei Khomiakov, in response to Western polemics (and drawing upon German Idealism), reached back into Holy Tradition to find the core essence of the Church. What did they find? Sobornost’—the spiritual unity of all, even the world itself, with God in love through the Church. The term derives from the Slavonic translation of “Catholic,” and rightly so. As we saw in pagan Rome, the Slavophiles’ understanding of sobornost’ resonates strongly with the early Church’s self-understanding of its catholicity; not merely a term for doctrinal purity or universal authority, but the cosmic weight of the Incarnation as “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), through the ecclesiastical hierarchy, sacraments, and everyday ascetic charity.

Those familiar with The Brothers Karamazov will rightly think of Fr. Zosima’s sermon on love for all creation. Dostoevsky furthermore cited St. Tikhon of Zadonsk as inspiration. St. Tikhon, living in the eighteenth-century spirit of constructive dialogue with the West and social reform at home, authored a spiritual manual that, among other topics, contains chapters on rich and poor, lenders and borrowers, sellers and buyers, and employers and employees. He affirmed that “riches are a gift of God bestowed upon men, for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof (Ps. 23:1).” Yet he continued, “They are given you, O Christian, not for your sake alone, but also for the sake of the poor.” Despite the romantic rhetoric of Fr. Zosima’s sermon, the practically-minded St. Tikhon served as Dostoevsky’s model of sanctity. Indeed, Nicholai Berdyaev even summed up the Russian contribution to philosophy as “concrete idealism.” And one philosopher in particular served as inspiration not only for Dostoevsky but all Orthodox social thought that would follow.

Vladimir Soloviev

Many believe that Dostoevsky based the character of Alyosha on his young friend Vladimir Soloviev. In Soloviev, we find the first example, and a shining one, of distinctly modern Orthodox social thought. His Lectures on Godmanhood, despite their metaphysical and theological focus, begin with a refutation of materialistic socialism and scientific positivism. More than this, the third part of his magnum opus on moral philosophy The Justification of the Good focuses on “The Good through Human History,” i.e., through the development of human society. It contains chapters on law, economics, and criminal justice, all within a broad vision of society where Church, state, and what we might call “culture,” all grew from the soil of the family and the moral imperatives of piety, altruism, and asceticism, into distinct realms of life meant to work together in Chalcedonian terms—without separation, division, confusion, or change—for the good of all. Furthermore, he rightly refused to reduce all economic questions to ethics: “The important domain of human material relations is studied on its technical side by political economy, financial and commercial law, and falls within the scope of moral philosophy only in so far as exchange becomes fraud.” One may, and should, quibble with various aspects of Soloviev’s vision of a “free theocracy,” but those who wish to contribute to Orthodox social thought in the present ought at least to start with Soloviev.

Unfortunately, Soloviev died in 1900 at the age of fifty. All the promise of the twentieth century—the adoption of a constitution that included democratic government and protections for freedom of conscience and other basic rights, as well as, in 1917, the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate—disappeared under the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “Simultaneously with the growth of light in Russia there was a growth of darkness as well, and it is a terrible warning, judgment, and reminder that the darkness proved the stronger.”

How did it come to that? And where did we go from there? To answer those questions, we must backtrack to the era this essay began, but in the West rather than the East. We must come to some understanding of the origins and basic teachings of modern economics—and competing alternatives—before we can examine and evaluate more contemporary Orthodox attempts to contribute to the broader conversation of Christian social thought today. I will attempt to do exactly that in the course of my next several essays in this series.


  1. During the reign of Catherine the Great, some of my Mennonite ancestors were allowed to live in peace in the now Ukraine and were treated much better than they had been in some eastern and Western European countries. Unfortunately, things changed and they left for America. I hope and pray for Russia and the Ukraine to show tolerance for all people again!

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