From Spiderman to St. Petersburg
In the wonderful world of social media, one recurring meme comes from an old Spiderman cartoon, where two Spidermen each point at the other accusing him of being the real doppelganger. This meme can also serve as a helpful reference point for understanding eighteenth-century Russian Orthodoxy, as brilliantly detailed in Andrey V. Ivanov’s recent book, A Spiritual Revolution: The Impact of the Reformation and Enlightenment in Orthodox Russia.
Each Spiderman gets a label. One is “philo-Protestant reformers” and the other “their philo-Catholic critics.” Each accused the other of being the real Westernizer or heretic, each claiming to be the true defender of traditional Orthodoxy. I can only summarize it herein, but what makes the story so fascinating is that each were at the same time both right and wrong.
“[T]his monograph,” writes Ivanov, “seeks to challenge the common notion that the Orthodox Church and Western Christianity are mutually exclusionary.” Furthermore, he states, “The central argument of this book is that Russia’s modernizing church reform was a wide-ranging adaptation of first, the concepts developed during the European Reformation, and later, the ideas of the religious Enlightenment.” Ivanov adopts the terms “philo-Catholic” and “philo-Protestant” to indicate the particular current of Western influence preferred by the various camps throughout this “long eighteenth century” (1700-1825).
The philo-Catholic party was the product of seventeenth-century polemics against Protestant influence in Orthodoxy, the anti-Jesuit patriarch Cyril Loukaris of Constantinople in particular. These resulted in the Confession of Peter Mohyla of Kiev and the Confession of Dositheus of Jerusalem, a product of the 1672 Jerusalem Council and specifically written as a polemical response to Loukaris’s own Calvinist Confession. For the most part, both simply reproduce Roman Catholic responses to Protestant doctrines on justification, the Eucharist, and so on. Mohyla’s, in particular, was patterned after the Tridentine Catechism and needed to be revised in order to remove some more overtly Roman Catholic teachings, such as purgatory, before every Orthodox patriarchate accepted it as a catechetical standard. At the start of the eighteenth century, Stefan Iavorskii, locum tenens of the patriarchal see in Moscow, embodied the philo-Catholic perspective.
Tsar Peter (“the Great”) brought Iavorskii to Moscow from Kiev. Having witnessed at ten years-old the Moscow uprising of 1682, in which rioters murdered boyars, military personnel, and members of the royal family, Peter determined to refashion Russia into a kingdom of law and order, following Western examples. At first, however, he had no specific agenda for the Church, other than “gaining the revenue in tax appropriations from the patriarchate’s serf-tilled estates” and “staffing of vacant church positions with better-educated men. And the best-educated clergymen,” Ivanov continues, “were all in Ukraine.”
These educated Ukrainian hierarchs, in turn, by-and-large received their better educations in Jesuit universities in the West, commonly converting to Uniatism only to convert back immediately after finishing their studies (“expedient dissimulation”)—a practice Rome apparently knew about and tolerated. Unfortunately for Peter, his early efforts to reform the Church thus backfired: “Influenced by Roman Catholic notions, these men invited by the tsar to Moscow increasingly used the language of the Catholic Reformation to define the new relationship of the church to Russia’s state and society,” in particular the “two swords” doctrine of the Church’s spiritual and temporal authority, used to criticize the tsar. Having discovered “better educated” didn’t get him what he wanted, “Peter requested the governor of Kiev, Dmitrii M. Golitsyn, to look for reform-minded and loyal clergymen in the city. After some time the governor replied, ‘In all of Kiev, I found only one man, the prefect of the school of the Brethren Monastery, who is favorable towards us.’ That prefect was none other than Feofan Prokopovich.”
Fr. Georges Florovsky described Prokopovich as “a dreadful person” in his Ways of Russian Theology. Ivanov casts Prokopovich in a more sympathetic light, but hardly a glowing one. While studying in Rome, Prokopovich became disillusioned by Roman ecclesiastical intrigue, lax piety, and religious scams. After an elderly Jesuit priest granted Feofan access to a library of banned and unredacted books, Feofan became enamored with the works he read there, including “Martin Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” reading which heightened his anxiety, compelling him to flee in 1701. This so scandalized the Roman Curia that in 1735, citing the case of Prokopovich, “the congregation moved to end the toleration of temporary conversion for Orthodox students.”
Prokopovich stopped over in German lands on his way back to Kiev and brought philo-Protestant theology with him, mostly Lutheran though ultimately “eclectic.” Yet Prokopovich “was also … not a Protestant, professing strictly Orthodox views on the rejection of the Filioque in the Nicene Creed and the incorruptibility of the relics found in the Kievan Caves Monastery.” The same could be said for philo-Catholics—they were not Roman Catholics. The latter could have remained Uniates, after all, and Prokopovich could have stayed in Germany. Rather, Ivanov notes, “Protestant theology shaped most of Feofan’s doctrinal worldview, but he embraced those positions because he believed them to be truly and originally Orthodox and … cognitively effective weapons in cleansing the church from the ‘Papist’ influence of the prior century.”
Just as Mohyla and Dositheus used Roman Catholic theology to combat Calvinist influence on Orthodoxy, Prokopovich found Lutheranism useful in combating Roman Catholic influence. Both camps Westernized in order to fight Westernization. While Ivanov more or less confirms Florovsky’s assessment of Prokopovich regarding his bad faith arguments and his “purge” of his opponents from the hierarchy after 1730, Ivanov again complicates the picture. Despite Prokopovich’s clearly polemical accusations that his opponents were “Papist,” some of them actually plotted, with the help of the Spanish, for ecclesiastical union between Moscow and Rome, and they supported reinstating the Moscow patriarchate, which Prokopovich’s reforms had successfully replaced with the Holy Synod, specifically for that purpose.
Though a clear aberration, Fr. Alexander Schmemann noted, “Canonically the synod was recognized by the Eastern patriarchs.” Moreover, according to Ivanov, “Feofan did not seek to rewrite the liturgical cycle … his reforms pursued very few liturgical changes.” Nevertheless, the reforms radically altered the Church’s official theology. Prokopovich authored a “new catechism after Martin Luther’s similar work” (the Small Catechism) to replace Mohyla’s, complete with a Lutheran-inspired doctrine of forensic justification. The Holy Synod model followed later Lutheran ideas of Johann Franz Buddeus, Johann Gerhard, and others on the relationship between Church and state, emulating Sweden in particular. This, Ivanov notes, actually elevated the Church compared to now-Emperor Peter’s preference that it be an “Ecclesiastical College” subordinate to the Senate. Instead, Prokopovich succeeded in making it equal to the Senate, directly under the authority of the tsar and his “chief procurator.”
Feofan’s reforms did not stop at ecclesiology and Church-state relations, however. He also promoted the proliferation of theological schools throughout Russia. Despite Western-influenced curricula, these schools ultimately meant Russian educational independence. Russia’s best and brightest no longer needed to be educated in Western schools, though some still chose to do so. Schmemann saw the positive, long-term significance of this development. “Even though it came through the West,” he wrote, “… the great forgotten tradition of thought, that of disinterested search for truth and ascetic service to it, were revived again in Orthodoxy.”
Feofan’s reforms also extended to monasticism. The negative impact of these reforms cannot be denied. As Ivanov notes, “the number of monasteries in Russia declined from 1,153 in 1700 to 285 in 1764….” Furthermore, Prokopovich recast the monastic vocation in utilitarian terms, and monasteries thus required a new, socially-beneficial (as if they weren’t already) reconfiguration: “While the number of monks and nuns declined, the institutional incomes (often derived from ownership of large lands and many serfs) did not, allowing the Synod to fill the vacant cells in the monasteries with non-monastics.” This included serving as retirement homes for military personnel and their widows; hospitals; prisons for use by the secret police; “supply bases for the army”; and trades schools.
While incredibly disruptive and negative, monasteries did need reform, specifically with regard to the ownership of serfs. Decades after Prokopovich, the cruelty of monks toward the peasantry came to a head. “Torture and abuses were common,” details Ivanov, “such monasteries as Novospasskii and Savvin-Storozhevskii Monastery would beat and torture their peasants to extract bribes and forced labor. With the permission of their protopriest, the priests of Murom Cathedral also beat their peasants routinely, demanded hefty bribes for permission to marry, and even raped peasant women for weeks at a time…. Peasants (and the village priests who supported them) sent protests to Moscow or St. Petersburg that were ignored or resulted in the arrest and torture of the plaintiffs.” The result: “With no legal recourse for their grievances, peasants picked up their pitchforks.” These revolts received a violent answer: “Only cannon fire, grenades, and the capture of Mirzin along with the sustained rape and pillage of the villages ended the revolt in 1757.” Feofan’s reforms did not address this problem, but reform came at the advent of the Enlightenment in Russia.
While expediency, rather than principle, was the primary motivation, this monastic reform left fertile ground for Russian Orthodox appropriation of Enlightenment ideals. Church peasants were “permanently freed … from ecclesiastical control” by the February Manifesto of 1764 of Empress Catherine (“the Great”). “In terms of acreage, the church appeared to have lost a lot,” notes Ivanov, “about 8,557,688 desiatin of land (roughly the size of Indiana) with some 1,069,711 male serfs.” Instead of inefficiently (and forcefully) needing to extract taxes and labor from serfs, the Church now received state funding.
Most importantly, “Peasants, not the state, appeared to be the biggest winners in this reform.” As a result, Church hierarchs, inspired by Enlightenment works well-read in their seminaries, became advocates of the abolition of serfdom and defenders of peasants against the nobility: “the church emerged as a long-term moral winner in this reform…. [T]he pragmatic decision also appeared as enlightened and the idea of order was intertwined with virtue…. [I]n the long term, it allowed the church to become more concerned about the improvement of village life and to develop even bolder views on agrarian servitude.” Bishops spread literacy and schools among the peasants and supported the vernacularization of the Bible and religious education. They opened clinics for basic medical care. Platon Levshin, metropolitan of Moscow from 1775-1812, attained a “reputation as a ‘liberal monk,’” because he “compared their treatment to ‘murder’ and maintained that peasants ought to have the right to sue oppressive landowners in court.”
The emancipation of ecclesiastical serfs itself enabled the advance of Enlightenment principles in Russia: “Freed from the cares of tax-collecting and from the terrors of the rebellious peasantry, many Russian bishops pursued the life of the mind.” They eagerly read Lutheran and Calvinist theology, Pietist spirituality, Anglican commentary on canon law, many moderate Enlightenment authors, and even some Roman Catholics. “Unlike Feofan Prokopovich,” writes Ivanov, “who viewed Protestant thought as a means to purify Orthodox dogma from its Catholic influences, eighteenth-century bishops began to view theology as a science that could tolerate or accept varying views, innovation, and change.” This more ecumenical mindset converged in their preaching of rationalistic Enlightenment morals and Pietistic mysticism. Extending the shorthand adopted by Ivanov, we could refer to this new generation of Enlightenment-inspired philo-Protestant hierarchs as “philo-Pietist.”
As for Levshin, his “most seminal contribution to Orthodox theology … was his catechism.” Ivanov notes—including an extensive side-by-side comparison in his appendix—that Platon’s catechism bears undeniable theological and structural influence from the Calvinist Westminster Larger Catechism, “includ[ing] such topics as the attributes of God, the questions of ecclesiology, the ‘offices’ of Christ, and even sacramental definitions. Platon also shared the Calvinist doctrine of Providence….” Whether or not Platon’s catechism would violate the standard of Dositheus’s anti-Calvinist Confession would be an interesting research question. On a cursory reading, it seems that Platon tended to “rationalize” traditional Orthodox teaching and practices that would scandalize Protestants, like “prayers for the dead,” whereas Loukaris passed over them in silence.
In any case, the influence of the Enlightenment, while “eclectic,” reached widely, including “northern German Neology, Newtonian Physicotheology, and British Latitudinarianism,” as well as “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.” But the Orthodox did not read these uncritically: “At the same time, they unanimously condemned Deism (found in those very books).” Nor did the influence stop at theology, as already noted regarding serfdom. In politics, Platon and others openly supported a constitution.
The last phase of Western influence during this period came via the Awakening and as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. “[M]any Russians,” notes Ivanov, “were trading their previous enlightened decadence”—which included, put mildly, a marked slackening of asceticism—“for the life of contemplation, mysticism, and social responsibility.” Yet there were perhaps more continuities with the Pietism and moralism of preceding decades than discontinuities: “Many of the ‘gentlemen’ bishops of the Catherinian generation welcomed the arrival of the new [Awakening] Protestant literature and spiritual trends with fascination. Paradoxically, however, they did not reject all of the Enlightenment ideas that they had cherished….” For convenience, I will again extend Ivanov’s shorthand to call this group “philo-Awakener.”
Ivanov focuses on St. Filaret Drozdov, metropolitan of Moscow after Platon and his former student. “He was deeply involved in the Awakening in Russia,” notes Ivanov, “as the person who ‘converted’ [Alexander Nikolaevich] Golitsyn to the right path, as a one-time member of Labzin’s secret society [a Rosicrucian Masonic lodge], and as one of the leaders of the Bible Society,” which “spread nearly a million vernacular New Testaments and Psalters all over Russia” from 1813-1826. Not everyone supported the Bible Society, however, and in its opposition, we see the successful resurgence (after many failed attempts throughout the century) of philo-Catholic forces, as well as the beginning of the “neo-patristic” theological and spiritual turn in nineteenth-century Russia.
These critics were “not a unified group by any measure” but shared “three features”: “disapproval … of the Awakening”; “opposition to the vernacularization of holy texts”; and “dissatisfaction with … Petrine and Catherinian church reforms.” Chief among them, Archimandrite Fotii Spasskii “disapproved of Filaret’s 1823 catechism … and advocated the return of Peter Mohyla’s Tridentine-inspired catechism.” Several other opponents had simply turned to romantic conservatism from Enlightenment ideals as they aged.
Yet Ivanov cautions not to assume total insulation from the Awakening they denounced: “Fotii … used a standard tool of the awakeners—direct revelation—to bolster his arguments.” He compares Fotii to Rasputin, noting that like him, “Fotii possessed the unique advantage of appealing directly to the court.” What sort of messages did he relay? “Fotii accused England of plotting a revolution in Russia by sending English missionaries … to bring ‘poison through the channel of the Bible Society.’” Despite (or because of?) the deep influence the Awakening had on him, Tsar Alexander took Fotii’s pronouncements seriously: “Although he hesitated to close the Bible Society, its translation activities and public outreach were curtailed” and thousands of vernacular Bibles burned.
In the interregnum after Alexander died, the Decemberists attempted to force Russia to adopt a constitution. Nicholas I answered the crowd’s request with cannon fire. As for the previous 125 years of Church reform, “The new tsar … was clearly not fond of the Awakening or the reformed Orthodox theology of the eighteenth century. By personal decree, he closed the Bible Society on April 12, 1826.” After 1836, Procurator Nikolai Protasov, actively suppressed Western influence, including the teaching of all philosophy, in Russian seminaries (though ultimately unsuccessfully, partly due to “Filaret’s protection”).
According to Ivanov, “Filaret viewed Protasov’s policies as ‘a return to the times of [Catholic] scholasticism’ and stated that any decisions that reflected the opinions of the 1672 Jerusalem Council … carried a ‘Catholic stain.’ He complained about the return of the ancient ‘persecutions of the Church,’” but his protests ultimately remained rhetorical. “Filaret acknowledged that the turn against Enlightenment theology and Awakening spirituality … had long been underway … and standing in its way would require combat on barricades he was not willing to climb.” Compelled by the counterreformers, especially “Privy Councilor Konstantin Serbonovich,” Filaret revised his catechism “‘in accordance with the strict requirements of the ancient Orthodoxy,’ which included the introduction of the Catholic teaching on the Nine Beatitudes and the equivalency of church tradition with revelation.”
Recategorizing the Past
Ivanov’s Spiritual Revolution more than accomplishes its stated goals. It is a groundbreaking work of historical theology, and it should serve as an essential reference for any future exploration of Russian Orthodoxy in the “long eighteenth century” today. But why would anyone want to do that?
Ivanov could have made an even stronger case—as has Marcus Plested in his Orthodox Readings of Aquinas—by highlighting the Eastern roots of medieval scholasticism in St. John of Damascus and other Fathers. Florovsky isn’t entirely wrong that Orthodox theology was forced into the “pseudomorphoses” of foreign categories, but scholasticism—which is a method of inquiry, not a theology or philosophy—was not one of them. From this perspective, Peter Mohyla simply picked up where Gennadius II Scholarius left off, dialoguing with the West through the scholastic method.
Furthermore, as Ivanov does note, the liturgical life of the Church remained largely constant, and even Prokopovich read and recommended the Church Fathers (though preferring, like many Protestants, the first four centuries). St. Paisii Belichkovskii translated the Philokalia in 1793, and it quickly gained a wide readership. Florovsky even applauded Platon’s efforts to vernacularize curricula, eliminating the psychological divide between Slavonic prayer and Latin theologizing. One might even argue for a dialectical development: Just as wariness over Mohyla’s philo-Catholic teachings led to positive revision of his Confession, St. Filaret’s revised Catechism remains useful today, including those aspects his philo-Catholic opponents compelled him to add. In any case, I agree that “East and West” are the wrong analytical categories. What matters is, well, “Orthodoxy and heterodoxy.”
I see at least two ways forward for anyone looking to build upon Ivanov’s work: First, one could conduct a thorough comparison of the catechetical documents referenced in this review. These texts are necessarily simple, intended for the teaching of the laity, but not unnuanced. Understanding the context of conflicting Western influences, these works make for easy comparison of standard Church teaching across the “long eighteenth century.” Second, the Church has fittingly canonized at least one figure of each camp from this period as examples of true Orthodox sanctity: St. Dmitry of Rostov (philo-Catholic), St. Iaosaph of Belgorod (philo-Protestant), St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (philo-Pietist), and St. Filaret of Moscow (philo-Awakener). What common fruits of the “faith … once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) can be gleaned across their lives and writings?
But perhaps the question remains: Why? The majority of those reading this live in the West. Many (including myself) converted to Orthodoxy from Western confessions. Some may wonder what of their past faith needs to be rethought and what they should retain. The good news is Orthodox engagement with nearly all contemporary Western teachings and trends can be found in this period. Reacquaintance with these sources may also counteract one harmful tendency of our time: what I’ll call “self-Orientalism,” the artificial comfort of being “exotic” and “different” at the exclusion of our own Orthodox heritage and, for that matter, genuine progress in ecumenical dialogue.
Much of this period was truly scandalous and embarrassing. That cannot be denied. But how long must we allow even justified shame to keep us from the necessary work of sifting through the debris of this neglected era for the treasures beneath the rubble? Christ told St. Peter that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” his Church (Matthew 16:18). The errors of sinful human actors can never outweigh the ever-active grace of God and the gifts deposited in his Church by the saints. Any with the faith and courage to undertake such intellectual archeology today will find Ivanov’s Spiritual Revolution an invaluable survey from which to begin.
 Andrey V. Ivanov, A Spiritual Revolution: The Impact of Reformation and Enlightenment in Orthodox Russia (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020).
 For a further reconsideration of the category of “pseudomorphosis,” I recommend the work of Dr. Ryan Hanning.