Nikon and reform

Although Muscovite Russia experienced serious political crises and social upheavals in the mid-seventeenth century, the Orthodox Church carried out its ministry in far more predictable circumstances than its counterpart in Ukraine, in part because of its very close ties with the tsars' government. Indeed, the decisive role of the new tsar, Aleksei Mikhailovich (i645-76), in the stormy events in the second half of the century illustrates the extent to which, long before Peter I, the decisions of the secular ruler ultimately determined the fate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Strong supporters of reform, the young ruler and his confessor, Stefan Vonifatiev, gathered like-minded men, traditionally known as the Zealots of Piety, including parish priests such as Neronov and his protege, Avvakum, and in time the future patriarch Nikon. Everyone in this diverse group agreed that parish life must be revitalised through effective preaching, the full and orderly celebration of the liturgy, and strict enforcement of the church's moral teachings - all objectives they shared with the Catholic Reformation.

Before long, Aleksei and his allies made several of the reformers' demands official policy. Beginning in December i648, the tsar issued a series of decrees, ordering local governors to ban skomorokhi and suppress the folk customs associated with them in every village and hamlet in their jurisdictions.n Issuing decrees, however, was much easier than changing deep-rooted patterns of behaviour: scattered evidence suggests that the skomorokhi continued to practise their ancient trade in the remote countryside into the eighteenth century and many of the agrarian rites and folk festivals survived long enough for modern ethnographers to record them/2

The reformers also won their battle for edinoglasie (celebrating the liturgy with no overlapping or short cuts). Reversing the decision of i649, another ecclesiastical council, in February i65i, made the practice obligatory in parish churches as well as in monasteries.i3

The implementation of the Zealots' programme of reform from above aroused violent opposition among the laity. Avvakum's hagiographic autobiography, written roughly twenty years after the events, describes his clashes

11 N. Kharuzin, 'K voprosu o bor'be moskovskago pravitel'stva s narodnymi iazycheskimi obriadami i sueveriiami v polovine XVII v.', Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie, i (i879), i43-5i; AI, iv, i24-6.

12 R. Zguta, Russian minstrels: a history of the Skomorokhi (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, i978), 63-5; M. M. Gromyko, Mir russkoi derevni (Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia, i99i), 325-9, 345-6o.

13 Pascal, Avvakum, i56-8.

with his parishioners while parish priest of Lopatitsy. Twice, in 1648 and i652,in fear for his life, he fled his parish for the safety of Moscow. As he recalled them, Avvakum's methods of enforcing liturgical and moral order and rebuking sinners were hardly subtle.14 Other reformist priests suffered through similar tribulations, taking the brunt of laypeople's anger at demands from above that they abruptly change their traditional way of life.

Legal and economic issues also threatened the reformers' campaign. The Law Code of 1649 significantly changed the legal relationship of church and state by creating a monastery chancery (Monastyrskii Prikaz) and by giving it authority to try criminal and civil cases involving both clergymen and the inhabitants of all church lands except the patriarchal domain.15 Moreover, under pressure from urban taxpayers, the government confiscated the tax-exempt urban settlements in which the church's dependants conducted trade. Although neither the judgement of churchmen by the secular government nor the confiscation of ecclesiastical property was unprecedented, the sweeping provisions of the Code made clear that neither the church's judicial privileges nor its lands were sacrosanct.

When Nikon became patriarch in 1652, many of the latent tensions within the Russian church erupted into open conflict. Nikon aroused enormous controversy in his own day and still fascinates and perplexes us. Born into a peasant family in the Nizhnii Novgorod area, he served briefly as a parish priest before taking monastic vows in the Anzerskii Skit on an island in the White Sea where he followed a severely ascetic rule of life. He also displayed great energy and administrative talent, qualities that ultimately brought him to the position of abbot of the Kozheozerskii monastery. In this capacity, he travelled to Moscow in i646 and met Tsar Aleksei.

From that moment, Nikon became a favourite of the tsar and an ally of the church reformers at his court. With Aleksei's unconditional support, he quickly rose to the patriarchal throne. The tsar immediately appointed him archimandrite of the Novospasskii monastery in Moscow, a favourite foundation of the Romanov family. In 1649, he was consecrated metropolitan of

14 Archpriest Avvakum, Zhitie Protopopa Avvakuma im samim napisannoe i drugie ego sochi-neniia, ed. N. K. Gudzii (Moscow: Goslitizdat, i960), 61-4; Archpriest Avvakum, The Life written by himself: with the study ofV. V. Vinogradov, trans. and ed. Kenneth N. Brostrom (Michigan Slavic Translations 4) (Ann Arbor: University ofMichigan Press, i979), 45-50.

15 Sobornoe ulozhenie 1649 goda: tekst, kommentarii, ed. L. I. Ivina, G. V Abramovich etal. (Leningrad: Nauka, Leningradskoe otdelenie, 1987), 69-70, 242-6; M. I. Gorchakov, Monastyrskii prikaz, 1649-1725 g. opyt istoriko-iuridicheskago izsliedovaniia (St Petersburg: A. Transhel', 1868), 40-90.

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