The Great Schism Raskol and the Old Believers

Russian culture in the seventeenth century and the circle of the 'Lovers of God' (Bogoljubtsy)

The tension between the 'priesthood' and the 'kingdom' was not the only tension within Muscovite Christianity in the seventeenth century. Georges Florovsky (1979) has called it 'a century of lost equilibrium'. Russian society as a whole had drastically changed during the first half of the century; people were looking for a new ideology of moral and cultural values to replace those lost in the Distemper. In the framework imposed by the church organization under Philaret Romanov, the leading ideological group became, by the 1640s, the circle of the so-called 'Lovers of God' (Bogoljubtsy); this was headed by the spiritual father of the Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1645-76), archpriest Stephen Vonifatievich (d. 1656) whose power in church affairs prevailed over that of the patriarch. The Bogoljubtsy were exploring ways of reconstructing the Russian cultural tradition. As is often the case, the same narrow circle of activists produced the future leaders of two antagonistic parties, Patriarch Nikon (1652-8, d. 1681) and archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620-82).

The Bogoljubtsy were convinced that the actual customs of Russian society were of a mixed nature where every bad thing had to be classified as 'new' and every good thing as 'old', that is, 'traditional'. So, they were trying to reconstruct 'tradition' starting from their theoretical viewpoint, but with neither access to nor the wish to access the actual Orthodox tradition prior to the early seventeenth century. All of them were convinced that they already possessed the knowledge of the 'true tradition'. Their beloved method of 'cultural reconstruction' became surgical, that is, they simply amputated what they viewed as 'new'. Therefore, they pushed through to its logical end a tendency already apparent by the early 1610s; the polarization in Russian culture of the ecclesiastical and the secular. The secular was now understood as something undesirably 'new'. The zone of transition between the ecclesiastical and the secular that existed in the cultures of both Old Rus and contemporary Kievan Rus was destroyed in Muscovy, so that the new ecclesiastical and secular cultures became, instead of being different parts of one whole, opposed to each other.

At the same time, the Bogoljubtsy accepted many things from the Kievan Metropoli-tanate they considered to be 'old' and 'traditional', but which in fact were new. This was an inevitable consequence of the intellectual superiority of the Kievan theologians, both Hesychasts and pro-Uniates, over their Muscovite colleagues. In Moscow, the 'Kievan' books were the only Orthodox theological texts to discuss current issues, as can easily be seen from the two great compilations printed in Moscow, the Book of Cyril (1644) and the Book on Faith (1648). The Muscovite compilers were often unable to grasp the differences between the texts issued by the two main groups of Kievan theologians, not to mention their lack of understanding of contemporary Greek theology. Such theological backwardness led to an unconscious and disorderly intellectual dependence on 'Kievan' authors at the cost of the contribution made by people like Maxim the Greek, Father Artemius, Andrew Kurbskij and Ivan Fedorov.

The circle as a whole developed the idea of Russian autonomy, this time in a form resulting from a combination of the Third Rome theory with the contemporaneous Kievan philosophy of history. An anonymous eschatological treatise published as Chapter 30 of the Book on Faith became a manifesto of this approach. It is still unclear whether this chapter was written in Moscow or in West Russia, but in any case it was accepted as normative in Muscovy. Instead of three Romes, there were now three main periods before three apostasies: a period of about 1,000 years before the apostasy of Rome, then one of about 600 years before the apostasy of South-West Russia (through its Union with Rome), then another of about 66 years before a disastrous impending event in Moscow. There was no room for Byzantium in this scheme, which was derived from a Kievan interpretation of the Latin post-Tridentine philosophy of history.

The anonymous author goes so far as to predict the exact date of catastrophe: 1666 = 1000 + 666 (where the number of the Beast, 666, is treated as a time-span). To evaluate the responsibility of the publishers (who were the same Bogoljubtsy) it should be noted that this prophesy was issued from the official state printing house in 1648. There are other testimonies as well that show the Bogoljubtsy understood their work from an eschatological perspective, as a means to lead the whole country to penitence before the crucial date of 1666. The most interesting fact, however, is that the prophesy concerning 1666 came true: it is the date when the Great Schism of the Russian Church was decisively defined.

The first result of the Bogoljubtsy's activity was an enforcement of Philaret's autonomous conception of the Russian Church, that is, a deeper voluntary isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world. The second result was a solidification of yet another division within Russian society, the sharp polarization between the secular and the ecclesiastical cultures, potentially leading to the isolation of the Church from the rest of Russian society.

It is hardly surprising that the third and the final result of the Bogoljubtsy's common objective led to a division and collapse of their circle in the middle of the 1650s: they turned out to be unable to reach agreement on the question of what the true tradition was, that is, what was 'old' and what was 'new'. Their tendency to isolate the Church from the life of Russian society as a whole led in turn to a struggle between former associates. Both church parties were to become unrealistic and lose control of the church structures leaving them to the secular authorities. Finally, the autonomy of the Church would result in the impossibility of improving the situation from outside. All subsequent appeals to the Eastern Patriarchs would be seen as nothing but propagandist manoeuvres of the interested powers in Russia.

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