The Nineteenth Century Major Trends

From the early nineteenth century the Church of Russia began step by step to recover from the 'paralysis' (Dostoevsky's word) caused by Peter the Great. However, the situation for Christianity in Russian society was growing increasingly worse. In the eighteenth century, the reformed Church had been unable to hold on to its flock. The consequence of this for subsequent generations was as follows.

By the late eighteenth century the Church had lost the part of its flock consisting of the aristocracy; by the first half of the nineteenth century it had lost another part, including most of the gentry; and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had lost the middle class, especially young men. By the 1860s the absolute majority of university students were atheistic or, in the best case, agnostic. Even those who were interested in the religious quest were unable to take the church establishment seriously.

Among educated people this led to a vogue for mystical teachings, and sometimes mystical sects, especially those flavoured with Protestant pietism. This was true even of great ascetic writers such as Theophan the Recluse (1815-94), a retired bishop who translated many monastic and spiritual texts from Greek into Russian. In his early works, he found favour with fashionable Protestant authors in matters relating to the theological background of Christian asceticism, such as the vision of the divine light, which was of course part of the Orthodox Hesychast tradition. Not surprisingly, these pietistic influences were much stronger among religious writers who came from a secular milieu, such as Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-60), the creator of the philosophical and theological school known as 'Slavophilism', and those writers of fiction who were well disposed to the Church, such as Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

(1821-81), whose name takes precedence. As far as rural people and merchants were concerned the loss of authority of the state church led to the success of these sects, especially among peasants who had moved to cities to become industrial workers.

A great ascetic writer, Bishop Ignatius (Bryanchaninov, 1807-67) as well as the Orthodox thinker Constantine Leontiev (1831-91, tonsured, as monk Clement) shared the opinion that the problem of the salvation of the Russian Church and state had lost its meaning: the catastrophe of both was inevitable in a relatively short time. Therefore, according to Leontiev, the real problem was how to live after the catastrophe. Likewise, Theophan the Recluse had evaluated the time remaining to the Russian Church as no more than a couple of generations. One can see that his prediction was not far from being wrong.

An indisputable achievement of the nineteenth century was the re-emergence of monasticism and the influence of spiritual elders (starchestvo). The most important centres of monasticism were: the Optina monastery near Kaluga, the Valaam monastery on an island in the Ladoga Lake, and the Monastery of St Panteleimon and other smaller centres on Mount Athos. Russians had been the main driving force behind the revival of the Athonite monasticism after the decline resulting from the Greek-Turkish war of 1821-9.

Finally, by the late nineteenth century, it was more and more noticeable that there was a return to the Church and to strict Orthodoxy by a small but active group of the intelligentsia. First among their rank was Constantine Leontiev, a disciple of the Athonite Russian elder Hieronymus, and starets of the Optina monastery, Ambrose.

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