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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Moscow and Petersburg
      • Moscow the third Rome
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Moscow the third Rome

  After the taking of Constantinople in 1453, there was only one nation capable of assuming

leadership in  eastern Christendom. The  greater  part of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania had al-

ready been conquered by the Turks, while the rest was absorbed before long. Russia alone re-

mained. To the Russians it seemed no coincidence that at the very moment when the Byzantine

Empire came to an end, they themselves were at last throwing off the few remaining vestiges of

Tartar suzerainty: God, it seemed, was granting them their freedom because He had chosen them

to be the successors of Byzantium.

  At the same time as the land of Russia, the Russian Church gained its independence, more

by chance than from any  deliberate design. Hitherto the Patriarch of Constantinople had ap-

pointed the head of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan. At the Council of Florence the Metro-

politan was a GreekIsidore. A leading supporter of the union  with RomeIsidore  returned to

Moscow in 1441 and proclaimed the decrees of Florence, but he met with no support from the

Russians:  he was  imprisoned  by  the  Grand Duke,  but  after  a  time was  allowed  to  escape,  and

went back to Italy. The chief see was thus left vacant; but the Russians could not ask the Patri-

arch for a new Metropolitan, because until 1453 the official Church at Constantinople continued

to accept the Florentine Union. Reluctant to take action on their own, the Russians delayed for

several years. Eventually in 1448 a council of Russian bishops proceeded to elect a Metropolitan

without further reference to Constantinople. After 1453, when the Florentine Union was aban-

doned at Constantinople, communion between the Patriarchate and Russia was restored, but Rus-

sia continued to appoint its own chief hierarch. Henceforward the Russian Church was autoceph-


  The idea of Moscow as successor of Byzantium was assisted by a marriage. In 1472 Ivan III

.the Great. (reigned 1462-1505) married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Although

Sophia had brothers and was not the legal heir to the throne, the marriage served to establish a

dynastic link with Byzantium. The Grand Duke of Moscow began to assume the Byzantine titles

of .autocrat. and .Tsar. (an adaptation of the Roman .Caesar.)  and to  use the double-headed

eagle of Byzantium as his State emblem. Men came to think of Moscow as .the Third Rome..

The first Rome (so they argued) had fallen to the barbarians and then lapsed into heresy; the sec-

ond Rome, Constantinople, had in turn fallen into heresy  at the Council  of Florence, and as a

punishment had been taken by the Turks. Moscow therefore had succeeded Constantinople as the

Third and last Rome,  the center of Orthodox Christendom. The monk Philotheus of Pskov set

forth this line of argument in a famous letter written in 1510 to Tsar Basil III:


I wish to add a few words on the present Orthodox Empire of îur ruler: he is on

earth the sole Emperor (Tsar) of the Christians, the leader of the Apostolic Church

which  stands  no  longer  Rome  or  in  Constantinople,  but  in  the  blessed  city  of

Moscow. She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun.. All Chris-

tian Empires are fallen and in their stead stands alone the Empire of our ruler in

accordance with the Prophetical books. Two Romes have fallen, but the third

stands and a fourth there will not be (Quoted in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium: an Introduc-

tion, p. 385).


This idea of Moscow the Third Rome had a certain appropriateness when applied to the Tsar: the

Emperor of Byzantium once acted as champion and protector of Orthodoxy, and now the auto-

crat of Russia was called to perform the same task. But it could also be understood in other and


less acceptable ways. If Moscow was the Third Rome, then should not the head of the Russian

Church rank senior to the Patriarch of Constantinople?  In fact this seniority has never been

granted, and Russia has always ranked no higher than fifth among the Orthodox Churches, after

Jerusalem. The concept of Moscow the Third Rome also encouraged a kind of Muscovite Messi-

anism, and led Russians sometimes to think of themselves as a chosen people who could do no

wrong; and if taken in a political as well as religious sense, it could be used to further the ends of

Russian secular imperialism.

  Now that  the  dream  for which Saint  Sergius worked . the  liberation  of  Russia  from the

Tartars . had become a reality, a sad division occurred among his spiritual descendants. Sergius

had united the social with the mystical side of monasticism, but under his successors these two

aspects became separated. The separation first came into the open at a Church council in 1503.

As this council drew to its close, Saint Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorsky, 1433?-1508), a monk from a

remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, rose to speak, and launched an attack on the

ownership of land by monasteries (about a third of the land in Russia belonged to monasteries at

this time). Saint Joseph, Abbot of  Volokalamsk (1439-1515), replied in defense of monastic

landholding. The majority of the Council supported Joseph; but there were others in the Russian

Church  who  agreed  with  Nilus  .  chiefly  hermits  living  like  him  beyond  the  VolgaJoseph.s

party were known as the Possessors, Nilus and the .Transvolga hermits. as the Non-Possessors.

During the next twenty years there was considerable tension between the two groups. Finally in

1525-1526 the Non-Possessors attacked Tsar Basil III for unjustly divorcing his wife (the Ortho-

dox Church grants divorce, but only for certain reasons); the Tsar then imprisoned the leading

Non-Possessors and closed the Transvolga hermitages. The tradition of Saint Nilus was driven

underground, and although it never entirely disappeared, its influence in the Russian Church was

very much restricted. For the time being the outlook of the Possessors reigned supreme.

  Behind the question of monastic property lay two different conceptions of the monastic life,

and  ultimately  two  different  views  of  the  relation  of  the  Church  to  the  world.  The  Possessors

emphasized the social obligations of monasticism: it is part of the work of monks to care for the

sick and poor, to show hospitality and to teach; to do these things efficiently, monasteries need

money  and therefore they  must own land. Monks (so they  argued) do not use their wealth on

themselves, but hold it in trust for the benefit of others. There was a saying among the followers

of Joseph, .The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor..

  The Non-Possessors argued on the other hand that almsgiving is the duty of the laity, while

a monk.s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example. To do

these things properly a monk must be detached from the world, and only those who are vowed to

complete poverty can achieve true detachment. Monks who are landowners cannot avoid being

tangled up in secular anxieties, and because they become absorbed in worldly concerns, they act

and think in a worldly way. In the words of the monk Vassian (Prince Patrikiev), a disciple of



Where in the traditions of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered

to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? .We look

into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some lit-

tle village. We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them

with scourges like wild beasts (Quoted in B. Pares, A History of Russia, third edition, p. 93).



Vassian.s protest against torture and scourges brings us to a second matter over which the two

sides disagreed, the treatment of heretics. Joseph upheld the view all but universal in Christen-

dom at this time: if heretics are recalcitrant, the Church must call in the civil arm and resort to

prison, torture,  and if necessary  fire. But Nilus condemned all  forms of coercion  and violence

against heretics. One has only to recall how Protestants and Roman Catholics treated one another

in western Europe during the Reformation, to realize how exceptional Nilus was in his tolerance

and respect for human freedom.

  The question of heretics in turn involved the wider problem of relations between Church

and State. Nilus regarded heresy as a spiritual  matter, to be settled by  the Church without the

State.s intervention; Joseph invoked the help of the secular authorities. In general Nilus drew a

clearer line than Joseph between the things of Caesar and the things of God. The Possessors were

great supporters of the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; believing in a close alliance between

Church and State, they took an active part in politics, as Sergius had done, but perhaps they were

less careful than Sergius to guard the Church from becoming the servant of the State. The Non-

Possessors for their part had a sharper awareness of the prophetic and other-worldly witness of

monasticism. The Josephites were in danger of identifying the Kingdom of God with a kingdom

of this world; Nilus saw that the Church on earth must always be a Church in pilgrimage. While

Joseph and his party were great patriots and nationalists, the Non-Possessors thought more of the

universality and Catholicity of the Church.

  Nor did the divergences between the two sides  end here: they  also had  different ideas of

Christian piety and prayer. Joseph emphasized the place of rules and discipline, Nilus the inner

and personal relation between God and the soul. Joseph stressed the place of beauty in worship,

Nilus feared that beauty might become an idol: the monk (so Nilus maintained) is dedicated not

only to an outward poverty, but to an absolute self-stripping, and he must be careful lest a devo-

tion to beautiful icons or Church music comes between him and  God. (In this suspicion of

beauty, Nilus displays a Puritanism . almost an Iconoclasm . most unusual in Russian spiritu-

ality). Joseph realized the importance of corporate worship and of liturgical prayer:


man  can  pray  in  his  own  room,  but  he  will  never  pray  there  as  he  prays  in

Church... where the singing of many voices rises united towards God, where all

have but one thought and one voice in the unity of love.. On high the seraphim

proclaim  the  Trisagion, here  below  the human  multitude  raises  the  same  hymn.

Heaven and  earth keep  festival together, one in thanksgiving, one in happiness,

one in joy (Quoted by J. Meyendorff, .Une controverse sur le rôle social de lglise. La querelle

des biens ecclésiastiques au XVIe siècle en Russie,. in the periodical Irénikon, vol. XXIX (1956), p.



Nilus on the other hand was chiefly interested not in liturgical but in mystical prayer: before he

settled at Sora he had lived as a monk on Mount Athos, and he knew the Byzantine Hesychast

tradition at first hand.

  The Russian Church rightly saw good things in the teaching of both Joseph and Nilus, and

has canonized them both. Each inherited a part of the tradition of Saint Sergius, but no more than

partRussia  needed both  the  Josephite  and  the  Transvolgian  forms  of monasticism,  for  each

supplemented the other.  It was sad indeed that the two sides entered into conflict, and that the

tradition of Nilus was largely  suppressed: without the Non-Possessors, the spiritual life of the

Russian Church became one-sided  and unbalanced. The  close integration which the Josephites


upheld between Church and State, their Russian nationalism, their devotion to the outward forms

of worship . these things were to lead to trouble in the next century.

  One  of  the  most  interesting  participants  in  the  dispute  of  Possessors  and  Non-Possessors

was Saint Maximus  the Greek (1470?-1556), a  .bridge figure. whose long life embraces the

three worlds of Renaissance  Italy, Mount Athos, and Muscovy. Greek  by birth, he spent the

years of early manhood in Florence and Venice, as a friend of Humanist scholars such as Pico

della Mirandola; he also fell under the influence of Savonarola, and for two years was a Domini-

can. Returning to Greece in 1504, he became a monk on Athos; in 1517 he was invited to Russia

by the Tsar, to translate Greek works into Slavonic and to correct the Russian service books,

which were disfigured by numerous errors. Like Nilus, he was devoted to the Hesychast ideals,

and on arriving in Russia he threw in his lot with the Non-Possessors. He suffered with the rest,

and was imprisoned for twenty-six  years, from 1525 to 1551. He was attacked with particular

bitterness for the changes which he proposed in the service books, and the work of revision was

broken off and left unfinished. His great gifts of learning, from which the Russians could have

benefited so much, were largely wasted in imprisonment. He was as strict as Nilus in his demand

for self-stripping and spiritual poverty. .If  you truly love Christ crucified,. he wrote, a

stranger, unknown, without country, without name, silent before your relatives, your acquaintan-

ces, and your friends; distribute all that you have to the poor, sacrifice all your old habits and all

your own will. (Quoted by E. Denissoff, Maxime le Grec et l.Occident, Paris, 1943, pp. 275-276).

  Although the victory of the Possessors meant a close alliance between Church and State, the

Church did not forfeit all independence. When  Ivan the Terrible.s power was at its height, the

Metropolitan  of  MoscowSaint  Philip  (died  1569),  dared  to  protest  openly  against  the  Tsar.s

bloodshed and injustice, and rebuked him to his face during the public celebration of the Liturgy.

Ivan  put  him  in  prison  and  later  had  him  strangled.  Another  who  sharply  criticized  Ivan  was

Saint Basil the Blessed, the .Fool in Christ. (died 1552). Folly for the sake of Christ is a form of

sanctity found in Byzantium, but particularly prominent in medieval Russia: the .Fool. carries

the  ideal  of  self-stripping  and  humiliation  to  its  furthest  extent,  by  renouncing  all  intellectual

gifts, all forms of earthly wisdom, and by voluntarily taking upon himself the Cross of madness.

These Fools often performed a valuable social role: simply because they were fools, they could

criticize those in power  with a frankness which  no one  else dared to employ. So it  was with

Basil, the .living conscience. of the Tsar. Ivan listened to the shrewd censure of the Fool, and so

far from punishing him, treated him with marked honor.

  In 1589, with the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the Russian Church

was raised from the rank of Metropolitan to that of Patriarch. It was from one point of view a tri-

umph for the ideal of Moscow the Third Rome; but it was a qualified triumph, for the Moscow

Patriarch did not take first place in the Orthodox world, but fifth, after Constantinople, Alexan-

dria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (but superior to the more ancient Patriarchate of Serbia). As things

turned out, the Moscow Patriarchate was to last for little more than a century.


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