Reformation in the
Holy Roman Empire
in Poland

The Impact of the Reformation on Russia

A.) Reformation and Counterreformation in Belarus and Ukraine

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in dynastic union with the Kingdom of Poland, contained wide stretches of territory where Belarussian and Ukrainian in spoken, languages closely related to Russian, using the same alphabet. In 1500, the vast majority of Belarussians and Ukrainians adhered to the (Russian) Orthodox Church.
In the 16th century, protestant (both Lutheran and Calvinist) communities spread in Belarus. While the population of the countryside was little affected, every city had a protestant community. With it came the emergence of protestant literature in Belorussian language.
The Jesuits founded a university in VILNIUS (Vilna) in 1579, the center for the counterreformation in the area. Soon a printing press was established there, printing counterreformation literature.
The UNION OF BREST (1596) was an attempt to integrate the Orthodox communities of Belarus and western Ukraine into the Roman Catholic Church; while this worked with Belarus, only parts of Ukraine's extreme west joined. In 1610-1612, during the TIME OF TROUBLES, Polish troops were in control of Moscow, and the prospect of a Dynastic Union between Poland-Luthuania and Russia was discussed. The Russian notables made it a condition that Polish King Sigismund would convert to Orthodox Christianity; the project failed over this issue. The ZAPOROZHE COSSACKS, only loosely tied to Poland-Lithuania, were so upset about Jesuit pressure to accept Catholicism, that they killed the priests and rebelled (1648-1654), ultimately switching their allegiance from Poland-Lithuania to Russia (1654).
The TREATY OF ANDRUSSOVO resulted in the Russian acquisition of Lithuanian (i.e. Belarussian and Ukrainian) territory, most notably the city of Kiev and Smolensk. In addition, the Czar of Russia claimed to be the protector of the Russian Orthodox community within Poland-Lithuania. Thus, contacts between the two orthodox communities, but also between Russia and the protestant and catholic communities of these countries intensified.

B.) The Development of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church historically had derived from the Greek Church, her liturgical literature, her bible also based on Greek originals. Yet contact with Constantinopolis had been sporadic, over the centuries, and had ceased since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
In 1551 Ivan IV. had called a church council which was given the task of addressing the flaws in the Russian translations of Greek liturgical literature, which included a misspelling of Jesus' name and differences in rutual practices such as the use of two fingers in the rite of benediction, instead of three. Work on the correction of the liturgical literature had proceeded over many decades; FILARET had been the most prominent contributor. Yet the changes were yet to be implemented.
In 1652 NIKON, the favourite of Czar Alexey, was elected Metropolit of Moscow (i.e. head of the Russian Orthodox Church). Nikon's undiplomatic approach, the order of sudden changes, some going far beyond church affairs, caused an opposition to emerge. The Russian church experienced a schism, as large segments of the Russian christian community refused to accept the changes - the so-called OLD BELIEVERS (Raskolniki, Staroviery, Starovertsy). Entire communities of Old Believers simply moved away from their settlements where the church was perceived as in the hands of the reformed official church; there have been instances where Old Believers burnt themselves. For these Old Believers the issue was not what was right or wrong according to scripture; for them, the rite itself was leading to salvation, and it was not to be changed.
In comparison to central Europe, the literacy rate of Russia was far lower, schools scarce, the printing press had arrived much later. The reforms implemented by Nikon did not change the organization of the church, did not change major practices; still it caused a schism. The reformed church was the state church, as the Old Believers had moved to marginal lands and lacked institutions teaching their clergy. It should be noted that Old Believers featured strongly in the rebellion of STENKA RAZIN (1669-1671).
Nikon resigned in 1658; most of the reforms he had implemented, remained in force.
Reforms regarding the organization of the Russian Orthodox Church and the administration of her vast revenues were not initiated by the church leadership, but by the Czars. Most notably, PETER I. (the Great) abolished the position of Metropolit of Moscow, replacing it by the HOLY SYNOD (1721), an instrument enabling him to syphon off vast amounts of church revenues into state coffers.
Changes did appear in the 18th century among the Old Believers, who split in two groups, POPOVTSY, who retained the priesthood, and BEZPOPOVTSY who refused it and abolished all sacraments except baptism and communion, thus coming close to protestant practise. The DUKHOBORY developed as a branch of the latter; in the late 19th century many of them emigrated to Canada.

Via Crucis. 450 Years of Protestantism in Belarus, in English / Belarussian / Russian
Alexander Nadson, The Belarusian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church
Article Nikon, from Catholic Encyclopedia
Life of Patriarch Nikon, by Sergey Lobachev
Article Nikon (Nikita Minin), from EB 1911 edition
Biography of Filaret, from BBKL, in German
Eastern Christianity : Old Believers, from OWR
Old Believers, from Lithuanian Museum of Art
DOCUMENTS Melvin C. Wren, Taylor S. Stults, Course in Russian History Prospect Heights : Waveland 1994
Charles E. Ziegler, The History of Russia, Greenwood 1999
Boris Raymond, Paul Duffy, Historical Dictionary of Russia, Scarecrow 1998

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 22nd 2003, last revised on November 15th 2004

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