A major theme in my first novel, A Lamentation of Sirin, is the difficult relationship between Church and state. It seems clear to me that the Church needs to be free of any undue political influence. At the same time, it should also influence any political system for the better. Finding the delicate balance between the two, the “symphony between Church and state,” is a fascinating problem.
It’s a theme particularly important in our time. In America, the proper definition of “separation of Church and state” is still debated hotly. As for the Orthodox Church in America, Russia, and other places, it is still working out the most effective way of relating to local governments.
In Russia, the issue is especially relevant. After nearly a century of persecution ended, the Church had several possible options. To separate from the state entirely (the Western model), to align its interests with that of the state, or to take the traditionally Orthodox position of the second head in the two-headed eagle. Some people consider the path chosen by the Moscow Patriarchate to be the correct one, but many others do not. But all will agree that the issue is very complicated.
A similar question faced the Russian Church in February 1917, after the Tsar abdicated and a Provisional Government was established. To add to the complexity of the time, it was the middle of the most intense fighting of World War I. Here, for your reading pleasure, I offer an article from the Russian magazine “Foma” concerning the Church’s role in the traumatic events that changed Russia’s history, exactly 100 years ago. (Here is the original Russian article).
1917: The Church and state in February
Historians argue still about the role of the Russian Church in the events of 1917. The Church officially supported the liberal Provisional Government after the Tsar’s abdication. Why? Could the Synod have spoken out in support of the fallen monarchy? Should it have?
This article reflects the opinion of historian Gleb Eliseev.
When discussing the role and fate of the Russian Church during the great catastrophes of the 20th century, many start with the “Letter of the Most Holy Synod dated March 9, 1917”. This letter officially accepted the Provisional Government as legitimate. This moderate “declaration of loyalty” has often been declared a sign of the Synod’s apparent weakness, or even proof of the ecclesiastical authorities’ treachery before the Tsar. But is that really the case?
It’s very easy to condemn people who lived 100 years ago, using our own timeline as a starting point. From this vantage point, we know what horrors and cataclysms awaited Russia in the future. But the hierarchs didn’t have prophetic knowledge. And isn’t it a bit self-righteous to condemn this step, even if it wasn’t perhaps the best choice for the future of the Church?
Those who believe that the Church could have raised “millions of faithful” to support the Tsar-Father, and didn’t do this from weakness or cowardice, simply don’t know (or don’t wish to know) anything about the actual situation of the Church and state in the beginning of the 20th century.
As sad as this may sound, the Church in Russia at that time was very weak. This is both for objective reasons (the general fall in religiosity in an industrializing society) and for subjective historical reasons (the fact that the Church was, effectively, a political apparatus of the Russian Empire). We must not forget that revolutionary propaganda had years, decades, to completely discredit the Church.
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the Russian Church was subject to constant, insistent, and intentional slander. The press was incredibly liberal and sensationalized the smallest deficiency in ecclesiastical life—both actual and invented. Furthermore, after the liberals came to power in February 1917, readers of the liberal press eagerly awaited the smallest occasion to begin a final and conclusive attack on Russian Orthodoxy. The Synod was aware of this, and had to act accordingly.
In any case, it’s very strange to suggest that the Holy Synod had to somehow approach “the people” with a different declaration than the letter of March 9. Do we find anything like “Get rid of the Tsar! Let’s destroy autocracy!” in the letter? Of course not. The Synod merely confirmed a historical reality.
Furthermore, the hierarchs knew no more than any other Russians about these confusing political events. All they knew was that the Tsar had abdicated, and that power was transferred (temporarily!) to a new government. They all awaited an official Constituent Assembly that would determine the political fate of Russia. This means, in effect, that a return to monarchy, from their point of view, was still a very real possibility.
The Provisional Government was the only legitimate government presiding over a state in the middle of war. Therefore, the Synod called all people to submit to the new authority until the war was over. This is merely a formal declaration of support for the new regime, and a temporary one at that.
In fact, if we are to be impartial and without prejudice, we must admit that the Holy Synod had manifested especial loyalty to Tsar Nicholas II before his abdication. No hierarch required that he abdicate (as did his own military commanders, in what was effectively an act of treason during wartime). Church officials never took part in any political demonstration (“Father” Gapon notwithstanding). No hierarch officially declared loyalty to the new government (as did some members of Nicholas’s family!)
And this loyalty is especially commendable considering that the church hierarchy always had a complicated relationship with Nicholas II. Many hierarchs considered the Synodal form of Church government to be comfortable and habitual. It seemed to be the best form of interacting between Church and state, and some were happy that it would prevent the caesaro-papism of a new Patriarch Nikon.
Tsar Nicholas II, on the other hand, wanted to realize the ideal of “symphony” between Church and state, not to continue subjugating the Church to the state, as had been the case since the reforms of Peter “the Great.” It is true that the idea of the Local Council constantly hit speed bumps, being subject to political attacks both from the Right and the Left. Nicholas always preferred to act circumspectly, allowing situations to develop organically, never rushing into a situation that might harm the nation as a whole.
This is a possible reason why he chose not to convene a Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church—to wait for a time when the political situation would calm down. It is obvious that no such calmness was possible during the years immediately following the Revolution of 1905-07. And, naturally, World War I further complicated matters.
This council, the first in centuries, needed a very thorough preparatory process. Even more so because the question of the restoration of the Patriarchate was accompanied by many other problems in the life of the Church. Most of these issues, by the way, are still undecided! And this is now, when most of the people in Russian couldn’t care less about what the “white hats” are doing with their internal problems.
In fact, some hierarchs were against convening the Local Council at all! On the opposite side of the spectrum, more liberal-minded hierarchs accused the Tsar of dragging his heels. They accused him of not wanting to “free the Church from dependency on the state.”
Unfortunately, the Russian Church before the revolution was not a “spiritual monolith.” Some “orthodox” hierarchs, before the Revolution, already spoke of the liberal reforms that the “Living Church” instituted in the 1920’s. Some of the leaders of the Soviet-supported “Living Church” had been made bishops a long time before the Revolution. The clerical members of the “Second Duma” were especially liberal. Considering the caste-like, poverty-ridden system that bound the Church at the time, this is not surprising.
Therefore, the Synod had to consider the possibility of a schism in the Church after the revolution of 1917. The moderate text of the “Letter,” which was largely a product of compromise, was intended to prevent such a schism.
Nicholas II willingly sacrificed himself in 1917, hoping that his abdication would help calm the people and prevent the shedding of blood. This was a terrible mistake.
But can we condemn him for it?
The Holy Synod, in that same year, also expressed a carefully worded declaration of loyalty to the Provisional Government. It hoped that this would prevent future persections against the Church, or an internal schism. In this situation, the hierarchs’ choice proved to be the right one. After all, the long-awaited Local Council finally convened later in 1917. Its decisions became a collective expression of the will of the entire Russian Orthodox Church. This unity helped it survive the horrifying trials it was to endure for the majority of the 20th century. But still, everyone condemns the Church for this “Letter of March 9.”
Compared to the compromises that faced the Church both in 1929 and 1941, this declaration of loyalty was moderate and justified. Any impartial examination of the facts can’t help but exonerate the Church. After all, the monarchy, which had supported and upheld the Church for centuries, was crumbling before their eyes. The Church needed to think about surviving. And survive it did.
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