Saturday, May 15, 2010

Orthodox Churches of Moscow

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the eastern orthodox patriachates and the second largest christian church after Catholiscism. The Russian Orthodox Church maintains close relations with the other eastern orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox churches, and the home of orthodoxy in Istanbul.

The word "orthodox" simply means "true" or "original", and it is not a far stretch to say that the Orthodox church has stayed close to Christianity in it's original, pre-political form. In fact, one of the main differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is the strongly-held belief in the Orthodox church that no man can answer for God on earth. It was the very establishment of Papal Supremacy and the institution of a Pope in Rome that split the eastern and western churches, so while the west fell under the domination of the Vatican, the east maintained the original loose organization of independently operating parishes working together for a common goal.

The capital of the eastern church had always been Constantinople, the new Roman capital founded by Emperor Constantine to keep his new Christian faith safe from the corruption and vice of Rome. For nearly a millenia, Constantinople provided all eastern Orthodox churches with guidance and canon. It was a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox priests and monks, and eastern European kings would sometimes consult with the Metropolitans of Constantinople.

In 1439 there was a council in Florence between Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders with a focus on reuniting the two churches of Christianity, and for several years after there was progress but church leaders found it impossible to reconcile the schism between the Catholic faith in their Pope and the Orthodox refusal to subjugate themselves to one man.

Reunification attempts finally ended in 1455 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the spiritual capital of Orthodoxy was gone. The Orthodox church began to look for a new city to call its capital. It had to be a city of faith, with political influence and a large population. It also had to be easily defendable. There was just such a city far to the north-east of European conflicts. That city was Moscow.

As more and more Orthodox congregations began to call Moscow the new home of eastern Christianity, more and more churches were built in the city. The lands of Russia and Ukraine had always been very spiritual places, and Christianity has been practised there since the 7th Century. By the time of the fall of Constantinople, nearly all the inhabitants of Muscovy Russia were Orthodox Christian, and they had a rich tradition of building cathedrals and monestaries in the original Byzantine style. Tsar Ivan the Terrible had St. Basil's built to commemorate the liberation of Russia from Mongol-Tatar rule, and Moscow became known as the "Third Rome". For 500 years Moscow remained the bustling spiritual capital of Orthodoxy, but that ended in 1926 when Stalin began to rid Russia of churches and Christianity.

It wasn't until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union that the Russian Orthodox Church was able to become a significant factor in Russian cultural life again. The number of believers who flocked to the remaining churches in the early 1990s was staggering; out of a population of 150 million, nearly 75 million Russian people were baptised Orthodox between 1991 and 2001! Religion had been suppressed by the Communist governments, but the spiritual life of the Russian people had never been destroyed.

The modern Orthodox church is the fastest-growing Christian religion in the world, and they have adjusted their values (the church doesn't issue laws or canons like the Vatican) to meet modern-day issues. The Church's stance on human rights and environmental issues is incredibly liberal. The place of women in Church life, although traditional, is much more egalitarian than the Catholic church. It is interesting to note that Mary Magdellan is viewed as a saint in the Orthodox church, and not whore as in Catholicism. The tradition of women covering their hair with a scarf when entering an Orthodox church is viewed not as sexist but as a recognition of feminine grace and power, and it is a sign of respect to not take away from the beauty of the church.

The focus of the modern Orthodox church is on spirituality and not politics, making it a very refreshing change from the scandals of the Vatican and the right-wing Christian fundamentalism of conservative political parties in the west.

Today Moscow is an incredibly spiritual city, despite all the vice and rampant selfish capitalism that permeates through society. Most of the old churches destroyed by the Communists have been rebuilt, and there is a very rich spiritual tradition in the city that goes back 2000 years. One aspect of Moscow that every visitor to the city notices is the large number of beautiful Orthodox cathedrals, some of them newly built and others as old as the city of Moscow itself.

Two Orthodox churches near the bustling center of Moscow

The Kazan Cathedral, built in the 17th Century, was destroyed by Stalin so tanks could drive through Red Square. It was rebuilt in 1993.

The most famous of all Orthodox cathedrals, St. Basil's on Red Square is no longer a functioning church but an inspiring and beautiful tourist stop.

This small church near Park Padyodi (Victory Park) was built in the late '90s.

Original monestary at Kolomenskoe, a tsarist country estate in Moscow.

A beautiful cathedral at Kolomenskoe, built in the mid-17th Century and still a practising church today. Bells chime in perfect symetry with the Gregorian chants that you can hear when you walk past.


  1. Really, really beautiful and thanks for explaining the history.

  2. Thank you for this post, it is very interesting!
    One consideration: I though protestants were more numerous than orthodox, isn't it?
    Yulia, Moscow