Written by Vladimir Moss



     The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed a fierce struggle for the soul of the Russan Church. The traditional mainstays of Tsarist Russia had been the peasantry and the Church. Now the Church gained much from the support of the State, but it was increasingly accepted that while the Church should be supported by the State, she should not depend on it, financially and administratively, to the degree imposed on her by Peter the Great’s Spiritual Regulation, which had abolished the patriarchate and made the Church almost a department of the State.Indeed, by the turn of the century it had become almost an article of faith among the Church and near-Church intelligentsia that Church-State relations needed a thorough overhaul in order to bring them closer to the “symphonic” ideal inherited from Byzantium.


     However, this movement was opposed by Pobedonostsev, who feared that a reform of Church-State relations, even if desirable in itself from a canonical point of view, might lead to Church-State separation and the gradual dechristianisation of society. Sergei Firsov writes: “Pobedonostsev saw and understood better than many that the demolishing of the Petrine Synodal system in Russian conditions would not lead to the recreation of correct mutual relations between the Church and the State, but would only strengthen anti-government forces. To represent the Church and the kingdom as existing in isolation from each other was psychologically impossible, while any changes in the ecclesiastical structure could be understood by ‘the simple people’ only as the abolition of the previous Church-State relationship [because ‘for our peasant form is everything’]. It was not by chance that Pobedonostsev, while talking with General A.A. Kireev about Church problems and ‘about learning’, declared that what he feared above all was a new schism: ‘It’s fine for you, but where shall we go with our darkness, with the peasant. I fear a schism, that’s what I fear!’”[1] It is not clear whether he meant a Church schism, or a schism between the peasants and the State. In either case, the peasant uprisings of 1905 showed that the venerable old man had a point… However, there was a contradiction in Pobedonostev’s position. On the one hand, he sincerely believed that the Church was the soul of the State and the people, and should be its teacher, corrector and inspirer. On the other hand, he acted as if he did not believe this, but rather that the Church should be tutored and disciplined by the State, and that he himself, as the representative of the State, should act as the task-master of the Church hierarchy…


     Tsar Nicholas, with his deep love of pre-Petrine Russia, took a close interest in this question. He believed in giving the Church more freedom, and that that freeing the Church from the dead hand of the State would ultimately be to the benefit of both Church and State. But, perhaps under the influence of his former tutor, Pobedonostsev, he acted cautiously. Nevertheless, one of the most important measures of his reign was his removal from the Constitution in 1901 of the phrase describing him as “Supreme Judge” of the Church. And, as we shall see, if political events had not intervened, it is likely that this would have been only the first step in a far-ranging reform of Church-State relations, bringing them back to true “symphony”.


     The movement for Church reform first manifested itself publicly in 1901, when, somewhat reluctantly, Pobedonostsev allowed the convening of a series of religio-philosophical meetings between the “God-searching” intelligentsia and the clergy in St. Petersburg. These meetings - the idea of D.S. Merezhkovsky, V.V. Rozanov and a Synodal official, V.A. Ternavtsev - were an attempt to respond to a definite turning away of a part of the intelligentsia from sixties-style positivism to some kind of religion. Unfortunately, however, the conversion was, as often as not, not to Orthodoxy but to some vague kind of mysticism or theosophy. For Russia at that time was teeming with false teachers and prophets: revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky, freethinkers and heretics such as the novelist Lev Tolstoy or the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, theosophists such as Blavatsky and the “silver age” poets, and a huge army of masons, liberals, nihilists, anti-monarchists and ecumenists who were busy undermining the foundations of Church and State.[2]


     M. Rodzianko writes that “among the intelligentsia, especially of St. Petersburg, all kinds of groups began to organize, often infected by sectarianism. Simultaneously the enthusiasm for the teaching of Redstock, the passion for theosophy, occultism, spiritism and other teachings condemned by the Church was considerable. During the period after 1901 the society of ‘Argonauts’ was formed, which met at the home of Andrew Bely, an author of that period. This is how he describes those times: ‘Among the “unseeing”, “seers” appeared, who recognized each other; they were drawn to share incomprehensible knowledge with each other; their interest in everything appeared new to them, encompassed with rays of cosmic and historical importance. The “seers” differed in their conjectures: one was an atheist, another a theosophist, one was drawn to piety, another was pulled away from it, but all agreed one with the other as to the imminence of a dawning: “something is shining forth”, and from this “something” the future will unfold its destinies’ (Epopee, vol. 1, pp. 136-137). This dawn was disclosed as the goddess Sophia and this in fact became the beginning, the ‘disclosure’ by the Russian progressive society of the object of its worship, tearing it away from Orthodoxy, i.e. from the Church, in order to begin a ‘philosophical’ combat with it. Numbered among the ‘Argonauts’ we meet the following widely known people: the poet Balmont, Valery Bryusov, Baltushaytis, S.I. Taneyev, N.A. Berdyaev, S.N. Bulgakov, later a priest, D.V. Filosofov, prof. Kadlukov, D.N. Merezhkovsky, Igor Kistyakovsky, Z.N. Hippius, A.V. Kartashev, Theodore Sologub and others (Epopee, vols. 1,2 and 3; pp. 179, 191, 181, 144). The Russian intelligentsia of that time, knowingly or not, was undermining theage-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church. The guiding center was the ‘Religious-Philosophical Society’, created during this period. In this society were: V. Ivanov, D.V. Filosofov, S. Kablukov, Merezhkovsky, Rozanov, Kartashev, Bulgakov, Berdyaev and others (Epopee, vol. 1, pp. 61, 130, 156). This society held closed as well as open meetings, having as its goal the wide propaganda of the spirit of the revolution, reformation and sophianism…”[3] 


     Even when the intelligenty did convert to Orthodoxy, as when the philosophers Bulgakov, Berdiaev, Frank and Struve converted from Marxism, it was not to a pure, patristic Orthodoxy, as is proved by the “renovationist Orthodoxy” of Bulgakov and Berdiaev after the revolution. Nevertheless, if these “God-seekers” were ever to acquire true Orthodoxy, they needed to encounter the Church in her more learned representatives. Hence the significance of the religio-philosophical meetings, which were chaired by a rising star of the Russian Church, Bishop Sergius (Stragorodsky).


     “Sergius,” writes G.M. Soldatov, “was popular in circles waiting for the introduction of ‘democratic’ reforms in the State. In his sermons and speeches he criticized the relationship between the ecclesiastical and state authorities in the Russian Empire.”[4] This would have been a risky subject to raise only ten years earlier; but times were changing rapidly, and Sergius, as his future career proved, was always sensitive to how the times were changing, and accommodated himself to them accordingly… 


     At the same time he did make a fair point in the eighth of the religio-philosophical meetings, arguing that only if the State ceased to use the Church as a weapon would it become possible “to raise the question of freedom of conscience. Otherwise it will be only by virtue of indifferentism that the State can give freedom to the sects along with the Church”. But “Russian State power cannot be indifferent or atheist if it does not want to renounce itself”.[5] In other words: if the State was truly the defender of Orthodoxy, as it claimed, it should free the Church from political tasks that were alien to her nature. Otherwise, freedom would simply help the sectarians and atheists to fight against the Church, while she remained unable to defend herself freely. Thus the questions of Church reform and freedom were inescapably linked…


     It was not only liberals like Sergius who favoured Church reform. The former revolutionary-turned-monarchist L.A. Tikhomirov published an article arguing that the State should “give the Church independence and the possibility of being the kind of organization she must be in accordance with her own laws, while remaining in union with her”.[6] The problem was that both conservatives and liberals could argue for Church reform, but for completely different motives. Tikhomirov wrote as one who had seen the revolution from within, and turned away from it with all his heart, acknowledging the only true defence against it to be the strengthening of Church consciousness among the people. The liberals, on the other hand, were motivated, not by a desire to see the Church free and therefore able to exert a more powerful influence on society, but rather the opposite: a desire to humble the State and destroy the Church’s influence once and for all. As for the liberal bishops such as Sergius, they leapt onto the band-wagon of the reform of Church-State relations, and of what later came to be called renovationism, in order to further their own careers…


     Another liberal-renovationist cause that Bishop Sergius espoused during the religio-philosophical meetings was that of the novelist Leo Tolstoy. As we have seen, Tolstoy was in essence a radical Protestant, who stood for a Christianity reduced to “pure” morality without the Church, dogmas, miracles or sacraments. His false translation of the first verse of St. John’s Gospel typifies his rationalist approach: “In the beginning was reasoning…” His teaching became very popular both at home and abroad, both among the educated and the peasants. Soon his followers, although not organized into any “Church”, were rivalling other sects such as the Baptists, the Stundists, the Molokans and the Dukhobors in numbers and influence.


     L. Solonevich points out that for centuries the Russian Empire had lived out of necessity in the conditions of a military camp. Such conditions required obedience and discipline, but “this obedience and this discipline were not particularly sweet. In the last one hundred years Russia has experienced, so to speak, a permanent revolution. A permanent rebellion against the authorities and against discipline. This rebellion took the most various forms – from Pugachevschina to Tolstoyism. And if we take our greatest writer as an example, we can now, after our ‘great and bloodless’ [revolution of 1917], value his deeds more or less in accordance with their merits. The Tolstoyan rebellion did very much both for the undermining of the Russian monarchy (‘I cannot keep silent’) and for the undermining of Russian Orthodoxy (‘The Gospel of Tolstoy’) and for the undermining of the Russian family (‘The Kreutzer Sonata’), and even for the undermining of the Russian courts, which in Resurrection are portrayed as a talentless and feelingless machine – while the Russian courts were the most merciful and conscientious in the world.” [7]


     Indeed, it was the publishing of Resurrection in 1899 that was the last straw for the Church. The novel, which sold more copies than any of his earlier works,portrayed a society so rotten and oppressive that revolution was inevitable.It also subjected the teaching and sacraments of the Orthodox Church to ridicule. If the government felt that it could not censor Tolstoy and thereby make a political martyr out of him, the Church, spurred on by Pobedonostsev, felt otherwise…


     On February 24, 1901 the Holy Synod anathematised him, declaring: “Well known to the world as a writer, Russian by birth, Orthodox by baptism and education, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, seduced by intellectual pride, has arrogantly risen against the Lord and His Christ and His Holy heritage, and has plainly in the sight of all repudiated his Orthodox Mother Church which reared and educated him and has dedicated his literary activity and the talent given to him by God to disseminating among the people teachings opposed to Christ and the Church, and to destroying in the minds and hearts of people their national faith, that Orthodox faith which has been confirmed by the Universe and in which our forefathers lived and were saved, and to which Holy Russia until now has clung and in which it has been strong...


     In his writings Count Lev Tolstoy has blasphemed against the holy sacraments, denying their grace-filled character, has not venerated the Orthodox Church as his Church, has spoken evil of the clergy, has said that he considers that to venerate Christ and worship Him as God is blasphemy, while saying of himself, by contrast: ‘I am in God, and God in me’. It is not the Church that has rejected him, casting him off from herself, but he himself has rejected the Church: Lev himself has of his own will fallen away from the Church and is no longer a son of the Church, but is hostile to her. All attempts of the clergy to admonish the prodigal have failed to produce the desired fruits: in his pride he has considered himself cleverer than all, less fallible than all and the judge of all, and the Church has made a declaration about the falling away of Count Lev Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church.”


     Tolstoy was opposed especially by the extraordinary priest St. John of Kronstadt, who demonstrated by his wonderful life abounding in good works and extraordinary miracles, that Christianity “does not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (I Corinthians 2.5). He wrote of Tolstoy that he had “made himself into a complete savage with regards to the faith and the Church.” He called him not only a heretic, but also an antichrist, and refused to receive honorary membership of Yuriev university if Tolstoy was to receive the same honour.[8] St. John lamented that “the Church of God on earth, the beloved bride, is impoverished, she suffers from the savage attacks on her from the atheist Leo Tolstoy…”


     For Tolstoy, wrote St. John, “there is no supreme spiritual perfection in the sense of the achievements of Christian virtues – simplicity, humility, purity of heart, chastity, repentance, faith, hope, love in the Christian sense; he does not recognize Christian endeavours; he laughs at holiness and sacred things – it is himself he adores, and he bows down before himself, like an idol, like a superman; I, and no one else but me, muses Tolstoy. You are all wrong; I have revealed the truth and am teaching everyone the truth! The Gospel according to Tolstoy is an invention and a fairy tale. So, Orthodox people, who is Lev Tolstoy? He is a lion roaring [Lev rykayushchy], looking for someone to devour [I Peter 5.8]. And how many he has devoured with his flattering pages! Watch out for him.”[9]


     St. John was a fervent monarchist. “With all our heart,” he said, “we shall thank God that He gave and up to the present day still gives us autocratic and monarchical tsars in accordance with His heart, preserving the succession of the Romanov dynasty and the spirit of Orthodoxy in them, for the magnification of the Faith and the Church of the Orthodox and of the Russian state. Our Tsar is a righteous man of pious life. God has sent him a heavy cross of sufferings as to His chosen one and beloved child. Remember: if there will be no monarchy, there will be no Russia. Only the monarchical order gives stability to Russia; under a constitution it will all split up into pieces.” And he foretold cruel overseers and terrible sufferings for the people if the autocracy were to be overthrown…


     St. John was opposed not only to Tolstoy, but also to the whole “proto-renovationist” current in the Church led by Bishop Sergius. “These people,” he wrote, “are rejecting the Church, the sacraments, the authority of the clergy and they have even thought up a journal The New Way [which published published reports on the religio-philosophical meetings in St. Petersburg]. This journal has undertaken to search for God, as if the Lord had not appeared to people and had not revealed the true way. They will find no other way than in Christ Jesus, our Lord. […] It is Satan who reveals all of these new ways and stupid people who don’t understand what they are doing and are driving themselves and their nation to ruin by spreading their satanic ideas among the nation.”[10]


     St. John especially bemoaned Tolstoy’s influence on youth: “Our intelligenty youths have subverted the social and educational order, they have taken politics and the law-courts upon themselves without being called to do so by anyone; they have taken to judging their masters, their teachers, the government and all but kings themselves; together with their head, Leo Tolstoy, they have judged and condemned the universal and fearful Judge Himself… Verily, the day of the dread Judgement is near, for the deviation from God which was foretold has already occurred and the forerunner of the antichrist has already revealed himself, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped.”[11]


     Fr. John was supported by the better clergy, such as the future metropolitan and hieromartyr Fr. Joseph (Petrovykh), who wrote: “Lack of faith, impiety and all kinds of harmful tendencies are now pouring over Holy Rus’ in a still more swollen river. They were restrained by this powerful personality [Fr. John], who was put forward by the Providence of God to oppose the heretic Tolstoy.”[12]


     Fr. John had great influence with the royal family, and the tsar visited him secretly. This influence was noted and feared by a new player in church and court circles – the false elder Gregory Rasputin. As Archbishop Theophan (Bystrov), at that time inspector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, witnessed: “Rasputin indicated with unusual skill that he had reservations [about Fr. John]… Rasputin… said of Fr. John of Kronstadt… that he was a saint but, like a child, lacked experience and judgement… As a result Fr. John’s influence at court began to wane…”


     Nevertheless, Fr. John continued to speak out boldly against the liberals, “those monsters of cruelty, those people whose aim is to live for themselves and for their own pleasure, not for the cause – those egotists, who do not empathize with their brethren… The mind works in them without the heart. Their hearts are not warmed by love for God and man, and they deny the existence of God, the foundations and bases of our common holy life, the rules of morality. Here is your education, students! This is because of your stupid education, Messrs. Pedagogues!”[13] 


     Rarely in history has the struggle between good and evil crystallized so clearly as in the struggle between Lev Tolstoy and St. John of Kronstadt for the soul of the Russian people. N. Menshikov, who knew St. John well, wrote just after his death: “’Woe unto you,’ said Christ, ‘when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets’ (Luke 6.26). No one but Pharisees snd hypocrites succeed in having no enemies and in being generally honoured. The just man of Kronstadt could not escape having enemies. Nihilists and the godless intellectual classes spoke of him with ridicule and contempt; his own attitude towards them was that of humorous disdain. And a considerable number of the clergy, especially of the higher ranks, maintained towards him an attitude of offended envy. The third, the coarsest and basest enemy of the great priest was the Jewish press. Profiting from the relaxation of censorship after the reforms of 17 October, the Jewish press, in the course of three years, made a laughing-stock of the righteousness of this aged man, jeering at his miracles, his charities, and the veneration of his admirers. Slanderous legends about him were invented; dirt was thrown at the pure devotion of women; and the national impetus was spat upon.


     “As it is known, Father John courageously stood out against the revolution, and in his sermons reminded the authorities of their duty to repress the disorders. He recommended both the masses and the authorities to comply with the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: ‘For he (the ruler) beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.’ Hence the authorities learned, to their surprise, that the use of the sword in advised by the Apostle. The Jews never forgave Father John for this. Having taken Count Leo Tolstoy, who denies both the Church and the State, under their patronage, they came down like a ton of bricks upon Father John, who rose to the defence of the Church and the State...”[14]


     Fr. John died in peace in 1908, and thousands attended his funeral; unofficially canonized, he continued to work miracles from the grave, and his decisive influence on the lives of so many leaders of the confessing Russian Church after the revolution is evident. Lev Tolstoy, on the other hand, died in spiritual torment in 1910 at the railway station of Astapino, still unreconciled with God and the Church; his continuing influence for evil was no less evident. To this day the two men define the two Russias: the Holy Russia of the Tsars and the Orthodox Church, and the Evil Russia of the Commissars and the atheist revolution.


May 10/23, 2019.

Holy Apostle Simon the Zealot.



[1] Firsov, Russkaia Tserkov’ nakanune peremen (konets 1890-kh – 1918 g.) (The Russian Church on the Eve of the Changes (the end of the 1890s to 1918), Moscow, 2002, p. 47.

[2] Madame Blavatsky wrote that “that which the clergy of every dogmatic religion – pre-eminently the Christian – points out as Satan, the enemy of God, is in reality, the highest divine Spirit – (occult Wisdom on Earth) – in its naturally antagonistic character to every worldly, evanescent illusion, dogmatic or ecclesiastical religions included.” (The Secret Doctrine, London, 1888, vol. 2, p. 377; quoted in Maria Carlson, ”No Religion Higher than Truth”, Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 124). Theosophy influenced many Russian intelligentsy, as was recognised by such philosophers as Vladimir Soloviev and Nicholas Berdiaev (L. Perepelkina, Ecumenism: A Path to Perdition, St. Petersburg, 1999, chapter 9).

[3] Rodzianko, The Truth about the Russian Church Abroad, Jordanville, 1975, pp. 5-6.

[4] Soldatov, “Tolstoj i Sergij: Iude Podobnie” (Tolstoy and Sergius: Images of Judas), Nasha Strana (Our Country),N 2786; Vernost’ (Fidelity),N 32, January 1/14, 2006.

[5] Firsov, op. cit., p. 117.

[6] Tikhomirov, “Gosudarstvennost’ i religia” (Statehood and religion), Moskovskie Vedomosti (Moscow Gazette),March, 1903, p. 3; in Firsov, op. cit., p. 137.

[7] Solonevich, “Etiudy Optimizma” (Studies in Optimism), in Rossia i Revoliutsia (Russia and the Revolution), Moscow, 2007, p. 59.

[8] V.F. Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo ot Petra I do nashikh dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia from Peter I to our days), Moscow, 1997, p. 379.

[9] St. John, in Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy. A Russian Life, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, p. 397.

[10] St. John, in Vladimir Tsurikov (ed.), Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow 1782-1867, The Variable Press, USA, 2003, p. 25.

[11] Soldatov, op. cit.; Nadieszda Kizenko, A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000, p. 249.

[12] St. Joseph of Petrograd, In the Father’s Bosom: A Monk’s Diary, 3864; in M.S. Sakharov and L.E. Sikorskaia, Sviaschennomuchenik Iosif Mitropolit Petrogradskij (Hieromartyr Joseph, Metropolitan of Petrograd), St. Petersburg, 2006, p. 254.

[13] Kizenko, op. cit., p. 88.

[14] Menshikov, Russian Orthodox American Messenger, January, 1909.

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