Written by Vladimir Moss



     In spite of the suppression of the Decembrist rebellion by Tsar Nicholas I, revolutionary ideas and the poison of westernism had been spreading through Russian society. And the liberalizing reforms of Alexander II, regardless of their intrinsic merits or faults, brought Russia closer to the West.


     At the same time, however, a revival of the Eastern Orthodox teaching and practice of eldership (starchestvo) and hesychasm had also been taking place, whose aim was exactly the opposite of the revolution, that is, the bringing of men into submission to the all-holy Will of God and the lawful authorities that are established by God. The fount and origin of this revival was the great monastic founder St. Paisius Velichkovsky, several of whose Russian disciples spread the word north from Romania into Russia. Besides his personal influence on his disciples, Paisius also translated the Philokalia, a collection of patristic texts on prayer and the spiritual life, into Slavonic; with the help of Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg, its first edition was published in 1793.


     Ivan Mikhailovich Kontzevich has identified the essence of eldership, or starchestvo, with the gift of prophecy[1], and the gifts of clairvoyance, of foreseeing the future and accurately assessing the present that we associate with Old Testament prophecy are certainly part of this New Testament charisma. But a study of the lives of the holy elders and their discussions with the thousands of people of all classes, ages and conditions who poured into Optina seeking advice and consolation shows that eldership was much more than that. It can be summarized as the knowledge of the will of God for every individual supplicant and the ability to guide him to accept and fulfill that will to the end of eternal salvation. The future confessor of the faith E. Poselyanin described it as follows: “The business of saving souls is a difficult one. The unceasing struggle with self, that is, the struggle of the spirit with a nature infected with original sin, and a continuous watch over self, necessary for success in this struggle, are not yet enough. A vast knowledge of human nature and its relations with the external world, of the spiritual benefit and harm which may be derived from contact with the world, and of the way by which grace is obtained is needed. To aid the soul in its exercises, and to preserve its balance, continuous guidance is necessary. Such guidance makes uninterrupted progress toward perfection possible, without the spiritual fluctuations and vicissitudes common to people who have no guide. There is needed someone who knows the soul, its dispositions, abilities and sins, a person with spiritual experience and wisdom who can guide the soul, encouraging it in times of laziness and sadness and restraining it in times of immoderate elation, one who knows how to humble pride, foresee danger and treat sin with penance. Quick and safe is the way of the man who has subjected himself to such guidance because he practices then the great virtues: obedience and humility. Revelation of thoughts, which is the condition sine qua non of starchestvo, is a powerful means of progress, terrible to the enemy of our salvation. The unrevealed thought troubles and depresses the soul; revealed, it falls away and does no harm.”[2]


     “The path of guidance by an elder,” wrote Fr. Clement Sederholm in 1875, “has been recognized throughout all ages of Christianity by all the great desert dwellers, fathers and teachers of the Church as being the most reliable and surest of all that are known to the Church of Christ. Eldership blossomed in the ancient Egyptian and Palestinian communities; it was afterwards planted on Athos, and from the East it was brought to Russia. But in the last centuries, in view of the general decline of faith and asceticism, it has gradually fallen into neglect, so that many have even begun to reject it. In the times of St. Nilus of Sora, the way of eldership was already scorned by many; and by the end of the past century [that is, the 18th] it had become almost entirely unknown. For the restoration of this form of monastic life, which is founded upon the teaching of the Holy Fathers, much was done by the famous and great Archimandrite of the Moldavian monasteries, Paisius Velichkovsky. With great labor he gathered together on Athose and translated from Greek into Slavonic the works of the ascetic writers, which set forth the patristic teaching on monastic life in general  and the spiritual relationship to an elder in particular. At the same time in Niamets and in the other Moldavian monasteries under his rule, he exhibited in practice the application of this teaching. One of the disciples of Archimandrite Paisius, Schemamonk Theodore, who lived in Moldavia almost 20 years, transmitted this teaching to Hiero-schemamonk Father Leonid and through him and his disciple, the Elder Hiero-schemamonk Macarius, it was planted in the Optina monastery.


     “The abbot of Optina at that time, Fr. Moses, and his brother, the Skete superior Fr. Anthony, who laid the beginning of their monastic life in the Bryansk forest in the spirit of the ancient great desert dwellers, wished for a long time to introduce eldership into the Optina Monastery. By themselves, however, they could not fulfill this task; they were burdened by many difficult and complicated occupations in conjunction with the development and governance of the Monastery. Furthermore, although in general the combining of the duties of the abbacy and eldership in one person was possible in the ancient times of simplicity of character, as we have already mentioned, in our times it is very hard and even impossible. However, when Fr. Leonid settled in Optina, Fr. Moses, knowing and taking advantage of his experience in the spiritual life, entrusted all the brothers who live in the Optina Monastery to his guidance, as well as all others who would come to live in the Monastery.


     “From that time the entire order of the monastic life at the Optina monastery changed. Without the counsel and blessing of the Elder nothing of importance was undertaken in the Monastery. Every day, especially in the evening, the brotherhood came to his cell with their spiritual needs. Each one hastened to reveal before the Elder how he had transgressed during the course of the day in deed, word or thought, in order to ask for counsel for the resolution of problems that had arisen, consolation in some sorrow that he had met, help and strength in the internal battle with the passions and with the invisible enemies of our salvation.  The Elder received all with fatherly love and offered all a word of experience instruction and consolation.”[3]


     Nor was it only monks who sought the instruction of the Optina elders: people from all walks of life from generals to peasants poured in their thousands through the gates of the monastery. The influence of the Optina elders, together with that of other Russian elders from other great monasteries in the same tradition such as Valaam, Sarov, Glinsk, Kiev and the Rossikon (St. Panteleimon’s on Mount Athos), and holy bishops such as Theophan the Recluse, Ignaty Brianchaninov, Innocent of Kherson, Philaret of Kiev and Philaret of Moscow, constituted a powerful spiritual antithesis to the influence of westernism in nineteenth-century Russia. Nor was Optina’s significance confined to pre-revolutionary Russia: many of the confessor bishops and priests of the early Soviet period had been trained by the Optina elders. No less than fourteen Optina startsy or elders have been glorified as saints. The most recent was St. Nektary, who died in exile from the Sovietized monastery in 1928. After the first two great startsy, or elders, Lev (Nagolkin) and Macarius (Ivanov), the most famous and influential was Macarius’ disciple Ambrose (Grenkov). St. Lev’s disciples included the famous Bishop of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, St. Ignaty Brianchaninov. We have already seen the influence of St. Macarius on Nikolai Gogol and the Slavophile writer Ivan Kireyevsky, while St. Ambrose’s influence would extend wider still, including the famous writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.


     Among the spiritual sicknesses coming from the West and identified by the holy elders was indifferentism, what we would now call ecumenism, that is, an increased tolerance for Christian heresies to the extent of placing them on a par with Orthodoxy. As we have seen, the first ecumenical dialogue with the American Episcopalians had begun, and while the Church leaders stood firm in Orthodoxy, the spirit of Anglican indifferentism was infectious.


     Thus in the 1850s St. Ambrose of Optina wrote: “Now many educated people bear only the name of Orthodox, but in actual fact completely adhere to the morals and customs of foreign lands and foreign beliefs. Without any torment of conscience they violate the regulations of the Orthodox Church concerning fasts and gather together at balls and dances on the eves of great Feasts of the Lord, when Orthodox Christians should be in church in prayerful vigil. This would be excusable if such gatherings took place on the eves of ordinary days, but not on the eves of Feasts, and especially great Feasts. Are not such acts and deeds clearly inspired by our enemy, the destroyer of souls, contrary to the commandment of the Lord which says: carry out your ordinary affairs for six days, but the seventh (festal) day must be devoted to God in pious service? How have Orthodox Christians come to such acts hated by God? Is it not for no other reason than indiscriminate communion with believers of other faiths?…”


     In 1863 St. Theophan the Recluse described how western indifferentism had begun already centuries before: “Have you heard of the indulgences of the Pope or Rome? Here is what they are: special treatment and leniency, which he gives, defying the law of Christ. And what is the result? From all of this, the West is corrupt in faith and in its way of life, and is now getting lost in its disbelief and in the unrestrained life with its indulgences.


     “The Pope changed many doctrines, spoiled all the sacraments, nullified the canons concerning the regulation of the Church and the correction of morals. Everything has begun going contrary to the will of the Lord, and has become worse and worse.


     “Then along came Luther, a smart man, but stubborn. He said, The Pope changed everything as he wanted, why shouldn’t I do the same? He started to modify and to re-modify everything in his own way, and in this way established the new Lutheran faith, which only slightly resembles what the Lord commanded and the holy apostles delivered to us.


     “After Luther came the philosophers. And they in turn said, Luther has established himself a new faith, supposedly based on the Gospel, though in reality based on his own way of thinking. Why, then, don’t we also compose doctrines based on our own way of thinking, completely ignoring the Gospel? They then started rationalizing, and speculating about God, the world and man, each in his own way. And they mixed up so many doctrines that one gets dizzy just counting them.


     “Now the westerners have the following views: Believe what you think best, live as you like, satisfy whatever captivates your soul. This is why they do not recognize any law or restriction and do not abide by God’s Word. Their road is wide, all obstacles removed. But the broad way leads to perdition, according to what the Lord says…”[4]


     The danger of religious indifferentism was especially noted by St. Ignaty Brianchaninov, a disciple of the Optina Elder Lev: "You say, 'heretics are Christians just the same.’ Where did you take that from? Perhaps someone or other calling himself a Christian while knowing nothing of Christ, may in his extreme ignorance decide to acknowledge himself as the same kind of Christian as heretics, and fail to distinguish the holy Christian faith from those offspring of the curse, blasphemous heresies. Quite otherwise, however, do true Christians reason about this. A whole multitude of saints has received a martyr's crown, has preferred the most cruel and prolonged tortures, prison, exile, rather than agree to take part with heretics in their blasphemous teaching.


     “The Ecumenical Church has always recognised heresy as a mortal sin; she has always recognised that the man infected with the terrible malady of heresy is spiritually dead, a stranger to grace and salvation, in communion with the devil and the devil's damnation. Heresy is a sin of the mind; it is more a diabolic than a human sin. It is the devil's offspring, his invention; it is an impiety that is near idol-worship. Every heresy contains in itself the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whether against the dogma or the action of the Holy Spirit."[5]


     “The reading of the Fathers clearly convinced me that salvation in the bosom of the Orthodox Russian Church was undoubted, something of which the religions of Western Europe are deprived since they have not preserved whole either the dogmatic or the moral teaching of the Church of Christ from her beginning.”[6]


     St. Ignaty was especially fierce against the heresy of Papism: "Papism is the name of a heresy that seized the West and from which there came, like the branches from a tree, various Protestant teachings. Papism ascribes to the Pope the properties of Christ and thereby rejects Christ. Some western writers have almost openly pronounced this rejection, saying that the rejection of Christ is a much smaller sin than the rejection of the Pope. The Pope is the idol of the papists; he is their divinity. Because of this terrible error, the Grace of God has left the papists; they have given themselves over to Satan – the inventor and father of all heresies, among which is Papism. In this condition of the darkening [of the mind], they have distorted several dogmas and sacraments, while they have deprived the Divine Liturgy of its essential significance by casting out of it the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the offerings of bread and wine, at which they are transmuted into the Body and Blood of Christ… No heresy expresses so openly and blatantly their immeasurable pride, their cruel disdain for men and their hatred of them.”


     St. Ignaty was pessimistic about the future of Russia: "It is evident that the apostasy from the Orthodox faith is general among the people. One is an open atheist, another is a deist, another a Protestant, another an indifferentist, another a schismatic. There is no healing or cure for this plague."


     "What has been foretold in the Scriptures is being fulfilled: a cooling towards the faith has engulfed both our people and all the countries in which Orthodoxy was maintained up to now."


     "Religion is falling in the people in general. Nihilism is penetrating into the merchant class, from where it has not far to go to the peasants. In most peasants a decisive indifference to the Church has appeared, and a terrible moral disorder."[7]


     "The people is being corrupted, and the monasteries are also being corrupted," said the same holy bishop to the future Tsar Alexander II in 1866, one year before his own death.[8]


     Another pessimist was Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who feared “storm-clouds coming from the West”, and advised that rizas should not be made for icons, because “the time is approaching when ill-intentioned people will remove the rizas from the icons.”[9]


     Visions from above seemed to confirm that apocalyptic times were approaching. Thus in 1871 the Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod, Count Alexander Petrovich Tolstoy, had the following vision: "It was as if I were in my own house standing in the entrance-hall. Beyond was a room in which on the ledge between the windows there was a large icon of the God of Sabaoth that gave out such blinding light that from the other room (the entrance-hall) it was impossible to look at it. Still further in was a room in which there were Protopriest Matthew Alexandrovich Konstantinovsky and the reposed Metropolitan Philaret. And this room was full of books; along the walls from ceiling to floor there were books; on the long tables there were piles of books; and while I certainly had to go into this room, I was held back by fear, and in terror, covering my face with my hand, I passed through the first room and, on entering the next room, I saw Protopriest Matthew Alexandrovich dressed in a simple black cassock; on his head was a skull-cap; in his hands was an unbent book, and he motioned me with his head to find a similar book and open it. At the same time the metropolitan, turning the pages of this book said: 'Rome, Troy, Egypt, Russia, the Bible.' I saw that in my book 'Bible' was written in very heavy lettering. Suddenly there was a noise and I woke up in great fear. I thought a lot about what it could all mean. My dream seemed terrible to me - it would have been better to have seen nothing. Could I not ask those experienced in the spiritual life concerning the meaning of this vision in sleep? But an inner voice explained the dream even to me myself. However, the explanation was so terrible that I did not want to agree with it."


     St. Ambrose of Optina gave the following interpretation of this vision: "He who was shown this remarkable vision in sleep, and who then heard the very significant words, very probably received the explanation of what he had seen and heard through his guardian angel, since he himself recognized that an inner voice explained the meaning of the dream to him. However, since we have been asked, we also shall give our opinion...


     "...The words 'Rome, Troy, Egypt' may have the following significance. Rome at the time of the Nativity of Christ was the capital of the world, and, from the beginning of the patriarchate, had the primacy of honour; but because of love of power and deviation from the truth she was later rejected and humiliated. Ancient Troy and Egypt were notable for the fact that they were punished for their pride and impiety - the first by destruction, and the second by various punishments and the drowning of Pharaoh with his army in the Red Sea. But in Christian times, in the countries where Troy was located there were founded the Christian patriarchates of Antioch and Constantinople, which flourished for a long time, embellishing the Orthodox Church with their piety and right dogmas; but later, according to the inscrutable destinies of God, they were conquered by barbarians - the Muslims, and up to now have borne this heavy slavery, which restricts the freedom of Christian piety and right belief. And in Egypt, together with the ancient impiety, there was from the first times of Christianity such a flowering of piety that the deserts were populated by tens of thousands of monastics, not to speak of the great numbers of pious laity from whom they came. But then, by reason of moral licentiousness, there followed such an impoverishment of Christian piety in that country that at a certain time in Alexandria the patriarch remained with only one priest.


     "... After the three portentous names 'Rome, Troy, Egypt', the name of 'Russia' was also mentioned - Russia, which at the present time is counted as an independent Orthodox state, but where the elements of foreign heterodoxy and impiety have already penetrated and taken root among us and threaten us with the same sufferings as the above-mentioned countries have undergone.


     "Then there comes the word 'Bible'. No other state is mentioned. This may signify that if in Russia, too, because of the disdain of God's commandments and the weakening of the canons and decrees of the Orthodox Church and for other reasons, piety is impoverished, then there must immediately follow the final fulfillment of that which is written at the end of the Bible, in the Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian.


     "He who saw this vision correctly observed that the explanation given him by an inner voice was terrible. Terrible will be the Second Coming of Christ and terrible the last judgement of the world. But not without terrors will also be the period before that when the Antichrist will reign, as it is said in the Apocalypse: 'And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and death shall flee from them' (9.6). The Antichrist will come during a period of anarchy, as the apostle says: 'until he that restraineth be taken away from the midst' (II Thessalonians 2.7), that is, when the powers that be no longer exist."[10]




     St. Ambrose's identification of "him that restraineth" the coming of the Antichrist with the Russian Tsardom had long roots in the patristic writings. St. John Chrysostom, Blessed Theophylact and others identified him with the Roman emperor, whose successor, as being the emperor of "the Third Rome", Russia, was the Russian Tsar. Metropolitan Philaret had restated the political teaching of Orthodoxy with exceptional eloquence in the previous reign. And now St. Theophan the Recluse wrote: "The Tsar's authority, having in its hands the means of restraining the movements of the people and relying on Christian principles itself, does not allow the people to fall away from them, but will restrain it. And since the main work of the Antichrist will be to turn everyone away from Christ, he will not appear as long as the Tsar is in power. The latter's authority will not let him show himself, but will prevent him from acting in his own spirit. That is what he that restraineth is. When the Tsar's authority falls, and the peoples everywhere acquire self-government (republics, democracies), then the Antichrist will have room to manoeuvre. It will not be difficult for Satan to train voices urging apostasy from Christ, as experience showed in the time of the French revolution. Nobody will give a powerful 'veto' to this. A humble declaration of faith will not be tolerated. And so, when these arrangements have been made everywhere, arrangements which are favourable to the exposure of antichristian aims, then the Antichrist will also appear. Until that time he waits, and is restrained."


     St. Theophan wrote: "When these principles [Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality] weaken or are changed, the Russian people will cease to be Russian. It will then lose its sacred three-coloured banner." And again: "Our Russians are beginning to decline from the faith: one part is completely and in all ways falling into unbelief, another is falling into Protestantism, a third is secretly weaving together beliefs in such a way as to bring together spiritism and geological madness with Divine Revelation. Evil is growing: evil faith and lack of faith are raising their head: faith and Orthodoxy are weakening. Will we come to our senses? O Lord! Save and have mercy on Orthodox Russia from Thy righteous and fitting punishment!"[11]And again, he wrote: “Do you know what bleak thoughts I have? And they are not unfounded. I meet people who are numbered among the Orthodox, who in spirit are Voltaireans, naturalists, Lutherans, and all manner of free-thinkers. They have studied all the sciences in our institutions of higher education. They are not stupid nor are they evil, but with respect to the Church they are good for nothing. Their fathers and mothers were pious; the ruin came in during the period of their education outside of the family homes. Their memories of childhood and their parents’ spirit keeps them within certain bounds. But what will their own children be like? What will restrain them within the needed bounds? I draw the conclusion from this that in one or two generations our Orthodoxy will dry up.” 


     As St. Ignaty Brianchaninov wrote: “We are helpless to arrest this apostasy. Impotent hands will have no power against it and nothing more will be required than the attempt to withhold it. The spirit of the age will reveal the apostasy. Study it, if you wish to avoid it, if you wish to escape this age and the temptation of its spirits. One can suppose, too, that the institution of the Church which has been tottering for so long will fall terribly and suddenly. Indeed, no-one is able to stop or prevent it. The present means to sustain the institutional Church are borrowed from the elements of the world, things inimical to the Church, and the consequence will be only to accelerate its fall. Nevertheless, the Lord protects the elect and their limited number will be filled.”[12]

[1] Kontsevich, Optina Pustyn’ i ee Vremia (Optina Desert and its Time), Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1977.

[2] Posleyanin, Russkie Podvizhniki 19-go veka (Russian Ascetics of the 19th Century), St. Petersburg, 1910, pp. 221-222.

[3] Sederholm, Elder Leonid of Optina, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990, pp. 49-52.

[4] Theophan the Recluse, Sermon on the Sunday after Nativity, December 29, 1863.

[5] Brianchaninov, Pis'ma, no. 283; translated as "Concerning the Impossibility of Salvation for the Heterodox and Heretics", The Orthodox Word, March-April, 1965, and Orthodox Life, January-February, 1991.

[6] Brianchaninov, "Lamentation", in The Orthodox Word, January-February, 2003, p. 20.

[7] Brianchaninov, in Fomin and Fomina, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 339, 340.

[8] Zhizneopisanie Sviatitelia Ignatia Brianchaninova, p. 485. In the last decade of his life the holy hierarch composed notes for an agenda of a Council of the Russian Church that would tackle the grave problems facing her. See http://catacomb.org.ua/modules.php?name=Pages&go=page&pid=1968.

[9] Fomin and Fomina, op. cit., vol. I, p. 349.

[10] St. Ambrose of Optina, Pis'ma (Letters), Sergiev Posad, 1908, part 1, pp. 21-22.

[11] St. Theophan, in Fomin and Fomina, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 346, 347.

[12] Sokolov, L.A. Episkop Ignatij Brianchaninov (Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov), Kiev, 1915, vol. 2, p. 250. Italics mine (V.M.).

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