Written by Vladimir Moss


      Peter always claimed to be Orthodox, and his seeking the advice of the Eastern Patriarchs certainly indicates a certain reverence for the Church. And he sincerely believed himself to be, as he once wrote to the Eastern patriarchs, “a devoted son of our Most Beloved Mother the Orthodox Church”.[1] And yet his attitude to the faith was complex: while claiming to defend it both at home and abroad, he also felt the need to mock it and humiliate its servants. We see an early instance of this mockery in the manner in which the priests of the Streltsy rebellion of 1698 were executed. For “for the regimental priests who had encouraged the Streltsy, a gibbet constructed in the shape of a cross was erected in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The priests were hanged by the court jester, dressed for the occasion in clerical robes…”[2] Peter had a deplorable tendency to mock the rites of the Church, which led many simple believers to see him as the Antichrist…

     Like almost all absolutist despots, Peter was cruel. 80,000 labourers were used to build St. Petersburg, many of whom died in its cold marshland. Peter even killed his own son, the Tsarevich Alexis. For the Tsarevich had supposedly betrayed him and represented a political threat. But he may have been more than a purely political threat: Alexis represented a focus around which there gathered all those who loved the old traditions of Holy Rus’ and hoped for their restoration. In killing him, therefore, Peter was striking a blow at the whole Orthodox way of life, and declaring, as it were, that there was no going back to the old ways. Two centuries later, in 1918, the Bolsheviks would do the same, and for the same reasons, to Tsar Nicholas II…

     Archpriest Lev Lebedev writes: “Peter I’s persecution of his own son, ending with the secret killing of the latter, was in essence the persecution of immemorial Great Russia, which did not want to change its nature, to be reborn according to the will of the monarch into something complete opposite to it. It was not by chance that the characteristics of the personality of the Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich mirrored so well the characteristics of the personality of the major part of Russia. In this major part the Tsar continued to be venerated, in spite of everything, as ‘the Anointed of God’, whom it was necessary to obey in everything except in matters of the faith, if he began to break or destroy its root foundations. Peter could not directly and openly war against this Great Russia (that is, with the majority of his people). Therefore he went on the path of slander (that his actions were opposed, supposedly, only by sluggards or traitors) and the hidden, as it were secret suffocation of everything whose root and core was Holy Rus’, Orthodox Rus’. On this path Peter was ineluctably forced to resort to one very terrible means: to cover his deliberately anti-God, dishonourable, if not simply criminal actions with pious words, using the name of God and other holy names, excerpts from the Holy Scriptures and Tradition, false oaths, etc. – or in other words, to act under the mask of Orthodox piety. Such had happened in earlier history and especially, as we remember, in the form of the actions of the ‘Judaizing’ heretics, Ivan IV and Boris Godunov. But from Peter I it becomes as it were a certain norm, a kind of rule for rulers that did not require explanation…”[3]

      In part, Peter’s cruelty can be explained and forgiven him as being the pathological result of a very difficult and insecure childhood. As Sebastian Sebag Montefiore writes, “like other practitioners of political autocracy [i.e. absolutism], such as Tsar Ivan the Terrible and King Louis XIV, his early years were dangerous and uncertain, overshadowed by terrifying coups and intrigues.”[4]

      But this can only be a partial explanation. Neither childhood suffering nor military necessity can explain or condone Peter’s attempt to overthrow the foundations of Holy Russia and mock what was most sacred to the Orthodox people. He was, formally speaking, an Orthodox tsar, and he did much that was good for the Orthodox commonwealth, for whose prosperity he sincerely and passionately cared. But there was also in him an antichristian principle.

      A more merciful descendant of his, Tsar Nicholas II, expressed this duality in his estimate of the great Peter:“Of course, I recognize that my famous ancestor had many merits, but I must admit that I would be insincere if I repeated your raptures. This is the ancestor whom I love less than others because of his obsession with western culture and his trampling on all purely Russian customs. One must not impose foreign things immediately, without reworking them. Perhaps this time it was necessary as a transitional period, but I do not sympathize with it.”

      “The reforms of Peter,” writes Archimandrite Cyril Zaitsev, “were an act of self-defence, not from humiliation, but from annihilation by European aggression: a deep meaning was contained in the transfer of the relics of holy Right-believing Prince Alexander Nevsky to the capital on the Neva. It is instructive in this connection to get to know the church service established for this feast (30 August), when the victory over the Swedes was celebrated at the same time. But how, from this point of view, however favourably one evaluates the work of Peter as a whole, could it not wound the Russia Church conscience or sow inner dissension. Yes, Russia was preserved, but at a great price. She continued to be an Orthodox Kingdom, but only in her scattered elements united by the Tsar, not in her former monolithic wholeness.

    “The empire continued to be the Third Rome, accomplishing the mission inherited from Byzantium, the mission of preserving the Orthodox Church in the world. But Moscow was an Orthodox Kingdom in a deeper sense. In her the symphonic unity of Church and Kingdom signified a certain organically consonant and deliberately agree co-existence, embracing everything. Moscow did not know a worldliness alienated from the Church. You will not find any isolation from the Church in Moscow…”[5]

      The monarchist L.A. Tikhomirov wrote: “It would be superfluous to repeat that in his fundamental task Peter the Great was without question right and was a great Russian man. He understood that as a monarch, as the bearer of the duties of the tsar, he was obliged dauntlessly to take upon his shoulders a heavy task: that of leading Russia as quickly as possible to as a complete as possible a mastery of all the means of European culture. For Russia this was a ‘to be or not be’ question. It is terrible even to think what would have been the case if we had not caught up with Europe before the end of the 18th century. Under the Petrine reforms we fell into a slavery to foreigners which has lasted to the present day, but without this reform, of course, we would have lost our national existence if we had lived in our barbaric powerlessness until the time of Frederick the Great, the French Revolution and the era of Europe’s economic conquest of the whole world. With an iron hand Peter forced Russia to learn and work – he was, of course, the saviour of the whole future of the nation.

      “Peter was also right in his coercive measures. In general Russia had for a long time been striving for science, but with insufficient ardour. Moreover, she was so backward, such terrible labour was set before her in order to catch up with Europe, that the whole nation could not have done it voluntarily. Peter was undoubtedly right, and deserved the eternal gratitude of the fatherland for using the whole of his royal authority and power to create the cruellest dictatorship and move the country forward by force, enslaving the whole nation, because of the weakness of her resources, to serve the aims of the state. There was no other way to save Russia [!]

      “But Peter was right only for himself, for his time and for his work. However, when this system of enslaving the people to the state is elevated into a principle, it becomes murderous for the nation, it destroys all the sources of the people’s independent life. But Peter indicated no limits to the general enserfment to the state, he undertook no measures to ensure that a temporary system should not become permanent, he even took no measures to ensure that enserfed Russia did not fall into the hands of foreigners, as happened immediately after his death.”[6]

      While admitting the useful things that Peter accomplished, Archpriest Lev Lebedev comes to a different and much darker conclusion: “We are familiar with the words that Peter ‘broke through a window into Europe’. But no! He ‘broke through a window’ into Russia for Europe, or rather, opened the gates of the fortress of the soul of Great Russia for the invasion into it of the hostile spiritual forces of ‘the dark West’. Many actions of this reformer, for example, the building of the fleet, the building of St. Petersburg, of the first factories, were accompanied by unjustified cruelties and merciless dealing with his own people. The historians who praise Peter either do not mention this, or speak only obliquely about it, and with justification, so as not to deprive their idol of the aura of ‘the Father of the Fatherland’ and the title ‘Great’. For the Fatherland Peter I was the same kind of ‘father’ as he was for his own son the Tsarevich Alexis, whom he ordered to be killed – in essence, only because Alexis did not agree with his father’s destructive reforms for the Fatherland. That means that Peter I did not at all love Russia and did not care for her glory. He loved his own idea of the transformation of Russia and the glory of the successes precisely of this idea, and not of the Homeland, not of the people as it then was, especially in its best and highest state – the state of Holy Rus’.

      “Peter was possessed by ideas that were destructive for the Great Russian soul and life. It is impossible to explain this only by his delectation for all things European. Here we may see the influence of his initiation into the teaching of evil [Masonry?] that he voluntarily accepted in the West. Only a person who had become in spirit not Russian could so hate the most valuable and important thing in Great Russia – the Orthodox spiritual foundations of her many-centuried life. Therefore if we noted earlier that under Peter the monarchy ceased to be Orthodox and Autocratic, now we must say that in many ways it ceased to be Russian or Great Russian. Then we shall see how the revolutionary Bolshevik and bloody tyrant Stalin venerated Peter I and Ivan IV.  Only these two Autocrats were venerated in Soviet times by the communists – the fighters against autocracy… Now we can understand why they were venerated – for the antichristian and anti-Russian essence of their actions and transformations!

    “Investigators both for and against Peter I are nevertheless unanimous in one thing: those transformations in the army, fleet, state administration, industry, etc. that were useful to Russia could not have been introduced (even with the use of western models) without breaking the root spiritual foundations of the life of Great Russia as they had been formed up to Peter.…”[7]

      And yet there is one investigator, who disagrees with this last judgement, Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev): “There is no doubt that it would have been possible to plant European knowledge of a technical and general educational character in the Russian people without breaking the Orthodox faith…”[8]

     Certainly, there were many in Peter’s reign who were prepared to pay with their lives for their confession that he was, if not the Antichrist, at any rate a forerunner of the Antichrist…

     And yet the consensus was that Peter was not the Antichrist. The Church prayed for him and anathematized his enemies, even when they were Orthodox, like the Ukrainian Hetman Mazeppa, who deserted to the Swedish King Charles XII before the Battle of Poltava.[9]

      Archbishop Nathaniel of Vienna poses the question: “Why, in the course of two centuries, have we all, both those who are positively disposed and those who are negatively disposed towards Peter, not considered him as the Antichrist? Why, next to the pious rebukers of Peter, could there be pious, very pious venerators of him? Why could St. Metrophan of Voronezh, who fearlessly rebuked Peter’s comparatively innocent attraction to Greek-Roman statues in imitation of the Europeans, nevertheless sincerely and touchingly love the blasphemer-tsar and enjoy his love and respect in return? Why could Saints Demetrius of Rostov and Innocent of Irkutsk love him (the latter, as ‘over-hieromonk’ of the fleet, had close relations with him)? Why did the most ardent and conscious contemporary opponent of Peter’s reforms, the locum tenens of the Patriarchal Throne, Metropolitan Stefan Yavorsky, who struggled with Peter’s anti-ecclesiastical reforms and was persecuted and constrained by him for that, nevertheless not only not recognize Peter as the Antichrist, but also wrote a book refuting such an opinion? Why in general did the Church, which has always put forward from its midst holy fighters against all antichristian phenomena contemporary to it, however much these phenomena may have been supported by the bearers of supreme power, - the Church which later, under Catherine II, put forward against her far more restrained, veiled and far less far-reaching anti-ecclesiastical reforms such uncompromising fighters as Metropolitans Arseny (Matseyevich) and Paul (Konyuskevich) – why, under the Emperor Peter, did the Church not put forward against him one holy man, recognized as such, not one rebuker authorized by Her? Why did our best Church thinker, who understood the tragedy of the fall of Holy Rus’ with the greatest clarity and fullness, A.S. Khomiakov, confess that that in Peter’s reforms, ‘sensing in them the fruit of pride, the intoxication of earthly wisdom, we have renounced all our holy things that our native to the heart’, why could he nevertheless calmly and in a spirit of sober goodwill say of Peter: ‘Many mistakes darken the glory of the Transformer of Russia, but to him remains the glory of pushing her forward to strength and a consciousness of her strength’?

      “And finally, the most important question: why is not only Russia, but the whole of the rest of the world, in which by that time the terrible process of apostasy from God had already been taking place for centuries, obliged precisely to Peter for the fact that this process was stopped by the mighty hand of Russia for more than 200 years? After all, when we rightly and with reason refer the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘The mystery of lawlessness is already working, only it will not be completed until he who now restrains is removed from the midst’ to the Russian tsars, we think mainly of the Russian [Petersburg] emperors, and not of the Muscovite tsars.[10] These comparatively weak, exotic rulers, to whom the world outside their immediate dominions related in approximately the way that, in later times, they related to the Neguses and Negestas of Abyssinia, could not be the restrainers of the world. Consequently Peter was simultaneously both the Antichrist and the Restrainer of the Antichrist. But if that is the case, then the whole exceptional nature of Peter’s spiritual standing disappears, because Christ and Antichrist, God and the devil fight with each other in every human soul, for every human soul, and in this case Peter turned out to be only more gifted than the ordinary man, a historical personality who was both good and evil, but always powerful, elementally strong. Both the enemies and the friends of Peter will agree with this characterization…”[11]

      So Peter, according to this view, was at the same time both persecutor and protector of the Church, both a forerunner of the Antichrist and the Restrainer of his coming. Such a view is supported by Engels’ remark: “Not one revolution in Europe and in the whole world can attain final victory while the present Russian state exists.”[12]

      Peter, the founder of Great Russia did great harm to the Church, Holy Rus’, but he also effectively defended her against her external enemies, supported her missionary work in Siberia and the East, and made it possible for her to survive as a great power for another two centuries, until the evil seeds he had sown reached their final destructive flowering in 1917...

     Did Peter repent of his anti-Church acts? It is impossible to say. But we know that at the end of his life he confessed and received communion three times; while receiving holy unction, he displayed great compunction of soul and several times repeated: “I believe, I hope!”[13] This gives us, too, reason to hope and believe in his salvation.

     Another reason for hope is the appearance of his old friend and foe, St. Metrophan, to one of his venerators and the words he then said: “If you want to be pleasing to me, pray for the peace of the soul of the Emperor Peter the Great...”[14]


February 9/22, 2020.

[1]James Cracraft, The Church Reform of Peter the Great, London: Macmillan, 1971, pp. 27-28.

[2] Peter Massie, Peter the Great, London: Phoenix, 2001, p. 258.

[3]Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 194.

[4] Montefiore, The Romanovs, London, 2016, p. 266.

[5]Zaitsev, “Imperia Rossijskaia i Sviataia Rus’” (The Russian Empire and Holy Rus’), Pravoslavnij Put’ (Jordanville), 1958, pp. 2-3.

[6]Tikhomirov, Monarkhicheskaia Gosudarstvennost’ (Monarchical Statehood), St. Petersburg, 1992, pp. 295-296.

[7]Lebedev, op. cit., p. 175.

[8]Sobolev, Russkaia Ideologia (The Russian Ideology), St. Petersburg, 1992, p. 18.

[9]Massie, op. cit., p. 465.

[10] Thus Sophia, Elector of Hanover, recognized in Peter “a very extraordinary man… at once very good and very bad” (Montefiore, op. cit., p. 86).

[11]Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov), “O Petre Velikom” (“On Peter the Great”), Epokha (The Epoch), N 10, 2000, N 1, pp. 35-36. Unlike several Byzantine emperors, he refused a unia with Rome. Thus he once attended a Catholic mass in Poland, and “his interest in the service prompted his Catholic hosts to propose a union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but Peter replied, ‘Sovereigns have rights only over the bodies of their people. Christ is the sovereign of their souls. For such a union, a general consent of the people is necessary and that is in the power of God alone” (Massie, op. cit., p. 345).

[12] Engels, “Karl Marx and the revolutionary movement in Russia”.

[13]“Smert’ Imperatora Petra I kak obrazets khristianskoj konchiny” (“The Death of Peter I as a Model of Christian Death”), Svecha Pokaiania (The Candle of Repentance), N 1, March, 1999, pp. 6-7.

[14]“Smert’ Imperatora Petra I”, op. cit., p. 7.

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