Peter`s The Great Reforms: A Knot Between Church And State

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Christians all over the world have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Although the situation became better with time, it was still not ideal in the 18th century. Peter the Great, the first emperor of Russia, introduced the Most Holy Synod, and it changed the structure of the church from its core. The Most Holy Synod was the highest governing body of the Russian Church, supervising its every activity. Peter the Great’s idea to introduce a religious branch of the government was not wise. It left a negative social, religious, and political effect on the future of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia as a whole.

The Most Holy Synod, or All-Ruling Ecclesiastical Synod, began its ruling as an official government branch in the year 1721. The idea of eliminating the position of a patriarch had been something that Peter had been considering since 1700. After the death of Patriarch Adrian, who was appointed by Peter himself, he saw an opportunity of changing the church system. He wanted to make it help himself to achieve the goal of secularising the country. Peter declined to appoint a new patriarch, he instead assigned an archbishop, Stefan Yavorsky. Stefan essentially had the same responsibilities as a patriarch and had the jurisdiction to resolve the issues linked to Christianity. Stefan was in charge of everything associated with the Russian Orthodox Church for the next twenty years. Those two decades of a patriarch’s absence became known as a period of mezhpatriarshestvo, translated as ‘in-between patriarchs.

Since the Most Holy Synod was a government branch, it was closely tied with the government of Russia and Peter, as well as administrating the Russian Church.

The Synod was in charge of many ecclesiastical duties, for example, planning ecclesiastical holidays, controlling the entirety of any ecclesiastical property, and financing the almshouses. Aside from that, it had much influence on many spheres of Russian people’s lives, both in religious matters and not. For example, they would instruct people on ecclesiastical matters, settle disputes between ecclesiastical landlords and their workers, handle the distribution of all retired and disabled soldiers among the monasteries, and even closely watch every Russian citizen on suspicion of practicing witchcraft. The Synod also had a say in the department of politics and justice. For instance, their many responsibilities included administering justice to the ecclesiastical landlord and their workers, prosecuting anyone who has committed fraud linked to ecclesiastical (but not Synodal) estates and dealing with fugitives (or anyone, for that matter) hiding on ecclesiastical estates.

Interestingly, many of the obligations listed above were not included in the original concept of the Most Holy Synod of Peter the Great when he was deciding on how much power he will give to this brand new government branch. They tied together in the Monastery Prikaz (decree), which Peter declined and ruled to be liquidated and spread among the Colleges (government branches) of Justice, State Revenue, and State Expenditure. He ruled that on February 14th, 1721. But, the Most Holy Synod disobeyed the emperor completely, and on February 27th they proclaimed that the Monastery Prikaz is up and running, and every responsibility that it describes is now theirs “for the sake of better management.”

While blatantly disrespecting the emperor, the members of the Most Holy Synod demanded to be respected by everyone. Instead of one patriarch, whom people knew and loved, there were eleven members of the Synod, responsible for everything and demanding to be respected and recognized as figures of authority. Now, Russian Christians had to be instructed and watched by ten more people than before.

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More people meant more competition for power and greed, as much as the growing chance of corruption. There is no more fitting example than Jesus and his thirteen apostles, one of whom turned out to be a traitor. With fewer people, there is a lesser chance of one of them being a foolish person, and maybe with twelve apostles, Jesus would not have been betrayed.

Once at work, the members of the Most Holy Synod were now an official functioning religious branch of the government and could contribute to the law through the decrees they were passing. There is a particular example that raises questions.

“Various pictures of missions, services, canons, and prayers that were composed and are being composed by various officials, sold in Moscow by the Spassky Bridge and in other places, signed without authorization and printed anywhere else but the typography without any kind of decree but still shamelessly done with no authorization or permission, should be confiscated and locked away until further notice, whilst the people who sold them must be found and closely investigated, and the recording of this investigation should be urgently sent to the Most Holy Synod with a needed registry, and the people mentioned above who dared to compose and print the pictures, must be accounted for and pay a merciless fee,”— the Most Holy Synod.

This decree does not sound like a document composed by an educated lawyer or notary, and it was not, but it still passed and people were paying merciless fees for selling pictures of Russian churches, famous for their architectural beauty, and most likely popular among people visiting Rus’. It is an example of how a church linked together with the state can abuse its power to pass oddly specific, and even unnecessary decrees in its favor.

The discussion about whether it is right or wrong to keep church and state separated is longer than time. In modern America, it remains a popular topic for debate, even considering that hundreds of years ago, the Founding Fathers established that church and state should not depend on each other. One of the big reasons why is the diversity that America has; if one religion (say, Christianity) was to be proclaimed as the official religion of the United States of America, and the knot between church and state would be tied, then, potentially, that could lead to discrimination and marginalization of religious groups different from Christian. Peter the Great did not think about that when he was making his decision on connecting church with state.

Historically, Russia has been an ethnically and religiously diverse country, although it is not common knowledge for an average person. There are over 130 ethnic groups across the country, and all of them have different cultures and beliefs. For example, the Native Siberian people located in Siberia never migrated there nor were placed there. Siberian Russia is their native home, and due to disconnection from the West and different climatic conditions, they have distinctively different cultures from Slavic Russian culture, and mostly practice polytheism and paganism, beliefs utterly different from Christianity. It is safe to believe that the unseparated from state Christian Church hurt those people.

What needs to be talked about is what were Peter the Great’s true intentions that led him to a decision of attaching church to state. Peter’s entire goal of his career as an emperor was to westernize his home country as much as possible, and what he believed would be a part of westernizing was secularisation. By intertwining the church with secularised government, Peter created what is called “caesaropapism.” Caesaropapism is “the possession of supreme authority over church and state by one person, often by a secular ruler.” So, not only he did not care about the effect an unseparated church will have on those whose beliefs are not Christian, but he did not have Christian people’s interests at heart. He only wanted to do what he thought was right for him, which is not ethical. It is also notable that after the death of Patriarch Adrian, Peter sat on his former throne and said, “I am the Patriarch,” which seems rather questionable.

Although the Patriarchate would not be reinstated until the 20th century, the Most Holy Synod did not have any significantly good long-lasting results, in the end only hurt the people of different religions and abused the power given to them on petty decrees. Unseparated from the state church has been a problem then, and it is now, in modern Russia, and there is plenty of reasons to believe that the first mistake of desegregating them had its impact on the second. Church and state tied together for two centuries affected the mindset of the Russian people, because although there was no Constitution back in Peter the Great’s time, there is one now, and it has article 14 that clearly states that Russian Federation is a secular federation, and every religious activity is separated from the government. Yet, the Russian Church has enough power to lock a human being behind bars for “insulting the feelings of religious believers,” as said in Russian Criminal Code Article 148.

, Although the Synod’s initial purpose was to fill in the position of the patriarch, it changed with time. It grew and grew, and by the 1830s its power was equal to the Minister. It is still a functioning branch in contrast to Russia’s status as a secular federation as stated above, although it does function with a patriarch at the same time. It only shows how drastically the course of the Synod had changed.  

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