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Peter the Great’s reforms bring religious renaissance

Published time: July 20, 2008 07:02
Edited time: July 20, 2008 07:02
Peter the Great

Peter the Great

This is the fifth in a series of RT reports on Christianity’s arrival and 1,020-year-long development in Russia. The beginning of the 18th century in Russia was marked by radical reforms carried out by Peter I, known as the Great. The changes didn’t leave

Peter abolished the traditional leadership of the church – the Patriarchate of Moscow, instead establishing a council called the Holy Synod in 1721. Appointed by the Tsar, its members were obedient to his will. The Synod remained the supreme church body in the Russian Orthodox Church for almost two centuries.

Peter also felt that too many able Russians were being wasted away by holy work. He implemented a law forbidding any Russian man to join a monastery before the age of 30, while a woman couldn’t become a nun before she was 50. As most people didn’t live over half a century in 18th century Russia, the Church was rather dismayed by the decision.

During Peter’s rule, an authorisation from the Synod and the Tsar himself was needed before any new monastery could be built. The lands and revenues of the Church were placed under state control. Peter also required the monks to farm, learn different crafts and open schools and hospitals. It became common practice for monasteries to care for the sick, mentally ill and wounded.

After years of Peter’s radical reforms aimed at westernising Russia, the late 18th century saw a spectacular spiritual revival. The resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was reflected in Russian literature, like the famous “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The religious renaissance was also marked by the rise of “starchestvo” – or veneration of elderly spiritual leaders. A “starets” or “aged man” was a monk regarded as adviser and teacher. They were believed to have the power to heal, prophesy and give spiritual guidance and were looked upon as an example of saintly virtue, unflinching faith and inner peace.

The greatest, and arguably the first, “starets” of those times is considered to be Saint Seraphim of Sarov. He spent much of his life living as a hermit in a forest not far from Sarov Monastery in Central European Russia. He’s remembered for his teachings of self-denial and contemplation. Seraphim was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903.

Previous reports:
Christianity: 1020 years of Russian faith
Kiev: the cradle of Russian Christianity
Moscow becomes ‘third Rome’
Old Believers break from Russian Orthodox Church