Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Church Reform

A. A. KARTASHEV

Of all the reforms of Peter the Great, the abolition of the Patriarchate
and the establishment of the Holy Synod was the most radical in form. It
also had the most widespread and immediate repercussions, for it provoked
bitter resistance among the people. In Muscovy, the Church had enjoyed great
influence and its head, the Patriarch of Moscow, was the most influential
and powerful individual after the Tsar. Peter decapitated the Church and made
it into a mere government department. Recalling that in the 19th and 20th
centuries the Church -- as an institution -- exercised little influence on the
people and none on the educated élite, and remembering that it offered but
little resistance to the revolution of 1917, one is tempted to blame the situa-
tion on Peter's subjection of the Church to the State and its transformation into
a tool and handmaid of the government and police. Professor A. A. Kartashev
(died 1960), a leading figure in the revitalization of Church life on the eve of
the Revolution, who became dean of the Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary
in Paris after the Bolshevik seizure of power, dissents from the traditional
view. He argues that after Peter's reform the Church successfully raised its
cultural standards and expanded its missionary activities. It may be worth
noting, however, that perhaps Kartashev's analysis fails to take adequate ac-
count of the general rise in literacy and in the level of Russian cultural life
in the two centuries following Peter's death. For the traditional view and inter-
pretation, see the excerpts from an article by Professor N. Zernov below.


Introduction

Along with other events which unquestionably marked turning points in Russian history, such as the introduction of Christianity by St. Vladimir and the Tartar conquest, the revolutionary reform of Peter the Great must be regarded as an event setting a boundary between major epochs and opening a new period in the history of the Russian Church, known as the Synodal period.

Our leading historians ( Soloviev, Kliuchevsky, Platonov, and Miliukov) have tried to eradicate the mythological patina upon the epoch of Peter the Great by elaborate demonstrations of the continuity of the historical process, in which there are, according to them, no breaks or fantastic leaps. However, after all their critical scrubbing, the dividing line drawn by our forebears in Russian history and also, by that token, in church history, became still more indisputable. Our history falls into two periods -- the period before Peter, and that after Peter. The Synodal period is not a scholarly convention, but a naturally formed and uniquely new epoch in the development of the Russian Church. And the essential point here is not merely in the new form of the supreme administration of the Russian Church (a form, incidentally, which is canonically defective), but in the novelty of the legal and cultural principle which had been brought into Russian history from the West, and which profoundly altered and distorted the "symphony" between church and state normal for the East.

From A. A. Kartashev, Ocherki po Istorii Russkoi Tserkvi [Essays in the History of the Russian Church], vol. II ( Paris: YMCA Press, 1959), pp. 311-312, 313-314, 317-320. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

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