St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The Russian Orthodox church is the largest and most influential branch of the Orthodox faith. Including Ukrainian followers, it represents half of the world’s 200 million or Orthodox believers, dwarfing the 17 other official Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Orthodox church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, claims to have about 80 million followers, or more than half the population of Russia. This number is regarded as an overestimate. The true figure is thought to be around 40 million, with about 4.4 million to 7.4 million being practicing worshipers. Numbers are dropping in part because the overall population is declining.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a thousand-year history of strong political as well as spiritual influence over the inhabitants of the Russian state. After enduring the Soviet era as a state-controlled religious facade, the church quickly regained both membership and political influence in the early 1990s. The are 25,000 parishes in 2004, compared to 6,900 in 1988. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Because the concept of separation of church and state never took root in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, was a pillar of tsarist autocracy. During the communist era, the church, like every other institution in the Soviet Union, was completely subordinate to the state, achieving a modus vivendi by ceding most of its autonomous identity. Under the officially atheist regimes of the Soviet Union, no official figures on the number of religious believers in the country were available to Western scholars. According to various Soviet and Western sources, however, more than one-third of the citizens of the Soviet Union regarded themselves as believers in the 1980s, when the number of adherents to Russian Orthodoxy was estimated at more than 50 million--although a high percentage of that number feared to express their religious beliefs openly.

There has traditionally been some distance between the Orthodox church and the Russian peasantry. Many peasants lived beyond the reach of the church infrastructure and either paid lip service to the religion, observing certain festivals and honoring certain sacraments but doing little more. They practiced religion in their own way, sometimes incorporating pre-Christian Slavic folk rituals and local superstitions.

See Separate Article on Orthodox Christianity

Websites and Resources Orthodox Church in America ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church ; Internet Sourcebook ; BBC on Orthodox Christian ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; ; Christianity Comparison Charts ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ;

Orthodox Christianity and Russian Culture

Orthodox wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra

Tsarist rule, Russian culture, Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox church all developed together after Russia was Christianized in A.D. 988 under a formal royal act. The Russian Orthodox Church was introduced from Constantinople to Kiev around a thousand years ago by Prince Vladamir. The Ukraine is considered the cradle or Russian Orthodoxy because Kiev is there. Even during the Mongol era, the Orthodox church was exempt form taxation and held vast amounts of land and other possessions.

Until the predominance of Moscow was established at the beginning of the 16th century, Russian art and architecture was primarily Byzantine in character. Most difference were regional variations. Conservatism in the 15th and 16th century ushered in a period of neglect of the arts. Many pieces created earlier were destroyed.

Much of the customary law in Russia, including aspects of women’s rights, has roots in the Orthodox church. Even people who are not religiously inclined see the Russian Orthodox Church as occupying a special place in Russian society. The religion has shaped Russia's history and its spiritual and moral development. Sergei Filativ, an expert on religion told U.S. News and World Report, "the Orthodox Church is perhaps the last, lone symbol of Russian national identity to have survived Communism more or less intact. People may not be good believers but they want and need such a symbol."

For much of Russia’s history the Orthodox church was inextricably linked to the tsars. University of London Russian scholar Martin McCauley told AP,"Who's Russian? Many would say that if you're not Orthodox, then you're not Russian." One religious scholar told the Washington Post, "The Russian Orthodox Church is the last residue of unity...of old imperial Russia.

Russian Orthodox Organization

Orthodox leaders in 1917

The Russian Orthodox Church, like the other churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy, is autonomous, or self-governing. The highest church official is the patriarch. Matters relating to faith are decided by ecumenical councils in which all member churches of Eastern Orthodoxy participate. Followers of the church regard the councils' decisions as infallible. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

The Orthodox church is led by a Patriarch (currently Patriarch Alexy II) and the church's 150 hierarchs. The residence of the patriarch is at Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Some business matters are still taken care of at Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius for Sergiev Posad, where the Patriarch had his residence until the late 1980s. Yelokhovsky Cathedral is the senior church in Moscow.

Senior bishops are called Metropolitians. The Patriarch was known as a Metropolitan until 1580. Priests are given a great deal of leeway on how to run their parishes. In the tsarist era some monasteries owned huge chunks of land and controlled 15,000 serfs. Many had military units.

The Russian Orthodox church is one of 15 autocephalous (self-headed) Orthodox churches, each with their own Patriarchs. The Patriarch in Constantinople is regarded as a kind of first among equals.

Patriarch Alexey II

Alexy II

Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, is one of the most powerful men in Russia. In 1991, he helped thwart and attempt by the Communists to return to power by opposing the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. He also pressured Yeltsin to push forward church aims and helped get pro-Orthodox politicians elected by making endorsements.

Born Alexy Mikhailovich Ridiger in Tallinn, the capital of then independent Estonia, Alexy followed his father into the church. The elder Ridiger was active in the Russian Student Christian Movement in the 1920s and was ordained as a priest in World War II, when Alexy became an altar boy.

After studying the engineering Alexy entered the church in Estonia in 1961 at the age of 32. He joined the priesthood in 1950 and advanced steadily trough the ranks of the Russian Orthodox church. He was the Metropolitan of Tallinn from 1960 to 1981 and, after being endorsed by the KGB, he was named patriarch of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990.

It was long assumed that Patriarch Alexy II had to have cooperated with the KGB to advance so far and quickly in Soviet system. In 1993 he claimed he "did not collaborate with the KGB" but admitted the KGB had penetrated deeply into the church. He told Ivestia, "Defending one thing, it was necessary to give somewhere else. "

Russian Orthodox Monks and Monasteries

In 1980, there were only 18 Orthodox monasteries open in the Soviet Union. Today there are more than 400, which includes both male and female societies. Orthodox monks are often tall, stern and imposing-looking men with long beards and long hair. They dress in black robes with heavy silver crosses that hang from chains that reach their stomach. Orthodox monks are often tall, stern and imposing-looking men with long beards and long hair. They dress in back robes with heavy silver crosses that hang from chains that reach their stomach. Orthodox church nuns resemble veiled Islamic women more than they do Catholic nuns. With the fall of Communism many women have taken taking the vow of religious celibacy and many men are becoming priests.

monk at Valamo Monastery in Karelia, Russia in the 1930s

Valaam Monastery (on Valaam Island near St. Petersburg) is a working monastery and Russia's most important center of Orthodox education. Founded in the mid 10th century and developed into a fortress against the Swedes in the 14th century, it is Russian Orthodoxy's oldest existing monastery. Vallam Monastery is officially known as the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration of the Savior. It went through periods of destruction and renewal. In 1611 it was destroyed completely by a fire and rebuilt with money from Peter the Great who opened part of it as a prison. Valaam Monastery experienced a golden age in the 18th century. Many of its present structures were built then. From 1918 to 1940 the monastery was in Finnish territory and many treasurers were moved to Finland. Many buildings were destroyed during the 1939 war between the Soviet Union and Finland. After World War II the monastery became an "urban-type settlement.” In 1989 it was reopened to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Russia.

Vallam Monastery is one of the few church-run monasteries that is open to tourists and one of the few places where visitors can observe monks going through their daily routines and duties. Over 100 monks live on the island. They are organized into small, secluded religious communities called sketes which are scattered over the islands. About 10 sketes live on Valaam in addition to the monastery. Visitors are welcome to visit them.

The island is irregularly shaped and mostly flat, five miles at its longest and three miles at its widest point. The buildings are protected landmarks but some have been neglected. The large monastery is comprised of two rectangle-shaped buildings, one inside the others, with the cathedral in the middle. The main building houses living quarters for the monks, a refectory, library, hospital, and church administration offices.

The cathedral is a neo-Byzantine structure made up of two churches perched on a granite cliff. It features blue mosque-like domes and a 230-foot-high turquoise-and white belfry. The original cathedral was disassembled in 1794. Work on the present was not completed until 1892 but it managed to survive bombings in 1939. Most of the treasures once own by the monastery were lost in raids by the Swedes and confiscation by the Soviets.

The monastery is surrounded by a nature preserve, where monks have transplanted trees from all over the world and Russian tourists pick berries and mushrooms. Part of the monastery is occupied by 400 lay residents. They arrived after the 1950s when the monastery was a home for the disabled. They include restoration workers, army service personnel and guides.

Orthodox Customs and Rituals

Sunday Communion at an Orthodox church in Russia

Orthodox churches celebrate mass. Sacred literatures, personal icons and candles are sold at the entrances to churches. People wait in line to get holy water from springs blessed by the Metropolitan. The faithful cross themselves three times in the Orthodox manner.

When performing services, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch wears a glittering golden robe and is surrounded by icons. Important services are broadcasts on national television. The language of Russian Orthodox church liturgy is called the Church Slavonic, a Southern Slav (Bulgarian) dialect used when the Bible was first translated into Cyrillic.

Describing the scene in an Orthodox church Robert Paul Jordan wrote in National Geographic, "Smoke from flickering tapers suffused an aura of sadness. Worn old women wearing babushkas crowded the narthex and nave; scattering of elderly men and young people stood among them. Somewhere a baby cried. Voices rose and fell, chanting as the priest offered Communion. Crossing themselves, the somber communicants turned and slowly departed, arms folded over chests."

Describing an Orthodox service, Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, "The priests were robed in golden brocade and crowned with jeweled miters; incense and the voices of whole choirs filled the air. Some parishioners lighted candles as they end their prayers; they kissed icons, kissed the coffins of two revered metropolitans, kissed the golden cross in a priest's hand."

The congregations are often made up mostly of old people, especially old women. Pilgrims flock to Velikoretskaya, a small town where an icon was miraculously discovered in 1383. When they need a rest, pilgrims lie down on the ground along the route and after they feel revived they get up and continue.

Orthodox Church Corruption

In 1996, historian Flore de Preneuf wrote in the Washington Post, "Freed from 70 years of state hostility which nearly drove it to extinction, the Russian Orthodox Church seems more interested in satisfying its urges for acquisition and adornment than in providing the moral leadership the country craves.

Between 1992 and 1996 the Russian Commission for Humanitarian and Technical Relief gave the Orthodox church 50,000 tons of cigarettes duty-free as "humanitarian aid" which the church sold, keeping the proceeds. The deal was dubbed by the press the "Holy Smokes" scandal.

The Orthodox church has been accused of letting the Russian military use its overseas bank accounts to squirrel away profits from the sale of army hardware from East Germany and the Black Sea port of Sevastapol. The church also has a stake in an oil-exporting firm.

The bishop of Yekateringburg, who was appointed at the surprisingly young age of 35 because of a vacuum of candidates, was accused of corruption, forcing parishers to give him valuable icons, robes and silver chalices, demanding large amounts of money to solve administrative matters, book-burning, and being drunk in public and openly practicing homosexuality.

Politics, Money and the Russian Orthodox Church

The Orthodox church has supported many nationalist politicians and there is strong, reactionary contingent of bishops and priests that are anti-Western and anti-Democratic.

The late President Boris Yeltsin used photo opportunities in Orthodox churches to pursue his political agenda. He won political brownie points by showing up at Christmas and Easter services with the Patriarch Alexy II and returned the favor by allowing the patriarch to appear at secular ceremonies to bless treaties, something the head of the church did back in tsarist times.Moscow mayor Mikhaylovich Luzhkov admitted that he didn't believe in God but the moral principals and symbols provided by the church were "useful for society."

Money is a big problem for the Russian Orthodox church. There is a lot to do and no money to do it with. Many parishioners are poor and the government hasn't supplied the church with much money. To raise money the church had been involved in shady practices like selling alcohol and cigarettes brought into the country tax free.

Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

Orthodox leaders at a consecration in Minsk, Belarus

The Russian Orthodox Church is trying to retain control over parishes in former Soviet republics like Estonia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.

In a 1996 ruling condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recognized their right of the Orthodox church of Estonia to break away from the Russian Orthodox church. The Orthodox church in the Ukraine would like a similar decision made on its behalf, which could produce the largest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation.

The New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia does not recognize other Orthodox churches. It in turn is not recognized by other Orthodox churches.

Arts and the Orthodox Church After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

In the mid 2000s, the Orthodox Church and nationalist groups with ties to the church were involved in a number of protests and court cases against artists and performers. In January 2003, an art exhibit called “Caution: Religion,” was ransacked by Orthodox Christian protesters, associated with a group called the Committee of the Moral Revival of the Fatherland, also known for defacing billboards advertising women’s underwear.

Orthodox versus Old Believers in the 18th century

The exhibitors were charged with crimes not the vandals. Among the works that the Orthodox activists found objectionable was s a life-size icon with a hole in the face that visitors could put their head in and be photographed and a face of Jesus next to a Coca-Cola logo with the words, “This my blood.”

In August 2003, an Orthodox priest asked authorities to shut down a French ballet performance, because it portrayed the Archangel Gabriel in a “blasphemous and corrupting” way. In February 2004, an art exhibit of “icons,” with film stars and politicians in St. Petersburg was vandalized by men in army fatigues. In February 2005, Orthodox priests and parishioners in Ekaterinburg staged a protest because a dancer portrayed Tsar Nicholas II, an Orthodox saint. In February 2005, organizers of an art festival in Moscow were charged with inciting religious hatred over a video piece that showed the faces of 26 saints.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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