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The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform

The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform

by Gregory L. Freeze

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This study also demonstrates how the changing status of Russian clergy compared with that of Protestant and Catholic clergy in Western Europe. The author speaks not only to important questions of social change and reform in nineteenth-century Russia but also to the crisis faced by the clergy in a modern, secular society.


This study also demonstrates how the changing status of Russian clergy compared with that of Protestant and Catholic clergy in Western Europe. The author speaks not only to important questions of social change and reform in nineteenth-century Russia but also to the crisis faced by the clergy in a modern, secular society.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.51(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.34(d)

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The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia

Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform

By Gregory L. Freeze


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05381-3


Dual Power, Dual Conflict

"Sire! [Chief procurator] Protasov has made himself a serf-master over the bishops, who have all become servile slaves of the chief procurator and his suite."

That plaintive cry to the emperor was followed shortly afterwards by another, but from a radically different perspective: "The relationship between priests and bishops is like that between Negroes and plantation owners." These appeals to the emperor, contained in two memoranda (zapiski) in the mid-1850s, dramatically reveal the main lines of conflict inside the Orthodox Church — prelates against procurators, priests against bishops. The two conflicts, to be sure, long antedated the Nikolaevan era; from medieval times bishops had clashed with lay officials, and priests had been at odds with their ecclesiastical superiors. But the traditional antagonism acquired new forms and new intensity in the reign of Nicholas I, setting the stage for the ecclesiastical politics of the Great Reforms. Although conventionally treated as a total bureaucratization of the Church and its reduction to an impotent arm of the state, the Nikolaevan era actually represented much more than a simple attempt by power-hungry procurators to seize control of the Church. This chapter will examine the problems facing prereform Church administration, the regime's attempts at reform, and the exacerbation of tensions that ensued.

Synod and Procurator

When Peter established the Synod as a collegial body of bishops to govern the Church in 1721, he intended it to rule the whole "ecclesiastical domain" (dukhovnoe vedomstvo), representing the "spiritual" counterpart to the Senate in the civil domain. Originally composed of eleven bishops (with the metropolitan of St. Petersburg presiding), the Synod wielded considerable authority and operational autonomy in the eighteenth century, supervising administration in the subordinate dioceses and controlling diverse spheres of Church affairs — justice, censorship, schools, and finances. To be sure, it had to contend with the presence of the chief procurator (ober-prokuror), a lay overseer charged with ensuring legality and good administration in the Church; with few exceptions, however, most eighteenth-century procurators played only a minor role in Synodal affairs. By resorting to clever bureaucratic subterfuges, even by overt opposition, the Synod managed to stall or deflect most of the state's attempts to violate Church interests. However, when the issue was truly central and vital, as in the sequestration of monastic lands and peasants, the material interests were so clear and the theology so thin that the state's will ineluctably prevailed. But in most routine matters the government left the Church to its arcane tradition and its labyrinth of canon law, for the state had neither the expertise nor the incentive to meddle in purely ecclesiastical matters.

This relationship changed significantly in the nineteenth century, as the chief procurator acquired substantial, though by no means dictatorial, power over the Church. The Synod formally retained sole authority to set ecclesiastical policy, but it surrendered day-to-day control to a lay bureaucracy subject to the procurator's control. That development was of great significance, for operational autonomy had been the very essence of the Synod's power. Though traditionally regarded as the evil machinations of power-hungry procurators, the state's intrusion into Church affairs had far more important goals, namely, to realign the Church to state institutions and to integrate the Church into the evolving system of secular administration.

In part, the state's invasion of Church prerogative resulted from dissatisfaction with ecclesiastical administration. From the very outset of his reign, Nicholas complained of irregularities and soon came to doubt that the Church and bishops were capable of vouchsafing the good order and the good priests that he demanded. In February 1827, for example, Nicholas learned about the case of an archpriest in Kursk who had maintained suspicious liaisons with peasant women and yet eluded punishment; the angry emperor had the cleric summarily defrocked and rebuked the bishop for laxness. The following year, when he learned about a scandal involving an inebriated priest who had dropped the Holy Elements, Nicholas again berated bishops for undue leniency: "Once more I repeat that this serves as new proof of how little local ecclesiastical authorities perform their duty, and I reiterate that priests of dubious conduct are absolutely not to be tolerated." Not long afterwards Nicholas ordered a general purge of clergy with tainted records, and, after receiving data on the large number previously or currently under investigation, he found "new proof" of the bishops' nonfeasance and incompetence in supervising diocesan clergy. His patience was plainly exhausted by 1830, when another case of leniency came to his attention: "Give the bishop a most severe reprimand for his unjustified decision [not to defrock an errant cleric], and at the same time [admonish him] that at the first [reoccurence] he shall be stripped of his diocese and his rank."

Although Nicholas vented his wrath first and foremost upon individual bishops, he ultimately put responsibility upon the Church's central administration. Indeed, at the very outset of his reign, the emperor gave consideration to an anonymous memorandum ("Some Comments and Proposals for Improving Church Affairs") that challenged the Synod's capacity to govern effectively. As Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow later recalled, the memorandum said "much unfavorable about the current state of affairs in the Russian Church — for instance, that the Synod itself does not know the condition of the Russian Church, that it makes no inspections whatsoever of the dioceses, and that the Synod only reviews incoming matters [initiating nothing of its own accord]." The note argued that such nonfeasance was inevitable, since the small number of Synod members had to govern their own dioceses as well as handle the glut of routine Synodal business. The memorandum therefore proposed the creation of a "provisional ecclesiastical council" (vremennyi dukhovnyi sovet) to assist the Synod. Asked to comment on the proposal, Metropolitan Filaret categorically rejected the whole idea. If the new council consisted entirely of bishops, he warned, it would suffer the same weaknesses of the Synod: the additional bishops, like present Synod members, would still have to attend simultaneously to the task of managing their home dioceses. If, as Filaret suspected, the author intended to include laymen on the council, that innovation could undermine the whole political order:

The hierarchy (based on the canons of the Holy Apostles, Holy Councils, and Church Fathers) and a reform or transformation are mutually exclusive conceptions. The establishment of a council to improve Church administration will strike many as a body [convoked] to transform or reform; it is debatable whether this organ will do more good to create order than to provoke an agitation of minds.

Deftly exploiting Nicholas's fear of an "agitation of minds," Filaret succeeded in burying the proposal once and for all. Still, the very appearance and serious consideration given to schemes for "an expanded consistory" with lay and clerical members bore witness to the government's strong dissatisfaction with Church administration.

More important, though, than dissatisfaction with maladministration was the evolution of state bureaucracy, which had a profound impact upon the status and structure of the central Church administration. Most broadly, as the Petrine system changed in its structure and distribution of power, the reference points fixing the Synod's status and power shifted as well. Thus, as the Senate gradually declined from a policy-making organ to a court of high judicial review, the Synod's status vis-à-vis civil administration grew dangerously ambiguous. Still more important was the formation of ministries in 1802, which replaced the old administrative colleges and left the Synod (originally titled "ecclesiastical college") as an anomalous vestige of Peter's collegial system. That new ministerial order gradually made itself felt within the Church, for the entire system presupposed single ministerial heads capable of attending the new Committee of Ministers (and, later, State Council) to defend the interests of their particular institution. Of more concrete significance was the development of new ministerial organs to augment the minister's authority and enable him to manage his own bureaucracy as an autonomous organization. All these innovations slowly intruded into the Church: the procurator represented the Church at the State Council or Committee of Ministers, emulated the ministerial model for internal organization, and formed a lay bureaucracy under his own personal control.

The first hint of procuratorial pretensions came in the reign of Alexander I (1801–1825). The pioneer was A. A. Iakovlev, who held the post briefly in 1803 and unabashedly sought to expand his authority, primarily in the name of tight finances and good administration. On these grounds Iakovlev demanded that all the Synod's mail go through his office (not that of the St. Petersburg metropolitan), that diocesan secretaries be subordinate to him (not to local bishops), and even that "procurators" be appointed to oversee each diocesan consistory, lakovlev's encroachments touched off a furor in the Synod, which eventually persuaded the emperor to remove the abrasive and ambitious procurator. Although his immediate successor, A. N. Golitsyn, an agnostic, seemed unlikely to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs, he in fact proved a diligent overseer, determined to make administration more efficient and to excoriate fiscal abuse. Thus, with an eye to developments in secular administration, Golitsyn placed the Synod's chancellery on a more orderly basis, adopted the new procedures and rules of state offices, and took steps to tighten supervision over diocesan authorities. Eventually Golitsyn broadened his role as procurator, first in the seminary reforms of 1808–1814 and later as Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Education, overseeing not only the Orthodox Church but public schools and other confessions as well. Although Golitsyn's power should not be exaggerated (the Synod's routine functions remained intact, with senior prelates clearly dominant), his attempt to create an ecclesiastical ministry parallel to similar institutions in the West and consonant with the new ministerial structure in Russia adumbrated the primary lines of subsequent development.

As the Synod's power had waxed and waned in the eighteenth century, so too did it in the nineteenth, and Nicholas's accession to the throne brought a resurgence in the Synod's power that lasted into the first decade of his reign. Thus Golitsyn's successor, P. S. Meshcherskii, dealt circumspectly with the bishops, affording due respect to their traditional prerogatives and privileges. That respect diminished noticeably under his successor, S. D. Nechaev (1833–1836), a former military officer eager to dominate ecclesiastical administration. According to critical foes, he spared little to subdue the hierarchs. He allegedly instigated anonymous denunciations of bishops and even dared to "change the resolutions and decisions of the Holy Synod, either through sheer persistence or legerdemain." Whatever the veracity of such claims, more important were his efforts to restructure Church administration into an integrated system, primarily through schemes "to limit the power of [diocesan] bishops and to give more authority to the consistories." The bishops, however, were no pliant tools; they tenaciously resisted his plans and, during the procurator's absence from the capital, prevailed upon Nicholas to appoint a new official to his post. With considerable relief they greeted his replacement, N. A. Protasov (1836–1855), another military officer, but one who vowed to respect Church privilege. In a congratulatory note to the new procurator, Metropolitan Filaret wrote that "your appointment is received with complete sympathy, satisfaction, and high hopes."

Those hopes were soon dashed, for Protasov proved far more domineering than any of his predecessors. His power derived not from law or consecration but from the implicit trust of the emperor, who believed that, through the like-minded Protasov, "I will govern the Church myself." In the first instance Protasov justified a more active procuracy by the demands of administrative efficiency — or, to quote a hostile contemporary, he acted "under the pretext that various kinds of matters in the Synod were too numerous." But Protasov was more than a mere zealot for administrative efficiency, for he shared the emperor's views on the need for Church reform. Protasov was especially critical of the educated elite who dominated the Church, warning that their scholastic education — derived from Western models and attracted to such fields as biblical criticism and hermeneutics — might erode religious conviction and eventually lead to political revolution. In his view Western hermeneutics only encouraged "rationalist principles" that "offend the sensibilities of our pious forefathers on the authenticity, veracity, and divine spirituality of the books of the Holy Scripture." Such inquiries, he claimed, had the aim of "founding faith on reasoned conviction or, what is the same thing, putting reason in the place of [faith]." Instead, Protasov sought more practical, utilitarian education for clergy, such as medicine and agronomy, even at the cost of diminished instruction in philosophy and theology. Desire to tighten Church administration, commitment to these utilitarian principles, and determination to realign ecclesiastical administration with that of the state impelled Protasov to seek an unprecedented role in routine Church administration.

To the bishops' dismay, Protasov hastened to establish firm control over the Synod's lay chancellery, transforming its staff into his own subordinates and leaving the Synod disarmed and dependent. As one Synodal official later wrote, "all the lay employees serving in the Synod are appointed, removed, and promoted by the Synod at the procurator's recommendation, by the procurator himself, or by the emperor at the procurator's recommendation. ... Hence he is the chief of all: to him all direct their gaze; he is the one that every clerk wishes to please and serve." As a result, Protasov acquired the power to control the flow of documents, set the agenda, summon or suppress information, and formulate and even pigeonhole the Synod's resolutions. In 1840 Metropolitan Filaret complained privately that "lay [officials] in the Synod are taking liberties and even annul decisions of the Synod." Because the Synod had lost control over implementation, its resolutions remained powerless until the procurator deigned to write "Implement." In the Synod's external relations with the state, Protasov's dominance was total. He controlled all correspondence with the ministries and exercised an all-important power in autocratic politics: he alone — not the Synod — "represented the condition of the Church, clergy, and bishops" to the emperor.

To complement that power within the Synod's chancellery, Protasov built a separate apparatus under his personal control. Significantly, one of his first measures was to establish, with Nicholas's approval, a "special chancellery" for the chief procurator that was organizationally and physically separate from the Synod's chancellery. At first limited to some twenty clerks, the procurator's chancellery grew rapidly and in time came to rival that of the Synod in its number of staff and volume of business. Its archives mirror that ascendancy: ten volumes of inventory encompass the entire holdings of the chief procurator from 1721 to 1840, but thereafter one volume appeared each year to keep pace with his chancellery's rising workload. The creation of this chancellery, though characteristic of the new ministerial bureaucracy, marked a major change for the Church: it gave the chief procurator a modest base of power, not only for purposes of patronage but also for ensuring his independence from the Synod and his ability to check the performance of bishops, whatever their rank and stature. In 1836, still his first year, Protasov also gained control of the Church's fiscal administration, persuading Nicholas to establish a special Fiscal Committee (Khoziaistvennyi komitet), with the procurator holding authority to resolve matters "in the event of disagreement among [the committee's] members." Three years later Protasov engineered a similar change in the administration of Church schools. The Commission of Ecclesiastical Schools, dominated by clergy, was replaced by a new organ, the Bureau of Ecclesiastical Education, composed of lay and clerical members and directly under Protasov's control. Thus, without revising the Ecclesiastical Regulation of 1721 (which, until 1917, remained the institutional charter of the Orthodox Church), Protasov significantly altered the balance of power in his own favor.


Excerpted from The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia by Gregory L. Freeze. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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