Wikipediaphile: Avvakum Petrov, Patriarch Nikon, schisms and “shit-faced Pharisees”

Whilst I find his editorialising facile and his constant précises irritating, I have really enjoyed Martin Sixsmith’s radio series ‘The Wild East’, which distills a thousand years’ or so of Russian history into fifty fifteen minute episodes.

There’s just enough detail to give you a bit of an overview, and plenty of titbits to encourage you to go investigating things further, even if it’s only wiki-hopping.

Episode 8, ‘East Into Siberia’, got us into some fascinating stuff about the Raskol schism in the Russian Orthodox Church caused by Patriarch Nikon‘s seventeenth century reforms, particularly concerning Avvakum Petrov.

Petrov was an ‘Old Believer’ who held no truck with Nikon’s nonsense, which led to his exile and ultimately his burning at the stake. It also gave him reason to write a marvellously undiplomatic autobiography, where he rails against all sorts of people, whilst also tossing out some great lines of self-effacement (“[I am just] another shit-faced Pharisee wanting to drag the Lord to court!”).

Nikon at once (1654) summoned a synod to re-examine the service-books revised by the Patriarch Joasaf, and the majority of the synod decided that “the Greeks should be followed rather than our own ancients.” A second council, held at Moscow in 1656, sanctioned the revision of the service-books as suggested by the first council, and anathematized the dissentient minority, which included the party of the protopopes and Paul, bishop of Kolomna. The reforms coincided with a great plague in 1654 and Russians were also greatly concerned about the upcoming year 1666 which many considered the year of the apocalypse.

Heavily weighted with the fullest ecumenical authority, Nikon’s patriarchal staff descended with crushing force upon those with whom he disagreed. His scheme of reform included not only service-books and ceremonies but the use of the new-fangled icons, for which he ordered a house-to-house search to be made. His soldiers and servants were charged first to gouge out the eyes of these heretical counterfeits and then carry them through the town in derision. He also issued an ukase threatening with the severest penalties all who dared to make or use such icons in future. Construction of tent-like churches (of which Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a prime example) was strictly forbidden, and many old uncanonical churches were demolished to make way for new ones, designed in the “Old Byzantine” style. This ruthlessness goes far to explain the unappeasable hatred with which the Old Believers, as they now began to be called, ever afterwards regarded Nikon and all his works.

(Yes, there is an inevitable book tie-in, which seems to be the radio script verbatim.)


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