Ahead of their time? The 15th century Reformation in Russia

Look in an encyclopedia. Ask a history student. Talk to a pastor. The word Reformation will cite the 16th century religious movement that challenged the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli are the names that emerge as its vanguards. But almost a century before, Russia had its own reformation that has seldom received its deserved attention. It too produced stalwarts who stood for biblical truth and burning stakes that attempted to snuff out the beacons of religious renovation. This significant movement had the potential to change not only Russian history but also the religious situation in the West.

The beginning

The Russian Reformation began with the Novgorod-Moscow movement, an intellectual and religious current that flourished in these cities. It is difficult to be precise about its date of origin. Servitsky, a Russian historian, states, “We tried to find…where this heresy came from.…Carefully looking over all the sources, we came to the conclusion that in this heresy there is no clear beginning.”1 Referring to these “heretics,” another historian—A. I. Klibanov—writes that they “appeared even before the 13th and 14th centuries.”2 Because its theology was rooted in the Bible, the movement was not affected by Byzantine Christianity. Since the adherents of the movement were not too numerous, its activity smoldered throughout the centuries, only to burst out and grow in the 1400s.

The 15th century in Russia was a transition period when a divided country forged into a centralized absolute monarchy. This process, with the emerging of new social classes and new ways of thinking, became a fruitful soil for a Protestant-like religious movement to evolve. The movement had support from within the royal family, including Dimitry, the first crowned tzar, and involved many members of the nobility, clergy, and thousands of other people. Unlike the Western European Reformation, whose ground was prepared by the secular ideas of the Renaissance, the Russian Reformation was based more on Bible study and reflection. In Russia, the Bible was not kept from the people as it was in the Catholic countries. From the writings of Ivan Cherny (?-1505) and the brothers Ivan (1440s?-1504) and Feodor Kurizin (1440?-1504?)—the leading theologians of the Reformation movement—it is clear that the principles of faith, the lifestyle, and the teachings of the Sabbatarians within the Novgorod-Moscow were very much based on the Bible. This interest in the Scriptures flourished because the common people of Russia had easy access to the Bible. As far back as the 11th century, parts of the Bible had been translated into the common language of the people, and by 1581 Russians had a complete printed Bible.3

During the years of Metropolitan Filipp of Moscow (c. 1470)—the bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the region—the Sabbatarians already had a systematic set of beliefs and teachings.4 The center for the development of their theology was Novgorod—the most independent and free city in Russia at that time. Due to its republican form of government, the city had close relations with Western Europe as well as other parts of Russia.5 It is also possible that the teachings of the Sabbatarians were influenced by an earlier Protestant-like “heresy” in Russia, the Strigol’niki that involved lay people promoting church reforms.6 But the influence of the Strigol’niki on the Sabbatarians was limited to the free exchange of ideas and a commitment to Bible study, for the former was involved largely with social reforms while the latter embodied a radical theological reform.7

One factor that emboldened the Sabbatarian movement was the external influence on several Russian cities at that time. The second half of the 15th century saw a more centralized Russia looking increasingly outward and becoming involved in international activities. Consequently, Western ideas in architecture, skilled professions, reading, fashion, free thinking, and religion had an impact on Russia. Further, the influence of Hussite and Taborite religious movements in Bohemia had an effect on the Sabbatarian developments. The close connections between Bohemia and Poland, as well as the educational and cultural links of Polish students with Czech universities, made it possible for Polish students to bring back to their homeland new religious ideas, which had an impact on Russia as well. Indeed, the Hussite ideas at one time were so strong in Poland that an edict was promulgated in the country, requiring people to stop traveling to Bohemia and cease reading Bohemian literature.8

The popular appeal

By the second half of the 15th century, a large group of Russian Orthodox clergy in Novgorod supported and promoted the Reformation movement. Some prominent ones, like priests Dionisy and Aleksei, became the leading voices of Reformation in Novgorod.9 About this time, Tzar Ivan III, the first de facto Russian tzar, visited Novgorod and was impressed by the intellectual achievements and the simple life-style of its clergy as opposed to clergy of other places. Indeed, he invited both priests to Moscow and appointed them as archbishops of the Uspensky and Arhangel’sky cathedrals in the Kremlin, two pivotal posts of religious and political influence in the country.

By this time many of the Moscow clergy were open followers of the Reform movement. Some commentators even state that the Metropolitan of Moscow himself, Zosima, was practicing some of the Reform beliefs.

Probably the most prominent theologian of the Novgorod-Moscow Movement was Feodor Kurizin (1440?-1504?), a Russian diplomat who traveled extensively through Europe and who lived for three years at the court of the Transylvanian King Matthias I Corvinus (1443-1490). Kurizin held a crucial post in the government of Russia—today’s equivalent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the place of the First Counselor to the tzar—and did much for the country. He spoke Latin, Italian, Tartar, Lithuanian, and Polish, and played a key role in the 1481 peaceful overthrow of the Tartar-Mongol domination. Because of him, Russia was able to have connections with Western countries. Kurizin’s stay at the court of King Matthias occurred just after the Hussite and Taborite activities in Bohemia, when the government and the people together fought against the unchecked power of the church. It is quite possible that Kurizin, who advised the Russian tzar in matters of foreign and internal affairs, also influenced him in religious matters. Such deduction is tenable when we take into account that Tzar Ivan III held some of the Reform beliefs, such as the non-immortality of the soul. Further, some of the tzar’s closest family members were Reformers. For example, Helen, the tzar’s daughter-in-law (killed in 1505), followed the teachings of the Sabbatarians and taught her son, Dimitry, her beliefs. She was the daughter of the Moldovan Prince Stephan (1435-1504), who received Protestant refugees from Bohemia in the 1480s. Among other leaders and followers of the Reformers were Ivan Cherny, Semion Klepov, Ivan Maksimov, Dimitry Pustoselov, and others who were among the most educated in their time in Russia.10

The Reform movement found support in both the upper and lower classes. Volozky, the major opponent of the Novgorod-Moscow movement at that time, wrote with bitterness that in every city the people discussed the reformed faith in every possible place.11 In the city of Pskov, for example, they discussed the dogma and the traditions of the church when they gathered at the veche12 for other secular matters.13 Gennady Gonozov, another prominent opponent of this movement and the founder of the Russian Inquisition, wrote in a letter to Bishop Prohor Sarsky that “temptation, here, spread not only in the cities, but also in the villages.”

It is obvious, then, that the Russian Reform movement was widespread and affected every social class, including commoners, clergy, governmental workers, nobility, and even the household of the tzar. But what did the movement teach?

The teachings

Although differences and deviations among the proponents of the movement may have existed, leading the Russian Orthodox clergy to brand the Reformers as Judaistic, such differences should not be allowed to divert attention from the central teachings of the Reform movement. This central core is readily apparent from the religious literature of the day. A perusal of such literature provides the following summary of the theology and the teachings of the Reform movement:

  1. The Holy Scriptures are the highest authority for the believer and they are above the traditions of the church. Sabbath keeping, observing the Lord’s Supper, and other similar beliefs are directly deduced from this paramount belief.
  2. Monasticism, icons, holy relics, and other traditions not found in the Bible are priestly inventions and should not be followed or venerated.
  3. The Bible is both a historical and a prophetic guide that ties together the past, present, and future.
  4. The Christian should pray to God without any human mediators such as priests or saints. The Scriptures can be understood and explained without the help of the clergy.
  5. Believers should keep all of God’s Law, the Decalogue, including the seventh-day Sabbath.
  6. Christ’s death was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humankind.
  7. Human beings are monistic and not dualistic creatures. There is no such thing as a soul surviving the body; the soul is not immortal.
  8. Every person is free to choose and practice what he or she believes. The freedom of conscience is crucial in religious faith and practice.
  9. True religion and science are not antagonistic to each other.

While the European Renaissance uplifted humanism and consequently placed human rationalism above everything else, the Novgorod-Moscow believers held to a central principle that made them different in their final quest. Feodor Kurizin once said, “The soul is autocratic. Faith is its protective barrier.” Thus, instead of completely relying on human knowledge, the Russian reformers relied on God and the Scriptures as the final arbiter of their ideas.

The defeat of the movement

By the end of the 15th century, the religious Reform ideas and practices within the Novgorod-Moscow movement had spread throughout Russia, and were observed in every social class. The fact that even some of the tzar’s family accepted the new teachings really disturbed the Orthodox clergy. The official church saw clearly the threat to its power, and the need to act without delay to save itself.

The first approach was intrigue, which gained strength from a coalition of interests of some ambitious personalities within the church and various political circles. The political aspects played out in the royal court itself. After Ivan III lost his wife in 1467, he married Zoe, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, who along with her family had taken refuge in Rome. Zoe had been under the tutorship of Cardinal Bessarion. The cardinal saw in her a potential ally to bring Russia under Catholic influence, and through Russia to liberate his homeland, Greece, from the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Through a well-placed mutual friend in Russia, Bessarion proposed Zoe’s marriage to Ivan III. The tzar took interest in her. Soon romance, power, and ecclesiastic ambition combined to turn intrigue into a plot.

By the time Zoe arrived in Russia, Moscow, Novgorod, and other cities were caught up in a religious upheaval and a power struggle at the court of Ivan III. The heir, young Ivan, took ill in 1490, was attended by Zoe’s doctors, and died. The event opened the way for persecution. That year the first of the church councils took place that brought accusations against the Reform movement by calling it a “judaizing” heresy and anathemized it. These accusations did not have any effect on the people and the movement continued to grow. Meanwhile, Zoe was scheming to have her son, Vasily (1479-1533), on the throne. To do this she had to eliminate Dimitry, the grandson of Ivan III and the next rightful heir to the throne. Dimitry was supported by the Novgorod-Moscow movement because he was one of them, and thus, Zoe became an enemy and the key player in the struggle against this movement.

In 1497 Vasily, Zoe’s son, rebelled against his father in order to assume the throne, but failed. In 1498 Ivan III announced the succession of his grandson Dimitry to the throne of Russia, and inaugurated him as the tzar. The future of Russia looked safe and promising, with religious freedom and enlightenment. However, the hope was short lived. Through bribes, plots, conspiracy, and slander, Zoe successfully estranged Ivan’s heart from Dimitry, and in 1502 Vasily was declared the heir to the throne. Dimitry and his mother, Helen, were thrown in prison and when Ivan III died in 1505, they were executed.

On December 27, 1504, Moscow witnessed the first inquisitional burning stakes in Russia. Ivan Kurizin, Dimitry Konopliov, Ivan Maksimov, and others were burned in wooden cages. Old Ivan III, his son Tzar Vasily, Metropolitan Simon, other bishops, and all the church council had accused them of Judaizing and sentenced them to death. In the same winter, Ivan Rukavov, the Archimandrite of the Yr’evsky monastery, Kassian and his brother Ivan, Gridia Kvashnia, Dimitry Pustoselov, and other less-known “heretics” were burned because of their beliefs. These people were for the inaguration of Dimitry as the rightful tzar and were present at Vasily’s trial; but now they were condemned as criminals because of their beliefs. Even though the Novgorod-Moscow movement suffered heavy losses among the upper classes, it remained very popular in the lower classes. By 1511, Tzar Vasily was under pressure to increase the persecution of the “heretics,” lest they destroy the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Thus, the Reformers were swept out of the Kremlin. The party of Zoe triumphed. Ivan III lived his last days in disappointment and died in obscurity. Even though the Inquisition in Russia did not reach the same proportions as it did in the Catholic countries, the squares of Russian cities were often lighted up with burning stakes.

Russia’s progress toward Protestantism and Enlightenment was thus stopped by political intrigues. The situation helped establish the emerging absolutism over the social, political, and religious realms of Russian people. The reign of Vasily (1505-1533) was characterized by cruelty and a return to ignorance. His son and successor Ivan IV (1531-1584) turned out to be a bloody ruler who terrorized all Russia, earning from history the infamous title, Ivan the Terrible. Even during his reign, there were people in Russia who were true to the teachings of the Bible, especially the Sabbath. The “One Hundred Head” Church Council, called in 1551 during the reign of Ivan IV, adopted a resolution which until today has not been annulled by the Russian Orthodox Church. This regulation states that the people, besides worshiping on Sunday, could also worship on Saturday in the confines of the Russian Orthodox Church—a statement which was recognized by the church council as authorized by the Apostles Peter and Paul.14

The remarkable story of the Reform movement is not well-known in Russia today. Now with the fall of Communism, it is important that people find out the truth that was buried for centuries under the layers of absolutism, religious blindness, and authoritarianism. While there are many missing details in the history of the Russian Reformation, one fact stands out boldly: The Reform movement in Russia in the 15th to 16th centuries was an indigenous movement whose roots reached as deep as the initial Christianization of Russia. A commitment to biblical truth, including the Sabbath, led to the martyrdom of many unsung Russian heroes of faith. Their courageous example still challenges contemporary Christians.

Oleg Zhigankov has taught church history at Zaoksky Theological Seminary in Russia, and is currently completing his doctoral studies in the same field at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. His e-mail address: oleg@andrews.edu

Notes and references

1.   Servitsky, “Opyt Issledovaniia Novgordskih Eretikov, ili ‘Zhidovstvuiushchih’” [Conclusion on the Research about the Heretics, or the “Judaizers” from Novgorod], Pravoslavnoe Obozrenie (Moscow: July 1862), pp. 303-304.

2.   A. I. Klibanov, History of Religious Sectarianism in Russia (1860-1917), E. Dunn, tr.; S. P. Dunn, ed. (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982), p. 39.

3.   E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1955), p. 323.

4.   Oleg Zhigankov, Eretiki, ili Liudi, Operedivshie Vremia [Heretics or Christians Ahead of Their Time?] (Zaoksky, Russia: Istochnik Zhizni, 1996), p. 28.

5.   V. L. Ianin, Novgorodskie Posadniki [The Rulers of Novgorod] (Moscow: Moskovsky Gosudarstvenyi Universitet, 1962), p. 387.

6.   Buganov and Bogdanov, The Rebels in the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow: Politizdat, 1991), pp. 19-31.

7.   Ibid., pp. 19-65.

8.   V. Botsianovsky, “Russkie Volnodumtsy” [Russian Free-Thinkers], Novoe Slovo (St. Petersburg, 1896) 12:171.

9.   Buganov and Bogdanov, p. 48.

10. A. I. Sobolevsky, Logika Zhidovstvuiushchih i Taina Tainyh [The Logic of the Judaizers and the Mystery of Mysteries] (St. Petersburg, 1899).

11. I. Volozky, The Instructor (Moscow, 1994), pp. 44-45.

12. A popular place of assembly in a city—somewhat like the Greek city square—where citizens gathered to discuss important matters like war, peace, choosing a ruler or a bishop, and other questions.

13. Pskovskaia I Letopis’, 1468-1470 [The Chronicles of Pskov, I: Years 1468-1470].

14. D. E. Kozhachnikov, ed., Stoglav [One-Hundred-Head Council] (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia Imperatorskoi Akademy Nauk, 1863), pp. 270, 271.