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Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

Mar/Apr 2016
Religion & Spirituality
Page 19   ( 3 pages)

Summary: A look back at the historic Great Moscow Synod, the ousting of Nikon and the split in the Russian Orthodox Church.


How are we to understand the significance of the raskol or schism that roiled Russian Orthodoxy in the 1660s? Why did thousands of people rise up in protest and refuse to accept seemingly simple (and, from a contemporary perspective – let’s be honest – rather superficial) changes to Russian Orthodoxy’s rituals and texts? Why were thousands willing to face torture, exile, self-immolation, and execution for upholding the old faith? Why do ideas that today look downright medieval still persist? Why, even today, are there still over a million Old Believers, scattered across the globe by the forces of history?

What tectonic shift took place in Moscow 350 years ago? What people, ideas, and beliefs were brought into conflict?

On the surface, the raskol might seem a strange and rather silly chapter in Russian history, if we can label events that took so many lives “silly.”

In the mid-seventeenth century, many enlightened priests were concerned that a number of mistakes had accumulated in Russian Bibles as they were copied and recopied in monasteries over the centuries, sometimes with insufficient attention to accuracy. A mistake in Scripture is a sin. Performing religious rites incorrectly is a sin and prevents prayers from reaching God. Everyone agreed that these errors needed to be corrected. But how? What original source should be used: ancient Russian Scripture or the Scripture that was brought from Byzantium?

A simple procedural question, one might think. But when Patriarch Nikon began to revise Scripture and ritual based on Byzantine (“Greek”) tradition, he provoked a firestorm of opposition.

It is difficult to understand why it matters so much whether one uses two or three fingers in making the sign of the cross, how many Alleluias are sung during a service, or what kinds of bows one makes – full prostration or merely low bows? But it turns out these questions mattered a great deal not only to the church officials who bitterly opposed Nikon’s reforms, but to hosts of monks, peasants, boyars, and merchants.

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