The two Russian revolutions of 1917 (March and October) found the Russian Orthodox Church poised to embark on its own programme of reform. It was always the policy of Lenin (Vladimir Il’ich Ulianov) and the Bolsheviks to portray the state religion as benighted, clinging to the past, upholding outmoded values. Because of believers’ lack of contact with the outside world, the totality of censorship and the cessation of objective historical research in the Soviet Union, this view tended towards acceptance in the world at large.
The Russian Orthodox Church stands alone
The truth was very different, as recent research has begun to uncover since the partial opening of archives in Russia. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, in fact, one of the most dynamic and creative periods in the history of the Orthodox Church. Debates on the role of the parish and the laity were widespread and, even if inconclusive, were not always comfortable for the hierarchy.
The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 led to the summoning of a pomestny sobor, which met on 16 August 1917 for its first public session in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was later to be destroyed. The agenda was huge, but the early sessions indicated that the approach to church reform would be balanced and unemotional. The debate on the restoration of the patriarchate was just getting underway on 28 October when the bombardment of the Kremlin, a mere stone’s throw away, interrupted it. In an atmosphere of extreme tension, Metropolitan Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow was elected patriarch, the first time the office had been held since Peter the Great had abolished the patriarchate in 1721 and replaced it by a lay administration under an over-procurator.