Heresies in Russia

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Heresies in Russia


With the adoption of Christianity, heresies appeared in Russia as a protest by the masses against forcible Christianization and feudalization. The rebellions in 1024 and 1071 of the smerdy (peasants) in the land of Suzdal’ had anti-Christian and antichurch overtones. A characteristic feature of the llth- and 12th-century heresies prevalent among the members of obshchiny (peasant communes) and part of the lower clergy was that they contained pagan ideas, as well as concepts similar to those of Bogomilism.

The first heresy to arise in the Russian cities was the movement of the Strigol’niki (from the verb strich’, “to shear”) in Novgorod and Pskov from the mid-14th to mid-15th century. The origin of the name of this heresy has not been established. Some link it to vocations such as cloth-cutting or barbering, others to a special ritual of ordination (tonsure). The active participants in the Strigol’niki movement were posadskie liudi (merchants and artisans) and the lower clergy. They repudiated the entire church hierarchy, monasticism, the whole system of clerical rank obtained by money (“for pay”), and the sacrament of holy orders, as well as the sacraments of communion, confession, and baptism, the administration of which was attended with large exactions for the benefit of the priesthood. Indicting the venality of priests, their vices and ignorance, the Strigol’niki demanded the right of religious preaching for the laity. Social themes, too, were expressed in the sermons of the Strigol’niki, who censured the rich for enslaving free human beings. The church meted out cruel punishment to the leaders, but the teachings of the StrigoVniki continued to have influence in Novgorod, Pskov, and also in Tver’, where the bishops Fedor the Good and Evfimii Vislen’ came forward in their support.

The late 15th century witnessed a fresh upsurgence of the heresy movement in Russia, centered, as before, in Novgorod, losif Volotskii identified the founder of this form of heresy as a certain “Jew Skharia,” who had arrived in Novgorod in 1471 from Lithuania, and called the heretics themselves zhidomudrstvuiushchie (“Judaeo-philosophizers”), arbitrarily imputing to them adherence to Judaism. The designation zhidovstvuiushchie (“Judaizers”) for the Novgorod and Moscow heretics of the late 15th and early 16th century, which was used in prerevolutionary literature on the subject, has been refuted by Soviet historians. The main contingent of Novgorod heretics comprised townspeople headed by the lower clergy. The movement’s ideologists were the priests Denis and Aleksei. Like fazStrigoVniki, the Novgorod heretics disavowed the hierarchy and rites of the church. Iconoclastic sentiments were in evidence, and some held anti-Trinitarian views, subjecting the fundamental Orthodox tenet of the Trinity to criticism from rationalist premises.

In the late 15th and early 16th century the heresy movement spread to Moscow, where around the mid-1480’s a circle was formed with Fedor Kuritsyn at its head. The Moscow heresy was more secular in character than the Novgorod movement. Participating in it were Elena Stefanovna, daughter-in-law of Ivan III, representatives of the state apparatus—some of the d’iaki (officials)—and merchants and professional book copyists. The Moscow circle was marked by an interest in humanist ideas. In his works The Laodicean Epistle andA Writing on Literacy, Fedor Kuritsyn propounds the idea of freedom of will (“the autocracy of the soul”) achievable through education and literacy. The Novgorod and Moscow heretics upheld the authority of the grand prince against feudal fragmentation and stood for secularization of church lands. However, the government of the grand prince, fearing the spread of heretical ideas among the masses and needing church support for the implementation of its foreign policy, was compelled to renounce any secularizing intentions and make common cause with the churchmen.

Both the Nonpossessors and the Josephites united against the heretics. Leadership of this drive was assumed by losif Volotskii, who produced a number of polemical writings. Archbishop Gennadius of Novgorod cruelly persecuted the heretics. The leaders of the Novgorod Strigol’niki, Karp and Nikita, were executed, the Pskov monk Zakhar perished in a dungeon, the bishops Fedor the Good and Evfimii Vislen’ were deposed, Markian was expelled from Rostov, and Ivan-Volk Kuritsyn, Dmitrii Konoplev, and Ivan Maksimov were burned. After the church’s conciliar decrees of 1490, 1494, and 1504 the books of the heretics were burned and destroyed. Although the early 16th-century repressions led to a weakening of the heresy, there was under way at the same time among the heretics a process of self-identification according to social status. Heretical sermons continued to be preached in conspiratorial circumstances, evoking furious protest from the apologists of militant Orthodoxy. losif Volotskii in 1511 wrote to Muscovite Grand Prince Vasilii III Ivanovich that the whole of Orthodox Christianity might perish as a result of the heretical teachings.

Heresies in Russia underwent their greatest development in the mid-16th century in Moscow, Novgorod, Pskov, Tver’, the Trans-Volga Region, and along the Severnaia (Northern) Dvina. For the first time the peasants, too, along with townsfolk, the lower clergy, and individual representatives of the nobility, took part in the heresy movement. The mid-16th-century surge in the movement was caused by profound changes in the socioeconomic and political life of the country. In a setting of urban risings and peasant action in the countryside, a demarcation emerged inside the movement between a tendency in the democratic strata of the city and a peasant-plebeian tendency.

Feodosii Kosoi (the Squint-eyed) came forward as the ideologist of the peasant-plebeian tendency. He formulated a “new teaching” that was marked by pronounced anti-Trinitarianism and radicalism in its social conclusions, rejecting not only the feudal church with its hierarchy, dogmas, and rites but also the entire system of feudal dominance and subjection. Feodosii spoke out against wars and proclaimed the equality of all peoples. He repudiated the authority of the church and propounded doctrines of a “spiritual mind” that stood opposed to “human traditions,” and he made a distinction between the “god of the living” and the Orthodox “god of the dead.” Feodosii considered man’s “salvation” to be within his own power and denied to god the redeeming sacrifice; he declared that religion was simply the inner world of man. The heresy of Feodosii was the pinnacle of Russian heretical thought. Although the authorities were up in arms against him, he escaped execution by taking refuge in Poland.

The task of defending the interests of the townspeople was taken up by one of the most farsighted representatives of the 16th-century nobility—Matvei Bashkin, who likewise subscribed to anti-Trinitarian views but was more moderate in his social conclusions. Bashkin, in his analysis of the Gospel, rejected the dogma of the Trinity and saw Christ as a mere man, in consequence of which he deemed icons to be idols and called for the church’s idea of penance to be replaced with renunciation of evildoing. Denounced by a priest, he was seized and confined in a monastery. The new ideas affected even writers and cultural figures who were far from questioning dogma, persons such as I. S. Peresvetov, Ivan Fedorov, and Petr Mstislavets.

The mid-16th-century upsurge was tumultuous but short-lived. Militant churchmen, backed by the power of the state, subjected the freethinkers to cruel persecution. On the initiative of Metropolitan Makarius, church councils were held in the 1550’s. Many heretics were imprisoned in the Solovki, losifo-Volokolamsk, or other monasteries or were executed in the time of the oprichniki. This debacle had a ruinous effect on the further evolution of Russian social thought and culture.

Linked with the names of the heretics are outstanding texts on law and world history—the works of Ivan-the-Wolf Kuritsyn and Ivan Chernyi (the Black), writings that made a major contribution to the development of a democratic Russian language and of literacy. Heresies provided the impetus to a powerful cultural movement, in which Russian humanist thought proceeded to find its own identity. At the beginning of the 18th century the basic complex of ideas, anti-Trinitarianism among them, that evolved in the mid-16th century is encountered in the teachings of Dmitrii Tveritinov. With the development of capitalistic features in society, the heresies began to degenerate into religious sectarianism.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.