Russian Patriarchate Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Russian Orthodox Church, headed by the Russian Patriarchate, officially lost its subordinate status to Constantinople and became a fully independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Summary of Event

The establishment of an independent Russian patriarchate in 1589 was the logical result of the growth of the Russian state throughout the sixteenth century, and it could not have occurred without that political development. Long before Moscow emerged as the political center of northeast Russia, however, the Eastern Orthodox Church directed the spiritual and cultural life of the nation. Orthodox Church, Russian Until the middle of the fifteenth century, Russian Christians recognized the patriarch of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, as the ultimate source of authority within Christendom. To enforce that authority within the Russian states, Constantinople would appoint a metropolitan of Greek descent to govern the local Russian archbishops and bishops. Orthodox Church, Russian Jeremias II Jove Fyodor I Godunov, Boris Isidore of Kiev Isidore of Kiev Vasily II Ivan the Terrible Fyodor I Godunov, Boris Fyodorovich Jeremias II Jove

By the early part of the fifteenth century, the Byzantine Empire was locked in a struggle for its very existence against the Ottoman Turks. Hoping to obtain support from the West, the Greeks convened the Council of Florence, and the Greek clergy signed an agreement with Rome in 1439, recognizing papal supremacy in exchange for Western assistance against the Turks. Isidore of Kiev, the Greek-born Russian metropolitan, participated in the council’s deliberations. Upon his return to Moscow in 1441, he preached in its favor and even read a prayer for the pope. Grand prince Vasily II ordered Isidore arrested. In 1448, a council of Russian bishops condemned the union of Eastern and Western churches and chose the Russian-born Archbishop Iona to replace Isidore as metropolitan of the Russian Church. This action signaled an end to the dependence of the Russian Church on the Byzantine Church. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 led to the belief among Russians that their country was the successor empire to the Byzantines and the new leader of the Christian world. Constantinople, fall of (1453)

When Ivan the Terrible was crowned czar in 1547, then, although Russia was still nominally subordinate to the patriarch of Constantinople, the Russian Church as a practical matter had been autocephalous—independent of external patriarchal authority—since 1448. However, its highest ranking official was still merely a metropolitan, that is, the subordinate representative of a patriarch. In the absence of a Russian patriarchate, the metropolitan of Russia assumed the functions but not the divine office of an autonomous spiritual leader.

The task of solving this anomalous situation fell to Ivan’s son and successor, Fyodor I, and more properly to his regent, Boris Godunov. Following lengthy negotiations during a visit to Moscow, Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople agreed to help in raising the Russian Church to the level of a patriarchate. Jeremias was invited to stay in Moscow and to exercise his duties from there. Although he declined to do so, he did consecrate Jove, the metropolitan of the Russian Church, as the first Russian patriarch. At last, the Muscovite Church had won recognition as an independent and equal member of the Orthodox Church.


Russia had hoped to be “ranked” number three in the established order of preference within the Orthodox Church but instead became number five, after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, went on to become the single largest autocephalous Orthodox Church in the world. Its relative power and even its ability to exist varied greatly throughout its later history, primarily as a result of the struggle of the Church at various times either to seize political power from the state or to retain religious power coveted by the state. In the seventeenth century, Patriarch Nikon pursued policies meant to guide Russia toward becoming a theocratic state. In the eighteenth century, Czar Peter the Great abolished the patriarchate to establish a state-run Church. Throughout the twentieth century, the Church’s fate was in constant flux in the Communist Soviet Union, as it was at times vilified as a religious institution and at times embraced as an authentically Russian institution. Patriarchal elections, for example, were forbidden in 1927 but were reestablished by Joseph Stalin in 1943.

The existence or nonexistence of a Russian patriarch, then, has since 1589 been a consistent indication of the status of the Russian Orthodox Church in relation to the Russian state. Moreover, the power and respect accorded to the patriarch, either by the state or despite the will of the state, have colored both the religious and the political histories of the Russian people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fennell, John. A History of the Russian Church to 1448. New York: Longman, 1995. An overview of the Russian Church’s medieval history. Provides important historical background for the founding of the Patriarchate. Includes map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Florinsky, Michael T. Russia: A History and an Interpretation. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1955. An older study that continues to be the best general survey of Russia prior to the Soviet period. Volume 1 presents a good overview of the history of the Russian Church in medieval and early modern times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kivelson, Valerie A., and Robert H. Greene, eds. Orthodox Russia: Belief and Practice Under the Tsars. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Anthology of essays by noted scholars on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pospielovsky, Dmitry V. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. A survey of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church meant to introduce undergraduates to the subject. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, D. W. Russia, 1472-1917. Vol. 1 in The West in Russia and China: Religious and Secular Thought in Modern Times. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. In comparison to the work of other scholars, Treadgold offers a contrasting view of the role and development of the Orthodox Church in Russia and the secularization of Russian society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernadsky, G. The Tsardom of Moscow, 1547-1682. Vol. 5 in A History of Russia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. A useful general history of Russia from the beginning of Ivan IV’s reign to the death of Czar Alexis in 1683. Provides useful political context for controversies within the Russian Church.

1478: Muscovite Conquest of Novgorod

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Jan.-May, 1551: The Stoglav Convenes

Categories: History