Early 20th century propaganda caricature depicting Emperor Nicholas II
between a member of the Holy Synod and a revolutionary
In 1917, Emperor Nicholas II abdicated the throne, and the country was proclaimed a republic. How did the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church react to this event? In response, I am pleased to present the First English translation of an interview by the Russian media outlet “MK” in St. Petersburg with Doctor of historical sciences, Professor Mikhail Babkin of the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow), and author of the monograph “Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the overthrow of the monarchy” who discusses the topic.
– Mikhail Anatolyevich, what place did the Orthodox Church in general and the Holy Synod in particular occupy during the Russian Empire?
– The Russian Empire and the Russian Orthodox Church were a single church-state body, headed by the emperor. The supreme body of church administration in Russia was the Most Holy Governing Synod established by Peter the Great in 1721.
From 1723, the Synod had been titled as “His Holiness” and “Governing”. The first of these denominations pointed to the equality of the Synod with the Eastern patriarchs, and the second to the independence of the Synod from the Governing Senate, to which all colleges were subordinate (from 1802 they became known as ministries). That is, by its status, the Synod was not equated to the college, but to the Senate. If the Senate acted in the civil administration field, the Synod in that of the spiritual. Moreover, the buildings of the Senate and the Synod, located on Senate Square in St. Petersburg, were a single whole, connected by a triumphal arch, and surmounted by the imperial crown.
The activity of the Synod was controlled by a secular person appointed by the emperor – chief prosecutor of the Holy Synod, who was the official representative of the authority of His Majesty. The chief prosecutor was responsible for protecting state interests in the field of church administration, as well as overseeing the governing bodies of the Orthodox Church in the center and in the localities: the Synod and the spiritual consistories, respectively.
The buildings of the Senate (former) and the Holy Synod, in St. Petersburg as they look today
– What was the political position of the hierarchs during the February Revolution?
– In the last days of February 1917 (I quote the dates according to the Julian calendar), in the conditions of a crisis of state power in the capital of the Russian Empire, there was an increase in the number of strikes and street demonstrations, which resulted in the treasonous defection of military units of the Petrograd garrison to the side of the Revolution. During those days, the Synod was urged to take any measures in support of the monarchy by both representatives of the public and government officials: for example, the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, Nikolai Pavlovich Raev (1855-1919) and his deputy (more precisely, in the terminology of those years – comrade) Prince Nikolai Davidovich Zhevakhov (1874-1946). However, the members of the Synod did not meet those motions.
On March 2, 1917, in the chambers of the Moscow Metropolitan (they were located on the courtyard of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, at 44, Fontanka River Embankment, in the building where the Mayor’s Central City Public Library is now located), a private meeting of the Synod members was held. Six of the eleven members of the supreme body of church administration took part in it. It was decided to immediately establish contact with the Provisional Government, formed that day by the Executive Committee of the State Duma. This fact allows us to argue that the members of the Synod recognized the new government even before (!) The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II from the throne, which took place on the night of March 2–3.
Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, Nikolai Pavlovich Raev (1855-1919)
Prince Nikolai Davidovich Zhevakhov (1874-1946)
– During the February Revolution, the reigning dynasty was overthrown. How did the clergy of the Orthodox Church react to this event?
– Let’s do a little historical excursion. As you know, on March 2, 1917, in Pskov, Emperor Nicholas II renounced for himself and for his son in favor of his younger brother – Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. The following day, March 3, in Petrograd, in house No. 12 on Millionnaya Street, Mikhail Alexandrovich signed a document whose official name is the “Act on the refusal of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich from the acceptance of the supreme power and his recognition of the full power for the Provisional Government on the initiative of the State Duma ”(source: Collection of Legalizations and Decrees of the Government. Pg., 1917. No. 54. March 6. Sep. 1. Art. 345. S. 534.). However, in early March 1917 that document which was printed in the press, controlled by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Deputies, was published under the title “Abdication of Mikhail Alexandrovich.” It was from that point, that the myth spread about the abdication of the Grand Duke. At the same time, both the Petrograd Soviet, but also the Holy Synod were involved in the creation of this myth.
Let us turn to the text of the Act of March 3, 1917, in which Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich said: “I made a firm decision only in that case to accept the Supreme (tsarist. – Approx. Ed.) Power, if that would be the will of our great people, which should […] establish a government in the Constituent Assembly and new basic laws of the Russian State. Therefore, […] I ask all citizens of the Russian Power to submit to the Provisional Government, […] henceforth before the […] Constituent Assembly, by its decision on the form of government, expresses the will of the people.” There are no words about any abdication in the Act. Moreover, it speaks of Mikhail Alexandrovich’s readiness to take the throne if the Constituent Assembly elects a monarchical form of government for Russia.
Thus, on March 3, 1917, Russia was at a historic crossroads: to be a monarchy or a republic, in one form or another.
We come back to your question. How did the Holy Synod behave in this situation? In short, from March 4, it had taken a whole range of measures to remove the issue of the monarchy from the agenda in the socio-political consciousness of the 100 million Orthodox flock. For example, on March 7, the supreme body of church administration issued a definition in which it was prescribed to all Russian clergy: “in all cases, instead of commemoration of the reigning house, to offer prayers “for the God-Preserving Russian and Noble Interim Government”. That is, on March 7, in the absence of the abdication of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and before the decision of the Constituent Assembly on the form of government, the reigning House of Romanov began to be commemorated in the past tense. Thus, the members of the Synod intervened in the state system of Russia, and in this context, we can say that the members of the Synod overthrew royal power as an institution.
Thus, the thesis of the Petrosoviet about the alleged “abdication of Mikhail Alexandrovich” and, as a consequence, that the “House of Romanov abdicated” was supported by the authority of the Holy Synod, after which it was introduced into the public consciousness of the Orthodox flock, turning over time into an enduring myth. It is replicated to this day in contemporary scientific works and educational literature.
Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and Emperor Nicholas II
– How did the local clergy react to the February Revolution?
– The political line for the entire clergy was determined by the Synod. Its corresponding orders in the order of church administration from Petrograd were distributed to all dioceses, monasteries, and parishes. And the clergy, in turn, brought information to their parishioners. For example, after the changes made by the supreme body of church administration in liturgical ranks, prayers of the following plan began to sound in all the churches of the Russian Orthodox Church: With such “doctrinal” texts, the Synod actually proclaimed the thesis of the divine origin of the authority of the Provisional Government.
– If, in your opinion, the members of the Synod took the side of the Revolution, what did they hope to gain from it?
– After the reform of church administration carried out by Tsar Peter I, there was no Russian patriarchate for more than two centuries. And the clergy over time (especially after 1905) began to cultivate views, but in fact – the myth that, they say, the patriarchate is the “canonical system of church administration”, and that the Russian Church, deprived of the patriarch, is “decapitated” and in a state of “enslavement”.
The actions taken by the Holy Synod in the spring of 1917 were due to motives arising from the centuries-old historical and theological problem of the “priesthood-tsardom,” the main question of which is the relationship between the tsarist and sacred hierarchical authorities, or whose authority is higher: the tsar or patriarch?
Taking advantage of the socio-political situation prevailing during the February Revolution, members of the Holy Synod decided to “settle accounts” with tsardom. Indeed, if there is tsarist power in the state in any form, then there is the participation of the emperor, as the anointed of God, in the affairs of church administration, there is a problem of correlation of priesthood and tsardom. If in the state there is no tsar, but there is a secular republic, devoid of sacred meaning in any form, then automatically it turns out that “the priesthood is higher than tsardom.”
In other words, in the early days of March 1917, members of the Holy Synod overthrew imperial power as their “charismatic competitor.” They wanted the church in the state to exist as if under the tsar, but without the tsar: in which the clergy, as before, would enjoy special rights and privileges, that it would receive subsidies from the treasury, but that there would be no “state interference in affairs church”, so that the clergy does not have any outside supervision, control and accountability.
Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow (1865-1925)
– It seems paradoxical that the restoration of the patriarchate took place in 1917 – during such a milestone in the history of Russia …
– The patriarchate was restored for the sake of the patriarchal power itself: first of all, so that it would be. Thus, the Local Council, under pressure from the “bishops’ party,” adopted the decision to restore the patriarchate on November 4, 1917, and the next day elected Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow (Bellavin)  to the patriarchate. But at the same time, the powers of the first bishop and his place in the system of church administration were not delineated. Only on December 8, the Council adopted the definition “On the rights and obligations of His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.” Further, the power of the patriarch only increased, right up to his absolutization in the 2000-2010s.
In general, speaking in the context of the problem of the “priesthood of the tsardom”, the year 1917 was reduced to the following: in March there was no royal authority, and in November the patriarchate appeared. That is, the tsar was gone, but the patriarch appeared. Who benefits from this? The question is rhetorical.
 When Patriarch Tikhon learned of the vengeful execution of the Imperial Family in 1918, he commanded that Panikhidas (requiems) be served for Nicholas II as the slain Tsar—regardless of the fact that he abdicated the throne; regardless of the fact that under the Bolshevik terror this was dangerous for the Patriarch himself; regardless, finally, of the fact that ironically, it was the Tsarist government that had for two hundred years prevented the restoration of the Patriarchy in general, and would have prevented his becoming Patriarch in particular.
Tikhon was glorified (canonized) a saint by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) on 1 November [O.S. 19 October] 1981. He was later glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate during the Bishop’s Council of 9–11 October 1989.
© Professor Mikhail Babkin / Paul Gilbert. 8 March 2020