Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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Mongol-Tatar Yoke (1243-1480) as system of explotation of Russian lands by Mongol-Tatar invaders did not undermine spiritual foundations of Russian culture. Mongol-Tatars granted Russian people the freedom of faith as well as (in general) personal freedom (but not integrity) in exchange for a heavy toll and constant plunders. Mongol-Tatar Yoke led to the destruction of social and economic organization of Russian principalities, to the disruption of Rus’ foreign and trade relations with neighboring countries, to the decline of Russian culture against the background of universal devastation.[1] However, it could not make the Russian culture lose its face and identity. Already in the early 15th century, when the Horde was weakened and Rus’ (now known as the Grand Principality of Moscow) strengthened its positions, the evidence of the preservation of the internal image of the Russian culture was reflected in the brilliant icons by the great Andrei Rublev.

The Raskol (schism) of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1650s – 1660s was caused neither by the aspiration to throw off the yoke of the official Church authorities nor by the idea of the mendacity of its representatives and of the falsehood of the traditional doctrines which, on the other hand, were the case during the European Reformation. It was caused by the protest against the reforms, carried out by the official Church authorities – the protest against the changes in the translation of the Holy Scripture, in the church service and in the ecclesiastical attire aimed at full uniformity with Greek church practices. This issue of uniformity was a political one or, rather, a religious and political one: Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich was pushing patriarch Nikon towards these reforms because he strived to make everyone acknowledge the Rus’ ecclesiastical and religious succession of Byzantium as well as Moscow’s superiority and supremacy in the Orthodox world.

The Raskol seriously affected the unity of Russian people and their identity. The Russian Orthodox Church broke down into two parts: a new “Nikonian” Church and an Old-Rite Church which aimed at preserving the image of Russian Orthodoxy created over the centuries. Being in favor of the Church reforms the state resorted to repressions to make the Old Believers – raskolniki (schismatics) –reunite with the Established Church. Seeking to escape the pressure the Old Believers retired to forests, the taiga (boreal forest), and Siberia: luckily, there was plenty of space to hide in. Surprisingly, as life went on they not only cultivated new lands but also developed or invented new folk crafts (for instance, that is when famous Khokhloma was invented), and starting from the 18th century became rich merchants and craftsmen.

The Raskol did not put an end to the traditions of Russian worldview and Russian spiritual culture. The somewhat reformed Orthodox Church in all its most essential aspects and dogmas remained consistent with the patristic tradition and the precepts of the early Christian Apostolic Church. In the 19th century (in 1929 and fully in 1971) Old Belief was recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saving; and all the church “excommunications” censuring it were abolished. Nowadays Old Believer churches – both Edinoverie and Ancient Russian churches – can be found in the most diverse parts of Russia.

[1] Kargalov V.V. Vneshnepoliticheskie faktory razvitiya Feodal’noi Rusi. Feodal’naya Rus’ i kochevniki [Foreign-policy Factors of Feudal Rus’ Development. Feudal Rus’ and Nomads]. Moscow, Vysshaya shkola Publ., 1967. 260 p. (in Russian) Available at:

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