Reform. Counter-reform. One step forward and two steps back. This pattern can be seen in many places throughout history, and usually leads to a period of explosive reform started by the people. Examples of this pattern are the reforms begun by Qing China before the 1911 Revolution and even the connection between post-civil war reforms in America and the Civil Rights Movement. The same form holds true in the history of Russia. Leading up to the explosive revolutions in 1905 and 1917, there was a period of reform under Tsar Alexander II and then the reversal of those policies under his son Alexander III. The period of reform due to a number of factors. One was a growing trend towards liberalism in Europe that began as a result of the French Revolution. Liberalism (lowercase L) is defined by its emphasis on free trade, individual rights, democracy and the rule of law.
This trend towards liberalism could not fail to make an impact. Serfdom was the most obvious contradiction to liberal ideals, but it was not the only one. Education posed its own problems, as serfs had neither the time nor the inclination to learn, and democracy depends on the education of the everyday man. Likewise, the bureaucracy and the church were seen to be corrupt.
Another, more immediate factor in the beginning of the period of reform was Russia’s embarrassing defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856). This war pit Russia against Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire in a struggle for the increased rights of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire and Palestine. After being soundly defeated by the superior modern equipment of industrializing Britain and France, the aforementioned problems in Russia became even more glaring.
It was in this climate that Alexander II ascended to the throne. It had become obvious to all by the 1860s that something needed to be done to modernize Russia. As a result, Alexander II issued a number of more liberal-minded reforms. The emancipation of the serfs was the biggest change that came about, but it was not the only thing that needed to be modernized. There were many things about Russian society that were a result of centuries of serfdom, and these needed to be cleaned out like so many cobwebs. These remnants of the old system were especially prevalent in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is an autocephalous part of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Big words aside, that means that the ROC has a head bishop called a Patriarch who functions as head of the church (like the Roman Catholic Pope) and does not report to any other bishop. For centuries, the ROC worked almost like a second bureaucracy in Russia. Under a weak Tsar, the ROC would even rule de facto in Russia. In addition, the ROC parish priests were required to get married, and their sons would typically succeed them, effectively rendering the church into a self-perpetuating oligarchy. This created a caste-like status for the clergy, as seminaries were closed to people of other social classes. Bishops were also very privileged but they were not allowed to get married. The effects of this were corrupt and ineffective church administration and courts. Another issue was that although some churches were usually richly furnished and decorated like the one above, most local clergy got little monetary support.
A special commission was tasked with finding solutions to remedy these issues. In 1867, the clerical caste was formally abolished, and the ecclesiastical schools were opened to all classes. To help “downsize” the number of parishes, a reform in 1869 combined small uneconomic parishes. The reforms also created parish councils in 1864 to help raise funds for local parishes. In addition, the church courts and censorship were liberalized through these reforms.
In the end, all these reforms did not solve any of the problems facing the ROC. If anything, the local priest was in a worse situation than before. Conglomerating the parishes did not increase their income, as the parishioners did not increase the tithe they gave and even decreased it in some circumstances. In addition, the ending of the caste system gave the clergy’s sons an opportunity to leave, which many of them did. This created a vacuum of new candidates. Likewise, the reform of the seminaries proved ineffective. The curriculum was improved, and it was open to everyone, but the reform also shifted much of the financial burden to the local parish, which could already not afford the task.
The religious reforms are just one of the many types of reforms instituted by Alexander II in the 1860s. But like the reforms of the ROC, the other reforms generally did not alleviate the problems facing Russia. In fact, almost all of them led to more problems or did not adequately solve the initial issue. They were band-aids that just didn’t stick.
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Church of the Resurrection in the Grove, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03975 (48)
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print