Andrea Maté, The Russian Clergy

The Russian Orthodox Church of the nineteenth century encountered many grievances from its own clergy as well as its parishioners. Both sides were demanding that reforms take place.  Clerics often wished for reforms to take place within the existing institution while other reformers, one of them being Leo Tolstoy, wished to do away with the current institution and institute a church that was more protestant in nature. One of the larger reforms that were taken on during this period was the dismantling of the hereditary clerical caste that had formed during the eighteenth century. Many believed that the clergy had shut themselves off from their parishioners by closing off the clerical institutions to outsiders.

The clergy, especially those who lived in rural villages, were often underpaid and had to struggle to make ends meet for their families. Clergy often had to take time away from serving their church to cultivate food for their families. The clerical institution was also absent of a pension for those clergy who became too elderly to serve and a welfare system for widowed wives and orphans. The Russian people also began expressing their dissatisfaction.  They felt that the church and the clergy failed to meet the needs of the parishioners. The church as an institution was seen as being isolated from the rest of the outside world. This closed off institution caused many Russians to become disillusioned with the church.

The failure of the church to fulfill the spiritual needs of the Russian people can been seen in Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina, which was written during this very period. Several characters turned their backs on the Russian Orthodox Church by becoming atheists or by turning to other religious denominations. The character, Madame Stahl, leaves the Russian Orthodox and to turns to Pietistism[1] for spiritual fulfillment. The character, Levin struggles internally with his beliefs and understanding of God as well has his faith in the church. His struggles become so intense that they lead him to become depressed. The character, Prince Shcherbatskaya, best sums up the feelings that many Russians had at the time when he says ,

But what was there in church on Sunday? The Priest was ordered to read it [the sermon] He did so. The people understood nothing, but they sighed as they always do during a sermon.  They were told that there would be a collection in the church for the soul-saving object, so they each took out a kopek and gave it, but what was it for –they did not know![2]

The church as well as the government realized that major reforms must take place in order for the church to succeed in meeting the needs of the people as was well as the needs of clergy.  The people of Russia wanted a church that was not so inaccessible.

The disputes over hereditary caste as well as other grievances resulted in the church reforms that began in the 1860’s.  Alexander II appointed Count D.A. Tolstoi to administer church reforms. His goals were to advance church education, judiciary practices, and censorship to the levels of the state and to transform the hereditary estate of the church into a professional service class, a reform that had gained much support from the government and the liberal class. [3] 

New statues annulled any barriers that prevented the admittance of qualified outsiders into church schools, regardless of their social background.[4] To further emphasize their stance on dismantling hereditary caste of the church, in 1867 the Synod abolished family claims to clerical positions. This eliminated the economic reasons that clergy often married within their estate, to obtain their father in-law’s parish. Alexander II, in 1869 signed into law legislation that separated children legally from the clerical state.[5] Children no longer automatically held clerical status. This allowed the clergy’s children to move out of the church more freely and more importantly allowed outsiders to move in. Tolstoi felt that this reform would free, “the clergy from the shackles of a closed estate order.”[6]

Numerous amounts of clerical children often entered lay positions that were service oriented, such as medicine and pedagogy.[7] Although they did not want to serve the people’s spiritual needs by becoming a priest many of them felt compelled to serve the people in other ways. The children that left the clerical profession may have opted for different professions but as they moved into the secular world they often took with them the morals and values that has been instilled in them by their father’s and the church.[8] The children did not necessarily leave because they despised Russian Orthodoxy but more often because they disagreed with many of the practices that existed in the clerical institution. They witnessed first hand the struggles their fathers endured. Laurie Manchester excellently describes the path that many of these children followed when she says, “ Shunning the institutional constraints of the church, they decided independently the best means of attaining the clerical ideas of service to the people, asceticism knowledge, and moral leadership.” [9] 

The church reforms of 1867-1869 did their job by legally separating church service from the social estate by eliminating family claims and guaranteed secular status to the clergy’s sons. The church also opened the doors of its schools to outsiders. The reforms resulted in the exodus of clerical sons into secular society but it failed to bring in secular society into the clerical profession.[10] The reform actually did the reverse of its intentions. Before the reform the Russian Orthodox Church had too many clergy and not enough positions. After the reforms many parishes had positions they could not fill due to the drop in the number of priests.  The reforms failed to improve the conditions of the clergy thus making it an undesirable profession to most young men. A Russian priest observed that,

Under the current conditions …one cannot expect an influence of fresh , vital forces [from the outside], but our own forces [the clergy’s sons]  , the most capable one’s continue to flee and flee into other domains , repulsed buy the conditions of  rural priests[11]


[1] Pietism advocated strict study of the bible and an altered style of preaching.

[2]  Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, George Gibian, ed., second edition, (NewYork: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 730. 

[3]  I. S. Belliustin,  Description of Parish Clergy in Rural Russia. Trans Gregory Freeze (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985),  p. 52.

[4]  Belliustin,  p.53.

[5]  Belliustin,  p.54

[6]  Gregory Freeze, The parish clergy in nineteenth-century Russia : crisis, reform, counter-reform (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1983) p. 312

[7] Manchester, Laurie. . “ ‘Secularization of the Search for Salvation’: The Self-Fashioning of Orthodox Clergymen’s sons in the Lute of Imperial Russian”. Slavic Review 57: 1 (1988) p.72

[8]  Manchester, p. 75

[9]  Manchester, p. 75

[10]  Freeze, p. 384

[11]  Ibid.