All Russians sensed—two hundred years after Kiev became “Christian”—that something dark and terrible was coming upon them. In outlying settlements on the great plains they heard pounding hoof beats at night, bringing dozens then hundreds of stocky round-faced horsemen with slanted slit-like eyes. No one knew the wild language they spoke. But their shouts sounded like curses. Their curving scimitars flashed and wherever they suddenly appeared, blood ran.
During the summer of 1240 hundreds of marauders seemed to turn into thousands. Batu—here and there one heard the word, or was it a name? Batu, if so, who was he? What would he do?
Only after it happened did the few who survived know.
Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Tatar “ruler of the universe” from Mongolia, surrounded Kiev with untold thousands of horsemen. He attacked, burned and killed almost everyone.
Then, with his “Golden Horde” (the Tatars from Mongolia) he took control of Russia. The horror of that conquest could only have paled before the knowledge that Russia would languish under Tatar rule for nearly three hundred years.
A Long Night
Unlike the newcomers from Scandinavia the Tatars did not mix with the Russians nor settle in their towns. All they wanted was food, furs and women. Every spring they rounded up thousands of Russian girls for their harems. At the site they would designate as a deviche pole (virgin’s field) they would gather like dealers at a stock yard to divide them up. The crying of the girls rose to heaven, and their parents who believed in Christ prayed they would quickly die.
The greatest camp of the Tatars, Saray Berke, stood on a muddy hoof-trampled bank along the lower Volga. Six hundred thousand people, at times, lived in its felt tents among the stench of fermented milk and horse manure. But lesser camps sprung up across the steppes, up the Volga to Kazan, down to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, and into the Crimean Peninsula.
Not even after the Tatars under Öz Beg Khan started to mix with the Turks and convert to Islam in the 1300s did their ways improve. Ruthless, relentless, they broke Russia and the land of the Eastern Slavs would never be the same again.
A Parting of Ways
During the Tatar invasion lords and serfs, princes and muzhiks fled together. They shared their poverty and distress. They huddled in the same hideouts in the woods. But after the Tatars’ grip began to loosen (a process accelerated by the Black Death that swept through their camps in the 1340s) divisions among Russians reappeared—deeper than ever.
Russians divided as they struggled to survive under the Tatars. Some—including Prince Vladimir’s ruling descendants and even church leaders—began to collaborate with the khans1 at Saray and rebuilt log forts called kremlins in out-of-the-way corners in the woods. One of them, the son of Prince Aleksandr Nevsky, rebuilt a kremlin among the headwaters of the Oka and Volga rivers. People called it Moscow.
Other Russians, including a large number of “believers” as distinct from the “church,” did not collaborate with nor rebel against the Tatars. They fled. Far to the north into snowy forests where Tatar horsemen hated to go they escaped with their wives and children. They built log houses and fished. During short summers they planted turnips and wheat in their clearings.
With every new winter that came to the taiga—the vast sub-Arctic hinterland north of Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver—these Russians’ memory of other people and lands to the south grew fainter. They forgot how far they had left “civilised” people behind them. They forgot the ways of their Greek and Slavic ex-neighbours. But they did not forget the name of the Lord.
During winters that seemed to last most of the year, when wolves howled and mighty storms blew in from the White Sea they met in their homes to pray, and to sing early Christian songs. Every year at the time of the Paschal feast, when the sun warmed the land, their joy in Christ revived. And here, in the wilderness, many shrugged off what had not been truly Christian in Greek Christianity.
“Why give money to priests for their services, when Paul said they should not serve for gain?” some Russian believers began to ask. “Who says we need their services at all? Christ Jesus is our Father and Priest!”
Even in fortified towns close to the northern forests people began to ask these questions. But when Karp, a dyachok from Pskov (a man who knew how to cut hair), and Nikita another believer challenged them publicly, Orthodox authorities arrested them. They beat the two men and tortured them, but they refused to recant. Then the authorities threw them down from a bridge in Novgorod.
All who sympathised with Karp and Nikita got called in derision, Strigolniki (barbers). But nothing could stamp out the fire of love for Christ in Russian believers’ hearts and the movement went “underground.”2
By the time Constantinople fell to the Turks and the Byzantine Empire ended in 1453, those who loved Christ in Russia had grown numerous—and groups of Strigolniki met in secret in most of its northern towns.
A young prince, Ivan I, married to a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, governed Russia from the kremlin at Moscow at the time Constantinople fell. He did not take that event lightly. “Since Constantinople and the emperor are no more,” he told his subjects, “we must do what we can. God depends on us, the Russians, to carry on his Kingdom. We are his Church and what remains of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.”
With the help of his boyars (noblemen), Ivan built a bigger and stronger kremlin at Moscow than Russia had ever seen. He forced the towns of Novgorod and Tver to honour his rule. Then he began to use the golden double-headed eagle of Byzantium for his royal seal. He introduced all he could (and what his wife remembered) of Byzantine court ritual and before long the princes of Moscow called themselves tsars.3
A monk, Filofey, put the new situation to words: “Two Romes have fallen, the third one (Moscow) stands, and a fourth there will not be.”
Prince Ivan of Moscow had a sickly, not at all good-looking grandson who got his name. At first no one thought little Ivan II would pull through. But the winter after he turned three his father died and they crowned him tsar in his place.
For years no one took the sickly, moody little tsar seriously. Others ruled in his place (and poisoned his mother when he was eight). But when Ivan, at thirteen, had a boyar killed and at fifteen cut out another one’s tongue “for saying rude things” people began to take note. In a quarrel, a year later, he killed his best friend.
At seventeen Ivan married the beautiful daughter of a Moscow boyar. Her name was Anastasya, and he loved her. Anastasya bore him six children and as long as she lived he governed Russia fairly well. Only when she died young, did trouble begin.
Ivan felt certain someone had killed his wife. He suspected a boyar had done it, and when none of them confessed he began to distrust them all. He lived obsessed with fears of conspiracy. In 1546 he suddenly left Moscow and fortified himself in the nearby village of Aleksandrovsk. The people debated what to do. Should they call him back? He was, after all, their God-given ruler. . . .
Ivan promised to come back under one condition: he alone would rule as God’s judge and lawgiver, and all Russians great or small would submit to him. The people, considering the fact that he had spent time in a monastery as a young man and seemed pious, agreed—to their undoing.
Terror in the New Rome
On his return to Moscow Ivan divided Russia in two regions. The smaller region (including his own estates and those of his friends) he called the oprichnina. Whoever lived in it became a privileged oprichnik, entitled to wear black clothes, ride a black horse and carry a dog’s head and broom as symbols of his authority. All the rest of Russia became the zemshchina.
Ivan forbade the oprichniki to socialise in any way with the zemskye (residents of the zemshchina) who as “second class citizens” were to serve them. He ordered ditches dug around oprichnina property and forbade the zemskye to cross them on pain of death. Many families, friends and neighbours found themselves divided.
All of Ivan’s bizarre new laws favoured the oprichniki. “Judge fairly,” one of them read, “but remember, we (of the oprichnina) will never be in the wrong.” Such laws set loose a wave of violence that far surpassed anything Russia, even under the Tatars, had seen.
On all Russian roads Ivan placed oprichniki guards to keep people from travelling without permission. Everyone had to register and carry a passport. Travellers without passports he ordered stripped and rolled in the snow until they died, or else burned alive.
Ivan sealed Russia’s borders. When he suspected three towns close to Poland of communicating with “westerners” he had their men decapitated and their heads sent in bags to Moscow as proof and warning. Foreigners who came to Russia (and a good number actually did) found themselves whisked at once to Moscow by Ivan’s guards. In special communities, Ivan offered them houses, land, and religious freedom. Their only obligation was never to leave Russia again.
Ivan made a rule that anyone, Russian or foreigner alike, caught escaping the country should be impaled on a pointed post as a warning.
Religious Fakes and Holy Fools
Throughout his fifty-one-year reign “Ivan the Terrible” (as other Europeans came to call him) saw himself as God’s faithful servant, chosen like the Byzantine emperors to rule God’s kingdom on earth while Christ ruled in heaven. He attended at least one church service a day. He paid the priests large sums of money to pray for the eternal damnation of those he killed (and for the salvation of those that might have been innocent—like his oldest son whom he knocked down in a fit of rage). All his life Ivan supported the Orthodox church with huge sums of money, rebuilding the monasteries of Solovets on an island off the Arctic coast, and embellishing to no end the “sugar candy” cathedrals of Moscow and Sergiyev Posad.
Ivan lived on vodka. He spent most of his days somewhat drunk, but he wrote beautiful prayers and hymns. He kept all Christian fasts and had church leaders publish a list of approved devotional literature for the people to read.
This—Ivan the Terrible’s “Christianity”—heightened as nothing before the contrast between Russia’s church and its believers. While Orthodox church leaders praised Ivan as the “unshakeable pillar, the immovable foundation of true Christianity, the holder of the reins of the Holy Church of God which is the throne of all bishops and priests, the sage helmsman of the ship of this world,”4 believers throughout Russia saw him quite simply as an incarnation of the devil.
Some who opposed Ivan and his wickedness saw their becoming yurodivi (holy fools) the only option.5
The yurodivi threw off all worldly possessions (sometimes including even their clothes) and became wanderers. A few, like a man called Vasily who lived on the streets of Moscow, puzzled everyone. Were they crazy? Or were they only putting into perspective how crazy society had become?
Vasily prayed in sun or snow on the streets. He shambled in and out of shops, taking things from the rich and giving them to the poor. Without fear he walked into Ivan’s palace and told him what was wrong with Russia. One day in Lent he brought the tsar a big piece of raw meat. Ivan was shocked. “I do not eat meat in Lent,” he protested.
“Then why,” Vasily asked him, “do you drink the blood of men?”
No one else could have done this and gotten by. But Ivan feared the yurodivi. He suspected they were messengers sent from God, and ordered his men to leave them alone. When Vasily died, Ivan buried him beside the exotic multicoloured church he had built on Red Square in Moscow. People began to call it “Vasily’s church” and after the Orthodox canonised him it became officially St. Vasily’s (St. Basil’s), a name it has kept till today.
Refuge in Christ
Heinrich von Staden a German official in Ivan’s court (and in the oprichnina) mentioned in his memoirs in 1579 that many a peasant, before getting struck over the head by an oprichnik, would cry out: “Gospode Isuse Khriste, syne Bozhii, pomiloye!” (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy).
Never before had as many people in Russia called on the Lord’s name—and as their troubles increased they did so in ever increasing numbers.
A plague struck in the 1570s. So many died that unburied corpses lay throughout Russia’s homes. Too many were sick to work the land and business ceased. Ivan the Terrible, who had hoarded thousands of wagon loads of unthreshed grain (and kept his cellars full of fish in ice, and wax), shared nothing. Thousands starved, wandering about in the fields, until eaten by dogs. Outside Moscow, city work crews dumped corpses in piles of two to five hundred. The following year Tatars from the Crimea attacked and burned part of Moscow. Numberless bells rang in the flames6 as its churches came crashing down but Ivan, as always, escaped.
Some people managed to escape Russia’s disasters and find refuge in the far north where they became self-sufficient and avoided contact with larger towns. But most could not do that. Their only refuge was Christ.
During Ivan the Terrible’s rule a young man, Matvey Semyonovich Dalmatov, worked for a farmer in Tambov who read the Bible. When the farmer came home one night with a foreign doctor7 who also studied the Bible, Matvey listened to the two men talk and became curious. “What does that book say?” he wondered. He could do nothing but learn to read and find out.
Matvey was deeply moved. The more he read the Gospels for himself the more he realised that the Christianity he knew in no way matched the teachings of Christ. The more he read, the more uncomfortable he became with the state church until he quietly, without raising issues, withdrew.
Nothing might have happened, had not Matvey’s life changed so much. He no longer took part in dances and festivals. He taught his children godliness at home. Whenever opportunities came he warned his fellow-servants on the farm to turn from Satan to Christ, until those who persisted in sin reported him to the oprichnina. “This man,” they said, “no longer falls down before the ikons. He neglects the church services and drinks milk on holy days!”8
The oprichniki interrogated Matvey. So did state church officials who pronounced him a heretic. In 1553 they had Matvey flogged, pulled on the rack, his abdomen slit, and his intestines tied to a wheel. As the executioner slowly turned the wheel they gave Matvey time to change his mind. But he did not. In a clear voice heard by a multitude gathered on Red Square, he declared while he still had breath: “The Spirit says: Blessed are those who die in the name of the Lord. They rest from their labours and their work follows after them. But you who are enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ will stand before his judgment.”9
The people feared, and Matvey’s life spoke even louder after his death. All around Tambov where he had lived, God-fearing people began to meet in secret to encourage one another, read the Bible, and pray. The movement grew rapidly to include hundreds, then thousands of “underground” believers in Tambov, Voronezh, and beyond. Their enemies called them Molokans (milk drinkers).10 But among themselves they simply spoke of Christians, often Dukhovnye Khristiane (Spirit Christians) and “those of the world.”
A Time of Troubles
On March 18, 1584, when Ivan the Terrible finally died he left Russia full of gleaming white churches with golden domes—but in unspeakable misery. Because he had killed the wealthy and reduced the size of their estates, the muzhiks had to work harder than ever. Taxes had risen and new laws ensured their collection.
Of all Ivan’s marriages only two of Anastasya’s sons, a mentally retarded boy and an epileptic survived. They both died and years of strife followed until the zemsky sobor (the council of the zemshchina) pulled a poorly educated sixteen-year-old boy out of the Kostroma monastery where he had grown up with his mother, a nun. He was Mikhail Romanov, a grandson of Anastasya’s (Ivan the Terrible’s first wife’s) brother.
Mikhail Romanov and his son Aleksey, a quiet friendly youth crowned in Moscow when he was sixteen, began a new line of tsars. They made fair laws. They promoted foreign trade and education. Most Russians might have been happy under their rule, had it not been for Revelation 13:18 and what they saw happening in the state church.
Guardians of Piety
Beginning in the early years of the Romanov tsars, a group of concerned Russians began to meet regularly in Moscow. Calling themselves “Guardians of Piety,” they set out, under the leadership of a strong-willed ambitious man named Nikon, to improve the spiritual condition of the Orthodox church.
Nikon, whose wife and three children had died, took what he felt was his call to celibacy seriously and lived a sober life. His earnestness appealed to Tsar Aleksey Romanov who, after his coronation, made him his religious advisor. The “Guardians of Piety” supported him. Nikon became more popular and widely known, until in 1652 he became “Patriarch of all Russia.”
The Year of the Beast
Nikon’s rise to power, considering his personality and the changes he soon called for, could not have occurred at a more critical time.
For years, a large number of Russia’s Christians had looked at their leaders (both religious and political) as possible agents of the devil. Now, as the mid1600s drew near and they read Slavonic translations of books like Ephraim of Syria’s The Terror of Judgment and Antichrist their suspicions grew into powerful conviction.
Ephraim of Syria wrote:
The one gifted with divine wisdom and understanding will easily notice when the Antichrist comes. But the one immersed in the things of this world, the one who loves what is worldly, shall not be able to do so. Those who are married to the affairs of this life will hear the Word but not know the truth. If anyone preaches it, in fact, they will hate him.
Believers in Russia also read John’s Revelation where he described the “beast” and difficult times at the end of the world. About the beast, John wrote:
He forced everyone small and great, rich and poor, free and slave to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.
With the year 1666 coming up, most believers did not wonder what awaited them. Besides that, numerous signs of the times confirmed their suspicions.
Changes For The Worse
No sooner did Nikon become Patriarch in Moscow, than he brought about reforms quite different from what the “Guardians of Piety” had expected. He took Greek texts, recently printed in Italy (in Roman Catholic publishing houses) as the pattern for his reforms.11 Then, with the long arm of Russian law he tried to force everyone to accept them.
Some of Nikon’s reforms no longer seem important to us—singing three hallelujahs instead of two or spelling Jesus’ name with an extra vowel—but the reason many Russians opposed them was real and resistance to them quickly grew as large as Russia itself.
Those who defied Nikon and kept to the old way believed his reforms were an accommodation to Roman Catholicism (that is, to the “world”). They saw his enforcement of them as just another example of the state church corrupting itself through political affairs. Across Russia, millions of impoverished and poorly educated farm workers, celibates in remote communities, and local church leaders with little responsibility, dared to rise up and declare that what they believed and how they believed was no one’s matter but their own—that belief was a matter of conviction, not legislation. They dared, at the price of their lives, to challenge Moscow, Constantinople, and whatever civil authorities or means of repression would fall upon them.
The Price of Conviction
At the very meeting where Nikon announced his plans for reform, Pavel the presbyter of Kolomna calmly said he could not comply. Nikon removed him from office and had him beaten before the council. He sent Pavel into the far north, where he died after repeated tortures. Then Nikon pronounced the anathema on all others who refused to obey his orders to change, and by 1666, the year of the beast, several hundred thousand “Old Believers” found themselves outside the Orthodox church. In great suffering and weakness they learned that one can walk with Christ and survive persecution, only in . . .
1 Tatar chiefs
2 “Underground,” did not mean invisible, however, nor silent. Sources prove that members of the Strigolnik movement were exceptionally bold when explaining their beliefs before courts and prosecutors. When the Strigolnik Zakhar was brought before Gennady, archbishop of Novgorod, and asked why he had not received the Holy Communion for three years, he replied: “Whom shall I come to for that? Priests are being ordained for money just as Metropolitans and bishops are!” Gennady did not know at first what to say. Then he mumbled, “The Metropolitan is clear of this sin.” Zakhar objected, “He had to pay the Patriarch of Constantinople to be ordained. So who is worthy to give the Holy Communion?”
3 Russian for Caesar
4 Curtiss Church and State in Russia
5 “If any one takes himself for wise in the world, let him become a fool,” they read in 1 Corinthians 3:18.
6 Ivan the Terrible loved the sound of bells, and by the time he died he had around five thousand ringing intermittently throughout Moscow.
7 a man from Great Britain
8 On weekly fast days the Orthodox church forbade the consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products.
9 Book of Spirit and Life, 9:7
10 When this name came into general use, the Molokans reconciled themselves to it, on the basis of 1 Peter 2:2: “As newborn babies, desire the sincere milk of the word.” They believed their teachings to be this spiritual “milk.”
11 The Greek Orthodox Church, by now under Muslim rule and deprived of its privileges and power, had began to seek union with the Pope at Rome--the very symbol of heresy for Eastern Christians during previous centuries.