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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 515-542

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Ruling Without Mercy:
Seventeenth-Century Russian Bishops and Their Officials*

Georg B. Michels

The 17th century has rightly been described as the "century of revolt" (buntashnyi vek) by both contemporary observers and 20th-century historians such as Viktor Ivanovich Buganov and Hans-Joachim Torke. The Stepan Razin revolt (1670-71) and the frequent rebellions of the Don Cossack region were only the most dramatic manifestations of a general crisis of authority. Countless smaller revolts occurred in Muscovy's towns and provinces and the Kremlin often had to resort to military campaigns, mass floggings, and hangings in order to re-establish control. 1

During the Moscow revolt of 1648, for example, enraged townsmen set out to "smash the boyars ... and their friends with stones," warning that they would take terrible revenge against their tormentors for making them "walk in blood up to [their] knees." 2 Indeed, throughout the century there were reported incidents [End Page 515] of crowds breaking into the Kremlin, ransacking boyar palaces, and beating some of Muscovy's most powerful men to death with their bare hands. Rumors that popular insurgents were burning down the capital and killing boyars could then set off local revolts in which peasants burned down the estates of provincial nobles and townsmen assaulted and murdered the tsar's officials. Alarming reports from Muscovy's provinces described scenes of devastation and anarchy even during years when the capital itself remained calm. In 1650, for example, peasant rebels in the Pskov and Velikie Luki regions plundered and ravaged noble properties, and in 1654 serfs in the Galich region beat the wives and children of their absentee landlords to death. These rebellions ended only after the mobilization of military forces had exacted brutal punishment. 3

What was the role of the Russian Orthodox Church during the social turmoil of the 17th century? One distinctive feature is that Russian bishops repeatedly became victims of popular revolt. 4 Best documented is the vicious beating of Metropolitan Nikon of Novgorod (1649-52) during a town revolt in 1650--a frightful experience described by Nikon in bloody detail in a letter to tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich. The bishops of Viatka faced several insurrections by both peasants and townsmen. During one of these revolts in late 1659, a furious mob destroyed Bishop Aleksandr's (1657-74) palace in Viatka and the hierarch survived only because he happened to be in Moscow visiting the Kremlin. In 1660, the population of Suzdal' rose in protest against their pastor, Archbishop Stefan (1658-60, 1666-79), and only the tsar's order temporarily to retire Stefan from active duty (making him an honorary bishop at one of the Kremlin churches instead) prevented an outbreak of violence. In April 1671, Metropolitan Iosif of Astrakhan' (1655-71) was seized from his cathedral by an angry mob, defrocked, tortured, and finally thrown off a tower. The officials who served under 17th-century bishops and had more regular contact with ordinary Muscovites fared even worse: angry peasants, resentful of these officials' brutal intrusions into their [End Page 516] villages, beat and tortured them, and sometimes even hacked them to pieces (izrubili). 5

Why did bishops and their retainers fall victim to popular rage? Historians have usually focused on the beneficial side of the church's relations with Muscovite society. Cathy Potter, for example, has argued that the church hierarchy advocated a program of religious enlightenment (prosveshchenie). Drawing on ecclesiastical treatises, sermons, and legislative acts, Potter demonstrated the church's intentions to infuse Russian society with "a new understanding of the faith, ... one which demanded an informed and thoughtful belief." Paul Bushkovitch has written about the reform initiatives of the so-called Zealots-of-Piety and the didactic concerns of leading church intellectuals such as Epifanii Slavinetskii and Simeon Polotskii. In particular, he discerned a new church emphasis on morality and the elaboration of "a program of prayer and repentance" designed to generate a spiritual renewal of Muscovite society. A recent collection of essays...


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