- Cross and Kremlin: A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in Russia by Thomas Bremer
Thomas Bremer, professor of Eastern Church studies and peace studies at the University of Münster in Germany, has written an insightful, brief tome on the Russian Orthodox Church among the Russian East Slavs. The book was originally published in German in 2007, and now Bremer has brought it up to date with new statistics and an excellent translation.
After a short introduction of Russian Orthodoxy’s early history, the author adopts a thematic style and covers such topics as ecclesiastical structures, church-state relations, theology and religious thought, monasticism, spirituality and religiosity, monasticism, relations with the West, and dissidence. In clear, pithy summaries he explains the history of Russian Orthodoxy, examining its dramatic evolution among the East Slavic tribes of Kievan Rus, the emerging state of Muscovy under the Mongols, the Westernizing tsars of the Russian Empire, the communist dictatorship, and now the Russian Federation. He shows that history always unfolds in a place, and thus the cities of Kiev, Vladimir-Suzhdal, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Moscow once again serve in recent times as convenient and descriptive markers across the span of Russian Orthodoxy’s history.
Bremer stresses that the Russian Orthodox Church saw the Russian state as the God-ordained method to protect and expand the Orthodox faith. It was an ingrained perspective that evolved from the Byzantine Empire and the experience of surviving under the Mongol occupation and the constant threats of living on the open Eurasian Plain. So strong was the Church’s attachment to the state that it stood by even the Soviet government, which was dedicated to its destruction. Today the Church’s identity with the state is reflected in its support of Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. The Church views its canonical territory as [End Page 593] encompassing all lands that were formerly part of the former Soviet Union, except for Georgia and Armenia, which the Church holds to be separate Orthodox jurisdictions. In all other former Soviet lands, including Ukraine, the Church claims canonical jurisdiction, no matter what Ukrainians might think. Putin likes this outlook and now regularly uses religious justification as a basis for bringing the Ukrainian and Russian peoples together again, so the Caesaropapist relationship of the tsars, which the communists had interrupted, has returned.
Bremer gives special attention to Russian Orthodoxy’s complex relationship with the West. On the one hand, the Church saw Russia as partly of the West because of dynastic ties between European ruling houses and the tsars. On the other hand, the West was the land of Catholics and Protestants, whom the Russian Orthodox regarded with suspicion and considered heretics as well as enemies of the Russian people and state. Specifically in the case of Catholics, the Russian Orthodox saw them as rivals in the struggle to establish religio-political values for emerging global interdependency and interconnectedness. Although Bremer largely dismisses the importance of the theory of Moscow as the Third Rome, he does call attention to Orthodoxy’s sense of messianism and uniqueness as the bearer of God’s truth, a position that inevitably leads to strain with peoples who do not share its view of the Russian state.