January 25, 2011

Moving forward

Peter the Great created the Holy Synod on this date in 1721, having forced the Russian Orthodox Church to rely on the services of a deputy patriarch for 21 years after the death of the Patriarch of Moscow in 1700.

Peter the Great by Kneller

Granted, it doesn’t sound very exciting, but it was one more critical foundation stone in the architecture of a modern Russian state.

Peter (1672-1725) got the idea that his country was a little behind the times after a tour of the West in 1697.  He had gone to ask various heads of state to help him get rid of the Ottomans and get control of the Black Sea.  Unfortunately, they all had other fish to fry, but Peter spent months studying shipbuilding in Holland, the structure of armies everywhere, the Royal Navy and city planning in England and whatever else he could find out along the way.

(In England, he had his portrait painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller and presented it to William III.  If he looks a little long-legged in the picture, it’s because he was – he was six feet eight inches tall.)

When he got home, he plunged right in, ordered the boyars (aristocrats) to cut their beards and wear modern clothing, required the nobility to educate their children, encouraged an end to arranged marriages, began to reorganize his army and navy, changed the New Year from September 1 to January 1 and adopted the Julian calendar.  It stopped being 7207 and became 1700.

And in the spirit of the modern love match, he sent his first wife to a convent and married his mistress.


What he needed for his new army and navy though was a lot of men.  Too many of them were going into the church, finding homes in the hundreds of monasteries that had become the keepers of Russian culture during the preceding era of Mongol and Tartar invasions. By creating the Holy Synod – which was half ecclesiastics and half bureaucrats – he was able to make the church subservient to the state.

At the same, he decreed that no one could enter a monastic order until they reached the age of 50. Since few people got to that advanced age, he effectively ended the population drain to holy orders.

Why it took two decades to put this plan in place is not clear.  It may have been a deliberate effort to weaken the church politically by not appointing a patriarch for a long time, or it may  just have been because he was too busy fighting the Swedes, the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires, rebuilding his military, planning and building St. Petersburg (beginning with Peterhof, his palace), putting down the occasional rebellion and generally keeping busy.

Peterhof, photo by Mike Martin.



  1. I wonder if he had been older when he went abroad if his impressions would have been so radical, great reporting thank you Jean


    Comment by avery — January 25, 2011 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  2. Another “didn’t know” event. Thank you.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — January 25, 2011 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

  3. post not working in firefox


    Comment by math games — January 26, 2011 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  4. sorry – dont see a problem in ff and safari


    Comment by jchatoff — January 27, 2011 @ 12:14 am | Reply

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