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Prominent Russians: Protopope Avvakum Petrov

November 20, 1620 or 1621 – April 14, 1682
Protopope Avvakum Petrov

Avvakum was one of the founders of what later came to be called Old Belief. He was a leading figure in the opposition to Patriarch Nikon and church reform he directed. Avvakum agitated against the program of this reform and its supporters until his execution.

In 1682 the Alternative Pope Avvakum - from which comes the name Protopope - was burned at the stake. The first apostle and chief campaigner of the Russian Schism was 62 when he was executed. His terrible death came after his 15-year incarceration in a damp, earthen-floored settlement. During those 15 years Avvakum wrote all his main works. 

Childhood and roots

Avvakum was born to a priest and his wife in the village of Grigorovo in the Nizhny Novgorod district. Avvakum's father, who was the village priest, was a drunkard, while his mother observed fasts and prayed fervently.

In 1638 Avvakum married Anastasia Markovna, the daughter of a local blacksmith. She was a devoted wife and true companion to Avvakum until his death. Following in the footsteps of his father, Avvakum entered the secular clergy. In 1642 he was made a deacon at a village church in the Nizhny Novgorod district. And later he was ordained as a priest. The subordination of the Church to the Monarchy had begun in the time of the Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. Extortion and depravity were common among the clergy at that time. Church services frequently ended in fights, even in the kicking and beating of the priest himself. The Russian Church, as a consequence of historical isolation, had reached a condition which the Greek supporters of the Eastern Orthodox religion frankly called “heresy”.

The Old Believers

The Old Believers appeared in the 17th century, in a new period of political centralization. Owing to the “heretical” condition of the church, true piety had almost ceased to exist. In the 1640s, a pious group of followers of the Old Belief was formed. This circle of adherents called for a transformation of the Church into a more effective influence on the congregation. The members were implementing church reform from above, thus preserving the basic tenets of Orthodoxy.

Protopope Avvakum Petrov Protopope Avvakum Petrov

Into this group came the Protopopes Avvakum, Ivan Neronov, Daniel and Nikon, who then became the Archimandrite. They all demanded such measures as shortening of the prayers, the appropriate simplification of some of the rites and they insisted on the necessity of allowing priests to preach sermons, written by themselves, on important questions of life. Although, all the members of the group agreed to the amendment of church books, they differed on how to do it. Thus, Nikon insisted on bringing the books into conformity with Byzantine practices and asked advice from the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Avvakum thought they ought to purify the books from the mistakes of translators and scribes and protested against blindly following the Greek forms. Avvakum defined Old Believers’ belief in his treatise, which he entitled the Eternal Gospel. He stated that his book was composed not by himself, but by the hand of God. According to Avvakum, the Old Believers accepted the Holy Trinity, that it was defined as three essences, but was the sole source of deity. Jesus Christ sat on a throne co-reigning with the Holy Trinity, and he was a special God. Avvakum acknowledged the incarnation, but at the crucifixion, the soul of Christ ascended to heaven, while the body of Christ descended to hell. Avvakum defined the human soul as material. 

Patriarch Nikon

In 1652, at the age of 47, Nikon was promoted to patriarch. In March of the following year, he sent the bishoprics and monasteries A Reminder, a document which prescribed that according to the legends and the fathers of the Church, people should not bow to the floor, but only to waist height. They should also cross themselves with three fingers. Such reforms had spiritual significance. The old form of crossing with two fingers, the first outstretched and the second bent, symbolized God the Father and God the son made man. The use of three fingers stood for the Trinity, and those who opposed Nikon thought his reforms were to draw the Orthodox Church closer to Catholicism.

To his friends in the faith, true traditionalists, this act of Nikon's came as a bolt from the blue. In answer to Nikon, Avvakum and his followers wrote a message to the Tsar, quoting old books about the way one should cross oneself and bow. They sent it to the Tsar, expecting his support. However, the Tsar supported the Patriarch. Thus the disagreement was brought to the point that two hostile camps appeared. In one camp were the tsar and the patriarch, in the other Avvakum and his followers. Nikon heaped repressions on his opponents and former friends.


Сергей Милорадович  Путешествие Аввакума по Сибири , 1898 Avvakum in SIberia by Sergey Miloradovich, 1898

Avvakum was exiled to Tobolsk in Siberia by Tsar Aleksey in late 1653, to rescue him from Patriarch Nikon’s vengeance. There he served as archpriest until the end of July 1655. Despite the support and protection of Governor Vasily Ivanovich Khilkov and Archbishop Simeon, Avvakum's abrasive approach ignited conflict and contention.

In 1656, to remove him from the scene of contention, the tsar ordered Avvakum to accompany an expeditionary force led by Commander Afanasy Pashkov, intended to pacify and bring Christianity to the native tribes of northern Siberia. The assignment was not a success.

Avvakum's religious zeal alienated many of the soldiers and enraged the commander. In his Life, Avvakum vividly recounted the multiple humiliations and torments inflicted upon him by Pashkov.

In 1657 Pashkov sent a petition to Moscow, accusing Avvakum and his supporters of fomenting rebellion and requesting that the archpriest be condemned to death. Avvakum's friends in high places came to his aid. Archbishop Simeon of Tobolsk intervened, and in 1658 Pashkov was replaced as commander of the expedition.

Avvakum was recalled from Siberia in 1663, and he returned to Moscow after 11 years of absence in 1664. His release was again gained by noblemen who were still sympathetic to the old traditions.

Much had changed. In 1658 Patriarch Nikon had quarreled with the Tsar and abandoned the patriarchal throne. This act caused great confusion, but it did not shake the commitment to church reform, including liturgical reform. Therefore the tsar and his closest associates received Avvakum graciously. Avvakum was even offered a post as corrector at the Printing Office, the center of activity for the revision and printing of the new church service books and other religious works.

The protopope was granted a residence inside the Moscow Kremlin. By now he was serving at Kazan Cathedral with Ivan Neronov, a man Avvakum recognized as his mentor. In the same period he became the confessor to the noblewoman Feodosya Morozova and her sister, Princess Evdokya Urusova, convincing them of the correctness of his position. Both sisters accepted Avvakum's views and later in 1675 suffered for it.

Avvakum noticed that there was no progress being made in curbing the reforms, and he wrote a petition to the tsar: “Seek out the ancient piety, set aside the new service books and all of Nikon’s endeavors.” Avvakum gained some support of several anti-Nikon noblemen and confronted people on the streets of Moscow. As a result many ceased to attend church.

Orthodox prelates began to worry that Avvakum was attempting to indirectly desolate the churches, and they requested Tsar Aleksey that he again be exiled in order to save Russian Orthodoxy from further disruption, and so not to further undermine the reform. In August 1664, Avvakum and his family were once again dispatched into exile in Siberia, arriving in Mezen at the end of the year.

Мученичество Аввакума Death of Avvakum, Old Believers icon

A year later, Avvakum was recalled to Moscow to appear before a church council in 1666. At this important council, Nikon was officially was removed as patriarch, but the reform program itself was affirmed. Those who actively opposed the reforms, including the revised service books, were tried. Some, such as Ivan Neronov, recanted. Others, led by Avvakum, stood firm.

Following the council, Avvakum was defrocked, placed under church ban, and imprisoned in chains in a monastery. Subsequent attempts to persuade him to repent failed. In August 1667, Avvakum and his supporters were sentenced to exile in Pustozersk in the Far North. Two of Avvakum's friends and supporters, Lazar and Epifany, also exiled, had their tongues cut out. Avvakum was spared this punishment. Avvakum himself wrote in detail in The Life of the Protopope Avvakum about the persecutions inflicted upon their friends. 

“Nikon tried to force them to obey. Neronov was exiled to the monastery of Vologda. Then Nikon caught Daniel, cut off his hair in the presence of the tsar and after many tortures, exiled him to Astrakhan, where a crown of thorns was put upon his head and he was starved to death in an earthen-walled prison. They took Loggin, put him in chains, dragged him out of the church, and beat him with birch brooms. They stripped him naked and threw him into a tent under guard of musketeers. Others of the group were burnt in the fire in Moscow. I was also taken from Vespers; they put me in chains all night. When the sun rose, they placed me in a cart with my arms stretched out, took me to Andronov monastery and left me in chains.”

However, regardless of Nikon's repressions, not all the clergy submitted. Many priests, the most active amongst whom was Protopope Avvakum, declared the Patriarch and his adherents to be the servants of the Antichrist and proponents of anti-divine heresy. The conditions for the exile were severe: Avvakum was forbidden to write, speak or accept visitors. In 1682, Avvakum was burned at the stake, “for great slander against the tsar's household.”

The government cruelly repressed the Schismatic dissenters, but the number of Old Believers did not decrease. Moreover, the exiling of dissenters resulted in the creation of areas on the borders of the country which were nearly completely inhabited by Old Believers. During the reign of Aleksey Mikhailovich, the oppression of the people by the feudal barons grew immensely and returning to the Old Belief seemed to the common people to be the same as coming back to a time when feudal oppression had seemed much less cruel. The protopope’s position as one of the founding fathers of Old Belief rests on the lasting influence of his writings, which were collected, copied, and disseminated.

‘The Life of the Protopope Avvakum’

Сожжение Protopop Avvakum Burning of Protopope Avvakum by Grigory Myasoyedov

Avvakum was acquainted with almost all Russian literature of the time. In his works, which were full of humble rejection of all earthly good things, he expressed the theoretical generalization of the life he knew. Gradually, he became a preacher of high moral ideals which he combined with a monk's asceticism and with scorn for the world and its weaknesses. Avvakum was a prolific writer of petitions to the tsar, letters of advice and exhortation to his acquaintances, sermons, polemical tracts, and pamphlets. All contributed to the shape of Old Belief as an evolving movement.

An important example of Avvakum's dogmatic and polemical work is The Book of Denunciation, or the Eternal Gospels. Written by Avvakum as part of a dispute with one of his disciples, this tract clarified his position on several dogmatic issues. This work continued to be a focal point of criticism for spokesmen of the official church into the early 18th century. Avvakum's writings are of considerable interest to linguists and literary historians. His writing style was forceful and dramatic. He penetrated direct observation and mixed the tonalities and phraseology of the popular spoken Russian of his day with the traditional ornate and formal rhetorical style.

Perhaps Avvakum's best-known work is his autobiographical Life. Three versions were written between 1672 and 1676. Of the two later versions, the copies written by Avvakum himself, along with numerous others, are preserved. Building on traditional genres such as hagiography, sermons, chronicles, folk-tales, and others, Avvakum created not only a new genre, but a new mentality that, according to some scholars, manifests the seeds of modern individual self-consciousness.

Written by Tatiana Klevantseva for RT

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