• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Ecclesiastical Hegemony: The Causes of the Divorce between Constantinople & Moscow



“Do not accept the teachings of the Latins, whose instruction is vicious.”[1]

Russian Primary Chronicle


The Russians historically recognised the Roman Emperor on the Bosporus as the shield of Orthodoxy and ruler of the sole Christian empire. In the light of this, its emperors were – at the very least – expected to approve candidates for the Metropolitanate. Successful nominees then underwent consecration (presided over by the patriarch) in Constantinople. Indeed, so deep were the ties that the Byzantines appear to have monopolised the post until the end of the thirteenth century.

Signs of trouble erupted in the fourteenth century when the Byzantine metropolitan moved his seat from a devastated Kiev to the Volga-Oka region in which Moscow emerged as the chief principality. By 1354, the two northern powers of Lithuania and Moscow had demanded native appointments and the Patriarch Philotheus conceded, though only after voicing deep concerns to Grand Prince Ivan II:


“This is very unusual and not fully without danger to the Church: we have agreed to it only because of the the trustworthy testimony concerning [the candidate]… but henceforth we will not allow, nor consent at any future time to another Russian becoming hierarch there.”[2]


And this was very much the case 1390-1448.[3] For the last seven of those years, however, confusion rather than enmity was directed towards Byzantium. In 1436, Isidore – former hegumenos of Constantinople’s Demetrios Monastery – was consecrated as Metropolitan of all Rus. In 1442, he announced the Union of Florence in Moscow and found himself deposed by a synod as an apostate for his troubles.

The members of the synod who deposed Isidore knew well the canonical prescription for apostasy. Yet they ordered him to be imprisoned – and even then only for seven months – before probably conniving in the Prince’s plan to let him escape.[4] And the first attempt at correspondence (in the end unsent) was a letter from Vasilii to the Patriarch Metrophanes, its contents were:


  • Humble: addressing the patriarch as the “Spiritual Ruler of Orthodoxy” and himself as the “Son of your Holiness”

  • Opposed to Isidore: on a personal level rather than an institutional or geopolitcal one

  • Resolute in its insistence on defending Orthodoxy

  • Insistent in its refusal to insinuate that Constantinople had deviated from Orthodoxy

  • Polite in its request to elect a new metropolitan and perform the consecration in Moscow. Part of the justification for this contained specious reasoning, claiming that Tatars had closed all the routes to and from Byzantium.



What changed this dynamic was not quixotic apparitions of autocephaly but rather a giant civil war in which the metropolitanate became a pawn to reward potential supporters. To briefly summarise this conflict, Vasilii II was captured in battle with Ulug Mohammad at the Battle of Suzdal (1445) and ransomed. The sum requested was large enough, however, for an opponent named Dmitrii Shemyaka, Prince of Galich, to turn the people against Vasilii – suggesting he cared more for his own welfare than that of the Russian state.


In the chaos, however, the grand prince’s sons escaped and so Shemyaka promised a bishop named Iona that if he managed to return them to Moscow then they’d be released with their blind(ed) father on to a provincial estate and, more importantly, he’d be appointed Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus. However, when the bishop fulfilled his part Shemyaka threw the children in prison too, forcing the newly minted Metropolitan to confront the ruler. An incident in which the clergy fortunately came down on his side.


Yet when Vasilii was finally released the tables quickly turned. His supporters rallied and chased Shemyaka from the Kremlin. By late 1447, order had been restored with Ivan III’s appointment as Grand Prince, Vasilii’s adoption of the title of “Sovereign” and a flurry of letters sent to the rulers of Rus requesting they accept Iona’s appointment as Metropolitan. Finally, enough positive replies were garnered to justify the unprecedented consecration of Iona in Moscow, December, 1448.

This action, however, did not imply a rejection of Byzantine ecclesiastical overlordship. No official communications announced the decision to Constantinople. If anything, the whole debacle felt like a slight embarrassment to be explained rather than another stomp on the triumphant march to an autocephalous Church. A letter Vasilii II wrote to Constantine XI makes this much clear:


“For many years after the Council of Florence, we looked and yearned but we did not receive. Not as a result of our laziness or negligence but because of our misfortune; as a result of our sins, since we heard that the Church was in dispute in your realm [and in ours the Tartar incursions were followed by internecine warfare]… And for all these sins we ourselves were without a great pastor, a metropolitan… In consequence, … many evils occurred and out of that great necessity, we have implored God… trusted in the divine and holy apostolic laws… because of necessity… commanded the bishops to elevate a metropolitan.”


In short, Vasilii expected Constantinople to return to full-blooded Orthodoxy soon enough. In the meantime, however, the Rus had suffered such horrific civil wars that they felt compelled by “necessity” to fill the gap. The tragedy of it all was that the Rus were silent about Byzantine deviance because they knew Florence was a ploy for Latin military assistance. Yet Constantinople’s temporary manoeuvre turned into a permanent fait accompli; the eternal Rome on the Bosporus vanished before rapprochement with its Russian godson could be effected.


[1] Russian Primary Chronicle, trans. S. H. Cross in Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, XII (Cambridge, 1930), 203. The entry is under the year AD 988.

[2] D. Obolenski, “Byzantium, Kiev and Moscow,” DOP, XI (1957), 38-39.

[3] Interestingly, a Bulgar named Cyprian was made Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus in 1375 with an HQ in Lithuanian Kiev. He never won definitive recognition in Moscow, however, until 1390 when he decided to reside there (d.1406).

[4] A later letter (1460) from the Metropolitan Iona to the Lithuanian bishops noted that nobody chased Isidore far as he was “stupid and impious… [and could] have contaminated others with his heresies.”


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