1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nikon

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NIKON [Nikita Minin] (1605-1681), 6th patriarch of Moscow, Russian reformer and statesman, son of a peasant farmer named Mina, was born on the 7th of May 1605 in the village of Valmanovo, 90 versts from Nizhny Novgorod. Misery pursued the child from his cradle, and prematurely hardened a character not naturally soft; he ran away from home to save his life from an inhuman stepmother. But he gave promise betimes of the energy and thoroughness which were to distinguish him throughout life, and contrived to teach himself reading and writing. When he was but twenty his learning and talents obtained for him a cure of souls. His eloquence attracted attention, and, through the efforts of some Moscow merchants, he was transferred to a populous parish in the capital. Shortly afterwards, seeing in the loss of his three little children a providential warning to seek the higher life, he first persuaded his wife to take the veil and then withdrew himself first to a desolate hermitage on the isle of Anzersky on the White Sea, and finally to the Kozhuzersky monastery, in the diocese of Novgorod, of which he became abbot in 1643. On becoming a monk he took the name of Nikon. In his official capacity he had frequently to visit Moscow, and in 1646 made the acquaintance of the pious and impressionable Tsar Alexius, who fell entirely under his influence. Alexius appointed Nikon archimandrite, or prior, of the wealthy Novospassky monastery at Moscow, and in 1648 metropolitan of Great Novgorod. Finally (1st of August 1652) he was elected patriarch of Moscow. It was only with the utmost difficulty that Nikon could be persuaded to become the archpastor of the Russian Church, and he only yielded after imposing upon the whole assembly a solemn oath of obedience to him in everything concerning the dogmas, canons and observances of the Orthodox Church.

Nikon's attitude on this occasion was not affectation, but the wise determination of a would-be reformer to secure a free hand. Ecclesiastical reform was already in the air. A number of ecclesiastical dignitaries, known as the party of the protopopes (deans), had accepted the responsibility for the revision of the church service-books inaugurated by the late Patriarch Joasaf, and a few other very trivial rectifications of certain ancient observances. But they were far too timid to attempt anything really effectual. Nikon was much bolder and also much more liberal. He consulted the most learned of the Greek prelates abroad; invited them to a consultation at Moscow; and finally the scholars of Constantinople and Kiev opened the eyes of Nikon to the fact that the Muscovite service-books were heterodox, and that the ikons actually in use had very widely departed from the ancient Constantinopolitan models, being for the most part imitations of later Polish and Frankish (West European) models. He at once (1654) summoned a properly qualified synod of experts to re-examine the service-books revised by the Patriarch Joasaf, and the majority of the synod decided that “the Greeks should be followed rather than our own ancients.” A second council, held at Moscow in 1656, sanctioned the revision of the service-books as suggested by the first council, and anathematized the dissentient minority, which included the party of the protopopes and Paul, bishop of Kolomna. Heavily weighted with the fullest ecumenical authority, Nikon's patriarchal staff descended with crushing force upon the heterodox. His scheme of reform included not only service-books and ceremonies but the use of the “new-fangled” ikons, for which he ordered a house-to-house search to be made. His soldiers and servants were charged first to gouge out the eyes of these “heretical counterfeits” and then carry them through the town in derision. He also issued a ukaz threatening with the severest penalties all who dared to make or use such ikons in future. This ruthlessness goes far to explain the unappeasable hatred with which the “Old Ritualists” and the “Old Believers,” as they now began to be called, ever afterwards regarded Nikon and all his works.

From 1652 to 1658, Nikon was not so much the minister as the colleague of the tsar. Both in public documents and in private letters he was permitted to use the sovereign title. Such a free use did he make of his vast power, that some Russian historians have suspected him of the design of establishing “a particular national papacy”; and he himself certainly maintained that the spiritual was superior to the temporal power. He enriched the numerous and splendid monasteries which he built with valuable libraries. His emissaries scoured Muscovy and the Orient for precious Greek and Slavonic MSS., both sacred and profane. But his severity raised up a whole host of enemies against him, and by the summer of 1658 they had convinced Alexius that the sovereign patriarch was eclipsing the sovereign tsar. Alexius suddenly grew cold towards his “own familiar friend.” Nikon thereupon publicly divested himself of the patriarchal vestments and shut himself up in the Voskresensky monastery (19th of July 1658). In February 1660 a synod was held at Moscow to terminate “the widowhood” of the Muscovite Church, which had now been without a pastor for nearly two years. The synod decided not only that a new patriarch should be appointed, but that Nikon had forfeited both his archiepiscopal rank and his priest's orders. Against the second part of this decision, however, the great ecclesiastical expert Epifany Slavenitsky protested energetically, and ultimately the whole inquiry collapsed, the scrupulous tsar shrinking from the enforcement of the decrees of the synod for fear of committing mortal sin. For six years longer the Church of Muscovy remained without a patriarch. Every year the question of Nikon's deposition became more complicated and confusing. Almost every contemporary orthodox scholar was consulted on the subject, and no two authorities agreed. At last the matter was submitted to an ecumenical council, or the nearest approach to it attainable in the circumstances, which opened its sessions on the 18th of November 1666 in the presence of the tsar. On the 12th of December the council pronounced Nikon guilty of reviling the tsar and the whole Muscovite Church, of deposing Paul, bishop of Kolomna, contrary to the canons, and of beating and torturing his dependants. His sentence was deprivation of all his sacerdotal functions; henceforth he was to be known simply as the monk Nikon. The same day he was put into a sledge and sent as a prisoner to the Therapontov Byelozersky monastery. Yet the very council which had deposed him confirmed all his reforms and anathematized all who should refuse to accept them. Nikon survived the tsar (with whom something of the old intimacy was resumed in 1671) five years, expiring on the 17th of August 1681.

See R. Nisbet Bain, The First Romanovs (London, 1905); S. M. Solovev, History of Russia (Rus.), vol. x. (St Petersburg, 1895, &c.); A. K. Borozdin, The Protopope Avakum (Rus.) (St Petersburg, 1898); V. S. Ikonnikov, New Materials concerning the Patriarch Nikon (Rus.) (Kiev, 1888); William Palmer, The Patriarch and the Tsar (London, 1871–1876).

(R. N. B.)