St. Maxim, the Prophet of Old Russia

May 19, 2007

There are clearly two Russias that develop in the medieval world. The victory of the one over the other not only dictated the path of Russian history, but of much world history as well. It is always worthwhile to discover the major variables that crated this permanent schism, the schism between Old and New Russia, that is, Russia as a New Jerusalem, and Russia as a new Byzantium, and later, under Peter I, Russia as Roman Empire.

Saint Maxim

This short essay will deal with the thought of one of these variables for Old Russia, St. Maxim the Greek. He was one of the greatest prophets of Old Russia and is shocking in his ability to predict the course of events. He was one of the first, and certainly the most articulate, to see the coming schism and the extremely important moral choice that Russian rulers and churchmen were to take: that of a global, European empire based on forced labor, or, on the other hand, the New Israel, a theocratic state made up of free communes and ruled over by a popular tsar. St. Maxim whose the latter, and defended it with a level of aplomb that few of that era were capable.

St. Maxim came to Russia from Mount Athos in 1518. His purpose was to assist in the translation of service books from both the Greek and the Latin. Since St. Maxim was a student in the oligarchy of Florence, he was aware of all Latin and western liturgical forms, as well as an expert translator from Greek into Latin. St. Maxim is one of the sources of liturgical renewal in Russia since he brought with him the only vaguely understood notions of the Roman liturgical canon and the Gregorian tradition.

St. Maxim represented all that was best in the medieval world: a love of decentralism, hatred of central authorities either lay or clerical, a strong bent towards Plato and hesychasm, a powerful mystic and yet a lover of life and beauty. There was nothing morose about him. As far as Russia was concerned, he was a public proponent of sobornost,’ manifesting itself in the small skete, the village parish and in the poor, simple yet culturally rich life of the average Russian at the time.

The great reformer aimed his guns at the Josephites, the monastic movement that was to dictate so much in the transition from medieval Russia to “European” Russia. While the founder of this movement, St. Joseph, is properly canonized, the movement which he founded is far from traditional Orthodoxy. St. Joseph founded a Russian institution that sought the favor of imperial power, the continuing development of new sources of revenue, and the symbiosis of church and state. Given the context in which St. Joseph organized this movement, it was harmless. The monastery had a large school and an alms house that supported tens of thousands of Russians during bad harvests, or just those down on their luck.

Nevertheless, he unleashed a new mentality among the monks in their relation to the state that was to morph way beyond what Joseph wanted, and led to the creation of the church as a crutch to the state, as a political institution searching for the greater glory of Russia through external conquest, colonization and forced conversion. The one axiom easily proven in Russian history is the connection between Josephetism and Petrenism.

What is surprising is how Maxim clearly understood this movement in the early 16th century. He realized soon that this was going to create two Russias, one poor, the other wealthy, one peasant, the other urban, one European, the other, Eurasian. The Old Belief exploded out of this divide, and it is a divide that has yet to be resolved. Even today, the difference between the Russian Old Belief and the ROCOR is a facet of the same movement: the former looks to old Russia, the latter, to the Imperial period. And nowhere is this divide more substantial than between the priestly Old Faith and the Moscow Patriarchate.

Maxim sided with the ascetics, the non-possessors, the true defenders of Old Russia and her tradition. St. Maxim attacked the Josephites for their “love of silver” and their greed, which he characterized in the harshest terms possible, even going so far as to call them “Judaizers.” Maxim was able to see the vague outline of the perversity of later church/state relations where the Orthodox hierarchy was an irregular, frightened and persecuted organization ruling at the whim of the state, which revolved bishops around regularly from see to see, against the canons.

This church/state symphony led to the creation of 20 million Old Believers, highly pious and literate, representing Old Russia, and only in the diaspora did the Russian church attempt to regain its old roots. Maxim saw the disaster coming. Maxim, as James Billingon states, condemned the Josephite movement for bringing greed “into holy places, also for tampering with the sacred texts for calculating, political purposes. In the course of this sustained debate with the Josephite metropolitan +Daniel of Moscow, Maxim voices the fear that the church is coming under the authority of ‘devious rules” rather than “just rules.. .’” (cf. Billington’s Icon and Axe, 92).

What Maxim was doing was creating a new morality, a pure Christian faith outside of political or economic manipulation. He saw this in the non-possessors, a retiring, contemplative, poor groups of sketes that would better defend the faith than the large, politically-oriented institution on the Josephite model. The very fact that Maxim, the best translator in Russia at the time, said that the books and the ancient writings were being tampered with “for political purposes” says a mouthful about the later Old Faith rebellion. And this in the 1520s.

Billington continues, “The fall of Byzantium was a moral warning to Muscovy against pride and complacence in high places rather than an assurance that Moscow was now the ‘Third Rome.’” (93) St. Maxim made a sharp distinction between an Orthodox society and an Orthodox state. He supported the former, rejected the latter. The Orthodox state means that the stronger power, the state, will always be able to interject itself in major decisions, regardless of whether the competence or the morality of the civil power. The Orthodox society is something different, it creates the Orthodox government, the Orthodox authorities. It is not under them per se, but in fact imbues them with its spirit. An Orthodox society, logically and politically, comes before an Orthodox state.

In return, the state threw St. Maxim in prison, starved and beat him. He will eventually die a martyr. St. Maxim became, like Sts. Boris and Gleb, a strong symbol for unjust suffering, and the ideal that unjust suffering opens up truth to the pious sufferer, a truth closed to the Josephites, and their mutually profitable relationship to the state. St. Maxim was imprisoned on false charges of “heresy” because he attacked the fact that a “Russian empire” will necessitate the slavery of labor, high taxes, and unearned wealth. He attacked Moscow for its wealth and excessive drive for power, and yet still believed in a strong Russia, a Russia strong in faith, charity and patriotism. For him, these were two very different things. His relationship to the Old Testament prophets is striking.

For Maxim, suffering was a gateway to truth. The comfortable become too biased due to their surroundings. Only release from the world of power politics can a family become truly holy. Hence, the small, free commune and the popular, not domineering, monarchy became Maxim’s rallying cry, later taken up by Razin. “Holy Russia” was a reality, but it was not commensurate with the empire. An empire devours its children through war, taxation and slavery, the reality both of ancient Egypt, Solomon’s Israel and Peter’s Russia. Each sought to use the faith and the priesthood as a buttress to state power, the power of the state became more important than doctrine, as in the case of the canceling of the 100 Chapters Sobor that defined much of Russian Orthodox life.

This is illustrated in a common Old Believer complaint about the Liturgical Great Entrance. In the Old Rite, banned by Patriarch Nikon and later, by Peter I, contained only one prayer, that for the “Orthodox people of Russia and all Orthodox people.” In the new rite, this was changed to prayers for the hierarchy and prayers for the state. The people came last, and later, was dropped altogether. This in a striking way is illustrative of what was being hatched in Moscow, and what was being fought by the successors of St. Nil Sorskii and St. Maxim.

St. Maxim believed in the full unity of all Orthodoxy, not a separate path for Russia, and another for Greece. The non-possessors rejected the notion of Russian autocephaly because he thought it would lead to a sense of national pride and a sense of being “separate” from the rest of the Orthodox world. Maxim and the non-possessors were convinced that the proclamation of Russian Autocephaly would be another step towards the creation of an expense and oppressive “European Empire.”

All of this will lead to a closing off of Moscow, and, more importantly, a moving of the translations of the service books from actual scholars to bureaucrats, soon to lead to the schism, a schism that existed on as many levels as Maxim himself. The pan-Orthodox mentality of Maxim was snuffed out in exchange for, not a modern nationalism, but a statism, the statism of Solomon as opposed to the unitative nationalism of Moses or Joshua. The latter stood for the domination of doctrine and culture, a specific calling in the world, while Solomon stood for the “glory of Israel” in the sense of the glory of empire.

Solomon will use the very same sort of argumentation of the Josephites millennia later, the notion that to be “respected in the world” and to have the alliances necessary for national protection, the state must become wealthy, impress its neighbors and become a part of the “concert of nations,” an idea harshly condemned by Isaiah more than any other prophet. Israel, in its Old Testament life, is different from the Empire of Solomon. The former is the chosen people, represented solely in this era by the Orthodox, while the State of Israel is represented by the modern incarnation of Solomon, Peter and Catherine of Russia.

From this time period on, climaxing in the reign of Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia as Jerusalem was being distorted into a New Rome, a New Rome on statist principles. The state, from Alexis onwards, separated itself from the common population, something that Razin’s rebellion made inevitable.

New groups of nobles were brought in on service contracts to eventually eliminate the older princely nobility. Like in France, it created a new country, a Petersburgia, a (quite literally) isolated bureaucracy who had very little contact with peasants and certainly very little contact with Russia, given their Scandinavian location.

Russia was to soon split into two: the Europeans, dominating St. Petersburg and later dominating the church in the 19th century. Old Russia was found in the forests, the Old Belief, the Optina elders, the small sketes soon to be revivified by the writings and translations of St. Paisius Velichovskii. All of these, however, remained isolated from the New Russia being built in Petrograd, whose edifice will crumble under the “European entanglements” of World War I, entanglements that flowed naturally from Peter and Catherine’s state building project and its “enlightened absolutism.”

Matthew Raphael Johnson, Ph.D. is a former history professor, a professional author, a priest of the Russo-Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and a VoR radio host. His Web site is The Orthodox Nationalist. Email him at fr_raphael