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The Orthodox Church / The Patriarchate of Moscow and all Rus'

The Patriarchate of Moscow and all Rus'

Number of faithful

approx. 100 million, mainly in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, in the neighboring states of the former Soviet Union, in China and Japan and in the diaspora

Title of First HierarchPatriarch of Moscow and and all Rus'
See of the First HierarchMoscow (Russia)
Current incumbentKirill (Gundyayev), born 1946, in office since 2009
Bishops and dioceses377 bishops; 302 dioceses, divided into two autonomous churches: China (1) and Japan (3 dioceses)

five “self-governing” churches: Estonia (1), Latvia (2), Moldova (6), Ukraine (53) and the “Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia” (8 dioceses) four exarchates: Africa (2), Belarus (15), Southeast Asia (4), Western Europe (5 dioceses).

Liturgical languageChurch Slavonic
Presence in Austriaapprox. 40,000 faithful; episcopal see in Vienna; 7 parishes, 10 priests, 2 deacons
Presence in Germanyapprox. 490,000 faithful in two dioceses: (1) Berlin Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate: episcopal see in Berlin, 109 congregations, 77 priests, 19 deacons; (2) Diocese of ROCOR: 2 bishops (diocesan and vicar), 62 parishes, 51 priests, 11 deacons

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church in terms of numbers. Its origin dates back to 988, when the Kyiv Grand Duke Vladimir converted to Christianity and had himself and his people baptized by representatives of the Byzantine Church. During the 13th century, after the conquest of Kyiv by the Tatars, the center of gravity of the empire shifted north and the metropolitans of Kyiv took up residence in Moscow (from 1326). Until the 15th century, the Kyiv Metropolis was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1448, there was a break between Moscow and Constantinople when Metropolitan Isidor of Kyiv wanted to implement the rulings of the Union Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439) in Russia. After the conclusive collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Tsar and the Church in Russia increasingly perceived themselves as the only legitimate "guardians of orthodoxy". This development led to the elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the rank of patriarchate in 1589. After a period of increasing patriarchal power in the 17th century, a phase of extensive state control over the Orthodox Church in Russia was initiated, especially, after the abolition of the patriarchate by Tsar Peter the Great in the early 18th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian religious philosophy inaugurated a creative era of theology that resulted in a major reform movement culminating in the All-Russian Council of 1917-1918. The inter-church decided reforms as well as the re-establishment of the patriarchate aimed at making possible for the church to become once more a society shaping power. The internal church reforms decreed by this council and the restoration of the patriarchate aimed at making the Orthodox Church a society shaping force once more. The Soviet takeover thwarted these plans. Orthodox bishops, priests and lay people were persecuted, executed, or sent to labor camps. A declaration of loyalty to the Soviets issued in 1927, could not prevent the persecution, but led instead to the secession of numerous Russian emigrants, who created their own church structure, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

World War II brought an end to the massive persecution because Stalin needed support from the Orthodox Church. After 1945, state and church in the Soviet Union found a modus vivendi that enabled the Moscow Patriarchate to do limited pastoral work within the few churches that were open but attempted to prevent any church influence on society. In 1961, the Moscow Patriarchate was allowed to join the World Council of Churches because those in power hoped that this step would distract them from state restrictions. In the decades that followed, the Moscow Patriarchate used the freedom it was given to build a network of ecumenical relationships through which the Soviet regime could be prevented from overtly persecuting the Orthodox Church.

Due to the "perestroika" initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian Orthodox Church was able to publicly celebrate the millennium of the baptism of Kyivan Rus' in 1988. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Orthodox Church quickly regained its influence in the Russian Federation and in the other successor states of the Soviet Union. At the same time, ecumenical relations deteriorated, partly because of the large number of missionaries who poured into the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. The Moscow Patriarchate responded to the increased competition by declaring the territory of the former Soviet Union (with the exception of Georgia and Armenia) as its "canonical territory". In order for the growing national consciousness of the successor states to the Soviet Union to be taken into account, the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and Belarus were granted autonomous status. After several years of preparation, the restoration of church fellowship between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Outside of Russia was achieved in May 2007. However, as a “self-governing branch” of the Russian Orthodox Church, it retains relative independence.


  • R. Elsner, Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche vor der Herausforderung Moderne, Würzburg 2018.
  • Metropolit Hilarion (Alfeyev), Katechismus. Kleine Wegbegleitung im orthodoxen Glauben, Münster 2017.
  • Th. Bremer, Kreuz und Kreml. Geschichte der orthodoxen Kirche in Russland, Freiburg i.Br. ²2016.
  • Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche, ed. by Metropolit Pitirim von Volokolamsk, Berlin / New York 1988.