A History of Christianity (2009–…): Season 1, Episode 3 - Orthodoxy: From Empire to Empire - full transcript

Diamaid MacCulloch charts Orthodoxy's extraordinary fight for survival.

Here in the Church of the Holy Wisdom
in Constantinople, on 16 July 1054,

a disaster unfolded for Christianity.

It was actually during a service
that a papal delegation swept
up to the altar and placed on it

a document excommunicating the leader
of the Church in Constantinople,
the Patriarch.

The Patriarch
excommunicated the Pope in return.

The moment has come to be remembered
as the Great Schism, a split between

Eastern Orthodox Christianity
and Western Catholic Christianity.

At the time,
it seemed like one petty incident
in a whole series of disagreements.

But the fact remains that
a thousand years later that split
between East and West is still there.

Today, Eastern Orthodox Christianity
flourishes in the Balkans and Russia.

And it has over 150 million
worshippers worldwide.

But much of my third programme
charts its fight for survival.

After its glory days in the Eastern
Roman Empire, it stood right in
the path of Muslim expansion,

suffered betrayal by
crusading Catholics,

was seized by the Russian
Tsars to ally with tyranny

and faced near-extinction
under Soviet Communism.

So what is Orthodoxy?

And what is the secret
of its endurance?

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I'm the guest here of the
congregation of the Greek
Orthodox Cathedral in London.


What you get in any Orthodox act
of worship is a fragment of a vast

annual ballet of worship,
carefully choreographed

and woven into a texture
of ancient music

to reflect the timelessness of
God's imperial court in Heaven.

On that spoon,
bread and wine mingle to symbolise

the indivisible nature of Christ
who is both human and divine.


All around us are the symbols of
1500 years of Orthodox tradition.

The deeply venerated icons.

And this fierce-looking bird,
the double-headed eagle.

What story is this ancient,
passionate drama trying to tell us?

It pulls us back to one of the great
crises of Mediterranean civilisation.

The greatest empire which
the West had ever known
seemed to be tottering into ruin.

From the beginning
of the 4th century,
the Roman Empire was Christian.

But then the Christian God
seemed to give up on it.

In the West, barbarians overran it.

In 410, they seized Rome itself.

Yet still, in the Eastern half of the
Empire, there was another capital
beyond the invaders' reach.

Today we call it Istanbul,
but that's just a version of its
original name, Constantinople,

given it by its founder,
Constantine the Great.

Constantine had founded his city
on the site of an old Greek
fishing port called Byzantion.

His dream was for Constantinople to
become the perfect Christian capital.

Indeed, he thought of it
as the new Rome.

Two centuries later, the dream lived
on for a husband and wife

who took power
in the Eastern Empire in 518.

Emperor Justinian
and Empress Theodora.

They were one of the
most unlikely couples

ever to rule
in Constantinople.

He was a peasant from the Balkans.

She was a former circus artist of
allegedly daunting sexual prowess.

Together, they set out to
regain the lost territories of
the Christian Roman Empire.

Instead, they created something new,

the Byzantine Empire.

Justinian moulded his new Christian
Byzantine Empire round one church.

Put up in just under six years,
it was far and away the largest

religious building in the
Christian world.

The Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia.

When Justinian entered the
building for the first time
he was heard to murmur,

"Solomon, I have surpassed thee."

That's the sort of
ambition we're seeing here.

An emperor who can outdo the
Bible's most glorious king of Israel.

For nearly 1000 years,
this was the scene of a constant
round of sacred imperial ceremony.

The Emperor and Patriarch
were the leading actors in the drama,

a union of church and throne.

Today, Hagia Sophia is
clogged with scaffolding.

And frankly,
there's a sadness about the place.

It takes you a while to get over that
and see one of the most sumptuous
spaces ever created by human beings.

The dome covers
a vast congregational space,

trying to bring Heaven
into daily worship.

Because the dome IS Heaven, the sky
above turned into human architecture.

And that's the key difference between
Eastern Christianity and the
Christianity of the Latin West.

The Western Church has insisted
that original sin

opened a great gulf
between God and humanity.

But Eastern Christianity
tells its followers

that God and human beings
can meet, even unite.

It's a risky, exhilarating thought.

And nothing expresses that mystical
urge to make the invisible visible
more than Byzantine Art.

Even though it's an art which is the
result of a theological compromise.

The solution to a big headache
which all Christians face -

how to make a picture
out of the divine.

The archaeological museum in Istanbul
is full of sculpture from the
Greek world before Christ.

Greeks took it for granted that
you represent gods and goddesses
with as much beauty as you can.

Christianity took shape
in this Greek world.

But Christians also believe
that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.

That points to a great fault line
running through all Christianity.

Greeks thought it natural to portray
the divine as human but Jews came
to find it profoundly shocking.

Jews stuck to their second
commandment -

"You shall make no graven image
for yourself, you shall not
bow down to them or serve them."

Who were Christians to follow,
Jews or Greeks?

The Western church tied itself
in knots on this question.

But Eastern Christians did
something rather ingenious.

They simply created art
that was not graven.

In other words, nothing sculpted,
just flat surfaces.

The busy jewelled walls of mosaics,
or paintings on wood.

And those wooden painted tablets
became the defining feature
of the Orthodox Church, the icon.

This is not just art,

it's a three-way meeting,
between artist, worshipper and God.

Very few of the first icons survive.

To see them,
I've had to travel to the fringes
of the old Byzantine Empire.

The Sinai Peninsula, in modern Egypt.

Here at the foot of Mount Sinai

is one of the most ancient
Christian monasteries in the world.

Back in the 6th century,
it was a frontier-post
for the Byzantine Empire

and another proof
of the Emperor Justinian's
enthusiasm for Christian building.

Within its great
fortress walls is the world's
oldest collection of icons.

The word icon
means just what it says.

The Greek word for "image".

A face, a person, a scene

painted on a portable wooden panel
in special, prescribed ways.

God, Christ,
the saints of the Church.

Icons invite the worshipper
to stand not before a painting,
but a real person.

Each of them is an invitation
to climb a ladder to Heaven.


Icons are focal points
in every Orthodox church.

They cover a screen in front of
the altar called the iconostasis.

Today, you couldn't imagine
Orthodox tradition, so mystical,
so ancient, without icons.

But it wasn't always so.

From the 7th century a series of
emperors did their best to wipe
out icons from Byzantine religion.

And strange though it may sound,
it was because they'd begun to
doubt that God was on their side.

There was a good reason to worry,
a sudden and unexpected

challenge to the Byzantine Empire
from a new religious force, Islam.

By the middle of the 7th century,
Muslim armies had snatched two
thirds of Byzantian territory,

including the great holy cities
of Damascus, Antioch and Jerusalem.

Twice, Islamic armies reached
the outer walls of Constantinople.

And as the Byzantines brooded on why
God might have switched sides,
they made a connection.

A big difference between
Islam and Orthodoxy.

Muslims never make
a picture of the divine.

The holy book of the Qur'an forbids
Muslims to make images of the sacred.

The divine cannot be represented.

And Muslims were winning
campaigns against the Byzantines.

Put two and two together, Christians,
like Muslims, must destroy their
images to win back God's favour.

And so, with the survival of his
empire at stake, the Emperor Leo III

ordered the wholesale removal of
icons from all Byzantine churches.

At the present day of course,
the Ecumenical Patriarch of

presides over a church rich in icons.

His own Church of St George
is full of them.

So what brought icons back?

It was clear that, in destroying
them, Leo was asking for trouble.

Riots broke out across the Empire.

It was a full-scale backlash.

Amid argument and
violence, iconoclasm was born.

The word means "smashing images".

It was one of the great
traumas of Christian history,

and it soaked up energy in Byzantium
for more than a century.

Painting or venerating icons
led to torture, sometimes death.

And many were prepared to die rather
than see their churches stripped
of this divine gateway to God.

It was an Empress, Theodora,
who at last stopped iconoclasm
in the year 843.

She commissioned a new liturgy,
The Triumph Of Orthodoxy.

It acclaims those who defended icons
and it gleefully names their enemies.

So the very worship of the Church
enshrines the memory of
that traumatic century.

The violent reaction to Iconoclasm
demonstrated that Orthodoxy was not
just a religion of the powerful.

It was the possession of
ordinary people too.

Future rulers would forget
that at their peril.

Right at the heart of Istanbul
is a last word from the defeated

The 8th-century Church of
Holy Peace, Hagia Irene,
built by an iconoclast Emperor.

Now it's a concert hall,
stripped of nearly everything
from its Christian past.

Except for a heart-stopping remnant
from the fleeting era
of iconoclast Orthodoxy.

Up in the apse, at the far end, over
the altar, a simple black cross in
mosaic against a gold background.

And that is iconoclastic art.

That is what the iconoclasts
put in their churches.

You don't see this very often.

800 years after the death of Jesus,

Christianity was still expanding
across the known world and beyond.

The Church of the East was
established in the Middle East,

spreading its message from Baghdad
to the far ends of Asia.

The Western wing of the Church,
the Latin Church based in Rome,

was reviving and sending missions
south, west and north.

And sandwiched between them was the
Orthodoxy of the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire might be
battered and bruised,

but it was still the world's
largest Christian power.

It had survived both Islam
and iconoclasm.

The Church of the West
and the East were still united

and the West had welcomed
the defeat of iconoclasm,

which had always
horrified the papacy.

But in practice, the gulf
between Rome and Constantinople
was deepening.

Whilst the Orthodox had been
arguing about iconoclasm,
an ambitious ruler had united

most of what are now France, Germany
and Italy into a new Latin Empire.

Western Christians celebrate him
as Charlemagne, Charles the Great.

Not the Orthodox.

Charlemagne sent Catholic
missionaries to convert non-Christian

Slavs in the no-man's land between
his Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

What was worse for the Byzantines?

Central Europe full of unconverted
souls ripe for hell,

or central Europe full of devout
little Catholic Christian Slavs

all grateful to Charlemagne?
Something must be done.

The race was on to see who could
get the Slavs to Heaven the quickest.

East or West?

Today Velehrad is in Roman
Catholic territory,

and this is an overwhelmingly
Catholic celebration
of Slavic Christian heritage.

But it wasn't always so.

The men embroidered on those stoles
are heroes of Orthodoxy.

Cyril & Methodius.

And they stole a march on
Charlemagne's missionaries
in what was then Great Moravia.

Because the crucial question arose
of which language the Slavs should
worship God in, Greek or Latin?

And Cyril and Methodius
brilliantly outflanked the Latins

by answering the
question with "Neither!"

The Slavs could worship
God in their own language.

But now another problem.

Slavonic languages had
never been written down.

Cyril and Methodius had
an answer to that too.

This is the answer to the problem -
an entirely new alphabet with symbols

completely unlike Greek or Latin
because they're meant to
represent the sounds of Slavonic.

But actually
it was extremely difficult to use,

so someone decided to start again
with characters much more like Greek.

But with exquisite tact,
whoever it was, named their alphabet
after Cyril - Cyrillic.

And it's the alphabet
still used by the Russians,
the Bulgarians and the Serbs.

Cyril and Methodius were getting
the Slavs to worship in the language
which they used in the marketplace.

That's what I find most astonishing.

The cliche about Orthodoxy
is that it's timeless,

ultra-conservative, unchanging
but this was innovative, creative.

The great contribution which Cyril
and Methodius made to Orthodoxy

was to equip it to stay Orthodox
in a rich variety of cultures.

Eventually even some which were not
Slav at all, like the Romanians.

This would prove absolutely vital
for Orthodoxy's long-term survival.

But the immediate result
was bitterness.

Competition between Latin
and Orthodox missionaries

in central Europe underlined the
growing distance between the two
wings of the old Imperial Church.

For the first thousand years
of its existence,

the Church in the former Roman Empire
had managed more or less
to keep the appearance of one Church.

The Orthodox emblem on the
headquarters of the Patriarch in
Istanbul is the double-headed eagle.

One head for East, one for West.

I don't think that it's coincidence
that Byzantine Emperors started using
this symbol around 1000 AD,

just when unity between
the Eastern and Western Churches
was draining away.

Separated by geography,
language and culture, East and
West had been drifting apart.

There was in particular
a little matter of words,

in fact one little
Latin word - "Filioque".

It means "and the Son".

The Filioque was a tiny, Western
addition to the Nicene Creed

which is a creed held in common
between the Western
and the Eastern Churches.

It says the Holy Spirit
proceeds from the Father,

but the Court of Charlemagne in
the 9th century added "and the Son".

The Holy Spirit proceeds
from the Father and the Son.

This was the source of both tension
and then crisis for centuries.

That one word, "Filioque",
escalated East-West tensions.

The Byzantine Church felt ANY
change to the Creed was blasphemy.

This was not going to end well.

The crisis point came in 1054.

Envoys from the Bishop of Rome
arrived in Constantinople
to deal with the growing rift.

They were spoiling for a fight.

Matters came to a head in the middle
of the liturgy in Hagia Sophia.

The Cardinal from Rome
lost his temper

and took it upon himself
to excommunicate
the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The Patriarch reciprocated.

At the time, this melodrama
in Hagia Sophia seemed just
a passing diplomatic spat.

But nearly 1000 years later,
the schism between the Latin West and
the Greek East has never been healed.

And within 200 years
any chance of reconciliation

was given a final, fatal blow
in one of the most shameful
episodes in Christian history.


In the decades following the Great
Schism the Byzantine Empire was once
more at the mercy of Muslim armies.

The Byzantines swallowed their pride
and appealed to Western
Catholic leaders for help.

And so in 1095 Pope Urban II
launched the first of many Crusades.

The Latin Christian soldiers of the
Fourth Crusade turned out to be less
interested in defending the Holy Land

than in their own wealth,
power and glory.

In an astonishing act of betrayal,
they attacked the very people
they were supposed to protect -

Christian Constantinople.

The Crusaders broke through
the walls in spring 1204.

Thousands in the city
died before it fell.

The known world's
wealthiest and most cultured city
was comprehensively trashed.

And the rape of Constantinople was
carried out not by Muslims as
the Byzantines had always feared...

..but by Catholic Christians.

If 1054 had marked the formal
separation between East and West,

then 1204 was the gut-wrenching
emotional point of no return.

Constantinople was occupied by
Western Catholic carpet-baggers
for 57 years.

But even though Orthodoxy
snatched back its city,
the empire never recovered.

For the first time,
the Orthodox Church stood alone.

Western Christianity had
broken Byzantium's spirit

and now another great power
would finish the job.

During the 15th century,
the Ottoman Turks ruthlessly
gobbled up the Byzantine lands.

Soon all that was left was the once
great city of Constantinople,

now a collection
of shrunken villages,

with Hagia Sophia still
looming over them all.

Ottoman besiegers
snatched their chance.

On 29 May 1453, the Ottomans
poured into the city.

In Hagia Sophia morning service
bravely carried on

while the Turks battered
down the great door reserved
for imperial processions.

The Sultan
gave orders that Muslim prayers be
chanted out from the grand pulpit.

Hagia Sophia had become a mosque!

It was a savage end to
the long Christian history
of the Byzantine Empire.

Now all the strongholds of Byzantine
Orthodoxy were under Muslim control,

including four of the five
ancient Patriarchates.

Only Rome was free
and Rome was not Orthodox.

For the next four centuries and more,

Orthodox Christians
were second-class citizens

in the lands that their
Emperor had once ruled.

In the mid-15th century, Orthodoxy
might seem to be fated to be pushed
into ever-narrower confines,

like the Church of the East or the
ancient Churches of North Africa.

But remember that mission
of Cyril and Methodius
back in the 9th century?

Now that came to the rescue
of the Orthodox future.

Cyril and Methodius had established
a lifeline for Orthodoxy in Moravia.

Over the next 500 years,
its spread north was to prove
vital in this new crisis.

Orthodoxy's future now lay
far from its origins in lands of
an entirely different character.

Its people lived in the darkness of
harsh winters, in communities often
tiny, and widely separated.

Orthodoxy didn't just survive,
it flourished,

moving out of the work
of Cyril and Methodius east to Kiev,

encompassing everything we now think
of as Russia to the frozen wastes
of the Arctic in the far north.

Ordinary people
took to Orthodox Christianity

with a fierce commitment that shaped
and even defined a Russian identity.

Their faith was brought to them by
lone individuals, wandering hermits

and holy men who sometimes settled
in small communities.

And gradually over two centuries
you had a great scatter
of monasteries,

perhaps 100 or more,
all over what is now northern Russia.

But still there would be holy men
wandering beyond those communities

and that really is what
rooted Orthodoxy in the people.

These ordinary men getting
close to those scattered, lonely
people over that vast territory

made Orthodoxy people's religion.

But this people's religion was also
inextricably linked with the rise
of what became the Russian Empire.

Its rulers learned to use the Church
to expand and control the Empire

and make their rule sacred.

The Orthodox Church came to be at
the centre of a three-way tug of war
between the ambitions of the Tsars,

the clergy and the devout
faith of the Russian people.

During the 14th century, as holy
men and women spread Christianity
amongst the people,

the rulers of a modest settlement
with big ideas

were quietly turning themselves
into a power you couldn't ignore.

The settlement was Moscow.

And the ruling dynasty
fashioned itself as
heir of the Byzantine Empire.

Just to make sure of its claim,
in 1472 the Grand Prince of Muscovy,

Ivan III, married the niece of the
last Byzantine emperor and he adopted

the double headed Byzantine eagle as
his symbol and just occasionally he
used the title "Tsar"

which is simply
the Roman imperial Kaiser, Caesar.

The first Rome had fallen
to barbarians and sunk into
Roman Catholic heresy.

The second Rome, Constantinople,
was now in the hands of Islam.

The Orthodox Church of Russia now
seized the title "the third Rome".

Eventually it even gained
its own Patriarch in Moscow.

But though Russian Orthodoxy's
origins were in Byzantium,
the rule of the Tsars

and the intense religion of its
people created a Church which was
distinctively Russian in character.

You can see that straightaway
from a short walk through Moscow.

Russia's church domes took
on the shape of an onion.

Some think the design was inspired
by manuscript pictures of the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Others see it as just practical.

A way of stopping the
build-up of snow.

Either way, the design
redrew the Russian landscape.

The most famous of these churches
was built in the 16th century...

..St Basil's Cathedral
in Moscow's Red Square.

Its exterior is startlingly original.

An eight-sided central church
rising into a spire, hemmed in
by eight smaller churches.

Do you remember how Byzantine
Orthodoxy looked to one great
church in Constantinople?

The Holy Wisdom
had been built by a great Emperor
and military commander, Justinian.

Well, you could say that this church
was intended to do the same thing
for Russian Orthodoxy.

The only problem was
that it was built by the maddest,
cruellest emperor in world history.

Ivan the Terrible placed St Basil's
in the centre of Moscow in 1552.

And like Justinian
1,000 years before,

he made his church the centrepiece
of his Russian Orthodox Empire.

Of course, Ivan is
better remembered for persecuting and
butchering millions of his subjects.

And inside St Basil's
you get an idea of his mindset.

If you look at it on a plan
it looks perfectly rational

and symmetrical but no-one ever
did see it in plan apart from
the architect and the patron.

Your actual experience of it, once
you're inside, is a combination of
vertigo and claustrophobia.

I don't think that it's too
much to say it feels...deranged.

In Russian, the word "terrible"

is better understood as "awesome"

but the English translation
"terrible" gets Ivan just right.

Born in 1530,
he was crowned at the age of only 16,
as the first Tsar of Russia.

And this gave him ideas
about the Orthodox Church.

He became obsessed with making Russia
holy Russia,

with himself at the centre as
God's representative on earth.

Early in his reign he was full
of energy, building churches,

ordering exact rules for
how icons should be painted.

That concern for holiness was
not necessarily a bad idea,
but it was perverted into tyranny.

During his 37-year reign,

Ivan exercised absolute power through
atrocities on an insane scale.

And he clearly came to love
terrifying and hurting people,
just because he could.

And yet the metropolitan bishop
of Moscow who crowned him left
him with a terrible sense of sin.

Ivan once cried out in a letter,
"I, a stinking hound,

"whom can I teach, what can I preach,
and how can I enlighten anybody?"

Ivan's concern for the welfare
of his soul was amply justified.

His religious despotism reached
deep into the lives of his subjects,

as he dictated
how Orthodoxy should be practised
down to the minutest detail.

Not even men's beards
escaped his judgment.

For Ivan, the beard was an
ornament given by God to Jesus,

so he forbade the shaving of beards.

And heaven help
anyone who went against him.

Ivan was convinced that
God had made him Emperor when
the Metropolitan crowned him.

So that anyone who opposed Ivan
was a heretic and deserved the
punishment of death,

preferably in as nasty
a way as possible.

In the worst years of his reign, Ivan
enforced his crazy tyranny across
the Empire through the Oprichniki...

..a perverted version
of a religious order,

robed in black cloaks as they
went about their inhuman business.

Millions of Russians were
killed in Ivan's purges.

And yet one man dared to
stand up to the tyrant.

And St Basil's Cathedral
is now named after this hero
of humble Orthodox faith.

St Basil was a very particular,
peculiar sort of hermit -
a Holy Fool.

Holy Fools overturned all
the rules of normal society.

They behaved like madmen
to show the power of God.

And St Basil showed that
very well because he was one
of the very few people

who could stand up to Ivan
the Terrible and get away with it.

In the middle of Lent, the saint
once thrust some meat into the
hands of the astonished Tsar,

telling him that there was no
point in him trying to fast since
he had committed so many crimes.

Ivan was humbled,
St Basil unpunished.

St Basil's story
is the perfect reminder of a repeated
keynote in Russian Orthodox history.

The depth of faith among
ordinary Russians was so profound
that whatever the Tsars did to them,

they obstinately continued
to worship in their own way.

Religion was woven inextricably into
the fabric of ordinary life,

often in alarmingly eccentric ways,
as in the case of the sect
known as the Skoptsy.

Well, they were devoted to
eliminating sexual lust
from humankind

by cutting off their genitals.

Their founder had read his
Russian bible but he'd misread it.

He read the word for
Jesus the Redeemer, "iskupitel"

as "oskopitel" - castrator.

A century after Ivan the Terrible,
another Tsar came up against that
strength of feeling

with bloodstained results.

Tsar Aleksei and his Patriarch both
wanted to tidy up the Church,

take it back to
a pure Byzantine Orthodoxy.

Take sacred blessings, for instance.

In the Byzantine tradition,
clergy made the sign of the blessing

using three fingers to
symbolise the Trinity.

But in Russia, two fingers were used
to symbolise the
two natures of Christ.

Now, Aleksei ordered Russian clergy
to change the sign of the blessing
to three fingers.

It might seem utterly trivial
to us but in that world,
every detail mattered.

Your average Russian couldn't
care less about being faithful
to Greek Orthodox tradition.

They knew what Orthodoxy was -
it was Russian.

And this was heresy.

So thousands, eventually
millions of them, defied the Tsar.

Some left the Tsars' Church
and became known as "Old Believers."

Many were burned at the stake
for their defiance.

And some, rather than submit
to the Tsar's heretical authority,
actually set fire to themselves.

The Imperial Church was still there.

It continued to serve the
people of this vast empire.

But between Tsarist autocracy
and the lives of the people,

there was that third force -

the hierarchy of the Church...

and a question that even the
Byzantines had never quite resolved.

Who was truly God's
representative on earth?

The Tsar or the head of
the Russian Church, the Patriarch?

In 1689, the throne of Russia
was inherited by Peter the Great.

He settled that question
for the next two centuries.

Where Ivan the Terrible had been mad,
Peter the Great was rational.

But he was still a tsar.

He saw Orthodox Christianity
as just another useful tool to
control the Russian Empire.

And this is his statue - one of
Moscow's latest tourist attractions.

It's widely hated in the city
but I'm going to be unfashionable.

I rather like it. It's quite fun.

Peter astride his ship
from his brand-new navy.

Peter was a moderniser and
a big part of his modernising Russia
was to seize control of the Church.

For nearly two centuries after
his time there was no Patriarch.

The Church was run by
a set of state bureaucrats.

So now the Church had lost
control of its own decision-making.

There was now no question
as to who was in charge -

the Tsar.

As usual, in Christian history,
the Church made the best of it.

In fact, it prospered.

In the 19th century
Russian monastic life flourished.

Churches actually got more crowded.

And at least the Church was safe.

Orthodoxy had survived
a turbulent 1,300 years.

But its next encounter
nearly wiped it out.

At the start of the 20th century,

Russia was a great European power
under Tsar Nicholas II.

And yet by 1918 his world had been
overwhelmed in the Great War
and Revolution.

And in the thick of it all
was a Russian peasant from Siberia...

..a wandering hermit who became
the focus of a public scandal
surrounding the Tsar's family.

The Tsarina believed that
God spoke to her, through the hermit.

But his enemies
said he was a lecherous drunk whose
interference crippled the government.

In the last days of the Tsars,
during the First World War,

Grigori Rasputin gained
an extraordinary hold

over Tsar Nicholas
II and his Empress

because he appeared to be able to
stem the haemophilia of their son.

Was Grigori Rasputin
a Holy Fool or a crazy drunk?

Well, perhaps he was both.

But his peasant faith
made a fool out of the Tsars
and helped to doom their regime.

Russia was descending into nightmare.

It was losing the war with Germany.

Its people were starving
and turning to revolution.

And the Rasputin scandal
became hugely symbolic,

a dose of poison
for the Tsarist regime.

As hundreds of thousands died
on the front, the troops
voted with their feet and mutinied.

In February 1917
there was revolution.

The Russian Emperor was forced
to abdicate, bringing to an end
nearly 500 years of Tsarist rule.

For the Church, there was
a brief moment of hope.

A liberal provisional
government was formed, Russia's
first real experience of democracy.

In Moscow a council of
bishops, clergy and laypeople

made plans for a revived Church,
free of Tsarist interference.

they elected a new Patriarch,
the first since Peter the Great.

But it proved to be a false dawn.

In October of that year,
worldwide Orthodoxy
met its most terrible enemy so far.

Soviet Communism.

With Lenin at its head, the
Bolshevik Party seized the revolution

and installed a dictatorship of
the proletariat, with absolute
power over all Russia.

In this new world order
there was no place for God.

Orthodoxy had shaped Russia
since the 10th century.

But the Bolsheviks saw all religion
as the opium of the masses,

a symptom of false consciousnesses
and, worst of all, an obstacle
to scientific socialism.

In January 1918, Lenin formally
separated Church from State.

And that was just the first step
in a systematic policy to
purge Christianity

altogether from Russian life,
and force atheism on its people.

But it was a policy Lenin
did not live to carry out.

The task was followed through even
more ruthlessly by a man who,

in just 10 years, brought Orthodoxy
close to extinction -

something neither Catholic crusaders,
Muslim armies, nor Russian tyrants

had managed to do in 1,000 years.

Joseph Stalin was a Georgian gangster

whose mother had once hoped
he would become a bishop.

Instead, he had manoeuvred his
way up through the ranks of the
Bolshevik party

to become supreme ruler
of the Soviet Union.

A red tsar, one might say.

His plan was to wipe out
all real life in Orthodoxy.

In a society without God
there was no need for churches.

This is the dynamiting
of Moscow's Cathedral of
Christ the Saviour in 1931.

Then there were the human victims -
the Orthodox faithful.

Around 40,000 priests
and 40,000 monks and nuns,

plus millions of laypeople
died as a result of Soviet terror.

There was a manic
thoroughness to the campaign.

Some local Soviet commanders
lined up icons, sentenced
them to death and shot them!

By 1939 only a few hundred
churches remained open

and only four bishops
were not in prison.

And yet Russian Orthodoxy survived.

In the Second World War, Stalin
was forced into a remarkable U-turn.

Stalin needed the Church's
support to win the war.

And in order to use the Church,
he needed to recognise the Church.

It was Orthodoxy's patriotism
that saved it from extinction.

Stalin had to accept
that for many Russians

it wasn't the state that
embodied Russian culture
and national feeling...

it was the Church.

And so he allowed churches,
theological schools and
monasteries to reopen.

But after the war, it was Soviet
business as usual. More persecution.

At the end of the Second World War,
Soviet rule gripped
most of Eastern Europe.

When Stalin died in 1953,
Russia was a world superpower.

And for the next 30 years
it held Orthodoxy prisoner.

Yet the Orthodox Church
kept its faithful followers,

maintained its ancient liturgy
and music through all the traumas
inflicted on it by the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Orthodoxy outlived
the communist world order.

When General Secretary Gorbachev
tried to implement a more
humane communism, "glasnost,"

it turned into
an endgame for the system.

By the 1990s it was all over.

All the emotional power had
drained out of state communism.

And nothing showed that more than the
moment in 1991 when a crowd toppled
this statue, that of Dzerzhinksy,

the architect of the KGB system,
which is now relegated
to a quiet park -

a sort of retirement home
for tyranny.

For 70 years, the Soviets
had told their subjects that
communism was the future.

Now communism had gone.

What was compelling
enough to fill that gap?


It has triumphantly seized back its
place at the heart of Russian life.

In the 1990s, money
poured in from the public

for the rebuilding of the
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
in the centre of Moscow,

the Cathedral which Stalin had
obliterated 70 years before.

In its sufferings,
Orthodoxy survived catastrophes

quite unlike those faced
by Catholicism and Protestantism.

Stripped of the power it knew under
the Byzantine Emperors,

it saw its freedom stolen
by the Russian Tsars,

its people nearly all expelled
from Asia Minor,

its very existence
nearly destroyed by the Bolsheviks.

But in 21st century Russia,
the double-headed eagle of Byzantium

has once more became the
proud emblem of modern Russia.

There is still a legacy
for the Eastern Roman empire.

But solve one question,
and another appears.

Can Orthodoxy survive its first
meeting with Western freedom?

The world of capitalism, consumerism,
scepticism and sexual freedom?

So far, the instinct seems to have
been to reaffirm old certainties.

And you can understand why,
if you think back to all
those places I've been.

The solemn unfolding of the liturgy,
the serene gaze of the saints,

the experience of
God in wordless prayer.

And yet for all that,
Orthodoxy may still have to
learn from western Christians

how to cope with new challenges,
which western Christianity itself
has helped to create.

So, in next week's programme,
we're turning west again.

We're going to see how the great
monarchy which was the medieval
Western Church

split in two in the Reformation.

And then we'll go on to meet
the forces of the modern world,

from which no Christianity of
the 21st century can now hide.

Why not take part in the Open
University's online survey,

"What does it mean to
be a Christian today?" At -

And follow the links.