12. ​Tsar Alexis and the Patriarch Nikon's conflict (1658 and 1664)

On 8/19 July [1658] the feast of Our Lady of Kazan, the Tsar [Alexis Milchailocitch] contrary to the practice of years, absented himself from divine service in the Uspensky Cathedral. Two days later he sent Prince Yur• Romodanovsky to tell the patriarch that he was not to expect him at the still more ancient festival in honour of the translation of the Sacred Coat of the Saviour. The Tsar's Highness is wroth with you,' added the prince. 'You write yourself Great Gosudar, and we have only one Great Gosudar, the Tsar. . . . The Tsar's Highness bids me say you are not to write yourself so in future.'

The same day, after the solemn celebration, Nikon bade the sacristan close the doors of the cathedral, as he would address the congregation. The people crowded round the pulpit to hear the sermon, and a very strange sermon they heard. Nikon informed them, at some length, that he was no longer patriarch, and whosoever henceforth called him by that name was anathema. Then, divesting himself publicly of his patriarchal vestments, he retired into the sacristy, and wrote a letter to the Tsar containing these words: 'I depart because of thy wrath, for the Scripture saith: 'Give place to wrath", and again it is written: "If they reject thee in one city go to another, and if they receive thee not, shake the dust from off thy feet as a testimony against them".' Then, enveloped in the hood and mantle of a simple monk, and with a staff in his hand instead of a crozier, Nikon departed, despite an urgent message from the Tsar commanding him not to vacate his office. For three days. however, he lingered at Moscow eagerly awaiting overtures of reconciliation which never came, whereupon he shut himself up in the Voskresensky Monastery, the richest of his foundations which he and his Tsarish friend, in happier days, impressed by its beauty, as they strolled together through its gardens, had called 'The new Jerusalem'.

The consternation at Court was indescribable. More than once Alexius sent friendly boyars to attempt to turn Nikon from his resolution. But Nikon was immovable. Yet he apologized for his hasty departure, which he excused on the plea of ill-health; he sent his blessing to his locum tenens, the Metropolitan of Krutisk; and he made tender inquiries respecting the Tsar's bodily and spiritual welfare. His enemies grew alarmed, especially when they perceived that the Tsar was in no hurry to appoint a new patriarch, and, well aware of Alexius' tenderness for his old friend, they did their utmost to widen the breach between them. Their efforts would have been unavailing had not Nikon's mood suddenly changed. As a matter of fact, his abdication had not produced quite the effect he had anticipated. He was treated with indulgence, with respect even; but there was no repetition of the scenes which had occurred at his election. The Tsar had not begged his pardon. He had not even come to see him. The disappointed prelate grew irritable and in his irritation he said and did things which his best friends could not approve of.

In February, 166o, a synod was held at Moscow to terminate 'the widowhood' of the Moscovite Church, which had now been without a chief

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. He demonstrated that, according to the canons of the orthodox Church, archbishops voluntarily resigning their offices could not, unless guilty of canonical offences, be deprived of their sacerdotal character, or be forbidden to exercise their archiepiscopal functions. Thus the whole inquiry collapsed. The scrupulous Tsar shrank from enforcing the decrees of the synod for fear of committing mortal sin, and Nikon was escorted back to the monastery of the Resurrection.

The boyarin Rodion Stryeshnev, a near relation of the Tsar's, was one of Nikon's bitterest foes who lost no opportunity of ridiculing him. Amongst other things, he called his pet dog the 'patriarch Nikon', and taught the creature to stand on its hind legs and stretch out its front paw as if in the act of blessing. When this witticism was reported to Nikon, he solemnly cursed Stryeshnev for sacrilege, and this was one of the charges subsequently brought against him.

But if Nikon had many foes, his few remaining friends were the most enlightened people in Moscovy, including Rtishchev, Orduin Nashchokin, and Artamon Matvyeev. The sympathy of such men at such a time speaks well for the character and reputation of Nikon. They evidently regarded him as one of themselves, as one of the little band of enlightened reformers of whom Moscovy stood in great need, and they were very anxious to bring about a reconciliation between the Tsar and the patriarch. The means they took to this end was to get a common friend, the boyar Zyuzin, to write to Nikon, advising him to come in secret to Moscow and pay the Tsar a surprise visit. The old affection still subsisting between the two men would then, they hoped do the rest. But again Nikon's masterful temper spoiled everything. He did come to the KremP, as his friends advised, but he came not as suppliant seeking for forgiveness, but as a conqueror dictating his own terms.

At midnight, on 17/18 December, 1664, a long line of sledges halted before the outer barrier of the city of Moscow. 'Who goes there?' challenged the sentries. 'Prelates from the Savin Monastery,' was the reply. The procession was immediately admitted and made straight for the kreml'. At that moment early matt was being celebrated in the Uspensky Cathedral. John, Metropolitan of Rostov, was officiating, and the second kathizma* had been reached, when a loud knocking was heard outside; the doors of the cathedral opened wide, and a procession of monks entered bearing aloft a cross. Behind the cross, in full canonicals, walked the patriarch Nikon. He at once ascended into the patriarch's place, and the well-known voice, which for six years had not been heard within those walls, exclaimed, V.Pa se reading.' He was instantly obeyed, and the presbyters of the monastery of the Resurrection, who had accompanied him, then began singing 'Honour halt Thou, Lord', and Thou art worthy. This done, Nikon ordered a deacon to recite the Ekteniya,t and, after doing obeisance to the ikons and relics, he sent the metropolitan John to tell the Gosudar that the patriarch was there. The Tsar, whom they found at mass in the church of St Eudoxia, was amazed at the audacity of this public summons from a prelate in disgrace, who had been forbidden to appear within the walls of Moscow. The whole kremP, dark and silent a moment before, was instantly ablaze with candles and lanterns, and alive with streltsui and zhiltsui hastening in every direction to summon a council of prelates and boyars to the Tsar's staircase. There was as much uproar and confusion as if the Poles and Tatars had suddenly attacked the capital. Half an hour later a deputation of boyars, all more or less hostile to Nikon, headed by his arch-enemy, Rodion Stryeshnev, was sent to the Uspensky Cathedral to order the patriarch to return at once to his monastery. Nikon refused to budge till they had brought back to him an answer to a letter he had written to the Tsar which he now offered to them.* The deputation refused to accept the letter, and roughly insisted on his immediate departure. It was still an hour before dawn when at last Nikon consented to go. On stepping into his sledge, he ostentatiously shook the dust off his feet, and, at the same time, raised his eyes to heaven, where the flaming tail of a huge comet filled the darkened sky. The superstitious stryeltsui escort began sweeping up the dust of condemnation shaken off against them by Nikon; but he, pointing to the celestial portent, exclaimed, 'You may sweep and sweep, but God shall sweep you all away with His divine besom before many days be passed.'