Monarchy and Orthodoxy


Russell (Roman) Martin, PhD

Professor of History, Westminster College, New Wilmington, Penna.

Advisor on Foreign Communications and Media for the Chancellery of the Head of the Russian Imperial House,

H.I.H. The Grand Duchess Maria of Russia


Your Grace, Your Grace, very reverend fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ:  


I have been asked to talk today about monarchy and Orthodoxy. And before I do that, I should probably do the full professional disclosure.  Two things bring me to the topic of monarchy and Orthodoxy:  first, as a professor and historian, I study and teach about Russia’s monarchy, particularly in the early modern period (which is to say, between the 14thand 18thcenturies), and most of my writings have focused on the ruling dynasties—the politics of royal marriage, the commemoration of royalty in Russia’s monasteries as seen in various sources, like commemoration books (sinodikiand vkladnye knigi), and royal ritual. Much of my research has been on royal ceremonies as a way of projecting an image of dynastic legitimacy and power, including Orthodox liturgical rites.  I am in fact right now finishing a book on royal wedding rituals between 1526 and 1727.  So what I have to say today is very much informed by that kind of close archival work.

That may not be all that surprising given what I had to say yesterday.  What may be less well-known is that I also serve as a member of the Chancellery in Moscow of the Head of the Imperial House of Russia, Her Imperial Highness The Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna.  Mostly, I translate between Russian and English for her, when she issues a formal statement (like the one I displayed yesterday about the Amazon show The Romanoffs) or when she travels to Russia or elsewhere and a travelogue of her journey is compiled and posted on the official webpage of the Chancellery, as when she and her son and heir, Grand Duke George, were in New York earlier this year.  What I have to say today about monarchy and Orthodoxy cannot help but be influenced some by this experience, as well.  But for the most part, I think what is useful to you, as archpastors and pastors of the Russian Orthodox flock in America, is what I can say as a historian who is a cradle Orthodox Christian, not what I can say as a monarchist.  

And before I begin, let me answer the question now that might be swirling in your heads:  how is an American with the last name “Martin” a monarchist?  Actually, in asking that question we approach perhaps the underlying theme of this talk, which is not just how monarchy and Orthodoxy comingled for centuries, but how do monarchist sensibilities comingle today with Orthodoxy in the context of the New World, the context of representative democracy and constitutional, electoral government?  For me, monarchism came as a family trait.  My mother’s family were Galician shliakhta, or gentry—which means that they were Greek Catholic and devoted to the Habsburg monarchy.  When my grandfather, Vasilii Dmitreevich Zarytskii, and his family (from a dynasty of priests, deacons, and readers going back 5 generations, that we know of) immigrated to this country at the turn of the 20thcentury and began serving as readers in the churches near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they soon became Russian Orthodox and switched their monarchical affiliations to the Romanovs.  It was a confusing identity, however.  But despite their origins and religion, they had always considered themselves Russians. I remember once many years ago getting into a small tussle with my aunt, Anastasiia (we called her Nastunya)—the eldest of my mother’s siblings and the matriarch of the family.  I was pointing out to her, the way an arrogant college student might, that what we were speaking at the dinner table just then was really a sort of Ukrainian, not Russian (which I was then studying at university), and that the family history pointed to what we would today call Ukrainian, not Russian, origins.  She pointed her finger at me and said:  “Your grandfather, of blessed memory, would be aghast [yes—she used words like that] to hear his grandson say such things.  Don’t you know that your family faithfully served TSAR FRANZ JOSEPH!?”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had just made my point, since Franz Joseph was a Kaiser, not a tsar, and an Austrian, not a Russian.  But one look from my mother confirmed that I should stay silent.

But again, I approach today’s topic more the professor than the courtier or the scion of a immigrant family, because the topic is one that is intrinsically interesting and relevant in today’s changing demographic environment in our ROCOR.  The days when our Church was richly populated with first-generation immigrants fleeing the Reds and proudly waving the royal tricolor are gone.  Those immigrants have descendants who are long-time natives who speak, at best, heavily accented Russian, and the new immigrants know Old Russia only from textbooks, remote family stories, and architectural and linguistic suggestions from the Church.  This is a demographic change, which then necessarily produces an attitudinal change. And those changes prompt some questions for those of us who remember and cherish the monarchist history of the ROCOR and the great hierarchs, pastors, and parishioners who upheld traditional monarchist ideals:  What is the place, if any, of monarchism in Orthodoxy?  How has the demographic and attitudinal changes in the Russian Orthodox churches in America affected ROCOR’s stance on monarchism?  Is the attitude toward the monarchist tradition in the American Church (and elsewhere) a barometer of other changes in attitude that express themselves in the liturgical life and pious customs of our community?  How should the question of monarchy be approached pastorally?

Countless books and blogs have been written on the subject of monarchy and Orthodoxy.  They ask, “Must an Orthodox Christian be a monarchist?”, or “Is monarchy the best form of government for the Orthodox?” or, with a twist, “The Church and Democracy.”  There is much confusion.  And for pretty good reasons.  One can search in vain in the biblical texts, the writing of the Church fathers, or Church history for a single, unitary, consistent answer to the question.  There is plenty of room for interpretation.

If one wanted to raise doubts about the role of monarchy in the Church, one need go no farther than the biblical texts about the Prophet Samuel, who was beseeched in his old age to anoint a king to rule Israel.  1 Samuel chapter 8 tells us that Samuel had essentially retired and put his work as Judge over Israel in the hands of his two sons, who were botching the job.  “Give us a king to judge us,” the people demand of Samuel in verses 6-7. “And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”  Samuel is then instructed to throw some cold water on the faces of the crowd by reminding them of the down side of monarchy.  The text is pretty detailed about that down side:  “shew them,” it reads, “the manner of the king that shall reign over them.”  Samuel then goes on to list the ills:  The king will “take your sons, and appoint themfor himself” in his army; he will “take your daughters to be confectionaries (perfumers), and to be cooks, and to be bakers”; he will “take your fields and take your vineyards and oliveyards, and give them to his servants”; He will take a “tenth of your seed,” “your menservants, and your maidservants…and put them to his work.”  And Samuel’s prediction ends with the bracing admonition:  “And ye shall be his servants.  And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen; and the LORD will not hear you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:11-18).  And reading the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is hard not to see some of these predictions coming true, with the bad kings outnumbering the good ones, and the biblical books of the Tanakh making it quite clear that a lot of the misery and misfortune of Israel was the kings’ fault.

If the biblical text was not warning enough, one could turn to Church history to make your case against monarchy.  Roman history after its gradual Christianization over the course of the 4th century, and Byzantine history over the course of the next 11 centuries, could be used to demonstrate both the virtues and the vices of monarchy, whether Christian or not.  The history of the realms that formed part of the Byzantine Commonwealth, as the historian Prince Dimitri Obolensky called it (which I think is still a useful concept), also provides examples of both great piety and Christian virtue at the top, as well as some of the most destructive harm to religious culture and religious institutions:  St. Dmitrii Donskoi sought the blessing of St. Sergii of Radonezh before battle, Tsar Alekei Mikhailovich turned to the Church in all his decision making, and Tsar Fedor III Alekseevich composed famous and melodious hymns still used in the Church.  He was the sladkopevetsof the Romanovs. Yet, Ivan the Terrible murdered churchmen, including Metropolitan Filipp of Moscow, Catherine the Great closed monasteries and appropriated their lands at rates that would have made Henry VIII blush, and who could count the mistresses or the corrupt royal favorites?  One might easily look at this track record and say good riddance to monarchy—the testimony of history crying out for something else.  

On the other hand, there is ample evidence, particularly among the Church Fathers, that more than exonerates monarchs, it in fact highly recommends monarchy as the natural form of government for Christians to live under. Eusebius ofCaesarea, one of the earliest to comment on monarchy, wrote in his Oration in Praise of Constantine (335):  “Monarchy is superior to every other constitution and form of government. For polyarchy, where everyone competes on equal terms, is really anarchy and discord. This is why there is one God, not two or three or even more. Polytheism is strictly atheism. There is one King, and His Word and royal law are one.”  Eusebius’s views get echoed by later Fathers:  St. Gregory the Theologian, the 4th-century archbishop of Constantinople and one of the greatest minds of his time, wrote: “The three most ancient opinions about God are atheism (or anarchy), polytheism (or polyarchy), and monotheism (or monarchy). The children of Greece played with the first two; let us leave them to their games. For anarchy is disorder: and polyarchy implies factious division, and therefore anarchy and disorder. Both these lead in the same direction – to disorder; and disorder leads to disintegration; for disorder is the prelude to disintegration. What we honour is monarchy.” St. Theodore the Studite, the late 8th- and 9th-century Byzantine abbot and epistolarian, wrote: “There is one Lord and Giver of the Law, as it is written: one authority and one Divine principle over all. This single principle is the source of all wisdom, goodness and good order.…Hence the establishment among men of every dominion and every authority, especially in the Churches of God: one patriarch in a patriarchate, one metropolitan in a metropolia, one bishop in a bishopric, one abbot in a monastery, and in secular life, if you want to listen, one king, one regimental commander, one captain on a ship. And if one will did not rule in all this, there would be no law and order in anything, and it would not be for the best, for a multiplicity of wills destroys everything.”

These early fathers were obviously still battling an impulse in their early Christian societies toward polytheism and political disintegration, but they all believed that the solution, outside of prayer, was unity, and unity could best be provided by monarchy.  

It is a theme that continues on past the last days of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.  Three names from the 20thcentury likewise extoll the virtue of unity that monarchy represents.  St. John of Kronstadt famously wrote “Hell is a democracy but heaven is a kingdom.” The New Martyr Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev famously wrote:  “A priest who is not a monarchist is not worthy to stand at the altar table. The priest who is a republican is always a man of poor faith. God himself anoints the monarch to be head of the kingdom, while the president is elected by the pride of the people. The king stays in power by implementing God’s commandments, while the president does so by pleasing those who rule. The king brings his faithful subjects to God, while the president takes them away from God.”  And St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who was perhaps the most ardent defender of monarchy in the modern age and a genuine scholar of the Russian dynasty, famously wrote about the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II:  “Why was Tsar Nicholas II persecuted, slandered, and killed? Because he was Tsar, Tsar by the Grace of God. He was the bearer and incarnation of the Orthodox world-view that the Tsar is the servant of God, the Anointed of God.”

I might even at this point mention perhaps one of the most deeply moving accounts of holy kingship ever written, and one of my personal favorites, which substantiates this “world-view” that St. John talks about. Though it comes from the western medieval tradition, the Life of St. Louis, King Louis IX of France, by Jean de Joinville ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand Christian monarchy. Joinville depicts a king who rules for the physical betterment of his subjects and for the salvation of their souls, which he deemed to be the responsibility of all Christian kings.  Joinville’s Louis is just, pious, humble, and heroic. And though the Western and Eastern Churches had by St. Louis’s time been sacramentally separated for a century and a half, the remnant of Christian kinship was still alive and well in the West, as it was still very much in the East.

This highly abbreviated tour through some of the sources of Christian writings on kingship leads, for me, to two conclusions.  The first is that the preponderance of evidence suggests a strong and sustained support in Orthodox Christianity for monarchy across all spaces where the Orthodox Church predominated.  Still, there is evidence that some have used to argue against monarchy as a Christian form of government, let alone preferred form of government.  They can turn to the pages of 1 Samuel and plausibly read those passages as justifying some other form of polity—though 1 Samuel doesn’t offer much help on what that polity would be.  It is easy to imagine the opponents of monarchy (even in the Church) even more vehemently opposing government by Bible-like Judges than they might government by kings! Even the ancient Israelites opposed Samuel’s sons over them, because, as the text reads (chapter 8, verse 3), Samuel’s sons, his successors as Judges over Israel, “walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.”  Indeed, debates among Christians over monarchy have sometimes resembled the Bible-based debates among Protestants, where verses of Scripture are pulled out in isolation and wielded like a weapon against their fellow Bible readers.  But how do we avoid a Protestant-esque approach to the question of monarchy and Orthodoxy, where we compare citations to texts and argue which one is more important than the other?  How do we examine the question without pride?

I leave, of course, the pastoral side of that question to those in cassocks, but I would like to suggest that a second, perhaps unexpected conclusion of our abbreviated tour of the sources is that historians of kingship—few of whom are Orthodox and even fewer monarchists—have something useful to contribute to this conversation.  Let me pick one.  Francis Oakley, a professor emeritus of medieval history at Williams College and its former president, has argued in one of the most important modern studies of kingship, that kingship was (and is) two things:  it is ubiquitous (it appears in every culture on every continent on this planet, and in every period of human history) and it is sacral (it is rooted in religion).  For Oakley (and other scholars who are following up on his work, like me), these two features make it enduring and natural in human history.  Were Oakley here today and were we to ask him about monarchy and Orthodoxy, he would likely say, “Yes, they are natural companions, but why limit it to Orthodoxy?  Monarchy—specifically sacred kingship—is found everywhere and in every time.”  “Why is it found everywhere and in every time?” he might rhetorically ask us.  “Because religion is ubiquitous too.”  

In other words, in thinking about Orthodoxy and monarchy, if we train our eye not on the Orthodoxy side of the question (asking what the Bible or the Church fathers say about kingship), but on kingship side of it (asking how kingship worked in various contexts and cultures), then we can begin to approach the matter from a completely different vantage point and see things fresh and anew—like those optical illusions that show you either a vase or two faces, or the one with a young woman and an old women (the kind of thing that, once you see the other image in the picture, you can’t unsee it).  We have been seeing the question from only one perspective.  We need to turn it around for a moment and see it from the other.

The Orthodox world exists in a natural, human context in which kingship has played a vital role.  Even in cultures that were pre-Christian or always non-Christian, kingship is present and it is always sacral:  the pharaohs in ancient Egypt, the kings of ancient Sumeria, the pantheons of Olympus and the Indus River Valley, the chieftains of countless tribes on scattered continents.  Where there is religion, there are kings.  Where there are kings, there is religion.  These are the impulses of humanity, and why kingship is so enduring and successful.  In fact, as Robin Fox, a famed British anthropologist put it, three things only are found everywhere:  the mother-child bond, the incest prohibition, and kingship.

If we look at the question of how monarchy and Orthodoxy should interact, then, and if we start our investigation into this question by approaching it from the kingship half of that formulation, we are left to conclude that there really isn’t a major issue here at all:  kingship is natural to the human condition and sacral.  Put another way, given this history:  it would be truly odd if monarchy and Orthodoxy weren’tclose companions.  

But this leads to an important final question that I would like to close with:  How and why did monarchy’s relationship to Orthodoxy ever come into doubt for some in the first place?  What does the very question signify about the course of history and about our thinking today? And not just our thinking, but our attachment to Holy Tradition?

Scholars who think about the history of monarchy tend to agree that the early modern period, from, say, the 14ththrough the 18thcenturies, was a time of increasing secularization in political life. Long before there were revolutions unseating (and beheading) kings, there was a gradual ebbing away of religion from the public sphere, brought on by lots of reasons:  the reestablishment of long-term trade and the rise of cities and the middle class, the transformation of western scholasticism into the Scientific Revolution, which not only formulated rules of scientific inquiry but also rudely dichotomized faith and reason, and the Protestant Reformation, which justified for the first time in Christian political theology the right to revolt against one’s king, at least among Protestants.  The Wars of Religion of the 16thcentury, particularly in France, played an important role in this process of secularization, because the Reformation played out there very differently than elsewhere.  While in Germany Protestants and Catholics could be kept apart, like boxers sent to neutral corners, with Protestants in the north and Catholics in the south, and while in England Catholics could be exiled or killed and non-conformist Protestants could be encouraged to come to America, things were different in France. Protestants and Catholics lived side-by-side and were not territorially distributed across the kingdom—like Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia before 1991.  To be sure, the French tried for half a century to extinguish the other side, but they failed.  They were forced to find another way, and men like Bodin, l’Hôpital, and Montaigne appeared on the scene to justify tolerance.  What that amounted to, however, was the relegation of religion to the private sphere.  Whether one was a Protestant or Catholic came in France, and quickly elsewhere, to have no more public significance than what your favorite color was.  

Taking religion out of the public sphere and putting it in the private sphere may have been very good for religious pluralism, but it was a wound, in places a mortal wound, to monarchy, which was a sacral institution that both depended on and supported the Church.  With religion increasingly no longer a public matter, first in France then later elsewhere, kings became superfluous.  And with the expansion of Western European values and political ideas across the world—via exploration, colonialism, and borrowing (as in Russia or Japan)—that virus spread far and wide.  The kings who remained on their thrones reigned but did not rule, transformed into ceremonial figures—vital, still, to the new political order, to be sure, but not sacral.  Russia held out perhaps the longest, but the tensions we see in the West found their way there as well.  Never more was Russia a part of the West than when it attacked its Church and killed its king.

If kings no longer found the necessary religious and political soil to flourish, democracies grew and prospered in the new world created by science, commerce, religious pluralism, and privatized faith.  But Christianity continued to flourish, too. Some of the Church’s greatest moral and intellectual leaders come from these tough centuries, including our own 20thcentury, a time of unequaled persecution.  The continuing, prospering spiritual life of the Church, East and West, has led some to wonder why democracy isn’t just as good soil for the Church as was once monarchy.  And so we get the question we have been discussing—the compatibility of monarchy and Orthodoxy.  But isn’t this, on a certain level, a somewhat impious question?  God’s Church, after all, needs neither Earthly monarchy nor popular democracy to save souls.  It saves us, we do not save It.  To be a monarchist is not to pine away for some lost paradisiacal past, because, first, that past never existed; and second, monarchy IS modern.  The whole point of the scholarship on monarchy is that it has been everywhere and in all times.  That includes today.  Nor should we dichotomize monarchy and democracy.  Democracy has always been a part of monarchical systems on some level. Thinking only about Russia, consider the veche in Novgorod (and elsewhere), the boyar Duma, the Zemstvos of Alexander II’s Great Reforms in the 19thcentury.  Thus the proper dichotomy is between monarchy and republics. But all this means that we should not be seduced into thinking that our republic, any republic, can be anything more than what it is (a pluralistic and secular polity with no place for God in the public sphere), or that monarchy can be anything lessthan it is (a sacral state that rests on tsar, Church, and God).

Thank you.