The Russian Orthodox Church dates from the conversion of the Slavs by missionaries from Byzantium, led by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, in the ninth century A.D. In the tenth century Christianity became the Russian state religion, and the chief official, the metropolitan, was established first at Kiev and later at Moscow. Until the downfall of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Russian metropolitanate was considered an integral part of the Byzantine Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople.
When Byzantium fell to the Turks, Russian Orthodox believers assumed an independent attitude and a century later elected their own patriarch. The Russians considered themselves the sole defenders of the true faith. The Russian Orthodox Church was favored by, and subordinated to, the Tsars.
In 1721 Tsar Peter the Great by his Ecclesiastical Regulations deprived the church of its autonomy by abolishing the patriarchate. Peter placed the church under the administration of the Holy Synod, composed of clerics and laymen whom he had personally chosen. The tsar was represented in the Synod by the high procurator, and although this lay official had no vote, he nevertheless possessed enormous influence. No action could be taken by the Synod without the high procurator's approval. Since the church was dominated by the tsar, it became a politically conservative element in Russian society during the next two centuries, and the hierarchy decried all liberal attempts to reorganize either the church the imperial government. Some liberal priests and bishops were summarily removed from their posts and either exiled or imprisoned, and great attempts were made to check their influence.
Because of the tsar's domination, it became possible for Grigory Rasputin to gain a position of influence from which he was able to wield inordinate power over church and national affairs.
Rasputin, an uneducated and unordained holy man, possessed by hypnotic powers, gained ascendancy over the tsarina through his successful ministrations to the hemophiliac heir to the throne.
From March 1915 to December 1916, when Tsar Nicholas II was absent from Saint Petersburg in personal command of the Russian armies at the front, the government of the country was in the hands of the tsarina and Rasputin, who appointed and dismissed government ministers and church officials at will.
His appointees were often self-seeking sycophants rather than qualified officials or clerics. In addition, Rasputin's own unsavory reputation discredited the church and weakened Russia's government.
The bizarre circumstances of Rasputin's murder brought further disarray and discredit to the church and the nation.
Two noblemen, Prince Felix Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, plus a prominent member of the legislature, were involved, and this did little to help the deteriorating position of the monarchy. Immediately after the March revolution, Rasputin's appointees were dismissed from the Synod and other high religious offices, but the damage done to the church's reputation was lasting and the weaknesses nurtured by Rasputin's venal appointees persisted, paving the way for the Bolshevik domination of church affairs after the November revolution.
After the revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church suffered great losses of both membership and installations and was forced to accommodate itself to the Soviet regime in order to preserve what remained. Soon after the revolution, the Communists nationalized all church property, including parish funds and investments.