The painting by Caravaggio entitled "Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew" with Andrew on the left. Image taken from wikimedia.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is a monotheistic religion branched off from Christianity. Traditionally it is said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew (thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies located on the northern coast of the Black Sea). Legends say that Andrew reached the future location of Kiev (in Ukraine) and foretold the founding of a “great Christian city”. Today, the place he foretold and marked with a cross is where St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a sacred site and also the hearth of the ROC, now stands.
The religion went through contagious diffusion, by the first millennium, the eastern Slavic lands began to go under the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire’s culture. For the first time, around 863 to 869, Saints Cyril and Methodius translated parts of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic language. This supposedly paved the way for christianizing the Slavs. During the mid-10th century, a Christian community was already settled amidst the Kievan nobility led by Greek and Byzantine priests. However, paganism still remained the major religion. The first ruler of Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity was Princess Olga of Kiev, around 945. Vladimir the Great, her grandson, made Kievan Rus’ a Christian state in 988. As a result Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted Byzantine Rite Christianity, which was the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. This date is often acknowledged as the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church is also known as the Moscow Patriarchate since 1943. Also, second only to the Roman Catholic churches, Russian Orthodox is often said to be the largest of the Eastern Orthodox religion.
Although similar, the ROC should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, or ROCOR), headquartered in New York. The ROCOR was established in the 1920s by Russian communities outside the then-Communist Russia. They refused to recognize the authority of the Moscow Patriarchy, which resulted in the founding of the ROCOR. Just recently, May 17, 2007, the two Churches reconciled and the ROCOR is now a self-governing part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
An example of Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow with the ROC crosses shown clearly. Image found on google images.
The numbers have grown to about 135 million followers worldwide with more growth in the late 1980’s. 65% of ethnic Russians and significant numbers of Belarusians and Ukrainians identify themselves as “Orthodox”. Recent data (Dec. 12, 2008) have said that the Church had 157 dioceses including 29,263 parishes served by 203 bishops (with 14 in retirement), 27,216 priests and 3,454 deacons. There were 804 monasteries, which include 478 in the Russian Federation, with 25 within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), 87 theological schools, which also include 5 theological academies and 38 seminaries. Along with these numbers there are around 130 Russian Orthodox eparchies worldwide, which are governed by bishops. Some eparchies are organized into exarchates which are autonomous churches. As of late, these churches include the Orthodox Churches of the Belarusian exarchate; the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia; the Latvian, the Moldovan, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. The Chinese and Japanese Orthodox Churches were granted full autonomy by the Moscow Patriarchate, however, this autonomy is not universally recognized.
Since its establishment, the Russian Orthodox church have gone under reform and persecution. In 1917, the Tsarist government were overthrown and the Bolsheviks, who declared the separation of church and state, took over. For the first time in history the ROC found itself without official state backing. When the new Communist party went under an anti-religious campaign and declared freedom of “religious and anti-religious propaganda”, the interfaith boundaries were broken and the Church saw a decline in its power and influence among the people. Also, during the Russian Civil War, the Russian Orthodox Church supported the White Army and further increased the Bolshevik’s dislike of the church. At the establishment of the Soviet Union at the end of the civil war, the church was viewed as counter-revolutionary, and the government discouraged organized religion and tried to remove religious influence from society. Between 1959 and 1964, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, a second attack came upon the church in the form of repression. Until 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church and the government remained on each other’s bad side. Many people remained religious even though it meant that they could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ultimately meant they could not hold any political office. Orthodox priests like Gleb Yakunin and Sergiy Zheludkov were imprisoned and exiled for defending freedom of worship. By 1987 the number of churches still in practice fell to 6,893 and monasteries to 18.
After 70 years of repression, the return of Orthodox Christianity returned to Russia when Patriarch Alexy II took the Patriarchal throne in 1990. By 2008, 15,000 churches had been built or re-opened. Not without difficulties, however, the Russian Orthodox Church faced the challenge of coming to terms with the Vatican. The Vatican believed that the small numbers of Catholics should have a fully developed church hierarchy with “presence and status” in Russia due to the fact that the ROC is present in other locations including Rome, close to the Vatican. Currently, the Patriarchal throne is occupied by Patriarch Kirill beginning in February of 2009.
Map of major religions, including Orthodox, in Eastern Europe. Image taken from BBC News.
An example of a Russian Orthodox Church in the US could be seen here:
Russian Orthodox Church