The Russian Orthodox Church is that body of Christians who are united under the Patriarch of Moscow, who in turn is in communion with the other patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this way Russian Orthodox believers are in communion with all other Eastern Orthodox believers.
The Russian Orthodox Church dates to the year 988, when Prince Vladimir I officially adopted Eastern Orthodoxy as the state religion of the fledgling Russian state. Thus, in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its millennial anniversary. It therefore traces its apostolic succession through the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The Church was originally a subsidiary of the Byzantine Orthodox Church, and the Byzantine patriarch appointed the metropolitan who governed the Russian Church. The Metropolitan moved from Kiev to Moscow in 1325 after Kiev's devastation by the Mongols. The Mongol period was a good one for the church, however. The Mongols supported the church and provided it with new lands and tax exempt status.
In 1439 at the Council of Florence, a meeting of the Catholic and Orthodox Church leaders agreed upon terms of reunification of the two branches of Christianity. The Russian people, however, rejected the concessions to the Catholics and Metropolitan Isidore was expelled from his position. The Russian Church remains independent of the Vatican.
In 1448, the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia. This was just five years before the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
After the end of the Mongol control of Russia, a movement grew up demanding that the Church give up its large land holdings and wealth, as these detracted from its holiness. Ivan II decided, however, that the church could keep its land.
In 1589, Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia; making the Russian Church autocephalous. The other Eastern patriarchs recognized the Moscow patriarchate as fifth in honor.
In 1652, Patriarch Nikon attempted to centralize power that had been distributed locally while conforming Russian Orthodox rites and rituals to those of the Greek Orthodox Church. For instance he insisted that Russians cross themselves with three fingers, rather than the traditional two. This aroused great antipathy among a large section of the population who saw the changed rites both as heresy and as a pretext for Nikon's usurpation of power. This group became known as the Old Believers and they reject the teachings of the new Patriarch. Tsar Aleksey (who was simultaneously centralizing political power) upheld Nikon's changes, however, and the Old Believers were persecuted until the reign of Peter the Great who agreed to let them practice their modified verson of Orthodoxy.
In 1700 following Patriarch Adrian's death, Peter the Great prevented a successor from being named, and in 1721 he established the Holy and Supreme Synod to govern the church instead of a single primate. This was the situation until shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, at which time the bishops elected a new patriarch, Patriarch Tikhon.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is probably still the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches. There are some who argue that, as in Catholic Latin America, being the nominal state church, the Russian Orthodox Church inflates its membership figures to equal its estimate of all believers situated within the borders of Russia. Estimates of actual church attendance, according to this point of view, show that about 10% of those who consider themselves Russian Orthodox, actually attend or participate in the church regularly. Thus, official membership numbers appear to approximate the number of people baptized as infants into the church, rather than the number of those who participate regularly. See pedobaptism.
Since 2002 there is considerable friction between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, when Patriarch Alexey II condemned the Vatican's creation of a Catholic diocesean structure for Russian territory. This is seen by the leadership of the Russian church as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize Russian Orthodox Church faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is but one of many equal Christian churches, and that as such, it is straying into the territory "belonging" to another co-equal church.
The issue of enroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to some in the Russian Orthodox Church, since the church has only recently come out from under considerable persecution during the regime of the Soviet Union. Prior to the Russian Revolution, there were some 54,000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. By 1939, there were less than 100 functioning parishes and only two bishops.
Those holding this point of view in the Russian Orthodox Church, see the proselytizing by Catholic and Protestant denominations as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church, having just come out of 70 years of Communist oppression.
The Russian Orthodox Church should not be confused with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (also known as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad), which was founded by Russian communities outside of Russia, which refused to recognize the authority of the then-Communist-dominated Russian church.