St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow: Defender of the Church Against Ivan the Terrible

admin | 16 July 2012

When in 1480 Moscow’s Grand Prince Ivan III forced the Tatars to renounce their claim to the Russian tribute, it signaled Russia’s liberation from the Mongol yoke and confirmed Moscow’s ascendancy over the other Russian principalities. Indeed, whether by diplomacy or force, by 1517 Yaroslav, Rostov, Perm, Tver, Viatka, Novgorod, Pskov, Riazan – all had come under the aegis of Moscow. It was with some justification, therefore, that in 1547, when Grand Prince Ivan IV of Moscow reached his majority, he chose for himself the title “Tsar (Caesar) of All Russia.”

Moscow absolutism may be said to have come of age under Ivan IV, but it had been developing already for some time. With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow inherited Byzantium’s position of preeminence in the Orthodox Christian world, and gradually adopted the Byzantine model of government – a holy alliance between Church and State – in which ultimate authority over both the secular and ecclesiastical realms reared with the political ruler. Such a concentration of power demanded the restraint of a profoundly Christian conscience – something which few rulers, Byzantine or Russian, were able to exercise with any constancy.

As one historian has justly observed, “The purest, sublimest ideal is subject to deterioration when it is realized concretely.” [1] The Byzantine model was wide open to abuse, and in Russia’s first “tsar,” Ivan IV, this weakness was exploited to an extreme. True, his bloody excesses can largely be explained by a pathological fear of intrigue, a fear rooted in the traumatic circumstances of a childhood which witnessed the volatile treachery of boyars constantly jockeying for power during his mother’s regency (his father Basil III died in 1533 when Ivan was only three years old). But his despotic temperament – which earned him history’s epithet “the Terrible” or “the Dread” –was not simply the tragic outcome of a tormented psychology. It was unwittingly nurtured by the virtual absolutism which the Byzantine model conferred upon the reigning sovereign. This absolutism was supported by certain Church figures. St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, a vigorous proponent of the close connection between Church and State, wrote to Ivan’s father: “If the sovereign is like to all men as regards his human nature, he is like to God as regards his power.”

In theory, of course, St. Joseph recognized the Church as supreme; the sovereign’s highest duty was to concern himself with the good of the Church. But in thus idealizing the role of the sovereign, the Church effectively cornered itself into a position of submission; hierarchs who criticized the misdeeds of their sovereigns were all to frequently silenced with a reminder of the sovereign’s divine right, and those who nobly challenged this interpretation courted deposition, banishment, even death.

Given this historic background, we can more fully appreciate the lofty spiritual exploit of Metropolitan Philip of Moscow, whose defense of the Church’s sovereignty was rewarded by a martyr’s death.

Theodore Kolychev, the future hierarch of Moscow, was born in 1507 in a boyar family. His father occupied an important post at the court of Basil III as guardian of Ivan IV’s brother, Grand Duke Yuri. His mother was very pious, and when her husband died she became a nun and founded the St. Barsanouphy convent in Moscow. Whether influenced by his mother or repelled by the intrigues and strife which characterized court life, Theodore had no desire to follow in the family tradition of civil service. His genuine love for the Scriptures and Lives of Saints – which for centuries served as the core of education in Russia – inspired his heart with a longing for monasticism, not as a profession or a way of life, but as a means towards the closest possible union with God. However, unlike many of his rank who preferred monastic tonsure, Theodore did not choose to settle comfortably in one of the wealthy monasteries in Moscow’s environs; rather, he directod his steps into the farthest reaches of Russia’s “Northern Thebaid,” to the White Sea archipelago of Solovki.

In the century since its establishment by Stis. Zosima and Sabbatius, the monastery of Solovki had become an important religious center. Nevertheless, when the young boyar arrived there in 1537, its physical estate still reflected the stark conditions of its northern latitude.

Concealing his noble birth, the thirty-year old Kolychev presented himself to the abbot, Alexis, who assigned him to various obediences designed to test the intentions of the monastic aspirant. Fortified by his desire for spiritual perfection, Theodore proved himself equal to the heavy manual labor as woodcutter and baker’s apprentice, and steadfastly endured the humiliations and bearings which fell upon him. Within a year he had proven himself and was tonsured with the name Philip.

Under the guidance of the elder Jonah, a disciple of St. Alexander of Svir, Philip continued to make rapid spiritual progress. His hard work and humility soon made him a favorite with the brethren. But seeking greater spiritual concentration., he withdrew before long into the forest where he spent several years in solitary struggle. This was interuppted when the aging Abbot Alexis fell ill and called upon Philip to replace him. At the unanimous decision of the brethren, this position became permanent upon the abbot’s repose.

During his eighteen years as superior, Philip manifested outstanding administrative talents. Using his patrimonial inheritance, he set out with tremendous energy to replace the monastery’s wooden structures – which had suffered from fire not long before –with buildings of stone and brick manufactured by a brickyard which he established. He developed the production of salt to increase the monastery’s revenues and finance the many improvements he effected. He enlarged the refectory and built large complexes of cells for the monks, who numbered about 200 at that time. By an ingenious system of canals he joined 52 small ponds on the island, forming a fresh-water lake whose waters were channeled to drive a mill. On the seashore he set up windmills, built a wharf, a hospital and a guesthouse for pilgrims. He introduced herds of reindeer whose skins were processed by the brethren into footwear and clothing for the monks. Philip himself participated in the physical labor which thus transformed the monastery, crowning it with the construction of two great cathedrals dedicated to the Feasts of Dormition and Transfiguration.

With the many improvements in the monastery’s physical plant, Philip in no way relaxed the established spiritual standards which were the just cause for the monastery’s renown. His spiritual governance extended also over the many laymen who worked both on the island and on the monastery’s considerable holdings on the mainland. He saw to it that the rights of peasants under his jurisdiction were protected by charters, and they were granted the right of grievance  – no small compensation considering the injustices which flourished under autocratic rule.

In 1550 Philip went to Moscow to take part in the Council which promulgated vast administrative reforms and drew up a compendium of rules (the Hundred Chapters or “Stoglav’) aimed at strengthening ecclesiastical discipline. There he gained a favorable impression of the young Tsar Ivan IV, who was not without merit as a ruler. Ten years later, however, he had to revise his opinion when he learned from the Tsar’s exiled spiritual advisor, the priest Sylvester, of the calamitous change which had overtaken the young monarch, and the fear which the populace now suffered in consequence of his excessive suspicion and the vengeance he wreaked on plotters and would-he plotters, real and imagined.

His Road to Golgotha

It was. therefore, with understandable reluctance that Philip accepted the Tsar’s invitation to become chief primate of Moscow. The position had been vacated by the resignation of Athanasius who was frustrated by the silent subordination expected of him. Philip held no illusions about any ideal symphony to be played out between himself and the Tsar as rulers of Church and State. But he was determined not to be a mere figurehead, a Kremlin adornment. Before his installation he set forth certain conditions. Among them, he requested that the Tsar dissolve the Oprichniki, his elite bodyguard whose bloody sprees transfixed the populace in a state of terror. The Tsar was enraged by Philip’s audacity in “meddling” in his domestic affairs. Nevertheless, he did concede to Philip the right of intercession, which had been abolished the previous year. And with this promise Philip was enthroned as Metropolitan of Moscow on July 25, 1566. The Tsar himself handed the hierarch the crozier of his new office, asked his prayers and wished him health and long life, Who at that moment could have guessed that the stormy clash which had heralded Philip’s enthronement presaged his martyrdom less than three years later.

“If I do not bear witness to the truth, I render myself unworthy of my office as a bishop. If I bow to men’s will, what shall I find to answer Christ on the day of the Judgment?” (Metropolitan Philip to Tsar Ivan IV)

Indeed, over the next eighteen months the cloud of fear was gone from the capital. Ivan’s interest was spent on a war with Livonia, and the streets of Moscow were filled once again with normal concerns of daily life, while the Metropolitan was at liberty to attend his new responsibilities he consecrated bishops, presided over synods, invigorated the spiritual life of his vast archbishopric, consoled victims of a plague which swept through the country that year, and continued his spiritual and material support of the island monastery he had left with such reluctance. This period of normalcy was, however, buts brief interlude in a prominently tempestuous era.

The Tsar returned from the Livonian campaign in the fall of 1567, irritated by his lack of success, only to discover evidence of a conspiracy between the boyars and Poland’s King Sigismund, In his unrestrained fury, the Tsar gave rein to the Oprichniki, and in no time these hatchet men turned the streets of Moscow into rivers of blood. Russia’s cup of suffering was overflowing, and Philip fearlessly hastened to the Tsar to exercise his right of intercession. The irate despot commanded him to hold his tongue, but the voice of truth would not be silenced. Both in private audiences and in public, the Metropolitan sought every opportunity to point out to the Tsar the error of his ways.

“Mighty Tsar,” he exclaimed, “you are invested with the highest dignity, almost a divine dignity. But the earthly sceptre is but a reflection of the heavenly one….He alone can in truth call himself sovereign who is master of himself, who is not subject to his passions and conquers by charity….In Russia charity no longer exists, even for the good and innocent. The stones under your feet will cry out if the living refrain from accusing you and judging you. It is my duty to tell you this by the will of God, even if death awaits me for doing so.”

Indeed, no one had ever dared address such a bold rebuke to “the Terrible” Tsar, and Philip knew that he had sealed his fate with his own lips. The Tsar interpreted his sympathy for the people as complicity with the boyars. Inasmuch as there was no evidence for this, other charges were brought; a trial was staged, and the courageous hierarch, accused of sorcery and other imaginary crimes, was deposed and sentenced to imprisonment in a monastery. But even as he was moved from one monastery to another, farther and farther from the capital, the people followed him with their love. This infuriated the Tsar who finally sent one of his Oprichniki to the Metropolitan on a mission of murder. The Metropolitan foresaw that his end was near mad had prepared himself by receiving the Holy Mysteries. The Tsar’s envoy arrived on pretext of getting a blessing. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” replied the Metropolitan simply, “and don’t tempt me with your false requests.” The assassin suffocated his victim with a cushion. It was December 23, 1569.

Twenty-one years later the Metropolitan’s incorrupt relics were moved to Solovki, and in 1652, under the reign of the pious Tsar Alexis Michailovich, the relics were transferred to Moscow, to the Dormition cathedral in the Kremlin.

Metropolitan Philip is commemorated by the Church on January 9, July 3, and again on October 5 as one of the five great hierarchs of Moscow, as a “pillar of Orthodoxy, champion of the truth, a shepherd who hid down his life for his flock.”

[1] All quotations in this Life are taken from Corntontine deGrunwald’s Saints of Russia, Hutchison of London (1960)


Since you are here…

…we do have a small request. More and more people visit Orthodoxy and the World website. However, resources for editorial are scarce. In comparison to some mass media, we do not make paid subscription. It is our deepest belief that preaching Christ for money is wrong.

Having said that, Pravmir provides daily articles from an autonomous news service, weekly wall newspaper for churches, lectorium, photos, videos, hosting and servers. Editors and translators work together towards one goal: to make our four websites possible -,, and Therefore our request for help is understandable.

For example, 5 euros a month is it a lot or little? A cup of coffee? It is not that much for a family budget, but it is a significant amount for Pravmir.

If everyone reading Pravmir could donate 5 euros a month, they would contribute greatly to our ability to spread the word of Christ, Orthodoxy, life's purpose, family and society.