The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

[Loosely translated from the original Russian. 1]

In 1721, in the newly established imperial capital of St Petersburg, a school of Slavonic studies was set up in the Monastery of Alexander Nevsky. This, the precursor of the Theological Academy of St. Petersburg, had twenty-six students, several of whom were foreigners and one an 'Indian'. 2

It is unlikely that this novice arrived at the banks of the Neva directly from India. Rather, the student  most probably came from Astrakhan, which at the time was a trading entrepôt in which dwelt Russians, Tatars, Indians, Armenians, Persians and Kalmyks.  From the 18th century onwards there were factories organised in this city, where caravan, river and marine merchant routes met, run by various nationalities who maintained their residences in the centre of the White City. To this day there survives an Indian courtyard in Astrakhan, which was built in the early 19th century over what previously used to be stone guest-houses that had been in an Asiatic style reminiscent of the Spassky monastery dating from 1625. 3

In the 19th century, representatives of the Russian Orthodox church began the revival of ties with the old eastern churches of the Near East: the Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian. This prompted ambassadors from the Syrian Orthodox church of South India to meet their Russian counterpart in Constantinople in 1851. But the Crimean war (1853-56) interrupted the discussions for closer ties with the Orthodoxy.

Still, the Indian Christians did not lose their interest in the Orthodox faith. In 1898, in the Turkestan Gazette  № 88, appeared a letter from A. I. Vygornitsky, a Russian traveller who had visited one of the major cities of South India. He described how during one of his stays he was approached by several local residents who said that the Archbishop of the whole of South India would like to meet him as he could be of assistance, given that he had ties to St. Petersburg.4

'I never had connections to St. Petersburg,' the traveller went on to write, 'but I at once took a rickshaw to go to the Archbishop's house.' The Archbishop was expecting Vygornitsky, and was accompanied by his assistant, a doctor at law. After exchanging pleasantries, the Archbishop made his request in the following words: 'In India, especially in the south, there are many Christians of the Antiochian church, founded by St. Thomas. The followers of this church do not recognise the supremacy of the Pope. They have their own Archbishop appointed by the Antiochian Church, but over time it is becoming harder and harder to appoint the Archbishop, because the Antiochian Church does not have enough people who could occupy the post in India. It may be that the Indians will be left without a pastor, and our church is in danger of falling into Catholicism, especially as even now the Catholics are attempting to swallow her up.' 5

Then the Archbishop added that, bearing in mind these circumstances, he and his flock of fifteen thousand souls had decided to become Orthodox, which they had familiarised themselves with from conversations with priests of the visiting merchant marine. 6

The trader, of course, knew that the British rulers of India would not tolerate any interference in the religious practices of their subjects, but he promised to convey the Archbishop's request to the relevant authorities in St. Petersburg. 'With joy, I gathered all the papers from my friends, and three days later, voyaged to Russia, having finished my travels in India to my satisfaction.' 7

From a theological point of view, there were no obstacles to the accession of the Indian Christians to Orthodoxy. After all, in the same year of 1898, on the feast of Annunciation (March 25) in the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg took place the ceremonial union of the Syro-Persian (Assyrian) Church of Mar Jonah (representing several hundred Assyrian families that lived in northern Turkey and Iran, lands bordering Russia) with the Orthodox Church. Russian missionaries were despatched to the Assyrians to educate them in Orthodoxy; the missions continued successfully until the first World War, and even for some time after the beginning of hostilities.

As for the Indian request, there wasn't much coverage in the popular press of the time. Even the Orthodox journal that reprinted the Turkestan gazette's article merely stated in an editorial comment 'It would be interesting to have information on the further progress of the case.' 8 The answer might be found in the archives of the Holy Synod, but it can be assumed that the Russian government did not want to worsen relations with Great Britain, and for political reasons did not set in motion the request of the Indian Christians.

Following the First World War and the social upheaval in Russia, the Indians broke off their negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Church. These ties were resumed in the early 1930s thanks to the efforts of Russian Christians who found themselves exiled from their homeland.

  1. Архимандрит Августин (Никитин), Русский миссионер в Индии, Россия в красках.
  2. Ilarion Chistovich (1857), St. Petersburg Theological Academy. St.Petersburg. p. 11.
  3. Klyucharev Chronicle, Astrakhan, 1887. (Quoted in A. I. Yukht, 'An Indian Colony in Astrakhan', Questions of History, Number 3. 1857.)
  4. A. I. Vygornitsky (1898), 'The desire of Indian Christians to unite with the Russian Church', Orthodox Evangelist, № 24. p. 361.
  5. ibid. p. 362.
  6. ibid. p. 362.
  7. ibid. p. 363.
  8. ibid. p. 363.


Post a Comment