Функционирует при финансовой поддержке Федерального агентства по печати и массовым коммуникациям

The development of an indigenous Orthodox clergy and liturgical life among the Turkic Chuvash people of the Volga region

September, 7
In this article, presented at the 'Celebration of Living Theology' conference in honour of Fr Andrew Louth in Durham this summer, Alison Ruth Kolosova describes the effects of the work of N.I. Ilminskii and his disciples among the Chuvash people from the 19th century to the present day. Were his efforts to promote the use of the native language in schools and churches part of the Tsarist policy of russification, or was he in fact a separatist and nationalist?


Just over 100 years ago, during the 1910 Kazan Missionary Conference, a memorial service was held at the grave of Nikolai Ivanovich Ilminskii who had died in 1891. In his sermon, Archbishop Nikanor of Kazan addressed Ilminskii, ‘We trust that your soul rejoices at the sight of the multitude of your disciples who have gathered from everywhere, and are praising the Lord in their different tongues.’  He confessed to Ilminskii, ‘we have paid insufficient attention to your wise instructions and precepts, but now that we are surrounded by dogs, we not only remember them with gratitude but swear to be faithful to them even unto death.’ One of the most striking features of the Congress was the active participation of Orthodox clergy who for over 20 years had been serving in their native Turkic and Finno-Ugric languages, and the reporter in the Kazan Diocesan News commented, ‘The thoughts of all those listening were transported to that future moment in the Church when all the nations will glorify God and bring him praise, each in his own tongue.’[1]

The 1910 Kazan Missionary Congress was largely a defence of the work of Ilminskii’s disciples after a decade when they had come under attack from within both Church and State. Ilminskii’s struggle to promote the use of the native language by native teachers and clergy in schools and churches, meant that he was constantly accused of promoting separatism and nationalism.  Yet the fact that Ilminskii’s system was to a certain extent adopted by the Ministry of Education, was supported by such prominent figures as Pobedonostsev, and was based on Orthodoxy, meant that, ironically, early Soviet historians described Ilminskii as a reactionary promoter of the Tsarist policy of russification.[2]

Ilminsky’s work was largely passed over in silence in Soviet times, with his disciples among the native peoples being partially rehabilitated in the 1950s as creators of alphabets and literacy, but with scant mention of the Christian motivation for their work.  Recent scholars in the West and in post-perestroika Russia, assessing Ilminsky’s work as historians of imperialism or education, have tended to continue the Soviet view of the Ilminskii system as promoting the assimilation of native peoples and cultures.[3] However, research done by scholars in the Volga republics themselves over the last 20 years has shed new light on the consequences of the work of Ilminskii himself, his forerunners and his disciples, and there is therefore a need to reassess the impact of Ilminskii’s work.[4]

In this paper I would like to outline briefly Ilminskii’s precepts and the controversy surrounding them, and illustrate their impact on the Turkic Chuvash people.

Who are the Chuvash?

Although the ethnogenesis of the Chuvash is still unclear, scholars consider that the ancestors of the Chuvash were Oguric Turkic tribes pushed westwards from the 3rd century onwards from their homelands in Western Siberia.  They were among the peoples of Great Bulgaria which was located in the steppes to the north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains from 630 to 665AD.  The expansion of another Oguric Turkic tribe, the Khazars, led to the break-up of Great Bulgaria, with some of the Bulgars migrating north in the late 7th century, and others migrating west to the Danube.  The resettlement of other Turkic tribes, including the Savirs who migrated to the Mid-Volga in the 730’s AD due to Arab attacks along the Caspian coast, led to the formation of Volga Bulgaria which remained a vassal of the Khazar Khanate.  The Bulgars and Savirs both displaced and assimilated the Finnic peoples already resident in the Mid-Volga: the Mari, Mordva and Burtas.[5]

The ethnoconfessional history of the Mid-Volga peoples before the mid-19th century

In 922 AD the Caliph of Baghdad sent a mission led by Susan ar-Rassi to Volga Bulgaria to spread Islam which was adopted mainly in the towns among the merchants and ruling circles who later mixed with the Mongols to form the Kazan Tatars.  The ancestors of the Chuvash were people who retained their Oguric Turkic language and their traditional pagan religious rites and fled into the Finnic regions at the time of the Mongol conquest of Volga Bulgaria in 1236.[6] When the first travellers described the Chuvash traditional religion in the 18th century they were practising a form of ancient Turkic worship of Tengri or Tura, with strong elements of Zoroastrianism adopted due to contact with Iranian peoples of the Caucasus, and some Judaic, Muslim and Christian elements due to contact with the Khazars, Tatars and Russians.[7]

After Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Kazan in 1552 the Volga peoples came under the control of the Russian state and some missionary work took place through schools at monasteries founded in Kazan and Sviyazhsk. However, 95% of the non-Muslim Chuvash, Mari, Mordva and Udmurt peoples were more aggressively baptized between 1740 and 1764 through the use of material incentives such as release from military conscription and taxes.[8] Although some attempts were made to train an indigenous clergy at the Kazan and Sviyazhsk schools for the Newly Baptised in the 18th century, pupils were taught in Russian and Slavonic and were effectively educated out of their native culture.[9] The few clergy serving among the Chuvash remained predominantly Russian, and liturgical life took place in Slavonic.  Consequently, the Chuvash continued their traditional beliefs and practices, remained without a written tradition, and viewed the Orthodox priest who occasionally came to the village as a state official. 

Catherine the Great’s more tolerant religious policies led to the creation in 1788 of a Muslim Muftiate in Orenburg, which had oversight over an expanding network of mosques and Muslim schools.[10] The resulting renewal in religious adherence among the Muslim Tatars led to many of the Tatars baptized between the 16th and 18th centuries openly petitioning to adopt Islam in the early 19th century, and some of the Chuvash living close to Tatar villages and feeling more linguistic and cultural affinity with the Tatars, adopting Islam and the Tatar language and culture.[11]

This phenomenon led to renewed attempts by the Church to establish the non-Muslim Volga peoples in Orthodoxy with the translation of a Short Catechism and prayers in Tatar, Chuvash, Mordva and Mari from 1804-8, and the Four Gospels published in Chuvash in 1820 by the short-lived Russian Bible Society, using the Cyrillic alphabet.  These translations had little impact however as they were done by Russian priests who were not native Chuvash speakers, and the vast majority of the Chuvash were illiterate.    Liturgical life continued in Slavonic with the rites of baptism, marriage and funerals understood by the Chuvash as state duties.[12] Although the methodology of the Church’s missions and schools during this period has been highly criticized, it did however produce a few individuals who were conversant with both the Russian and their native language and culture, without whom it would have been impossible to implement Ilminskii’s ideas.[13]

Nikolai Ivanovich Ilminskii

Nikolai Ilminskii graduated in 1845 from the Kazan Church Academy, where he stayed on as lecturer in Arabic and Tatar, moving to live in the Tatar quarter and studying at a medresse in order to learn the Tatar spoken language and study Islamic theology.  He worked on a Committee set up in 1847 to translate the Orthodox Liturgy into Tatar, which raised issues for him of the kind of language to use: literary Tatar accessible only to educated Muslims, or the popular speech of the Baptised Tatar villages.  In 1848, Grigorii Postnikov, a student of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, with whom he had collaborated on the translation of the New Testament into modern Russian, was appointed Archbishop of Kazan.  Postnikov sent Ilminskii out into the Baptised Tatar villages to find out about parish life, and this led to a joint Plan for Tatar mission in 1849 which emphasized the need for priests who knew Tatar and understood Islam.  During a trip to the Middle East in 1851-53 Ilminskii was deeply impressed both by the network of Muslim schools, but also by the schools and native Syrian priests in Uniate communities in the Lebanon and Syria, and Arabic translations of liturgical books.[14]

The convictions developed during these experiences became the core of the Ilminskii system, the key element of which was the use of the native language in both schools and the Church, although it involved much more than this.  Ilminsky stressed the need to use not only the native language, but the spoken, living language, which alone could bring about a ‘conversion of the heart’ of the mass of the people, a process which Ilminskii believed could only take place through schools where pupils would be taught to read and write by native speakers using the Scriptures and Orthodox prayers translated into their mother tongue.[15]

Ilminsky was criticized by many who believed that the native languages were too primitive to express Christian teaching accurately, but he defended his principles saying, ‘the Russian language will not penetrate to the depths of consciousness of the natives, to their hearts, and in these depths their former, pre-Christian beliefs will remain untouched in spite of them knowing by heart the Catechism and prayers. … It is true that the language of the people is not Christian. But you see Greek was formerly the organ of Greek mythology and vain philosophy according to the elements of the world, but the Gospel made it Christian.  The Slavonic language was also pagan and then became Christian.  Similarly with us, through the translation of the Christian services into the language of the people, it is permeated with the Christian spirit and receives a Christian character. … There can be and are noble elements in the popular language.  You need only to select them skillfully, like a wise bee.’[16]

‘We believe that the evangelical word of our Saviour Jesus Christ, incarnate, so to speak, in the living and natural Tatar language, and through this language communing most sincerely with the deepest thinking and religious consciousness of the Tatars, will bring about the Christian regeneration of this people.’[17]

Ilminsky controversially stressed the need to use an adapted form of the Cyrillic script in translations and school textbooks.  At the time, the use of an unadapted Cyrillic alphabet was being advocated by Russian scholars and state officials whom he rebuked writing, ‘When the wise and holy first Orthodox teachers of the Slavs, motivated by a spirit of Christian love and condescension made significant additions (to the Greek alphabet) of consonants, nasal vowels and semi-vowels…why should we, scorning such an example, start to impose our Russian alphabet as a whole on native languages which are extremely different from our Russian language not only in inward structure but in their system of sounds.’[18]

Although these principles had been partially applied in the 1820s and 1830s by Bishop Innocent Veniaminov and Archimandrite Makarii Glukharev in distant outposts of Alaska and the Altai, and their work influenced Ilminsky, it was Ilminsky who formulated them into a coherent framework and fought for their widespread use not only closer to home in the Volga region, but also throughout all of the non-Russian peoples of the Russian Empire, including in recently acquired territories in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

This widespread application became, in theory, more possible when Ilminsky’s principles were by and large adopted into state law in the 1870 ‘Regulations on measures for the education of the natives’.  One part of the law provided for the opening of a teacher training institution in Kazan for native teachers.  From 1872 Ilminsky was Director of this Kazan Teachers’ Seminary which at the time of the 1917 Revolution had graduated over 1500 teachers trained in the Ilminskii system, the majority from the Volga peoples and Russians, but with smaller numbers of Permyaks, Kazakhs, Kalmyks, Koreans and Yakuts.[19] From 1876 Ilminsky was also President of the Translation Committee of the Brotherhood of St Gurii set up in Kazan in 1867 to support native schools and publications.  Through this post he had oversight over all native language translations and publications in the east of Russia and Siberia, the vast majority of which until 1917 were school textbooks and biblical and liturgical texts.[20]

Ilminskii’s Chuvash disciple Ivan Iakovlev and the Simbirsk Chuvash Teachers’ School

Ilminsky’s main Chuvash disciple, Ivan Iakovlev, was born into a family of Chuvash Crown peasants in 1848.  At the age of 8 he was sent to the Russian school in a nearby village where he was taught to read and write in Russian and Slavonic.  He was profoundly influenced by the hard-working, prayerful Russian peasant he lodged with, and a fellow pupil who retold Bible stories in their native Chuvash language.  After training in Simbirsk as a land surveyor, in 1864 at the age of 16 he surveyed the lands of a Polish landowner Kosinskii, at the time agitated by the 1863 Polish uprising.  On Kosinskii’s estate Iakovlev saw Polish books and began to wonder why his own people did not have a written language.  Encouraged by Kosinskii, Iakovlev became convinced of the need to create an alphabet for the Chuvash language and translate the Orthodox service books into Chuvash.  Over the next ten years, Iakovlev became the first Chuvash to get a Grammar School education and study at Kazan University.  Whilst still at Grammar School, Iakovlev set up his Simbirsk Chuvash School where he helped Chuvash boys from his home village to prepare for the Russian schools in Simbirsk.  Influenced by a Russian priest, Fr Alexei Baratynskii, Iakovlev saw no other way for the Chuvash to be educated than through the Russian school system.[21]

But in autumn 1870 Iakovlev’s thinking took a radical change in direction when he arrived in Kazan to study at the university, and within a few days had met Ilminskii and attended a church service in the Tatar language sung by the pupils of the Baptised Tatar School.  Under Ilminskii’s influence, Iakovlev became convinced that the native language should be used both in school and in the church.

During the summer vacation of 1871, under Ilminskii’s guidance, Iakovlev devised a new adaptation of the Cyrillic alphabet to express specifically Chuvash sounds.  He translated the Gospel of St Matthew and, following Ilminskii’s principles, went with the boys of his Simbirsk Chuvash School to Chuvash villages to read the Gospel and correct the translation by listening to how the village people expressed its content.  They collected traditional oral folk stories and sayings and these, together with translated Bible stories and prayers were used to compile the first Chuvash Primer published in 1871.  Ilminskii taught Iakovlev, ‘Don’t be self-confident.  Learn and go on learning!  Don’t be ashamed to learn from an old storyteller from among the ordinary people.  You must believe that if some thought has entered the head of a Russian, or Frenchman or a German, then it must also be in the head of some African savage.  God has given to each people the means to understand all kinds of ideas…You just need to be able to find them and draw them out.’[22]

In 1877 the School gained the right to train teachers for village elementary schools and from 1875-1903 Iakovlev was Inspector of Chuvash schools with responsibility for appointing and advising teachers, overseeing the building of new schools often with churches alongside, and writing textbooks which were largely compiled and translated at the Simbirsk School.  In 1878 a Girls’ Department opened to train women teachers.  By 1917 the School had trained over 1000 teachers, mainly Chuvash, but also Russians, Tatars and Mordva, who worked in native schools across the Volga-Urals region and Siberia.

The curriculum of the School reflects Ilminskii and Iakovlev’s convictions on the role of a teacher in rural communities, who was expected to be an exemplary source of knowledge of all aspects of rural life.  Alongside basic Chuvash, Russian and Slavonic literacy, Catechism, history, geography, mathematics and gymnastics, the school taught agriculture and beekeeping and had its own model farm from 1893.  It had workshops for a variety of practical skills such as carpentry, cobbling, bookbinding and smithying.  The workshops made farming implements,  desks, chairs and window frames for village schools, and iconostases for village churches.

All of Iakovlev’s students learnt a musical instrument and sang in the school’s choirs which from 1885 sang the Orthodox services in Chuvash at the school’s ‘Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit’, named after the moment when the apostles began to speak in other tongues. Biblical and liturgical texts were translated by teachers and pupils at lessons and then were sent to Kazan for editing by Hebrew and Greek scholars working in collaboration with Ilminskii, but were also sent to teachers, and later priests, in the villages where they were edited by the village people.

The first texts translated and edited in this way were the Easter service published in 1873, the All-Night Vigil, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the Horologion published in 1884, the Ochtoechos published in 1888 and the Four Gospels in 1890.[23] The complete New Testament with Psalter in Chuvash was published in 1911 in collaboration with the British and Foreign Bible Society who funded the publication of Chuvash Scriptures from 1874.  The whole of the Old Testament was translated into Chuvash but the onset of the First World War and the 1917 Revolution prevented the lengthy editing and publication process.

Orthodox Liturgical Life in the Chuvash Language

General authorization for serving the Orthodox Liturgy in native languages was given by the Synod in January 1883, although bishops had been able to give their blessing to individual churches before this, for example among the Yakuts in the 1850s and at the Altai mission in the 1860s.[24] In 1882, decrees of Synod allowed the ordination of those who had previously been school teachers, and those who had not studied at Seminary, thus removing obstacles to the ordination of the first native priests.[25]

The first native Chuvash was ordained priest in May 1878,[26] and by 1889 there were 32 graduates of Iakovlev’s school serving as priests and deacons in the Kazan, Simbirsk, Samara and Ufa dioceses.[27] Seven of those serving as priests had studied at the Kazan Teachers’ Seminary and then worked as teachers at the Simbirsk Chuvash School in order to acquire the maturity for ordination.  Both Ilminskii and Iakovlev’s correspondence contain many letters to bishops and to Chuvash teachers showing the intermediary role they played in recommending suitable men, and then guiding them through the ordination process in a largely foreign language and culture.[28]

The numbers ordained depended greatly on the local bishop’s attitude to Ilminskii and Iakovlev.  Both Varsonofii, Bishop of Simbirsk from 1882-1895 and Gurii, Bishop of Samara from 1893-1904, had been pupils of Ilminskii at the Kazan Academy, and thus had a positive attitude to his work.[29] There were only two native clergy in the Samara diocese when Gurii became Bishop in 1893.  By 1904 when he left to become Bishop of Simbirsk, there were 69 native priests: 56 Chuvash, 5 Tatar and 8 Mordvin.  Of these, 36 were graduates of Iakovlev’s Simbirsk School and 23 were graduates of the Kazan Teachers’ Seminary.[30] Even Iakovlev, with his ardent desire to see a native clergy, criticized Gurii for being too hasty and later regretting some of the ordinations.

Fr. Daniil Philimonov, one of the first Chuvash priests

The impact of these ordinations at the village level can be illustrated through the work of one of the first Chuvash priests, Fr Daniil Philimonov who was a student at the Kazan Teachers’ Seminary from 1872-75, then a teacher at the Simbirsk Chuvash School from 1875 to 1882, when he was ordained priest, largely at Ilminskii’s initiative.[31] Whilst a priest among the ‘Upper Chuvash’ in the Kazan diocese, he opened 13 primary schools at several of which he taught Catechism. But he was also active among the adult Chuvash who retained their pagan ways whilst their children had been evangelized by the local school.  By 1888, in his first parish of Musirma, the Adult Sunday school had a fully comprehensive teaching programme with 200-300 people at each session and numbers growing when communal singing of prayers was introduced.[32]

In February 1894 he was appointed priest in the central Chuvash town of Ishaki which had become a place of Orthodox pilgrimage for the native population before Ilminskii’s time due to a wonder-working icon of St Nicholas.  Local Russian priests resented the appointment of a Chuvash to such an important post, but Archbishop Vladimir of Kazan, formerly Head of the Altai Mission and a strong supporter of Ilminskii’s ideas, saw the strategic need for native language services and missionary work in such a town. He wrote free instructive brochures which were distributed to pilgrims to Ishaki and drew local priests who knew Chuvash into translation work.  In October 1894 Philimonov opened a 2-class Teachers’ School in Ishaki with 23 teachers qualifying in the first 1896 graduation.  He particularly fought to open Girls’ Schools as the vast majority of Chuvash women remained illiterate, did not speak Russian and passed on Chuvash pagan practices to their children.[33]

From 1896 a group of 40 Chuvash women began to live the monastic life in a village near Philimonov and Archbishop Vladimir asked him to help the sisters.  Under the first Chuvash abbess, Margarita, the daily liturgical cycle was held largely in Chuvash with parts in Slavonic.  When in 1899 a new Russian abbess was appointed who disliked the Chuvash services, the sisters complained to Philimonov who took up their cause with the abbess.  In the dispute that followed, the diocesan authorities ordered 18 sisters be removed from the community and Philimonov was accused of inciting rebellion.[34]

After this incident Philimonov asked to be transferred to the Samara diocese where Bishop Gurii was more sympathetic to native language services.  By 1902 Philimonov had oversight of 10 Primary Schools where in the evenings adults were also taught literacy and given basic Christian teaching.  In distant villages with no church he served the Liturgy in the school buildings.  In 1904, four missionary libraries were opened, there were itinerant village booksellers and Philimonov recommended publishing a Chuvash newspaper.  From 1900 until the 1917 Revolution Philimonov was in charge of the Samara Translation Sub-Committee of the Brotherhood of St Gurii with 42 native priests working on translations.  From 1900-1911 the Committee published 93 titles of which 85 were in Chuvash.[35]

In a description of church life in 1898 in villages where native schools and services had been introduced over the last 10-20 years, P. Mike wrote of how he attended the All-Night Vigil in the village of Bateyevo in Tsivilsk district.

‘The people came in crowds from the other villages in the parish.  When the priest and deacon opened the Royal Doors the church was packed;  there were, I imagine, about 1000 people.  They awaited the beginning of the service in silence.  Then a crowd of about 600 or 800 worshippers, in one mighty breath, sang, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.  I couldn’t work out at first if it was the pupils of the village school, but then saw that around me men and women were singing;  I could hear basses and descants.  It was a massive and well-organised people’s choir….who sang(all the hymns) in harmony with great sincerity and majesty….I was told that at the Liturgy a choir of about 1500 sings and it is even more majestic.’  When Mike made enquiries he was told it was the priest who had taught them to sing and before he arrived 5 years ago only the Russians in the village had attended church.’[36]

There were, however, Bishops and Russian clergy who questioned Ilminskii and Yakovlev’s approach to mission through schools and their influence over the ordination of native clergy.  When the Chuvash Fr Kliment Makarov was ordained, Russian priests accused him of syncretism, of mixing Orthodox and Old Chuvash pagan rites.  There were also complaints to Archbishop Varsonofii that Iakovlev was the bishop and not he.[37]

Nikandr, Bishop of Simbirsk from 1895-1904 expressed his disagreement with Yakovlev’s activities by asking the Orthodox Missionary Society in October 1899 to stop its funding of the Simbirsk Chuvash Girls’ School, and use this money to support a diocesan missionary among Muslims. (38) In two articles in the journal ‘Missionary Review’ in December 1899, Nikandr accused Iakovlev of ‘intentionally isolating his tribe from the main nationality in the state’ and suggested that native monasteries should be used for mission rather than schools.[38]

From this time until the 1917 Revolution Yakovlev was under constant attack from within the Russian Ministry of Education for separatism.  In 1903 his post as Inspector of Chuvash Schools was suddenly abolished.  Iakovlev’s task of defending his School was made all the more difficult when both students and graduates began to be influenced by revolutionary movements.  In February 1907 students boycotted lessons and put up a revolutionary flag on the day the State Duma opened.  Then in March the entire 1st class was expelled after a dispute with their teacher of Russian, and death threats were sent to Iakovlev and the teacher concerned.[39] Although during the events of 1905-6 Iakovlev went round Chuvash villages to bring calm, he also defended a School Inspector dismissed after the discovery of a secret Teachers’ Union in the Buinsk district where many of Iakovlev’s graduates worked, and defended teachers he felt unfairly accused of political agitation, thus casting suspicion on himself.[40]

When accused of separatism in 1912 by the Minister of Education Kasso, Iakovlev wrote, ‘For me it is incomprehensible how these separatist aspirations could have been expressed, as all my activity has been directed not towards the separation and isolation of the Chuvash tribe from the Russian people, but towards their drawing closer (sblizhenie) and merging (sliyaniye) with Russians in strict accordance with the law.’[41]

It is easy to understand how Yakovlev’s defence of his life’s work at such moments, has been taken out of context by later, especially Soviet writers seeking to depict him as promoting russification, whereas in fact it was precisely because he was challenging the russifiers by promoting Orthodoxy through his native language and culture that he was forced to justify himself and use such language. Many passages in Iakovlev’s writings, and the whole thrust of his life’s work, show that he believed the Chuvash could adopt the Orthodox faith and be spiritually russified, and yet retain their distinct national identity and language.  In Iakovlev’s ‘Testament to the Chuvash people’ written in August 1921, he wrote, ‘Remember that you will only be able to reign over the hearts of the people if you will not shun the national language.  Using the national language does not entail unfaithfulness to the Russian cause: you can serve the great Russian fatherland without forgetting the native language you have received from your mothers.’[42]

Bishop Andrei’s influence on native parish life

During the first decade of the 20th century when Ilminskii’s disciples were under attack, an extremely significant contribution to the development of native parish life was made by the charismatic figure of Bishop Andrei (formerly Prince Ukhtomskii).  In 1899, while Archimandrite of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Kazan, he was given oversight of Missionary Courses at the Kazan Academy, designed to give basic theological training to native priests.  In 1907 he became Vicar Bishop within the Kazan diocese with responsibility for native parishes and mission.[43] In 1910 he had oversight of 196 Chuvash, 56 Cheremys, 30 Tatar, 8 Mordva and 6 Votiak village parishes.[44]

In these years when preparatory work for the 1917-18 All-Russian Sobor was taking place, Bishop Andrei was outspoken on the need for renewal within the church, for the restoration of ‘sobornost’ within the Church as a whole, and the revitalization of the parish community, and he encouraged this kind of thinking in the native parishes.  He was editor of a journal, ‘Co-labourer of the Brotherhood of St Gurii’ which became a forum for missionary debate, and to which native clergy contributed articles.  In his own controversial articles, Bishop Andrei rebuked the Russian patriots for their complete misunderstanding of the Church.  In 1910 he wrote  ‘Amidst the endless conversations and disputes about the use of native languages, you can come across such a lack of understanding both of the tasks of the Church, and of the essence of Orthodoxy….For example, one recent thinker made the following remark about the Kazan mission: ‘if you want to delay the complete russification of ‘these’ natives, then start to hold church services in native languages’…In these words there is so much the irony of the conqueror, so much proud awareness of his moral and mental superiority over ‘these’ natives and over their missionaries.’  Bishop Andrei continued,’ Above all, in the Church there are no natives. All, both Russian patriots and ‘these’ natives are completely equal in their rights to the Kingdom of Heaven.’[45]

Bishop Andrei especially encouraged local meetings (soveshchaniya) of native clergy for consultation and collaboration,[46] a principle which had been fostered by Ilminskii himself as the first native teachers frequently gathered at conferences to improve their teaching skills and work on translations.  It was in the context of this atmosphere that the idea of a Chuvash diocese with a national bishop arose.

The formation of a Chuvash diocese with a national bishop

Iakovlev tells us that Ilminskii had already thought of a Chuvash bishop before his death in 1891, and Iakovlev himself proposed Fr Daniil Philimonov as a candidate.[47] Philimonov himself says that the idea of a Chuvash diocese and bishop was first discussed at a Native Missionary Congress attended by priests and teachers of the Samara diocese in July 1909.[48] In May 1918 a Congress of Chuvash clergy and laity took place in Kazan and one of the main topics discussed was, ‘The Formation of a Chuvash diocese’.[49]

At the 1917-18 All-Russian Sobor, Andrei Ukhtomskii, by then Archbishop of Ufa, raised the issue of a Chuvash diocese, and in March 1919, Iakovlev sent a report to Patriarch Tikhon proposing a Chuvash bishop, but these proposals were turned down.[50]

By the summer of 1923 about half of the Chuvash parishes were aligned with the Renovationist Church and in April 1923 a Chuvash diocese was created by the Higher Church Council with two Chuvash Bishops, Bishop Timofei of Tsivilsk and Bishop Daniil Philimonov of Cheboksary.[51]

Both Russian and Chuvash clergy organized opposition to the Chuvash Renovationist diocese, and in December 1924 the Chuvash German Kokel, another graduate of Iakovlev’s school, was appointed Vicar Bishop in the Simbirsk diocese and commissioned by Patriarch Tikhon to win the Chuvash parishes back to the Patriarchal church.[52] During 1924-25 Bishop German travelled round the Chuvash parishes and by the end of 1925, out of 230 registered parishes, 159 considered themselves Tikhonite.[53] In 1946 a separate Diocese of Cheboksary and Chuvashia was eventually created, by which time there were only 23 churches open in the Chuvash Republic.


Far from seeking to assimilate the Chuvash into the Russian people, Ilminskii and Iakovlev’s main aim was to transplant the Orthodox Christian tradition into Chuvash culture, and in so doing gave them the means to resist assimilation: a written language, the first generations of a Chuvash intelligentsia, teachers, priests, writers, composers, lawyers, a Chuvash church with the Scriptures and Liturgy painstakingly and communally reforged, albeit with the need for revision, using the ancient oral traditions and thought patterns of the Chuvash people.  The durability of their work was such that Orthodoxy among the Chuvash people survived the Soviet period, giving to the Church its own martyrs.  Across the Chuvash diocese today, liturgical life takes place in Chuvash or in a mixture of Chuvash and Slavonic, and two Chuvash Vicar-Bishops have been appointed.  Work resumed on the Chuvash Bible under the auspices of the United Bible Societies in 1991.  Attempts to change Iakovlev’s translations met with fierce resistance from Chuvash priests and laity for whom they had become the standard, cherished text, although Iakovlev’s New Testament was found to be of sufficient quality that it needed little revision.[54] The Bible in Chuvash was published in 2010, the Chuvash becoming only the second people in Russia, apart from the Russians, to have the entire Bible in their modern mother tongue, a fitting tribute to the man known today as ‘the Enlightener of the Chuvash’, Ivan Iakovlev, and his teacher, Nikolai Ilminskii.


The migration of the Bulgars and Savirs to the Mid-Volga:  After Ivanov, Nikolaev, Dmitriev 2000 p.16

Europe in the year 1000 AD:  After Merienne 1997 p.16

Main settlement areas of the Chuvash in the late 19th century:  After Ivanov 2005 Illustration 36

Archives consulted:

Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv Chuvashkoi Respubliki  State Historical Archive of the Chuvash Republic (GIA ChR)

Rossiiskaia Gosudarstvennaia Biblioteka, Otdel Rukopisei (Russian State Library, Manuscript Department (Moscow) ( RGB OR)

Journals consulted:

Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique (CMRS)

Izvestia po Kazanskoi Eparkhii (IKE) (Kazan Diocesan News)

Missionerskoi Obozrenie (MO) (Missionary Review)

Pravoslavnyi Sobesednik (PS) (Orthodox Companion)

Bibliography :

Aleksandrov G.A. ‘Chuvashskie Intelligenty: Biografii I Sud’by’ (Chuvash Intelligentsia: Biographies and Destinies) Cheboksary 2002

Braslavskii L.Yu. ‘Pravoslavnie khramy Chuvashii’ (Orthodox churches of Chuvashia) Cheboksary 1995

Evdokimova A.N. ‘Prikhodskoe dukhovenstvo i prikhozhane Chuvashskogo kraia v kontse 18-pervoi poloviny 19v.’ ( Clergy and parishioners of the Chuvash region at the end of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries (Kand. Dissertation) Cheboksary 2004

Geraci R. ‘Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Tsarist Russia’ Cornell University Press 2001

Gerasimova N.I. ‘Kulturosozidatel’naia rol’ religii v protsesse formirovania Chuvashskogo etnosa’ (The culture-creating role of religion in the process of the formation of the Chuvash ethnos) (Kand. Dissertation) Kirov 2003

Golden P.B.  ‘An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples’ 1992 Wiesbaden

Gubonin M.E.  ‘Akty Svyateishego Patriarkha Tikhona I posdneishie dokumenty o preemstve vysshei tserkovnoi vlasti 1917-1943’ (The Acts of the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon and later documents about the succession of higher church authority 1917-1943) Moscow 1994

Iakovlev I.Ia.

‘Pisma’ (Letters) Cheboksary 1985

‘Iz Perepiski’ Ch.1 (From Correspondence Part 1) Compiled by N.G.Krasnov Cheboksary 1989

‘S dumoi o narodnom prosveshchenii. Iz Perepiski Ch.2’ (Thoughts on National Education. From Correspondence Part 2) Compiled by N.G.Krasnov, G.N.Plechov Cheboksary 1998

‘Moia Zhizn Vospominania’ (My Life. Memoirs) Cheboksary 1997

Ilminskii N.I.

‘Ob obrazovanii inorodtsev posredstvom knig perevedennykh na ikh rodnoi iazyk’ (On teaching natives with books translated into their own language) Pravoslavnoe Obozrenie X (March 1863) p.136-141

‘O perevode pravoslavnykh khristianskikh knig na tatarskii iasyk pri Kreshcheno-Tatarskoi Shkole v Kazani’ (On the translation of Orthodox Christian books into the Tatar language at the Baptised Tatar School in Kazan) ZhMP, CLII (November 1870)

‘Iz perepiski po voprosu o primenenii russkogo alfavita k inorodcheskim iazykam’ (From correspondence on the question of applying the Russian alphabet to native languages) Kazan 1883

Iskhakova R.R.’Kazanskaia Uchitel’skaia Seminaria I ee rol’v podgotovke uchitelei dlia natsionalnykh shkol’ (The Kazan Teachers’ Seminary and its role in the training of teachers for national schools) Kazan 2001

Ivanov V. ‘Etnicheskaia Geografia Chuvashskogo Naroda’ (Ethnic geography of the Chuvash

people) Cheboksary 2005

Ivanov V.P., Nikolaev V.V., Dimitriev V.D. ‘Chuvashi Etnicheskaia istoria I traditsionnaia kultura’ (The Chuvash Ethnic history and traditional culture)  Moscow 2000

Kharlampovich K.V. ‘O khristianskom prosveshchenii inorodtsev: perepiska Arkhiepiskopa Veniamina Irkutskogo s N.I. Ilminskim’ (On Christian missionary work among the natives: the correspondence of Archbishop Veniamin of Irkutsk and N.I. Ilminskii) in Pravoslavnyi Sobesednik (Orthodox Companion) July-Aug 1905 p.1-38

Krasnov N.G. ‘I.Iakovlev I ego potomki’ (I.Yakovlev and his descendants) Cheboksary 2007

Lemercier Quelquejay C. ‘Les missions orthodoxes en pays musulmans de moyenne et basse Volga’ (Orthodox missions in Muslim lands of the Middle and Lower Volga) in Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique 8 (1967) p.369-403

Mashanov M.’Obzor deiatel’nosti Bratstva Sv. Guria za 25 let ego sushchestvovania, 1867-1892’ (A Survey of the activities of the Brotherhood of St Gurii over the 25 years of its existence, 1867-1892) Kazan 1892

Matorin N.M. ‘Religia u narodov Volzhko-Kamskogo kraia prezhde I teper’: Iazychestvo, Islam, Pravoslavie, Sektantstvo’ (Religion among the peoples of the Volga-Kama region formerly and in the present: Animism, Islam, Orthodoxy, Sectarianism) Moscow ‘Bezbozhnik’ 1929

Merienne P. ‘Petit Atlas mondial du moyen age’   Editions Ouest-France Rennes 1997

Mil’kovich K.S.  ‘O chuvashakh: etnograficheskii ocherk neizvestnogo avtora XVIII stoletia’ (On the Chuvash: an ethnographic essay by an unknown author of the 18th century) Kazan 1888

Nikol’skii A. ‘Istoricheskaia zapiska o deiatel’nosti Obshchestva (Pravoslavnoe Missionerskoe Obshchestvo) za istekshee dvadtsatpiatiletie (1870-1895 gg.) (A Historical Memorandum on the activity of the Society (Orthodox Missionary Society) during the last 25 years) Moscow 1895

Nikol’skii N.V. ‘Narodnoe obrazovanie u Chuvash. Istoricheskii ocherk.’ (National education among the Chuvash. An historical essay) in Sobranie Sochinenii Cheboksary 2007 vol.2,  p.52-64

Rodionov V.G. (Compiler) ‘V. Vishnevskii. Pismennaia kultura rannego prosvetitelstva’ (V.Vishnevskii. The written culture of early missionary work)  Cheboksary 2004

Salmin A.K. ‘Narodnaia obriadnost’ chuvashei’ (Folk rituals of the Chuvash) Cheboksary 1994

Taimasov L.

‘Christianizatsia chuvashskogo naroda v pervoi polovine XIX veka’ (The Christianization of the Chuvash people in the first half of the 19th century) Cheboksary 1992

‘Pravoslavnaia Tserkov I khristianskoe prosveshchenie narodov srednogo Povolzhe’ (The Orthodox Church and Christian missionary work among the peoples of the Middle Volga) Cheboksary 2004

Werth P.W. ‘At the margins of Orthodoxy: Mission, Governance and Confessional Politics in Russia’s Volga-Kama Region 1827-1905  Cornell University Press 2002

Znamenskii P. ‘Na Pamiat’ o Nikolae Ivanoviche Ilminskom; K 25 letiu Bratstva Sv. Guria’ (In memory of Nikolai Ivanovich Ilminskii. On the 25th Anniversary of the Brotherhood of St Gurii) Kazan 1892

[1] IKE 1910 p.689-690

[2] See for example Matorin 1929

[3] See for example Geraci 2001, Werth 2002, Taimasov 2004

[4] See for example Iskhakova 2001, Gerasimova 2003, Evdokimova 2004

[5] Golden 1992 p.396-397

[6] Ivanov 2005 p.74-92

[7] See Mil’kovich 1888 and Salmin 1994

[8] Lemercier-Quelquejay 1967

[9] Nikolskii N.V.2007 p.52-64

[10] Lemercier Quelquejay 1967 p.394

[11] Werth 2002 p.46-56

[12] Taimasov 1992 p.54-55

[13] See for example Rodionov 2004 on the life of Fr Viktor Vishnevskii

[14] For Ilminskii’s early career see Znamenskii 1892 p.1-148

[15] See Ilminskii 1863

[16] Kharlampovich 1905  p.25-27

[17] Ilminskii 1870  p.15

[18] Ilminskii 1883 p.28

[19] Iskhakova 2001 p.48

[20] See Mashanov 1892

[21] On the life of Ivan Iakovlev and the Simbirsk Chuvash Teachers’ School see: Iakovlev 1985, 1989,1997 and 1998 and Krasnov 2007

[22] Iakovlev 1997 p.272

[23] Mashanov 1892 p.140-141

[24] Nikol’skii A. 1895 p.95-96

[25] See IKE 1882 No.13 p.327 and No. 14 p.357

[26] IKE 1906 No.45 p.1441-1451 Svyashchennik M.D. Dmitriev (Nekrolog) (The priest M.D. Dmitriev (Obituary)

[27] Iakovlev 1998 p.111 and p.87

[28] RGB OR F.424 (N. Ilminskii) k.2, ed.khr.52

[29] Iakovlev 1997 p.242-247 and p.231

[30] GIA ChR F.350, Op.1, d.4, l.39-40

[31] See above note (28)

[32] IKE 1890 p.77 and p.96

[33] Alexandrov 2002 p.12-26

[34] GIA ChR F.350, Op.1,d.1,l.319 and Sotrudnik BSG p.757 and 778

[35] GIA ChR F.350, Op.1, ed.khr.2, l.197-223

[36] IKE 1904 p.710

[37] See Iakovlev 1998 p.73 and 1997 p.245-46

[38] Missionerskoe Obozrenie 1899 Dec. p.587 and Iakovlev 1998 p.214

[39] Iakovlev 1998 p.260 and Krasnov 2007 p.269-70

[40] Iakovlev 1989 p.200, 207-8

[41] Iakovlev 1989 p.222 and Iakovlev 1997 p.238-9

[42] Iakovlev 1997 p.600

[43] Sotrudnik BSG 18.9.1911 p.597 ‘K Istorii Kazanskoi missii’ (Towards a history of the Kazan mission)

[44] See IKE 1910 p.290

[45] Sot BSG 2.10.1910 p.782

[46] Sotrudnik BSG 18.9.1911 p.597

[47] Iakovlev 1997 p.186-187

[48] GIA ChR F.784, Op.1, d.92, l.130

[49] GIA ChR F.350, Op.1, ed.khr.2, l.30

[50] GIA ChR F.784, Op.1, d.92 l.133

[51] Gubonin 1994 p.970 and 994

[52] GIA ChR F.784, Op.1, d.92 l.132

[53] Braslavskii p.145

[54] From an interview with Eva Nikolaevna Lisina, editor of the 2010 Chuvash Bible, conducted 16/5/2012

See also:
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