Non-possessors and Possessors in 16th century Russia

The controversy of Non-possessors and Possessors at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Russia had no historical precedent in pitting eremitic values against both church and state. Conflict erupted at a pivotal moment in Russian history and was highlighted by the influence of Nil Sorsky, a hermit.

Nil or Nikolai Sorsky or Sorskiĭ (1433-1508) was the most significant figure in the promotion of hesychasm and eremitism in early modern Russia. Though he only composed two works, modest guidelines for monks and hermits, their influence and the influence of his hermitage were instrumental in a widespread eremitic and ascetic movement in Russia that persisted for centuries. Yet Nil Sorsky's actual involvement in the Non-possessor controversy was indirect, for larger forces were at play in this tragic drama.


The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed enormous changes in Russia: national consolidation around the Principate of Moscow, the autonomy of the Muscovy Patriarchate from the Byzantine Patriarch of Constantinople, and the emergence of the tsardom and political theory of the "third Rome" promoting consolidation of power around Church and state. This setting of the Non-possessor controversy highlights the momentum of enormous ecclesiastical and secular forces in Russia, challenged by modest but articulate advocates of a spiritual vision of life.

During the struggle with its Tartar occupiers, culminating in Russian independence in the late 1480's, the princes of Moscow had established close relations with the Metropolitan of Moscow and other church figures as tutors, advisers, and advocates of state power. Rising nationalism rejected a turn to the West. In 1441, the Greek-born Isidore, Metropolitan of Moscow, attended the Council of Florence, where the besieged Constantinople declared a short-lived union with Rome and the Catholic Church. Upon his return to Moscow, Isidore was roundly denounced by ecclesiastical powers and imprisoned by the Grand Duke for his perceived perfidy.

The see of Moscow remained vacant until 1448, when a Russian council of bishops elected a Metropolitan themselves, rejecting deference to the prerogative of Constantinople to nominate one. The Florentine Union became a moot point when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Though restoring relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Russian church was now effectively autocephalous, that is, autonomous.

The development of a political theory of Moscow as "third Rome" began to emerge upon the consolidation of gains by both church and state. The successful rejection of Constantinople and Rome plus the consolidation of church and state interests propelled the idea of the prince as emperor or tsar. The tsar, it was argued, received from God the right and power to rule as protector of the church. The church received its autonomy and protection from the tsar.

None of these ideas of cesaro-papism were new to Europe, but the confluence of events in the growth of Russian nationalism introduced them to Russia at this period. A leading advocate of state power was abbot Joseph of the Volokolamsk Monastery. Joseph (1440-1515) would play a key role in the leadership of the Possessors, in direct conflict with the inspiration of the Non-possessors, Nil Sorsky.

The controversy

Nil Sorsky was a monk from the upper class, well educated, well-traveled. and articulate. His formative monastic years at the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery introduced him to hesychasm, which is both a spiritual method of prayer and mediation as well as the inspiration for a style of monastic life and comportment that emphasizes interior and contemplative insight over external and ritualistic practices.

Nil spent years in the study of the Church Fathers, as his few writings show, and his refinement of hesychasm during his stay at Mt. Athos convinced him upon his return to Russia, to establish a hermitage based on his spiritual methods. The hermitage was a skete in the Mt. Athos model -- a single dwelling for an elder and one or two disciples, whose daily life centered around "intellectual work," economic self-sufficiency and alms in exchange for counsel to visitors and prayer on behalf of donors.

The example of hermitage and hesychasm spread, affecting established monasteries and their monks. Soon many hermitages dotted the region where Nil had settled along the Sora River, a somewhat desolate and inauspicious terrain but suited to the rugged eremitic existence. Because the area was on the eastern side of the Volga River traditionally demarking Russian civilized life, the hermit-monks were dubbed "trans-Volga elders."

Their remoteness was deemed by established ecclesiastics as an implicit judgment on conventional monastic practice and authority. Theirs was not simply a contrast of style but an implicit threat.

The Russian monasteries of the time owned and administered vast lands (about a third of Russia), with its produce, peasants, and goods. The close alliance of the church with landed nobility and the state further sacrificed the peasants to poverty, enslavement as serfs, ruthless punishments, and perpetual hunger and despair.

Into this dichotomy of social practice and teaching came a secularizing movement that sought to inject radical theological beliefs into Russian society. Reminiscent of more unorthodox Protestant movements in Reformation Europe, the emerging sect rejected Trinitarianism, the divinity of Christ, and the efficacy of the sacraments save adult baptism. Joseph of V described the sect as "Judaizers" and heretics. Furthermore, the Judaizers advocated the separation of church and state.

A Church council was convened in Moscow in 1503, lasting two years. The ostensible purpose was to address the growth of heresy. Joseph Volokolamsky attacked them as heretics and called them "Judaizers." Joseph urged the secular authorities to arrest and punish them.

Nil Sorsky and the trans-Volga elders upheld orthodoxy against them but argued that coercion and punishment were inherently unjust and that Christians who advocated violence and intolerance betrayed their own teachings. They argued that forgiveness and example could dissuade the Judaizers of their erroneous opinions.

But the overwhelming number of attendees at the council sided with Joseph. The heretics were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. On December 27, 1504, a number of them were burned at the stake in Moscow. In February of 1505, more were burned at the stake in Novgorod.

There is some question as to whether Nil Sorsky himself attended the Council of 1503. There is no direct evidence that he did. Neither his nor his contemporaries' writings suggest it, and it seems unlikely given his age and his desire for self-effacement. But other trans-Volga spokesmen were undoubtedly present, among them Vassian Patrikeev, (about whom more below). The triumph of Joseph in the treatment of heretics set the stage for the next controversy.


The trans-Volga elders perceived monastic property as an aberration of the spiritual purposes of monasticism. Monastic wealth and landholding with its rents, work, peasants, and slaves, violated the monastic vows of poverty, self-sufficiency, labor, and spirituality. The life of the monk should be one of prayer, contemplation, simplicity, and detachment from worldly concerns. In time, those holding eremitic views on property and landholding came to be called "nonpossessors."

Conversely, Joseph Volokolamsky and defenders of monastic and ecclesiastical property were called "possessors." They argued that property assured the vitality and independence of the Church and its monasteries. The configuration of society and the world (and Russia), argued the possessors, was ordained by God, and the position of the Church was part of an inviolable order. Ecclesiastical authority worked closely with the state to regulate the needs of society. Joseph Volokolamsky argued that the Church and the monasteries maintained schools, hospitals, churches, and food dispensations with their incomes. He argued that

God's holy churches and monasteries must not suffer injury or violence, and their lands and belongings must not be taken away. ... For all Church and monastery property, as well as the fruits of the monks' labor, are dedicated to God. ... He who takes away anything that belongs to a monastery is an offender, and the holy regulations curse him.

At this stage in the sixteenth century, outright secularization was not an issue among the non-possessors. There is no evidence that the tsar was prepared to confiscate Church land or holdings for the state. Nor were the trans-Volga elders advocates for a land-hungry petty nobility, as some observers have suggested. As hermits without worldly goods, their ideas of a church of evangelical poverty and spiritual simplicity, somewhat analogous to the Spiritual Franciscans in Europe, were perceived as a threat to the established order. Suggesting that the elders would secularize church property was Joseph's way of identifying the non-possessors with heretics.

Vasilii (Vasily or Basil) III (1479-1533) became grand prince of Moscovy in 1505 or 8. One of his earliest acts was to take Joseph Volokolamsky and the possessors under his protection. The tsar's unflagging efforts to expand and consolidate Russia enhanced the status of the church, which in turn encouraged his centralization. In 1510, the monk Philotheus of Pskov wrote to Vasilii:

[You are] on earth the sole emperor of the Christians, the leader of the Apostolic Church which no longer stands in Rome or in Constantinople, but in the blessed city of Moscow. ... All Christian Empires are fallen. In their stead stands alone the Empire of our ruler in accordance with the books of the Prophets. Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands and a fourth there will not be.

The ascendancy of the possessors was unchallenged.

In subsequent years, Vasilii's tolerance was sufficient to permit two eloquent defenders of the non-possessors to emerge in court. The prince and monk Vassian (Ivan) Patrikieev (1470-1532) began a revision of canon law.

His career to this point had been perilous. Accused by Ivan III of conspiracy as a young nobleman, Vassian had been forced to take the tonsure at the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (where Nil Sorsky had been a monk). There Vassian had acquainted himself with the ideas of Nil Sorsky and soon became an articulate  defender of the non-possessors. He had argued for clemency towards heretics at the Council of 1503.

Vassian's open criticism of the possessors was undaunted:

Where in the tradition of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? .... We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village. ... We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them with scourges like wild beasts.

Another prominent figure to support the non-possessors was Maximos the Greek (1480-1556). Maximos was a Russian-born scholar familiar with Renaissance humanism in Florence and Venice, once a Dominican and subsequently a monk resident at Mt. Athos. In 1517, he was invited by Vasilii to come to Moscow to translate Greek liturgical books and amend Russian service books, such as the psalter. Like Vassian, Maximos supported the non-possessor views of the trans-Volga elders, and though styled as more of a scholar and intellectual than hermit-monk, he, too, adhered to hesychasm.

But in 1523, Daniel (1492-1547) became elected Metropolitan of Russia. Daniel was a protégé of Joseph Volokolamsky and had served as administrator at the Volokolamsk monastery. Daniel immediately took steps to break up the non-possessors. As one observer notes, Daniel convened a 1525 inquest, where he excommunicated Vassian and ordered him confined at the Volokolamsk monastery, where Vassian died soon afterwards. Similarly, Daniel,

on the slenderest evidence convicted Maximos of heresy and treasonous relations with the Turks. He was excommunicated and put in irons in the Josifo-Volokolamskii monastsery. His jailers said Maximos and Vassian had denigrated Muscovite liturgical innovations and that he doubted the sanctity of ... monks who owned villages. The council also detected "Jewish" passages in Maximos's translation [work].

Maximos was later sent to another monastery, where he was thrown into a dungeon and clapped in irons. The local bishop discretely removed Maximos to a separate cell, where Maximos was allowed books and writing materials. Eventually, Maximos was released but he died shortly afterwards.

The passing of Vassian and Maximos effectively ended the non-possessor movement. Many hermitages were dissolved during this period and their monks and hermits dispersed. The church and state in subsequent years grew more autocratic and powerful. The vision of Nil Sorsky was virtually expunged.

Some observers have argued that the two poles of spirituality represented by Joseph Volokolamsky and Nil Sorsky were reconcilable, that both were named saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, Joseph was named a saint within a generation of his death, in the aura of power enjoyed by the possessors. Nil Sorsky was not named a saint until the twentieth century.

Maximos, too, was named a saint. He remained true to the vision of Nil Sorsky and the non-possessor movement. Late in life he wrote that the hermit must

... be a stranger, unknown, without country, without name, silent before your relatives, your acquaintances, and your friends. Distribute all that you have to the poor, sacrifice all your old habits and all your own will.


General treatments of this period include The Cambridge History of Russia, edited by Maureen Perrie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Isabel de Madariaga: Ivan the Terrible: First Tsar of Russia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005 and Timothy Ware: The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Also Nil Sorsky or Sorskiĭ: The Complete Writings. Edited and translated by George A. Maloney, preface by John L. Mina. New York: Paulist Press, 2003. Maloney, George A., Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.