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Ivan the Terrible Murdered Faithful Philip of Moscow

Ivan the Terrible sent a brutal executioner to kill Philip.

“IVAN THE TERRIBLE,” Czar of Russia, was a brutal man. He killed many noblemen and slaughtered hundreds of people in cities that resisted him, torturing many of them first. After he had grown bold enough, he even murdered Philip of Moscow, Russia’s highest churchman. 

As a youth, Philip was invited to court by Czar Vassily III because he was the son of one of Russia’s noblest families. Stories differ as to why he left. One story says while attending church, he heard Christ’s warning that no man can serve two masters. Recognizing that the glitter of the court was stifling his soul, he fled to Solovetsky Monastery. Another story says he was involved in a political plot and fled for his life. Either way, he became a monk in the abbey, which stood on an island in the White Sea, so far north that it lay within the Arctic Circle. 

Philip developed such a reputation for piety and intelligence that he was made abbot of the monastery in 1547. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Ivan the Terrible was crowned czar. Their lives would soon intersect in more significant ways. 

Demonstrating exceptional administrative abilities and a willingness to work side by side with the other monks at canal building and other hard projects, Philip transformed the monastery into a booming industrial center. He and his men operated a brick kiln, erected a cathedral, constructed water mills and storehouses, drained swamps, dammed waters, and linked nearby lakes with canals. They also established a workshop for leather and fur clothes, built a hospital for pilgrims, and opened new dormitories. Most importantly, the area experienced a spiritual revival. 

Hearing of Philip’s accomplishments, Ivan asked him to become metropolitan of Moscow—head of the Russian church. Philip agreed on the condition that Ivan abolish his notorious and cruel secret police—the Oprichnina. Ivan agreed initially, but instead later intensified the terror. Philip spoke out. When Ivan tried to intimidate him, the Metropolitan asked himself, “Where is my faith if I am silent?” 

The showdown came in 1568 when Ivan was preparing to terrorize Novgorod. He demanded Philip’s blessing as the primate was saying mass. Philip refused. “Fear the judgment of God, to whom we are here making a pure sacrifice.” Rebuking the Czar for his injustice and lack of compassion, he reminded him of the Judge on high. “How shall you present yourself before that tribunal? Dare you appear there covered with the blood of innocents, deaf to their cries of pain?” 

Soon afterward Ivan rigged an incident to make it seem that Philip had brought a false accusation against one of the czar’s cronies. Cowed by the czar, churchmen deposed Philip. Ivan imprisoned him in a local monastery but soon moved him far from Moscow to keep the common folk from gathering around his place of imprisonment. 

On this day, 23 December 1569, one of Ivan’s henchmen, Skuratov, rode to the monastery where Philip was held. Most accounts say Skuratov strangled him there, but one says that he took Philip to Alexandrov where he was burned to death.

Dan Graves

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For more on the struggles of the church in the Russian area, read Christian History #18, The Millennium of “Russian” Christianity

and Christian History #146, Christ and Culture in Russia

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