A Disciple of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow in the Volga region: Fr. Viktor Vishnevskii (1804-1885)
In his book, ‘Ways of Russian Theology’, Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, ‘He had practically no direct disciples, nor did he create a school; he created something more important: a spiritual movement.’ In this article Alison Ruth Kolosova examines the life and work of one of Metropolitan Philaret’s lesser known spiritual disciples, Fr Viktor Vishnevskii, missionary and philologist in Chuvashia in the mid-19th century, who both greatly contributed to the development of the Chuvash written language, and prepared the way for later Russian Orthodox missions among non-Russian peoples.

In his book, ‘Ways of Russian Theology’, Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, ‘He had practically no direct disciples, nor did he create a school; he created something more important: a spiritual movement.’ Among the important figures of the 19th century Russian Church who formed part of this movement, Florovsky mentions Grigorii Postnikov, the Metropolitan of St Petersburg who had formerly served as Archbishop of Kazan, Kirill Bogoslovskii-Platonov who served as Bishop of Viatka, Moisei Antipov-Platonov who died as Exarch of Georgia, and Makarii Glukharev who served as Head of the Altai mission.  Florovsky reflects on the roles of these men as hierarchs, as theological teachers and writers, but does not dwell on a common factor in the ministries of these men which the above list reveals: they all served for a significant portion of their career in Russia’s borderlands, in dioceses where a large proportion of the population were not Russian in language and culture and many were not baptized into the Orthodox faith.  They all therefore faced on an everyday level, complex questions of the missionary role of the Russian Church among non-Russian peoples.[1]

I would like in this article to add another name to the above list. Although not a bishop, Fr Viktor Vishnevskii was a highly significant figure in the history of Russian Orthodox mission in the Volga region from the 1830s -1870s, with his missionary career beginning before the time of N.I. Ilminsky, and in many ways preparing the way for his work.  He is significant for his contribution to the development of the Chuvash alphabet and written language through his translations into Chuvash of religious texts, a Chuvash Grammar and Dictionary he compiled, and the ethnographic material he collected as preparation for this. Secondly, his translation work and his own teachings and sermons were written in the context of an active missionary ministry among the Chuvash and other native peoples of the Kazan Diocese in which he was an official missionary from 1843 to 1859. 

Fr Viktor was encouraged in this missionary ministry by the two most famous missionary archbishops of the Kazan diocese in the first half of the 19th century, Archbishop Philaret Amphiteatrov who ordained him as a priest, and Archbishop Grigorii Postnikov who appointed him to serve in the Cathedral in Kazan.  His missionary zeal led to him becoming in 1867 one of the founding members of the Kazan Brotherhood of St Gurii which was responsible for setting up Orthodox schools among the native peoples, and supervising translations of Holy Scripture and other religious literature into the native languages of the Volga region and beyond.  Finally, he was a renowned preacher at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan, and particularly inspired by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow who had oversight of the Moscow Academy at the time Vishnevskii studied there.

Fr Viktor was not the only significant member of the Vishnevskii family.  His brother Fr Matfei Petrovich was Dean of the Orthodox parishes in the Yadrinsk district of the Kazan Province in the 1860s and also active in the translation and editing of translations into Chuvash. Fr Viktor’s cousin, Ivan Vasilievich, was a highly influential teacher who became Director of the Simbirsk Gymnasium.

In 2004 the Professor of Chuvash philology, V.G.Rodionov, published an anthology of texts written by or about Fr Viktor Vishnevskii under the title, ‘Viktor Vishnevskii Pis’mennya Kul’tura rannego prosvetitel’stva’ (Viktor Vishnevskii The Written Culture of early missionary work) in which he acknowledges Vishnevskii’s role in the development of the written Chuvash language at a stage earlier than the work of Ivan Yakovlevich Yakovlev, who has been known as the ‘Enlightener of the Chuvash’ and previously attributed with the creation of the Chuvash written language.  The following article was largely inspired by Professor Rodionov’s book.  Whilst seeking to consult and add to from original sources, I have translated many of Vishnevskii’s writings quoted in this article from the texts as given in Rodionov’s book.

Fr Viktor Vishnevskii’s childhood and early career

Fr Viktor’s illustrious career began from very humble origins.  Viktor Petrovich Vishnevskii was born on 24th November 1804 in the Chuvash village of Sugut-Torbikovo which at that time was in the Yadrinsk district of the Kazan province. His grandfather, Stefan Lavrentiev, was of Chuvash peasant origins, attended the School for the Newly Baptized in Kazan, then the Kazan Seminary, and later served as priest in Khochashevo, Yadrin district.  He had two sons, Pyotr and Vasilii who also studied at the Kazan Seminary and became priests in Yadrin district. Pyotr was born in 1778, attended seminary in Kazan, then served as priest in Sugut-Torbikovo where his son Viktor was born.

Whether it was because Pyotr had been to a certain extent russified by his Kazan education or had married a Russian wife, the writer of Viktor’s obituary implies that Viktor was Russian but grew up bilingual in an entirely Chuvash village. ‘As the parish of Sugut-Torbikovo is entirely populated by Chuvash, the priest’s young son, being from his earliest childhood surrounded by the said natives, effortlessly learnt to speak Chuvash, and when he went to Seminary for his education, had an excellent knowledge of that language which he spoke as though it was his mother tongue.’[2]

Following in his father’s footsteps, Viktor went to the Kazan Seminary and, being quickly noticed as extremely gifted, was sent in 1822 to study at the Moscow Academy. In 1821 Philaret Drozdov had been appointed Archbishop of Moscow and thus had ultimate oversight over the Academy at the time. The writer of Vishnevskii’s obituary tells us that ‘he imitated in his sermons the inimitable model sermons of (Met. Philaret of Moscow) whose memory he revered and whose writings he constantly read.’ He was for Vishnevskii ‘an indisputable authority, whom he quoted alongside the writing of the church fathers, not only in his preaching, but also in his administrative activities.’[3]

Whilst at the Academy, Viktor came under the influence of the young philosophy lecturer F. Golubinskii who was influenced by the German philosophers Wolf and Jacobi.  Vishnevskii corresponded with Golubinskii after becoming lecturer in philosophy at the Kazan Seminary where he held up Golubinskii as an ideal.  During two years of Vishnevskii’s studies in Moscow, a fellow student was N. Nadezhdin who would later develop Schelling’s ideas and become famous as editor of the journals ‘Teleskop’ and ‘The Journal of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.’

1826-42 Vishnevskii’s work as lecturer and translator

In 1826 Vishnevskii returned to the Kazan Seminary as a teacher of philosophy. In 1828 he was awarded a Master of Theology and became Professor of Philosophy. The writer of his obituary says he taught philosophy ‘in the scholastic manner using Baumeister’, which was the standard textbook in Russian seminaries at the time.

On October 22nd 1828 he was ordained priest by Archbishop Philaret of Kazan, who was an ardent missionary and had been sent to Kazan to resolve the crisis following the apostasy of the baptized native population of the Volga region. One of his proposals made in 1828 was to translate Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow’s ‘Shorter Catechism’ into Tatar, Chuvash, Udmurt and Mari and to publish these, together with a Primer of these languages.  Between 1829 and 1831 Vishnevskii was working on this translation and simultaneously gathering material for a Chuvash-Russian dictionary. Vishnevskii’s translation into Chuvash of the Catechism known as ‘Nachatki’ was published in 1832.

As Chuvash was not yet a written language, Vishnevskii borrowed some of the letters created by P. Taliev for the 1803 publication in Chuvash of Metropolitan Platon’s ‘Greater Catechism.’ The Chuvash philologist, V.G. Rodionov,  points out that the title used by Vishnevskii is ‘yumakh’, that he translated using the literary genres of Chuvash historical traditions and oral storytelling. In the Chuvash text the author takes on the role of a traditional storyteller who recounts events as though an eyewitness. As a result Rodionov considers that Vishnevskii created his own original work out of the Russian text and so can be seen as one of the founders of published storytelling prose in Chuvash.[4]

Vishnevskii’s 1836 Chuvash Grammar and dictionary

The dictionary Vishnevskii compiled while translating the Catechism was eventually published in 1836 as ‘An outline of the rules of the Chuvash language and dictionary, compiled for the church schools of the Kazan diocese’. It contained a Grammar, Chuvash-Russian dictionary and a small comparative dictionary of the Chuvash, Tatar and Cheremys languages which Rodionov presumes was drawn up to ascertain if Chuvash was a Turkic or a Finno-Ugric language, which at the time was being debated by scholars. At the time, most Russian scholars believed the Chuvash were Finnic, but in 1828 the German scholar Jules Klaprot published an article in Paris suggesting they were Turkic. On the basis of Vishnevskii’s material, in 1839 the Kazan scholar A. Kazem-Bek concluded the Chuvash were Turkic.[5]

Rodionov comments that the lexica of Vishnevskii’s dictionaries reflects the Romantic orientation of the Russian intelligentsia in the 1830s who had become interested in folklore, ethnology and the language of the simple people. There are words describing religious rituals and everyday life, explanations of the Chuvash months, and kinship relations. Of special interest were words reflecting a previous written tradition such as letter, to write, scholar, to teach, read, write down and paper. This Romantic view of the creative abilities of the simple people was opposed, however, in more conservative circles. In a review of Vishnevskii’s Grammar by the Kazan University classics scholar G. Surovtsev we see this negative view of the language and culture of the non-Russian peoples, ‘Is it necessary to write the rules and grammar of those languages, whose study can add nothing to the sum of human knowledge, in which nothing has ever been written, and which are spoken by small remnants of insignificant tribes, stagnating since ancient times in gross ignorance? Would it not be better to assign them to complete oblivion, so that they disappear of their own accord?’[6]

Vishnevskii continued in his teaching post at the Kazan Seminary until 1842. Apart from teaching philosophy, from September 1833 to 1839 he taught a ‘Scripture reading’ class and from September 1839-40 he taught catechism on Sundays to the seminarians. In February 1841 he became Acting Rector of the Seminary but on the 25th January 1842 was dismissed as Rector due to an incident in which two seminarians robbed a monk at the Archbishop’s house. This put an end to Vishnevskii’s academic teaching career as he was deprived of the right to teach in church institutions, but his teaching and scholarly talents were channelled in other directions.

1843-1859 Vishnevskii as a missionary among the Chuvash and Mari peoples

From 1843-59 time Vishnevskii was an official ‘missionary’ in the Kazan diocese working among the Chuvash and Mari. According to Case (delo) No. 938 of the Synod dated June-October 1843, Archimandrite Amvrosii of the Raifa monastery and Igumen Varsonofii were discharged as missionaries on health grounds and Fr Viktor Vishnevskii and Fr Vasilii Orlov were appointed in their place.  They were considered ‘capable of missionary work due to their good behaviour and the knowledge of local languages and customs’.[7]

During this time Vishnevskii was also a member of the Kazan Consistory, and in 1854 he was assigned to serve as priest in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan by Archbishop Grigorii Postnikov. His writings during this period include his missionary reports, travel notes, an ethnographic essay, ‘On the religious beliefs of the Chuvash’ published in 1846, and a series of teachings for use by priests working in Chuvash parishes explaining the errors of the ‘Old Chuvash faith’ from an Orthodox point of view. These ‘Teachings on the vanity of the Chuvash superstitions, compiled for the instruction of Newly-Baptized Chuvash of the Kazan diocese’, compiled in 1846 took the form of 11 model talks in Russian and Chuvash. Vishnevskii tried to get them published but failed. Around 1846 he wrote a ‘Catechism’ in Chuvash which was also not published.

Fr. Viktor Vishnevskii’s Missionary report for 1844[8]

In this report Vishnevskii gives a brief description of some Chuvash rites. He says that the Chuvash recognize the futility of their beliefs but will not abandon them out of fear of reprisal from the evil spirit which they identify as the reason for recent bad harvests. Vishnevskii feels that ‘those who are stagnating in superstitions not only turn a cold shoulder to Christian converts, laugh at them and have a hateful attitude, but also complain to the ‘volost’ authorities that Christian converts are the reason for hail and thunderstorms in the summer.’ 

The most interesting aspect of the report is the list he gives of what parish priests are not doing.[9] Of the 60 parishes he has visited he says some priests deserve praise for their attention to teaching their parishioners, whereas in many parishes only a few know how to make the sign of the cross and even fewer know short prayers.

Vishnevskii reproaches priests for not going on processions with icons in the fields after the harvest and during drought, which means the Chuvash continue their own rites. He suggests that when priests go to villages for great feast days they should serve a moleben in each household ‘in order to acquaint both adults and children with the rites and spirit of Christianity’, rather than just serving a moleben in one house and then going round all the houses just to collect money.

Many priests do not go to outlying villages during Lent to serve morning and evening services, and do not prepare parishioners for confession and communion. Many priests have not even heard of, and many are not implementing the Synodal Decree of 23rd May 1830, which exhorted better teaching of the Newly Baptized. The 1st and 3rd rules of this decree prescribed the reading of ‘Nachatki’, the Gospel, the Creed and Lord’s Prayer in Chuvash and in many places this was not being done.

Vishnevskii’s ‘On the religious beliefs of the Chuvash’

Vishnevskii explains that he collected material for this text through conversations with Chuvash converts as he wanted to check the accuracy of information in previously written ethnographic essays, and so that Newly Baptized Chuvash would see the ridiculousness of their old ways.  Professor N.I. Egorov describes Vishnevskii’s text as ‘the first systematic description of the religious and mythological beliefs of the Chuvash and feels that in contrast to many pre-revolutionary writings on the Chuvash is based on ‘accurate, factual material and is therefore trustworthy.’[10]

According to Vishnevskii the Chuvash believe ‘that they are influenced by two sources, a source of good which they call ‘Tora’ – God, and a source of evil, called Kiremet. These two sources are invisible, inscrutable and independent of each other. Tora is the supreme, good God who directs the elements to fertilize the earth, but otherwise operates through subordinate beings who fly around or ride on a white horse - ‘sureggensam’ (Chuvash for ‘moving everywhere’).

Vishnevskii’s translations of the names of these subordinate beings puts them very much into the role of ‘angelic beings’ or ‘saints’ e.g. Pulekhtse is ‘Herald’ and ‘Mun kebe’ is ‘great apostle and translator’ and ‘khurban’ = ‘intercessor before Tora’. Kiremet is described as the source of evil, illness and misfortune.

Vishnevskii’s attitude to the Chuvash pre-Christian religious beliefs is on the whole negative. For example he writes, ‘the religion of the Chuvash cannot contain anything spiritual or inspiring for free and reasonable beings, as, when there are no truthful concepts of the Almighty and where it is not known that he is the Father of humankind, no feelings of filial love, submission and reverence for him can be expected.’

Concerning the origins of the Chuvash faith, Vishnevskii writes, ‘After all of this, it is natural to ask: where did the Chuvash get their religious beliefs from? We must not presume that they thought up their religion themselves, as ‘since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen’ (NIV translation of Rom 1 v.20) but the Chuvash are so cold and indifferent to this school of the knowledge of God that even in their own way they do not reflect on the origin and aim of the world and of man. In the same way, neither the Chuvash themselves, nor often, as the Chuvash themselves admit, the deceived and deceiving experts on their system of mythology, the ‘iomzi’, do not say that their religion was ever revealed from on high. But to the question about the origins of their faith, they all unanimously reply: ‘We do not know where our ancestors got it from.’ 

Vishnevskii concludes that the Chuvash faith is the result of influence from the Russian and Tatar people. ‘Judging by the times when their annuals rites of remembrance of the dead, their myths about the dead and spirits of the home and finally, due to their observing a day of rest on Fridays, not having any images of their divinities, it seems we can assume they based their beliefs on what they heard of the beliefs, both true and false of the Russian people and the Tatar people.’ 

Vishnevskii gives a very clear description of the syncretism of Chuvash beliefs in the mid-19th century which Vishnevskii has heard from Christian converts: ‘The Chuvash recognize 12 good beings subordinate to the Almighty as the Saviour had 12 apostles, that their Pulekhtse is the same as the Archangel Michael for Christians, that Mun ira is the Guardian Angel; Pikhambar is St. George on whose feast day the farm animals are let out to pasture for the first time; Kherle sir is St. Nicholas near whose spring feast day the spring sowing ends …, Kebe is an Apostle, Khurban a Seraphim.’[11]

‘Teaching on the vanity of the Chuvash superstitions, compiled for the instruction of Newly-Baptized Chuvash of the Kazan diocese’ 

These ‘Teachings’ or model sermons were composed in Russian and Chuvash by 1846 for use by priests in Chuvash parishes where they could be read by priests who weren’t fluent Chuvash speakers, or used as model answers to questions from the Chuvash. Between 1846 and 1848 both Archbishops Vladimir and Grigorii of Kazan requested that Synod publish these ‘Teachings’, but the text was passed round between censors and editors for several years and no affirmative decision was ever given.[12]

The content of  Vishnevskii’s ‘Teachings’[13]

The ‘Teachings’ take the form of 11 ‘model’ sermons, each of which addresses a particular aspect of the ‘Old Chuvash faith’. The first is entitled ‘How baptized Chuvash must not practise their superstitious rites which their pagan ancestors practised.’ Others are for example about not practising animal sacrifice, observing Sunday rather than Friday, how to celebrate Easter in a Christian manner and how to pray to God during drought and bad harvest.

A strong emphasis in the first talk is that their practices are not only against the will of God but also against the will of Tsar who, like a concerned parent wants ‘there to be no difference between them and Russians, like children to one Father; but just as you have the same Ruler, the same state and the same laws; so your faith should be the same for both your temporal and eternal benefit’.

In this first talk he also emphasizes the Chuvash’s equality with the Russians before God. ‘Do not think and do not say that it is not proper for the Chuvash to be Christians. You are people just as Russians are. You were created by One and the same true Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth, … and so you are children of God just as Russians are; you are as dear and loved by God just as Russians are. He wants you too to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, as our Lord Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all people who have existed from the beginning, who exist now and who will exist in future until the end of the world.’

Vishnevskii’s Second Teaching is about the falsehood of their shamans, ‘iomzi’, whom in all the Teachings Vishnevskii criticizes and undermines, questioning the source of their authority and knowledge, and blaming them for telling the Chuvash to sacrifice animals which leads to poverty. Vishnevskii says their knowledge is not revealed in the Scriptures. ‘He has once and for all revealed his will for all people in his holy law which your priests preach and explain to you in every church.’ This emphasis on the Scriptures is also a constant theme in the ‘Teachings’. ‘All your reverence, respect, submission and attention you should direct only to those sent by God which in ancient times were the Holy Prophets and Apostles who wrote Holy Scripture for our instruction and salvation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and at the present are your Archpastors (i.e. bishops) and Pastors.’

In the Third Teaching, about polytheism, Vishnevskii emphasizes the difference between the Chuvash gods and the ‘saints’, whom Vishnevskii says can be asked for their prayers but must not be worshipped as gods. Vishnevskii’s general attitude to the Chuvash ‘gods’ is that they do not exist. He says the shamans deceive as they tell the Chuvash to ‘abandon the worship and reverence of the One true God as He himself commanded, and worship gods which never existed and cannot exist’.

Concerning the Кiremet (Teaching No. 4), it is ‘nothing more than an empty and seducing fabrication of your shamans’.  ‘Your kiremet was invented by the age old enemy of the human race – a spirit, created by God, but who rebelled against His Creator, and is known as Satan, who has forced those under his sway to make gods of mortal people and birds and has populated the seas, rivers, air, mountains, forests, groves with imaginary gods.’

Throughout his Teachings Vishnevskii quotes largely from the Old Testament, and he does this particularly in Teaching No. 5, about animal sacrifices, quoting Ps. 49 vs. 9-16 which speak of how God does not need sacrifices as all animals, birds and fruits belong to Him and their sacrifices deprive them of their livelihood.

In Teachings Six and Eight, on observing Sunday and Easter, Vishnevskii emphasizes the correct observation of these feast days as they are based on our hope of the resurrection of the dead. ‘On these days our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through his resurrection from the dead, has done everything necessary so that all those who have died since the beginning of the world, and all those who will die before the end of the world, will not remain forever in the ground where their bodies are usually buried, but will rise and will live again a new and most blessed life.’

Vishnevskii reproaches them that although they celebrate Easter, they have their own rites and drink beer from the Wednesday of Holy Week onwards, the time of soberest observance by Orthodox, and so at Easter are rolling drunk, chasing out the devil at their own feast of ‘Virem’ and bringing grain offerings.

Vishnevskii’s Sermons

The writer of Vishnevskii’s obituary wrote, ‘you know brothers what was of decisive significance for him in all questions raised by the mind and by life. You remember how his speech always contained all kinds of treasures from the inexhaustible source of the mind of God, His Word ….how he preached it in this church and abundantly quoted it in his sermons. In this source of the greatest understanding we find a clue to the long life of the deceased.’[14]

This scriptural emphasis is the most striking aspect of his sermons as not only does he quote Scripture frequently, but many of his own sentences are paraphrases or commentaries on particular verses to which he then gives a reference in brackets. Vishnevskii could come across as the ideal Protestant preacher in terms of the scriptural style of his preaching, but he balances his scriptural emphasis with many of the traditional themes of Orthodox theology on the role of the icon and the role of the sacrament of communion in the spiritual life of the believer, on the incarnation and becoming ‘Christlike’, living according to the commandments of the Gospel in everyday life. 

In a Sermon on the Feast of the Icon of the Saviour ‘Made without Hands’ in 1873 he said, ‘There is no doubt that the Holy Scriptures should be our main guide to salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, as ‘all Scripture is inspired by God’… [he quotes 2 Tim. 3 vs.15-17 in their entirety] but do all the faithful of the Orthodox Church know how to read the Holy Scriptures, and what is more, without especial guidance, acquire salvation through reading? So that the illiterate can acquire saving knowledge of the one true God and Jesus Christ who was sent by Him, in our Orthodox Church it has been permitted since apostolic times to depict all Christ’s deeds in icons. Looking at these icons it is clear for all to see that Christ ‘himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’ (1 Peter 2 v. 24)[15]

At a sermon preached at the consecration of a church in Kozmodemiansk in 1872, Vishnevskii reflects on what takes place in a church. “Here, as a consequence of the promise of the greatest degree of grace, ‘for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I’, Christ dwells amongst us, Christ who ‘has become for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1 v. 30), as in every Orthodox church is heard His word which in the days of His flesh healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead; His body is given and His blood is shed for us (1 Cor. 11 v. 23-27) so as to ‘cleanse our conscience of dead deeds, in order to serve the living and true God.’ (Heb. 9 v. 14). And it would be superfluous to say that there is nothing more divine and saving than our union with Christ through the sacraments as ‘in Christ all the treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden’, and ‘all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Col. 2 vs. 3,9) As a consequence, Vishnevskii exhorts them to reflect on and seek to understand ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ but also emphasizes that it is crucial to partake of the Lord’s supper as often as possible.[16]

Vishnevskii’s emphases on reading Holy Scripture, venerating icons and taking communion all revolve around the more central theme of ‘becoming Christlike’ and knowing the indwelling presence of Christ. In a sermon preached on the Forefeast of the Annunciation in 1870 he says that ‘for our salvation by grace through faith, it is not only necessary to believe in the Trinity one in essence, in the Lord Jesus Christ – the God man, in His saving passion…but it is necessary that ‘Christ should dwell in our hearts by faith’ (Eph. 3 v. 17), that his grace, light, power and life should guide and direct us, in a word that our attitudes should be the same as were in Christ. (Phil 2 v. 5)

A wonderful example of this theme in his preaching is a sermon preached on the feast of the Icon of the Saviour ‘Made without Hands’ in 1871 which is a reflection on the role of the icon in becoming Christlike. The text of the sermon is Gal 4 v. 19, ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ In the Russian text the word ‘formed’ is ‘voobrazitsya’, from the word for image ‘obraz’, and so can be translated ‘that Christ’s image should be formed in you’. Vishnevskii says that St. Paul is reminding the Galatians that it is not enough to see Christ’s crucifixion depicted before their eyes (Gal 3 v. 1) but ‘Christ’s qualities should so shine in them that everyone looking at them would understand that Christ is in them, that they had the same attitude as was in Christ. (Phil 2 v.5)…just as anyone looking at that image (ubrus) of His face, miraculously imprinted for Abgar, the ruler of Edessa, sees Him as though before himself in human flesh, which He ‘shared…so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death’ (Heb 2 v.13) … ‘let us not be content therefore just to have the happiness of seeing His most holy face; but let us try to be like our Lord and Saviour in all the circumstances of our life.’

‘We can learn how to have Christ’s image within us from the painters who depict his most pure face on icons.  As He himself miraculously imprinted his face on the ‘Ubrus’ so that we, looking at him, should recall his saving incarnation and, learning of the economy of God’s grace granted to us in Him, should become one with Him in spirit’ (1 Cor. 6 v. 17) ‘we do not look simply on Christ’s face, but on His glory, hidden beneath the veil of His human flesh; we do not look with no profit for ourselves, as is often the case with those who visit the theatre, but we present our souls to his light-giving face, as to a mirror, in order to receive the light of His salvation; receiving the light of His grace we ourselves are transformed by the Spirit of the Lord, into the same image from glory to glory, that is we translate into reality in our souls and in all of our life His saving teaching and the life-giving example of His virtues, ceaselessly trying with the help of God’s spirit of power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim 1 v. 7) grow up into His likeness ‘until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ (Eph 4 v.13)

As would be expected in sermons on the icon and their role in the Christian life, Vishnevskii dwells very much on the theme of the incarnation. We have seen above how he refers to Christ’s ‘saving incarnation’ and he ends the above sermon with the summons, ‘And so, venerating the most holy image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, let us ask him for help and ‘do as he has done for us’ (Jn. 13 v. 15 – a reference to Christ washing his disciples’ feet) ‘taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness’ (Phil 2 v.7).

In another sermon on the same feast day of the ‘Ubrus’ in 1873 Vishnevskii begins by asking ‘Why does the most bountiful God want, through icons to leave indelibly printed in our memories that “He was sent in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering and condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8 v.3), or rather, to force us to confess that “He has come in the flesh” (I Jn. 4 v. 2)? So that we would know without a shadow of a doubt that ‘we have fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ’ (I Jn. 2 v. 3) …’ venerating icons we draw near in our minds and hearts to the one who came down from heaven “for man and for our salvation” and was incarnate of the most holy Virgin Mary, to the Son of God one in essence, and to His most pure Mother from whose pure blood he took our flesh and blood.’

Linked very much to Vishnevskii’s emphasis on ‘Christlikeness’ is his constant challenge to a ‘faith expressed through deeds’, especially through giving to the poor and hungry and supporting the needs of the church and its missionary work. This is especially the theme of a sermon preached at Christmas 1874 during several years when there was famine and extreme hardship in the Samara province, so much so that in their desperation many committed suicide and killed their children.  Vishnevskii constantly quotes James 2 vv.15, 17 with its reminder that ‘faith without works is dead’ and the First Epistle of John with its call for love for God expressed through love for our neighbour.

Vishnevskii’s Sermon at the opening of the Brotherhood of St.Gurii

In 1867 the Brotherhood of St. Gurii was set up, largely to raise financial support for Nikolai Ilminsky’s schools and translations which aimed at spreading the Orthodox faith among the non-Russian native peoples of the Volga region and Siberia. N. Ilminskii, along with Vishnevskii, was one of the founding members and became the Director of its Translation Committee. Another key figure in the founding of the Brotherhood of St. Gurii was Bishop Gurii Karpov, the Vicar-Bishop of Kazan at the time and formerly Head of the Chinese mission.

Vishnevskii opens his Sermon with a reflection on love as the motivation for St. Paul’s missionary work among his fellow countryman: ‘Loving all with the love of Jesus Christ, he in the power of this love, could not be indifferent seeing that his kinsmen according to the flesh, not understanding (and submitting to) God’s righteousness…did not want to understand that the holy apostles, preaching and crucified, were preaching the good news of the fulfillment of the promise, given to their fathers…’ He speaks of the overall aims of the Brotherhood, saying, ‘You are entering into the struggle to protect our Orthodox faith…from the pernicious influence of unbelief and false belief; into the endeavour of being co-labourers in spreading, establishing and causing to flourish, the saving knowledge of God among the local peoples who do not yet know the true God and Jesus Christ whom He sent.’[17] He views the desired result of their missionary work as that, ‘those who do not know the true God and the true path to eternal life should ‘come to a spirit of unity’ with you ‘so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15 v. 5, 6)

Vishnevskii emphasizes how St. Paul ‘became all things to all men’ and he quotes at length 1 Cor. 9 vv. 20-22 and 10 v. 33 which speak of this. He also emphasizes that this work is ‘above all God’s work and does not belong to any earthly authorities’ and that ‘our Orthodox faith can only lead to salvation when it is the fruit of the free and unconstrained conviction of our conscience.’[18] He closes with a summons to set up St. Paul as their supreme example of self-sacrificial ministry.

Vishnevskii’s influence on Fr Vasilii Timofeev, the co-founder of the Baptised-Tatar School

Vishnevskii was also instrumental in the founding of the Baptised-Tatar school in Kazan as it was he who helped Fr. Vasilii Timofeev when he first came to Kazan. It was the Baptised Tatar Fr. Vasilii who set up the school in Kazan where Tatar was first used in teaching and he later became the first Tatar to serve the Liturgy in the Tatar language. Bishop Viktorin, congratulating Vishnevskii on 50 years of his priesthood said, ‘Without you he would not have seen Kazan, he would not have been in the Ivanovskii (and Bogoroditskii) monasteries. He would not have become known to the venerable N.I. Ilminsky; in a word, would not have become what he is. You…showed him the way, guided and supported him when he, either seeking the light and path of salvation or taking refuge from persecution due to his love for the Christian faith, came to Kazan and, through you, found himself somewhere to live and found work to support himself. He is your acquisition for God’s Church. And knowing and remembering this, I cannot but love and revere you.’[19]


Fr Viktor Vishnevskii, together with other members of the Vishnevskii family, are good examples of the long-term fruits of the 18th century Schools for the Newly Baptised in the Kazan province set up to educate children of native background. These schools have been greatly criticized by both Russian and other scholars for teaching exclusively religious subjects entirely in Russian, for their learning by rote teaching methods and the poor conditions pupils lived in, which led to deaths and disease.  Nevertheless, these schools produced several generations of russified native clergy, many of whom appear to have still spoken their native languages yet considered Russian their mother tongue and described themselves as Russian. Many of the children of these clergy studied in the church schools and later at the Kazan Seminary and Academy and were effectively ‘educated out of’ their native background.  This meant that later writers saw the first ‘native Chuvash clergy’ as being ordained in the late 19th century, when in fact there had been native Chuvash clergy already in the 1740s.

The negative view of the 18th century Schools for the Newly Baptised was greatly fostered by the supporters of the Ilminsky system which revolved around the use of the native language in schools and church services, a principle not adopted in the 18th century schools.  Yet the generations of russified Chuvash clergy in the first half of the 19th century, of which Frs Viktor and Matfei Vishnevskii and Ivan Vasilievich Vishnevskii are examples, give ample evidence that the 18th century schools, while not ideal, did nevertheless bear fruit in the form of educated clergy and laity who continued to work among the native population and also among the Russian population, and who did much of the groundwork on which Ilminsky and his followers were later able to build. It is doubtful that Ilminsky’s system would have had the success it did if not for these earlier generations.

Florovsky summarizes Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow’s role in the history of Russian theology, saying that he, ‘was the first person in the history of modern Russian theology for whom theology once more became the aim of life, the essential step toward spiritual progress and construction.  He was not merely a theologian, he lived theology…As a theologian and teacher he was above all a Biblicist.’[20]

Fr Viktor Vishnevskii was a worthy disciple of Metropolitan Philaret, whose Catechism he translated into Chuvash, and whose sermons were a constant model as the above quotations from Fr Viktor’s sermons show.  It was the close friend and disciple of Metropolitan Philaret, Grigorii Postnikov, who appointed Fr Viktor to his preaching position in the Kazan Cathedral and gave a renewed emphasis to the use of native languages in missionary work in the Kazan diocese in which Fr Viktor played a leading role.  Above all, Fr Viktor also ‘lived theology’, not only preaching in the safety of the Cathedral in Kazan or teaching in the seminary, but travelling on horseback around the villages of the Kazan diocese seeking to understand his grandfather’s native people, the Chuvash, and make the Gospel accessible to them, giving practical help to Fr Vasilii Timofeev in his time of need, and using his sermons to draw the attention of the Kazan public to problems of famine, disease and poverty so that they could respond and become more Christlike.


Egorov, N.I. (Compiler and Commentary) ‘Khrestomatiya po kul’ture Chuvashskogo kraya Dorevolutsiyonny period’ (An Anthology of texts about the culture of the Chuvash region:  The pre-revolutionary period) Cheboksary 2001

Florovsky, G. ‘Ways of Russian Theology’ Part One, Nordland 1979

Rodionov V.G. (Compiler and Commentary) ‘Viktor Vishnevskii Pis’mennaya kul’tura rannego prosvetitel’stva’ (Viktor Vishnevskii The Written Culture of early missionary work) Cheboksary 2004

Vishnevskii V.P. ‘Nachatki khristianskogo ucheniya, ili kratkaya svyashchennaya istoriya i kratkii katekhizis’ (An Introduction to Christian teaching or Short Sacred History and Short Catechism) Translation of Metropolitan Philaret’s Short Catechism into Chuvash by V.P.Vishnevskii  Kazan 1832

‘O religioznykh poveriyakh Chuvashei  Iz zapisok missionera V.P. Vishnevskogo’ (On the religious beliefs of the Chuvash. From the notes of the missionary V.P. Vishnevskii)  Kazan 1846

‘Slova’ (Sermons) See ‘Izvestiya po Kazanskoi Eparkhii’ (Kazan Diocesan News) from 1867-1885

‘Nekrolog’ (Obituary) See ‘Izvestiya po Kazanskoi Eparkhii’ 1886 No.1 p. 30


[1] Florovsky p. 218-228

[2] Rodionov p. 563

[3] Rodionov p. 568

[4] Rodionov p.19

[5] Rodionov p. 6

[6] Ucheniye Zapiski Kazanskogo Universiteta (Scholarly Notes of Kazan University) 1837, Bk.1, p.137

[7] Nauchny Arkhiv Chuvashskogo Gosudarstvennogo Instituta Gumanitarnykh Nauk (Scientific Archive of the Chuvash State Institute of the Humanitarian Sciences) Otd.1, ed.khr.222, l.63 and 71

[8] idem. l.285-289

[9] idem. l.291-292

[10] N.I. Egorov, p. 230

[11] Rodionov p. 191-192

[12] Rodionov p. 577-584

[13] Rodionov p. 208-243

[14] Quoted in Rodionov p. 573

[15] Rodionov p. 313

[16] Rodionov p. 308-309

[17] Rodionov p. 291

[18] Rodionov p. 293-4

[19] Rodionov p. 559

[20] Florovsky p. 212

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