On this date in 1504, three Russians were executed for Judaizing.
These were the casualties that marked the end of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye, a little-known late 15th century circle of “Judaizers” or “Jewish-thinking people.” We know them mostly through their enemies so the precise nature of their beliefs is hard to pin down, but they don’t look like actual converts. “There was nothing Jewish about them,” Philip Longworth contends. “‘Judaizer’ was simply a term of ideological abuse, like ‘Trotskyist’ in the 1930s.”
According to this thesis by Cambridge Slavonic lecturer Jana Howlett, the term itself dates to a Byzantine (meaning not labyrinthine, but historically related to Byzantium) typology of heresies and didn’t necessarily have any direct reference to practicing Judaism even within its own context. It just meant that they’d strayed from orthodoxy into heresy.
Be that as it may, they’re recorded to history as “the Judaizers”. Exactly what these so-called Judaizers thought and where to situate them among the various factions and interests within Russian society at the time has long been a matter of dispute among scholars of the period. (Again, see the Howlett paper for a survey of the historiography — at least, as it stood in the 1970s.)
There’s a putative Hebrew association in the form of a scholar named “Skhariya the Jew” whom Mikhail Olelkovich brought to Novgorod. “Skhariya” — or Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen — translated a variety of Hebrew astronomy and philosophy texts into Russian, and seems to have contributed to a burgeoning intellectual current. We might perhaps consider this ferment in the vein of western Europe’s humanism or its abortive pre-Protestant “heretical” religious innovations, or that of the contemporaneous Orthodox conflict between “Non-Possessors” and “Possessors” — respectively, those rejecting or criticizing institutional monasticism and its enormously wealthy estates, and those defending same. Some of the Judaizers’ attributed beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and privileging direct study and individual interpretation of the Biblical text, hint at the coming wave of Protestantism; others, such as renouncing the divinity of Christ and immortality of the human soul, are more radical still.
These people have not left us their own voices, and even their persecutors have barely done better, so who really believed what remains at bottom conjectural.
The recently independent Novgorod had in the 1470s been taken over by the state-building Ivan III. Its new prelate Archbishop Gennady,* noted for forcing Moscow-friendly reforms onto the Novgorod clergy, thrust Judaizers into the ecclesiastical cross-hairs by declaring the discovery of the heresy and demanding church councils “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Such councils were held, with executions of Novgorod heretics following, in 1488 and 1490. Considering the city’s political situation one has to entertain the possibility that doctrinal outrages were exaggerated or concocted as pretext for punishing people whose real sin was resisting Gennady.
Even if the heretics themselves are obscure to us, one can imagine the interests here: churchmen keeping the doctrinal line, statesmen keeping their new conquest in line.
More strangely, the Judaizers charge re-emerged years later not in Novgorod but in Moscow. The facts, as usual here, are open to interpretation: were these two different circles, or were they connected? Was there anything plausibly heretical, or was it just recycling the “Trotskyism” charge?
No less a person than Metropolitan Zosimus, who coined the famous conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (inheriting from the second Rome, Constantinople, lately fallen into Turkish hands) was hounded out of his position as a heretic in 1494. Zosimus died before any trial, so he doesn’t get a blog entry. Not all were so fortunate.
The Russian polity had changed in the meanwhile. Moscow fought a war against Lithuania in 1492-94, seized lands as a result, and negotiated an “eternal peace” that lasted all of six years … when Moscow went back to war and gobbled up more Lithuanian land. Lithuania had a predominantly Orthodox population living under a Catholic monarchy, and it was under the banner of defending the faithful that Ivan’s armies advanced.
Fyodor Kuritsyn had long been one of Ivan’s trusted diplomats; indeed, he had negotiated the end of hostilities with Lithuania in 1494. He was also supposed to have nursed a longstanding interest in dangerous heterodox philosophies and had been mentioned as a possible heretic in the 1490 proceedings. Ivan protected him at that time.
Fyodor disappears from the written record in about 1503; his fate is unknown. But Fyodor and his brother Ivan Volk Kuritsyn both appear to have been associated with Ivan’s daughter-in-law Elena of Moldavia. Elena was the mother of the previous official heir Dmitry — who had been surprisingly disinherited and clapped in prison in 1502 to make way for Vasily, Ivan’s son by his second wife. Elena’s fall might have exposed the Kuritsyns to political blowback, and whether it was actually “heresy”-related or not, the old heretical whiff from the previous generation’s investigations would have been there for the taking.
Hung up in cages and burnt along with Ivan Volk Kuritsyn were (at least) two other men: Ivan Maksimov, who like the Kuritsyns was associated with Elena of Moldavia; and, Dmitry Konoplev, who like the Kuritsyns was involved in the diplomatic service. There’s just enough to hear the grinding of unseen whetstones in the bowels of the Kremlin, but not quite enough to know whose knives are being sharpened. Still others were burned on the same occasion in Novgorod.
“The real reasons for the execution of Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev in 1504 cannot be ascertained,” Howlett concludes. “It can be said, however, that there is little reason to accept the view that they were executed for heresy, Judaizing or otherwise.”
Ivan III died the next year at the age of 65.
* Gennady is today an Orthodox saint notable for composing the first complete Biblical codex in Old Church Slavonic — the Gennady Bible.