Anyone who has studied Russian history or Russian art is familiar with this famous painting by Vasiliy Surikov of the exiling of the Boyarina Morozova (1632–1675):
The key to understanding the painting — and its relationship to Russian history — lies in the fingers of her upraised hand:
Look more closely:
If you have been reading this site for some time, you will recognize the position of the fingers as the blessing sign used by the Old Believers — something that often distinguishes Old Believer icons from State Church icons.
What is happening in the painting? Who was the Boyarina Morozova?
She was born in 1632 and named Feodosia Prokopievna (in the Russian naming system, that -evna suffix means she was the daughter of a fellow named Prokopiy). Her father was Prokopiy Feodorovich (meaning “son of Feodor”) Sokovnin. When she was seventeen, she married a nobleman, boyar Gleb Morozov — thus her married surname Morozova. They had one son, Ivan, and when her husband died in 1662, she inherited fabulous wealth.
The great change in her life began in 1664, when she met the Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum. Every student of icons should know that name. He was the fellow who opposed the changes in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and ritual pushed through — beginning in 1652 — by the Patriarch Nikon. Then (as now), it is dangerous to oppose authority in Russia, and Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653. But in 1662 Avvakum was permitted to return to Moscow. Meanwhile, Patriarch Nikon had fallen from favor, but nonetheless his changes remained in effect, and Avvakum continued to vigorously oppose them, keeping to Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced before Nikon — thus the term used for Avvakum and his followers — “Old Believers” (старове́ры/staroverui) or “Old Ritualists” (старообря́дцы/staroobryadtsui). Old Believers were given the pejorative title Raskolniki — “schismatics” — because of their refusal to accept Nikon’s changes.
In 1666 the Russian Orthodox Church held a “pan-Orthodox” council — The Great Moscow Synod/Council ( (Большой Московский собор/Bolshoi Moskovskiy sobor) — that paradoxically accused Patriarch Nikon of reviling Church and Tsar, and reduced his status to that of an ordinary monk. And the Council condemned an important previous Russian Orthodox Church Council — the famous Stoglav (“Hundred Chapters”) Council of 1551, that had approved Russian church practices that differed somewhat from those of Greek Orthodoxy. This would not be the first time that an Eastern Orthodox Church council negated the declarations of a previous council. And because the Old Believers refused to renounce the Stoglav Council, and refused to accept the “reforms” instituted by the now deposed Nikon, they were condemned by the Great Moscow Synod of 1666-67.
So in 1666 the Church formally anathematized (cursed) Avvakum and his teachings, and once more exiled him, this time to Pustozersk, a distant northern outpost in what is today the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. There Avvakum, along with his deacon Feodor, the Solovetsk monk Epifaniy, and the priest Lazar (the latter two had their tongues previously cut out) — all Old Believers — suffered great hardship and torture, and all three were killed by the Russian Orthodox State Church and its governmental arm on April 14, 1682 — ironically, Good Friday. The “legal” reason given for the murder was «великия на царский дом хулы» — “great blaspheming of the Imperial House” — referring to caricatures of the Tsar that had circulated among the Old Believers. Pustozersk was the same place where another Old Believer, Kiprian of Moscow, had been decapitated for his beliefs on July 7, 1675.
Here is an icon-pattern-style illustration of the burning of Avvakum, Feodor, Epifaniy, and Lazar:
Now years before the martyrdom of Avvakum, the Boyarina Morozova had lived a luxurious life with her immense wealth. It is said that when she went out, she was accompanied by two hundred servants. But she eventually took on a much simpler life, living like a nun, and taking in all kinds of homeless, poor, and ill people. Archpriest Avvakum and his wife also had come to live in her home. Now as mentioned, the Boyarina Morozova met Avvakum in 1664; he became her confessor, and she avidly followed his teachings and opposition to the “reforms” instituted by Nikon. She became an ever more ardent advocate of the Old Belief, and it is said that she even had “underground” Old Believer literature printed.
Of course it was not long before all this came to the notice of Tsar Aleksei, because of the intimate connection between Church and State. The sister of the Tsaritsa was sent to try to talk Feodosiya out of her connections with the Old Belief. It did not work. Then the Tsar tried confiscating some of her property. That did not work either. The Tsar was even more irritated when Feodosiya took in nuns expelled from their convents for holding to the Old Belief. And then Feodosiya herself took formal nun’s vows, changing her name to Feodora, and would no longer attend the royal court or have anything to do with the State Church. She even refused to attend the Tsar’s wedding to a new wife, which infuriated him.
In November of 1671, the Tsar had Feodosiya/Feodora and her sister arrested and put in chains. All her wealth and property was confiscated. The Boyarina Morozova was tortured. Her son Ivan, hearing of her horrible treatment, is said to have gone insane.
Here is an illustration in “icon pattern” style showing Feodosiya/Feodora being examined before the Russian Orthodox Church authorities:
We see her right hand raised defiantly in the “two-fingered” blessing sign characteristic of the Old Believers. The inscription above her head reads:
“Venerable Martyr Feodora/Theodora”
To get Feodosiya/Feodora out of the public eye, the Tsar exiled her to Borovsk. That is the scene depicted in the famous painting by Surikov — Feodosiya being dragged off in a crude sled to an underground dungeon in Borovsk. There she and her sister were starved to death, and were buried inside the jail.
And so the Boyarina Morozova became an Old Believer saint.