Nikita Minov Nikon (1605-1681) was patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1666. He enacted the reforms of Church books and practices which resulted in a split, or schism, in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nikon was born in the village of Veldemanovo in the province of Nizhni Novgorod (now Gorki) of peasant parents. When he was 12 years old, he ran away from home to escape the ill treatment of his stepmother and entered a monastery. But his parents persuaded him to leave the monastery and to marry.
In 1624 Nikon became a priest in the village of Kolychevo but within 2 years was called to a parish in Moscow. When three of his children died, Nikon sought repentance and solitude. He renounced his wife and family and lived as a monk and hermit from 1634 to 1646. In 1646 Nikon met Czar Alexis, whom he favorably impressed. In the same year Alexis appointed him abbot of Novosparsskii Monastery in Moscow. The strong-willed Nikon exercised a powerful personal influence on the younger and softer monarch. Alexis even gave Nikon the title of Great Sovereign, and his name appeared next to that of the Czar in official documents.
Church reform was among Nikon's main concerns. On his own initiative and without consulting a Church council, he ordered the revision of certain generally accepted Church practices. A Church council in 1654 approved additional reforms in religious texts.
Vigorous opposition to the reforms arose, led by the archpriest Avvakum. The opponents, the Raskolniki, declared that the reforms were a perversion of the faith and that the corrected books were the work of the antichrist. With the enactment of the reforms, the position of Nikon began to deteriorate. His curt and arrogant manner made many enemies. Alexis himself grew tired of the overbearing ways of the patriarch and ceased to invite Nikon to the palace and avoided him at Church ceremonies.
In 1658 a message from the Czar that he was not coming to a Mass that day led to a bitter outburst from Nikon, who left Moscow for a monastery. There he waited to be asked back, but the request did not come. In 1666 Nikon was tried by a Russian Church council for repudiation of patriarchal duties and offense to the Czar. He was convicted, deprived of the patriarchate and the rank of bishop, and exiled to a remote monastery. Alexis' successor, Feodor III, recalled Nikon from exile, but the former patriarch died on his way back to Moscow on Aug. 27, 1681.
Nikon's reforms, however, survived. The Church council that convened in 1666 affirmed the changes. The opponents had to submit or defy the Church openly. Numerous priests and whole monasteries refused to accept them, and the result was a permanent cleavage among the Russian believers.
The best study of Nikon is William Palmer's monumental The Patriarch and the Tsar (6 vols., 1871-1876). A general survey of religious dissent in Russia is F.C. Conybeare, Russian Dissenters (1921). The position of dissenters is vividly portrayed in The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum Written by Himself (1924).