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Primary Sources on Mixed Marriages in the Russian Empire

Marriage represented a crucial institution for Imperial Russia and indeed as a foundation for the existing social and even political order. But while civil marriage had begun to make its appearance in other European countries, marriage in Russia remained a resolutely religious affair and continued to be regulated by the rules of the empire's various faiths, which included Orthodoxy, Uniatism (until 1875), Catholicism, Protestanism, Armeno-Gregorianism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and "paganism." Below are some of the relevant sections of the law regulating marriage:

Art. 61. Persons of all the Christian confessions are freely permitted in Russia to enter marriages with one another by the rituals and rules of their churches, without requesting special permission from the civil government, but with the observance of the limitations established for those confessions.
Art. 65. Marriages of persons of all the Christian confessions must be concluded by their law [i.e., by the rules of their confession] and by the clergy of the church to which those entering marriage belong; but those marriages are also considered to be valid when, in the absence of a pastor or priest of their religion in the given location, the marriage is performed by an Orthodox priest, but in such a case the conclusion and dissolution of those marriages are dictated by the rules and rituals of the Orthodox church.
Art. 90. [The members of] each ethnicity and people, not excluding pagans, are allowed to enter into marriage by the rules of their law [i.e., their religion] or by accepted customs, without the participation of civil authorities or of Christian religious authorities.(1)

The matter was clear enough, then, when both bride and groom were of the same confession. But what about those cases when two persons confessing different religious wished to enter marriage? In such cases, the law made the following basic provisions:

Art. 85. For Russian subjects of Orthodox and Roman Catholic confessions marriages with non-Christians, and [for subjects] of the Protestant confession marriages with pagans, are entirely prohibited.
Art. 72. Marriages of persons of Orthodox confession with persons of Roman Catholic  confession, concluded only by Roman Catholic priests, are considered invalid until such time that the marriage has been performed by an Orthodox priest.
Art. 76. If the groom or the bride belongs to the Orthodox confession [and the other to another confession], in such a case everywhere, except Finland (for whose native inhabitants in the next article (68) an exception is provided), the following is required: 1) that persons of other confessions, entering into marriage with persons of the Orthodox confession, give a written promise that they will not revile their spouses, nor incline them through enticement, threats or any other means to accept their faith, and that children born in this marriage will be baptized and raised in the rules of the Orthodox confession… ; 2) that in the conclusion of such marriages all the rules and precautions that have been established generally for marriages between persons of the Orthodox confession are executed and observed without fail; 3) [and] that such marriages be concluded by an Orthodox priest in an Orthodox church…. It is forbidden to accept requests for permission to perform the rite of marriage by the rules of a foreign [non-Orthodox] church alone [i.e., to accept requests for exceptions].(2)

Of course, if a non-Orthodox person converted to Orthodoxy prior to a marriage to an Orthodox person, then the stipulations on mixed marriage would disappear. It was impossible, however, for an Orthodox person to convert to another faith, for until 1905 the following law was in effect:

Those born into the Orthodox faith, as well as those who convert to it from other faiths, are forbidden from leaving it [Orthodoxy] and accepting another faith, even a Christian one.(3)

This circumstance should be kept in mind as one considers the following archival file. The file dates to 1896 and begins when an Orthodox priest reported the intention of his parishioner, Venedikta Volkovich, to marry a Catholic, Mikhail Matsekevich. The matter was complicated by the fact that Venedikta's religious sympathies, despite her formal Orthodox status, were clearly Catholic and the couple was eager to have their marriage sanctified by Catholic rite. The Orthodox priest wrote that Venedikta, despite the admonitions to which she was subjected more than once in October to return to the bosom of the Orthodox church and to enter a legal marriage with Mikhail Matsukevich by Orthodox ritual, remains recalcitrant. Indeed, Venedikta's relacitrance had already led Orthodox authorities to request that the local Procurator initiate legal proceedings against her, since "apostasy" from Orthodoxy was illegal. Meanwhile, the groom, Mikhail Matsukevich, knowing that "mixed" marriages legally required an Orthodox ceremony, nonetheless appealed to the Orthodox Archbishop of Lithuania to permit a Catholic ceremony instead. Noting that he had now lived with Venedikta out of wedlock for ten years and that they had already given birth to a daughter, Matsukevich contested the claim that his bride was actually Orthodox. She had always taken communion in the local Catholic church and her father had been included in the list of Orthodox parishioners "by mistake." As a result of these circumstances, Matsukevich wrote to the Archibishop,

Roman Catholic priests do not agree to marry me to her [Venedikta] by Roman Catholic ritual without the permission of Your Eminence. And since I am a Catholic and Venedikta Petrovna Volkovich, who was been living with me out of wedlock up until now, is not to be found on the list of the Orthodox, I humbly request Your Eminence to permit me to be married to

her by Roman Catholic rite, out of consideration of the fact that if I do not receive such permission, then I will leave her and she will be compelled to live in debauchery. I submit this petition because I do not wish to offend her and [would like] to live with her as God commands, but under no circumstance am I willing, nor will I agree, to change my native faith for her sake. And so falling to the holy feet of Your Eminence, I most humbly request that you render me divine mercy and present me with a favorable resolution as to what I should do with her [Venedikta]: marry her by Roman Catholic rite or renounce her, since all priests send me to your Eminence, and I would not like to live like  a beast, however if you do not permit me [to marry by Catholic rite] then I will commit a sin and will marry another [woman] and will renounce Venedikta. (27 June 1896)

The Lithuanian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Consistory rejected Matsukevich's request,

in light of the information provided in the protocol [on this case] and in light of the fact that the peasant Venedikta Petrovna Volkovich must confess the Orthodox church and may be married only in the Orthodox church by Orthodox rite. (13 December 1896).(4)

While there is no indication as to what occurred in this case thereafter, in general the confessional order in Russia changed significantly in 1905, when a new decree on religious toleration lifted certain restrictions on religious conversion. That decree, dated 17 April 1905, provided that from that point forward the state was

To recognize that apostasy from the Orthodox faith into another Christian confession or religious teaching is not subject to prosecution and should not involve any consequences that are unfavorable with respect to personal or civil rights; moroever upon attainment of majority the apostate from Orthodoxy is recognized as belonging to the religious confession

or teaching that he or she has chosen.