Mixed Marriage in the Russian Empire

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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.(5)

This new law was important for the second case provided here, which began in 1909 when the Governor of Vilna province wrote to the Orthodox Archibichop Nikandr concerning the marriage of an Orthodox man (Vikentii Kovchik) and a Catholic woman (Emily Orlovskaia). The local Orthodox priest refused to marry the couple until Emily converted to Orthodoxy, which she refused to do. The couple therefore turned to the Governor, in the hope that he would authorize the Catholic church to perform the service instead. Having laid out the circumstances of the case, the Governor wrote to the Archbishop:

Recognizing that the condition set by the [Orthodox] priest of Malo-Mozheiskii church is not based on the law, and concerned that this demand could compel the petitioner Kovchik to convert to Catholicism, I consider my duty to forward the noted petition of Kovchik and Orlovskaia for consideration by Your Eminence. (6 May 1909).

Kovchik and Orlovskaia's petition to the Governor read as follows:

We the petitioners wish to enter into a legal marriage, but since Kovchik is of the Orthodox faith and belongs to the Malo-Mozheiskii parish,  and Orlovskaia is of the Roman Catholic confession and belongs to the Zholudskii parish, neither the Malo-Mozheiskii [Orthodox] priest, nor the Zholudskii Catholic priest wishes to give us the marital crown, the former without the conversion of Orlovskaia to the Orthodox faith, and the latter without the conversion of Kovhcik to the Roman Catholic faith. But each one of us wishes to remain in the faith into which he or she was born.
And for this reason we have the honor of most humbly requesting Your Excellency to issue a directive instructing the Vilnius Roman-Catholic Spiritual Consistory to order the priest of the Zholudskii Roman Catholic church  to give us the [marital] crown without the conversion of Kovchik to the Roman Catholic confession, since the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic church confess belief in the same Jesus Christ, and each person finds it more pleasant to pray in the language in which he or she was instructed from childhood. (27 April 1909)

The Lithuanian (Orthodox) Spiritual Consistory, having considered the case, ordered the local Orthodox priest,  in light of Orlovskaia's refusal to accept Orthodoxy, "to marry Kovchik and Orlovskaia without delay, if there are no legal obstacles, with the observation of all legal precautions and with the taking of the appopriate pre-marital signature."(13 May 1909). The "legal obstacles" referred to here concerned above all ascertaining that the groom and bride were not close relatives. Later in May, 1909 the Orthodox priest of Malo-Mozheiskii parish offered the following explanation of the circumstances in resposne to the Consistory's order of May 13:

In response to my suggestion to the brother of the groom, Nikita, who came to me as a messenger on May 21 with a paper from Mr. Governor and the resolution of Your Eminence concerning the marriage of Maksim Kovchik, of the Orthodox confession, with Emily Orlovskaia, of the Roman Catholic confession, I declared my willingness to marry them on May 22 in the Malomozheiskii church: But on the appointed day they did not appear.  It turned out, based on [my] questioning of their fellow villagers, that Emily Orlovskaia, fanaticized by the Zheludskii Catholic priest, entirely refuses to be married in an Orthodox church and demands of her groom that he accept Catholicism, something that the entire Kovchik family refuses. Being a frightful fanatic, Emily Orlovskaia speaks about the Orthodox church using the most offensive language that I cannot even repeat. She has been selected by the Catholic priests as an instrument for leading [Orthodox people] astray. At the present time she is showing everyone the paper from Mr. Governor in which it is stated that the marriage should be concluded first in the Orthodox church, and then in the Catholic church, in which, without any doubt, Kovchik will be led astray into Catholicism. The marriage of Orthodox [people] with Catholics is the most certain means for leading them astray, since under the influence of the Catholic majority in the village the apostasy of Orthodox [people] is inevitable. In the parish entrusted to me there have been cases of apostasy only in [confessionally] mixed families, and for this reason I have tried and continue to try to prevent mixed marriages in my parish in every way possible, very often subjecting myself, as a result, to insults and complaints to the authorities." (24 May 1909).

And with this the file ends.(6)

Materials gathered and translated by Paul W. Werth


1. Articles of vol. 10, part 1 of Svod Zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii, reproduced in Ia. A. Kantorovich, Zakony o vere i veroterpimost' (St. Petersburg, 1899).

2. Kantorovich, Zakony, pp. 74-75. Mixed marriages in Finland were performed by the rites of both churches and the children were raised in the religion of their father (article 68).

3. Kantorovich, Zakony, p. 18 (article 36 of Ustav o preduprazhdenii i presechenii prestuplenii).

4. Lithuanian State Historical Archive (Vilnius), collection 605, register 9, file 423.

5. Polnoe Sobranie Zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii, 3rd series, no. 26126 (17 April 1905), pp. 258-59.

6. Lithuanian State Historical Archive, collection 605, register 9, file 299.