On April 17 (30), 1905 was published Emperor’s Nikolai II decree ‘On tolerance development’. The decree on the freedom of religion was the first in a series of the Russian state acts in the 20th century meant to reform the relationship between the church and the state.
The position of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as other religions of Russian Empire was determined by the state laws. In the beginning of the 20th century orthodoxy was the largest confession in Russia. According to the general census of 1897 the orthodox Christians including Old Believers represented 71% of the country’s population. Under the laws of the Russian Empire the orthodoxy was the predominant religion while other confessions were ‘tolerable’.
The state religious policy of the time focused on preservation of public order and loyalty in regards of the authority, not on converting of all its subjects into the predominant religion. Thus the law supported the principle of tolerance: people of different confessions could freely hold divine services and keep their creed. Conversion to another faith was allowed only with the knowledge of civil authorities.
In the beginning of the 20th century the government issued several decrees developing the current relationship between the state and the church. One of the most important among them was the Emperor’s decree ‘On tolerance development’ under which the societies that belonged to the Orthodox Church just formally were allowed to withdraw from it. Under the decree of 1905 the Orthodox Church preserved its previous privileges but orthodox believers were also allowed to change their confession. The Old Believers, who were regarded before as dissidents, also obtained some rights.
In spite the fact that the decree did not concern the position of Jews, did not allow conversion into non Christian religions and or atheism, the liberal part of the Russian society believed the document to be a first step on the way to conscience freedom.
Lit.: Арсеньев К. К. Свобода совести и веротерпимость: Сб. ст. СПб., 1905; Ложная и истинная веротерпимость. Курск, 1894; Новый закон об укреплении начал веротерпимости: Высочайше утверждённый 17 апреля 1905 г.: Собрание узаконений № 63: С разъяснениями. Неофиц. изд. СПб., 1905; Сафонов А. А. Вероисповедные законопроекты правительства и позиция Святейшего Синода Русской православной церкви: перспективы реализации свободы совести в законодательстве Российской империи в начале XX в. // История государства и права. 2009, № 22; Сафонов А. А. Реформирование вероисповедного законодательства Российской империи в начале XX в. // Право и политика. 2007, № 2; Фетлер В. А. Свобода совести и веротерпимость: Собрание высочайших указов. Неофиц. изд. СПб., 1909.
From the Presidential library materials: