This essay was written for a Diaconate course in the OCA. You can read the original with footnotes and appendices here (or download/print), or read a shorter version formatted for the web below.
How Russia Withstood the Worst Recorded Persecution of Christians.
Communism in Russia…
From the moment of its inception, Russia has been Christian. Even its word for “Peasant” (Krestianin) is a variant of the word “Christian” (Khristianin).
In 1721 Peter “the Great” inspired by European nations, abolished the Patriarchate (The head of the Orthodox Church in Russia) and placed the church under control of the State.
Over the next 200 years, the repercussions of these changes, coupled with the global growing-pains of the Industrial Revolution, the Russo-Japanese War, and WW I, led to Tsar Nicholas II abdicating in March of 1917. The provisional government granted permission to convoke an all-Russian sobor of bishops, lower clergy and laity; set to begin August 15, 1917.
The provisional government failed spectacularly to defend itself or capture the sympathies of the people. The Marxist Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, part of a small but well-organized group of International Communists, stepped in. This would prove to be catastrophic for Russia, especially religious Russians due to the militant atheism fundamental to Marxism, a core belief of which is that:
“The proletarian is without property … Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
In April 1917, “In his so-called “April Thesis,” Lenin called not only for “peace” but also for “land” and “bread” for the population.” Over the next few months the Bolsheviks politically maneuvered themselves into a position where they were the only real political alternative to the unpopular provisional government.
The all-Russian sobor began meeting, and there were endless debates between factions on the right and left about the future of the Orthodox Church. Then on October 25 Trotsky (by then Chairman of the Bolshevik majority Petrograd Soviet) led the Bolshevik’s to an almost bloodless take over of the Winter Palace (which was reportedly patrolled only by a women’s garrison). This dramatic turn of events ended all debate, and for the first time in over 200 years the church began the process of selecting its own Patriarch. On October 31 three candidates for Patriarch were selected. On November 5 an aged monk, who lived as a recluse, was given the task of drawing the lots. He drew Tikhon’s name.
“The Communist experiment in Russia was the last and most radical stage in the process of imitation of the West inaugurated by Peter the Great.”
The first month of the Bolshevik’s regime saw the nationalization of all land (making the Church’s and parish priests’ landholdings illegal), all agricultural production falling under state control, and the nationalization and closing of all ecclesiastical schools.
On January 23, 1918 these and other decrees were codified in a 13 point document, point one of which declaring “The Church is separated from the State.” This “separation” was a far cry from the sort American’s may have in mind on hearing this phrase. It was more akin to a judge ruling that he was “separated” from his own mother and ordering her stripped naked of all possessions, citizenship, and rights, and thrown into the street.
The state seized all church property and real estate, which it would then optionally lease back to the church “free of charge” but “subject to regular taxes levied on private enterprise”. The decree also made it illegal to teach religion publicly or to children; all religious schools (even Sunday schools) were forbidden. Around 6,000 churches/monasteries were confiscated as having “special historical/archeological-architectural value”. Further decrees nationalized religious associations’ bank accounts and limited sermons to purely religious subjects. These oppressive measures, which the government officially “condemned”, were strongly opposed by Tikhon and the church.
Fresh attacks were launched on Holy Relics. Tombs were opened, their contents catalogued and valued. This looting continued for years.
After several years of civil war between the “Reds” (Bolsheviks) and the “Whites” (anti-Bolshevick forces, which in part included supporters of the Orthodox Church, Europeans, and Americans) fizzled out, the Communists had firmly seized control of Russia.
In the winter of 1922 over 7,000,000 people died from hunger and epidemics; cannibalism spread. Families ate their own children as they died. Lenin capitalized on the crisis with a campaign to break the power of the clergy by seizing church treasure under the auspices of “obtaining resources with which to buy food”. Thikon asked all parishes to surrender all non-sacramental valuables. Some 1,414 bloody fights ensued as Bolsheviks tried to forcibly seize “virtually every treasure” including consecrated vessels. Forty-five priests and laymen were brought to trial, 12 of which were put to death. Tikhon was “summoned as a witness at this trial, and then put under under house arrest (accused of ‘resisting the confiscations’) and forbidden to carry out the duties of his office”.
A few days later, a group of priests attempted to seize control of the church, calling themselves “The Living Church” (a subset of the “Renovationists”). They would go on to collude with the Soviet Government, resulting in the imprisonment, exile, or death of 8,100 bishops, priests, monks, and nuns, and reducing parishes faithful to Tikhon in Moscow to less than a dozen.
One year later, on April 27 and June 19 (1923), decrees were issued that,
“legalized the closure of churches and their confiscation from religious associations if the buildings were needed “for other use,” and dissolution of these associations by local government bodies on the grounds of “political unreliability and anti-Sovietism” on the part of their members.”
The implications were dire. On these grounds, the Russian government could conceivably dissolve the entire church. The following week the imprisoned Tikhon was released after declaring in a statement, “henceforth I cease to be an enemy of the Soviet régime.”
From 1922 to 1928 in the face of Lenin’s declining health, Stalin wrested control of the Communist party from Lenin and the other “October Leaders”. Lenin suffered a series of strokes and ultimately died on January 21, 1924.
The persecution continued. A 1925 decree, targeting some of the church’s most sacred services of Theophany, Pascha, and any others which included processions (such as Ascension), banned outdoor processions or services from taking place without special written permission.
On Tuesday April 7, 1925 Tikhon died. His last words were, “The night will be very long and very dark”.
Tikhon’s will designated Peter Poliansky his temporary successor until a General Council could be convened. Poliansky was exiled for refusing to support the government-supported Renovationist church. He arranged for Sergius to take his place, who was in turn arrested along with an estimated 117 bishops, in an effort to break the backbone of the church through a process of “eradication of the best,” as the Soviets arrested and released one locum tenens after another. After several months Sergius was released and in June, under the possible threat of “liquidation” of many of his imprisoned bishops, issued a statement,
“Let us express publicly our gratitude to the Soviet Government for the interest which it has manifested to all the spiritual needs of the Orthodox … We have to demonstrate not by words, but by our actions that … zealous supporters of Orthodox can show themselves to be faithful citizens of the Soviet Union … We want to be Orthodox and, at the same time, to recognize the Soviet Union as our civil motherland, joys and successes of which are our joys and our successes and misfortunes of which are our misfortunes. Every blow directed against the Soviet Union, be it war, boycott, or some public misfortune … is felt by us as though it were directed against us.”
The church’s open defiance of communist power had come to an end. Many of the faithful were heartbroken and outraged. But the worst of the persecution was yet to come.
In 1928 Stalin announced his first five-year plan and Trotsky fled into exile. The next year Stalin’s takeover of the party was complete, a new 68 point decree was issued.
“the authorities decreed the dissolution of lay organizations and banned church-run charitable activities… The authorities closed Orthodox medical institutions, orphanages, and homes for the mentally ill, disabled, and the old… Article 17 … outlawed the use of church premises for activities beyond worship, thereby prohibiting libraries, organized religious education, prayer meetings for women and young people, religious study groups, and even sewing circles.… mandated that clergy do their work only on the premises of the church society employing them, meaning that it was unlawful for a priest to serve two parishes or to celebrate the sacraments in non-church institutions (except to aid the sick or dying).… Central church organs were forbidden to establish bank accounts for the deposit of free-will offerings. The decree was largely a codification of earlier dispositions”
Persecution was profound during the 1930s. All religions were nearly annihilated by 1939. In 1932 St. Petersburg 30 churches were destroyed in the space of three months —only seven of the pre-revolution 96 survive to this day.
“The famous seventeenth-century church of St. Paraskevi on Okhotny Ryad was destroyed. Curious crowds stared wild-eyed as the great bell, nine tons in weight, was hurled to the ground. Five thousand people joined enthusiastically in demolishing the Monastery of St. Simon. But the high point of the campaign was the collective destruction by a crowd many thousands strong of the Church of Christ the Savior, the largest place of worship in Moscow. As a symbol, Stalin decided to erect on the site of this Christian temple the greatest temple of the new regime—the Palace of the Soviets, to be crowned with a gigantic statue of the God Lenin.
Such churches as survived were converted into storehouses. Children were told at school to bring icons for a public bonfire, and were given posters of Lenin to hang in their place… The slogan “religion is the opium of the people” was displayed everywhere and anywhere.”
Perhaps 20,000,000 people were condemned to slave labour in the extermination camps between 1936-37. The January 1937 census required every soviet citizen to declare themselves either “believer” or “non-believer”. An astounding 70% declared themselves believers. By the late 1930s only four active bishops remained. By 1939 no more than 300 churches remained in all of the USSR.
“six hundred bishops, forty thousand priests, and one hundred twenty thousand monks and nuns were killed during this period. Many of these died in the harsh conditions of prison or labor camp; others were shot or buried alive. By the end of Stalin’s dictatorship, only some two hundred priests remained active in the Soviet Union. The scale of this martyrdom is unprecedented in the history of the Christian Church.”
Complete extermination was avoided when Russia began annexing neighboring territories to its West with strong Orthodox populations or affinities. Perhaps Stalin found his remaining bishops useful in staving off a potential repeat of the civil war of the early 20’s.
In 1941 Hitler invaded on All Saints Sunday (June 22). Sergius stood powerfully against the Germans while Stalin seemed to at first cower and then appeal to Russians’ religious inclinations. Russians in newly occupied German territory experienced a freedom of religion they hadn’t known for over 20 years, and thronged to participate in the sacraments. In an effort to keep Russians from allying with German invaders, and perhaps in response to stories of a Metropolitan’s miraculous vision of the Theotokos, Stalin eased persecution. By September, all anti-religious propaganda halted, and on September 4, 1943 Stalin met with three hierarchs (Sergius, Aleksi, and Nikolai). Many restrictions were eased, and a national church council of 19 bishops was able to meet and formally elect Sergius as Patriarch. Sergius was enthroned September 12, 1943 and died May 15, 1944. A grand convocation of up to 204 ecclesiastical dignitaries and laymen, some from abroad, assembled as the Church Council in 1945 to declare Alexis his successor.
This was a turning point for the Orthodox Church in Russia, away from an overtly bloody oppression towards a more mundane seeming bureaucratic persecution (perhaps reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ nightmare of hell as pictured in the Screwtape Letters).
Under Khruschev (who took over in ’58 following Stalin’s death in ’53) between 1958-64:
“the number of churches used for worship fell from 18,000 in 1957 to 7,500 in 1966, the number of parish clergy from about 20,000 to 10,000, of monasteries from 67 to 16, and of theological schools from 10 to 5. Large areas of the country were once again deprived of centres of worship.
This persecution was not accompanied, as under Stalin, by arrests and deportation; the clergy were simply forced to abandon their active ministry.”
In 1954 there were only enough Bibles published for perhaps two per parish (without the possibility of religious texts coming in from outside, except those smuggled), and one church per 150,000 people (in 1917 there was one church per 3,000). The church responded heroically:
“Parishes in the large towns … organized for mass-production of the sacraments. On Sundays, after two or three celebrations of the Eucharist… In one corner of the church, children are being baptized in rotation, and some adults behind a screen… two or three marriages are being solemnized in another corner; and elsewhere funerals are being held in the presence of open coffins. And so it goes on from midday to the beginning of vespers”
This played into the hands of the authorities, because to Western observers ‘churches are packed!’.
Laws were brutally and unfairly applied, churches destroyed or closed, and clergy and parishioners were greatly harassed and had their possessions taken.
There is a dramatic account of the Church of SS. Peter and Paul being scheduled for demolition. A crowd of over 10,000 gathered, and protestors broke through the police barricade to defend the church. Some were still inside when the church was detonated.
“Greatly harassed” does not do justice to the actual experiences. Monks and pilgrims were trucked up to 150 miles to the middle of the woods and abandoned, with threats of arrest if they returned to their monasteries, women imprisoned for teaching Sunday School, seminarians drafted mid-course, nuns forced at gunpoint to make bricks in a local factory, and malicious attacks by run-of-the-mill militant atheists against whom no recourse was possible. One Priest, left homeless and jobless after the authorities black-listed him, finally shaved his beard and presented himself to the local council for employment rather than beg in the street as so many others were doing. The council “gladly accepted” him under the stipulation that he live in an expensive slum with hostile neighbors. During the first week, there was an angry knock at the door. Seven of his neighbors had come calling:
“The four men pushed him aside and strode in. One took a knife… and tore a great gash into the wood of his precious seventeenth-century icon… Another took [an icon] threw it on the floor and scoured out the two faces with the nails in the heel of his boot. The other two men held him by the shoulders while this was going on and the four women hooted with laughter. Their derision was harder to bear even than the desecration of the precious possessions upon which his whole life had been centered since leaving the seminary.”
Worst of all though was the focus on preventing the handing down of Christianity to children. This may have been supported by Khruschev in response to having been forced to kneel for hours in long religious services. In 1962 it became extremely difficult to even baptize a child; parents were no longer allowed to require their children to perform religious rights and children were often taken from parents because of their parent’s faith. Up to this point it seems that Russians had had some amount of success continuing to practice the faith, but this more calculating attack seems to have taken a drastic toll for years into the future.
In 1964 Khruschev fell from power and his anti-religious campaign came to an end. The suffering of the church over the next decade came mostly in the form for atrophy as its resources continued to dwindle.
Following Alexis’ death in 1970, a new council met in 1971 to elect Pimen as Patriarch.
The second notable increase in persecution was from 1976 onward as the Communist authorities reacted with increasing severity (labour camps, exile, and KGB harassment) to dissidents and protests. Waning interest in atheism accompanied by a dying off of the old guard leadership left room for Gorbachev to form strategic government ties to the church to boost his campaign for glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) to fortify his stagnating country. Disinterest in atheistic oppression caused a rapid deflation in persecution and by 1991 the “Law on Religious Associations” originally enacted in 1929 was finally cancelled.
By then the Orthodox Christian was an endangered species. In 1990 the CIA estimated only 20% of Soviets were Orthodox believers. Davis himself estimates only 1,700,000 weekly church attendees, with 3% of the population being ‘regular church goers’.
Hope for the church was alive though.
“Lenin argued that once the grandmothers died, nobody would remember that there had been a church in Russia. But now Lenin is long dead, and the church is still full of grandmothers who were children when he was alive.”
“A woman in her sixties, then crossed herself somewhat pensively, getting it backward for an Orthodox person… she wasn’t really anything… she loved to hear the churchmen on television.”
And, increasingly, young people seemed to be at least curious.
“many, especially among the younger generation,… look for something better than the official Marxist line but do not yet know the way to Christ.”
“A young Soviet adult said to me in 1991: “I am not a believer, but perhaps God exists. It would be awful to know He did not.”