The Soviet persecution against the Russian Church in the 20th century was like a return to early Christianity. Churches and monasteries were closed, faith was recognized by state propaganda as a relic of a dark past, and believers were persecuted, exiled, and killed. Such conditions resulted in the birth of a new phenomenon, known as secret monasticism. Soviet monastics were forced to live a secular life, not much different from ordinary citizens of the USSR.
In 1917, there were about 100,000 monastics in the Russian Empire, including novices and candidates. After the communists came to power, a campaign was launched to “liquidate” monasteries. It resulted in the fact that by 1929 there were no officially functioning monasteries in the USSR. Some monastic communities re-registered as agricultural artels, which enabled them to operate secretly for a short time after 1929.
The monastics were forced to go into the world. Some existed in communes, others travelled to remote villages, while still others (especially hieromonks) settled near churches.
Many monastics seemed to lead a life that was not much different from common people. Many of them were tonsured after the revolution and had never lived in a monastery. Confessors, forced to live outside monasteries, differed sharply from ordinary parish priests by deep spiritual experience and approach to their spiritual children, many of whom eventually discovered a monastic vocation in themselves. And so, despite the absence of monasteries, monastic tonsures continued to be performed. Men were usually unable to hide for a long time, because the Church was in dire need of new clergy. They knew at the moment of ordination that persecution against them was soon to follow. In view of this, most secret monastics were women.
Some of them (for example, nun Anna (Blagoveshchenskaya), now canonised as a martyr) even managed to establish secret monasteries. In 1922, nun Anna registered a women’s commune in honour of N. Krupskaya (Vladimir Lenin’s wife) in the village of Zakharyino, Yaroslavl Region. Their activities corresponded outwardly to revolutionary ideas, proclaiming the ability of women to live and work without men.
The “commune” managed to achieve good results in their work, received high awards and even appeared in newspapers. It had existed for 10 years before the nuns were exposed and arrested. The number of such secret communes cannot be determined, in view of their maximum secrecy. Many secret monastics only revealed themselves on their deathbed or even in posthumous notes.
Some secret monks during their lifetime were respected in society just as well as they were revered in the Church. Monk Andronik, for example, was a devout ascetic and had many spiritual children; at the same time he was known to the whole world as A.F. Losev, a prominent researcher in culture and linguistics. He took monastic vows together with his wife already being a professor. They were tonsured with the names Andronik and Athanasia, in memory of the early Christian spouses, who left the world in pursuit of monastic life.
By what rules did the secret monks live? Hieromonk Sampson (Sievers) writes that it was forbidden for secret monastics to divulge the secret of their monasticism until death. Other prohibitions included wearing monastic clothes, pronouncing one’s monastic name, even before the Chalice, attending social events and public places (except work), giving parties and receptions and spending time vacuously under any pretext.
Venerable martyr Ignatius (Lebedev) gave his spiritual children the following instructions: “Do not wear a black headscarf in church; do not wear an epimandylion (apostolnik), not even on holidays or at home; do not say your monastic name, not even at confession; merge completely with the parishioners”.
Thus, the life of secret monks in the world was definitely not easier than the cenobitic one. In fact, it was more complicated, which caused secret monastics to strive for creating communities, or at least to have some communication with one another. However each such action, whether it was a meeting or a letter, added to the risks of being exposed and persecuted.
Needless to say, the very fact of living in the world and the need for social interaction was a source of temptation. Secret monastics viewed secular work as monastic obedience, since every monk is obliged to work. Obviously, it was not always possible to work in a same-sex team, which was also a potential source of temptations.
However, the very existence of secret monastics shows how strong human faith and love for God can be. Seeing the numerous examples of their neighbours’ suffering for Christ, secret monks showed the highest selflessness by choosing the path of Christian service. The persecution of Christians did not end almost until the very collapse of the USSR, but secret monks, as well as ordinary believers, clergy members, confessors and martyrs, constantly showed the strength and steadfastness of their faith, affirming the truth of the Lord’s words about His Church, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).