Eternal Russia by Ilya Glazunov

Church Under Soviet Totalitarianism: Suppression, Resistance and Compliance 

Eternal Russia by Ilya Glazunov
Eternal Russia by Ilya Glazunov

The Soviet Union was a state seeking to destroy religion and create a completely secular society. However, the relationship between the state and the Church was much more complex than the stated goal suggests. This article discusses the relationship between the totalitarian Soviet state and the Church. We will look at the attempts of the USSR leadership to create a “Red Church” and find out in what way Soviet believers were similar to the first Christians. How massive was the persecution of faith in the USSR, was there a “True Orthodox Church” and what were some other distinctive features of the Soviet period? Let us find out.

New Conditions for Religious Organizations after the October Revolution

During the Soviet era, the state sought to control religious organizations and limit the influence of the Church. To achieve this goal, the government passed a series of laws aimed at restricting the activities of religious organizations and suppressing the religious expression of believers.

One of the most significant legal acts of that time was the “Decree on Separation of Church and State” adopted in 1918. It proclaimed freedom of religion, but prohibited accompanying state and public events with religious rituals. The decree prohibited the teaching of religion in schools, fully legalised the nationalisation of church property (including educational institutions and printing houses), and deprived the Church of legal capacity and all state subsidies. 

Although some of these decisions may seem permissible or even fair in theory, in practice the opposite was often true. For example, the third paragraph of the Decree promised: “Every citizen may profess any or no religion. All penalties relating to the profession or non-profession of any faith shall be abolished”. In practice, the state authorities unleashed atheistic propaganda, forcibly depriving the Church of property, including relics, and sentencing clergy to death on a massive scale for allegedly anti-Soviet propaganda (for example, for preaching in an ambiguous manner). The persecution was so rampant and ambitious that in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev declared in a televised speech: “I promise that soon we will show the last priest on television!” 

A church plundered during a campaign to seize religious property
A church plundered during a campaign to seize religious property
Campaign for the opening of relics
Campaign for the opening of relics

Obviously, believers had to adapt to the prevailing conditions. The attitude of Church members to the new government was not uniform, which led to disagreements and schisms.

Canonical Church in the First Years after the Revolution

The initial reaction of the canonical Church to the said changes was expressed by St. Tikhon (Bellavin). On 19 January 1918 he issued an address condemning the Bolshevik persecution of the Church and urging the clergy and laity to defend the Orthodox faith and their churches. The tone of the message made it clear that compromise with the authorities on the part of the Patriarch was impossible.

Icon "Coming of the Bolsheviks" depicts the Red Army soldiers, St. Tikhon (Bellavin) and Hieromartyr Alexander (Khotovitsky)
Icon “Coming of the Bolsheviks” depicts the Red Army soldiers, St. Tikhon (Bellavin) and Hieromartyr Alexander (Khotovitsky)

In 1923, Patriarch Tikhon issued another proclamation with two central themes: the attitude to Soviet rule and the question of the Orthodox communities not wishing to subordinate themselves to the Orthodox Church Administration.

The attitude to Soviet power expressed in that document had changed to a large extent: The Patriarch acknowledged that the revolution had been accomplished, having rendered a return to the previous state system impossible. The Church recognised the Soviet government, praying for it, since there is no authority except from God. It was recognised as a pastoral duty to inform the faithful that the Church had distanced itself from the counter-revolution and was on the side of the Soviet authorities.

With regard to the relevant disturbances, the Patriarch wrote that the Orthodox Church Administration should not interfere in the life of congregations not expressing their free and voluntary consent to submit to its leadership. Orthodox communities, realizing the need for legal succession of the hierarchy, were expected to voluntarily enter into communion with the Orthodox Church Administration.

This proclamation was met with criticism by some believers who saw it as a betrayal of the independence of the Church. Groups (mentioned in the Patriarch’s proclamation) appeared that separated from the canonical Church. 

Undoubtedly, the circumstances that led the Patriarch to write a proclamation showing loyalty to the Soviet authorities were not simple.

The “Red Church” and the Persecution of the Canonical Church in the 1920s

Members of the Extraordinary Commission1, responsible for enforcing the policies of the Soviet government, sought to destroy the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church. At first they tried to achieve this goal by working with targeted members of the Patriarch’s entourage, but these attempts were unsuccessful. They then turned their attention to young married priests, who were seen as revolutionary and welcoming the possible changes in the Church. 

In February 1922, the Soviet government began a campaign to seize church property, with the formal reason of fighting a famine. The authorities sought to create a division within the clergy by placing under state protection those who advocated the transfer of church property to the state. In the same year, with the help of the State Political Directorate, the ‘Petrograd Progressive Clergy Group’ of 12 representatives was formed, which supported the campaign to seize church valuables. This group soon became the center of the nascent Renovationist movement, whose formal goal was to introduce modernist reforms in the Church. For the most part, however, Renovationism was a political movement seeking to adapt the Church to the new realities.

Caricature of the Renovationists (1923)
Caricature of the Renovationists (1923)

In 1922, the canonical Patriarch Tikhon was imprisoned, including through the efforts of the Renovationists. In April, during the Patriarch’s captivity, the “High Church Administration”, arbitrarily organised by the Renovationists, convened a “council” at which it “defrocked” the Patriarch of his dignity and monastic rank. 

With the support of the Soviet authorities, the Renovationists took control of many church facilities and monasteries, including the famous Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The “white” clergy were encouraged to take control of their parishes without the consent of the diocesan bishops, who were often threatened and pressured. As a result, parallel church administrations emerged in some dioceses and cities, one supporting the Renovationist movement and the other supporting the canonical Church.

By the summer of 1922 more than twenty hierarchs had recognised the authority of the Renewal movement. The most important person among them was the future Patriarch, Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) of Nizhny Novgorod. In many cities the Renovationists took control of all property belonging to the Orthodox churches and carried out radical reforms. For example, they allowed monastics and bishops to marry, ordained married priests as bishops; arbitrarily shortened divine services, publicly read the Eucharistic prayers, moved the altar to the center of the church, served with the open Holy doors, and used the Russian language in divine services.

"Metropolitan" Alexander Vvedensky with his wife and sons from two marriages
“Metropolitan” Alexander Vvedensky with his wife and sons from two marriages
Renovationist clergy
Renovationist clergy

Despite state support, the Renovationists were not recognised by ordinary believers, while there were several schisms in the movement itself. The authorities, realising the futility of further patronage of the Renovationists, decided once again to try to establish relations with the canonical Church. The imprisoned Patriarch was offered release and a return to his see on condition that the canonical Church should be reconciled with the government. The patriarch agreed to the compromise led by the principle expressed in his following words: “Let my name perish in history, as long as it is of benefit to the Church”. This explains the striking differences in the nature of his proclamations of 1918 and 1923.

It is noteworthy that during his imprisonment the Patriarch feared the success of the Renovationists. Upon his release, having learned about the deplorable state of their affairs, he said, “If I had known [while in isolation] that the Renovationists have made so little progress, I would have remained in prison.”

On October 1, 1925, the Renovationists were in control of 9093 parishes (about 30% of the total number), on January 1, 1926 this number was reduced to 6135 (21.7%), on January 1, 1927 – to 3341 (16.6%), and on the eve of the Great Patriotic War it was about as low as 200. During the “synod” of 1932, the Renovationists made an attempt to regain support in the eyes of ordinary believers by abolishing their previous liturgical reforms (the Russian language at divine services, reading secret prayers aloud, etc.). Eventually, Renovationists began to be subjected to repression along with other Orthodox Christians (eighty-six Renovationist bishops were shot in 1937-1938). In 1939 the authorities, in whom the Renovationists had once placed such hope, forbade them to ordain new clergy. These two facts fully reveal the essence of Renovationism whose followers used the reforms only as “smoke and mirrors” while being in fact the puppets and the creation of the Bolsheviks. Unable to prosper without the support of the Soviet regime, the movement gradually ceased to exist when it was no longer needed by the state.

Catacomb Believers and the “True Orthodox Church”

The members of the so-called catacomb communities were the complete opposite of the Renovationists. Some parishes, desiring to preserve the purity of their faith and promote their independence from the Soviet regime, went underground and began to carry out their Christian ministry in secret. 

The need for such secrecy was caused by the threat of being left without bishops, which was becoming more and more acute for the Orthodox. By the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War the ROC had only four ruling bishops left. In view of this, even canonical bishops who, like Patriarch Tikhon, did not go into hiding, ordained “secret” priests and bishops.

The first catacomb communities appeared immediately after the Bolsheviks came to power. The largest number of parishes went underground during the period of Soviet patronage of the Renovationists (1922) and the most violent political repression of believers (1929-1942) when serving openly was particularly dangerous.

The term “True Orthodox Church” or “True Orthodox Christians” refers to the part of the catacomb movement which consciously opposed itself to the canonical Church. This opposition was a reaction to specific events. Some broke communion with the Church when Patriarch Tikhon allowed transfer of church property to the Bolsheviks; others responded to Patriarch Tikhon’s messages announcing reconciliation with the authorities. 

The greatest wave of opposition to the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1927 with the publication of the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, Deputy Patriarchal Locum Tenens (at that time Patriarch Tikhon had already reposed).  The Declaration was aimed at resolving the contradictions between the Church and the Soviet state and creating a new basis for their relationship in order to ensure the survival of the Church in the face of state repression and persecution. The document thereby effectively declared loyalty to the authorities. For example, petitions “for our God-protected country, its authorities and armed forces” were returned into the Litany. At the same time, diocesan bishops in exile, on the contrary, were no longer commemorated at divine services.

Bishop Sergius (Kudryavtsev) with spiritual children went into opposition to Metropolitan Sergius, but brought repentance before death 
Bishop Sergius (Kudryavtsev) with spiritual children went into opposition to Metropolitan Sergius, but brought repentance before death

Metropolitan Sergius was guided by the same principle as Patriarch Tikhon. Formally declaring complete loyalty to the authorities, he continued to secretly ordain clerics to administer to the underground communities. The life of the underground communities was similar to the life of the early Christians. They gathered secretly in houses or other suitable places, hiding their Christian faith and being persecuted by secular authorities. Like the early Christians, many members of the Soviet catacomb communities became martyrs. A notable manifestation of catacomb Christianity was secret monasticism . Catacomb Christians who were not in opposition to the Church returned to a legal status when possible.

Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) and Patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin)
Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) and Patriarch Tikhon (Bellavin)

The “True Orthodox”, having distanced themselves from the Church and from the state, began to degenerate. Perceiving the rule of the Soviets as the power of the Antichrist, adult members of these communities refused to apply for official jobs or to send their children to school. 

Over time, due to social seclusion and arrests of the priesthood, “true Orthodox communities” were forced to become “priestless”. Deprived of the opportunity to acquire a pastor, and often led by laypeople with very specific views, such communities developed sectarian characteristics. The people in them lived and died without sacraments, with the exception of Baptism2. Some communities replaced the daily cycle of worship with the reading of akathists. In the absence of priests, it was quite common to see the sacraments being administered by itinerant preachers, elderly Christian women, or females taking a vow of celibacy to serve God. 

In the early 1960s, “True Orthodoxy” virtually disappeared. Some of the communities degenerated into sectarianism and disappeared, others fled west during the German occupation in the 1940s. The intransigence of the “True Orthodox” to the state was fully reciprocated by the authorities. The state sought to eradicate illegal anti-Soviet communities more than any other religious group. In the course of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, “true Orthodoxy” disappeared almost completely. Although there are now groups claiming to be successors to the former “True Orthodox”, their claim is not provable. These communities continue to depart from Orthodoxy, acquiring more and more unusual traits, alien to the Orthodox faith. From open sources we know of communities of the “Russian Catacomb Church of True Orthodox Christians”3, which deny the dogma of the Holy Trinity and the veneration of icons, practising things completely alien to Christianity, such as the glorification of Adolf Hitler4 (whose iconographic portraits, used by the True Orthodox can be found on the internet). Such degradation of faith in the “true Orthodox churches” has become the rule rather than an exception. 

Life of the Church after the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius

It seemed that after the open declaration of loyalty to the new government, the repressions against the Church should subside. Yet, the time between 1929 and 1942 was the worst in this respect. In fact, the period from 1932 to 1937 was called the “godless five-year plan” in church history.

Cover of the magazine called "Atheist Machinist"
Cover of the magazine called “Atheist Machinist”
Soviet anti-religious poster 
Soviet anti-religious poster
Soviet anti-religious poster 
Soviet anti-religious poster

Powerful artistic and public forces were deployed for anti-religious propaganda. Anti-religious literature was published for any age and intellect, including the “Atheist”newspaper, the magazines “Antireligionist”, “Militant Atheism”, “Village Atheist”, “Young Atheists” and the like. Atheist organizations, such as “The Union of Atheists”, or “Atheist Youth” were created on a large scale. Their participants were encouraged with benefits for conducting blasphemous actions like “Godless Easter”, mass burning of icons etc. In addition to widespread propaganda, the Soviet government continued to act in more radical ways.

In the early 1930s, a number of new legislative acts were adopted. They limited the rights of believers and facilitated the closure and demolition of churches. It was no longer allowed to perform sacred rites outside churches and houses of believers. It was also forbidden to issue certificates of baptism, church weddings, etc.

Poster for the mass burning of icons, accompanied by an orchestra
Poster for the mass burning of icons, accompanied by an orchestra

According to data compiled by the Head of the Secret Police N. Yezhov, 31359 “churchmen and sectarians” were arrested between August and November 1937, of whom 166 were metropolitans and bishops, 916 were popes, 2173 were monks and 19904 were “church-sectarian kulak activists”. Of these, 13,671 people were sentenced to death, including 81 bishops, 4,629 priests, 934 monks, and 7,004 “church-sectarian kulak activists”. The historian D. Pospelovsky estimates that between 1931 and 1941 “between 80 and 85 percent of priests (i.e. over 45,000) were murdered or arrested”.

It would seem that such severe persecution should have completely suppressed, if not the faith, then at least the open religious expression. However, in the 1937 non-anonymous census, of the 98.4 million USSR residents, 55.3 million identified themselves as believers, showing that no human effort can eradicate the truth of God from sincere believing souls. Generally speaking, the life of Soviet believers resembles that of the long-suffering Job on the scale of an entire nation. Whatever torments Satan inflicted on the righteous man, his faith only grew stronger.

Withstanding the Persecution and Preserving the Faith

History has shown the true nature of all persecutions and religious movements. The Soviet state aspiring to become an eternal utopian realm of universal equality and fraternity has disappeared. In historical memory, it was imprinted (at least for the Orthodox Church) rather as a dystopian state of repression and persecution.

The real value and the true essence of Renovationism became apparent when it lost the support of the government. In the words of the most prominent figure of this movement, Alexander Vvedensky, who referred to himself as “Metropolitan, Apologist and Evangelist“, “Renovationism has become something like a venereal disease. It is indecent to mention it in society while people try to conceal it with great care”. 

We have already mentioned the fate of “True Orthodoxy”. Today, communities that claim to have affiliation with this movement are small marginalized pseudo-apostolic groups that have little in common with real Orthodoxy, one another or even with the Soviet “True Orthodox”. An interview5 with the “primate of the true Orthodox Church” Raphael (Leonid Prokopiev) makes it clear what one can encounter in “True Orthodoxy”. The “First Hierarch” believes in the possibility of salvation in other religions, as well as things like karma, reincarnation, sorcery and other indecencies, while claiming to be the true zealot of truth, a follower of Patriarch Tikhon, and a keeper of true Orthodoxy and grace.

The Russian Orthodox Church, as the only Bride of Christ, and the pillar and foundation of truth, survived the persecution and preserved the faith. The conditions of Soviet persecution were not radically new for the Church. The state had already acted as a persecutor of faith under the pagan emperors of the Roman Empire, or during the capture of Byzantium by the Ottoman Empire. In those days, the Church was also forced to make concessions. 

It is easy to condemn the clergy who have compromised with the godless authorities. It is much more difficult to make decisions that affect tens of thousands of human lives. Speaking out against a government that is massively exterminating believers, would only lead to greater persecution. Indeed, martyrdom is the highest Christian act of faith, which many people performed in the 20th century, voluntarily shedding their blood for Christ.  But does the Church actually have the right to doom its members to martyrdom? And would not the Russian Orthodox Church then have been subjected to extermination in the same way as it happened with the “True Orthodox”?

Speaking of the concessions that the Church made, two things must be said. First, they were made because of extreme coercion and their primary objective was the safety of ordinary believers. A compromise with the authorities was probably the only viable way to help the laity survive. Second, the said concessions violated neither the apostolic succession nor the dogmatic purity of the faith, nor were there any changes made in the liturgical or ascetic practice of the Church. Besides, the Local Orthodox Churches have not found anything in them that would allow stopping to recognise the Russian Church or speaking of a betrayal of Orthodoxy, as critics within the country have suggested. These concessions were forced measures due to the desire to preserve the Church and relieve the lives of Orthodox believers in a totalitarian society. This may not have been obvious under Soviet conditions, but seeking to find in them anything other than that today is nothing but guile.

  1. Internal affairs and state security agency.
  2. In exceptional cases, Baptism can be performed by any lay person.
  3. Recognized as an extremist organization In the Russian Federation.
  4. Barygin. ‘Far-right tendencies in political life and political science discourse’
  5. Heg. Anatoly (Berestov), Alevtina Pecherskaya. “Orthodox sorcerers who are they?” 
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  1. Thank you, John Malov. I only knew bits and pieces of what was going on in the USSR, until I read The Gulag Archipelago and other writings. Your article was beautifully written and very informative.

    Mary Diacos Sharpley, a deacon’s wife

  2. How dare you say that the concessions were there to relieve the lives of orthodox believers, while it was not possible to get baptized, married etc in this relieved church life without being suspected of almost anything by the state? Being orthodox and confess your faith, was oppossed to any soviet doctrine, and resulted in losing your life, slowly over years in a gulag or a bit faster, when getting shot, and anything inbetween. All the time MILLIONS of orthodox faithfull where annihilated in gulags. Where is the relieve? And as this was already obvious under Soviet conditions, the more it is understandable now, where the whole truth is revealed! Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory wrote his Russia’s Catacomb Saints with Mr. Andreyev, while the oppression and murder on orthodox faithfull by the soviet satans was still ongoing.
    It is like spitting in the face of the millions of martyrs to say that the sergianist communist-embracing church policy was there to preserve the orthodox faith! The orthodox Faith was bought with the blood of those countless martyrs, who suffered inhuman pains to buy with their precious blood a new dawn of Orthodoxy in the east. All Holy New Martyrs pray for us in these days of great need in our church!

    1. Dear brother Nicolaj! By no means I have intended to offend you, New Martyrs or anyone else. I ask for forgiveness if I did so. I did nothing but express my personal opinion. While I agree that Soviet rule was a satanic disaster, as well as the concessions were a controversial and painful step to take, I still think that those concessions were the most rational thing to do in given situation. I believe that the Russian Church was in no position to oppose Soviet government, as it could have completely leave the Church with no clergy at all (remember there were only 4 ruling bishops by the time of 1941). In this case, participation in the Holy Sacraments would have been completely impossible.

      I would like to share a personal story. In the village where my grandparents lived (Hrodna voblasc, Belarus) Church life was almost non-existent. People would be persecuted for attending sunday services, just like everywhere else. But there were things that were allowed, like visting the church on big feasts like Christmas, Theophany and especially Easter. And literally all villagers from this village and neighbouring villages that didn’t have a church flocked to the church in our village on Easter (other feasts didn’t bring as many faithful). Baptism was ‘allowed’. While local authorities actually condemned it, there were no persecutions for taking part in Baptism and everyone in the village received baptism. Even my grandad (baptised 1933), who was a member of the communist party, openly baptised both my mum and my uncle. I just wanted to share some details about church from that period, but my story I mentioned above is about a completely different matter.

      My grandad was an active member of communist party. He was a honest working man, not a local politician in any sense, but he was really dedicated to ideas of socialism. I doubt he has ever taken the Holy Communion or any other sacrament except the Holy Baptism. Around 2015-2017, when I already made a decision to serve to the Church, he was not really happy with my decision. Once he said to me: “I don’t know what the Church teaches. But remember the truth: there was a man, Jesus Christ. That man was God”.

      Once again, I’m sorry that my words became a disturbance to you.

      1. Dear Brother John,
        not as much your words were a disturbance, it is the opinion that it was somehow necessary to find something in common with the Soviet satans in order to “relieve” the burden of whom??
        Jesus gave us his Word that the gates of hell will not overcome His Church. Millions orthodox Faithfull entered the hell of the gulags in the firm Faith that this is True, and did not made any compromise. They went all the way and are Saints in front of our Lord! And just imagine, there were more Martyrs raised in these days as in the first three centuries of our Church!
        And our Lord gave us his Word that the Wrath is his Attribute, He who created all, out of nothing. A sparkle of Faith would have helped Sergius more then selling his Soul, because it was a ill trade. The Lord does not asks us to make ill trades whith the ascendents of demons, He only wants us to embrace our Faith and live our life according to it. It is nowhere written that our Church is in need of a compromise. A compromise is no attribute of the Church, nor of the Gospel, nor by the Church Fathers, it is an attribute of Satan and his kin.
        Glory to God for all things, Holy Martyrs pray for us! Amin

  3. Compromise with Satan has never brought “relief” to Christians. Even the MP clergy admitted this in talks with ROCOR. No one’s life was relieved. Only Christ can save the Church. Big mistake to make compromise with the devil. The soviet authorities used this as an excuse to persecute even more severely the non-commemorators, saying that they were being disobedient to their church authorities. The only ones left relatively untouched were the most loyal and outspoken of supporters of the communists. Terribly disappointing the praises heaped upon Stalin by Metr. Sergei and others at his death. They went beyond what even the authorities demanded or expected of them.
    If there were sectarians among the “True Orthodox,” so have there been ecumenists and even those supporing socialism among the “canonical” Orthodox. It worked both ways. I think one can just say there was a complete breakdown in Church order and consciousness in Russia, as people struggled on how to react to the Soviet Regime. Ultimately, at the Last Judgment all will have to answer for the steps they took and are still taking today.
    There is evidence that when the authorities intended to release Metr. Peter from confinement, the true head of the Church, Metr. Sergei protested, as he said that everything was set up, and he didn’t want Metr. Peter interfering with the new order.

    Ultimately, now we have to deal with what we have now. Let us hope that the Church in Russia and Abroad will truly unite in true Orthodoxy, and that all will be cleansed of all compromise and the tainting of modernism, ecumenism, and all the enemies of the Church.

    Archimandrite Theophylact
    Holy Trinity Monastery
    Jordanville, NY

    1. Dear Father Theophylact,
      Thank you for commenting. To some extent, I agree with most of the things you said.
      And you are completely right that it is for our Lord to judge everyone at the Last Judgement.

      Ultimately, now we have to deal with what we have now. Let us hope that the Church in Russia and Abroad will truly unite in true Orthodoxy, and that all will be cleansed of all compromise and the tainting of modernism, ecumenism, and all the enemies of the Church.

      Amen to this

  4. Such a good article explaining overall what happened to the Church during those long hard years of Soviet rule, I had no idea of the details and the laws introduced. That more than 55 million identified as believers in 1937 shows their courage and the power of belief in God and His Church. The survival of the Church is a modern miracle.

  5. “Speaking out against a government that is massively exterminating believers, would only lead to greater persecution.” Then bear your cross, unswervingly, speak out against a dishonorable “Bishop” for making himself a puppeteering puppet.

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