The Russian Church and the Terror State
The Russian Church and the Terror State
The Russian church is growing despite murders and
repression orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Thursday, January 01, 2009
By John Couretas
With the December 5, 2008 death of Patriarch
Alexy II, Russian Orthodox Christians lost their
first "post-Soviet" leader. The patriarch
presided over the resurrection of the world's
largest Orthodox Church, a faith community that
had been targeted for annihilation by communist
regimes that would brook no rival to their own
promises of salvation through "world revolution."
While Alexy led the Church out of the rubble of
the Soviet Union, his own history has been
clouded with allegations that he worked with the
secret police was even decorated by them. In
this, his career reflects the recent history of
the Church, which after the first vicious period
of persecution was openly criticized by many
Russians for being too pliable, too
accommodationist with its old adversaries in the
Kremlin. In some cases, critics said, the Church
had even assisted the authorities in the
suppression of believers and their communities.
In choosing a new patriarch, the Russian Church
now has an opportunity to come to grips with this
past, and with other questions: nationalism, the
status of minority ethnic and religious groups,
secularization and consumerist materialism. Will
the new patriarch lead the Church into a future
of growth and spiritual renewal, or will he
strike another "Faustian bargain" with autocratic leaders?
In the Beginning
In October 1917, Felix Dzherzhinsky, the founder
of the Bolshevik secret police, spelled out in
cold blooded terms how the use of terror would
become the governing principle of Russia for the next 70 years.
Do not imagine that I have any concern with
formal law. We need no justice now. What we need
is a fight to the bone. I order, I demand the
forging of the revolutionary sword which shall
destroy all counter-revolutionaries.
The persecution of the Russian Church began with
the Bolshevik Revolution, with mass arrests of
clergy and believers, confiscation of Church
property, conversion of monasteries and churches
into stables, workshops and prison barracks, and
the public desecration of the relics of saints.
In 1922, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia,
Tikhon, was arrested and ultimately sent into
exile. The Metropolitan of Petrograd, Veniamin,
was arrested, condemned to death and shot. By the
end of 1923, some 2,700 Orthodox priests, 3,400
nuns, and 2,000 monks were killed.
Estimates of the numbers of Orthodox clergy who
perished, as with the precise numbers of those
millions who died in the vast Soviet Gulag
system, are notoriously unreliable. But one
estimate puts the total number of Church people
killed during the Soviet period at 600 bishops,
40,000 priests, and 120,000 monks and nuns. Many
died in the inhumane conditions of the Gulag work
camps, in prisons, or were executed and buried in
unmarked mass graves. This went on for long,
bloody decades. Some point to Fr. Alexander Men,
a charismatic Russian Orthodox priest who was
murdered in 1990, as one of the last martyrs of the faith under Soviet rule.
The persecution of the Russian Church crested
during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, at
which point the Soviets had virtually destroyed
the Church's institutional capabilities. In his
1967 book "The Rule of Terror," Austrian
journalist Hellmut Andics estimated that the
number of religious institutions in Russia fell
from 30,000 to 20,000 from 1937 to 1938. "In 1937
alone, at the peak of the anti-religious
campaign, 1,100 Orthodox, 240 Catholic, 61
Protestant, and 110 Muslim places of worship were
closed during the year," Andics wrote.
The campaign of annihilation lifted during WWII
when Stalin needed the Orthodox Church to prop up
patriotic spirits in the face of an invasion by
Hitler's Wehrmacht. The repression of believers
continued in the post-war period. Slowly, some
Russians began to speak out about the futility of
imposing atheism on a land that had been
Christian for 1,000 years and the failures of their Church.
In 1974, a book of essays published by prominent
Russian dissidents, including Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, looked at the state of modern day
Russia and its religious life. In the essay "The
Schism Between the Church and the World," Evgeny
Barbanov explored the crisis in the Russian
Church and its tendency always strong in
Orthodoxy toward renunciation of the world at
the expense of its mission to transform the culture.
Barbanov praised the priests Nikolai Eshilman and
Gleb Yakunin for a 1965 public letter of protest
to Patriarch Alexius. The priests, Barbanov said,
rightly criticized church officials for the
"craven, hypocritical position adopted by the
higher administration. They showed convincingly
how a significant part of the governing
episcopate, with voluntary silence or cunning
connivance, had assisted atheists to close
churches, monasteries and religious schools, to
liquidate religious communities, to establish the
illegal practice of registering christenings, and
had yielded to them control over the appointment
and transfer of priests." But accountability was not to be found.
"It seems at times that we Christians
deliberately do not wish to understand our
historical failure or to admit our historical
sins," Barbanov said. "We shift the blame onto
anyone else we can find the state, atheism,
secularization but ourselves only remain innocent victims."
More recently, human rights activist Sergei
Kovalev blamed the Russian "mentality" for
refusing to accept responsibility for crimes
committed during the nation's "bloody, cruel,
shameful" history. "We didn't want to know about
the Gulag, we didn't want to see it," Kovalev
wrote. "We believed the propaganda that anyone
who was arrested was an 'enemy of the people.' We
hated them. We went out into the streets with
huge placards reading: 'Death to the Trotskyite
dogs!' We shouted out at rallies and demanded their death huge crowds of us."
Historian James Billington has suggested ways
that Russians can move past the "massive past
complicity in unprecedented evil" connected to
their Soviet history. Evil, of course, is a
theological concept and on this matter he charged
the Russian Church with failing to accept
accountability and self-scrutiny. "As an
institution, it ended up in the late Soviet
period accepting a defensible, but ultimately
Faustian, bargain with an atheistic state,"
Billington said. "It secured a limited survival
to perform liturgical rituals as long as it
sought no educational role in society, supported
state policies when requested, and cleared all
major appointments with the state. As a result,
the Russian Church played a role in perpetuating
and even at times legitimizing a system bent on its destruction."
That system ultimately exhausted itself with the
heavy burden of violence and repression, the long
assault on human dignity, and the unsustainable
socialist economy. But for decades there were
many in the West who were convinced that it was
here to stay. Some saw through it as a false
Gospel. In his 1953 book "Communism and Christ,"
Charles W. Lowry observed that it was not the
"naive simplicity" of Marxism that gave it such
power, but its appeal to people as a
revolutionary faith. "The miracle of Marxism is
its social and institutional embodiment and its
transformation into an aggressive, universal
religion of salvation," Lowry wrote.
A phony religion, having no reality of its own,
must borrow its expressions from true faith. In
1936, the newspaper Pravda published a Communist
anthem written for Stalin that evoked the tones of Byzantine hymnody.
O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples,
Thou who broughtest man to birth,
Thou who purifiest the earth,
Thou who restoreth the centuries,
Thou who maketh bloom the Spring,
Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords.
Thou splendor of my Spring, O Thou
Sun reflected of millions of hearts.
The Russian Church today is growing, nourished by
the blood of millions of martyrs who perished
under the Soviet regime. Their deaths, as St.
John Chrysostom put it in another age, is a
"proof of the Resurrection, mocking at demons."
Orthodox parishes, at 6,000 in late 1980s, now
number almost 30,000, the Church says. Where
there were three institutions of theological
training, there are now more than 100.
Monasteries, reduced to a mere 18, have grown to
more than 750. The Church claims a strong interest in vocations.
In a slender book on the subject of nihilism, the
priest-monk Fr. Seraphim Rose showed how
radically materialist ideologies such as
communism and fascism will always fail as long as
a single believer remains. In the person of the
believer, all the arguments against God will be refuted.
"Man's mind is supple, and it can be made to
believe anything to which his will inclines,"
Rose wrote. "In an atmosphere permeated with
nihilistic fervor, such as [existed] in the
Soviet Union, the soundest argument can do
nothing to induce belief in God, in immortality,
in faith; but a man of faith, even in this
atmosphere, can speak to the heart of man and
show, by his example, that what is impossible to
the world and to the best of human intentions, is
still possible to God and to faith."
Now we wait to see if Russia, with the best of
intentions and the help of God, can show the world what is possible.
John Couretas writes for and is the
Communications Director of the Acton Institute
The views and opinions expressed herein are those
of the author only, not of Spero News.