Updated: Jun 7, 2021
Today in 1918 the Bolshevik-controlled government enacted a Decree that proclaimed separation of church and state in Russia and deprived religious organisations of the right to own any property and legal status. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed and countless nuns, catechists and believers. The Soviet Union was the first state to have elimination of religion as an ideological objective but ultimately it failed. Today we ask the quetsion why?
Today we remember how the Bolshevik-controlled government enacted the Decree that proclaimed separation of church and state in Russia, freedom to "profess any religion or profess none" and deprived religious organisations of the right to own any property and legal status. This effectively meant that all church property in Russia was confiscated and all religious instruction in schools was abolished. What was the extent of the destruction? The most reliable data we have indicates that four years earlier 1914, there were 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29,593 chapels, 112,629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 convents with a total of 95,259 monks and nuns in Russia.
The previous year had been a major turning point in Russian history, many old things had been ripped down, leaving a revolutionary vacuum. The Czar had been forced to abdicate, the Russian empire began to implode, and the government's direct control of the Church was all but over by August. The violence of the revolution was epitomised by the ruthless execution of the Imperial Romanov family in July of 2018, the Emperor Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children: were shot and bayoneted to death with their retainers and their bodies stripped, mutilated and dumped in a forest. Actions that expressed the destructive rage of the revolution and underlined that now nothing was sacred. These were dangerous things to eradicated so recklessly, and Stalin suppressed any discussion regarding the fate of the family. The burial site was eventually discovered in 1979 and even then the Soviet Union did not acknowledge the existence of these remains publicly until 1989, during the glasnost period. In 1998 President Boris Yeltsin described the killings of the royal family as one of the most shameful chapters in Russian history. The church would prove to be more resilient that the royal family.
Caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War, church leadership attempted to be politically neutral, but the church was perceived by the Soviet authorities as a "counter-revolutionary" force and thus subject to suppression and it intended it’s eventual liquidation. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed and countless nuns, catechists and believers. The Soviet Union, formally created in December 1922, was the first state to have elimination of religion as an ideological objective but ultimately it failed. Peculiarly, most organized religions were never outlawed. In the deeply cynical swirling tides and currents of communist ‘realpolitik’, actions towards particular religions and groups were determined by State interests. Atheism was propagated in schools and all religion widely ridiculed under the guise of a naïve scientific materialism. The church proved impressively resilient, and for the main part was forced underground. Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations, the government youth organization, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox churches and harass worshippers.
After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. Inevitably this involved some compromise, perhaps even a Faustian Pact (see yesterday’s podcast) , as no church hierarch could be consecrated by secular authorities. However, a new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened. Now the church entered a period of an uneasy dance with an unreliable regime, periods of expansion and then persecution. In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, forcing church closures and perhaps more dangerously replacing jailed or exiled members of the church hierarchy with docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. However, from 1990 under successive Patriarchs Alexy and Kirill, the church having outlasted the Soviet Union, underwent partial reform and dramatic expansion. Whilst the church had been an irresistible force for liberal reform under the Soviet Union, it soon became a centre of strength for conservatives and nationalists in the post-communist era. A traumatised people were rebuilding their identity.