I have been toying with the idea of posting some of the articles I’ve written for seminary up on this blog for people to read and discuss. A few friends mentioned they would be interested in this one in particular. The following is an article I wrote for a class on Twentieth-Century Church History. Feel free to chime in and leave a comment below. (Just a heads-up that it’s written in UK English; those aren’t misspellings!)
The twentieth century, along with being a time of great technological development, was a period of some of the most intense persecution of Christianity the world has ever seen. Multiple sources have estimated that more Christians were killed for their faith in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. Much of this persecution happened under the rule of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Not least among the persecuted churches was the Orthodox church in Russia. However, the Orthodox church did not cease to exist, and now enjoys a constitutionally privileged position in Russia. Tertullian famously wrote, ‘the blood of Christians is seed’; the implication being that persecution, rather than causing the extermination of Christianity, actually causes it to become stronger and to spread. Was this the case in regard to Orthodox Christianity in Russia during the communist period, or did the persecution ultimately reach its objective?
First of all, we must consider what the objectives of the government persecution were. As the largest and most influential religious organisation in Russia, the persecution of the Orthodox church by the Soviet government was both ideologically and politically motivated. Ideologically, one of the ultimate objectives of Marxism was the elimination of all religion. Politically, the Orthodox church had been very closely tied to the ruling houses of Imperial Russia, and thus, in the minds of the communists, was part of the old system which they were trying to overthrow. The fact that during the Russian civil war many prominent Orthodox supporters fought on the side of the ‘Whites’ certainly contributed to the persecution of the church once the ‘Reds’ eventually triumphed. Although all religions and Christian groups suffered persecution during the communist period, the Orthodox church was often treated uniquely; there were times when non-Orthodox were allowed greater freedom in the hope that their growth would weaken the Orthodox church, and there were times when the government sought to work through the Orthodox church as it did through its puppet regimes, to influence people or gain popular support for its agendas.
Some historical context is helpful for understanding the place of the Orthodox church in Russia prior to the communists coming to power. The official christianisation of the Russian people is recognised as having taken place in 988, when Vladimir I led the citizens of Kyiv to the Dnieper river for baptism. One of the factors in Vladimir pronouncing Christianity to be the official national religion was that he believed it would be a means of unifying his divided people by giving them a common sense of identity. Vladimir aligned his people with Constantinople, the ‘second Rome.’ Vassily III was the first Russian ruler to take the title of ‘tsar’, which comes from the Latin ‘caesar’. In 1589, the Patriarchate of Moscow was established; the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised Russia as the political but not ecclesiastical successor to Constantinople, and the tsar was acknowledged as successor to the Byzantine Emperors, but Moscow was not acknowledged as the ‘third Rome’, though its form of Christendom and church-state relations followed that model. Russian history after this point was marked by a struggle for authority between church and state; at some points church leaders claimed supreme authority, while at others the church was reduced to a department of the state and the clergy as state servants. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great suppressed the Moscow Patriarchate in favour of a synod which ran the church as a department of the state, limiting its freedom. Thus, in Russia there was a tradition of autocracy reaching back several centuries, in which the Orthodox church, while enjoying considerable privileges, was subjected to the state. When the communist regime made the churches answerable to a government department, this was nothing new to the Orthodox church. The traditional patterns of church-state relationship in Russia meant that the Orthodox church was surprisingly able to adapt to life under communism, where they found themselves once again in a struggle with the state for authority and once again subjugated to the state. In some ways the situation the Orthodox church found itself in under communism was one they were well-prepared to cope with because it was more familiar to them than, for example, Western-style pluralistic democracy would have been.
The Orthodox church suffered great losses during the communist period, but they also received some surprising benefits. After the Bolsheviks took power, a prolonged period of repression began, rising steadily throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Orthodox church was virtually ‘decapitated’; between 1918 and 1926, over 100 bishops were executed and thrown in prison, along with tens of thousands of priests—85,000 clergy were put to death in 1937 alone. Stalin, a dropout from an Orthodox seminary, continued Lenin’s policy of persecution. During the first decades of Soviet control, the number of functioning Orthodox churches was reduced from around 55,000 to about 500, and the number of monasteries was reduced from 1,025 to 0. The Orthodox church, at least on the surface, ceased to exist; it was forced underground, with believers being led by clergy who took up ordinary occupations to mask their religious activity and to support themselves. We are only left to wonder if the Orthodox church in Russia would have survived at all had this level of persecution continued, because in 1943, Stalin introduced a reversal in policy and allowed the Orthodox church a limited amount of freedom in exchange for their support of the war effort. Such changes in policy happened a number of times during the communist period, with bursts of persecution and moments of reprieve, but it was always generally suppressive, and it was clear that the view of the future held by the communist powers was one which did not include religious groups of any kind, much less the Orthodox church. However, the Soviets were not opposed to using the church in the short term as a mechanism for influencing and controlling people in their empire, as Stalin had in 1943. Furthermore, it was easier to control centralised institutions than underground bodies. Thus, from 1940 the Uniate churches of Ukraine and Central Europe were forcibly united with the Russian Orthodox church and the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate was extended after 1945 to include Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Romania as they came under Soviet political domination. The Russian Orthodox church had a history of attempting to extend its influence, and ironically, it was the Soviet regime who helped them to do so during the communist period.
The way the communist government of the Soviet Union approached the Orthodox church in Russia differed from policy of the communist government in China towards Christianity. The main reason for this is because communist social thought did not have to undo Christian cultural influence in China as it did in Russia, which had been shaped by centuries of Christian allegiance. In China the Christian community had always been a minority; it was smaller, less influential, and closely associated with foreign influence. Russia, on the other hand, had experienced centuries of Christendom, in which the Orthodox church, far from being considered a foreign entity, was part of the historical and national identity of Russia and the Russian people. This is precisely what Soviet policy sought to undo, as well as the reason why this was as incredibly difficult task, which they never fully succeeded to accomplish. It seems that this was ultimately accepted by the Soviet government, who in 1988, at the millennium of the christianising of Russia, not only allowed, but even participated in the commemoration by minting a gold coin. In the newfound liberty after the end of communism, the Orthodox church rushed in to fill the void in national identity left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Symbols and paraphernalia of Orthodox worship began to reappear and the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were disinterred and reburied in an Orthodox cathedral in Saint Petersburg. In 1997 a new law in Russia put the Orthodox church in a constitutionally privileged position and limited the freedom of other religious groups. Orthodox priests have been seen blessing Russian army recruits going off to war in breakaway provinces. It would seem that these are signs of a return to Christendom and the failure of the decades-long Soviet policy of persecution.
Statistics, however, suggest that the government persecution of the Orthodox church was not without effect. It is estimated that by 2000 there were around 80 million self-identified Orthodox Christians in Russia—about half the population. The other believers of all religions made up roughly 15 million, leaving approximately 65 million Russians professedly without any religious belief—an astonishingly high proportion compared with countries outside the former communist lands. Of that 80 million, somewhere between 3-15 million actually attend church even once a year. This disparity between practice and professed identity has led some to suggest that Russia is in fact one of the most secularised societies in the world.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the greatest challenges that Orthodoxy has faced is how to cope with Western-style pluralistic democracy. The collapse of the Soviet state, while allowing the church far greater freedom than it had had at any time since 1917-1918, came at the expense of its ability to influence many of the churches once under the Soviet sway. One of the great legacies of communism has been internal church division. The reappearance of the Uniate churches and the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as schismatic Orthodox churches in Russia, Ukraine and abroad have significantly weakened the Moscow Patriarchate. Whereas the Orthodox church in Russia, for many centuries under tsarist rule and then still under communist rule was one, unified, ‘national’ church—Orthodoxy in Russia and its former areas of influence is now splintered and divided. Thus, it seems that the vision of a renewed Christendom is something which can never again exist in the same way it did during Russia’s imperial period. The legacy of the communist era is that it forced Russia out of Christendom in an irreversible way.
How effective was the government persecution of the Orthodox church in Russia during the communist period? On the one hand, in the wake of the communist era, an astonishingly high number of Russians profess no religious belief and the once-united Orthodox church is now splintered, divided and weakened. In this sense, the persecution was effective. On the other hand though, it failed to accomplish its ultimate objectives of destroying the church and its role in society. Although there is evidence that church attendance was in decline during this period, it was also in decline in the West; state persecution did not make much difference. In fact, in some ways, Soviet policy helped to strengthen the church by keeping it united and by increasing its sphere of influence. Considering the rapid decline of Christianity in Western Europe—and even more recently in countries like Poland, which remained extremely loyal to the Roman Catholic Church throughout the communist period, but has seen decline in that area since it has become more of a Western-style democratic society—one is left to wonder what would have happened if the communist authorities would have not persecuted the Orthodox church, but had treated it as irrelevant and quietly excluded it from public life, as the democracies of Western Europe did as they transitioned out of Christendom. If the Soviets would have done that, I expect that Orthodox faith in Russia would have gone the way of Lutheranism in Sweden and Anglicanism in England—and maybe it is now, but the transition would have been, I believe, quicker and easier. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter; persecution only strengthens the resolve of the faithful. The real way to kill a religion is not through persecution, but by making it appear irrelevant and making its adherents complacent and uninterested in it.
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