The Soviet Union’s Campaign to Crush Religion
WHEN the Communists gained control of Russia, they wasted no time before making known their purpose toward religion. It was to smash religion out of existence and to turn the country into an atheistic state.
True, in the early 1900’s, Lenin had written that there should be religious toleration. But once the Bolsheviks seized power it was clear that the government would regard religion as an enemy and would try to bury it. In his treatise Relationship of the Workers’ Party to Religion, Lenin said:
“‘Religion is opium for the people’—this statement by Marx is the cornerstone of all the world concept of Marxism in the matter of religion. Marxism views all of today’s religions and churches, each and every religious organization, always to be organs of the [enemy] bourgeois reactionary forces.”
The Attack Begins
Right after seizing power in November of 1917, the new government issued a decree declaring that all lands, including church property, were now the property of the people (actually the government). This ruling paved the way for the confiscation of church property later.
Another decree stated that all citizens were equal no matter what religion they professed, or even if they did not profess any religion. The practical result of this was to condone and promote atheism.
Then, in early 1918, the government announced the complete separation of the Russian Orthodox Church from the State. At this time all church property was taken over by the Communists. Also, religious instruction was forbidden in schools. And all government payments to the churches stopped.
These steps were only part of the assault. Much more was to come. Vital from the government’s point of view was what needed to be done to the minds of people, especially the young. The first constitution in 1918 had stated that “the right to religious and anti-religious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.” But the constitution was amended in 1929 and the ‘right of religious propaganda’ was withdrawn. While the ‘right to anti-religious propaganda’ was kept, only the “right of profession of religious faiths” was allowed.
The 1929 ruling was very damaging to religion. It forbade all religions to do any social, educational or charitable work. It confined religious groups to the buildings allocated to them by authorities. They could not do anything to spread their religion. And since the children were now being taught only atheism in the schools, the long-range prospects for religion were ominous.
All of these legal proceedings and the hostile attitude of government had their effect. From the first weeks of the revolution onward, churches across the country were attacked. They were pillaged, wrecked or converted into factories, warehouses, political meeting halls or museums.
Not only the Orthodox Church was involved. Other religions were attacked too. For instance, Roman Catholic clergymen were imprisoned, the Church’s property confiscated and restrictions placed on Catholic schooling. Standard Communist practice was to form societies of priests loyal only to Moscow, undermining the authority of the pope.
Under severe pressure, some religions disappeared altogether. The Uniate Church was one. This church was a hybrid of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. It had been strong among Ukrainians. But clergymen opposing Communism were imprisoned or exiled. Others of the clergy renounced their allegiance to the pope, abandoned their religion and enrolled under the banner of the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow.
Hand in hand with the confiscation of church property, the jailing or exiling of opposing clergymen, and the closing of churches, went a furious process of indoctrination through the press, radio, movies and the schools. Especially devastating was the antireligious atmosphere in the schools. Typical of the indoctrination was a ninth-year school textbook published in the Soviet Union, which said:
“The study of the laws of evolution of the organic world assists in the working out of the materialistic conception . . .
“In addition, this teaching arms us for the anti-religious struggle, by giving us the materialistic interpretation of the appearance of purpose in the organic world, and at the same time proving the origin of man from lower animals.”
The children were at the mercy of their atheistic teachers. And their churchgoing parents generally were unable to counteract that influence. Most of these parents knew little or nothing about the reasons for the teachings and practices of their own religion. So they were very ill equipped to stem the tide.
In addition, large organizations were arranged for the young people. There were the “Young Pioneers” for children, and the “Union of Communist Youth” for those between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. These organizations were filled with the ideas of Marx and Lenin. While membership was not compulsory, the social pressure to conform was tremendous. The natural desire of young people to want to be part of what is popular had its effect.
Thus, once in power, the Communists committed themselves to the uprooting of traditional religion. And for the first quarter of a century after 1917, the campaign against religion was maintained, although the assaults came in waves, more severe at some times than at others.
Why So Antireligious?
Many people in other countries were horrified at these attacks. But that was not the case with all the Russian people. There were masses of them who viewed what was happening as just retribution for the crimes the churches had committed.
To understand the way many Russians felt, one needs to understand that the churches, especially the Orthodox Church, were key elements in the oppression of the people by the czars. For their own selfish advantage, the clergy for centuries had catered to the rulers, ignored the needs of the people and kept them in ignorance. The majority of the people were held in virtual slavery to the rulers and wealthy classes. The clergy worked to keep it that way. Many of the clergy became greedy, immoral and hungry for power.
Historians acknowledge that the Orthodox Church in particular was grossly corrupt. In House Without a Roof Maurice Hindus writes:
“The village batushka [priest] was often himself an ignorant man, addicted to vodka and not averse to seducing an attractive woman parishioner. . . .
“The muzhik [peasant] . . . learned more about good and evil from the tales and ballads of wandering beggars and pilgrims than from the parish priest. . . .
“The fatal liability of the Russian Church was its complete subordination and subservience to the Czarist state, which in the words of Milyukov ‘paralyzed all living buds of religion.’”
This author also noted the words of Russian literary critic Vissarion Byelinsky, who wrote: “In the eyes of all Russians is not the priest the living symbol of gluttony, miserliness, sycophancy [self-seeking], shamelessness?”
Commenting on the Orthodox Church’s use of the armed might of the czars to further its own ends, the late Russian philosopher N. Berdyaev wrote in the book The Origin of Russian Communism:
“Can the hierarchs justify such anti-Christian ‘politics’? Why do they resort to force rather than deeds of love? . . . We observe with amazement the union of Church and State in this hateful work. It is this very subservience of the Church to the State that has resulted in the loss of faith on the part of so many people.”
That the sins of religion were greatly to blame for what happened in Russia is admitted even by religious leaders themselves. A theologian in a Communist land said in a report printed by Harper’s magazine:
“I am not a Communist, I am a Christian. But I know that it is we, we Christians alone, who are responsible for Communism. We had a burden to discharge in the world, and Jesus Christ left us no room to wonder what it was. We failed. We ‘said, and did not.’ . . . Remember that the Communists once were Christians. If they do not believe in a just God, whose fault is it?”
Without doubt, the corruption of the churches in Russia alienated many people from God, from the Bible, and from Christianity. They reasoned: ‘If this is the religion of God, then we prefer to believe that there is no God.’
Thus, there were reasons for the ferocious opposition of the Soviet Union’s leaders against religion. But, unfortunately, they did not distinguish between true faith in God and hypocritical religion. In their bitterness, they resolved to throw out all religion.
The Clergy Compromise
At first, many of the clergy resisted the inroads that the Communists were making against religion. But as time passed, more and more clergy compromised and became tools of the Communist government. But since that government was bent on burying religion, these compromising clergy were, in effect, assisting at their own funerals!
An example of this was the patriarch Tikhon. Unlike Jesus Christ, who was willing to die rather than compromise the truth, Tikhon compromised. In 1923, after being released from prison, he signed a declaration promising not to engage in anything harmful to the interests of the State. Shortly before his death in 1925 he called on all Russians “to sincerely stand for the Soviet power and to work for the common wealth and to condemn any open or secret agitation against the new order of the State.”
After his death, the Church was not permitted to elect another patriarch. But other high church officials generally followed his lead. This was made clear in 1927 when Sergei, a metropolitan (next in rank below a patriarch), issued a proclamation. The book The First Fifty Years notes that in it Sergei “promised the support and political co-operation of the Church and its followers.” He called on the clergy to give written guarantees of their loyalty to the Soviet government or face expulsion from the Church.
Despite all the compromises that the clergy were making, the Communists continued their many-sided campaign against religion. Especially during the political purges of 1936 through 1938 were the churches savagely attacked. While in 1930 Sergei had claimed the loyal support of 163 bishops, there were less than 12 left in 1939. It was said that 40 bishops had been shot. And an estimated 10,000 churches were closed. As The First Fifty Years says: “The church in 1939 was near to collapse.”
But in 1939 something happened that was to bring a change. World War II broke out. It affected the relations between the Soviet government and religion.