How Strong Is Religion in the U.S.S.R. Today?
THE Soviet Union no longer publishes official statistics on religion. However, it did at one time. These statistics, together with eyewitness accounts and other reports over the years, give a fairly complete picture of the situation.
The information shows what has happened to the “believers” and to the clergy of traditional religion. It shows what has happened to the power of these religions, and the condition of their churches, seminaries and convents. It reveals the unmistakable trend.
How Many “Believers”?
Back before World War I, the 1911 edition of The Encyclopædia Britannica stated: “According to returns published [by Russia] in 1905 the adherents of the different religious communities in the whole of the Russian empire numbered approximately . . . 125,640,020.”
Since the population at that time was about 143,000,000, the number of persons who belonged to a religion then was more than 87 percent of the population. Likely the number of “believers” was even higher if those who believed in God but did not associate with a religion are added.
This reflects the basic fact that before Communism took over, Russia was heavily religious. The overwhelming majority of people belonged to some religion or expressed belief in the existence of God. But what has happened since then?
In 1937, the Soviet Union conducted a special census to determine the attitude of its people toward religion. About 50,000,000 citizens declared themselves to be “believers.” In 1939 the Soviet Union’s population was given as 170,000,000. So, in the late 1930’s, less than one third of the people in the entire country professed to be “believers.” After twenty years of Communist control, the number had dropped from about 90 percent down to about 30 percent.
In 1970 the New York Times published a report by the Minority Rights Group, a London-based research organization. The Times said: “The report estimates that the Russian Orthodox Church has the allegiance of 30 million people, in a Soviet population of 237 million.” And, in 1971, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner stated: “There is no official estimate of active Russian Orthodox believers in the Soviet Union. Unofficial estimates run to more than 20 million.”
Considering that “believers” in other religions total only a few million, the trend is unmistakable. Actually, the situation is worse for the churches, since many “believers” are not churchgoers as they were before the 1917 revolution.
The Daily Post of Kotorua, New Zealand, reports: “A recent survey in Pskov [in the western Soviet Union] showed 13 per cent of the town’s population considered themselves believers.” The newspaper interpreted the figure to mean that there was religious strength in the area. But the opposite is really the case. What it shows is that from about 90 percent who were “believers” before 1917, now only 13 percent are.
Thus, if the available figures show anything, they show that the people of the Soviet Union, after fifty-five years of atheistic indoctrination, are abandoning religion. The younger generations are being saturated with ideas that separate them from religion. And each year these make up a growing percentage of the population as the older “believers” die off.
Orthodox Church Devastated
The Russian Orthodox Church has suffered staggering losses. This is reflected, not only in the dwindling number of “believers,” but also in the number of churches, clergy and religious workers. The 1959 Encyclopædia Britannica said of the Orthodox Church: “In 1914 there were in Russia 55,173 churches and 29,593 chapels.” This is a total of about 85,000 buildings for religious services. But by 1955, only about 20,000 were left!
The same source listed the following:
Clergymen 112,629 32,000
Monasteries & Nunneries 1,025 70
These figures are similar to those given by other sources. For example, the book Europe Since 1939 reports that in 1959 the number of churches was about 20,000 and the clergy numbered about 32,000. It estimated that about 90 monastic establishments were still operating.
Then, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, many other churches were closed. The New York Times cited “a study by two Orthodox priests in Moscow that 10,000 churches were closed during the latter part of Mr. Khrushchev’s regime, about half the number that had been open.” The Times added: “An official Soviet publication of 1966 put the number of churches open at 7,500.”
Typical is the situation in major cities. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reports: “Moscow in 1917 had more than 600 churches for a population of one million. There are today no more than 40 or 50 active churches for a population of seven million, and some are the size of small chapels.” An editor of The Christian Century, after five visits to the Soviet Union, verified this, stating: “How many Orthodox churches are open in Moscow? Forty.” Thus in Moscow, the heart of religion in pre-Communist days, the churches have practically disappeared. And, as the Herald-Examiner observes, “Rarely is a new one built.”
The situation in Leningrad is similar. The Christian-Century states: “Take Leningrad, a city of 5 million people. Fourteen churches are open there.” However, this report shows that these churches are “packed more than full every Sunday morning.” The reader might thus conclude that this represents a surge of interest in the Orthodox Church.
But such is not the case at all. To illustrate: If three churches had congregations of 1,000 each, but over the years membership had dwindled down to 500 each, and then two were closed, what would happen? Likely you would find about 1,500 people trying to get into the remaining church. A casual observer might conclude that there was a strong upsurge, indeed a “revival,” because that one church was “packed more than full.” But what actually happened? There were fewer persons supporting religion in the area. But because of the constant closing of churches, the one left was crowded.
Who Are the Religious?
Also, who are the people generally attending the Orthodox Church? New York Times correspondent Peter Grose observed:
“Every time I visited a Soviet church . . . There were always shabby old women in their kerchiefs sitting in the dark corners, breathing in the incense, seeming to have lost interest in life around them.
“If this was all that religion meant, then the builders of Communism should have little cause for concern, about the present or the future.”
The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner’s report also said: “Those attending services are few, mostly elderly and mostly female.”
But what of reports that young people are turning to religion? New Zealand’s Daily Post said of this: “In Russia some young people (not many) have turned back to orthodox [religion] for aesthetic as much as spiritual reasons.” What this means is that a small number of young persons attend, not because they learn about the truths of God, but for reasons of art, culture, curiosity or even superstition. As the 1972 Britannica Book of the Year observed: “Young newcomers to the Orthodox faith did not understand the liturgy or care for the sermons, but were baptized into the faith nonetheless.”
In his book House Without a Roof, author Maurice Hindus comments on the fact that some young people are seen in the churches. He says:
“It would be foolhardy to speak of it as a popular movement. Overwhelmingly, Soviet youth is either atheistic or completely apathetic to Orthodoxy.
“Even in the Cossack Kuban, historically one of the most pious sections of the country, churchgoing has practically ceased among young people. While driving through Cossack villages on Sunday morning, I saw crowds of young people promenading the streets, playing in parks, but not going to church. Not in a single church did I see a significant number of young people.”
Hence, the conclusion is inescapable: The once all-powerful Russian Orthodox Church is dying. Peter Grose called it “a pale shadow of what it was before the Bolshevik Revolution.” And a theologian and historian of the Orthodox Church, Anatoly Y. Levitin, said:
“The Russian Church is ill, seriously ill. The most serious ailment is the age-old one of caesaropapism, the subjugation of the church to secular authority.
“In the Church there are bishops who are branches of a dead, sterile and useless fig tree. There are gangrened church members who are . . . infecting it with their putrified exhalations and injecting poison into its most secret depths.”
As Levitin indicates, the “gangrene” exists at the highest levels. This was again seen in 1971 when a new patriarch, Pimen, was installed to replace Alexei, who had died the year before. Of Pimen, the 1972 Britannica Book of the Year said: “He had shown full conformity to the official government policy.”
So much was this apparently the case that Time magazine of April 3, 1972, reported that a prominent Russian writer “accused Patriarch Pimen, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, of abject submission to the Kremlin’s antireligious policies.” As Time noted, the writer “reproached the church hierarchy for compliance with such measures as the closing of churches, the repression of dissident priests and the ban on religious education for children.”
For a certainty, the Russian Orthodox clergy continue to assist at the funeral of their own religion! But what about the other religions? Are they faring any better than the Orthodox Church?