Russian Christianity and the Bolsheviks

The Bolsheviks and Orthodox Christianity

by Peter Brooke

The centenary of the Bolshevik revolution is also the centenary of the institution of the Moscow patriarchate. The Bolshevik seizure of power took place on October 25th (November 7th) 1917[i]  and the church council that was meeting in Moscow at the time voted to ‘restore’ the patriarchate two days later on October 27th (November 9th), the day the Kremlin fell to the Bolshevik forces. The actual choice of patriarch took place on November 4th (17th). The choice fell on Tikhon[ii] (Belavin)[iii], Metropolitan of Moscow. Actually Tikhon had only recently become Metropolitan of Moscow earlier in the year when, in the mood of the February (March) Revolution, Makary, Metropolitan of Moscow and Pitrim, Metropolitan of Petrograd[iv] – both appointed by the Tsar under the influence of Grigoriy Rasputin – were deposed by ‘diocesan assemblies’ of local clergy and laity.


A patriarchate of Moscow had been instituted in 1589, under the Tsar Theodore, son of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’). As the institution of the patriarchate in 1917 was immediately followed by the long battle with the Soviet government, a period of intense persecution, so the institution of the patriarchate in 1589 was soon followed by the ‘time of troubles’ – the Polish and Swedish invasions of the early seventeenth century which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Romanov dynasty.

The period of the seventeenth century patriarchate, even after the Polish invasion, was turbulent, marked by the violent schism with the ‘Old Believers’ or ‘Old Ritualists’ and by the claims of some of the patriarchs, notably Filaret (1619-1933), Nikon (1652-1658, but only replaced in 1667) and Adrian (1690-1700) to a form of co-sovereignty with the Tsar.[v] Indeed something of the kind may be implicit in the title ‘patriarch’. On the one hand it suggests that the Church is independent of any other patriarchates – most particularly the Patriarchate of Constantinople with its claim to be the ‘ecumenical’ (by implication universal) patriarchate. Russia, or Rus’, centred at the time in Kiev, was received into Orthodoxy under the aegis of Constantinople in 988 but it had been de facto if not de jure independent since Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The other role of the patriarch was to preside as a single sovereign over the Church in a given national territory but this was a role that could also be claimed by the Tsar as previously, in the case of Constantinople, it was the prerogative of the Emperor.

The patriarchate was suppressed by Peter I (‘the Great’). Initially, when Adrian, the last of the seventeenth century patriarchs, died in 1700, Peter simply declined to make the necessary arrangements for replacing him. He had only recently returned from his tour of the Netherlands and England and had been particularly impressed by conversations with Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury and one of the leading theorists of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the Dutch William III. Peter would undoubtedly have seen parallels between the religious turbulence of England and of Russia in the seventeenth century, drawing the conclusion that the Church should not be allowed to act as a power independent of the state.

In the absence of a patriarch, Peter launched a series of measures designed to break the spirit of the Bishops. For example in 1718, following the defection of his son and heir, Alexei, to Vienna ‘All the bishops with whom Alexei had communicated in any way were brought to Petersburg. Submitted to violent torture they confessed having formed a plot to restore the old traditions in Russia upon Peter’s death. The Metropolitan of Rostov was broken on the wheel, the Metropolitan of Kiev died while being transported to Petersburg in chains, and several bishops were exiled in chains to distant monasteries.’[vi]

Finally, in 1721, Peter instituted a ‘Spiritual Regulation’ drawn up by Feofan (or Theophan) (Prokopovich), a professor in the Kiev Academy. The Kiev Academy in the seventeenth century was on the fault line between the Catholic world and the Orthodox world. On the one hand it held the line for Orthodoxy against the ‘Uniate’ tendency (churches which practised the same rites as the Orthodox churches but acknowledged the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the Pope); but on the other it adopted a very western-influenced scholastic theology, taught in Latin. Feofan himself had studied in Catholic colleges and in Rome but had turned violently anti-papist, and, by extension, strongly opposed clerical power within the Orthodox Church. According to George Florovsky: ‘Theophan wasn’t close to Protestant theology, he was totally part of it.’[vii]


The Spiritual Regulation replaced the Patriarch with a ‘Holy Synod’ completely dominated by an ‘overprocurator’ appointed by and responsible to the Tsar. This was the system that prevailed until 1917. According to Dmitri Pospielovsky:

‘Externally, the pre-revolutionary Church appeared to be very powerful. She was the official state Church, and until 1905 other religions were legally tolerated only as faiths of national minorities. Orthodox religion was an obligatory discipline in all general schools for all pupils born of the Orthodox faith, and children born of mixed marriages in which one of the parents was Orthodox had to be baptised Orthodox … In 1914 the Orthodox Church of the empire officially had 117 million members organised into 67 dioceses with 130 bishops and 48,000 functioning parishes with a total of over 50,000 clergy of all ranks. It ran 35,000 primary schools …’ (p.20)[viii]


‘The bishops in this system, living in an external luxury, were in fact like captive birds in a golden cage: a hierarch could not leave his residence to visit peripheral parishes in his diocese without theoretically having the tsar’s and practically the overprocurator’s special permission, requested and granted via the channels of the Ruling Synod in St Petersburg. The priests were in a particularly contradictory position. On the one hand they depended for most of their livelihood on the donations of their parishioners (which in many rural areas were extremely meagre because of the poverty of many peasants) and on the harvests from the piece of land allotted to the parish which they farmed like any other peasant. On the other hand, legally and according to the oath given at the time of their ordination, they were ex officio agents of the state, required to supply the Ministry of Defence with information on prospective recruits for the army and, in theory, obliged to inform the authorities on all confessions of an anti-state nature – even though the church canons ban this on the pain of immediate defrocking. Obviously, in this constrained position the Church as an institution could offer little moral leadership to the nation.

‘After the nationalisation of the monastic estates by Catherine II in 1763-1764, the Church as an institution became economically poor, receiving from the state but 10 per cent of her former annual income from those properties as compensation. It was only since the 1890s that a substantial regular state subsidy to support the clergy in the poorer parishes began to be paid. By 1916 it reached 18.8 rubles – 58 million short of making the Russian clergy economically independent from their parishioners.’ (pp.19-20)

It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances a movement for reform had developed within the Church. In the aftermath of ‘Bloody Sunday’, January 1905, the event that sparked the 1905 revolt, a group of 32 priests in St Petersburg, with the approval of their Metropolitan, Antony (Vadkovsky), published a memorandum calling for the immediate convocation of a council in which all sections of the Church would be represented:

‘We must hear the voice of the Russian church, the voice of ecclesial conscience that will embrace, under its authority, pastors and flock alike. For 200 years we have no longer heard that voice. For 200 years, the Russian Church has not assembled in a local council, even though for a long time the necessity of such a council has been felt and is now urgent.’[ix]

The proposal had the support of Sergei Witte, President of the Committee of Ministers, Nicholas II’s most important adviser at the time, who was behind the ‘October Manifesto’, instituting the Duma and converting Russia, in theory at least, into a constitutional monarchy. In December, Nicholas asked Metropolitan Antony, together with the Metropolitans Vladimir of Moscow and Flavian of Kiev, ‘to determine the time for the convocation of this council, earnestly desired by all the faithful members of the Church’ (Destivelle, p.33).

A preconciliar commission was established which (in a report that ran to six volumes) proposed among other things the restoration of the patriarchate, working in conjunction with a council in which (albeit on a purely consultative basis) lower clergy and laity would be represented.

According to Destivelle (p.44): ‘On April 25, 1907, the Emperor ratified the commission’s decisions, the most important being the convocation of a local council of the Russian Church.’ But according to Pospielovsky (p.23): ‘these hopes and dreams … were, however, dealt a heavy blow by the refusal of Nicholas II to permit its convocation in the foreseeable future. This resolution by the Tsar was issued on April 25, 1907 …’


Whichever of these two versions is closer to the mark, the fact is that the pressure of external events towards any sort of democratic reform had ceased and the democratic movement had been severely repressed under Pyotr Durnovo as Minister of the Interior, followed in 1906 by Stolypin. Stolypin was interested in economic reform but not particularly in Church reform. In 1917, however, after Nicholas’s abdication, some sort of Church reform was inescapable and the council envisaged in 1905 was authorised by the Provisional Government and finally opened on August 15th/28th (Feast of the Dormition). It was constituted on a basis that gave lower clergy and laity a vote, while giving the Bishops alone the final say. This was a principle that had been proposed in the 1905-7 discussions by Archbishop Sergii (Stragorodskii), then Archbishop of Finland, now Archbishop of Vladimir, and destined to play an important role in what follows.

The sobor (council) continued to meet until September 1918 making many decisions on the right ordering of the Church now that it was independent of the state, but since all power was taken out of their hands by the Bolshevik revolution, the only decision that really mattered was the creation of the patriarchate. One of the first decrees Lenin issued, on January 10th/23rd 1918, after the suppression of the Constituent Assembly on January 6th/19th (The Feast of the Theophany, as it happens):

‘separated the Church from the state and nationalised all former Church property (houses of prayer, schools, seminaries, monasteries, candle factories, charity institutions etc.). It also deprived the Church of the status of a legal person and of the right to acquire property in the future, banning at the same time state subsidies for all religious bodies. Henceforth, property needed for religious use was to be leased by the local government bodies to individual religious associations free of charge but only when and if the local government body found that it could dispose of vacant property for this purpose. Once leased, the property was subject to regular taxes levied on private enterprise … A decree of January 28th nationalised all bank accounts belonging to religious associations.

‘The decree of January 23rd also banned the teaching of religion in all general education schools, whether state or private, and forbade the Church to open any schools of a general nature, or even Sunday schools, to teach exclusively religious subjects. “Citizens may teach and be taught religion [only] privately.” The term “citizens” would henceforth always be interpreted as adults only … Since only groups of laymen were recognised as the contractual party in the leasing of church property, the clergy, including bishops and the patriarch, became legally superfluous, retaining authority with the faithful only as long as the latter agreed to accept them and to fulfil their bishops’ orders, which now became more like petitions than orders. This situation obviously invited all sorts of schisms, which were not slow to appear.’ (Pospielovsky, pp.31-2)

All this was quite in line with the reference to ‘absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state’ referred to by Lenin in an article written as early as December, 1905, in the context of the 1905 revolt:

‘Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding.

‘We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned.

‘Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule.

‘Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state.

‘Only the complete fulfilment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes with the dispensation of this or that dope by the established church. Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church …

‘However abject, however ignorant Russian Orthodox clergymen may have been, even they have now been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia. Even they are joining in the demand for freedom, are protesting against bureaucratic practices and officialism, against the spying for the police imposed on the “servants of God”.

‘We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion, making them stick to their words about freedom, demanding that they should resolutely break all ties between religion and the police.

‘Either you are sincere, in which case you must stand for the complete separation of Church and State and of School and Church, for religion to be declared wholly and absolutely a private affair. Or you do not accept these consistent demands for freedom, in which case you evidently are still held captive by the traditions of the inquisition, in which case you evidently still cling to your cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes, in which case you evidently do not believe in the spiritual power of your weapon and continue to take bribes from the state. And in that case the class-conscious workers of all Russia declare merciless war on you …

‘No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

‘That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians”. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

‘The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.’[x]


The clearly expressed ambition of the Bolshevik government was, so far as humanly possibly, to end religious belief and practice as being incompatible with the scientifically based Communist society they wanted to build. But there were two possible strategies for achieving this aim (both of them implicit in Lenin’s 1905 article) – through administrative and legal measures making life uncomfortable for the Church, as given in the decree of 23rd January, or through gentler methods of persuasion in the conviction that as the new society developed its advantages would be obvious and the old order would wither away. The two approaches were not incompatible, but the emphasis could shift from one to the other. In the first years, dominated by civil war and famine, from 1917 to 1923, we can say the emphasis was on administrative measures. Then it shifted to a subtler, more ‘cultural’ approach.

The picture though is complicated by the real danger that the Church could serve as an organising centre for opposition to the new order. Traditionally, at least for the previous few centuries, the Orthodox churches, both in Russia and in the East under the Ottomans, had been politically passive, seeing their role as first and foremost the correct performance of the liturgy, regardless of external political circumstances. But with the Moscow Council, the establishment of the patriarchate, and the role of the church in the nationalist agitations in the Balkans, the signs were that they were aspiring to a more active role in worldly affairs, participating in the mood of intellectual and political liveliness that had produced the Bolsheviks themselves. Lenin’s decree of January was aimed at preventing the ambition of the Moscow Council to endow the Church with an independent moral existence. The fact that the Moscow Council continued meeting until September 1918, making detailed arrangements for an independent self-governing all-Russian church was an indication that they did not believe the Bolshevik government would last. Tikhon spoke out against the suppression of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and again against the Bolshevik takeover on the first anniversary of the October/November seizure of power. By September 1919, however, he had decided on a policy of staying out of politics. Though, in the chaos of the civil war, large numbers of clergy were killed and churches vandalised he refused to send even secret blessings to the White army -though nor did he express any support for the forces of the actually existing (Red) government.

A number of priests and bishops, led by Antony (Khrapovitsky), Metropolitan of Kharkov during the Moscow Council, appointed Metropolitan of Kiev during the brief period of Ukrainian independence, had supported the White armies and gone with them into exile, forming a Synod in Karlovci, Serbia, in 1922. They claimed to be acting under the authority of Tikhon and were fervent in their condemnations of the Soviet government. Tikhon had been made Patriarch through a system of drawing lots (in accordance with apostolic practice given in Acts 1.26) between three candidates chosen by elections. In the elections the candidate who had received most votes had been Antony. Looked at through Bolshevik eyes the Karlovci Synod could be seen as an indication of what the Church could do if left to its own devices.


There was however within the Church a body of opinion sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. This was the so-called ‘Living’ or ‘renovationist’ church and it included some of the group of 32 St Petersburg clergy who had originally called for the summoning of the Council. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution they had formed a’Union for Church Renovation’. Their initial memorandum sent to their Metropolitan had demanded ‘the separation of Church and State, a democratic-conciliar form of administration for the Church, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, services in spoken Russian instead of Slavonic,[xi] the reintroduction of married bishops … They argued that the monastic episcopate was not only contrary to the canons[xii] but went against the very heart of the monastic vocation – which was contemplation, silence and obedience. Bishops, in contrast, had to administer, preach, instruct and command. Likewise the Union was against the restoration of the patriarchate on the grounds that it would weaken the conciliar principle and the concept of Christ as the real Head of the Church. A little later they declared that it was the duty of the Church to protect the workers from exploitation by the capitalists … In this respect, the group was close to Professor (later priest) Sergius Bulgakov, who planned to found a League of Christian Politics, and to Nicholas Berdyaev.’ (Pospielovsky, p.47).

Bulgakov and Berdyaev were both well known as former Marxists converted to Christianity and both had contributed to the influential collection of essays, Vekhi, strongly critical of the Russian intelligentsia, in particular its ambition to speak for the peasantry while simultaneously ridiculing the religion that was so central to the life of the peasantry. They were both expelled in 1922 and flourished in exile in Paris. Neither, in the event, had any sympathy for the Renovationists once they emerged, with some support from the Bolsheviks, as a distinct anti-patriarchal tendency. Berdyaev comments on the psychological change that he observed following the revolution:

‘A new type of man seems to have emerged. There was none of the tolerance and kindness in him so characteristic of the pre-revolutionary type of Russian; none of the longing for what is not; none of the anarchism which respects no rules; no doubts, no subjective reactions, no melancholy, no introspection. All this gave place to a buoyant and somewhat aggressive optimism and a readiness to conform to anybody and do anything. The faces showed eyes firmly fixed on external realities; sympathy and mercy for others, especially for those holding heretical views, became an unknown quality. ‘Pushing’, self-confidence and thirst for recognition by others dominated human relationships among these people. With the disappearance of the old Russian lie-abed many other and more positive qualities disappeared; but there was greater readiness than hitherto to face trouble and the attendant risk.’[xiii]

Discussing Lenin, he says:

‘Lenin did not believe in man. He recognised in him no sort of inward principle; he did not believe in spirit and the freedom of the spirit, but he had boundless faith in the social regimentation of man. He believed that a compulsory social organisation could create any sort of new man you like, for instance, a completely social man who would no longer need the use of force …

‘Lenin particularly hated any attempt to combine Christianity with socialism. A reforming spirit in the Church was a more harmful thing in his opinion than the Black Hundred.[xiv] A progressive and regenerated Christianity was worse than the old corrupt Christianity. “A Roman Catholic priest who seduces a girl” writes Lenin’ “is much less dangerous than a ‘priest without cassock’, a priest without the crudities of religion, an intelligent and democratic priest who preaches the making of some little god or other, for you can expose the first priest, condemn him and get rid of him, but you cannot get rid of the second so easily, and to expose him is a thousand times more difficult.” This category of ‘priest without cassock’ plays no small part in anti-religious propaganda and it is a category that is very inclusive indeed. ‘Priests without cassock’ seems to include everyone who is not a materialist, everyone who acknowledges a spiritual principle in life, albeit in the very smallest degree, and all philosophers who are guilty of any spiritualist or idealist leanings. Even Einstein was recognised as a ‘priest in disguise’ because he acknowledged the existence of a cosmic feeling which might be called ‘religious.’ Lenin hated the very word ‘religion’ and was sharply opposed to regarding socialism as a religion, as Lunacharsky wished to do at one time. Lunacharsky was also a sort of ‘priest without cassock’ because he preached ‘god-construction’ which in fact was a form of atheism and even militant atheism …’[xv]

In 1919, a conversation took place between Zinoviev and a married priest, Alexander Vvedensky, during which ‘Zinoviev told Vvedensky that his group[xvi] would be the appropriate one for an eventual concordat between the state and the Church.’ (Pospielovsky p.52) Relations with the Church were in the hands of a senior GPU officer, Evgeny Tuchkov. ‘Tuchkov’ according to an academic account, ‘who was in his early thirties, had had virtually no formal education: he had risen up through the party organisation from the industrial town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk … The archives recently opened have revealed that Tuchkov’s nickname in the force was ‘Igumen’ [the Russian equivalent of the ‘abbot’ of a monastery – PB], that at this period he was living with his deeply religious mother in the branch-house on Pervaya Meshchanskaya street of the Diveyevo convent (the community founded by St Serafim of Sarov), where a few sisters remained. Thanks to Tuchkov’s presence the house remained open longer than other monastic branch houses in the capital.’[xvii] Vvedensky worked closely with Tuchkov.


In 1921, Anatoly Lunacharsky, appointed by Lenin as ‘Commissar of Enlightenment’ (ie in charge of education and culture) wrote to Lenin about the possibility of creating a Bolshevik tendency within the Church:

‘A significant part of the clergy, undoubtedly sensing the stability of the Soviet regime, wants to be reconciled with it. Of course, this renovated Orthodoxy with a Christian socialist lining is not at all desired and finally … will be eliminated and disappear. But, as an active opposition to the reactionary patriarch and his supporters … it can play its role because it is based mainly on the peasant masses [how wrong he proved to be! – PB], the backward merchant class, and the more backward part of the proletariat. For these groups, such a temporary centre of clerical unity is a great shift to the left of the one they still find in the reactionary Orthodox church … We cannot, of course, support the activity of Soviet Orthodoxy. It might, however, be most advantageous to render aid secretly and to create in the religious arena several transitional stages [on the way to atheism] for the peasant masses.’[xviii]

I suspect that the tone of this letter was calculated to win the favour of Lenin and that Lunacharsky – and perhaps also Tuchkov – may have had more sympathy for ‘renovated Orthodoxy’ than they were willing to admit, at least to Lenin. Although there could be no doubt of his contempt for the bureaucratic church of the Tsarist ‘Holy Synod’, Lunacharsky is mainly known for his insistence that Communism was a religion, a successor to the great religions of the past – perhaps standing in a relation to Christianity similar to that claimed by Islam in relation to Christianity or by Christianity in relation to Judaism. Almost the very day he was appointed as Commissar, concurrently with the Bolshevik seizure of power, he resigned following what turned out to be a false news report that in the storming of the Kremlin the cathedral church of St Basil had been destroyed (apparently much of the interiors of the Kremlin churches were indeed badly damaged by vandalism). Lunacharsky was a product of what Berdyaev has called the ‘silver age’ – the period between the end of the nineteenth century and 1914 when there was an intense interest among intellectuals in aesthetic and religious questions. Vvedensky was also (like Berdyaev himself – Lunacharsky had worked out many of his most basic ideas in dialogue with Berdyaev) a product of the Silver Age. As a young man he frequented what was almost the temple of the movement, the salon of Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Zinaida Gippius who, among much else, organised ‘religious and philosophical’ encounters between intellectuals and churchmen, presided over by Ivan Stragorodsky, then rector of the St Petersburg Theological Academy, later to become Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodsky), second patriarch after Tikhon if one accepts the validity of his election.

Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago is an account of the fate of a typical product of the Silver Age living through the age of Soviet power.

Pospielovsky quotes a ‘secret internal order’ from Lenin, dated 22nd February 1922 in which he argues that the famine then raging throughout the RSFSR was a unique opportunity ‘to gain a full and crushing victory over our enemy’ by seizing the wealth of the Church:

‘It is precisely now when there is cannibalism in the famine stricken areas that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of valuables with fanatical and merciless energy and not hesitate to suppress any form of resistance … it is precisely now that we must wage a merciless battle against the reactionary clergy and suppress its resistance with such cruelty that it will remember it for several decades … The more members of the reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot the better. It is precisely now that we must give such a lesson to these characters that they would not dare to think of any resistance for at least the next few decades …’ (pp.94-5).


The document was never formally published in the Soviet Union and first appeared in the emigré press in 1970 so its authenticity may well be doubted but it does fit quite well with the actual course of events. In 1921, following an appeal to the world by Maxim Gorky in July, Tikhon had helped to organise an All-Russian Famine Relief Committee seeking international aid, particularly through religious figures such as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In September the Committee was arrested and replaced by a government body. On 19th February 1922 Tikhon called on church associations to donate church valuables, excepting utensils used for the sacraments, to support the famine relief effort. This was initially reported in the Soviet press but on 23rd February the government issued an order that church valuables, including materials used for the sacraments were to be forcibly confiscated. This inevitably led to violent confrontations throughout the country. In Petrograd, in March, the Renovationists, including Vvedensky and Krasnitsky, published a letter attacking the church majority as counter-revolutionary and insisting on the immediate and total surrender of all church valuables. But their Metropolitan Venyamin came to an agreement with the authorities (presumably Zinoviev) by which church valuables were subject to confiscation, but the believers could make collections to offer money equal to the value of the sacramental objects. In May, Tikhon was placed under house arrest for resisting the confiscation of the church valuables and in these circumstances Vvedensky, Krasnitsky and Bishop Antonin (Granovsky) took over the administration of the church, calling a conference in August when they declared Antonin as Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.

Venyamin in Petrograd refused to recognise this and temporarily excommunicated Vvedensky, who turned up several days later with the former chairman of the Petrograd Cheka and threatened Venyamin  that if he did not revoke the excommunication he would be put on trial for opposing the confiscation of church valuables, which could result in a death sentence. Venyamin refused to give in to this pressure, was arrested, put on trial and shot together with three of his clergy. Vvedensky did not appear at the trial because he was hospitalised after a rock had been hurled at him by one of Venyamin’s supporters (the main Renovationist witness was Krasnitsky whose past association with the anti-semitic Union of Russian People was pointed out by Venyamin’s Jewish defense counsel).

Pospielovsky claims (p.99) that in the course of the confiscation of church valuables: ‘2,691 married priests, 1,962 monks, 3,447 nuns and an unknown number of laymen loyal to the patriarch were physically liquidated in the course of 1921-1923.’ However he gives as his source (or rather gives as the probable source of his own source, Peter Struve, major theorist both of the Russian Social Democratic Party at its origins and of the ‘bourgeois’ Constitutional Democratic Party, now an emigré) the ‘Renovationist bishop Nikolai Solovei’. This is a very dubious source. Solovei had been sent abroad by the Renovationists to try to influence emigré opinion in their favour but instead had attempted to join the anti-Bolshevik emigration by denouncing the Bolsheviks. When he failed to win their trust however he returned to the Soviet Union, helping the anti-patriarchal campaign by claiming that his anti-Bolshevik activities had been ordered by Tikhon.

The Renovationists held councils, which they claimed were continuing the work of the 1917-18 Council, in 1923, 1924 and 1925. In the 1923 council, held in April-May, they sang ‘Many Years’ (‘God grant you many years’, a traditional expression of affection and respect, often sung to church goers on their name days) to the Soviet government, abolished the patriarchate, replacing it with a form of collegiate government, reformed the traditional Orthodox practise with regard to marriage and the clergy, and adopted the Gregorian calendar. Initially it would have looked as if they could succeed. They secured control of most of the churches in the major cities, their reforms were popular among the clergy, and the ‘Tikhonites’, deprived of their own printing facilities and with Tikhon himself under house arrest, had no means of countering their influence other than word of mouth. Furthermore, and very interestingly, they had the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople.[xix]


It happens that their Moscow council of April-May 1923 coincided with the equally suspect ‘pan-Orthodox congress’ held in Constantinople in May-June 1923 under the direction of the patriarch Meletius Metaxakis, which threw the Greek church into disarray by replacing the Julian calendar with what was effectively the Gregorian calendar with a slight variation that enabled them to call it the ‘Reformed Julian calendar’. This was part of a drive towards closer relations with non-Orthodox churches, in particular the Church of England (which was present as an observer at the Congress) at a time when the prospect of recovering Constantinople was being dangled before the eyes of the Greeks by the British, who were still occupying the city (the occupation – and the hopes of the Greeks and of this very political patriarch – came to an end in October).[xx]

The reason why I have been hesitant about calling the establishment’ of the patriarchate a ‘restoration’ is that the seventeenth century patriarchate had the blessing of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Although, as already noted, Constantinople was under Ottoman control and the Russian church was de facto self-governing, this could still be regarded as a de jure condition of the establishment of a patriarchate. But in all I have read on the Moscow Council of 1917-18 I have seen no suggestion that the approval of Constantinople was either sought or given. It might have been difficult given that Russia and Turkey were at war, and also that the final decision was made very rapidly, apparently in response to the Bolshevik takeover. Nonetheless there are those who believe on the basis of the canons that were agreed while the Roman Empire was still in existence, centred on Constantinople, that the Patriarch of Constantinople has sovereignty over the Orthodox world, and it is difficult to see how a patriarchate could be created without the consent of another patriarch. On this reading, of course the Russian Church, was uncanonical during the whole period of Peter’s Holy Synod (it would, in fact, be difficult to argue otherwise. Its architects, Peter and Feofan, seem to have had no consideration in mind other than their own idea of what would be best). On this reading a canon lawyer could argue that the Renovationist councils, which did have the support of Constantinople, were more valid than the first, if I’m right in thinking that it didn’t.


Tikhon was released in July 1923, partly in response to international pressure but Pospielovsky suggests that the government was worried that the Renovationists might actually succeed in their effort to reform, and therefore possibly strengthen, the Church, and had decided to sow a little dissension. The politburo agreed to his release ‘if he “repented” for crimes against Soviet power and the people, if he publicly declared his “loyalty” to Soviet authority, if he admitted the justness of his prosecution, if he renounced any tie to monarchist and white-guard counterrevolutionary organisations, if he repudiated the new Karlovitskii church council, if he rejected the machinations of foreign clergy and if he “expressed his agreement with certain reforms in the religious sphere (e.g. the new calendar).’[xxi] The proposal to release him on these terms was made by E.M.Yaroslavsky, editor of the main anti-religious paper, Bezbozhnik (‘The Godless’) and soon (1925) to become the head of the newly formed League of the Godless, about which more later.

Tikhon’s release certainly had the effect of weakening the Renovationists, as many clergy, including some Bishops, who had assumed they were the only functioning church authority, and may even have believed their claim that they had Tikhon’s blessing, now abandoned them. But it seems to me that there was in this period a tension in the Soviet policy between the continued desire to wean the people away from the church, and the apparent promise of the Renovationists that the church could be made an instrument of Soviet policy (as it eventually was after the war). First of all, I don’t think it was an accident that this occurred at the time that Lenin, through the state of his health, was losing control of the reins of power. While Lenin had been on form the policy towards the church had been much more uncompromisingly aggressive, including in 1919 a policy of confiscating, exposing to medical examination and public ridicule, the bodies of the saints, believed by church doctrine to be incorrupt. We have already seen the policy of confiscation of church valuables pursued during the famine period. In 1922 and 1923 the Komsomol organised anti-religious carnivals including disruption of Christmas services and assaults on believers. But the party’s anti-religious commission, possibly reflecting the growing influence of Yaroslavsky, decided that this method was counterproductive and put a stop to it.

According to Jennifer Wynot’s study of monasticism in the Soviet Union, Keeping the Faith[xxii], ‘the results of a secret 1923 census underlined the necessity of making religious policy a priority. The census indicated that 3,126,541 people were involved in religious organisations compared with 1,737,053 in 1910. These figures showed that religion had increased during the first five years of the Bolshevik regime … At the twelfth Party Congress, in 1923, the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin favoured a more conciliatory policy towards religion. They condemned the arbitrary closing of churches and called for propaganda focussing on a materialistic interpretation of social life, addressing mainly the rural areas. Such a reversal of policy paralleled the political decline of Trotsky, who favoured a more aggressive approach …’


I’m not sure what is meant by ‘involved in religious organisations’, presumably some sort of active commitment – the figures for simple churchgoing would have been much higher. I think she might be wrong about Trotsky who continued to sit on the main commission concerned with religious affairs, together with Tuchkov, throughout this period (Pospielovsky, p.107). According to Geoffrey Freeze, even in March 1922, ‘amidst the crisis over the confiscation of Church valuables, Trotskii recommended giving permission for journals by the liberal, loyal clergy.’[xxiii] Which is not to say that Trotsky, any more than Tuchkov or Iaroslavsky, had any sympathy for the church, but simply that he was broadly sympathetic to a more ‘cultural’, less violent approach. In 1923 he published an essay in Pravda –Vodka, the church and the cinema – arguing that the people’s commitment to the church was a superficial affair that could be broken by establishing rival attractions:

‘As for church-going, the people do not go because they are religious; the church is brilliantly lighted, crowded with men and women in their best clothes, the singing is good – a range of social-aesthetic attractions not provided by the factory, the family, or the workaday street. There is no faith or practically none. At any rate, there is no respect for the clergy or belief in the magic force of ritual. But there is no active will to break it all. The elements of distraction, pleasure, and amusement play a large part in church rites. By theatrical methods the church works on the sight, the sense of smell (through incense), and through them on the imagination. Man’s desire for the theatrical, a desire to see and hear the unusual, the striking, a desire for a break in the ordinary monotony of life, is great and ineradicable; it persists from early childhood to advanced old age. In order to liberate the common masses from ritual and the ecclesiasticism acquired by habit, anti-religious propaganda alone is not enough. Of course, it is necessary; but its direct practical influence is limited to a small minority of the more courageous in spirit. The bulk of the people are not affected by anti-religious propaganda; but that is not because their spiritual relation to religion is so profound. On the contrary, there is no spiritual relation at all; there is only a formless, inert, mechanical relation, which has not passed through the consciousness; a relation like that of the street sight-seer, who on occasion does not object to joining in a procession or a pompous ceremony, or listening to singing, or waving his arms.

‘Meaningless ritual, which lies on the consciousness like an inert burden, cannot be destroyed by criticism alone; it can be supplanted by new forms of life, new amusements, new and more cultured theatres. Here again, thoughts go naturally to the most powerful – because it is the most democratic – instrument of the theatre: the cinema. Having no need of a clergy in brocade, etc., the cinema unfolds on the white screen spectacular images of greater grip than are provided by the richest church, grown wise in the experience of a thousand years, or by mosque or synagogue. In church only one drama is performed, and always one and the same, year in, year out; while in the cinema next door you will be shown the Easters of heathen, Jew, and Christian, in their historic sequence, with their similarity of ritual. The cinema amuses, educates, strikes the imagination by images, and liberates you from the need of crossing the church door. The cinema is a great competitor not only of the tavern but also of the church. Here is an instrument which we must secure at all costs!’[xxiv]


Jennifer Wynot’s reference to a census of 1910 may refer to an enquiry conducted by none other than Alexander Vvedensky, not yet a priest, but much preoccupied with the spread of atheism among the intelligentsia. This was a concern he continued into the 1920s. His central conviction seems to have been that the Church as a reactionary institution lacked intellectual credibility. His contempt for the mainstream Church cannot have been any relieved when, after studying for the priesthood prior to the war, he was refused ordination on the grounds of his Jewish ancestry.[xxv] Despite his support for the Soviet government (‘Soviet power is alone, in the entire world, in all the time of man’s existence, in actively fighting for the ideals of good’[xxvi]) he encouraged his clergy to engage in lively polemics in defence of the existence of God.

Anatoly Levitin-Krasnov, one of Pospielovsky’s most important sources (‘a “walking memoir” of Russian Church history’) said that ‘if he were asked what was his version of “an ideal church community, I would always recall Petrograd of the 1920s.” Sermons were delivered not only on Sundays, as before the Revolution, but on weekdays as well. In many churches one or two days a week would be set aside for serious theological lectures, discussions and debates between the clerics and the laity after brief services, for which benches and chairs would be set up in the churches. Practically every church had at least one such popular priest-preacher or priest-teacher around whom believers flocked, until these priests disappeared in the prisons by the late 1920s or early 1930s.’ (Pospielovsky, p.170). Pospielovsky doesn’t say it[xxvii] but according to the Wikipedia entry on the ‘Living Church’, ‘Anatoly Levitin (1915-1991) was a former Renovationist deacon and a friend of Vvedensky.’ The reference to ‘brief services’ with ‘benches and chairs’ suggests Renovationist rather than mainstream Orthodox practise. It makes an interesting contrast with another nostalgic account of Orthodox practise under persecution, services conducted by Archpriest Sergius Goloschapov (1882-1937, when, together with many others, he was shot in the Butovo firing range) in the Holy Trinity Church in Nikitniki, Moscow:

‘The electric light did not strike your eyes as the temple was lit only by candles and icon-lamps, which were put out at a certain moment of the service and then lit again, in accordance with the Church rule … On major feasts we celebrated ‘All-night Vigils.’ This meant that we began our worship at ten in the evening and finished at five or six in the morning. Although the mediocrity of our external worship on great festivals was absolutely evident, we did not see it. The warmth of joint prayer transformed everything, our poverty manifested itself in the form of wealth, and our souls were filled with radiant joy.’[xxviii]

In some ways the Renovationist-Tikhonite (or patriarchal) division could be compared to the Catholic-Anglican division in sixteenth century England, with the obvious difference that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, unlike the Soviet government, could claim to be (more or less) faithful members of the church they supported; and the Roman Catholic Church had an allegiance to a human authority beyond the borders of the state (all churches worthy of the name would profess a loyalty to a divine authority beyond the borders of the state). Nonetheless in the Renovationists the Bolsheviks had a church which professed a wholehearted support for the state. Tikhon had been tamed to the extent that he ordered his supporters not to oppose the state, and he had formally disowned the emigré Karlovci synod. But the 1917-18 Moscow Council  had declared (in some contradiction to its principle of the separation of church and state) that the head of the government of Russia had to be Orthodox. That was a condition of the legitimacy of government. The ‘Tikhonites’, unlike the Renovationists, were still not willing to incorporate prayers for the atheist government or any other formal recognition of its legitimacy into their church practice. They were accepting the government de facto but not de jure so theirs was a loyalty that could not be considered reliable in case of crisis. Thus there was a mass imprisonment of clergy who refused to recognise or co-operate with the Renovationists. The willingness of the Renovationists to co-operate with this policy – their willingness to denounce their opponents as counter-revolutionaries – did much to discredit them in the eyes of the mainstream Orthodox faithful.


In May 1927, a ‘memorandum’ was issued, presumably smuggled out, by a group of Bishops imprisoned in what had been the Solovets Monastery near the border with Finland The Solovets monastery had been a stronghold of the Old Believers in the seventeenth century. After a siege lasting eight years from 1668 to 1676 it was sacked and its defenders, laymen and monks were massacred.[xxix] Solzhenitsyn gives its seizure by the Bolsheviks as the beginning of the formation of the ‘Gulag’ network of labour camps.

Most of the Bishops and clerics in prison, the memorandum claimed, were there because of their refusal to recognise the Renovationists. It argued that the Church could co-exist with the Soviet state on the basis of a strict separation of powers under which (quoting Pospielovsky’s summary): ‘the Church will not interfere in the socio-economic activities  and reform of the state and in the fulfilment by the citizens of their civic duties, while the state will cease to interfere in the spiritual activities of the Church and to hinder the spiritual life of its citizens.’ Since Tikhon had declared the obligation of civic loyalty in 1923 ‘not a single cleric has been sentenced for anti-Soviet activities by a Soviet court. All those in prison are there by administrative action’ (pp.145-6).

But the memorandum nonetheless laid out the utter incompatibility of the Church’s teaching with what it calls ‘communism’ as expressed in the philosophy of the atheist state:

‘The Church recognises the spiritual principles of existence; communism rejects them. The Church believes in the living God, the creator of the world, the leader of its life and destinies; Communism denies His existence, believes in the spontaneity of the world’s existence and in the absence of rational, ultimate causes of its history. The Church assumes that the purpose of human life is the heavenly fatherland, even if she lives in conditions of the highest development of material culture and general wellbeing; communism refuses to recognise any other purpose of mankind’s existence but material welfare. The ideological differences between the Church and the state descend from the apex of philosophical observations to the practical … sphere of ethics, justice and law: communism considers them to be a conditional result of class struggle and assess the phenomena of the moral sphere exclusively in terms of utility. The Church preaches love and mercy; communism camaraderie and merciless struggle. The Church instills in believers humility, which elevates the person; communism debases man by pride. The Church preserves chastity of the body and sacredness of reproduction; communism sees nothing else in marital relations but satisfaction of the instincts. The Church sees in religion a life-bearing force which … serves as the source for all greatness in man’s creativity, as the basis for man’s earthly happiness, sanity and welfare; communism sees religion as opium, drugging the people and relaxing their energies, as the source of their suffering and poverty. The Church wants to see religion flourish; communism wants its death. Such a deep contradiction in the very basis of their weltanshauungen precludes any intrinsic approximation between the Church and state, as there cannot be any between affirmation nd negation … because the very soul of the Church, the condition of her existence and the sense of her being, is that which is categorically denied by communism.’ (pp.144-145. Lacunae as in Pospielovsky).


By 1927, it was clear that the Renovationist experiment was not succeeding. The main problem seems to have been not their legitimacy, nor even necessarily their enthusiasm for the Soviet government, but their attempts to change liturgical practice, and most especially the calendar change. Given the collapse of the old order and the fact that the Church was deprived of all means of printed communication with outlying parishes people in county areas could hardly be expected to know who was legitimate and who wasn’t. The Russian peasant didn’t have a reputation for undue personal respect for the priests but he – and more especially she – did know what the priest was supposed to do and when he was supposed  to do it. To quote Edward Roslof (obviously oversimplifying a little):

‘Salvation in this tradition comes not from grace dispensed by the true church, as in Catholicism, or from belief evoked by preaching the Word of God, as in Protestantism. Rather, Orthodox believers are saved by the proper and corporate completion of liturgical acts in which God Himself is present. Renovationist clergy performed the salvific acts but behaved in ways that showed they did not believe in the immanence of those rites. They changed the words, the actions and even the time – the calendar – that undergird the laity’s understanding of sacred immanence. By creating such cognitive dissonance during the most sacred ceremony in Russian religious culture, Renovationists drove away Orthodox believers en masse.’[xxx]

This, I think, is what Trotsky failed to understand. He thought that because popular religious practise had or appeared to have very little intellectual content it was just a habit people had got into, a superficial repetition of meaningless but aesthetically pleasing acts. But the repetition of these acts was in itself a large part of what made life worthwhile for millions of people, precisely the means by which a contact was established and maintained with a reality that transcended everyday life, a contact that was experienced in the flesh and did not have to be developed in the form of an intellectual theory. The Renovationists, in their desire to raise the intellectual standard of the church and their hostility to ‘mere ritualism’ made the same mistake.

Tuchkov seems to have recognised this at quite an early stage. He secured the resignation of the most enthusiastic liturgical reformer, the ‘Metropolitan of Moscow and of all-Russia’, Antonin Granovsky, replacing him with the much more liturgically conservative Metropolitan Evdokim (Meschersky), and persuading Vvedenskii to temper his reforming zeal. He also approached the Archbishop of Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Grigory (Yakovetsky) to form a new schism, wholly Orthodox in its practise but also wholly under the control of the GPU.

The very reforms imposed by the Bolsheviks at the beginning of their reign – imprisonment and execution of large numbers of priests, recognition of local religious associations (parishes) as the only legal entity, the right given to women to participate as full voting members in the affairs of the religious associations, deprivation of a printing press – strengthened the conservative laity against the priesthood who might have been more inclined to reform. Above all, the priests were totally dependent on the financial support of the laity. If the laity didn’t like the priests trying to educate them by delivering the service in Russian instead of Slavonic they simply refused to pay, and they were not going to be punished for that by the anticlerical Bolsheviks. According to Edward Roslof:

‘Lay willingness to boycott renovationist churches, even in places where there was no Tikhonite alternative, led to many synodal clergy becoming impoverished or unemployed or both. At the close of of the 1925 renovationist national church council, Metropolitan A.I.Vvedensky expressed sympathy for bishops who had a real meal only one day in three and for priests living on a mere ten rubles a month. On another occasion he praised Deacon Ivanov who had been driven out of his parish by the Tikhonites and been left with only a shirt and one potato. A woman took pity on the deacon and gave him a second shirt but he still had to walk around in the dead of winter in his sandals. Despite his poverty, the metropolitan continued, Ivanov refused the Tikhonite offer of “a shirt, boots and a hunk of bread” if he joined them, for he was “armed with the truth of our renovationism.” Vvedensii’s comments, even with their melodrama, are substantiated by petitions for financial assistance submitted to the Moscow diocesan administration …’[xxxi]

We might note that Bolshevik policy in this respect (radical decentralisation of the Church) was the opposite of the policy adopted by the Muslim conquerors of Constantinople who believed that it was by centralising power in the hands of the Patriarch that they could most easily keep the church under control.


Tikhon died in 1925. He had made an arrangement by which, if he was incapacitated, by death or for any other reason, and it proved impossible to hold the council necessary to electing a new patriarch, his authority would pass, in a given order of preference, to one of three named individuals. In the event the ‘locum tenens’ was Peter (Polyansky), Metropolitan of Krutitsky. Peter, however, was very soon imprisoned (on charges brought against him by Nikolai Solovei claiming that in his American anti-Soviet adventure he had been acting under Peter’s instructions). He would continue in prison and unable to fulfil his assigned responsibilities until 1937, when he was shot. He had, however, made his own arrangements and his candidates included the Metropolitan of Nizhni Novgorod, Sergei (Stragorodsky). Sergei was imprisoned in 1926 but released in July 1927, when he issued  a ‘declaration’ which finally acknowledged the legitimacy of the Soviet government:

‘We must show, not by words but rather by deeds, that not only those who are indifferent to Orthodoxy, not only those who have betrayed it, but even its most zealous adherents can be faithful citizens of the Soviet Union and loyal to Soviet authority … We want to be Orthodox and at the same time recognise the Soviet Union as our civil mother land, whose joys and successes are our joys and successes and whose failures are our failures.’[xxxii]

In October 1927 he provoked widespread disagreement among his own Bishops by mandating prayer for the civilian authorities during divine service and prohibiting prayer for bishops in exile (I assume that ‘bishops in exile’ means bishops exiled within the Soviet Union by the government rather than the Bishops who considered themselves to be in exile outside Russia in the Karlovci Synod, who had already been repudiated by Tikhon). And in 1930 he created further outrage by denying that the Church was suffering persecution at a moment when, in the early stages of the forced industrialisation of the 1930s, the Church was moving into a period of persecution at a level that had previously been unthinkable.

The opposition to Sergii was divided between the ‘non-commemorators’, who simply refused to mention his name in the liturgy as one of the valid rulers of the church, and the emergence, under the leadership of the very popular Joseph (Petrovykh) – briefly, before one of his various arrests, appointed by Sergii Metropolitan of Leningrad – of a group who, while still proclaiming themselves loyal to the patriarchal church (represented by the imprisoned Metropolitan Peter) refused communion with Sergii and his supporters. Both the non-commemorators and the Josephites complied with Soviet law, registering with regional inspectors for cult affairs and electing local councils to negotiate the use of churches etc. Since 1925, however, and Tikhon’s declaration of loyalty to the state, there had also been a ‘catacomb church’, refusing all compromise with the Soviet authorities and operating clandestinely.

Joseph was sent into exile in Kazakhstan in 1929 and shot in 1937.


Sergii’s declaration marks the last attempt on the part of the Soviet government to bring into existence a reliably loyalist and totally quiescent church (at least until 1943). A major shift in government policy away from what we might perhaps call subversion of the church towards outright repression occurred in 1928-9. It could be seen in disputes that took place in the congress of the League of the Godless that took place in June 1929 between the League’s head, Emil’yan Yaroslavsky and a more interventionist policy advocated by representatives of the Moscow branch of the League and of the Komsomol. The tension already existed as early as 1923. Yaroslavsky, a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and chairman of the body in charge of internal discipline, the Central Control Commission, had founded the paper The Godless in December 1922 but he had a rival, founded in 1923, in the form of The Godless at the Workbench, published by the Moscow Communist Party, edited by Mariia Kostelovskaia, and supported by the Komsomol. The League of the Godless was formed, under Yaroslavsky’s direction, through a merger of the groups that supported the two papers but a tension between them continued. Yaroslavsky was accused of wanting to substitute a Marxist religious frame of mind for the Orthodox religious frame of mind and of being sympathetic to the reforming currents in Orthodoxy, believing that they were steps on the road towards a fully fledged atheism:

‘In Pravda in January 1925 Kostelovskaia criticised the League’s propaganda, in particular the mixing of religious and revolutionary terminology. She pointed out that the earliest anti-religious activists were those who at one time had been close to religion, such as former clergy, those with seminary educations and former “God-builders” and “God-seekers.” Due to their influence, “Godlessness (bezbozhie) … [was] built in the manner of a religion, only a religion of a particular type … communist religion.” Kostelovskaia argued that it was necessary to transfer control of anti-religious propaganda from these narrow specialists to working-class agitators. In his response in Pravda, Yaroslavsky did not refute the specific charge that those who had been close to religion were responsible for creating a counter-religion of communism. And he justified the promotion of a substitute culture as absolutely necessary given the cultural level of the masses. He also maintained that anti-religious propagandists should study religion in order to understand it better. The issue arose again a year later in April 1926 during the Central Committee’s conference on anti-religious propaganda when the Komsomol activist and Kostelovskaia supporter, M. Galaktionov, charged that Bezbozhnik coddled former priests. After days of rancorous debate the conference passed resolutions rejecting Kostelovskaia’s views, including attacks on specialists, and urging the training of activists with some knowledge of religion, especially sects.’[xxxiii]

Kostelovskaia’s reference to ‘former “God-builders” and “God-seekers”‘ is a direct attack on Lunacharsky, still in position as Commissar responsible for education and culture.

These accusations came to the fore again (and again in the person of Galaktionov) in 1929, when the League changed its name to the League of the Militant Godless. 1929 also saw Lunacharsky losing his position as Commissar for Enlightenment. Daniel Peris maintains that the ‘culturalist’ group round Yaroslavsky won the debate:

‘The main resolution on anti-religious work opened with fire and brimstone: religious organisations were calculating counter-revolutionary groups actively seeking through devious machinations to depose Bolshevism. With only minimal contradiction, the resolution then hailed the progress against religion in the Soviet period. These matters now aside, the rest of the resolution addressed specific issues such as combating religious holidays, propaganda work among women and youth, better training of activists, further development of propaganda forms such as art, film, lectures and museums – all points on the culturalist agenda …’

but he continues:

‘The culturalists may have won the battle at this congress, but ironically they lost the larger war. Changes in the legal status of religion in 1929 and the forced closure of churches and exiling of priests during collectivisation and dekulakisation struck a tremendous blow against popular religious expression. More broadly, the turmoil of the cultural revolution, in which the Komsomol played a leading role in undermining institutions and organisations it saw as bureaucratic and/or bourgeois, and the eventual full crystallisation of Stalinism during the 1930s, meant that administrative measures and compulsion would ultimately play a key role in Soviet efforts to engineer a socialist society’[xxxiv]


I don’t think it is possible for me at this point to enter into any sort of adequate account of this next, most dramatic, phase in the story. The point of what has been written so far is that, starting from a position in which the new state and the Church confronted each other as enemies, an attempt was made to effect some sort of reconciliation, meaning a church, or churches that would accept fully the legitimacy of the government, that would not embody and promote an alternative and, in the eyes of both sides, irreconcilable view of the world. The Renovationists, who were the best prospect for a convincing, willing, acceptance of the new society, failed largely because of a modernising programme that resembles nothing so much as the modernising programme that spread through all the Christian churches in the twentieth century, even, with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church. The  reconciliation of the mainstream Orthodox church was a product of coercion and therefore unconvincing, with the most impressive elements of the church continuing in opposition. It is in these circumstances that, with the onset of radical transformation of the society under the first five year plan, the decision was made to drop all attempts at reconciliation, or encouraging a gradual withering away of religious belief, and to launch an all out assault.

Through the 1930s all the different religious groupings, including the most apparently ‘loyal’, were persecuted relentlessly. ‘Continuous production weeks’ with arbitrarily distributed rest days were introduced from 1929, doing away with Sundays as a day of rest. This was formalised in 1931 into a system of six day weeks. New laws on religious associations specified that clergy could only operate in their areas of residence, so that areas without any clergy could not be supplied. The local soviets could reject individual members of church councils meaning they could abolish them, or infiltrate then at will. In the first Five Year Plan (1928-33), priests, Bishops and parishes were classified as ‘profit making enterprises’ meaning they were subject to unrealistic tax demands. In addition the clergy were deprived of the means of earning income through civilian jobs and evicted from state and nationalised housing, meaning that they had to pay the very high rents demanded by the remaining private landlords.

The eradication of religion was announced as one of the aims of the second five year plan. begun in 1932. By that year, after an intense membership drive, the League of the Militant Godless claimed some five million members, though by 1938, this had dropped to two million of whom only 13% paid their dues. Somewhat disappointingly at the end of this second plan a census in 1937 which included a question on religion found that some 80 or 90 million people (45-50% of the population) put themselves down as ‘believers’. But by 1941, official Soviet literature claimed that there were only 4,225 churches still open in the USSR, 3,000 of which were in the territories annexed in 1939 and 1940. In 1930 (admittedly the year when he claimed there was no persecution of the church) Sergii had claimed to have 30,000 churches under his jurisdiction.

According to Pospielovsky (pp.163-4) ‘It took the 1930s, with their wholesale persecution and destruction of all churches, to force the believers to accept any functioning church remaining in a given district, be it Sergiite, Josifite, Renovationist or any other. This situation made possible the Sergiite 1943 concordat with the Soviet government and the acceptance by the believers and the surviving clergy of a church totally loyal and submissive to the state.’

The ‘1943 concordat’ came about because Stalin realised that traditional Russian patriotism – inseparable from an identification with the Church – had to be mobilised in the struggle against the German invasion. This was the more obvious because of the recent – pre-German invasion – seizure of territory in the Baltics in which the churches were still free; and because one of the few intelligent aspects of German policy in the occupied territories was to open the churches that had been (in many cases only recently) closed by the Bolsheviks. Also Sergii had, almost immediately, and before Stalin’s own ‘Brothers and sisters’ appeal to Russian patriotism, called on Orthodox believers to rally to the defence of the country. In 1943, therefore, the patriarchate was – notionally at least – restored, with Sergii elected as patriarch.

It was very notional, falling far short of the requirements set by the 1917-18 Council. Sergii was chosen by some nineteen bishops who were still at large, or who had been rapidly released from imprisonment for the occasion. The patriarchate had been in suspension since the death of Tikhon. As we have seen, his ‘locum tenens’, Peter, had been imprisoned and incommunicado since 1926 until he was shot in 1937. From that point onwards it could be said that Sergii’s authority had lapsed and passed to the other candidates named by Tikhon, Metropolitans Agafangel and Kirill, both of whom, apart from being very old, had gone into opposition to Sergii. A large part of the Orthodox community still refused to recognise Sergii’s status as patriarch, but he died soon after and, in the circumstances following the war, when Stalin was still favourably disposed to the Church, a much more convincingly representative council was held which elected Sergii’s closest associate, Alexei (Simansky), Metropolitan of Leningrad (he had stayed in Leningrad, celebrating the liturgy, throughout the length of the siege).

That marks the real beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church as we know it, continuous to the present day, a church which in the post war Soviet era, behaved towards the Soviet government, even in the period of Khrushchev’s renewed oppression, in much the same way that the pre-Revolution church had behaved towards the Tsarist government; but which has now – somewhat ironically in the light of the story that has just been told – emerged as the most powerful Christian church in the world, after the papacy.

[i] I am trying to observe the convention by which both Julian and Gregorian calendar dates are given until 14th February 1918, when the new government formally adopted the Gregorian calendar.

[ii] There are many different ways of transcribing Russian words and names into the Western alphabet. For example:

Alexei may be spelt Alexey, Alexi, Alexii, Alexios, Alexius, Alexy, Alexiy, Akexis, Aleksey, Aleksi.

Sergey may be spelt Sergei, Serge, Sergios, Sergius, Serguei, Sergii

I have not myself settled on any given principle and in what follows transcriptions will vary according to the different sources I am using.  (This includes ‘Trotskii’.)

[iii] I am trying to observe the convention by which the family names of monastics are put in brackets. Monastics in principle have rejected their family connections. In the Orthodox Church all the Bishops are chosen from among those priests who have taken monastic vows.

[iv] St Petersburg became ‘Petrograd’ during the war for much the same reason that the Saxe-Coburg family became the Windsors.

[v] Filaret’s claim was especially strong since he was actually the father of the first Romanov Tsar, Mikhail. He had been forcibly tonsured and imprisoned in a monastery under Boris Godunov. According to the Wikipedia account: ‘From 1619 to 1633 there were two actual sovereigns, Tsar Michael and his father, the most holy Patriarch Filaret. Theoretically they were co-regents, but Filaret frequently transacted affairs of state without consulting the tsar … His most important domestic measure was the chaining of the peasantry to the soil, a measure directed against the ever-increasing migration of the down-trodden serfs to the steppes, where they became freebooters instead of taxpayers.’

[vi] Dmitry Pospielovsky: The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, p.110.

[vii] Georges Florovsky: Les voies de la théologíe russe, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1991, p.134. My translation from the French, the only copy I have to hand though an English translation does exist.

[viii] Dmitry Pospielovsky: The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime 1917-1982, Volume 1, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984. This is my major source for writing this article and page references will be given in the text not in footnotes.

[ix] Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (translated from the French by Jerry Ryan): The Moscow Council (1917-1918), University of Notre Dame Press, 2015, p.26.

[x]  First published in Novaya Zhizn, No. 28, December 3, 1905 Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp. 83-87. Accessible at

[xi] Slavonic was the language widely spoken in the Slav world in the ninth century at the time of the missions of SS Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius. Constantine (he assumed the name Cyril shortly before his death) had translated the Greek service books into Slavonic devising a new alphabet for the purpose. It is generally thought that Cyril’s alphabet was actually Glaglolitic and that the ‘Cyrillic’ alphabet was developed later by disciples of his brother Methodius. Slavonic stands in much the same relation to modern Slav languages as Old or Middle English to modern English (ie it is more remote than Elizabethan English).

[xii] The ‘canons’ were various decrees issued by councils of the Church recognised as authoritative, especially the seven ‘ecumenical’ councils from the first Council of Nicaea (325 AD) to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD.

[xiii] Nicolas Berdyaev: Dream and Reality – An essay in autobiography, London, Goffrey Bles, 1950, pp.227-8

[xiv] The Black Hundred was the name given by their opponents to the various counter-revolutionary, pro-Tsar and pro-Church groups, often militantly anti-semitic, that developed early in the twentieth century. The term comes from the monks (monks were dressed in black, hence the term ‘black clergy’ for the monastic clergy as opposed to the ‘white’ married clergy) who opposed the Polish and Swedish invasions in the early seventeenth century.

[xv] Nicolas Berdyaev: The origin of Russian Communism, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1955 (first published 1937)

[xvi] Vvedensky presided over a group called the Union of Communities of Ancient Apostolic Churches. The Renovationist movement was a coming together of this group with the ‘Living Church’ presided over by the Archpriest Vladimir Krasnitsky (previously a chaplain to the ‘Black Hundred’ Union of Russian People) and the Union for Church Renovation, under the man Pospielovsky regards as the most distinguished member of the movement, Bishop Antonin (Granovsky).

[xvii] Ann Shukman: ‘Metropolitan Sergi Stragorodsky: The case of the representative individual’, Religion, State and Society, Vol 34, No 1, March 2006, p.56

[xviii] Quoted in Edward Roslof: ‘The heresy of “Bolshevik” Christianity: Orthodox rejection of religious reform during NEP’, Slavic Review, Vol 55, No3 (Autumn), p.616.

[xix] I may be exaggerating here, but although the Pan-Orthodox Congress passed a resolution supporting the imprisoned Tikhon, Constantinople and Alexandria were represented at the second Renovationist council held in 1924. There could be no doubting the ‘renovationist’ spirit of Meletius Metaxakis.

[xx]  See Bishop Photius of Triaditsa: The 70th Anniversary of the Pan Orthodox Congress at

[xxi] Gregory Freeze: ‘Counter-Reformation in Russian Orthodoxy: Popular response to religious innovation, 1922-25’, Slavic Review, Vol 54, No 2 (Summer, 1995), p.322.

[xxii]  Jennifer Jean Wynot: Keeping the Faith – Russian Orthodox monasticism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1939, Texas A&M University Press, 2004. I have this in a Kindle edition that doesn’t give page references.

[xxiii] Freeze: Counter-reformation, p.335, fn.124

[xxiv] Accessible at

[xxv]  According to the Wikipedia account which gives as its main source Edward Roslof: Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, & Revolution, 1905-1946, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002.

[xxvi] Speech “On the relationship of the Church to the Socialist Revolution, Soviet Power and Patriarch Tikhon” given at the Renovationst council of 1923, quoted in Freeze: Counter-Reformation, p.311.

[xxvii] Though he does say, p.81, that Levitin was an admirer of Granovsky.

[xxviii]  “Our nation still lives according to the values of the regicides” – A talk with Fr. Job (Gumerov) on the new martyrs of the Russian Church, accessible at

[xxix] Pospielovsky: Orthodox Church in the History of Russia, p.77

[xxx] Heresy of Bolshevik Christianity pp.623-4

[xxxi] Roslof: Heresy, p.631

[xxxii] Mikhail Shkarovskii: ‘The Russian Orthodox Church versus the State: the Josephite Movement, 1827-1940’, Slavic Review, Vol 54, No.2 (Summer 1995), p.370.

[xxxiii] Daniel Peris: ‘Priests in red cassocks: Former priests in the League of the Militant Godless’, Slavic Review, Vol 54, No 2 (Summer 1995), p.353.

[xxxiv] Daniel Peris: ‘The 1929 Congress of the Godless’, Soviet Studies, Vol.43 No.4 (1991), pp.724-5