It was once known as “Holy Russia,” a land blossoming with the multi-domed church buildings so associated with the Eastern Slavs’ Orthodoxy, a land pregnant with spiritual heritage and strongly in touch with the oldest traditions of the faith. But around the turn of the 20th century, something drastic happened.

The chief nation of the USSR, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, was once considered to be among the “most Christian” nations in the world—a land with a rich, age-old history of churches and monasteries, the wellspring of numerous revered saints and martyrs, with a cherished and abundant legacy of sacred music, iconography and spiritual literature. Yet within less than a year after March 1917, when the last tsar abdicated, a band of militant atheists had seized power; many Russians were looting churches; were mocking religion and religious people unmercifully; were even murdering priests, monks and other believers by the thousands. What had happened?

To ascribe it all to “the Revolution” begs the question. In fact, there had been more than one revolution in Russia in the first decades of the 20th century. The anti-tsarist uprisings of 1905 had resulted in a constitutional government with an elected legislature, the Durma, and had ushered in a period of liberal reform. The revolution of March 1917 had seen the formation of a provisional government composed mainly of moderate liberals, though with a growing number of socialists. Yet none of this directly threatened the church or religion.

Revival, Then … Revolution!

Indeed, during these years Russia was experiencing something of a spiritual revival. Many disillusioned Marxist intellectuals turned to Christianity. Some yearned for a mystical revolution that would transform life itself. One group, which published the collection Vekhi (Signposts) in 1909, sharply criticized the radicalism of their fellow intellectuals. Among its members were the prominent theologian Sergei Bulgakov and the great philosopher Berdyaev. Both within and without the Russian Orthodox Church, writers, artists and other members of the flourishing Russian intelligentsia were seeking spiritual answers to the problems of the individual and society.

For the Orthodox Churches in the Russian Empire, the tsar’s abdication was a chance to free themselves from state control. Accordingly, the clergy, hierarchy and other representatives of the believers held a sobor, or council, which reestablished the patriarchate that had been suppressed by Tsar Peter the Great in 1721. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) seemed about to enter a glorious new era.

How, then, could the Bolsheviks—a small, conspiratorial party determined to smash the Church and root out religion—take over the vast empire in November 1917 and turn it into the world’s first atheist state?

Certainly it was not without a struggle. The Orthodox bishops and metro politans were perfectly aware of the Bolsheviks’ aims. In January 1918, the newly elected patriarch, Tikhon, warned the new regime not to persecute the church, and excommunicated all those who might be involved in such activity. During the next two years, at least 28 bishops and countless priests were murdered. The surviving clergy were stripped of their civil rights and subjected to intense economic pressure.

As for the mass of believers, those who had any clear political opinions tended to sympathize with the constitutional democrats, or in the case of the peasants who made up most of the population, with the moderate agrarian socialists—not with the Bolsheviks. But in such a far-flung, poor, and overwhelmingly rural country, most people had little knowledge of or concern for politics, and even less political influence. To take control, the Bolsheviks did not need to convince the majority of the correctness of their views. It was more a matter of seizing control of the major cities, the army, and the means of communication; this they did with ruthless efficiency.

Nevertheless, it took a three-year civil war for them to re-conquer most of the old Russian empire and create the new socialist federation, known from 1922 as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In this conflict, many ROC priests and bishops supported the anti-Bolshevi White Armies, though as early as September 1919 Patriarch Tikhon warned his clergy to stay out of politics, and reminded the faithful that the church imposed no political obligations upon them.

An Unprepared Church

The ROC does not seem to have bee really prepared for the Bolshevik onslaught. For nearly two centuries it had been trammeled by the Holy Synod, an agency of the state set up to supervise the church. Not only was the ROC closely linked with the state—it became virtually a part of the bureaucracy. Close identification of church and state was the expressed policy of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a layman who headed the Holy Synod from 1889 to 1905. He saw this, essential for strong government. But it prevented the ROC from developing free life or exercising an independent—and therefore credible—moral authority. Furthermore, the ROC failed to adequately prepare its clergy to meet the philosophical challenges of the day. Too often it was seen—not altogether inaccurately—as an obscurantist and reactionary institution.

But in an empire that was only half ethnically Russian, the ROC was on the largest of several Christian churches and the revolution affected each of them differently. The March Revolution provided an opportunity for other predominantly Orthodox peoples, such as the Byelorussians and Ukrainians, to revive their own traditional churches, which had been suppressed by the tsars.

The Evangelicals and Baptists (whose remarkable growth in the 19th century had been due in part to their strong knowledge of Scripture, but who had been mercilessly persecuted by the government) also benefited from the revolulion—at first. The Bolsheviks initially tolerated these movements because they tended to weaken the established Orthodox church. Later, of course, they would try to destroy them as well.

The Masses and the Party

Most of the peasantry—that is, most the population of Russia—remain, passive throughout the revolution and civil war. Life was precarious enough, and opposing any authority, tsarist or Bolshevik, was dangerous. It has also been said that the Russian Orthodox tradition bore a strain of fatalism and other worldliness that made it all too easy for the godless to take over secular affairs.

Of course, the Bolsheviks did find active supporters. For one thing, the legendary piety of the Russian peasant has been somewhat exaggerated. In the latter half of the 19th century, nihilists and radical populists had made inroads in the countryside, often playing upon the latent anti-clericalism of the peasant.

Besides, the village priest, usually a peasant himself, was not always an object of veneration. However devout the villagers might be, they could only see a poorly educated, sometimes morally corrupt priest, who typically had been born into his state as much as called to it, as merely their equal if not their inferior.

Services in the Church Slavonic language, which the people could barely understand, hardly satisfied their intellectual needs, and without adequate education they could receive little spiritual nourishment from the highly formalistic Church rituals. Besides, an institution that represented the autocratic regime was automatically suspect to many.

Thus, even pious Christians could become alienated from the ROC. This did not make them Bolsheviks, but it could make them unwitting accomplices in the struggle against religion.

In fact, the Bolsheviks welcomed those Christians who, thinking their faith was somehow compatible with Marxism, wished to cooperate. These well-intentioned souls seem to have been unaware that Christian notions of morality were incompatible with the Bolshevik creed, because Marxism taught that morals were conditioned by socio-economic relations.

When conditions changed, so did morals. Morality was relative, not absolute. Nor could the imperatives of class struggle be hindered by scrupulous “bourgeois morality.” One might say that the end justified the means—if there were any need for justification. Indeed, their attitude toward their Christian sympathizers epitomized the Bolsheviks’ morality. They apparently calculated that once these “fellow-travelers” had discovered the inherent contradiction in their position, few would have the courage to renounce Marxism in favor of an increasingly disfavored Christianity.

At the same time, the brutalizing poverty of Russian village life must also have won active support for the Bolsheviks. After all, the liberal-democratic Provisional Government only talked about taking land from the rich landowners and giving it to the peasants; the Bolsheviks encouraged them to help themselves. And alas, one of the largest landowners happened to be the Church.

The Bolsheviks did their best to propagate the image of the Church as a wealthy exploiter, even turning the Church’s piety against it. When famine broke out in 1920–21, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy quickly set up a relief fund and contributed generously to it. However, the Church exempted from the collections its sacramental objects, such as the chalices used in divine worship. Seizing on this, the Bolsheviks organized their own relief effort, then commanded the Church to turn over the sacramental objects as well. When it refused, they put several church men on trial for refusing to help the hungry.

One group of Bolshevik supporters cropped up within the Church itself. During the late 19th century, the Russian Orthodox seminaries had become hotbeds of radicalism. Many young priests had embraced socialist ideas, which were reinforced by their resentment of their immediate superiors, the bishops, as well as by their disapproval of their Church’s social and political role. They were joined by intellectuals who had abandoned Marxism but sought to combine Christianity with a radical social ethic.

In the wake of the Bolshevik take-over some of these activists formed the Renovationist Church. Seeing their opportunity, the Bolsheviks manipulated and eventually took control of the Renovationist movement, using it to weaken the mainstream Patriarchal Church. But then the ROC’s Patriarch Tikhon died, and his successor, Metropolitan Sergii, was persuaded in 1927 to declare his Church’s loyalty to the Soviet state. After this the Bolsheviks had no further use for the Renovationists, and suppressed them.

But even if manipulation of sympathizers helped the Bolsheviks take over, what made it possible for them to hold on? It was one thing for them to use the army and police to crush all active opposition. But how could they win over the souls of a hundred million Christian believers? Or did they?

True Believers?

There is no certain answer to this question. According to one theory, Marxist Leninism was a substitute religion that took the place of Orthodoxy in the hearts and minds of the people. With Marx, Engels and Lenin as its “prophets,” Capital and other writings as its “scripture,” with dialectical materialism as its “theology” and the Communist Party as its “priesthood,” Marxist Leninism was a ready-made secular faith. With skillful propaganda and a good deal of coercion, the Bolsheviks simply “converted” the people from one orthodoxy to another. Accustomed to unquestioning obedience, the masses acquiesced.

While it may be true that Marxist Leninism is in effect the official religion of a confessional Soviet state, this theory tends to exaggerate the Communists’ success. Even today, they are still trying to replace Orthodox rituals with artificial Soviet rites. In fact, despite the Stalinist terrors of the 1920s and ’30s, Christianity was not supplanted with the new Soviet creed except in the minds of the few Party members and sympathizers.

Even in the midst of the revolution, church attendance was high. Martyrdom enhanced the Church’s prestige. Later, most Orthodox Churches simply went underground, where the trials of the catacombs revitalized the faith. Today, convinced atheists are still only a fraction of the population.

While the majority seems indifferent to both religion and atheism, some scholars estimate that as much as 45 percent of the people in the USSR are religious believers. This would include some 50 million Orthodox, perhaps as many as three million Evangelicals–Baptists, some 10 million Catholics, and tens of millions of Muslims and other non-Christian religious people.

One indicator of the strength of Christianity in the militantly atheistic Soviet state was the government’s decision to re-establish the lapsed Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943, in return for the latter’s support of the Soviet war effort and the new Russian nationalist policy. This act, however, revived the traditional alliance of church and state—a partnership beneficial to the hierarchy but arguably detrimental to the faith. In fact, leading hierarchs have sided more than once with atheist of officials against overly active and popular priests. And to many Ukrainians, this year’s government-sanctioned millennium celebrations are but another product of this “unholy” alliance between clerics and the commissars.

The Church’s Dilemma

The unequal and uneasy partnership of church and state leaves rank-and-file believers in a quandary. To defy the hierarchs could divide the Church, but to follow their political line strikes many as hypocritical. The resulting cleavage between the institutional Church and the mass of believers is, of course, just what the Bolsheviks ordered. For it was by such techniques of “divide and conquer” that they were able to subjugate the overwhelmingly Christian Russian Empire.

They weakened the Church from within, playing off laity against clergy, clergy against hierarchy. They compromised the Church in the eyes of the faithful by terrorizing the bishops into loyalty to an atheist state. And after the terror of the ’30s they tried to undermine the spiritual revival—one might say the true, inner revolution in the souls of the people—by propping up a lifeless conservative and statebound church establishment.

The sad and perplexing story of the Bolsheviks’ take-over of Christian land bears number of lessons for us today, lessons far more numerous an multi-faceted than can be discussed in this brief space. They include:

Churches must be prepared to meet the intellectual challenge of Marxism and other secular ideologies, particularly in the socio-economic sphere; on the one hand, they must not be passive or unaware of political developments; on the other they must not be draw into facile alliance with latently anti-Christian movements; they must welcome reform from within, but resist manipulation from without and the list goes on.

A final lesson might be: The Soviets have been in power for just over 70 years, some two-thirds of a century and in that time severe generations of them have carried out radically violent and persistent efforts to extinguish the Christian faith in their realm. Yet today, the survival of Christianity in the USSR—yes, even the flourishing of it—is acknowledged by most of the world community, including many Soviets. And not surprisingly.

After all, Christianity has been the religion of the Eastern Slavs for at least 1,000 years—10 centuries. With that comparison in mind, Christians might see Soviet rule as just one more passing trial that will soon be transformed.

Andrew Sorokowski, having both a degree in law and a master's degree in Soviet studies from Harvard, is now completing a doctoral dissertation in history at the University of London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. From 1984–87 he was in Kent, England, working with Keston College, a research institute that specializes in reporting on religious life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.