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Religion in Russia and the Soviet Union, to 1945

The Russian Orthodox Church played a major role in the history of Russia dating back centuries. It supported serfdom and monarchism. It was a source of anti-Semitism, including the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Russian church contributed to the pogroms that slaughtered Jews and sent Jews fleeing westward.

During World War I, the Russian Orthodox Church looked forward to taking back its old base, Constantinople, from Russia's wartime enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Tsar Nicholas, head of the church, had taken command of Russia's armies, and with his failures and the miseries of the Russian people in early 1917 he lost the support of almost everyone and was forced to abdicate.

Russia's new provisional government granted religious rights to all. This extended freedom to Catholics beyond the Edict of Toleration that the tsar had created with the Roman Catholic Church in 1905. Roman Catholic churches had been allowed to open. Now, with the overthrow of the tsar, restrictions on Catholic worship were eliminated.

The Provisional Government kept Russia in the war. A successful anti-war movement led by socialists took power in early November, 1917, in the name of councils (soviets) that had formed as an alternative government during the overthrow of the tsar. The Bolsheviks led the new regime. They intended "religious freedom" and tolerance. They were not planning to bar people from going to Church services or snatch bibles from their hands. But the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church was hostile toward the Soviet regime and anathematized the Bolsheviks. Four days later, the Soviet regime decreed the separation of church and state. The Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history.

In 1918 a civil war began. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church supported forces opposed to the Soviet regime. The Soviets held the tsar and his immediate family and some servants in custody in the Ural region and feared hostile forces advancing from Siberia. Critics called the tsar Bloody Nicholas because of his decisions, including anti-Semitic pogroms. Now it would be his and his family's blood that would be spilled. The regime decided to execute the tsar and his family without delay in order to prevent the royals from being liberated, which they feared would encourage the counter-revolution. The tsar and his entire family were gunned down as they sat for what they had been told would be a photo session. The Eastern Orthodox Church would recognize Nicholas and his immediate family as martyred saints.

The civil war continued into 1920 and brought more hunger, starvation and economic ruin. The anti-Soviet forces on their own were without much of a propaganda network and relied on Orthodox priests for their liaison with civilians. A group of bishops gathered where the anti-Bolsheviks held power, and they supported monarchy. Priests had a history of associating Jews with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and now they were describing socialism as a Jewish creation, the Bolsheviks as Jews and using the slogan "Beat the Jews! Save Russia!"

During the civil war the Soviet regime has been described as having executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and 1,200 Orthodox priests. And with the success of the Soviet regime many Orthodox priests went into exile. The Soviet regime moved to oversee all churches. The regime acted on a law that held that those who managed a church's property were required to submit to their local Soviet, in triplicate, a list of all property intended for use in religious services. The Soviet was to take that property and give it to the inhabitants of the same religious creed – giving control of a church to "the people," with the Soviet regime in supervision.

At the close of the civil war the Soviet government tried appealing to those Muslims in Central Asia who had been opposed to tsarist rule of their homeland. The anti-Bolshevik forces had been there during the civil war, supporting tsarist colonial rule. The Bolsheviks removed the remnants of tsarist authority from these areas and sent them to Siberia. In these former colonies were Communists, many of whom were also Muslim. The Bolsheviks did not accept any Orthodox believer into their political party, but they allowed Muslim Communists to be Party members. The Soviet regime allied itself with local Communists and those who had been opposed to the tsar's colonialism. It sent grants of food and put on a show of respect for Muslim customs. It returned to mosques in Central Asia sacred books and objects looted during tsarist times.

In conjunction with local Communists and anti-tsarists, the Soviet regime divided the former colonies imperfectly into republics. Each was considered as having equal representation in the governing of what was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In these republics, Friday was made a day of rest, and a parallel Islamic court system was allowed to administer sharia law – while stoning and the cutting off of hands were forbidden.

The Soviet government, meanwhile, had under house arrest the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Tikhon, who was accused of having been a saboteur. Tikhon was refusing cooperation with the Soviet government's control over of church properties. A Soviet sponsored council deposed Tikhon as Patriarch, and in 1925 a new patriarch was chosen. This was Sergius I, who would be patriarch until his death in 1944 at the age of 87. Patriarch Sergius expressed his loyalty to the Soviet government, promising to refrain from criticizing the state in any way. For some Orthodox churchmen in prison or in exile this was an outrage.


March 12, 2012. The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne quotes Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, describing worship in the Soviet Union. Cardinal George:

Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship – no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government.

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