Religion and the Russian Revolution

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Course: HIST362: Modern Revolutions
Book: Religion and the Russian Revolution
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Date: Saturday, June 10, 2023, 1:01 PM


Since secularism is a key component of communist ideology, the revolutionaries directly conflicted with the Russian Orthodox Church, which had become a significant part of Russian society. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 changed Russia's economy and political structure and dramatically weakened the church's position. Churches were demolished, religion outlawed, and many practitioners were forced to take their faith underground.

Read this article, which explores Lenin's ideas about the Russian Orthodox Church.


In his 1905 article "Socialism and Religion", Lenin explained the Social Democratic Labour Party's attitude towards religion in general and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Noting the proletarianization and resulting secularization of the urban workforce in pre-revolutionary Russia, he wrote:

The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth. The proletariat of today takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion, and frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.[1]

Lenin lays out a dichotomous proposition for the proletariat and the party: the choice to struggle either for heaven or earth; one must accept materialism and "scientific socialism" or religion. Many within the church's hierarchy and among the parish clergy similarly framed these two competing worldviews as incompatible. Naturally, these churchmen rejected materialism and socialism, favoring secular and religious traditionalism and the promotion of charity while typically stopping short of endorsing structural reforms to address urban exploitation or solve the problems of land reform that had plagued Russia for decades.

Yet, in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, urban clergy, orientated towards the workers' struggle sought to bridge the divide between these two choices. For these urban clergy of pre-revolutionary Russia, the world and its material conditions could be transformed by a social justice oriented Gospel. After the revolution, these Russian clergymen found themselves in an uneasy alliance with the new Soviet authorities, and by 1922 these "renovationist" clergy had organized themselves into the Живая Церковь, or "Living Church"- a church organization that would be controlled in large part by Soviet authorities in a war to undermine and destroy the traditionalist and usually politically reactionary Russian Orthodox Church from which it had sprung.

These Living Church clergy became participants in a war against tradition and, unwittingly, against all varieties of religious belief and practice. The Living Church was eventually rejected as a pseudo-Church by most ordinary believers and the Soviet assault on religion, broadly speaking, intensified. Though the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church was deeply wedded to an oppressive, autocratic state, and was thus understandably challenged by Soviet rule, religious belief in general need not have borne the brunt of militant atheism.

This is especially true in light of recent research that explores the role of urban clergy intent on reform and social uplift. Not only did the policy of militant atheism undermine basic religious freedoms, it was a poorly conceived political strategy, turning large swaths of the peasantry into enemies, and ultimately doing little to advance the goals of the revolution.

Source: Sonia Calista,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.


To understand the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 20th century one must look back to the secular and religious reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the eighteenth century Russia underwent a dramatic transformation that resulted in the formation of the Imperial Russian state. On the foundations laid by Peter the Great, eighteenth century Russia moved from the traditional and culturally guarded world of old Muscovy to a more secular and westernized modern state. Naturally, the Russian Orthodox Church, the centerpiece of Russian spiritual and cultural life, was affected by these changes.

The abolition of the Orthodox Patriarchate in 1721 and its replacement by a more tightly controlled Synod based on existing Swedish and Prussian models worked to restrict the Church's autonomy. Peter took another blow at the Church's independence by placing it on a state budget and confiscating its lands, thereby limiting its economic autonomy and power. As a result, ecclesiastical authority became more subservient to the will of the state. It is within this context of increased rigidity that the Church functioned, with the results "trickling down" to the clergy.

As a result of Peter's reforms the clergy, once solely responsible for service and obedience to the Church, were forced to become servants of the state on economic, legal, and ethical levels. The Petrine state demanded service from all groups within society according to their particular station. Since Peter did not view the clergy as a social group, but another service order, clergy came to lose rights previously held in old Muscovy. The influence of the state upon the Church as well as the clergy's own desire to protect and provide for their own, transformed the white clergy (i.e non-monastic parish clergy), "into a clerical estate-caste"[2].

A combination of state service obligations, tax status, juridical status, mixed with old cultural trappings and ways of thinking eighteenth century clergy existed, according to historian Gregory Freeze, in a closed sub-culture separate from mainstream society. The clergy found themselves on one side faced with Petrine reforms coming down from above while on the other faced the will of their parishioners. Freeze alludes to the idea that this caste-like but non-culturally cohesive group of clergy was rendered basically ineffectual to "check the whims of landlords, soften the crunch of serfdom, or even hold the stormy peasants in pious submission".[3] This weakness, Freeze suggests, allowed for revolutionary sentiment to foment in the century to follow.

In 1722, a year after the abolition of the Patriarchate, Peter forced clergy to reveal any subversive information that had been confessed by a penitent as well as to swear allegiance to the tsar and state's interests. The relationship between priest and bishop also underwent a change in the eighteenth century. The main catalyst for this change was the bishop's subordination to the Synod that restricted the autonomy the bishop formerly enjoyed. The Synod took steps to standardize the relationship of priest and bishop as they tried to create uniformity and regularity in their bishop's practices. "The Church", Freeze writes, "internalized the state's model of bureaucratization".

As a result of this strengthening of administrative ability, the bishop was able to exert more control upon the actions of priests at the parish level. Part of this control existed in the bishop's demand that more sermons be given by priests in order to combat heresy and to increase the knowledge of the "simple minded" parishioners. In an effort to raise the status of the clergy by creating an educated clerical class, Petrine reforms called for the building of seminaries and compulsory religious education for potential clerics.

From the point of view of the Church hierarchy the seminary would come to serve three major purposes. First, it could train priests to perform services better. The seminary would also serve the function of teaching priests Orthodox theology and by doing so aid in the fight against Old Belief and superstition. The seminary would also serve the Church by creating more educated candidates to take high-ranking positions within the Church.

Further isolation of the "clerical estate" occurred as a result of a weakening of the bond between clergy and parish community during the eighteenth century. In pre-Petrine Russia the parish stood as an autonomous cultural and commercial center within the community with parishioners exerting great control over the life of the parish. The reorganization of parishes according to lines drawn up by bishops, Freeze suggests, resulted in a loss of a sense of community.

Contributing to the breakdown between clergy and parish community was Peter's demand that priests reveal anti-state confessions and read state laws in the church. This "spying for the police imposed on the 'servants of God'"[4] is what Lenin criticizes in his 1905 tract "Socialism and Religion". After the Petrine reforms, even if the Church had "internalized" models of state bureaucratization, the alliance between state and Church was indeed strong, and remained so for the next two centuries.

Eve of the Revolution

At the time of the Great Reforms of the 1860s the caste-like nature of the clerical estate was challenged. In 1867, the clerical estate was abolished, and the church schools were opened to people of all classes. This opened the door for believers to pursue a genuine religious calling. Additionally the monastics and bishops, who had often harbored contemptuous attitudes towards a parish clergy they saw as ignorant, backwards, and drunken, began to have their authority challenged by the initiatives of the less powerful parish or "white" clergy who had deeper ties to the people. Between 1860 and 1890 parish priests began to preach more and more on moral issues, becoming true "pastors", not mere "servers" administering the sacraments.

Extra-liturgical preaching, or beseda, were created, which consisted of open discussions of faith - initiated in large part as a response to a similar contemporaneous Catholic initiative. In time, secular philanthropists, clergy, and the laity began working together for the alleviation of poverty and social uplift.[5]

Russian Orthodox thinkers began to argue more forcefully that the Church had a greater responsibility to society, and that it should place greater emphasis on leading believers towards building a new society based on the gospel and its principles- principles like justice, mercy, and charity. After the Revolution of 1905 many of St. Petersburg's parish clergy, to the chagrin of their more moderate brother priests, began to intensify this push for reform and the social application of gospel principles. In this context, Lenin drew a line in the sand, making something of an appeal to the more reform-minded and sometimes radical clergy:

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 cozy 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.[6]

These "awakened" clergy, as Lenin described them, leaned towards socialism as early as 1905 when a group of thirty-two parish priests joined with lay Christian socialists to propose reforms that included the separation of church and state, democratic church administration, a move to the Gregorian calendar (instead of the Julian), and the use of the vernacular (instead of archaic Church Slavonic) for church services.[7]

Hailing primarily from St. Petersburg, these highly educated priests typically studied at the St. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy and had regular contact with other students and intellectuals pursuing secular careers. Defying the stereotype of the backwards, drunken, uneducated rural priest with no religious vocation, these priests were well equipped to grapple with Russia's most pressing problems.

Moving beyond simply performing liturgical rites, they saw their mission as deeply connected to the world around them. In this vein, these priests created the Society for Moral-Religious Enlightenment, in which they developed an Earth-centered Social Gospel message for late Imperial Russia- a message not dissimilar to the one promulgated by their contemporary in America, Walter Rauschenbusch, whose 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis conjured up the voices of the Old Testament prophets to critique American capitalism.

The most prominent of these renovationist clergy was Alexander Vvedenskii, who attributed the decline of the Church to reactionary clergy and the Church's rejection of science. His goal was to renew the church in order to correct the causes of clerical conservatism. On becoming a priest in 1914 Vvedenskii immediately began implementing liturgical innovations that, he hoped, would enliven parish life through greater inclusion of the laity in church services. Similarly, Boiarskii, a priest and close friend of Vvedenskii, took an interest in the plight of factory workers and became more radical- eventually accepting a kind of fusion of Christian morality and the ideals of the burgeoning revolutionary movements.

The renovationists made some advances after the abdication of the Tsar when Vladimir Lvov became the chief procurator and purged a number of conservative bishops from the Church, laying the groundwork for a long awaited church council that would save the Church from the stagnation and backwardness brought on by the Petrine reforms of the 18th century. In March 1917, the reforming and and radical clergy of St. Petersburg created the Union of Democratic Clergy and Laity- an organization that was socialist in character, opposed the restoration of the monarchy, and advocated for the separation of Church and state.[8]

From the fall of the provisional government in February 1917 the renovationists remained in a kind of limbo. Long awaited Church reforms had not come quickly enough and the future of the Church, so intimately linked to the state, was uncertain. It was not until after the October Revolution that the renovationists, in the form of the Living Church, would find their place in the new Soviet society. The Bolsheviks were initially reluctant to take the renovationists on as partners, but in 1921 the Soviet government sought to use the renovationists as a wedge against what they considered to be a reactionary official Orthodox Church.

The 1921 famine created a pretext for an attack on the Church. The Bolsheviks confiscated Church valuables and liturgical items containing precious metals and jewels were seized from the churches and monasteries and sold in order to mitigate the effects of the famine. This confiscation of wealth weakened the Church and, by 1922, helped prepare a path for Soviet sponsored renovationist control of the Church. The Bolsheviks' goal was not to present an alternative vision for religion in Russia, but to divide and destroy the Church in its entirety.

The renovationists then established their own supreme Church Administration to replace the former Church administration; however, lay believers saw the renovationists as traitors who had displaced legitimate Church authority, including the authority of the much loved Church leader Patriarch Tikhon, who had been accused of sabotage and put under house arrest in Donskoy Monastery during the famine.[9] At the first council of the Living Church in 1922 the goal was was to remove riy leaders, close monasteries, and to allow bishops to marry- goals of a number of progressive Church reformers before the revolution. 

Living Church hierarchs enlisted the help of the state to institute these measures because much of the Church opposed them. At this point splintering occurred among the renovationists themselves, some of whom thought the reforms were too radical. In 1923 Patriach Tikhon was released from house arrest and was deposed by a council of the Living Church; however, the majority of the laity flocked back to Tikhon, rejecting the decrees of the Living Church. By then the Living Church's short stint as leader of Russian ecclesiastic life was over. Caught between the hatred of much of the laity and the suspicions of the new Soviet authorities, they were left with no support.

Following the downfall of the Living Church, the new Soviet government ramped up its persecution of religious activity. The 1929 Religious Laws forbid all manner of Church societies and Bible study, and relegated churches to the performance of rituals. By 1930 all monasteries were shut down. This led to an underground network of believers who met secretly to pray and, in some cases, continue living as monks and nuns "in the world". In the years that followed it became professional and social suicide to be seen entering a place of worship.

These attacks would, in part, cost the revolution the support of large segments of the peasantry during Stalin's drive for forced collectivization who, rather than viewing the Soviet authorities as liberators, would see them in nearly apocalyptic terms- as godless militants, intent on destroying their cherished traditional culture. The peasants of Ukraine, the Volga, the Northern Caucasus, and other areas resisted Stalin's collectivization policies, uniting as a class- the village against the state- to defend their traditions and livelihoods.

These peasants understood the state's incursions not as economic policy, but as a "culture war" leveled by an anti-Christian conquering power. After the treatment of the Church in the first decade after the revolution, the traditionally religious peasantry had reasons to be suspicious. And while the Bolsheviks' stated aim was an end to the role of the exploitative Kulaks, they were also intent on eradicating the culture and local economies of the "pre-modern" peasantry.[10]

Rumors of a return to serfdom swept the countryside, along with tales of slaughtered peasants, and fear of the beginnings of the reign of the antichrist. The peasants, rightly, equated communism with atheism, and responded accordingly. Collectivization efforts were met with forms of agricultural luddism- the destruction of crops, livestock, and machines, culminating in the March Fever of 1930, a mass peasant uprising. By the late 1930s the collective farm had won out and resistance took new, subtler forms- refusal to work, sabotage, and laziness.[11]

One wonders if a different approach to the "problem" of religion in Russia- and more specifically to the reactionary character of the Russian Orthodox Church- could have led to a different kind of Soviet state. While many Church leaders were staunch monarchists[12], and Russian Orthodoxy generally served as a bulwark against socialist conceptions of the state and morality, other progressive and even revolutionary minded clergy and laity shared common goals with socialist revolutionaries by 1917. Perhaps a more organic revolutionary process could have unfolded if religious sentiment was understood as an ally on the road to socialism. Instead, traditional structures of religious life were upended and religious life was dogmatically understood as antithetical to Marxism. Yet, focusing on the material origins of religious feeling, Lenin wrote that: "The combating of religion … must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion".[13]

He continues:

No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.[14]

If material conditions and exploitation are the rotten roots that give rise to religion, then these roots must first be addressed. The continued existence of religious feeling in "really existing" socialist states presents an interesting problem for the materialist who expects the demise of religion once the conditions that "produce" religion are "remedied". In a similar vein, Marx wrote that, "religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions".[15] If religion is the "sigh of the oppressed", then the Marxist should not look to critique religion on ideological grounds, but to address the roots of oppression that give rise to religious feeling. But what if after the revolution people continue to "sigh"?

In their firm faith in dialectical materialism, the Bolsheviks believed that the establishment of the socialist state would, in time, give way to the "withering away" of religion. Perhaps it was this firm conviction (one might say dogmatism) that led them to opportunistically divide and conquer not just the reactionary elements in the Orthodox Church, but to attack all expression of religious faith and feeling, as if the two were one and the same. But perhaps no amount of material progress will quell the urge to answer life's ultimate questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Do my loved ones live on after they die? Why am I inspired by beauty and why do I feel, at times, like I was made for another world? Perhaps the fact that this spiritual yearning pre-dates class society is a sign that it is, to use a phrase generally maligned on the left, elemental to "human nature" and that it cannot be uprooted en masse, nor should it be if we are to respect human dignity.

The Soviet state, both under Lenin and Stalin, did not wipe out religious sentiment - it simply drove its expression underground and, when advantageous, channeled it for the state's purposes, both in the form of a tightly controlled patriarchate under Stalin and subsequent Party leaders, and when the state needed to comfort and inspire the nation. Eleven days after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin spoke to the people of Russia. After addressing the crowd with the customary greeting of "comrades", his language shifted. For the first time he employed language that would have been familiar and comforting to many, but seemed, in this instance, out of place. He addressed the people not just as "comrades", but as "brothers and sisters". This form of intimate address was the language of the Church- the language of the opening greetings of a prepared sermon.


[1] Vladimir Lenin, "Socialism and Religion," Marxists Internet Archive, December 3, 1905,

[2] Gregory Freeze, The Russian Levites (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1977), 218.

[3] Ibid., 222.

[4] Lenin, "Socialism and Religion".

[5] Jennifer Hedda, His Kingdom Come (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 62.

[6] Lenin, "Socialism and Religion".

[7] Edward E. Roslof, Red Priests: Renovation, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 1905-1946 (Indiana: Indiana University Press: 2002), 7.

[8] Roslof, Red Priests.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (New York: Oxford University Press), 1996.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Indeed, a number of leading bishops fled Russia during the Civil War and established the monarchist Russian Orthodox Church in Exile which broke off communication and liturgical concelebration, on principle, with the Russian Church throughout the Soviet period.

[13] Vladimir Lenin, "The Attitude of the Workers' Party to Religion," Marxists Internet Archive, May, 1909,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Karl Marx, "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," Marxists Internet Archive, January 1844,