Religion and the Russian Revolution

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,
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