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.


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.