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.

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.