Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1918, the new Bolshevik government in Russia began confiscating church property, forbidding religious instruction in schools, and taking civil rights away from priests.

Summary of Event

The Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917, meant serious trouble for the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Revolution (1917) October Revolution (1917) Church authorities for centuries had closely associated themselves with the Russian monarchy. The Russian church had evolved from the Greek Orthodox Church, which followed the doctrine of caesaropapism; that is, the head of the state was also the head of the church. In the tenth century, Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir made Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Russia. Russian Orthodox Church Bolsheviks;Russian Orthodox Church Discrimination;religious [kw]Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church (1917-1918) [kw]Russian Orthodox Church, Bolsheviks Suppress the (1917-1918) [kw]Orthodox Church, Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian (1917-1918) [kw]Church, Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox (1917-1918) Russian Orthodox Church Bolsheviks;Russian Orthodox Church Discrimination;religious [g]Russia;1917-1918: Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church[04150] [c]Government and politics;1917-1918: Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church[04150] [c]Human rights;1917-1918: Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church[04150] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1917-1918: Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church[04150] Tikhon, Vasily Belavin Lenin, Vladimir Ilich Lvov, Georgy Yevgenyevich

For a period in the seventeenth century, during the “Time of Troubles,” the head of the church (the patriarch) emerged as a more important political leader than the Russian emperor, but Peter the Great reestablished the power of the emperor over the church in the eighteenth century. Peter created the Holy Synod Holy Synod, Russian Orthodox Church to replace the patriarch as head of the church. Synod members were selected by the emperor. Despite the protests of many radical priests in the nineteenth century, state control of the church remained intact into the twentieth century.

At the time of the 1917 revolutions, the Russian Orthodox Church was still a powerful institution. It continued to receive political and financial benefits from the government of Czar Nicholas II through 1916. Nevertheless, when the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew the czar, the Holy Synod offered Nicholas II only perfunctory support. Although some Orthodox priests, particularly in the rural areas, remained loyal and even refused to admit that the czar had abdicated, many in the clergy not only backed the February revolutionaries but also wished to see the order of Russian society completely overturned. The lower clergy in the church long had been associated with radical reform activity. It was not unusual for radical priests to take the lead in anticzarist organizations.

The Holy Synod attempted to work positively with the provisional government established after Nicholas II’s abdication, but it was not long before conservative members of the synod began to resent the government’s attempt to advance the cause of church reform. Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov, titular head of the provisional government in March, 1917, on several occasions tried to circumvent the Holy Synod to achieve reforms he believed to be necessary. Lvov had hoped that the sobor (an all-Russian church council) he had helped to plan for the autumn of 1917 would adopt reform measures, but he soon realized that the sobor would be restrained by the ultraconservative synod. Lvov’s intended reforms were far from sweeping, but clergy at all levels were alarmed that he wanted to reduce the role of the church in education.

Throughout the summer and early autumn of 1917, the church and the provisional government experienced numerous changes in leadership. In these circumstances, it was very difficult to reach an understanding as to what position and role the church would have in the new regime. By the end of July, 1917, uncertainty about the future drew liberal and conservative clergy together in defense of the church. There was grave concern that the church was on the verge of losing its privileged place in Russian society. This reality led those in the church’s hierarchy to ally themselves more firmly with conservative political interests. The church, therefore, continued to support Russia’s participation in World War I at a time when the army was in shambles, large numbers of people were without food, and industry was at a standstill. The church accused those who argued for dramatic social reform (especially the Bolshevik Party) of disloyalty to the country. Even reform-minded priests tended to support the war effort.

The provisional government, which had been shaky and under attack from the left and the right since May, collapsed in September, 1917, and the Bolshevik Party seized control of the government in mid-October. Before the October Revolution, Orthodox Church officials had condemned the Bolsheviks as traitors and haters of Christ. The organizers of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Leon Trotsky, accepted the view of Karl Marx that religious belief makes people fatalistic about their circumstances and saps their will to accomplish needed change.

While the Bolsheviks were attempting to consolidate their authority in the days just after the revolution, the church sobor was in session. This gathering of representatives from all ranks of the clergy was swift in its condemnation of the Bolshevik takeover. Conservative leaders in the sobor believed that the time had come for the church, in a twentieth century “Time of Troubles,” to choose one person to guide the future of the institution. They prepared to reestablish the office of the patriarch, a position abolished by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century.

Traditionally, the patriarch was not only the highest church official but also a national leader with great influence in government, and that is what conservatives in the sobor desperately wanted in 1917. Although some clergy objected to the plan, the sobor selected Vasily Belavin Tikhon, formerly archbishop of Vilna. His name was drawn from an urn that contained the names of three nominees who had received sufficient votes from the sobor. Tikhon lacked outstanding characteristics of leadership, but, with the Bolsheviks in power, it really mattered very little. Church officials clearly deceived themselves if they thought any person holding the title of patriarch could have any impact on the Bolsheviks.

Lenin’s first act against the church came on December 4, 1917, when he ordered the nationalization Nationalization;Russian land of all land in Russia. As the church was the country’s single biggest landowner, this was a serious blow to its finances. In succeeding weeks, the Bolshevik government closed church schools and seminaries, made marriage a civil ceremony, and placed records of births, marriages, and deaths in government hands. On January 23, 1918, Russia was made a secular state by government decree. This meant that all religious observances would disappear from state functions and that the government would make no further payments to the church. During the course of 1918 and beyond, recalcitrant priests and monks were arrested and imprisoned or killed.

When the great civil war Russian Civil War (1918-1921) began in March, 1918, the assault on the church, which sided with the opponents of the Bolsheviks, intensified. It is important to note, however, that Lenin recognized the significant place that religion held in the lives of many Russian citizens. He did not try to prevent private religious worship, nor did he arrest Patriarch Tikhon or disband the sobor. Throughout 1918 and into the early 1920’s, the patriarch and the sobor continued to berate the Bolshevik Party. (The Bolsheviks officially changed the name of their party to Communist in February, 1918.) The patriarch, for example, contended that the revolution was part of an international Jewish-Masonic conspiracy and that the czar had been cast out so that Russian Christians could be made slaves of the Jews. The sobor, meanwhile, encouraged Russian believers to resist the separation of the church from the state.

It was not until 1922 that Lenin brought charges against Patriarch Tikhon and had him arrested. Tikhon was later released when he agreed to end his protests against the Communist government. By that time, it was clear that all hope of displacing the Communist regime was gone.


The denial of church rights by the Bolsheviks put an end to the privileged relationship the Orthodox Church had long held with the government of Russia. For centuries, the church and the emperors had reinforced and protected each other psychologically and financially. Suddenly, the church and its followers needed to fight for survival. Orthodox followers benefited from the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy imposed by Lenin in 1921, which provided for slowing down the march toward a fully communist state. The government backed away from an aggressive assault on religious belief. It was not until Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph came to power, after a brief leadership struggle following Lenin’s death in 1924, that a major effort was made to eradicate all religious worship in the Soviet Union (which was officially formed in 1922). Even Stalin, however, was forced to relax his efforts in the burst of patriotism that accompanied the Soviet Union’s participation in World War II.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, many church officials and priests left Russia to pursue their faith in other European locales. Wherever they migrated, they found other Russians who had fled from the country before the Bolsheviks could secure the borders. Large numbers of émigrés, including many from the Russian intelligentsia, found their way to France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Bulgaria. Even among those who had become disillusioned with the practices of the Orthodox Church, there was never doubt that the church still existed in exile. For those who were not fortunate enough to escape, it was necessary to carry out religious observances in secrecy during times of the most severe repression. Although the church followers who remained in Russia could never match the government’s massive funding of atheist organizations and publications that were intended to denigrate religious belief, scholars are unanimous in their assertions that there was never much chance that the Communist government would succeed in eliminating religious belief or the longing of Russian believers for the return of their church.

The greatest impacts of the early Bolshevik attack on the Orthodox Church were the reduction of the church’s political significance, depletion of its financial resources, and sharp diminishment in the number of clergy. The attack also served to discourage young people from following the religion of their parents. It was not until the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail as the Soviet leader in 1985 that circumstances improved for the church as an institution. Although an atheist himself, Gorbachev showed little opposition to religious ceremonies. In the spirit of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), he joined in the celebration of one thousand years of Russian Orthodox Christianity in 1989. Subsequent events in 1990-1991, principally the crumbling of the central power of the Soviet state, brought about a major revival of church activities.

After the fall of the Communist regime in the late 1980’s, the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church greatly improved. Even before the fall, despite decades of repression, as many as half of Russian children were baptized, indicating the persistence of religiosity among the Russian people. After religious expression was no longer persecuted, the Russian Orthodox Church rapidly regained its preferred status in Russia, both in law and in practice. Much of the twelve million acres of church property seized by the Communists was returned to the church, which operates more than twenty-three thousand parishes.

By the end of the twentieth century, the chief concerns for Russian Orthodoxy came not from the government but from intrusion by other religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, which has strained relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. A 1997 law prohibited religious cults in Russia, and churches that wish to practice must show that they had a presence in Russia extending back into the late years of Communist rule. Only large, well-recognized faiths were granted full rights under that law, Russian Orthodoxy being chief among them. Russian Orthodox Church Bolsheviks;Russian Orthodox Church Discrimination;religious

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brovkin, Vladimir, ed. The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Collection of works by various scholars explores the Bolshevik government. Focuses in particular on Russian resistance to the Bolsheviks, including resistance to policies governing religion. Well organized and indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtiss, John Shelton. The Russian Church and the Soviet State, 1917-1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. One of the best works available on the Orthodox Church and the Bolsheviks from 1917 to 1928. Suitable for the general reader as well as the serious scholar. Highly recommended. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeze, Gregory L. The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth Century Russia: Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Delves into the serious problems that burdened the Russian church in the nineteenth century, problems that had not disappeared at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Superb notes, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. A study of the years of the Bolshevik regime by a widely respected scholar of Russian history. Includes discussion of the regime’s impact on the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam B. The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia. 1965. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Classic work offers a comprehensive history of the Bolsheviks in Russia. New preface places Lenin and the Bolsheviks in perspective from the viewpoint of the late twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Glennys. Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Recounts the religious persecution that took place during the Bolshevik regime from the perspective of those who resisted. Includes illustrations, glossary, and bibliography.

Bloody Sunday

October Manifesto

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Categories: History