Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church

The long Bolshevik campaign against religious practice and belief in the Soviet Union reduced the Russian Orthodox Church nearly to institutional extinction by the late summer of 1939.

Summary of Event

When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917, they began to act on their atheist convictions, which held that all religion is an opiate, a spiritual gin that capitalist exploiters use to drug the workers into submission. They decreed the separation of church and state, nationalized church lands and assets, canceled the status of the Russian Orthodox Church as a legal entity, discontinued state subsidies to religious bodies, deprived church marriages and baptisms of official standing, and banned organized religious education of the young. In 1922, in the midst of famine, the Bolshevik regime ordered the church treasures confiscated, ostensibly to finance relief for the starving. Believers and international religious bodies, among them the Holy See, offered to ransom the Russian Orthodox Church’s sacramental objects, but the Bolshevik regime moved ahead. Soviet press accounts reported some fourteen thousand bloody fights as priests and parishioners tried to guard their churches. Many churches were closed and priests and hierarchs arrested. Vasily Belavin Tikhon, Tikhon, Vasily Belavin the patriarch (religious leader) of Moscow, was placed under house arrest. With government support, a Renovationist, or Living Church, movement was organized and split the church for a time. [kw]Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church (Summer, 1939)
[kw]Russian Orthodox Church, Stalin Suppresses the (Summer, 1939)
[kw]Orthodox Church, Stalin Suppresses the Russian (Summer, 1939)
[kw]Church, Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox (Summer, 1939)
Russian Orthodox Church
Bolsheviks;Russian Orthodox Church
[g]Russia;Summer, 1939: Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church[10030]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Summer, 1939: Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church[10030]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Summer, 1939: Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church[10030]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Summer, 1939: Stalin Suppresses the Russian Orthodox Church[10030]
Stalin, Joseph
Hitler, Adolf
Aleksi (head of Russian Orthodox Church)

When Patriarch Tikhon died on April 7, 1925, his death plunged the Russian Orthodox Church into a rolling crisis of leadership. By 1927, ten out of eleven prelates successively named to act as head of the church were in prison or in exile, and most of the bishops were in similar straits. The man who emerged as acting head of the church was Metropolitan Sergius. Arrested more than once, Sergius was released from prison in March of 1927 and issued a declaration of loyalty to the Soviet Union on July 24 of that year. Sergius’s action in support of a godless and hostile state outraged many believing Orthodox people in the Soviet Union as well as many Soviet exiles abroad. Sergius justified his declaration as necessary to preserve the church.

The forced industrialization and collectivization drives launched under the leadership of Joseph Stalin in 1928 led to another crisis for the church. Troops and Communist Party workers fanned out into the countryside. Peasant resistance to them produced violence, the slaughtering of livestock, and the destruction of food stores. More than five million people were said to have died in this human-made famine. Peasants defended their churches and priests with scythes and pitchforks against soldiers and communist militants determined to deal harshly with the vestiges of Orthodox reaction. The campaign changed the face of the Russian countryside, which later became dotted with the shells of churches serving as granaries, overcrowded dwellings, storehouses, and workshops, their rusting and disintegrating cupolas standing hollow against the sky.

A third great wave of church closings began in 1936 and gathered momentum over the next three years. This was the period of the great purges. The terror of the prison camp complex of the Gulag Archipelago in Siberia was felt in every corner of the land. An estimated nineteen million Soviet citizens died in the purges, and the police (the NKVD—Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) became the largest employer in the Soviet Union, responsible for one-sixth of all new construction. With restraint and normal living swept away, church closings on a large scale resumed, and the arrest of priests and the incarceration of bishops accelerated.

By mid-1939, Metropolitan Sergius lived in Moscow virtually alone, cut off from any regular contact with the churches still functioning in the country. Only four active bishops remained in all of Russia: Metropolitan Aleksi of Leningrad was the second; Aleksi’s suffragan, Nikolai of Peterhof, was the third; and Metropolitan Sergi, who later defected to the Germans, was the fourth. All four prelates lived from day to day in the expectation of arrest.

The numbers of open churches and functioning priests were very small. Soviet official sources and foreign scholars confirm that there were no open churches at all in more than one-third of the provinces of the Russian federated republic. One-third of the provinces of the Ukraine had no functioning churches, and an additional three Ukrainian provinces had only one open church each. According to Friedrich Heyer, the German troops that occupied Kiev in 1941 found only two churches in that diocese; sixteen hundred churches had been functioning before the 1917 Revolution. Three priests were serving in those two churches, one at the edge of the city of Kiev and one in the countryside. In the Ukrainian province of Kamenets-Podolski, the Germans found one aged priest holding services. A mission team that followed German troops into the area south of Leningrad found two priests reduced to complete impoverishment. It is probably a fair estimate that in 1939 two hundred to three hundred churches were functioning in the Soviet Union, and no more than three hundred to four hundred priests were conducting services.

Describing the situation through the 1930’s in the diocese of Rostov-on-Don, Nikita Struve observed that the archbishop, Serafin, was exiled to the far north, where he soon died. His vicar, Nicholas Ammasisky, was sent to the steppes to graze a flock of sheep. He was arrested a second time and shot, but miraculously recovered from his wounds. The former cathedral was transformed into a zoo.

According to historian Dimitry Pospielovsky, in Odessa, where there had once been forty-eight churches, Stalin allowed only one to remain open, apparently as a favor to a great eye doctor in that city who had treated him. Stalin, however, made no promise to spare the priests. Each Sunday, and later just at Easter, a priest would appear from the congregation in the Odessa church and celebrate the liturgy, only to disappear into the NKVD dungeons the following day. After all the priests who dared martyrdom had disappeared, there remained a few deacons who could perform the entire rite except for the Eucharist. They likewise disappeared and were replaced by psalmists, who in turn were liquidated. There remained only the laity, who prayed as best they could in the church. In the summer of 1939, then, the Russian Orthodox Church teetered on the edge of institutional destruction.


In the late summer of 1939, an event occurred that was unrelated to Stalin’s repression of the Russian Orthodox Church but that profoundly affected its situation. Signed on August 23, 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939)[Molotov Ribbentrop Pact]
Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact] opened the door to Soviet annexation of Eastern Poland in September of 1939 and of the Baltic states and Romanian Bessarabia and Northern Bubovina in 1940. The annexations brought the Russian Orthodox Church millions of faithful parishioners and thousands of active parishes, functioning churches, and priests. The church also acquired monasteries, nunneries, seminaries, and other resources.

On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union and swept forward on a thousand-mile front stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Behind German lines, thousands more Orthodox churches were able to open their doors and start serving believers living in pre-1939 Soviet territories, most of whom had long been denied the opportunity to worship in a functioning church.

As soon as Hitler attacked, Metropolitan Sergius publicly rallied believers to the defense of the Motherland. When German forces were advancing on Moscow, however, Stalin ordered Sergius evacuated, and the head of the Russian church was sent by train to Ulyanovsk, a small provincial city about 435 miles (700 kilometers) east of the capital. Sergius was able to open some churches in that region and consecrated a few bishops, thereby reconstituting diocesan life along the Volga. By the spring of 1942, there were about a dozen Orthodox prelates of episcopal rank.

On September 4, 1943, Stalin received Sergius and two other metropolitans in the Kremlin. Stalin authorized the opening of more churches, convents, seminaries, and theological academies, as well as allowing more bishops and the elevation of a new patriarch. Four days later, nineteen bishops assembled and elected Sergius as patriarch. By this time, Red Army forces were pushing the Germans back, and Stalin’s motives in his more supportive religious policy probably revolved around the need for reliable leadership over the thousands of Orthodox parishes that had been established under the German occupation. Stalin probably also perceived an advantage in tapping Russian pride and religious patriotism as Soviet rule was being reestablished in the lands overrun by Hitler. The Russian Orthodox Church emerged from the war with about fourteen thousand churches.

The travails of Orthodox believers in the Soviet Union did not end with the country’s victory in World War II. Nikita S. Khrushchev launched another antireligious assault in the 1959-1964 period, but even Khrushchev’s onslaught did not reduce the Russian Orthodox Church to the desperate straits of 1939. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, late in the twentieth century the church was permitted to reopen thousands of parishes, scores of monasteries and nunneries, and a substantial number of seminaries and theological training schools. During that period, a new law of freedom of conscience was promulgated. Although religious believers continued to encounter problems and difficulties of various kinds, Soviet people found the opportunity to worship, teach children religion, engage in charitable work, and perform other religious functions and duties to an extent not witnessed since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Russian Orthodox Church
Bolsheviks;Russian Orthodox Church

Further Reading

  • Alekseev, Wasilli, and Theofanis G. Stavrou. The Great Revival: The Russian Church Under German Occupation. Minneapolis, Minn.: Burgess, 1976. In specialized publications written in Russian and French, Alekseev presented firsthand and eyewitness accounts of the desperate straits through which the Russian Orthodox Church was passing in 1939 and the church revival experienced in German-occupied territories during World War II. These and other valuable materials are presented here in English.
  • Anderson, Paul B. People, Church, and State in Modern Russia. 1944. Reprint. New York: Hyperion, 1980. Classic, insightful work by the dean of American scholars on religion in the Soviet Union. Anderson played a central role in drawing the Russian Orthodox Church into ecumenical cooperation after World War II. Includes index.
  • Davis, Nathaniel. A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. Wide-ranging and statistically detailed account of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Includes tables and figures, selected bibliography, and index.
  • Ellis, Jane. The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History. London: Croom Helm, 1986. Focuses on the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the late twentieth century and the rise and repression of Orthodox dissent. Provides comprehensive description of churches, clergy, convents, theological education, and other aspects of Orthodox church life during the period covered. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Fletcher, William C. A Study in Survival: The Church in Russia, 1927-1943. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Highly respected American scholar of religion in the Soviet Union traces the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s travails through the turnaround that followed Stalin’s reception of Metropolitan Sergius in 1943. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. Comprehensive account of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church from prehistory to current times.
  • _______. The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime, 1917-1982. 2 vols. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984. Analyzes the experience of the church under Soviet rule, drawing on published and unpublished documents as well as interviews. Includes extensive footnotes and bibliography.
  • Struve, Nikita. Christians in Contemporary Russia. Translated by Lancelot Sheppard and A. Manson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. Highly sensitive and deeply informed account presents poignant and illuminating vignettes of religious life in the Soviet Union in 1939. Also provides coverage of later periods. Includes index.
  • Timasheff, Nicholas S. Religion in Soviet Russia, 1917-1942. 1942. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Classic work conveys the realities of the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church before and during World War II.

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