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Whichever of these two versions is closer to the mark, the fact is that the pressure of external events towards any sort of democratic reform had ceased and the democratic movement had been severely repressed under Pyotr Durnovo as Minister of the Interior, followed in 1906 by Stolypin. Stolypin was interested in economic reform but not particularly in Church reform. In 1917, however, after Nicholas's abdication, some sort of Church reform was inescapable and the council envisaged in 1905 was authorised by the Provisional Government and finally opened on August 15th/28th (Feast of the Dormition). It was constituted on a basis that gave lower clergy and laity a vote, while giving the Bishops alone the final say. This was a principle that had been proposed in the 1905-7 discussions by Archbishop Sergei (Stragorodskii), then Archbishop of Finland, now Archbishop of Vladimir, and destined to play an important role in what follows.

The sobor (council) continued to meet until September 1918 making many decisions on the right ordering of the Church now that it was independent of the state, but since all power was taken out of their hands by the Bolshevik revolution, the only decision that really mattered was the creation of the patriarchate. One of the first decrees Lenin issued, on January 10th/23rd 1918, after the suppression of the Constituent Assembly on January 6th/19th (The Feast of the Theophany, as it happens): 

'separated the Church from the state and nationalised all former Church property (houses of prayer, schools, seminaries, monasteries, candle factories, charity institutions etc.). It also deprived the Church of the status of a legal person and of the right to acquire property in the future, banning at the same time state subsidies for all religious bodies. Henceforth, property needed for religious use was to be leased by the local government bodies to individual religious associations free of charge but only when and if the local government body found that it could dispose of vacant property for this purpose. Once leased, the property was subject to regular taxes levied on private enterprise ... A decree of January 28th nationalised all bank accounts belonging to religious associations.

'The decree of January 23rd also banned the teaching of religion in all general education schools, whether state or private, and forbade the Church to open any schools of a general nature, or even Sunday schools, to teach exclusively religious subjects. "Citizens may teach and be taught religion [only] privately." The term "citizens" would henceforth always be interpreted as adults only ... Since only groups of laymen were recognised as the contractual party in the leasing of church property, the clergy, including bishops and the patriarch, became legally superfluous, retaining authority with the faithful only as long as the latter agreed to accept them and to fulfil their bishops' orders, which now became more like petitions than orders. This situation obviously invited all sorts of schisms, which were not slow to appear.' (Pospielovsky, pp.31-2)

All this was quite in line with the reference to 'absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state' referred to by Lenin in an article written as early as December, 1905, in the context of the 1905 revolt:

'Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. 

'We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. 

'Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. 

'Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. 

'Only the complete fulfilment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes with the dispensation of this or that dope by the established church. Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church ...

'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 cosy 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 ...

'No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven. 

'That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various “Christians”. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

'The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.' (9)

(9)  First published in Novaya Zhizn, No. 28, December 3, 1905 Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp. 83-87. Accessible at


The clearly expressed ambition of the Bolshevik government was, so far as humanly possibly, to end religious belief and practice as being incompatible with the scientifically based Communist society they wanted to build. But there were two possible strategies for achieving this aim (both of them implicit in Lenin's 1905 article) - through administrative and legal measures making life uncomfortable for the Church, as given in the decree of 23rd January, or through gentler methods of persuasion in the conviction that as the new society developed its advantages would be obvious and the old order would wither away. The two approaches were not incompatible, but the emphasis could shift from one to the other. In the first years, dominated by civil war and famine, from 1917 to 1923, we can say the emphasis was on administrative measures. Then it shifted to a subtler, more 'cultural' approach.

The picture though is complicated by the real danger that the Church could serve as an organising centre for opposition to the new order. Traditionally, at least for the previous few centuries, the Orthodox churches, both in Russia and in the East under the Ottomans, had been politically passive, seeing their role as first and foremost the correct performance of the liturgy, regardless of external political circumstances. But with the Moscow Council, the establishment of the patriarchate, and the role of the church in the nationalist agitations in the Balkans, the signs were that they were aspiring to a more active role in worldly affairs, participating in the mood of intellectual and political liveliness that had produced the Bolsheviks themselves. Lenin's decree of January was aimed at preventing the ambition of the Moscow Council to endow the Church with an independent moral existence. The fact that the Moscow Council continued meeting until September 1918, making detailed arrangements for an independent self-governing all-Russian church was an indication that they did not believe the Bolshevik government would last. Tikhon spoke out against the suppression of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and again against the Bolshevik takeover on the first anniversary of the October/November seizure of power. By September 1919, however, he had decided on a policy of staying out of politics. Though, in the chaos of the civil war, large numbers of clergy were killed and churches vandalised he refused to send even secret blessings to the White army -though nor did he express any support for the forces of the actually existing (Red) government. 

A number of priests and bishops, led by Antony (Khrapovitsky), Metropolitan of Kharkov during the Moscow Council, appointed Metropolitan of Kiev during the brief period of Ukrainian independence, had supported the White armies and gone with them into exile, forming a Synod in Karlovci, Serbia, in 1922. They claimed to be acting under the authority of Tikhon and were fervent in their condemnations of the Soviet government. Tikhon had been made Patriarch through a system of drawing lots (in accordance with apostolic practice given in Acts 1.26) between three candidates chosen by elections. In the elections the candidate who had received most votes had been Antony. Looked at through Bolshevik eyes the Karlovci Synod could be seen as an indication of what the Church could do if left to its own devices.

Meeting of the all-diaspora Russian Church in Karlovci, Serbia (formation of the Russian Church Outside Russia), 1921