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Sergei's declaration marks the last attempt on the part of the Soviet government to bring into existence a reliably loyalist and totally quiescent church (at least until 1943). A major shift in government policy away from what we might perhaps call subversion of the church towards outright repression occurred in 1928-9. It could be seen in disputes that took place in the congress of the League of the Godless that took place in June 1929 between the League's head, Emil'yan Yaroslavsky and a more interventionist policy advocated by representatives of the Moscow branch of the League and of the Komsomol. The tension already existed as early as 1923. Yaroslavsky, a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and chairman of the body in charge of internal discipline, the Central Control Commission, had founded the paper The Godless in December 1922 but he had a rival, founded in 1923, in the form of The Godless at the Workbench, published by the Moscow Communist Party, edited by Mariia Kostelovskaia, and supported by the Komsomol. The League of the Godless was formed, under Yaroslavsky's direction, through a merger of the groups that supported the two papers but a tension between them continued. Yaroslavsky was accused of wanting to substitute a Marxist religious frame of mind for the Orthodox religious frame of mind and of being sympathetic to the reforming currents in Orthodoxy, believing that they were steps on the road towards a fully fledged atheism:

'In Pravda in January 1925 Kostelovskaia criticised the League's propaganda, in particular the mixing of religious and revolutionary terminology. She pointed out that the earliest anti-religious activists were those who at one time had been close to religion, such as former clergy, those with seminary educations and former "God-builders" and "God-seekers." Due to their influence, "Godlessness (bezbozhie) ... [was] built in the manner of a religion, only a religion of a particular type ... communist religion." Kostelovskaia argued that it was necessary to transfer control of anti-religious propaganda from these narrow specialists to working-class agitators. In his response in Pravda, Yaroslavsky did not refute the specific charge that those who had been close to religion were responsible for creating a counter-religion of communism. And he justified the promotion of a substitute culture as absolutely necessary given the cultural level of the masses. He also maintained that anti-religious propagandists should study religion in order to understand it better. The issue arose again a year later in April 1926 during the Central Committee's conference on anti-religious propaganda when the Komsomol activist and Kostelovskaia supporter, M. Galaktionov, charged that Bezbozhnik coddled former priests. After days of rancorous debate the conference passed resolutions rejecting Kostelovskaia's views, including attacks on specialists, and urging the training of activists with some knowledge of religion, especially sects.' (32)

(32) Daniel Peris: 'Priests in red cassocks: Former priests in the League of the Militant Godless', Slavic Review, Vol 54, No 2 (Summer 1995), p.353.


N.Kogout: Religious spirit in Soviet life
The Soviet person: 'Look at our tree. We've liberated it from old superstitions.'
God (under the lampshade): 'He!He! New song, same old tune ...'
The Godless at the Workbench No.12, 1928 (photo from the David King collection, London, reproduced in Andrew Skira: The Avant-Garde Icon)

Kostelovskaia's reference to 'former "God-builders" and "God-seekers"' is a direct attack on Lunacharsky, still in position as Commissar responsible for education and culture. 

These accusations came to the fore again (and again in the person of Galaktionov) in 1929, when the League changed its name to the League of the Militant Godless. 1929 also saw Lunacharsky losing his position as Commissar for Enlightenment. Daniel Peris maintains that the 'culturalist' group round Yaroslavsky won the debate:

'The main resolution on anti-religious work opened with fire and brimstone: religious organisations were calculating counter-revolutionary groups actively seeking through devious machinations to depose Bolshevism. With only minimal contradiction, the resolution then hailed the progress against religion in the Soviet period. These matters now aside, the rest of the resolution addressed specific issues such as combating religious holidays, propaganda work among women and youth, better training of activists, further development of propaganda forms such as art, film, lectures and museums - all points on the culturalist agenda ...'

but he continues:

'The culturalists may have won the battle at this congress, but ironically they lost the larger war. Changes in the legal status of religion in 1929 and the forced closure of churches and exiling of priests during collectivisation and dekulakisation struck a tremendous blow against popular religious expression. More broadly, the turmoil of the cultural revolution, in which the Komsomol played a leading role in undermining institutions and organisations it saw as bureaucratic and/or bourgeois, and the eventual full crystallisation of Stalinism during the 1930s, meant that administrative measures and compulsion would ultimately play a key role in Soviet efforts to engineer a socialist society' (33)

(33) Daniel Peris: 'The 1929 Congress of the Godless', Soviet Studies, Vol.43 No.4 (1991), pp.724-5.

Emil'yan Yaroslavsky


I don't think it is possible for me at this point to enter into any sort of adequate account of this next, most dramatic, phase in the story. The point of what has been written so far is that, starting from a position in which the new state and the Church confronted each other as enemies, an attempt was made to effect some sort of reconciliation, meaning a church, or churches that would accept fully the legitimacy of the government, that would not embody and promote an alternative and, in the eyes of both sides, irreconcilable view of the world. The Renovationists, who were the best prospect for a convincing, willing, acceptance of the new society, failed largely because of a modernising programme that resembles nothing so much as the modernising programme that spread through all the Christian churches in the twentieth century, even, with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church. The  reconciliation of the mainstream Orthodox church was a product of coercion and therefore unconvincing, with the most impressive elements of the church continuing in opposition. It is in these circumstances that, with the onset of radical transformation of the society under the first five year plan, the decision was made to drop all attempts at reconciliation, or encouraging a gradual withering away of religious belief, and to launch an all out assault.

Christ the Saviour cathedral, Moscow, 1932

Through the 1930s all the different religious groupings, including the most apparently 'loyal', were persecuted relentlessly. 'Continuous production weeks' with arbitrarily distributed rest days were introduced from 1929, doing away with Sundays as a day of rest. This was formalised in 1931 into a system of six day weeks. New laws on religious associations specified that clergy could only operate in their areas of residence, so that areas without any clergy could not be supplied. The local soviets could reject individual members of church councils meaning they could abolish them, or infiltrate them at will. In the first Five Year Plan (1928-33), priests, Bishops and parishes were classified as 'profit making enterprises' meaning they were subject to unrealistic tax demands. In addition the clergy were deprived of the means of earning income through civilian jobs and evicted from state and nationalised housing, meaning that they had to pay the very high rents demanded by the remaining private landlords. 

The eradication of religion was announced as one of the aims of the second five year plan, begun in 1932. By that year, after an intense membership drive, the League of the Militant Godless claimed some five million members, though by 1938, this had dropped to two million of whom only 13% paid their dues. Somewhat disappointingly at the end of this second plan a census in 1937 which included a question on religion found that some 80 or 90 million people (45-50% of the population) put themselves down as 'believers'. But by 1941, official Soviet literature claimed that there were only 4,225 churches still open in the USSR, 3,000 of which were in the territories annexed in 1939 and 1940. In 1930 (admittedly the year when he claimed there was no persecution of the church) Sergei had claimed to have 30,000 churches under his jurisdiction.

According to Pospielovsky (pp.163-4) 'It took the 1930s, with their wholesale persecution and destruction of all churches, to force the believers to accept any functioning church remaining in a given district, be it Sergiite, Josifite, Renovationist or any other. This situation made possible the Sergiite 1943 concordat with the Soviet government and the acceptance by the believers and the surviving clergy of a church totally loyal and submissive to the state.'

I think this is Serge as patriarch (left) with the man who would be his successor, Alexei (Simansky).

The '1943 concordat' came about because Stalin realised that traditional Russian patriotism - inseparable from an identification with the Church - had to be mobilised in the struggle against the German invasion. This was the more obvious because of the recent - pre-German invasion - seizure of territory in the Baltics in which the churches were still free; and because one of the few intelligent aspects of German policy in the occupied territories was to open the churches that had been (in many cases only recently) closed by the Bolsheviks. Also Sergei had, almost immediately, and before Stalin's own 'Brothers and sisters' appeal to Russian patriotism, called on Orthodox believers to rally to the defence of the country. In 1943, therefore, the patriarchate was - notionally at least - restored, with Sergei elected as patriarch.

It was very notional, falling far short of the requirements set by the 1917-18 Council. Sergei was chosen by some nineteen bishops who were still at large, or who had been rapidly released from imprisonment for the occasion. The patriarchate had been in suspension since the death of Tikhon. As we have seen, his 'locum tenens', Peter, had been imprisoned and incommunicado since 1926 until he was shot in 1937. From that point onwards it could be said that Sergei's authority had lapsed and passed to the other candidates named by Tikhon, Metropolitans Agafangel and Kirill, both of whom, apart from being very old, had gone into opposition to Sergei. A large part of the Orthodox community still refused to recognise Sergei's status as patriarch, but he died soon after and, in the circumstances following the war, when Stalin was still favourably disposed to the Church, a much more convincingly representative council was held which elected Sergei's closest associate, Alexei (Simansky), Metropolitan of Leningrad (he had stayed in Leningrad, celebrating the liturgy, throughout the length of the siege).

That marks the real beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church as we know it, continuous to the present day, a church which in the post war Soviet era, behaved towards the Soviet government, even in the period of Khrushchev's renewed oppression, in much the same way that the pre-Revolution church had behaved towards the Tsarist government; but which has now - somewhat ironically in the light of the story that has just been told - emerged as the most powerful Christian church in the world, after the papacy.

The restored Christ the Saviour cathedral, Moscow