Back to Politics and Theology Index
Back to article index


There was however within the Church a body of opinion sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. This was the so-called 'Living' or 'renovationist' church and it included some of the group of 32 St Petersburg clergy who had originally called for the summoning of the Council. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution they had formed a 'Union for Church Renovation'. Their initial memorandum sent to their Metropolitan had demanded 'the separation of Church and State, a democratic-conciliar form of administration for the Church, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, services in spoken Russian instead of Slavonic, (10) the reintroduction of married bishops ... They argued that the monastic episcopate was not only contrary to the canons (11) but went against the very heart of the monastic vocation - which was contemplation, silence and obedience. Bishops, in contrast, had to administer, preach, instruct and command. Likewise the Union was against the restoration of the patriarchate on the grounds that it would weaken the conciliar principle and the concept of Christ as the real Head of the Church. A little later they declared that it was the duty of the Church to protect the workers from exploitation by the capitalists ... In this respect, the group was close to Professor (later priest) Sergius Bulgakov, who planned to found a League of Christian Politics, and to Nicholas Berdyaev.' (Pospielovsky, p.47).

(10) Slavonic was the language widely spoken in the Slav world in the ninth century at the time of the missions of SS Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius. Constantine (he assumed the name Cyril shortly before his death) had translated the Greek service books into Slavonic devising a new alphabet for the purpose. It is generally thought that Cyril's alphabet was actually Glaglolitic and that the 'Cyrillic' alphabet was developed later by disciples of his brother Methodius. Slavonic stands in much the same relation to modern Slav languages as Old or Middle English to modern English (ie it is more remote than Elizabethan English).

(11) The 'canons' were various decrees issued by councils of the Church recognised as authoritative, especially the seven 'ecumenical' councils from the first Council of Nicaea (325 AD) to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD.

Bulgakov (left), Berdiaev (right) with their collaborator, the philosopher Vladimir Ern, who died young in 1917.

Bulgakov and Berdyaev were both well known as former Marxists converted to Christianity and both had contributed to the influential collection of essays, Vekhi, strongly critical of the Russian intelligentsia, in particular its ambition to speak for the peasantry while simultaneously ridiculing the religion that was so central to the life of the peasantry. They were both expelled in 1922 and flourished in exile in Paris. Neither, in the event, had any sympathy for the Renovationists once they emerged, with some support from the Bolsheviks, as a distinct anti-patriarchal tendency. Berdyaev comments on the psychological change that he observed following the revolution:

'A new type of man seems to have emerged. There was none of the tolerance and kindness in him so characteristic of the pre-revolutionary type of Russian; none of the longing for what is not; none of the anarchism which respects no rules; no doubts, no subjective reactions, no melancholy, no introspection. All this gave place to a buoyant and somewhat aggressive optimism and a readiness to conform to anybody and do anything. The faces showed eyes firmly fixed on external realities; sympathy and mercy for others, especially for those holding heretical views, became an unknown quality. 'Pushing', self-confidence and thirst for recognition by others dominated human relationships among these people. With the disappearance of the old Russian lie-abed many other and more positive qualities disappeared; but there was greater readiness than hitherto to face trouble and the attendant risk.' (12)

(12) Nicolas Berdyaev: Dream and Reality - An essay in autobiography, London, Goffrey Bles, 1950, pp.227-8

Discussing Lenin, he says:

'Lenin did not believe in man. He recognised in him no sort of inward principle; he did not believe in spirit and the freedom of the spirit, but he had boundless faith in the social regimentation of man. He believed that a compulsory social organisation could create any sort of new man you like, for instance, a completely social man who would no longer need the use of force ...

'Lenin particularly hated any attempt to combine Christianity with socialism. A reforming spirit in the Church was a more harmful thing in his opinion than the Black Hundred. (13) A progressive and regenerated Christianity was worse than the old corrupt Christianity. "A Roman Catholic priest who seduces a girl" writes Lenin' "is much less dangerous than a 'priest without cassock', a priest without the crudities of religion, an intelligent and democratic priest who preaches the making of some little god or other, for you can expose the first priest, condemn him and get rid of him, but you cannot get rid of the second so easily, and to expose him is a thousand times more difficult." This category of 'priest without cassock' plays no small part in anti-religious propaganda and it is a category that is very inclusive indeed. 'Priests without cassock' seems to include everyone who is not a materialist, everyone who acknowledges a spiritual principle in life, albeit in the very smallest degree, and all philosophers who are guilty of any spiritualist or idealist leanings. Even Einstein was recognised as a 'priest in disguise' because he acknowledged the existence of a cosmic feeling which might be called 'religious.' Lenin hated the very word 'religion' and was sharply opposed to regarding socialism as a religion, as Lunacharsky wished to do at one time. Lunacharsky was also a sort of 'priest without cassock' because he preached 'god-construction' which in fact was a form of atheism and even militant atheism ...' (14)

(13) The Black Hundred was the name given by their opponents to the various counter-revolutionary, pro-Tsar and pro-Church groups, often militantly anti-semitic, that developed early in the twentieth century. The term comes from the monks (monks were dressed in black, hence the term 'black clergy' for the monastic clergy as opposed to the 'white' married clergy) who opposed the Polish and Swedish invasions in the early seventeenth century. 

(14) Nicolas Berdyaev: The origin of Russian Communism, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1955 (first published 1937)

In 1919, a conversation took place between Zinoviev and a married priest, Alexander Vvedensky, during which 'Zinoviev told Vvedensky that his group (15) would be the appropriate one for an eventual concordat between the state and the Church.' (Pospielovsky p.52)

(15) Vvedensky presided over a group called the Union of Communities of Ancient Apostolic Churches. The Renovationist movement was made up of this group together with the 'Living Church' presided over by the Archpriest Vladimir Krasnitsky (previously a chaplain to the 'Black Hundred' Union of Russian People) and the Union for Church Renovation, under the man Pospielovsky regards as the most distinguished member of the movement, Bishop Antonin (Granovsky).


Alexander Vvedensky (in front of his art collection)

Relations with the Church were in the hands of a senior GPU officer, Evgeny Tuchkov. 'Tuchkov' according to an academic account, 'who was in his early thirties, had had virtually no formal education: he had risen up through the party organisation from the industrial town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk ... The archives recently opened have revealed that Tuchkov's nickname in the force was 'Igumen' [the Russian equivalent of the 'abbot' of a monastery - PB], that at this period he was living with his deeply religious mother in the branch-house on Pervaya Meshchanskaya street of the Diveyevo convent (the community founded by St Serafim of Sarov), where a few sisters remained. Thanks to Tuchkov's presence the house remained open longer than other monastic branch houses in the capital.' (16) Vvedensky worked closely with Tuchkov.

(16) Ann Shukman: 'Metropolitan Sergi Stragorodsky: The case of the representative individual', Religion, State and Society, Vol 34, No 1, March 2006, p.56.

Tuchkov, third seated from left, with fellow Chekists, probably 1932-3


In 1921, Anatoly Lunacharsky, appointed by Lenin as 'Commissar of Enlightenment' (ie in charge of education and culture) wrote to Lenin about the possibility of creating a Bolshevik tendency within the Church:

'A significant part of the clergy, undoubtedly sensing the stability of the Soviet regime, wants to be reconciled with it. Of course, this renovated Orthodoxy with a Christian socialist lining is not at all desired and finally ... will be eliminated and disappear. But, as an active opposition to the reactionary patriarch and his supporters ... it can play its role because it is based mainly on the peasant masses [how wrong he proved to be! - PB], the backward merchant class, and the more backward part of the proletariat. For these groups, such a temporary centre of clerical unity is a great shift to the left of the one they still find in the reactionary Orthodox church ... We cannot, of course, support the activity of Soviet Orthodoxy. It might, however, be most advantageous to render aid secretly and to create in the religious arena several transitional stages [on the way to atheism] for the peasant masses.' (17)

(17) Quoted in Edward Roslof: 'The heresy of "Bolshevik" Christianity: Orthodox rejection of religious reform during NEP', Slavic Review, Vol 55, No.3 (Autumn), p.616.


Lunacharsky, third from left, with Lenin, 1920

Lunacharsky is mainly known for his insistence that Communism was a religion, a successor to the great religions of the past - perhaps standing in a relation to Christianity similar to that claimed by Islam in relation to Christianity or by Christianity in relation to Judaism. Almost the very day he was appointed as Commissar, concurrently with the Bolshevik seizure of power, he resigned following what turned out to be a false news report that in the storming of the Kremlin the cathedral church of St Basil had been destroyed (apparently much of the interiors of the Kremlin churches were indeed badly damaged by vandalism). Lunacharsky was a product of what Berdyaev has called the 'silver age' - the period between the end of the nineteenth century and 1914 when there was an intense interest among intellectuals in aesthetic and religious questions. Vvedensky was also (like Berdyaev himself - Lunacharsky had worked out many of his most basic ideas in dialogue with Berdyaev) a product of the Silver Age. As a young man he frequented what was almost the temple of the movement, the salon of Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Zinaida Gippius who, among much else, organised 'religious and philosophical' encounters between intellectuals and churchmen, presided over by Ivan Stragorodsky, then rector of the St Petersburg Theological Academy, later to become Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky), second patriarch after Tikhon if one accepts the validity of his election.

Pasternak's novel Dr Zhivago is an account of the fate of a typical product of the Silver Age living through the age of Soviet power.

Pospielovsky quotes a 'secret internal order' from Lenin, dated 22nd February 1922 in which he argues that the famine then raging throughout the RSFSR was a unique opportunity 'to gain a full and crushing victory over our enemy' by seizing the wealth of the Church:

'It is precisely now when there is cannibalism in the famine stricken areas that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of valuables with fanatical and merciless energy and not hesitate to suppress any form of resistance ... it is precisely now that we must wage a merciless battle against the reactionary clergy and suppress its resistance with such cruelty that it will remember it for several decades ... The more members of the reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot the better. It is precisely now that we must give such a lesson to these characters that they would not dare to think of any resistance for at least the next few decades ...' (pp.94-5).


The document was never formally published in the Soviet Union and first appeared in the emigré press in 1970 so its authenticity may well be doubted but it does fit quite well with the actual course of events. In 1921, following an appeal to the world by Maxim Gorky in July, Tikhon had helped to organise an All-Russian Famine Relief Committee seeking international aid, particularly through religious figures such as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In September the Committee was arrested and replaced by a government body. On 19th February 1922 Tikhon called on church associations to donate church valuables, excepting utensils used for the sacraments, to support the famine relief effort. This was initially reported in the Soviet press but on 23rd February the government issued an order that church valuables, including materials used for the sacraments were to be forcibly confiscated. This inevitably led to violent confrontations throughout the country. In Petrograd, in March, the Renovationists, including Vvedensky and Krasnitsky, published a letter attacking the church majority as counter-revolutionary and insisting on the immediate and total surrender of all church valuables. But their Metropolitan Venyamin (Kazansky) came to an agreement with the authorities (presumably Zinoviev) by which church valuables were subject to confiscation, but the believers could make collections to offer money equal to the value of the sacramental objects. In May, Tikhon was placed under house arrest for resisting the confiscation of the church valuables and in these circumstances Vvedensky, Krasnitsky and Bishop Antonin (Granovsky) took over the administration of the church, calling a conference in August when they declared Antonin as Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.

Antonin Granovsky

Venyamin in Petrograd refused to recognise this and temporarily excommunicated Vvedensky, who turned up several days later with the former chairman of the Petrograd Cheka and threatened Venyamin  that if he did not revoke the excommunication he would be put on trial for opposing the confiscation of church valuables, which could result in a death sentence. Venyamin refused to give in to this pressure, was arrested, put on trial and shot together with three of his clergy. Vvedensky did not appear at the trial because he was hospitalised after a rock had been hurled at him by one of Venyamin's supporters (the main Renovationist witness was Krasnitsky whose past association with the anti-semitic Union of Russian People was pointed out by Venyamin's Jewish defense counsel).

Trial of Metropolitan Benjamin (Venyamin) for 'counter-revolutionary activities'.

Vladimir Krasnitsky at the first renovationist sobor (council)

Pospielovsky claims (p.99) that in the course of the confiscation of church valuables: '2,691 married priests, 1,962 monks, 3,447 nuns and an unknown number of laymen loyal to the patriarch were physically liquidated in the course of 1921-1923.' However he gives as his source (or rather gives as the probable source of his own source, Peter Struve, major theorist both of the Russian Social Democratic Party at its origins and of the 'bourgeois' Constitutional Democratic Party, now an emigré) the 'Renovationist bishop Nikolai Solovei'. This is a very dubious source. Solovei had been sent abroad by the Renovationists to try to influence emigré opinion in their favour but instead had attempted to join the anti-Bolshevik emigration by denouncing the Bolsheviks. When he failed to win their trust however he returned to the Soviet Union, helping the anti-patriarchal campaign by claiming that his anti-Bolshevik activities had been ordered by Tikhon.

The Renovationists held councils, which they claimed were continuing the work of the 1917-18 Council, in 1923, 1924 and 1925. In the 1923 council, held in April-May, they sang 'Many Years' ('God grant you many years', a traditional expression of affection and respect, often sung to church goers on their name days) to the Soviet government, abolished the patriarchate, replacing it with a form of collegiate government, reformed the traditional Orthodox practise with regard to marriage and the clergy, and adopted the Gregorian calendar. Initially it would have looked as if they could succeed. They secured control of most of the churches in the major cities, their reforms were popular among the clergy, and the 'Tikhonites', deprived of their own printing facilities and with Tikhon himself under house arrest, had no means of countering their influence other than word of mouth. Furthermore, and very interestingly, they had the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople.


It happens that their Moscow council of April-May 1923 coincided with the equally suspect 'pan-Orthodox congress' held in Constantinople in May-June 1923 under the direction of the patriarch Meletius Metaxakis, which threw the Greek church into disarray by replacing the Julian calendar with what was effectively the Gregorian calendar with a slight variation that enabled them to call it the 'Reformed Julian calendar'. This was part of a drive towards closer relations with non-Orthodox churches, in particular the Church of England (which was present as an observer at the Congress) at a time when the prospect of recovering Constantinople was being dangled before the eyes of the Greeks by the British, who were still occupying the city (the occupation - and the hopes of the Greeks and of this very political patriarch - came to an end in October). (18)

(19)  See Bishop Photius of Triaditsa: The 70th Anniversary of the Pan Orthodox Congress at

Meletius (Metaxakis), Patriarch of Constantinople (as Meletius IV), 1921-3. 

The reason why I have been hesitant about calling the establishment of the patriarchate a 'restoration' is that the seventeenth century patriarchate had the blessing of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Although, as already noted, Constantinople was under Ottoman control and the Russian church was de facto self-governing, this could still be regarded as a de jure condition of the establishment of a patriarchate. But in all I have read on the Moscow Council of 1917-18 I have seen no suggestion that the approval of Constantinople was either sought or given. It might have been difficult given that Russia and Turkey were at war, and also that the final decision was made very rapidly, apparently in response to the Bolshevik takeover. Nonetheless there are those who believe on the basis of the canons that were agreed while the Roman Empire was still in existence, centred on Constantinople, that the Patriarch of Constantinople has sovereignty over the Orthodox world, and it is difficult to see how a patriarchate could be created without the consent of another patriarch. On this reading, of course the Russian Church, was uncanonical during the whole period of Peter's Holy Synod (it would, in fact, be difficult to argue otherwise. Its architects, Peter and Feofan, seem to have had no consideration in mind other than their own idea of what would be best). On this reading a canon lawyer could argue that the Renovationist councils, which did have the support of Constantinople, were more valid than the first, if I'm right in thinking that it didn't. (19)

(19) I may be exaggerating here, but although the Pan-Orthodox Congress passed a resolution supporting the imprisoned Tikhon, Constantinople and Alexandria were represented at the second Renovationist council held in 1924. There could be no doubting the 'renovationist' spirit of Meletius Metaxakis.