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Tikhon was released in July 1923, partly in response to international pressure but Pospielovsky suggests that the government was worried that the Renovationists might actually succeed in their effort to reform, and therefore possibly strengthen, the Church, and had decided to sow a little dissension. The politburo agreed to his release 'if he "repented" for crimes against Soviet power and the people, if he publicly declared his "loyalty" to Soviet authority, if he admitted the justness of his prosecution, if he renounced any tie to monarchist and white-guard counterrevolutionary organisations, if he repudiated the new Karlovitskii church council, if he rejected the machinations of foreign clergy and if he "expressed his agreement with certain reforms in the religious sphere (e.g. the new calendar).' (20) The proposal to release him on these terms was made by E.M.Yaroslavsky, editor of the main anti-religious paper, Bezbozhnik ('The Godless') and soon (1925) to become the head of the newly formed League of the Godless, about which more later.

(20) Gregory Freeze: 'Counter-Reformation in Russian Orthodoxy: Popular response to religious innovation, 1922-25', Slavic Review, Vol 54, No 2 (Summer, 1995), p.322.

Patriarch Tikhon welcomed on his release from prison, 1923

Tikhon's release certainly had the effect of weakening the Renovationists, as many clergy, including some Bishops, who had assumed they were the only functioning church authority, and may even have believed their claim that they had Tikhon's blessing, now abandoned them. But it seems to me that there was in this period a tension in the Soviet policy between the continued desire to wean the people away from the church, and the apparent promise of the Renovationists that the church could be made an instrument of Soviet policy (as it eventually was after the war). First of all, I don't think it was an accident that this occurred at the time that Lenin, through the state of his health, was losing control of the reins of power. While Lenin had been on form the policy towards the church had been much more uncompromisingly aggressive, including in 1919 a policy of confiscating, exposing to medical examination and public ridicule, the bodies of the saints, believed by church doctrine to be incorrupt. We have already seen the policy of confiscation of church valuables pursued during the famine period. In 1922 and 1923 the Komsomol organised anti-religious carnivals including disruption of Christmas services and assaults on believers. But the party's anti-religious commission, possibly reflecting the growing influence of Yaroslavsky, decided that this method was counterproductive and put a stop to it.

According to Jennifer Wynot's study of monasticism in the Soviet Union, Keeping the Faith (21), 'the results of a secret 1923 census underlined the necessity of making religious policy a priority. The census indicated that 3,126,541 people were involved in religious organisations compared with 1,737,053 in 1910. These figures showed that religion had increased during the first five years of the Bolshevik regime ... At the twelfth Party Congress, in 1923, the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin favoured a more conciliatory policy towards religion. They condemned the arbitrary closing of churches and called for propaganda focussing on a materialistic interpretation of social life, addressing mainly the rural areas. Such a reversal of policy paralleled the political decline of Trotsky, who favoured a more aggressive approach ...'

(21)  Jennifer Jean Wynot: Keeping the Faith - Russian Orthodox monasticism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1939, Texas A&M University Press, 2004. I have this in a Kindle edition that doesn't give page references.


I'm not sure what is meant by 'involved in religious organisations', presumably some sort of active commitment - the figures for simple churchgoing would surely have been much higher. I think she might be wrong about Trotsky who continued to sit on the main commission concerned with religious affairs, together with Tuchkov, throughout this period (Pospielovsky, p.107). According to Geoffrey Freeze, even in March 1922, 'amidst the crisis over the confiscation of Church valuables, Trotskii [his spelling - PB] recommended giving permission for journals by the liberal, loyal clergy.' (22)

(22) Freeze: Counter-reformation, p.335, fn.124

Which is not to say that Trotsky, any more than Tuchkov or Iaroslavsky, had any sympathy for the church, but simply that he was broadly sympathetic to a more 'cultural', less violent approach. In 1923 he published an essay in Pravda -Vodka, the church and the cinema - arguing that the people's commitment to the church was a superficial affair that could be broken by establishing rival attractions:

'As for church-going, the people do not go because they are religious; the church is brilliantly lighted, crowded with men and women in their best clothes, the singing is good – a range of social-aesthetic attractions not provided by the factory, the family, or the workaday street. There is no faith or practically none. At any rate, there is no respect for the clergy or belief in the magic force of ritual. But there is no active will to break it all. The elements of distraction, pleasure, and amusement play a large part in church rites. By theatrical methods the church works on the sight, the sense of smell (through incense), and through them on the imagination. Man’s desire for the theatrical, a desire to see and hear the unusual, the striking, a desire for a break in the ordinary monotony of life, is great and ineradicable; it persists from early childhood to advanced old age. In order to liberate the common masses from ritual and the ecclesiasticism acquired by habit, anti-religious propaganda alone is not enough. Of course, it is necessary; but its direct practical influence is limited to a small minority of the more courageous in spirit. The bulk of the people are not affected by anti-religious propaganda; but that is not because their spiritual relation to religion is so profound. On the contrary, there is no spiritual relation at all; there is only a formless, inert, mechanical relation, which has not passed through the consciousness; a relation like that of the street sight-seer, who on occasion does not object to joining in a procession or a pompous ceremony, or listening to singing, or waving his arms.

'Meaningless ritual, which lies on the consciousness like an inert burden, cannot be destroyed by criticism alone; it can be supplanted by new forms of life, new amusements, new and more cultured theatres. Here again, thoughts go naturally to the most powerful – because it is the most democratic – instrument of the theatre: the cinema. Having no need of a clergy in brocade, etc., the cinema unfolds on the white screen spectacular images of greater grip than are provided by the richest church, grown wise in the experience of a thousand years, or by mosque or synagogue. In church only one drama is performed, and always one and the same, year in, year out; while in the cinema next door you will be shown the Easters of heathen, Jew, and Christian, in their historic sequence, with their similarity of ritual. The cinema amuses, educates, strikes the imagination by images, and liberates you from the need of crossing the church door. The cinema is a great competitor not only of the tavern but also of the church. Here is an instrument which we must secure at all costs!' (23)

(23) Accessible (as of January 2018) here. I have written a poem inspired by Trotsky's argument - Reflections after reading Boris Gunjevic's 'Mystagogy of Revolution' late at night


Jennifer Wynot's reference to a census of 1910 may refer to an enquiry conducted by none other than Alexander Vvedensky, not yet a priest, but much preoccupied with the spread of atheism among the intelligentsia. This was a concern he continued into the 1920s. His central conviction seems to have been that the Church as a reactionary institution lacked intellectual credibility. His contempt for the mainstream Church cannot have been any relieved when, after studying for the priesthood prior to the war, he was refused ordination on the grounds of his Jewish ancestry. (24) Despite his support for the Soviet government ('Soviet power is alone, in the entire world, in all the time of man's existence, in actively fighting for the ideals of good' (25)) he encouraged his clergy to engage in lively polemics in defence of the existence of God.

(24)  According to the Wikipedia account which gives as its main source Edward Roslof: Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, & Revolution, 1905-1946, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002.

(25) Speech "On the relationship of the Church to the Socialist Revolution, Soviet Power and Patriarch Tikhon" given at the Renovationst council of 1923, quoted in Freeze: Counter-Reformation, p.311.

Anatoly Levitin-Krasnov, one of Pospielovsky's most important sources ('a "walking memoir" of Russian Church history') said that 'if he were asked what was his version of "an ideal church community, I would always recall Petrograd of the 1920s." Sermons were delivered not only on Sundays, as before the Revolution, but on weekdays as well. In many churches one or two days a week would be set aside for serious theological lectures, discussions and debates between the clerics and the laity after brief services, for which benches and chairs would be set up in the churches. Practically every church had at least one such popular priest-preacher or priest-teacher around whom believers flocked, until these priests disappeared in the prisons by the late 1920s or early 1930s.' (Pospielovsky, p.170). Pospielovsky doesn't say it (26) but according to the Wikipedia entry on the 'Living Church', 'Anatoly Levitin (1915-1991) was a former Renovationist deacon and a friend of Vvedensky.' 

(26) Though he does say, p.81, that Levitin was an admirer of Granovsky.

The reference to 'brief services' with 'benches and chairs' suggests Renovationist rather than mainstream Orthodox practise. It makes an interesting contrast with another nostalgic account of Orthodox practise under persecution, services conducted by Archpriest Sergius Goloschapov (1882-1937, when, together with many others, he was shot in the Butovo firing range) in the Holy Trinity Church in Nikitniki, Moscow (now a very popular tourist site):

'The electric light did not strike your eyes as the temple was lit only by candles and icon-lamps, which were put out at a certain moment of the service and then lit again, in accordance with the Church rule … On major feasts we celebrated ‘All-night Vigils.’ This meant that we began our worship at ten in the evening and finished at five or six in the morning. Although the mediocrity of our external worship on great festivals was absolutely evident, we did not see it. The warmth of joint prayer transformed everything, our poverty manifested itself in the form of wealth, and our souls were filled with radiant joy.' (27)

(27)  “Our nation still lives according to the values of the regicides" - A talk with Fr. Job (Gumerov) on the new martyrs of the Russian Church, accessible (as of January 2018) here

In some ways the Renovationist-Tikhonite (or patriarchal) division could be compared to the Catholic-Anglican division in sixteenth century England, with the obvious difference that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, unlike the Soviet government, could claim to be (more or less) faithful members of the church they supported; and the Roman Catholic Church had an allegiance to a human authority beyond the borders of the state (all churches worthy of the name would profess a loyalty to a divine authority beyond the borders of the state). Nonetheless in the Renovationists the Bolsheviks had a church which professed a wholehearted support for the state. Tikhon had been tamed to the extent that he ordered his supporters not to oppose the state, and he had formally disowned the emigré Karlovci synod. But the 1917-18 Moscow Council  had declared (in some contradiction to its principle of the separation of church and state) that the head of the government of Russia had to be Orthodox. That was a condition of the legitimacy of government. The 'Tikhonites', unlike the Renovationists, were still not willing to incorporate prayers for the atheist government or any other formal recognition of its legitimacy into their church practice. They were accepting the government de facto but not de jure so theirs was a loyalty that could not be considered reliable in case of crisis. Thus there was a mass imprisonment of clergy who refused to recognise or co-operate with the Renovationists. The willingness of the Renovationists to co-operate with this policy - their willingness to denounce their opponents as counter-revolutionaries - did much to discredit them in the eyes of the mainstream Orthodox faithful.