From 1721, in the days of Peter the Great, the Russian Orthodox Church was governed by a Holy Synod appointed by the czars. But the last czar, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, under the sway of the "holy devil" Rasputin, governed so badly that the Russians revolted. The nation's Orthodox leaders actually welcomed the revolution of March 1917, which announced religious freedom.
The church saw the czar's removal as an opportunity to free itself of state controls. No longer would it be a puppet of secular authorities. In August, Russian Orthodoxy reintroduced its earlier patriarchal system of government and in December elected Patriarch Tikhon. Churchmen did not realize that a bad system was about to be replaced with a worse.
In a revolution within a revolution, the Bolsheviks (Communists) under Lenin seized control of Russia. Communism is hostile to religion. A central teaching of its "prophet" Marx was that religion reflects the world of class societies; institutional religion impedes progress towards a classless society, the goal of Marxism. As the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, they placed more and more restrictions on the church.
On December 4, 1917, the Bolsheviks confiscated church lands. A week later, they took control of schools that had once provided religious education. Students would now be force-fed Communist propaganda. On this day, December 18, 1917 the Communists completed their first offensive campaign against the church by making marriage a civil, not a religious, ordinance.
Over the next two years the Communists murdered 28 bishops and countless priests. By 1938, the Communists had closed 70,000 Russian Orthodox churches and chapels and all of the monasteries and seminaries. 280 bishops and at least 45,000 priests had perished.
As the Communists piled outrage upon outrage, Patriarch Tikhon remonstrated, "Think what you are doing, you madmen! Stop your bloody outrages! Your acts are not merely cruel, they are the works of Satan, for which you will burn in hell fire in the life hereafter and will be cursed by future generations in this life." But the Bolsheviks showed little concern for such warnings.
For eighty years, a brutal repression of religion by the Communists continued. Late in the twentieth century there was a tremendous change in the political and religious situation in Russia. Thanks to the bravery of East European Christians, the resistance of Muslims to Soviet occupation and to the clearheaded policies of an American president, the tyranny broke.
During those years of awful suffering, the church showed an amazing power to survive--a power that the Communists had not factored into their materialistic equations. Communism collapsed but the church lived on. Christians know that the survival of the church is owing to the power of Christ at work in common people.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Hutten, Kurt. Iron Curtain Christians. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing, 1967.
- Janz, Denis R. World Christianity and Marxism. New York: Oxford University, 1998.