Staunton, May 6 – In a conclusion with obvious implications for the current situation not only for the Russian Orthodox but also for other faiths, a Moscow commentator argues that the Soviets were unable to destroy popular Christianity by killing priests but succeeded in doing so after they had established a loyal and dependent Orthodox hierarchy.
As a result of Soviet anti-religious efforts in the 1920s, there were almost no Orthodox priests left in the country, the blogger “Tolkovatel’” writes in a post today, but the destruction of the priesthood “did not affect the religiosity of Soviet people.” It only drove it underground as various scholars have shown in recent years (ttolk.ru/?p=17016).
Lacking priests, members of the laity began to hold services, and as a result, throughout the USSR, there was “a wave” of sectarianism, with ever more self-proclaimed religious leaders proclaiming themselves prophets and preaching their own, often highly individualistic doctrines and practices, many of them highly eschatological.
Their followers did not pay taxes, refused to serve in the Red Army, did not respond to Soviet campaigns, did not have Soviet documents and did not send their children to Soviet schools. As a result, they quickly became the object of attention from the secret police, but their arrests, exiles and even executions did not have the desired effect: Many of these “popular” believers saw such things as evidence that they were living in the end days.
Some of them, Russian historians say, welcomed the arrival of the Germans and the reopening of churches in German-occupied portions of the country, but most viewed the restoration of the Patriarchate as unimportant because they believed that the priests who were cooperating with the state were an even better reason to stay away from regular churches.
In the late 1940s, reports by the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox church attached to the USSR Council of Ministers suggest that in some regions these underground groups outnumbered the officially working churches by as many as two to one and were attracting large crowds.
The officially recognized hierarchy regularly asked the state for help in combatting its “popular” opponents, but the record suggests that even in the worst days of Stalinism, the combined forces of the church and the state were insufficient to suppress this underground phenomenon.
The death of Stalin somewhat eased pressure on the “popular Christians” who in some cases were allowed to register officially their formerly illegal bodies. But such tolerance for this group did not last long, and in 1958, Nikita Khrushchev launched his campaign against the sectarians, one scholars say was “even larger than in the 1930s under Stalin.”
This campaign cost the official Russian Orthodox hierarchy many churches: in 1960, there were 13,008 Orthodox churches but by 1970, there were only 7338. But those who were part of the underground and popular form of Christianity were arrested and sentenced to prison and the camps. Others were exiled from the places where they had been active.
In Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, the Moscow Patriarchate played a role, calling on its bishoprics to “conduct work among believers about the impermissibility” of engaging in the kind of activities associated with popular Christianity and even, it appears, encouraging priests to denounce their “illegal” counterparts.
As a result, “Tolkovatel’” says, “that which Stalin was unable to do was achieved under Khrushchev and the early Brezhnev: the almost complete destruction of ‘popular Christianity’ in the USSR” by means of government repression and the active complicity of the officially recognized hierarchy.
This occurred, the blogger concludes on the basis of the work of Russian historians, because “in contrast to the 1930s, when the Russian Orthodox Church considered church dissidents to be its fellow suffers of oppression, in the 1950s and 1960s, [the official church] together with the state went over to the attack against ‘the illegals.’”
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