Staunton, January 8 – During the 74 years of Soviet power, communist officials destroyed thousands of religious facilities as part of their campaign to wipe out religion. Their efforts have been widely documented. What is less well known is that at the same time, believers often modestly and illegally nonetheless were able to construct several dozen new ones.
That largely unknown history now has been documented in the latest post by Zen-Yandex’s Subjective Guide portal which provides names, locations and in some cases pictures of these institutions (zen.yandex.ru/media/varandej/cerkvi-postroennyi-v-sssr-ih-ne-tak-uj-malo-5ff572c1af142f0b17347678).
The article’s author, who isn’t named, says that when he first encountered references to the construction of churches in Russia and other former Soviet republics in 1949-1953, he assumed that this was “a typo.” But having looked into the matter, he is now very much aware that it isn’t and that many cities and villages have churches that were built precisely then.
But the history of the construction of churches in Soviet times is far broader than the last years of Stalin’s rule. There are a few churches which were built in areas that the White Armies controlled, as in Omsk; and there are more which survive from places that weren’t originally part of the USSR, the Baltic countries, Finland, and western Belarus and Ukraine, and Moldova.
These are not properly Soviet-era constructions, nor is the existence of an Orthodox church built in Kyzyl, the capital of Tyva, which was nominally independent until the end of World War II but in fact controlled by Moscow and as sometimes happened, the author continues, more communist than the capital.
But churches were constructed throughout the 1920s as if the revolution had never happened, only to be closed and then reopen, both during Stalin’s rule. The author notes that “if the political Thaw in the USSR took place under Khrushchev, then the religious one did under the late Stalin.” In fact, Khrushchev was far more anti-religious than his predecessor.
Yet another category of Soviet-era churches were those erected or reopened by German forces when they invaded the USSR. But they constitute a relatively small portion of all such churches. In fact, “between 1945 and 1960, 90 percent of all churches in the USSR were built,” the author says.
Some were built in mining centers – no one is an atheist in the mines, he continues – or in distant locations where there were few other centers for public activity. But most were built not in “traditionally religious” Ukraine or Russia but rather in Central Asia, where the authorities closed mosques routinely but allowed some Russian churches to operate for Russians.
This perhaps unexpected development reflected the desire of Moscow to support Russian migration there and of republic officials not to appear anti-Russian and the efforts of Tashkent Archbishop Ermogen who in the second half of the 1950s took the lead in building churches and even a cathedral for himself.
As a result, the Subjective Guide says, “the best Russian churches [from Soviet times] are located in Central Asia” (stress supplied). They now have few parishioners and are typically very poor, but they are being maintained and will presumably last as long as the Russian communities there do.
The very first church Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika regime allowed to be built was in Murmansk in 1985-86. But other buildings which had earlier been churches were then regularly being reclaimed. In many cases, the portal says, these Soviet-era churches retained many of the outward signs of how they had been used by the communists.