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Aggressive atheism in the Soviet era

Published time: July 22, 2008 11:12
Edited time: July 22, 2008 11:12
Demolition of churches in the 1930s, from

Demolition of churches in the 1930s, from

This is the seventh in a series of RT reports on Christianity in Russia, from its arrival more than 1,000 years ago to the present day. During Soviet times the Orthodox Church endured tough times. But despite the persecution, it managed to survive and pre

After Joseph Stalin’s rise to power, the war on religion took an unprecedented scope. Church services and religious books were forbidden, it was also prohibited to campaign against or criticise atheism. Orthodox priests and believers were tortured, imprisoned, sent to labour camps and executed. Many fled abroad. Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use. New churches were not built. Practicing Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in Communist organisations. The government openly sponsored and encouraged anti-religious propaganda.

By the beginning of World War II the Church structure was almost completely destroyed throughout the country. Stalin started to scale down the persecutions only after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The catastrophic course of the war forced him to mobilise all national resources for defence and seek the moral support of the Church. Without delay churches were opened for services and clergy released from prisons. The process culminated in Stalin’s receiving with three chief hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943. The meeting marked the start of a warming up in relations between the Church and the state. The key state’s concession was the permission to elect a new Patriarch. But the Church still remained firmly under the state’s grip.

The relationship soured again after Nikita Khrushchev took office. By the start of the 1960s the new Soviet leader kicked off his own campaign against the Church. Not as brutal as that of the 1930s, it still dealt the Russian Orthodox Church a massive blow. Anti-religious propaganda gathered pace, a new wave of imprisonments and church closures began, while Khrushchev publicly promised to show the last remaining priest on Soviet television.

Things started looking brighter after Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964. Yet, anti-religious drives were still frequent and the Church and the government remained on unfriendly terms until 1988. In practice, the key side to the story was that openly religious people couldn’t join the Communist Party, barring them from holding any political office. But restrictions didn’t stop many across the country from remaining devoted worshippers.

Some Orthodox believers and even priests took part in the dissident movement, actively challenging the established regime. Among the prominent figures of that time was Father Alexander Men, a theologian, scholar and writer. Often referred to as the architect of Russia’s religious renewal, he lectured extensively, gaining access to radio and television and becoming a nationally known figure. Murdered outside his home in 1990, Men is widely seen as a martyr by Russia’s Orthodox community.

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Bolsheviks raze Orthodox Church to the ground