Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Russian Orthodox Church Under Lenin's Regime

Soviet anti-religious politics and Church resistance in the early twentieth century.

It was the first attempt to eradicate religion in the Soviet state. Lenin personally was the main initiator of this villainy. At that time, the aim was not reached, but the foundation was laid for the future evil deeds and militant secularization embodied in a systematized programme of state sponsored pogroms and genocide against the Russian Orthodox church, clergy, monastics, and believers--the people of Russia.

In the literature on the history of this period, particularly atheist literature, one frequently finds the assertion that Patriarch Tikhon began his activity by "anathematizing Soviet power" (e.g. Ateisticheskiy slovar. Moscow. 1986, p. 17). This statement is untrue both formally and in essence. It is based, first and foremost, on an incorrect understanding of church terminology. The anathema, as the highest form of church punishment, means nothing but the removal, the separation from the Church of one of its members who has renounced it or violated its main dogmas and commandments. It is obviously impossible to separate a form of state government from the Church, just as it is impossible to separate from the Church a person who is not a member of it. By pronouncing an anathema against one of its members, the Church forbids believers to commune with him in divine service, deprives him of his participation in prayers and rights to take part in church sacraments which, according to the doctrine of the Church, give hope for eternal salvation. Thus, only individuals belonging to the Church can be anathematized and only for concrete acts.

It was precisely this that was announced in Patriarch Tikhon's letter of 19 January/1 February, 1918, which became known as the "anathema of Soviet power":

"Persecution of Christ's truth has started by the overt and covert enemies of that truth and in place of Christian love seeds of spite, hatred and fratricidal warfare are being sown everywhere. Christ's commandments about loving thy neighbor are forgotten and trampled upon: every day news reaches us about terrible and bestial murders of the totally innocent and even of people lying on a bed of sickness and guilty only of performing with honor their duty to the Homeland, of doing their utmost to serve the people's good... Stop, madmen, put an end to your massacres... With the power given to Us by God, We forbid you to partake of Christ's sacraments, we anathematize you, if you still bear Christian names and belong to the Orthodox Church at least by birth."

Patriarch Tikhon

So an anathema could be pronounced only on members of the Church (who belonged to it at the least by virtue of being christened at birth) for an openly proclaimed and committed violation of the second most important Christian (or, more precisely, Old Testament, and even more broadly-universal human) commandment:

"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"; "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God... This is the first and great commandment". Mt. 22: 37-40.

The leaders of the revolutionary movement could, of course, in their turn accuse believers of violating the commandment to love their neighbor and offer their own, revolutionary and class interpretation of this commandment, but it was unlikely that any of them would claim to remain a member of Christ's Church then. The declaring of them to be cut off from the Church was only confirmation of something that had already taken place in accordance with their own free will.

The anathema was not a curse on Soviet power in essence either, since the Church adhered to the principle of non-intervention in the political struggle and left it to the people to elect the type of state system they wished for themselves. Of course, separation from the Church was regarded as a punishment by believers, but one must realize clearly that revolutionary brutality was arousing the moral indignation of believers even without the Patriarch's letter – the official church act rather channeled this indignation into a lawful framework, preventing acts of revenge and shifting attention from the sphere of political struggle to the religious sphere.

Dated the day before the Decree on the separation of the church from the state, the Patriarchal anathema was basically a response to the Decree which was being prepared and widely discussed in the press. By virtue of the same logic, according to which atheists regarded the church anathema as a "declaration of war", believers also saw the Decree of separation of church and state as a kind of "anathema", a separation or excommunication of them from the state, a deprivation of their civil rights ensured by the state, a declaration of "war" by Soviet power against Orthodoxy.

One of the clauses of the Decree in particular confirmed this view: according to the Decree, the Church was separated without church buildings, and all its property was declared to belong to "the people", i.e. the state. Henceforth any building – church, monastery or teaching establishment – could on the whim of the civil authority be confiscated from the Church and used for other purposes. Thus the Decree, in particular, gave great advantages to non-Orthodox communities which did not have buildings for worship; and the various Evangelical/Protestant sects were not slow in making use of these advantages: a period of rapid growth began for them. The possession of splendid churches and public buildings was one of the main embellishments of the Orthodox Church as the official and state Church.

Naturally, the Church would not and could not give up its churches and go over voluntarily to a sectarian form of existence. Moreover, faith made it impossible to surrender the churches without resistance.

According to the ancient canons and firm tradition, the main religious objects used during the celebration of the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular, were sacred and inalienable – their use for other purposes was qualified as "sacrilege". In their religious consciousness, believers extended this idea of the Holy Vessels, the Altar and the Communion Cloth to the whole church. The reason why for many centuries believers had not begrudged money or efforts spent on building and embellishing churches was because they saw them as a kind of corner of the Kingdom of God on earth, regarding them as God's property which would never be used for other purposes, either public or private, by anyone. And suddenly all of this was declared the property of the state, and what is more, an atheist power which could do what it liked with this property and make it the object of all sorts of blasphemy! The decree contained nothing about the confiscation of religious objects (their turn was to come four years later – in connection with the "case of church valuables"), for the time being, the state confiscated from the Church only church buildings – but this was enough to shock believers to the core. And this shock is also expressed in the Patriarch's anathema:

Kronstadt Sailors

"The enemies of the Church have seized power over Her and Her property by force of arms, but you resist them with the force of your faith, your sovereign nation-wide cry, which will stop the madmen and show them that they have no right to call themselves "champions of the people's prosperity" or "builders of the new life by the will of the people", for they are acting quite contrary to the people's conscience."

This is an expression of the natural and just conviction of believers that they too represent the people, and if churches are "the property of the people", they, believers, should also own this property. However, the Decree gave no guarantee that churches would remain at the disposal, if not of the church hierarchy, at least of "religious societies," i.e., ordinary parishioners.

The view taken by believers was that the Decree on the separation of the church from the state was the beginning of the coercive "liquidation" of religion and the Church. This was convincingly confirmed by a number of facts which followed immediately after its publication. The staggering onslaught of atheist propaganda with the participation of state press organs, sacrilege and blasphemy, gave believers the impression that the new power was not leaving religion any chance of a peaceful, legal existence. High-up representatives of that power frequently carried on anti-religious propaganda themselves, what is more, in the most menacing tones.

Thus, at the beginning of 1918 in Petrograd, a series of public addresses was given by the assistant to the People's Commissar of Education, L. Spitzberg (after the February revolution he was a member of one of the commissions of the Holy Synod at the invitation of the new Ober-Procuror V.N. Lvov. He later became an active figure in Renovationism). In his addresses L.Spitzberg appealed to his audience to "depose the King of Heaven"; informed them that a decree on the banning of Communion as an "act of sorcery" was being prepared; talked about the forthcoming official declaration of the Church as a "counter-revolutionary organization"; and dropped threatening hints such as: "The Patriarch is still alive…"

Members of the presidium of VCheKa (left to right) Yakov Peters, Józef Unszlicht, A. Ya. Belenky (standing), Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, 1921

Rumors about such addresses quickly spread round the country. Publications in the Soviet press on church questions were like reports from a theatre of military operations: "The last stake" (about the Patriarch's anathema), "The Church Militant", "The Mobilization of the Church", "The Black Hundred" and so on. Mass blasphemous processions in the streets; the closure of private churches; the closure of religious educational establishments; the banning of teaching scripture in private schools; the beginning of the profaning of saints relics – this is by no means a full list of the signs of the "war" that had broke out, which were reported in the first half of 1918 in the civilian and church press. However, even more serious reports were also appearing: the murder of the priest Peter Skipetrov during an attempt by Red Guards to break into the St. Alexander Nevsky lavra and close it: the firing on church processions in Voronezh and Shatsk on 26 January/8 February and in Kharkov and Tula on 2/15 February; the murder in Kiev by revolutionary "Ukrainian Nationalists" of Metropolitan Vladimir; the "firing on the crowd" on 9/22 February, when the property of the Belgorod monastery court in Perm province was being requisitioned; the shooting of bishops Hermogen of Tobolsk and Andronik of Perm, etc.

We have provided by no means a complete list, but enough names so that the reader can appreciate what sort of mood this must have aroused in believers. The result was undoubtedly a sharp deterioration in the attitude of the mass of believers to Soviet power, which was still by no means strong enough to ignore these moods entirely. In April 1918 a special commission was set up under the People's Commissariat for Justice to put into effect the Decree on the separation of the church from the state. The aim of the commission, as officially stated, was

"to regulate the actions of local authority bodies and clarify complications with the church".

Red Guards

Thus believers were given to understand that many of the excesses were not sanctioned by the central authority and laid on the conscience of local bodies. However, not a year had passed before this commission was reorganized as the "5th (liquidation) department of the People's Commissariat for Justice". This was not just a question of promotion in "rank", but also of the characteristic word "liquidation", which now accompanied all instructions published by the Section. There can be no doubt that believers understood this word unambiguously, and that it was intended to be understood in this way...

The Church's persistent appeals to put an end to civil strife were not heeded. The struggle grew fiercer. In response to the attempted assassination of V.I. Lenin by the Social Revolutionaries, the government passed a resolution on the "Red terror":

Holy New Martyrs of Russia

"All Soviets are instructed to place under immediate arrest right-wing social revolutionaries, members of the massive bourgeoisie and officers and hold them as hostages. Any attempt to hide or start a revolt should be followed immediately by unconditional mass shootings... We must safeguard our rear at once and for all from the White Guard scum... There should not be the slightest delay in the application of mass terror".

Could the Patriarch have approved such actions or even keep quiet about the slanders while still having the chance to speak? To do so he would have had to stop being a Christian: in this trial, revolutionary morality stood in sharp contradiction to Christian morality, and the Patriarch again raised his denunciatory voice.

His Letter to the Council of People's Commissars on the occasion of the anniversary of the October revolution is of such a profound and profoundly categorical nature that it could be applied to all the subsequent decades of communist power's existence:

“You have divided the people into hostile camps and driven them to fratricide of unprecedented cruelty. The love of Christ you have publicly replaced by hatred and, instead of peace, ignited class enmity. And no end is in sight to the war started by you, for you are trying through the hands of workers and peasants to ensure the victory of the specter of world revolution...

They are also executing people who are not in the slightest guilty of anything before you and have merely been taken as "hostages". These unfortunate people are killed in revenge for crimes committed by others who are not of like mind with them while they are often your supporters or share beliefs similar to yours. They are executing bishops, priests, monks and nuns who are guilty of nothing, but have simply been accused without any grounds in a vague and indefinite way of being "counter-revolutionary"...

RELICS OF St. Alexander of Svir

The relations between the Church and Soviet power became most acute in late 1918 and early 1919, when a swift and energetic campaign was conducted to uncover the relics of Orthodox saints. This was a bitter outrage to the religious feelings of believers and at that same time a carefully calculated blow by anti-religious propaganda. The cult of relics in Russian popular religiosity frequently exceeded the limits set by church canons (F.M.Dostoevsky wrote of the "temptations" which resulted from this, for example, in his description of the death of the elder Zosima). This cult encouraged the clergy to "exaggerate" the degree to which the relics had been preserved. It was tacitly assumed that when a shrine with relics was in the shape of a human body, the relics inside it were fully preserved. As the "openings" showed, sometimes (in fact, remarkably often) this was so. But in a number of cases, and here denunciatory anti-religious propaganda received great scope, the relics of saints discovered in the shrine were only partially preserved. The relics which proved to be "incorrupt" were treated shamelessly nevertheless – there can be no other way of looking at it: the sacred remains of the great zealots of the Russian Land were exhibited in museums alongside dead rats and other animals with notices saying "mummified corpses". The systematized uncovering of relics was carried out in accordance with a resolution of the People's Commissariat of Justice of 3/16 February, 1919. In the course of only fierce months about 40 uncoverings took place, with extensive coverage of details in the popular press.

Holy Relics of New Martyrs Grand Duchess Elizabeth & Nun Barbara

Patriarch Tikhon tried to take measures to remove grounds for "desecration and temptation", by sending diocesan archhierarchs a Decree dated 4/17 February, 1919, in which he requested them "at the discretion of each ruling hierarch and should the opportunity arise to take the necessary measures, i.e. to open shrines with relics independently and with reverence and to give the necessary explanations to believers. Evidently, most archhierarchs did not realize the gravity of the situation and did not deem it necessary or have time to take corresponding measures. Nor was there any response to the Patriarch's appeals to the Council of People's Commissars protesting against the removal of relics "as objects of worship". This was a great blow to the feelings of believers: in some it strengthened their faith (and their "grudges" against Soviet power), others, the wavering and superstitious, it took away from the Church.

God cannot be mocked. The persecutors pursued their aims, but without wishing to, accomplished something quite different: the saints of the Russian Land took part in its troubles and grief at this moment of bitter tribulation. The veneration of holy relics, provided that it is not taking to extremes, is not superstition or paganism as the critics of Orthodoxy sometimes maintain. This veneration is one of the manifestations of Christian ontology; of faith in the possibility of salvation and sanctification not only of the soul but also of the flesh; of faith in the fact that the synergetic action of the human will and the Divine Energy can in principle preserve the matter of the body from decomposition and decay – in the final analysis this is a presentiment of the possibility of victory over death already on this earth. And it is not a question of the degree of overcoming death in each individual case – what is immensely important is the fact that the possibility of a victory of the spirit over natural processes exists.

The saint's spirit undoubtedly maintains a profound connection with its physical remains, and mistreatment of relics became in fact a new exploit of the saints, a kind of "posthumous martyrdom" for them. This new and unusual event in church history is yet further evidence of the exceptional significance of the age in which we live. We are deeply convinced that outrageous mistreatment of saints' relics should serve as grounds for a new, additional glorification of these saints – and the days on which the opening took place should become additional dates on which the church remembers them; these dates can be regarded as days of the "second translation of relics".

Emblem of Kolchak's White Army

Meanwhile in the boundless expanses of Russia the fire of civil war was blazing ever more fiercely. The people, whom the Church served spiritually, were divided into two hostile camps. Whose side should the Church take?

Clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a Red infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of Bolsheviks by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1918.

Each side accused the other of bringing in external forces: the ideology of the Whites rested to a large extent on the struggle against the "Masonic world conspiracy" even though many of its leaders had participated in the February Revolution and been members of Masonic lodges; the ideology of the Reds on the struggle against the "intervention of the Entente" even though they had received tacit support and approval from nations of this Entente during the Kerensky regime. The monarchy, as a focal point of national unity, no longer existed – only the Church itself remained such a focal point. Of course, the victory of the Whites would have ensured outer welfare and state protection of the interests of the Church; the power of the Reds was abolishing the Church's leading position and threatening its very existence in the future. If the Church had been only a secular community, one of the various type of universal human associations, it would have proceeded, first and foremost, from its self-preservation, its private interests. In this case, it would have used the full force of its authority and organization to support the White movement: the outcome of the battle was in the balance many times and such support could have been decisive.

Goose and Gridiron, where the Grand Lodge of England was founded

The authority and influence of the Church in this period were still very high. All the energy of monarchist sentiment was concentrated at this time in the Patriarch. Had he declared the struggle against the Bolsheviks to be the religious duty of all believers, the outcome of the revolutionary process might have been quite different. Judging from the statements of revolutionary leaders and their "preventive measures" in relation to the Church, they realized clearly what a great danger such a turn of events would mean for them.

Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), one of the three candidates for Patriarch, who received the largest number of votes at the Council, said later that he would have issued an interdict, i.e., a ban on divine service in all the churches of the Russian Church, until the people had overthrown the Bolsheviks. There is no doubt that had this strong-willed and resolute man become Patriarch, he would have done this, and probably not only this. His political position was firm and unambiguous.

But Divine election did not fall upon him – it was the meek Tikhon who became Patriarch.

The fate of Russia, as many times before in her history, was now concentrated in the hands of one man, dependent upon the decisions of his conscience and was determined by his personal relationship with God. In the ocean of hatred and strife which had flooded this great country, the Church, led by Patriarch Tikhon, truly became an anchor of salvation: Russia was divided, but the Church remained the Church of the whole people, of all Russia.

While mercilessly denouncing the government of the Bolsheviks for its sins against moral law, Patriarch Tikhon also denounced such violations on the part of the White movement. The ideologists of the White movement, having failed to produce a united constructive program which would have attracted the majority of the people to their side, were inclined increasingly towards a negative programme: not to a struggle for something, but to a struggle against something. And this "something", which gave meaning to their cause and explained the unexpected, remarkable successes of the Bolsheviks in the fight for the people's soul, was for many acquiring the features of a mythical "Jewish plot", with the help of which all the historical troubles of Christianity, if not of mankind as a whole, were explained.

Many of the participants in the White Movement in Russia were faced with the real threat of such a moral catastrophe. It was not subservience to Bolshevist ("Jewish" from the position of the Whites) power, but great responsibility to God which led Patriarch Tikhon to do his utmost to reduce the scale of this catastrophe. His appeals to Russian people in the grip of this new temptation, worse than all former ones, came from the very bottom of his grieving pastoral heart. In his letter of 8/12 July, 1919, in the days when the defeat of the Reds seemed inevitable, the Patriarch urged:

"My children! Let this Holy perseverence and charity of the Church and these appeals of ours to endure patiently the anti-Christian strife and hatred seem like weakness to some... – but We beg you, beg all Our Orthodox children, not to depart from this the only saving mood of the Christian...

Refugees on Flat Cars During Russian Civil War

Passions arc raging. Revolts flaring up. More and more new camps are being created. The fire of settling old scores is spreading... Ahead lies more terror. There is news of Jewish pogroms, murdering of the community, irrespective of age, guilt, sex or convictions... May this shame pass you by, Orthodox Russia. May this curse not fall upon you. May your hand not be stained with blood that cries out to Heaven. Do not let Christ's enemy, the devil, ensnare you with the passion of vengeance and disgrace the exploit of your confessorship... Our pain is pain for the light and happiness of Our Holy Church, Our children. Our fears are that some of them may be seduced by this new beast, already showing its open jaws and proceeding from the abyss of the human heart seething will) passions. One outburst of vengeance and you will besmirch yourself forever, Christian, and all the bright joy of your present exploit – your sufferings for Christ – will fade, for where will you give Christ a place then..."

In his letter to the archpastors of the Russian Church of 25 September/8 October, 1919 Patriarch Tikhon recalled firmly the Counciliar resolutions on the Church's non-intervention in the political struggle:

"The establishment of this or that form of government is not a matter for the Church, but for the people themselves. The Church does not link Itself with any definite form of government, for this is only of relative significance... We are convinced that no foreign intervention, and in general nobody and nothing, "will save Russia from discord and destruction until the Righteous Lord relents His anger to mercy when the nation purifies itself in the font of repentance from its many sores" (full text in "Dates and documents").

Bolsheviks Killed By White Guards in Vladivostok

Noting that priests sometimes greeted a change of power locally (i.e. the coming of the Whites) with church bells and a special service, the Patriarch reminded them of the Church rules forbidding the clergy to intervene in political life, to become members of any party, or to "make liturgical and religious rites the instrument of political demonstrations". Prince G.I.Trubetskoy, who took part in the Church Council, later described the "painful impression" which this letter made on members of the White Movement:

"In his pastoral letter dated 25 September (St. Sergius's day), the Patriarch made it the duty of pastors of the church to stand aside from the Civil War. I remember how this communication of the Patriarch's upset those of us who were then close to the Volunteer Army in the south of Russia..."

Subsequently also the Patriarch remained unshakably true to this position proclaimed by the Council. Thus, when at the end of 1921, a council of monarchistically inclined emigre clergy was held abroad (Later to become ROCOR), he replied to it with a Degree of 18 March/I April, 1922 which read:

" I. I recognize the Karlovtsy Council of clergy abroad as not having canonical significance and its communication on the restoration of the Romanov dynasty and appeal to the Genoa Conference as not expressing the official voice of the Russian Church,
2. In view of the fact that the Russian church administration abroad is being diverted into the sphere of political action, the Supreme Church Board abroad is to be abolished".

Of course, by no means did all bishops and priests, and particularly not all ordinary believers, reached by the heights of the spiritual position adopted by the Church Council and the Patriarch. The Church is made up of people, and people are subject to passions, and many members of the Church in this unprecedentedly stressful period were drawn into political and class strife. A segment of the Church, and quite a large one, sided with the "Whites"; another segment, no smaller, split off under the name of "Renovationism" and became "Red". But the spiritual heart of the Church, led by Patriarch Tikhon, withstood both of these temptations and remained true to its historical calling: to witness to Christ and appeal to the Russian people to unite in brotherly love, no matter what the cost of this witness...

* * *

Wounded Soldiers Leaving the Front

After the "winter storm" of 1919, the intensity of the anti-religious struggle diminished somewhat, remaining at a certain "stable" level. Evidently during this period of "incredible difficulties" for Soviet power, among some of its leaders, the tendency to a more moderate, more statesmanly approach to the problem of religion and the church got the upper hand. A significant role in stabilizing the situation at this time was played by the 5th (Liquidation) Section of the People's Commissariat of Justice, led by P.A.Krasikov. This body at least restrained the local authorities from excessive "self-initiative" in the anti-religious struggle.

Surrounded on all sides, the Soviet Republic was forced to set up by compulsory conscription an army of many millions, a considerable section of which must inevitably have consisted of ordinary believers, the children of peasants. To exacerbate relations with them meant running the risk of military catastrophe. Believers were given to understand that the separation of the Church from the state did not mean the former's immediate destruction; most importantly, they saw that a large number of churches were still at their disposal and that the Church leadership under Patriarch Tikhon was continuing its, service. To some extent believers were becoming "immune" to the propaganda onslaught of "militant godlessness". This onslaught was not stopping, of course. Thus, in 1920, the relics of the two greatest Russian saints were opened: Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov. The remains of the Venerable Seraphim were stolen by believers while in transit and were kept hidden until Communism fell.

Patriarch Tikhon tried to prevent the removal of St. Sergius's relics and the closure of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra by sending a protest to the Council of People's Commissars and requesting a personal meeting with Lenin, which was refused. In a letter of 28 August/10 September, 1920 the Patriarch recalled sorrowfully:

"Our famous historian Klyuchevsky, speaking of the significance of the Venerable Sergius and the lavra which he founded, foretold: 'the gates of the Venerable's lavra will be closed, and the icon lamps will be extinguished over his shrine only when we lose entirely the whole spiritual moral treasury bequeathed to us by our great builders of the Russian Land, such as the Venerable Sergius.' Today the lavra gates are being closed and the icon lamps inside it are going out. Well, then? Have we not already lost our external property and been left cold and hungry? We are alive in name only, in fact we are already dead..."

A great difficulty for the Church in determining its relationship to the new state power was the non-independence of this power: it was the offspring and instrument of the Bolshevik party, an ideological organization of a pseudo-religious, not a state, nature. The role and influence of the party in the Soviet state was incomparably greater than the role of the Church in the Russian Empire. The only comparison that can be made, and a fairly relative one at that, is with the role of Christianity in the age of Prince Vladimir.

But, of course, with a different world outlook, aims, methods and consequences. On the one hand, the energy for constructing a new state was drawn from communist enthusiasm, on the other, ideology was a constant and severe obstacle on the way to this construction. There can be no doubt that the new power would have won the Civil War more quickly and with less loss of life, if right from the beginning it had restrained the excessive "zeal" of anti-religious fanaticism. From this point of view it can be said that revolutionary extremism in relation to the Church was a gross political error. The revolutionaries of yesterday, used to working underground and now carried by the wave of history to the heights of state service, for a long time could not get rid of the habit of using aggressive and brutal methods where what was actually needed was patient, daily work which was also responsive and directed towards the future.

Misled by the first, comparatively easy and impressive successes of atheist propaganda, the Soviet leaders decided that the final liquidation of the influence of religion among the "masses" was a matter for the immediate future. Hence, in particular, originated the notorious "godless five-year plans" of the thirties, which ended in complete failure, when during an all-union census the majority of the population, in spite of everything, declared themselves to be believers. Stubbornly under-estimating the depth of religious strivings and traditions, Soviet party leaders at that time greatly over-estimated the political significance of the Church.

Theoretical "dogmatism" may have played a part in this too: the unjustified appelation to Russian history of the experience of the struggle against political clericalism in European revolutions. The Russian church in its relationship with the state was not equivalent to European churches and the papacy in their role in European politics. Hence, the ideological error of the imaginary "counter-revolutionary nature" of the clergy (European scholars have far more grounds for accusing the Russian clergy of excessive political indifference).

This error gave rise to unnecessary and unfounded repressions which, for many decades, reinforced in the souls of believers a profound mistrust, fear and alienation in relation to "Soviet power" (one has difficulty with terminology in describing this period – for example, power never did belong to the Soviets). Examining the difficulties in the way of constructing the Soviet state, we are by no means proceeding from a feeling of sympathy for this or that element of communist ideology – we regard it as profoundly false and extremely dangerous for mankind. But the Church prays for the "well-being" of the lawful state power, and we, following its example, are reflecting on the causes which prevented this "well-being".

It is with great spiritual pain that we approach the account of the most bitter episode in the history of the relations between the Church and The Soviet state: the so-called "matter of church valuables". It was in the course of this episode that a tragic knot of insoluble contradictions and enmity was tied for many decades to come. What is more, in this affair, the state itself embarked on a criminal path – and all subsequent attempts to abandon this path proved unsuccessful.

The summer of 1921 was the beginning of the great famine. Periodic drought in the southern regions of Russia were nothing new – to combat their consequences a special store of grain was set up in pre-revolutionary Russia. In any case, in the reign of Nicholas II such a phenomenon as mass famine had receded into the realm of legend. However, the devastation of the Civil War and, most importantly, the per capita requisitioning of grain by Soviet food squads prepared a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. According to official statistics, there were 26-27 million people living in the areas afflicted by famine. Patriarch Tikhon describes the picture of horror and death in his letter "To the people's of the world and to the Orthodox" (summer 1921):

>"A great disaster has beset Russia, The pastures and cornfields of whole regions, which were formerly the granary of the country and sent their surpluses to other peoples, are burnt by the sun. Homes are empty and villages have turned into cemeteries of unburied corpses. Those who still have the strength are fleeing this realm of horror and death, abandoning their native hearths and land everywhere... It is already impossible to keep count of the victims of the disaster. But in the next few years it will become even worse for the whole country: left without help, the land, until recently still flourishing and fertile, will turn into an infertile and deserted wilderness, for unsown land does not yield grain, and man cannot live without bread. My first word is to you, Orthodox Russia: In the name of and for the sake of Christ, the Holy Church summons you through My lips to a feat of brotherly self-sacrificial love. Hasten to the aid of those in distress with hands full of charitable gifts and hearts full of love and the desire to save your brother who is perishing...

To you, humanity, to you, peoples of the world, I extend my voice. Help! Help the country that has always helped others! Help the country that has fed many and is today dying of hunger... Help without delay! Give broad, generous and unconditional help!…"

In August 1921 Patriarch Tikhon sent this letter to the heads of the Christian churches: the Orthodox Patriarchs, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of York urging them in the name of Christian love to organize collections of money and food to help the starving population in the Ukraine and on the Volga. Then too, on the Patriarch's initiative, the All-Russian Church Committee for Aid to the Starving was founded and collections of funds and aid began in all the churches. There was a steady stream of donations.


However, as Patriarch Tikhon announced in his letter of 15/28 February, 1922, the Soviet Government banned this organization and alt the money collected by the Church was handed over to the Governmental Committee for Aid to the Starving ("Pomgol"). This demand threatened to reduce drastically the activity of believers in raising funds – there was little trust in the governmental committee. According to the evidence of contemporaries, there was a widespread conviction among believers that most of the funds were misused by Pomgol: there were reports in the press at that time about preparations for a conference on trade and economy in Genoa and about the transition to a new economic policy, for which the Soviet state needed to strengthen its financial position quickly. Before this policy could yield noticeable economic fruits, the hungry might simply die. Concerned only about saving the starving people, the Patriarch again appealed to the Church to continuing raising funds for Pomgol and, what is more, to extend this aid by including donations of precious church ornaments and objects, with the exception of those intended for distinct liturgical use. The government allowed this appeal to be published and distributed widely among the population. Nor did the Patriarch's appeal to Western Christians go unanswered: a number of international organizations were set up (the largest being the American ARA) to supply food to the starving inn the Ukraine and on the Volga. The representatives of these organizations were allowed to take part directly in the distribution of food. This was the situation when the decree of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of 10/23 February, 1922 on the confiscation of church valuables for the needs of the starving was published in the press. According to this decree, all church objects of precious metals without exception were liable to confiscation. Practically speaking, this meant primarily liturgical vessels and chalices which were often made of silver, the silver ornament on altars and icon-cases. This decree placed believers in a hopeless position: they could not interpret it other than a "declaration of war" and this, in fact, is what it was.

In his letter of 15/28 February, 1922, written in response to the decree, Patriarch Tikhon appealed to believers:

"We allowed, in view of the extremely difficult circumstances, the possibility of donating church objects which were not consecrated and not intended for liturgical use. We appeal to the believing children of the Church today also to make such donations, desiring only that these donations should be the response of a loving heart to the needs of our neighbors, and that they should provide real help to our suffering brothers. But We cannot approve of the confiscation from churches, even if this is by voluntary donation, of sacred objects, the use of which for other than liturgical purposes is forbidden by the canons of the Orthodox Church and is punishable by Her as sacrilege - for laymen by ex-communication and for clergy by defrocking.” Apostolic Rule 73. Reiterated Ecumenical Council, Rule 10.

Herbert Hoover,
the Chief of ARA

What the Patriarch was appealing for could not have been dictated by a "proprietorial attitude", of which he was accused, since liturgical objects could not in any case have been used for other purposes. Nor was the Patriarch's position an expression of "canonical formalism" stronger than compassion for the suffering, of which he was also accused. His position was an expression of popular religious conviction; the inviolability of sacred religious objects was an integral part of faith. Both atheists and also some "modernist" Christians may have been angered by this, but it was impossible to deny the indisputable fact that Russian Orthodox Christians had believed this for centuries without the slightest hesitation. There was not even an attempt on the part of state bodies to enter into discussions with the Church leadership in order to convince it of the need to carry out a corresponding reform: to adopt some authoritative resolutions and prepare believers for the replacement of liturgical objects. Such a replacement could theoretically have been possible. It would have spared the feelings of believers and could have been ironed out with reverence using the Church's arms, even if it were under the supervision of state bodies. Subsequently this type of practice was carried out by certain ruling hierarchs: for example, Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd, although he was one of the first to be sentenced and shot. The suddenness with which the decree appeared, its categorical tone and, most importantly, the deliberate violence and crudeness with which it was implemented - all this left no ways open for a peaceful resolution. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the government had no desire for a peaceful solution. On the contrary, the aim was to exacerbate the situation as much as possible, to provoke clashes and create excuses for demonstrative and cruel repressions. What was the reason for this? Possibly in connection with the transition to the New Economic Policy (NEP), it was decided to terrorize and frighten the clergy and believers, so that in conditions of great civic freedom, the Church would not be able to strengthen its position in society. In any case, here it was not a question of uncontrolled atheistic fanaticism, or abuses by local authorities or the excesses of the revolution and civil war. It was thought-out and conscious party and government policy – and this was the worst thing. Nor is there any doubt about who initiated this policy.

Members of ARA nourish
the children

On 6/19 March, 1922, V.I.Lenin, then undergoing medical treatment, "in a letter to the members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party(b)", as his "complete" works say (Moscow. 1964. Vol. 45, pp. 666-667):
"writes about the need to crush once and for all the resistance of the clergy to the implementation of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee's decree of 23 February, 1922 on the confiscation of church valuables for the purpose of obtaining funds for the struggle against famine".

The actual text of the letter was not quoted in his collected works. Why? This becomes clear from the content of the letter which was published in 1970 abroad, and only in spring 1990 in the USSR ("Proceedings of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. No. 4; full russian text reproduced in "Dates and documents" The cruelty and cynicism of this document, unusual even for Lenin, meant that it had to be kept in secret for almost 70 years. The program adopted at the meeting of the Politburo was carried out rigorously and only in a few respects "with over-fulfilment of the plan" (first and foremost, the arrest of Patriarch Tikhon).

On 15/28 March, 1922 the newspaper lzvestia published a "List of enemies of the people" which was headed by Patriarch Tikhon "with all his church council", then came the names of dozens of bishops and priests. In the following weeks and months in hundreds and thousands of churches, events took place according to one and the same "scenario": a group of armed people, usually Red Army men, marched into the sanctuary, while the congregation and clergy tried to stop them and clashes ensued which often ended in bloodshed. According to Soviet press reports already in the first half of 1922, 55 tribunals tried 531 cases involving 732 accused.

But this was only the beginning. Many thousands of priests and monks were sentenced to be shot, others to exile and prison camps. The press gave a great deal of publicity to the trials which were held simultaneously in various cities and provinces, accompanying them with corresponding commentaries. In the minds of ordinary Soviet people the figure of the priest became firmly associated with the concepts of "Black Hundred member" and "counter-revolutionary" – this was very "useful" during Stalin's "collectivization".

An atmosphere of mortal terror now hung over the Church: this terror was unleashed during peace-time, without any rational reason – and henceforth trust in Soviet power as a bearer of law and order was undermined for ever. Confusion and disarray broke out in the Church: some believers prepared to face long years of suffering and confessorship, martyrdom; others in their fear began to renounce their faith; yet others, while not breaking with their faith, began to seek desperately for the "favor of the authorities" at any price. Who could believe that this terror was launched for the sake of helping the starving?

Desecration of Church Valuables

As the Soviet papers reported:

"according to statistics from the Central Committee of Pomgol more than 23,997 poods of silver has been collected from church valuables" (1 pood=16kg).

A commentary in lzvestia for 19 December, 1922 said this was "a ridiculously small amount". The total value of the confiscated valuables, according to foreign estimates, was about 30 million gold roubles. It is obvious that by means of voluntary donations through church venues with access to the resources of 100 million believers, 50,000 churches could have collected many times this sum...

Contrary to Lenin's instructions, the terror did not pass by Patriarch Tikhon himself. On 22 April/5 May, 1922, he appeared as a witness at a public trial in the Politechnical Museum, and on 6/19 May was put under house arrest at the Donskoy monastery, under the strictest guard, in complete isolation from the outside world. Once a day, at 12 o'clock, the imprisoned Patriarch was allowed to go out on to the balcony, from where he blessed the crowd of believers who had assembled at a distance.

The following were arrested at the same time as Patriarch Tikhon: the head of the Catholic Church in Russia Archbishop Jan Tseplyak and 13 Catholic priests with him; the Georgian Catholicos and the Bishop of Kutaisi ...

...with him; Rabbi Baryshansky of Gomel and 13 "Jewish clericals" with him. In accordance with the tribunals' decrees, Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd was shot, as well as the Catholic prelate Butkevich and a large number of Orthodox clergy. Again, as at the beginning of 1919, but now far more organized and purposeful, a broad anti-religious campaign was launched:

Komsomol Mockery of Paschal Procession

Blasphemous processions, violations of church services, staging of blasphemous trials and dissemination of mass brochures with crude caricatures. Thus, on 17/30 January 1923, at the club of the Moscow garrison in the 'presence of Trotsky and Lunacharsky a "political tribunal for a trial of God" was enacted in front of an audience of Red Army soldiers; on 14/27 February, a meeting was held in Baku which adopted a resolution demanding a "trial of Mohammed", and at Komsomol "Red Easters" they staged trials of the Pope at which the death sentence was passed on him...

The harm which this anti-religious campaign and terror did to the new Soviet state was tremendous. Confidence in law and order was undermined for many decades and the people who had witnessed this state sponsored mockery of truth, law and human dignity were profoundly demoralized. The immense losses in the sphere of international prestige, the loss of millions of active or potential friends and allies of the Russian revolution and the Soviet state abroad were also some of the main results of this senseless attempt to "take the heavens by storm".

HNM Benjamin Before Petrograd Trial Facing Charges Of "Counter Revolutionary Agitation" For Directing Parishes To Help Those Starving Of Famine

The staging of trials of the clergy and the methods of publicizing these trials in the press became a prototype for the "Stalinist" trials of the thirties, the victims of which included organizers of the anti-religious campaign of 1922-23. As for the real political opponents of the Soviet state, they obtained many advantages from all this, primarily moral ones – and indeed no “counter-revolutionary activities” could have given them a better "present". The affair of the church valuables was a strategic mistake by V.I.Lenin – here he betrayed his usual politically crude pragmatism.

The character of subsequent events enables us to conclude that among the Soviet leaders there was also a different tendency, one which was more responsible, more far-seeing and more statesman-like: by the middle of 1923, this tendency began to prevail. The key question of church-state policy was the fate of Patriarch Tikhon, which was now in the balance. In the weeks just before Easter 1923, a series of publications appeared in the press with such characteristic titles as "The Tikhon dictatorship must be neutralized" and "Tikhon the Bloodthirsty". In lzvestia for 6 April it was officially announced that the trial of the Patriarch would begin on 11 April (the Wednesday of Radiant Week). However the date of the trial was later postponed to 24 April, but did not take place then either.

Unexpectedly for everyone, Patriarch Tikhon wrote to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR on 3/16 June repenting of his former "anti-Soviet activity" and asking to be released from custody. On 20, June, a judicial collegium of the Supreme Soviet under the chairmanship of Judge Karklin passed a decision "on changing the preventative measures with respect to citizen Belavin and releasing him from custody". Why did the organizers of the "anti-religious storm" have to retreat?

The explanation for this can be found in, for example, the following statement by N.I. Bukharin ("Pravda", 27 June, 1923):

V I Lenin in His Last Days, Displaying the Ravages of Disease Which Punitatively Blighted Him

" 'Save Tikhon' has become the rallying cry of international counterrevolution, that which was supposed to stir up the ignorant peasant masses and give the appearance of a crusade against Soviet Russia. We have a resume of this campaign in the famous note from Curzon, who has protested with the full might of the British Empire 'For the holy cause, for the martyr patriarch'..."

The main demand in this memorandum from the British government dated 8 May, 1923 was to put an end to communist propaganda in Asia (primarily in China), but it also contained a point on repressions against religious leaders in the USSR. Curzon's ultimatum confronted the USSR with the real threat of an armed conflict with Great Britain. Although mass processions began in the streets of Moscow and Petrograd with slogans such as "Sock the lords in the bonce", Chicherin, Krasin and Trotsky unanimously and categorically demanded immediate concessions to Curzon. One of these concessions was the release of Patriarch Tikhon. But the matter did not cease at his release.

Shortly before his statement Patriarch Tikhon was taken to the State Political Directorate (GPU) where regular talks were held with him throughout 38 days on questions of the position of the church in the Soviet state. These talks were conducted mainly by E.A. Tuchkov, the GPU representative on religious matters. In response to his demands the Patriarch received an assurance that the attitude to the church would improve and it would be guaranteed the possibility to satisfy the religious needs of believing citizens without hindrance. These assurances were reinforced by corresponding state acts. On 19 June the "Instruction of the Peoples Commissariat of Justice and the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs" on questions concerning the separation of the church from the state was published, which for the first time, presented conditions for the use of religious buildings and objects. In connection with the Renovationist schism which arose in the church during the period of Patriarch Tikhon's arrest, the point in the instruction forbidding administrative support of any religious group to the detriment of any other was of special importance for the Church. Evidently Patriarch Tikhon was also given assurances about a general democratization in connection with NEP and, most importantly, that the state was striving to concentrate on the solution primarily of economic and social tasks and that enslavement to its ideology would be reduced.

We have grounds for claiming that the Patriarch's repentance was a weighed, responsible and wise step.

To this day voices can still be heard criticizing this step as inconsistent and mistaken – but they are the voices of those who have not been able in their soul to draw a dividing line between God and the world, between the church and politics...

St. Tikhon Upon Release

Immediately after his release Patriarch Tikhon addressed series of letters to believers which were published in the Soviet press. Thus in his letter of 15/28 June he stated:

"I did not, of course, pose as such a great admirer of Soviet power as the church renovationists declare themselves to be, but on the other hand I am by no means such an enemy of it as I am made out to be... I firmly condemn all encroachments on Soviet power no matter where they emanate from. Let all monarchists at home and abroad know that I am not an enemy of Soviet power".

In a letter of 18 June/1 July the Patriarch stated that he was conscious "of my guilt towards Soviet power" which had been expressed in a number "of active and passive anti-Soviet actions".

"We, – the Patriarch continues, – in our duty as a Christian and archpastor repent of the same and grieve at the victims which have arisen as a result of this anti-Soviet policy... We now condemn such actions and declare that the Russian Orthodox Church is a-political and henceforth does not wish to be either a "White" or "Red" Church. It should and will be a United, Catholic, Apostolic Church, and all attempts, from whatever side they emanate, to involve the Church in political struggle should be rejected and condemned".

It is possible that from the political point of view, Patriarch Tikhon is being inconsistent in condemning previous actions which, at their time and in different situations, were totally right and yielded valuable spiritual fruit. But in this “inconsistency”, there is more humility, more love and devotion to Christ, the Church and his people, than in inflexible and stubborn political rigourism. His church position was irreproachable both then and now. The vast majority of believers understood this in their hearts and accepted the Patriarch`s decision with approval and joy.

Lev Regelson. The Tragedy of the Russian Church. 1917-53.


  1. Tikhon was a faithful witness for Christ and faithful in calling forth Christian Charity. He is a representative of how 'mindless' suffering overcomes evil.

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