Religion in the Soviet Union – Part One

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This article written in 1945 analyses the relationship between the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church. There was a clear dividing line between Lenin’s approach to this question and the zig-zag policy later adopted by Stalin. First published in Workers International News, October 1945.

This article written in 1945 analyses the relationship between the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church. There was a clear dividing line between Lenin’s approach to this question and the zig-zag policy later adopted by Stalin. First published in Workers International News, October 1945.


In a recent issue of Workers’ International News we dealt with the degeneration of the Stalinist Bureaucracy as illustrated by the monstrous growth of nationalism which it has engendered in the Soviet Union. The course of this Stalinist degeneration can, however, be followed by studying almost any aspect of Soviet life. Especially clearly it is revealed in the relations of the Bureaucracy with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The attitude of the Bolsheviks towards the Orthodox Church was conditioned not only by the materialist basis upon which Marxism stands but also by the special role played by this Church in Tsarist Russia. It had been not only one of the greatest landowners – it owned 7.5 million acres and had an annual income of 150,000,000 rubles. It was also a tool, and a willing tool, of Tsarism. With the growth of the revolutionary movement towards the end of the 19th Century the Russian clergy asked to be allowed to cooperate with the Tsarist Secret Service in tracking down revolutionaries and many played no small role in this respect.

After the massacre of the St. Petersburg workers by the Tsar’s troops on Bloody Sunday (January 1905) the Holy Synod (the governing body of the Church) issued a proclamation denouncing certain “evil-minded persons” who “lead others into useless death without repentance, with bitterness in their hearts and curses on their lips”. “Our enemies,” stated the Synod, “wish to shake the foundations of our orthodox faith and the autocratic power of the Tsars… Fear God, honour the Tsar…submit to every power ordained of God… Toil according to God’s ordinance in the sweat of the brow.”

After the October Revolution, in January 1918, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Tikhon, issued a message to the faithful, in which he denounced the Bolsheviks as “monsters of the human race” and excommunicated all who should support the Revolution.

Lenin wrote; “Marx said, ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ – and this postulate is the corner stone of the whole philosophy of Marxism with regard to religion. Marxism always regarded all modern religions and churches, and every kind of religious organisation as instruments of that bourgeois reaction whose aim is to defend exploitation, stupefying the working class.” (The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards religion, May, 1909)

But in the same article Lenin made it clear that the Bolsheviks did not expect religion immediately to disappear, even after the seizure of power. Engels, to whom Lenin refers, had established this some forty years previously in Anti-Duhring where he wrote:

“And when this act (the proletarian revolution) has been accomplished, when society, by taking possession of all means of production and using them on a planned basis, has freed itself and all its members from the bondage in which they are at present held by these means of production which they themselves have produced but which now confront them as an irresistible extraneous force; when then man no longer merely proposes, but also disposes – only then will the last extraneous force which is still reflected in religion vanish; and with it will also vanish the religious reflection itself, for the simple reason that then there will be nothing left to reflect.”

Only in a fully socialist society can religion be expected to disappear completely for only then will the social basis of religion – the fear of the masses caused by their helplessness before the blind forces of production – cease to exist. Meanwhile, the CPSU, as its 1919 Programme put it, endeavoured;

“to secure the complete break up of the union between the exploiting classes and the organisations for religious propaganda, thus co-operating in the actual deliverance of the working masses from religious prejudices, and organising the most extensive propaganda of scientific enlightenment and anti-religious conceptions. While doing this, we must carefully avoid anything that can wound the feelings of believers, for such a method can only lead to the strengthening of religious fanaticism.”

With this objective in view the Soviet State decreed the separation of the Church from the State and freed the educational system from all Church influence. All citizens were given the right to carry on both religious and anti-religious propaganda. The property of the Church was confiscated but the church buildings were returned for the use of the clergy. The Church retained freedom of worship, association, meeting and propaganda. On the other hand vigorous anti-religious propaganda was carried on by the CPSU which set up the “Society of Militant Atheists” with its journal, The Atheist.

During the years of the Civil War the bulk of the Russian clergy supported the Whites but their resistance to the Soviet Regime was broken by the early 1920’s. In 1921, in order to get funds for buying foodstuffs abroad in order to relieve the famine, the Soviet Government decreed the confiscation of gold, silver and precious stones belonging to the Church. The Patriarch ordered the clergy to resist and a bitter struggle resulted in the course of which 45 clergy were executed and 250 sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. By this time it was obvious that the Soviet Government had come to stay and a section of the clergy hastened to make their peace with it upon the best terms they could. In 1922 this section set up the so-called “Living Church” which declared capitalism to be a “deadly sin”. A split in the Orthodox Church was the consequence. But henceforth even the majority of the clergy who were opposed to the “Living Church” paid lip-service to the Soviet State.

Such was the situation before the rise of the Stalinist Bureaucracy and its victory over the Bolshevik-Leninist Left Opposition. The Church continued to function in the Soviet Union, but the masses had turned from it, especially in the towns. Its support amongst the youth was very small, and its main basis lay amongst the more backward masses, especially the older generation of peasants. The clergy lived upon donations from their supporters and were entirely cut off from Soviet life. Priests had no right to vote in Soviet elections or to be elected to Soviet organisations. For the class-conscious Soviet worker the Church was a relic of the past which was destined gradually to wither away under the influence of the rising material and cultural standards of the masses.

Such would without doubt have been the course of development had the isolation of the Soviet State been broken by the World Revolution and the growth of the Stalinist Bureaucracy been thus prevented. We would have witnessed the fulfilment of the confident prophesy of the A.B.C of Communism – the text book issued by the CPSU in the days of Lenin and Trotsky –

the transition from the Society which makes an end of capitalism to the society which is completely freed from all traces of class division and class struggle, will bring about the natural death of all religion and all superstition.

The actual course of events under Stalinist rule has been almost diametrically opposite – a conclusive proof of the nature of the Stalinist regime and of the extent to which it has “finally and irrevocably” established Socialism!

The attitude of t he Bureaucracy towards the Church has passed through the usual zig-zags of Stalinist policy. During the ultra-left period of forcible collectivisation and the Five Year Plan in Four an attempt was made to liquidate the Church and its influence by government decree. Starting in 1929 churches were forcibly closed and priests arrested and exiled all over the Soviet Union. The celebrated Shrine of the Iberian Virgin in Moscow – esteemed by believers to be the “holiest” in all Russia was demolished – Stalin and his Government were not afraid of strengthening religious fanaticism by wounding the feelings of believers as Lenin and Trotsky had been! Religion, they believed, could be liquidated, like the kulak, by a stroke of the pen. The Society of Militant Atheists, under Stalin’s orders, issued on May 15th 1932, the “Five Year Plan of Atheism” – by May 1st 1937, such as the “Plan”, “not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses.”!

Unfortunately for the Stalinist “Plan”, during the very period when it was proclaimed, the Bureaucracy was actually strengthening the social basis of religion in the Soviet Union – by the ever increasing miseries which its disastrous economic policy was imposing upon the masses. The Great Famine of 1932-1933 in which millions died in the Soviet Union did more for the strengthening of the hold of the Church over the masses that could have been done by any amount of religious propaganda. Like so many other Stalinist “Plans” of this period, the “Five Year Plan of Atheism” was officially forgotten long before the time for its fulfilment was due.

October 1945


See also part two.
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