Surviving 70 Years of Atheism in the USSR - How did the Church do it? (PHOTOS)

With thousands of priests killed or arrested, Russian Orthodoxy still managed to reach compromises with harsh Soviet leaders and survive the brutal Bolshevik years.

Originally appeared at: Russia Beyond

The Russian Empire entered the 20th century as the biggest Orthodox state in the world. Around 90 million people out of total population of 125 million identified themselves as Orthodox in the 1897 census and there were approximately 50,000 churches in Russia.

People attending a church in the Urals, pre-revolutionary Russia.

The Orthodoxy in the 20th century had its share of problems with the Soviet government.

TASS, Sputnik

At the same time, the Russian Church had persistent troubles. Since 1721, the Church had had no elected Patriarch (the highest-ranking bishop in the Orthodox Church) and was run by the Holy Synod of bishops.

Part of the intelligentsia criticized the Church both for its apparent dependence on the state and its alleged lethargy. Some of the clergy agreed. “There was no spiritual fire in us. And how could we light up the souls of others when we were not burning ourselves?” noted Metropolitan Benjamin in his memoirs. 

Tikhon (Bellavin), the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.


After the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew the monarchy, it seemed the Orthodoxy might have had an opportunity for reform. The 1917 Local Council of the Orthodox Church restored the Patriarchy as an institution and elected the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in nearly 200 years. Tikhon was to lead all Orthodox Russians – but the times were against the church – in November that year the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in a fiercely anti-church communist government in Russia.

Vladimir Lenin.

Global Look Press

“Worshiping any god is ideological necrophilia,” Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, once wrote to Maxim Gorky. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks, radical Marxist atheists, seized power. Crushing religion generally, and Orthodoxy in particular, was a central part of their program.

Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks never banned the Church entirely, “only” oppressing it instead. To begin with, they deprived priests of the right to vote and closed several monasteries and cathedrals.  

Bolsheviks confiscating church valuables, the early 1920s.

Getty Images

Patriarch Tikhon confronted the powers-that-be: in 1918 he condemned “the godless”, not mentioning the government directly but writing about “the powers that promised to establish right and truth but show only violence to everyone, namely to the Holy Orthodox Church”.

In 1922, Lenin ordered the confiscation of church valuables all over Russia under the pretext of helping the hungry. The violent confiscations led to conflict. Some 2,000 priests and others who sought to protect churches were shot, historian Alexey Beglov notes. The Bolsheviks arrested Tikhon. Until his death in 1925, the Patriarch continued to have troubled relations with the Bolsheviks.

An anti-religious magazine "The Atheist", widely popular in the early Soviet Years.


During the 1920s and 1930s the state continued with its crusade against the church. Religion was treated harshly – according to Soviet law, citizens were allowed to worship but not to promote their beliefs, while anti-religious propaganda was legal and widespread.

The League of Militant Atheists, founded in 1925, used all means – including lectures, newspaper and films – to inform Soviet citizens that religion was a harmful leftover of the past. By 1941, the League had enlisted around 3.5 million members. It went beyond propaganda: the repressions of the 1930s claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people convicted in cases connected with the church, Andrey Beglov writes.

A priest blessing soldiers during the Great Patriotic War, 1943.


The Great Patriotic War changed Joseph Stalin’s position on the Orthodox Church. In 1943, after Stalin met with loyal Metropolitans, the government let them choose a new Patriarch, with government support and funding, and permitted believers to celebrate Pascha (Easter), Christmas, and other holidays. Stalin legalized Orthodoxy once again.  

Patriarch Sergius (left) and Joseph Stalin.

Public domain/Global Look Press

But this was no Soviet epiphany – just a weighing of pros and cons.

In 1941-1942 U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Stalin to grant Soviet citizens more religious freedoms, threatening to withdraw U.S. wartime economic and military support if the Soviet leader did not comply.

Meanwhile, Germans were opening churches in occupied territories to win the hearts and minds of the Orthodox faithful. Stalin decided it would be foolhardy to undermine Soviet authority by destroying churches once again. Sacrificing state atheism for the sake of victory seemed a fair deal.

Nikita Khrushchev

Getty Images

Stalin’s deal with the clergy was attacked after his death in 1953. The new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pursued a fresh anti-religious campaign between 1958-65. The times, however, were less harsh than before the war: historian Vladislav Tsypin wrote that the new wave of repressions caused no bloodshed and almost no arrests. It was more about the economy: the state raised taxes in regard to the Church. Orthodoxy survived.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Patriarch Pimen at the meeting.

Yuri Lizunov; Alexander Chumichev/TASS

For the next 20 years, the Church lived in the shadows, with little support but no major repression either; Soviet believers could go to church, though it was frowned upon. It was Mikhail Gorbachev (in power from 1985 to 1991) who was to be the game changer.

Though an atheist himself, during perestroika, Gorbachev let believers perform their rituals, and in 1988, gave his blessing to a nationwide celebration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. In 1991, the government adopted a new law on religious freedom that did away with all the old Soviet restrictions. A new century was approaching – and with it a new era for Russian Orthodoxy as well.

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