1988 (1) MP on Eve of Millennial

The Moscow Patriarchate on the Eve of the Thousandth Anniversary of the Baptism of Russia
By John B. Dunlop, Hoover Institution

The year 1988 will mark a solemn note in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church: the thousandth anniversary of the official adoption of Christianity in the Kievan Russia by th eruling Prince Vladimir.  The Moscow Patriarchate is making lavish plans to celebrate this occasion.  In July 1987 the Patriarchate opened an information centre where Soviet and foreign journalists can be briefed on the preparations for the "millennium" and can receive literature on the position of religion in the USSR.1  The calendar of events planned for 1988 is elaborate and impressive: on June 6–9 a local council (or "sobor") of the Russian Orthodox Church will be held at the Trinity-St Sergius Lavra in Zagorsk, only the fourth such council in the entire Soviet period (the previous sobors were convoked in 1917-18, 1945 and 1971, and on each occasion a new patriarch, or head, of the Russian Church had been elected).  The preceedings of the 1988 council will be closely connected with the celebration of the millennium, and Church Spokesmen have revealed that there are plans to canonize a number of as-yet-unnamed saints.

On June 10. the main ceremony to mark the millenium will take place at the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Moscow's Danilov Monastery.  Ceremonies have also been planned in Kiev, Leningrad, and Vladimir; they will be attended by delegates to the council as well as by visitors from abroad.  Special worship services are scheduled in all dioceses and parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate. 2

To the untrained Western eye, all of this sugggests a flourishing of religion in the land of the Bolsheviks.  But, unfortunately, appearancea can be deceiving.  The true status of the Russian Orthodox Church today can be understood only after on becomes aware of the operative Soviet laws on religious associations, and of the legal framework within which the Russian Church must lead its existence.  Furthermore, one must take into account the response of the state-controlled Soviet press to the milllennium.  What are Soviet citizens being told about the event?  Finally, one must consider a number of recent samizdat statements by Orthodox believers who disagree with the rosy picture presented by officials of the Patriachate.

The legal framework within which the Orthodox Church and other religious bodies in the Soviet Union must conduct their affairs is not generally known in the West.  In fact, Soviet officials routinely assume an ignorance of these laws on the part of Western visitors to the USSR.  I experienced this at first hand when I visited the Soviet Union in the fall of 1987 as part of a fact—finding tour of Western journalists, publishers, scholars, and businessmen organized by the World Media Association in Washington.  During our visit we had the opportunity to ask questions of and share views with a number of high-ranking Soviet officials.  In the course of one discussion with members of the Leningrad City Council (or Soviet), I asked the deputy chairman, Alexander Avdeyev, the following question: “In Moscow, which has a population of almost nine million, we were told that there are over forty functioning Orthodox churches.  In Leningrad, on the other hand, which has a population of nearly five million, we have been told that there are only fifteen such churches.  Why the discrepancy in numbers?"  Avdeyev expressed surprise that I had posed such a question to him.  It is the Russian Orthodox Church, he asserted blandly, and not the Leningrad City Council, which decides how many functioning churches it needs in Leningrad.

In capsule form this episode sums up the image of Soviet church-state relations which official spokesmen seek to convey to Western visitors.  Religious associations, they intimate, are completely free to run their affairs unencumbered by interference on the part of the state.  This image is both false and deceitful.  As Mr. Avdeyev knows perfectly well, no new Orthodox church can be registered, i. e., opened, in Leningrad without the express approval of the Leningrad City Council and the Council for Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers of the USSR.3  In stating a blatant untruth Avdeyev was evidently banking on our ignorance of the existing Soviet legislation on religion so as to deceive our party concerning the actual legal position of religion in the USSR.

According to the most recent version of the Soviet constitution (1977), the Communist Party is "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system." (Article 6)4  Furthermore, the Party Statutes ratified by the 27th Party Congress in 1986 affirm that a member of the Communist party is obligated “to carry out a decisive struggle . . . with religious prejudices and other views and customs which are foreign to the socialist way of life."5  As it has been since the time of Lenin, an adherence to militant atheism remains a central obligation for any member of the Party. 

The one article of the Soviet constitution which refers directly to religion is Article 52, which states: “Citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of conscience, that is, the right to profess or not to profess any religion, and to conduct religious worship or atheistic propaganda.  lncitement to hostility or hatred on religious grounds is prohibited.  In the USSR the church is separated from the state, and the school from the church."6

This article of the Soviet constitution explicitly permits citizens—if they are not members of the Communist Party—to participate in religious worship, but grants no rights beyond this.  (This right, too, is sharply limited by the fact that in many areas of the Soviet Union, such as Siberia or the Russian north, there are simply no functioning churches to attend.)  Soviet atheists, on the other hand, have the sole right of pushing their cause, both in the mass media and in all institutions of learning.  Atheism is a formal subject required in all schools and educational institutions.  As for “incitement of hostility or hatred on religious grounds," it is entirely up the state to determine if this has taken place.  Clearly, the Soviet constitution's guarantee of “freedom of conscience" has little in common with the manner in which this phrase is understood in the West.

Soviet law carefully circumscribes the role of religion in Soviet society.  Although a detailed examination of this subject falls beyond the scope of this essay, it will suffice to mention Article 17 of the Law on Religious Associations, which has been in effect since 1929.  This article states: “Religious associations may NOT: (a) . .. use property at their disposal for other than religious purposes; (b) give material help to their members; (c) organize for children, young people, and women special prayer or other meetings, circles, groups, departments for Biblical or literary study, sewing, working, or the teaching of religions, etc., excursions, children's playgrounds, libraries, reading rooms, sanatoria, or medical care.  Only books necessary for the purpose of the cult may be kept in the prayer buildings and premises."7  Let the reader reflect on the practical consequences of this law: no Sunday school for children; no Bible study groups; no catechetical classes; no church picnics; no charitable activities, not even those meant for members of the same parish; no sewing circles, and of course no church libraries or bookstores.  It is clear that parish life as it is understood in the West is illegal in the Soviet Union and that one would risk prison for attempting to put anything of the sort into practice. 

At the beginning of 1986 the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate published a one-page statement entitled "The Rights and Obligations of a Religious Society."8  This somewhat mysterious statement—it was not accompanied by explanatory material of any kind—claimed that henceforth religious associations in the Soviet Union would be recognized as "juridical entities," i. e., would be able to have recourse to Soviet courts.  This seemed to be a significant reform, but the lack of any accompanying commentary made this uncertain.  (Some Western analysts believe that the chief purpose behind the statement was to allow the Soviet government to seize Russian ecclesiastical holdings presently under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church Abroad, an emigre ecclesiastical organization, in Israel and Western Europe.)  And it goes without saying that the Soviet courts would have to be independent of the Party and state before this reform could have any real meaning.

The statement also announced another seemingly-significant reform.  Henceforward, it declared, a priest would not need permission from the secular authorities to visit a “seriously ill” member of his parish in an apartment or home, in a home for the elderly, or in a penal insitution.  (Formerly, the authorities had routinely withheld such permission, with the result that believers died without receiving the last rites.)  A priest, however, continues to need the express approval of the authorities to visit a parishioner who is not seriously ill or to perform any religious rite, such as a baptism or prayer service, outside the church.  In the West such restrictions on the freedom of a clergyman to visit his flock would be regarded as heinous.

How has the Communist Party been preparing its almost twenty million members for the forthcoming Orthodox millennial jubilee?  In June 1983 a special conference of Party ideologists was convened to plan the state's response to the upcoming celebrations.  Since that time, a number of articles have appeared in the daily press and in specialized Soviet journals criticizing the assertions of Russian churchmen that the Orthodox Church has played a beneficial role in Russian history.  Thus the Soviet Union's chief propagandist, Alexander Yakovlev, a full member of the Politburo and a close associate of general secretary Gorbachev, recently castigated all "attempts to depict Christianity as the ‘mother’ of Russian culture . . . "9  Since only atheist spokesmen have the right of‘ access to the mass media, the “polemics” on this question have been crudely one-sided.  As British specialist Jane Ellis has com- mented: “Although the average Soviet reader would be most unlikely to have any idea what church spokesmen have been saying, the atheist propagandists obviously feel it is more important to attack them than ignore them.”10

It is nevertheless true that there have been assertions in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate and in occasional press conferences given by church spokesmen at the invitation of the authorities that the Russian Orthodox Church has made valuable contributions to Russian history.  Yet the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate has simultaneously been careful to give fulsome praise to the Soviet government and its policies.  To take one example, in November 1986, Patriarch Pimen and other members of the ruling Holy Synod of the Patriarchate were invited to a reception in the Kremlin Palace on the occasion of the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  At this reception they affirmed that the Russian Church “entirely supports the domestic politics" of the Soviet state, as well as its "profoundly-peace-loving” foreign policy.11

This euphoric attitude toward the policies of the Soviet state goes back to the year 1927 when then Metropolitan (and later Patriarch) Sergy, the head of the Church, emerged from three and a half months of detention in a Soviet prison and issued his famous "Declaration" in which he said: “We need to show not in words, but in deeds, that not only people indifferent to Orthodoxy, or those who reject it, may be faithful citizens of the Soviet Union, loyal to the Soviet Union, but likewise the most fervent adherents of Orthodoxy, to whom it is as precious with all its canonical and liturgical treasures as truth and life.  We wish to remain Orthodox and at the same time to recognize the Soviet Union as our civil fatherland whose joys and successes are our joys and successes, and whose misfortunes are our misfortunes.”12

In this statement the official Russian Church identified itself with the interests of a regime which up to that time had been seeking its destruction.  Sergy’s “Declaration" caused consternation among the Orthodox faithful and prompted an exodus of Orthodox bishops, clergy, and laity into the "catacombs”; remnants of this exodus remain today as members of the so-called "True Orthodox Church," a proscribed body heavily persecuted by the authorities.13

Since 1927 the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate has steadfastly adhered to the spirit of Sergy’s pronouncement, an attitude which has become known as “Sergianism” (sergievschchina).  A remarkable document leaked to the West in the 1970s has revealed something of the impact of Sergianism on the Church hierarchy; this is the 1974 report of V. Furov, deputy chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, to the Central Committee on the Communist Party concerning the affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate.14  (One may assume that a diligent search was conducted for the individual who leaked this embarrassing document to the West). 

The Furov report does not mince words in describing the degree of control exerted by the Council for Religious Affairs over the Moscow Patriarchate.  The ruling Holy Synod of Bishops—the body that de jure makes all major decisions apart from those of the infrequently-convoked local councils—is described as "under the control" of the council.  The makeup and assignment of duties to its members is "entirely" in the hands of the council.  All questions for the agenda and all decisions to be made by the Synod are coordinated "in advance" with the Council
for Religious Affairs. 

Despite this extraordinary degree of control, Furov believed that improvements could and should be made.  Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate were divided by him into three categories—which might be termed “good," "so-so," and “potentially dangerous."  Good bishops are those "who are aware that our [Soviet] state is not interested in increasing the role of religion” in the USSR and draw appropriate conclusions, namely, they refrain from manifesting "any particular activity in extending the influence of Orthodoxy among the populace."

It is noteworthy that in mid-1987 five of the seven standing members of the Holy Synod—Patriarch Pimen, Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsk and Kolomna, Metropolitan Aleksy of Leningrad, Metropolitan Nikodim of Lvov and Ternopol, and Metropolitan Sergy of Odessa—were bishops who had been placed in the “good" category by V. Furov in 1974.15  These are clerics who rose to positions of influence during the Khrushchev anti-religious persecution of 1959-1964, when over half of the functioning Orthodox churches in the country were closed down.  Several of them were ordained bishop at remarkably-young ages: thus Metropolitan Yuvenaly was consecrated bishop in 1965 at the age of thirty and Metropolitan Aleksy in 1961 at the age of thirty two.16  These are men whose loyalty to the Soviet state is proven and beyond question.  Not surprisingly, it is they who are asked to give occasional interviews to the Soviet press. 

It is useful, indeed I believe necessary, to compare and contrast the official voice of the Moscow Patriarchate with the samizdat voice of Orthodox dissenters, some of whom have been required to serve lengthy prison sentences for attempts to publicize infringements of believers’ rights in the USSR.  The name of Gleb Yakunin, to cite one example, has been known to readers of samizdat since 1965 when he co-authored an appeal to the late Patriarch Aleksy concerning the ravages of the Khrushchev anti-religious campaign.17  For this bold letter he was suspended from the priesthood by the Patriarch in 1966.  Ten years later, in 1976, Fr. Yakunin co-founded the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights in the USSR, an organization whose aim was to publicize abuses of religion in the Soviet Union.  By 1979, the committee had sent hundreds of documents to the West detailing the infringement of believers’ legal rights.18  For this activity Fr. Yakunin was arrested and sentenced in 1980 to five years in the labor camps, to be followed by five years of internal exile.  He was released as part of a limited amnesty of political prisoners instituted by the Supreme Soviet during the Gorbachev period.  In 1987 he was reinstated as a priest by the Moscow Patriarchate and given a stern warning from the Scriptures: “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee" (John 5:14).19 

On May 23, 1987, Fr. Yakunin joined another Orthodox priest, Fr. Nikolay Gainov, and seven laymen in sending an open letter to General Secretary Gorbachev (a longer version of the letter was sent on the same day to Patriarch Pimen.)20  The authors began by calling for the release from prison of Christian prisoners of conscience, such as Orthodox deacon Fr. Vladimir Rusak and Lithuanian Catholic priest Fr. Alfonsas Svarinskas.  They then proceed to point out that believers in the Soviet Union are denied the right of “manifesting social activity."  They are forbidden, for example, to organize sanatoria and hospitals, homes for the aged and invalids, i. e., are forbidden to show "Christian love" to their neighbors.

The authors of the letter state their belief that religious associations should be actively involved in the re-examination of the 1929 legislation on religious associations which is said to be underway.  This revision should not be left to officials of the Council for Religious Affairs.  There should be an “open" (glasnoe) discussion of all proposed changes.  Fr. Yakunin and his coauthors argue that Article 17 of the Law on Religious Associations (discussed above) discriminates against “the elementary rights of believers" and should be rescinded.  Bibles and Gospels should be printed in sufficient quantities to satisfy the real needs of believers.  Orthodox Christians should be able to subscribe to religious literature published by the Moscow Patriarchate, and small libraries should be opened in all parishes.  The practice of officially registering baptism and Church marriages with the state, which has been abolished in a few Moscow parishes, must be extended to all parishes in the country.  (This practice, the result of oral instructions and not of written Soviet law, has been one of the mechanisms whereby the state has identified religious believers.  Repercussions have typically included demotion or loss of job, forfeiture of entry into a university. etc.) 

Religious individuals, the authors maintain, must have the same access to the Soviet mass media presently enjoyed by atheists.  The relics of the sainted Moscow hierarchs Petr, Filip, Iona, and Germogen, which are presently not held in functioning churches, must be returned to the Church.  The Kiev Monastery of the Caves, which was closed to the Church.  The Kiev Monastery of the Caves, which was closed down by the authorities under Khrushchev, must be reopened as an active monastery.  "We want,” the authors conclude, "to believe in the reality of the future perestroika." 

On balance, this open letter to Gorbachev is a remarkably-moderate document that spells out the minimal requirements under which the Orthodox Church could function as an independent religious body in an atheist society.  The Gorbachev regime, however, seems to have reacted negatively to the letter.  In June Metropolitan Yuvenaly, the second-ranking hierarch after Patriarch Pimen, summoned Frs. Yakunin and Gainov to his office for separate dressings-down.21  Fr. Gainov was told that he had “infringed the Church canons in addressing a state
leader” and would be “punished” if he repeated such an action.  Fr. Yakunin was berated for “breaking Church discipline" and warned “not to engage in politics.”  The actions of Metropolitan Yuvenaly in this instance are a classical example of “Sergianism" in action. 

Alexander Ogorodnikov is a lay member of the Russian Orthodox Church.  In 1974 he and several like-minded Orthodox believers founded a Christian seminar in Moscow and made several attempts, each of which was thwarted by the authorities, to publish a samizdat journal.  In 1976 Ogorodnikov was forced to leave Moscow, and three years later, in 1979, he was sentenced to a year in the labor camps for “parasitism."

While still in prison he was sentenced to an additional six years in the labor camps, to be followed by five years of internal exile, for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."  In 1986 his imprisonment in the labor camp was extended for three more years for his alleged "malicious disobedience" to the labor camp authorities.  Like Fr. Yakunin, Ogorodnikov was a beneficiary of the limited amnesty recently instituted by the Supreme Soviet. 

On May 5, 1987, Metropolitan Yuvenaly received Ogorodnikov for a three-hour discussion.  In agreeing to this meeting the Metropolitan was presumably attempting to channel the energies of this religious dissenter, who had just emerged from a decade of imprisonment, into directions which would be minimally dangerous to the Moscow Patriarchate and the Soviet state.  Ogorodnikov has left a samizdat account of their discussion.22

Ogorodnikov suggested to the Metropolitan that the Moscow Patriarchate form a committee for the purpose of drafting suggested changes in the operative Soviet legislation on religious associations, especially the notorious Article 17, which limits the Church’s activities to “serving the cult" in a narrowly-liturgical manner.  Underlining the excellent relations of the Patriarchate with the Council for Religious Affairs, Yuvenaly replied that the Soviet state understands the needs of the Church and strives to fulfill them. He declined to address Ogorodnikov’s suggestion that the Patriarchate seek a revision of the 1961 church regulations which effectively deprive a priest of any rights in his own parish.

Another question raised by Ogorodnikov concerned the canonization of Orthodox Christians martyred during the Soviet period.  Yuvenaly said that the canonization of these martyrs by the emigre Russian Church Abroad had "political" overtones.  He declined to be specific about the individuals that would be canonized at the 1988 council.  Ogorodnikov asked the Metropolitan's blessing to collect signatures under a petition for the reopening of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, "the baptismal font of Russia."  Yuvenaly refused to give his blessing, saying that such an undertaking would be “an encroachment on the principle of Divine freedom—when the Lord wishes, He shall return the monastery to us.”  (Clearly there is no synergistic relationship between God and man in the Metropolitan's view.) 

In response to a request by Ogorodnikov, Yuvenaly refused to intercede for Orthodox believers who were in prison, and he criticized the "uncanonical" behavior of imprisoned Deacon Vladimir Rusak.  (Rusak was sentenced in September 1986 to seven years in the strict-regime camps, to be followed by five years of internal exile, for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”  His worst crime in the eyes of the regime was to champion the cause of the new Russian martyrs, about which he has written a book, published in the West, entitled Evidence for Prosecution.) 23  Ogorodnikov replied that Fr. Rusak had been sentenced not for his uncanonical way of life but for a book about “the Stalinist terror against the Church."  He asked the Metropolitan to intercede with the authorities so that believers in penal institutions should have the right to keep a Bible in their cells, as well as to receive the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, and to pray without hindrance.  He noted that while in prison he had spent 689 days on hunger strike to back up his demand for a Bible.  The Metropolitan offered no positive response. 

On September 11, 1987, Ogorodnikov, together with two priests, one Russian Orthodox and the other Lithuanian Catholic, and a group of laymen of the Orthodox, Lithuanian Catholic, and Latvian Evangelical faiths, sent a collective letter to President Gromyko and General Secretary Gorbachev.24  In their letter they requested that religious associations be recognized as juridical entities (which indicated the authors’ uncertainty about the statement contained in the 1986, No. 1 issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.)  They asked that the Soviet decree of January 1918 which nationalized all Church property be rescinded and that all icons, relics, and church utensils seized from the Church be returned.  They asserted that Article 52 of the Soviet Constitution (discussed above) should be changed so as to grant equal rights to anti-religous and religious propaganda, and to anti-religious and religious organizations.   And they maintained that the infamous Article 17 of the Law on Religious Associations should be revoked. 

In addition, they asked that religious associations be allowed to form charitable organizations and that clergy have the right to visit Soviet prisons. and hospitals.  Prisoners in penal institutions, they declared, should have the right to wear crosses and other religious artifacts, and to have religious literature.  Religious associations should have access to the mass media and should be permitted to operate their own printing houses and libraries.  The religious education of both children and adults should no longer be proscribed, and Sunday schools should be established. 

Religious organizations, they continued, must be able to elect persons sharing their convictions to represent them in government bodies.  The state should not interfere in the affairs of the Church, and the Church’s contribution to Soviet state funds (such as the Soviet Peace Fund) should be voluntary and not coerced.  Believers should be able to maintain contacts with religious organizations abroad, have the freedom to make pilgrimages outside the USSR, and be able to to emigrate for religious reasons.  Forms of alternative service should be available for Soviet military draftees who, due to their religious convictions. are unable to bear arms.  Bible societies should be permitted in the Soviet Union. 

It will be noted that this letter raised many of the same issues discussed in the letter of Frs. Yakunin, Gainov, and seven Orthodox laymen to Mikhail Gorbachev.  Some of their demands, however, go beyond those contained in the earlier letter.  It should be stressed that none of these demands exceed the rights enjoyed by religious believers in the Western democracies.  Like the Yakunin-Gainov letter, the Ogorodnikov letter seeks to establish unshackled religious bodies free to serve the real needs of their membership. 

Other recent religious samizdat materials echo the concerns of these two appeals.  In the first half of 1987 an Orthodox priest in Siberia, Fr. Gennady Fast, sent a letter to Gorbachev recommending that Article 52 of the Soviet Constitution be altered to read: "The church and atheistic propaganda in the USSR are separated from the state."25  This change would lead to atheism’s being dropped as a mandatory subject in Soviet educational institutions. 

An Orthodox layman living in Moscow, Stefan Krasovitski, wrote an open letter to Patriarch Pimen in which he asked the Moscow Patriarchate to obtain the agreement of the authorities to the following: the return by the state of all relics of Orthodox saints; the opening of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves as a functioning monastery; the sale of religious literature—especially the Bible, prayer books, and the writings of the Church Fathers—in sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of believers; the invitation of all Russian Orthodox jurisdictions to the 1988 Council; the replacement of Metropolitan Sergy’s 1927 "Declaration" with one “close in spirit" to that of the imprisoned bishops of Solovki; the canonization of Orthodox martyrs who were the victims of “arbitrariness and persecution."26  Krasovitski's last two points, of course, broach the touchy‘ question of the “Sergian" orientation of the Moscow Patriarchate which has been in effect since 1927. 

Another samizdat author, Kirill Golovin (the name may be a pseudonym), has written a detailed and spirited account, dated November, 1986, of the present situation of the Russian Orthodox Church.27  His conclusion is that there has been no significant improvement of the Church’s fortunes under Mikhail Gorbachev. 

One of Golovin’s central concerns is the access which Russian believers have to religious literature.  He notes that in May 1986, i. e., well into the Gorbachev period, all catalogue cards referring to religious journals were quietly removed from the card catalogue of the huge Saltykov-Shchedrin library in Leningrad.  One might think that these journals had never existed.  The situation with libraries is worse in provincial cities.  Suppose, Golovin writes, one tries to check out a book such as Golubinsky’s classical pre-revolutionary study, The History of the Russian Church, in a city like Perm or Irkutsk.  The first time one might receive the book without questions being asked.  But if one attempted to check the book out a second time—there are, of course, no public xerox facilities in the USSH—one would run the serious risk of landing on the local KGB’s list of religiozniki.

In general, Golovin emphasizes, the situation for Orthodox believers is incomparably worse in the provinces, where most of them live, than in the capital cities.  In Moscow and Leningrad, the authorities are disturbed "only by a long-lived Orthodox circle or by an influential activist," but in a city like Tambov, the appearance of a new face in church becomes “an extraordinary event” for the local KGB.28  In the villages, the position of believers is even worse.  The life of country priests is one of great hardship and privation, and they are regularly transferred every three or four years by their bishops so that they do not sink deep roots in the local community.  As a rule, Golovin notes, the Church is “suffocated primarily by its own hands," i. e., by its own accommodating bishops. 

Golovin has some useful comments on the number of functioning Orthodox churches in the USSR.  In his 1984 book, Religion and the Church in Soviet Society, the former chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Vladimir Kuroyedev, reported that thirty Orthodox churches had been opened in the Soviet Union since 1977.29  But Kuroyedev, according to Golovin, neglected to list how many Orthodox churches had been closed down during the same period.  Furthermore, Orthodox churches closed down in earlier periods, such as during the Khrushchev persecution, continue to be razed; in 1984, for example, several hundred allegedly “decrepit" churches were torn down in the Ukraine.  Golovin finds it of interest that according to Kuroyedev, in the same period of 1977-1984 the authorities opened three hundred churches for the Soviet Baptists.  They are thus intentionally favoring the Baptists at the expense of the Orthodox.  " . . . Beginning with the revolution,” he observes, "the atheists have considered Orthodoxy to be the main enemy.” 

In addition to samizdat, occasional articles concerning the fate of the Orthodox Church have appeared in the official press in recent years.  Thus, in September 1987, Academician Dmitri Likhachev, a distinguished specialist in ancient Russian literature and the chairman of the presidium of the Soviet Cultural Foundation, gave an interview to Literaturnaya Gazeta in which he said: "Our state must be truly outside of religion; it must not interfere in the affairs of the Church.  Of course, the Church also must not interfere in the affairs of the state.  This is what the Council for Religious Affairs should be keeping track of!  Unfortunately, in the recent past the Council interfered, and very actively, in church affairs.  And should, one might ask, the Church be limited in its right to publish in appropriate quantities those books of which believers have need: the Bible, church calendars, the writings of the Church Fathers and other church literature?"30  This statement by one of the most influential cultural figures in the Soviet Union was a significant event.  Other cultural activists, such as poet Evgeny Evtushenko,31 and novelist Viktor Astafyev,32 have likewise made their sympathy for religion and their lack of sympathy for its persecutors clear.

During 1987 three "liberal" Soviet publications, Literaturnaya Gazeta, Moscow News (a newspaper which is largely for foreign consumption), and Ogonyok (a large-format mass-edition weekly) have publicized abuses of believers’ rights and callous activities on the part of local officials.33  Concern has been repeatedly expressed over the political costs of such behavior. 

To take one example, in its 1987, No. 33 issue, Moscow News carried an informative article by Alexander Nezhny, entitled "Law and Conscience."34  In the year 1962, Nezhny began, one of the two functioning Orthodox churches in the city of Kirov, an urban center which presently has a population of 400,000, was closed down by the authorities and subsequently levelled.  The remaining church, St. Seraphim's, is presently so crowded and busy that it sells more candles and prosphora (altar breads for commemorations) than the huge Yelekhov Cathedral in Moscow. 

Over the past twenty-five years, the believers in Kirov have repeatedly tried to obtain permission for the registration of a second parish in the city.  On July 15, 1987, for example, they sent their forty-second complaint to the Procurator General of the USSR.  Two thousand of them signed a letter requesting help from Moscow News.  Local officials, however, steadfastly block registration of a second parish.  Valentina Chamshina, secretary of the Kirov City Executive Committee, “intentionally obscures” the issue of registration.  An indication of her attitude toward the believers is her construction of a public toilet directly across from the entrance to the church.  As for the Kirov commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs, A. Shalaginov, he thinks that "religious people are very unpleasant and that priests are repulsive."  For many years, Shalaginov has blocked registration of an Orthodox church in the town of Vyatskie Polyany, Kirov Region, and has observed “with glee" the harassment of churchgoers and their priest by officials in the town of Malmyzh. 

The 1987 No. 43 issue of the same newspaper reported the welcome news that a second Orthodox church had at last been registered in the city of Kirov and that a church had been permitted to open in Vyatskie Polyany.35  (Nothing is said about the situation in the town of Malmyzh.)  Nezhny's expose had evidently had its effect. 

In its 1987 No. 13 issue, Ogonyonk carried a report by special correspondent Sergei Vlasov, entitled “If We Reason in Human Fashion . . . "36  Parishioners in the large village of Krasnoarmeiskaya, Krasnodar Region, he began, have been sending letters of complaint, signed by three hundred people, to various Soviet officials.  The history of the Orthodox parish in the village is the following: in 1947 believers received permission to turn a house. constructed in 1910 into an Orthodox church.  Since 1950 the authorities have not given permission for the church to be repaired; consequently, its walls became severely cracked and its ceiling threatened to collapse.  In addition, the church was too small for the needs of believers; it can comfortably hold some 100 persons, but on religious holidays some 300 attempt to squeeze themselves inside.  As a result, parishioners would faint from lack of air and, in 1984, a pensioner, N. S. Petruk, died from the cramped conditions in the church. 

Several years ago the believers received oral permission from the authorities to rebuild the decrepit church.  They undertook this project on their own, unloading trucks and hauling heavy bricks, though most of them were of an advanced age.  The construction of the new church was slow but steady and performed "with |ove."  On August 1, 1986, however, construction was ordered halted by the authorities.  The real reason for this decision, Vlasov makes clear, was that the old people were constructing a physically-attractive church which caused the authorities concern over its possible effects on the local youth.  The legal subterfuge used to close down the new church was that it was larger in size than the old one, and this was said to be a serious infringement of Soviet law. 

The believers admitted to Vlasov that they had indeed been constructing a larger church than the old one due to their need for more space.  In order to build a larger church legally they would have needed written permission from the Council for Religious Affairs, and they had no hope that such permission would be given.  After halting construction on the new church, the local authorities decided to confiscate the building and turn it into a kindergarten.  “That," Vlasov writes, “is how they understand the struggle with religion here."  In addition, the authorities revenged themselves on the parishioners by cutting off the gas heat to the old church, causing the temperature inside the building to fall to minus thirteen degrees Centigrade during the winter. 

According to Vlasov, the incident in Krasnoarmeiskaya has been “rather typical” of religious life in Krasnodar Region.  He cites similar occurrences in the villages of Tblisskaya, Temriuk, and Krymsk.  In a recent discussion between Vlasov and Archbishop Vladimir of Krasnodar and the Kuban, the archbishop, after underlining his many services to the Soviet state—including visiting forty foreign countries—and after lavishing praise on the “great Lenin," confided that he was not happy with the condition of many of the parishes in his diocese.  For example, he visited the village of Otradnaya where the floors of the parish are so rotten that women’s shoes are constantly breaking through the floor-boards.  In another parish, the ceiling needs to be held up by wooden poles.  Vlasov noted the contrast between this extreme destitution of the parishes and the fact that the believers of Krasnodar Region recently donated 600,000 roubles to the Soviet Peace Fund.  (The Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs has recently reported that Soviet religious believers annually contribute 30 million roubles to this fund.)37 

Vlasov worries aloud concerning the political consequences of treating believers in such a fashion, and he cites Karl Marx's dictum: "Coercive means against religion are senseless.”  Archbishop Vladimir, a Soviet patriot, agrees: “It is nearsighted, unwise policy.” 

In response to Vlasov's expose, the authorities in Krasnodar came to a Solomonic decision.  The first secretary of the Krasnodar raikom, A. D. Kudinov, was given a “severe reprimand," and permission was given to complete the new church in Krasnoarmeiskaya, minus the Cupolas.  On the other hand, the Council for Religious Affairs was told to “take measures” against the members of the parish council for “their gross infringements of the Soviet laws on religious cults."  (At a minimum, this will involve their removal from the parish council; fines and/or imprisonment are also likely.)  Such is the present meaning of “freedom of conscience" in Krasnodar region. 

It should be obvious that the incidents reported by Moscow News and Ogonyok represent merely the tip of an iceberg.  Throughout the Soviet Union, local officials and representatives of the Council for Religious Affairs harass Orthodox believers who seek to put their faith into practice.  The regular extortion of huge sums of money donated by parishioners who are far from wealthy for the Soviet Peace Fund is one of the most despicable practices of the authorities.  There is no money to fix a leaking or collapsing roof or rotten floorboards, but there are hundreds of thousands of roubles available to be donated to the Soviet government.

In the latter part of 1987 there began to appear evidence that the samizdat campaign of Fr. Yakunin and others—magnified by the foreign radio which regularly broadcasts their appeals to Soviet citizens—was having an effect, as was the exposing of abuses of believers’ rights in the "liberal" Soviet press.  Thus the August 1987 issue of Sovetskaya Yustitsiya (Soviet Justice) carried a statement by an official of the Council for Religious Affairs declaring that the civil registration of such religious rites as baptism and marriage was illegal, a violation of the separation of the church from the state.38  This was a welcome development. 

Similarly, in an interview published in the November 1987 issue of the anti-religious monthly Nauka i Religiya (Science and Religion), Konstantin Kharchev, Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, criticized “illegal limitations and infringements of believers’ rights” on the part of local Soviet officials.39  Religious believers in Soviet prisons must, he said, be given access to religious literature, such as the Bible and the Koran, and religious conscientious objectors should be able to perform alternative service to military duty.  Kharchev went on to criticize officials who hinder the registration of new religious associations out of “administrative zeal,” and be condemned as “absurd” such actions by local officials as hindering a priest from administering last rites to a dying person; forbidding the ringing of church bells; and refusing authorization for the repair of or installation of electricity in a church.  Such acts, he said, serve to alienate the populace.  (Kharchev neglected to mention that several of these “absurdities” have, until very recently, been embodied in Soviet law.) 

On the other hand, Kharchev delivered a stern warning to those who would abuse the new liberalizations.  " . . . A certain part of the clergy and of the laity who follow them," he said, “try to make use of the policies of expanding glasnost and democratization to receive special prerogatives and often to make attacks on the basic propositions of the legislation on cults and to infrimge the Constitution of the USSR.  For them, freedom of conscience means unlimited religious activity.  Although in a majority of instances such actions are not anti-Soviet and anti-socialist in character, they lead objectively—as should be clear to any healthy-minded person—to conflicts between the interests of believing and unbelieving citizens.” 

I conclude with a few personal observations gathered during my recent visit to the Soviet Union.  One of the highlights of the trip was a journey to the Trinity-Sergius Monastery, an hour-and-a-quarter’s drive northeast of Moscow and the site of the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy.  A meeting was arranged with three professors at the theological academy.  All three were middle-aged monks.  I was struck by the readiness, even eagerness, of these individuals to praise the services of the Soviet state and even more by their timidity in dealing with controversial subjects.  Thus when one of our number asked how many Orthodox believers there were in the Soviet Union, the monks reacted with consternation and confusion and declined to answer the question.  Only when directly instructed to answer the question by our Intourist guide did they come up with the intentionally-vague figure of “several tens of millions."  (In her meticulously-researched study, The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contempory History, published in 1986, Jane Ellis estimates the Church's membership at about fifty million.”40 

When I followed up this question by asking the monks how many functioning Orthodox churches there were in the USSR and how many active clergy, they, after once again being pressured by our guide, gave the figure of 8,000 open churches and 10,000 clergy.  These figures were deliberately inflated.  The Chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs has recently reported that there are 6,794 functioning Orthodox churches in the Soviet Union.41  According to Jane Ellis, there are about 6,000 to 6,500 functioning Orthodox churches, and not more than 6,600 priests and deacons.42  She further notes that in the USSR there is one functioning Orthodox church for every 7,700 worshippers; the comparable figure for Bulgaria would be one church per 1,600 worshippers and for Rumania, one per 1,100.43  The figure for Soviet Baptists, incidentally, would be one church for every six hundred believers.  (When I asked the professors at Zagorsk whether they knew of Jane Ellis’ book, they said that they had never heard of it.)

The view of religion which the regime wants foreign visitors to take home with them was pointed up one Sunday morning in Moscow.  We were taken to the Novodevichy Convent to observe an Orthodox church service in progress.  A bishop was officiating, and there were some three hundred believers in attendance, about half of them, incidentally, middle-aged or younger.  Tourist buses kept pulling up one after another during the service, disgorging new Western visitors who could see for themselves that religion is unencumbered in the USSR.  (After satisfying themselves about this matter, tourists are encouraged to visit the hard currency, or Beriozka, shop across the street.  This happens to be the largest such shop in Moscow.) 

A useful corrective to the impressions received at the Novodevichy Convent was a visit I paid to a cemetery church some thirty-minutes’ walk from the modern Pribaltiskaya Hotel on Vasilevsky Island in Leningrad.  I visited the church for a weekday morning service.  All of those in attendance were women, but about half of them were middle-aged or younger.  The shabbiness and dilapidation of the church were striking.  One wonders whether this church will be torn down when the large cemetery that abuts it is destroyed.  We were told by our guide that, according to Soviet law, any cemetery can be torn down and paved over twenty-five years after it has ceased being a working cemetery.  The cemetery on Vasilevsky Island, which is overgrown with weeds and crumbling, is slated to be levelled shortly.) 

In sum, my impressions corroborate a recent Radio Libery report which gave the following general evaluation of the current religious scene in the USSR: “ .. . Because religion is still regarded by the Soviet authorities as a very sensitive ideological matter and as an alien element in Soviet society, changes in the religious sphere are proceeding very slowly and have strict limits . . . [T]he official attitude towards religion remains generally unchanged.”44  Western visitors must not allow themselves to be deceived as to the realities of the situation.  They should study the operative Soviet legislation on religion, and they should familiarize themselves with the rich samizdat materials provided by Keston College in Britain and by Radio Liberty in Munich. There can be little doubt that spokesmen like Fr. Gleb Yakunin, Fr. Vladimir Rusak, and Alexander Ogorodnikov represent the true interests of the Russian Orthodox Church on the eve of the one thousandth anniversary of its founding.


1. Jane Ellis, "Preparations for the Official Celebrations in 1988 of the Millennium of the Baptism of Kievan Rus',"  Religion in Communists Lands, vol. 15 No. 2,  1987 pp. 195-196. See also the 1987, No.3 issue of this journal which focuses upon the forthcoming millennium.
2. Ibid.,  p. 196. 

3. For this legislation, see Dimitry Pospielovsky, The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime, 1917-1982  (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), appendix 6, pp. 494-95. 

4. Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Noyosti: Moscow, 1977), p.21.  

5. Ustav Kommunisticheskoi Partii Sovetskogo Soyuza (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Politicheskoi Literatury,1986).

6. Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, (Moscow: Novosti, 1977), p.47

7.  For this legislation, see Richard H. Marshall et al., eds.,  Aspects of Religion in the Soviet Union (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 440. 

8.  Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, 1986 No. I, appendix.

9. Alexander Yakovlev, "The Achievement of a Qualitatively New Condition of Soviet Society, and the Social Science," Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR, No. 6, 1987, p.69. 

10. Ellis, loc. cit., p. 198.

11. See "At the Kremlin Reception", Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii,  No. 12, 1986 p. 5. 

12. For the text, see Matthew Spinka, The Church in Soviet Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 161-165.

13. On the "True Orthodox Church," see William C. Fletcher, The Russian Orthodox Church Underground (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). 

14.  See "From the Report of the Council for Religious Affairs to the Members of the Central Committee of the CPSU," Vestnik R. Kh. D. (Paris) No. 130 (1979) pp. 275–344.

15. See the members of the Holy Synod listed in the No. 7, 1987 issue of  Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii.

16. Jane Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church:  A Contemporary History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986)  pp. 244-245 and Croom Helm: London, 1986), pp. 244-245. 

17.  A complete translation of this document appeared in St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 10 Nos. 1-2, 1966.

18. The Documents of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights in the USSR were published in Russian, with English summary translations, by the Washington Street Research Center, 3101 Washington Street, San Francisco, CA 94115, in 1982. 

19. Zhurna! Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, No. 7, 1987, p. 5.
20. The open letter to Gorbachev appeared in Russkaya Mysl, (Paris) June 5, 1987, p. 6, and the open letter to Patriarch Pimen in the July 17, 1987 issue of the same newspaper, pp. 6–7. See also a second open letter to Gorbachev authored by Frs. Yakunin and Gainov and four laymen, and dated August 12, 1987, which was published in Russkaya Mysl, October 16, 1987, p. 6.

21. On this, see Russkaya Mysl, 14 August 1987, p. 7.

22. See TThe Reception of Alexander Ogorodnikov by Metropolitan Yuenaly of Krutitsk and Kolomna,"  Arkhiv Samizdata (Radio Libery Munich) No. 6009, 1987.  For an English summary, see The Samizdat Bulletin, (San Mateo, CA) August 1987, pp. 7–8. 

23. This volume, entitled Svidetel'stvo Obvineniya was jointly published in 1987 by Holy Trinity Monastery and Multilingual Typesetting, and is available from Holy Trinity Monastery Bookstore, P.O. Boc 36, Jordanville, NY 13361

24.  The text appeared in Russkaya Mysl, September 18, 1987, p. 7.  On Ogorodnikov, see Religion in Communist Lands, vol. 15, No. 1, 1987, pp. 69–78.

25. Fr. Gennadi Fast, "Letter to M.S. Gorbachev," Vestnik R. Kh. D., No. 150 (1987) p. 281

26. Stefan Krasovitsky, "Letter of a Moscow Christian to Patriarch Pimen", Vestnik R. Kh. D., No. 150 (1987), pp. 284-85.

27.  Kirill Golovin, "The Day is Coming...." Vestnik R. Kh. D., No. 149 (1987), pp. 237–249.

28.  The same point is made by S. N. Pavlov (Priest-monk Innokenty) in an interesting sociological study of the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church, published in Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniya, a journal of the Soviet Academy of Sciences,  No. 4, July–August 1987, pp. 35–43.

29.  See V. A. Kuroyedov, Religiya i Tserkov' v Sovetskom Obshchestve (Moscow,: Izdatel'stvo Politicheskoi Literatury, 1984) p. 144. 

30. D.S.Likhachev, "From Repentance to Action" Literaturnaya Gazeta, September 9, 1987, p. 2.

31. See Evtushenko's letter in Komsomol'skaya Pravda, December 10, 1986, p. 2.

32. See Astafyev's reflections' in Nash Sovremennik, No. 5, 1986, p. 118.

33. For a survey of this literature, see the report by Oksana Antich, Radio Liberty Bulletin No. 96/87 (in Russian),  October 2, 1987.

34.  Alexander Nezhny, "Law and Conscience", Moscow News, No. 33, 1987, p. 13. 

35. "At the Council for Religious Affairs of the USSR Council of Ministers," Moscow News, No. 43, 1987.

36. Sergei Vlasov, "If We Reason in Human Fashion . . . " , Ogonyok, No. 13, 1987, pp. 30-31. 

37. See "Guarantees of Freedom" (an interview with Konstantin Kharchev), Nauka i Religiya, No. 16, 1987, p. 2

38. "Concerning the Free Fulfillment of Religious Rites", Sovetskaya Yustitsiya, No. 16, 1987, p. 9.
39. Kharchev, p. 23. 

40. Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church, pp. 173–177. S.N. Pavlov, loc cit., p. 40, footnote one, accepts as reasonably accurate a Western estimate that Orthdoox Christians comprise approximately 19.5% of the Soviet populace.

41. Kharchev, p. 23.

42. Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church, p. 39

43. Ibid., pp. 16–17

44. Vera Tolz, "Church-State Relations Under Gorbachev", Radio Liberty Bulletin No. 360/87 (in English), September 11, 1987.

The above is taken from Orthodox Life magazine 1988 (1).  
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