Orthodox America

 A Tragic Paradox - Views on the Church in Russia:  an evaluation 

            The publication in the last two years of three books about Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union presents us with certain vital questions:  what really is the state of the Church under the Soviet Yoke today, and what should be our attitude towards it?  The first of these books is the two-volume study by Dmitry Pospielovsky, The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime 1917-1982 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984).  The second is Stations of the Cross:  The Russian Orthodox Church 1970-1980, by the Very Rev. Dimitriy Konstantinow.  To these we must add Russia’s Catacomb Saints:  Lives of the New Martyrs, by Ivan Andreyev.

            Between these books we have nearly 1,500 pages of documentation, narration, and interpretation.  If one reads them all together, as I recently did, one begins to form a clear understanding of the tragedy of the Russian Church (both in the Soviet Union and in the diaspora) – which is also the tragedy of the whole of Orthodoxy throughout the world – in all of its dimensions, both heart-breaking and glorious.  At the same time one is struck by the complexity of the situation which eludes any attempts at a neat analysis.

            Although Pospielovsky’s The Russian Church contains much valuable information and gives a general overview not readily found elsewhere, the book is by no means comprehensive, and it contains a number of serious flaws.  On the positive side, The Russian Church documents the widely held belief that Patriarch Tikhon was murdered by the GPU, and the fact that there had been both a propaganda and terror campaign against the Church, “deliberately misrepresenting her as a heartless institution indifferent to human suffering.”

            Pospielovsky paints some very revealing portraits of the most prominent Church hierarchs.  Typical is the late Patriarch Alexey.  Pogroms against the Church caused Alexey, “who had never been known as a particularly brave person himself, to submit completely to Soviet pressure and restructure the Church in accordance with Soviet law.”  Even when the pogroms ceased there is no evidence that the Patriarch or his Synod, “in any way overextended themselves to win back the positions, parishes, seminaries and monasteries lost in the preceding” persecutions.

            Concerning the present Patriarch, Pimen, we learn much that is not edifying but is certainly informative.  He was opposed as a successor to Alexey by “most of the bishops” because they believe him to be an agent of the CPA (Council for Religious Affairs, which is the Soviet government’s organ of control over the Church).  His election was insured, however, because he had been handpicked by the government as “their man,” “a man without will, initiative or administrative talents…who spend his leisure embroidering mitres and making little pies.”  Pospielovsky concludes that “unfortunately for the Church it is her patriarch who, instead of being a symbol and reference point for the behavior of the rest of her pastors and laymen, most zealously performs the role of a Soviet propaganda puppet.”

            The Russian Church has three unfortunate weaknesses.  First is the author/s consistent understatement concerning the vicious persecutions of the Church.  Fortunately we have Russia’s Catacomb Saints which, although not inclusive, goes a long way towards showing the enormity of the frighteningly real “abyss” of what actually happened and is still happening to those who fearlessly love Christ and His Church.

            Secondly, Pospielovsky shows an unwillingness to draw obvious conclusions from the facts.  For example, although he speaks of the “blemishes” in Pimen’s background – he is said to have fathered illegitimate children many years ago – the author covers this by saying that “only a man of steel, endowed with a martyr’s spiritual powers, would be able to preserve monastic chastity” under conditions of prison and internal exile!  This is an extremely sad observation.

            Lastly, Pospielovsky is manifestly biased in his treatment of what happened among the emigre church groups after the Revolution.  In particular, when dealing with events having to do with the Russian Orthodox Church Aborad, he bases most of his conclusions about problems and relations between the Russian Church Abroad and the Metropolia (now called the Orthodox Church in America) on OCA sources.  Not a single mention is made of Russia’s Catacomb Saints, a major work on the subject, containing more than 600 pages of documentation, photographs and articles, together with lives and letters by some of the most pivotal figures in the Church from Tikhon to the present day.  In short, it is not a book to be overlooked by anyone interested in the truth of the grim history of the Orthodox Church under the Communist Yoke.

            Most unfair, however, if Pospielovsky’s speculation about “a GPU agent in the center” of the Church Abroad when it was first organized under the protection of the Serbian Patriarchate.  No evidence is given, no documentation.  The only purpose such speculation seems to serve is to discredit the Russian Church Abroad.


Cast down but not destroyed…


            Far more successful is Konstantinow’s book, Stations of the Cross.  Although it only covers the period from 1970-1980, it actually gives a far better, more insightful picture of what is happening tot the Church in the Soviet Union than Pospielovsky’s book, and is a good companion to Russia’s Catacomb Saints.  The author builds upon the following important premise:

            “The majority of Western scholars have difficulty in perceiving the fact that the Orthodox faith in pre-revolutionary Russia was not simply a ‘religion’, in the Western sense of the word, but a way of living and of comprehending life.  Every aspect of private and social life in pre-revolutionary Russia was regulated to comply with Orthodox teaching…Religion was a way of life which infused one’s personal life as well….In their attempt to overthrow the existing system, the liberal intelligentsia purposefully spread atheism and induced the moral decay of the Church, fully aware that they were attacking the root of Russia’s spiritual strength.”

            His whole book then, is a revelation of how the Soviet system uses, controls, destroys, and undermines Orthodoxy for its own purposes, a relationship (resulting from the “Declaration” of Metropolitan Sergius in 1927) that has resulted in the “captivity of the Church and its administrative hierarchy.”  Accepting this fact is the only way we can understand why  “hierarchs” of the Church are receiving both religious and secular decorations and awards (while believers are pleading to them for protection and help against the illegal acts perpetrated by the authorities against the Church.”  Having understood this, we should not be shocked to read in Fr. Gleb Yakunin’s report of 1979 (quoted in the book) that “the Patriarch is surrounded by the eyes and ears of the KGB, and informers are planted among those who are closest to him – the novices, subdeacons, and his personal secretary.  Even his personal chauffeur is a KGB officer.”  Fr. Gleb, himself a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, grieves about the fact that it no longer presents “any ideological danger for the state which clenches it in its atheistic hands:  from above – by the head (the Patriarch and the episcopate), from below – by its executive bodies.”

            The picture becomes even darker when we read the documented accounts (many from Soviet sources) of the barbaric closure of hundreds upon hundreds of churches, of their demonically-inspired transformation into storehouses, garages, cattle-barns, clubs.  These are graphically illustrated with photographs from Defiled and Destroyed Churches (Posev, 1980).  Considerable space is also devoted to the methods of atheist propaganda especially aimed towards a child’s formative years and to uprooting the influence of the family (even though according to Soviet law, parents have the right privately to give religious instruction to their children).  All of this presents a very grim picture indeed.


We believe, however, that “this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.”

                                                -- Fr. Gleb Yakunin

             At the same time, however, the reader may experience a very unexpected reaction to this seemingly overwhelming and hopeless tragedy of the Russian Church.  Underneath the depressing facts and figures – of ecclesiastical betrayal, of destroyed churches and martyred believers – one cannot help but sense the tremendous vitality of faith – which can be the only explanation for the regime’s relentless persecution.

            Among the most interesting chapters in Fr. Dimitriy’s book are those devoted to the resurgence of religion, particularly among the youth.  After over 60 years of forced atheism, the “religious faith among Soviet youth is not diminishing, but growing to the extent that itmay be perceived as a threat to the structure of the communist society.”  In his chapter, “The Religious Movement of Resistance,” Fr. Dimitriy writes:  “The ‘religious front’ is not a figure of speech, but a reality.”  “Throughout the entire country a massive movement of resistance has been formed.  Its presence can be detected in every aspect of religious life in the USSR and in all strata of Soviet society.”  This movement has no external organization, but rather “a spontaneous spiritual character.”  It reaches as far and the senior level of the Church heriarchy among whom “there is a growing opposition” to the official policies.

            As Orthodox Christians living in the free world, we tend to feel very removed from the situation of the Church behind the Iron Curtain.  But here Fr. Dimitriy’s book presents a kind of mirror to the sensitive reader.  Do we dare to apply the same rigorous criteria of examinaton to our situation, as Fr. Gleb does in his pitiless analysis of the Moscow Patriarchate?  Justly does he take the Patriarchate to task for shamefully neglecting one of the foremost goals of the Church – missionary work.  But where are our missionaries?  Are we not in the same danger of becoming merely a “cult-performing sect,” “an exotic souvenir a la Russe” -- criticisms justly leveled at the Moscow Patriarchate today.  And what of our freedom?  Have we not even more reason to fear the words of the angel in the Apocalypse (words which Fr. Gleb applies to the Moscow Patriarchate):  I know thy works; thou thinkest that thou livest, but thou are dead (Rev. 3:1).

            The Church in Russia today illustrates the will to survive.  Miraculously, like grass pushing through layers of asphalt, the enduring faith of the Orthodox believers proves that Christ cannot be uprooted from the hearts of men.  To the human eye, the situation appears hopeless, but “with God all things are possible.”  Here is a mystery to which the letter of the law simply cannot apply, but only the spirit of love and compassion.  May Christ be in our midst!

Fr. Alexey Young

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