THE story of the Communist attack on religion seems to me a very simple one. But to understand any Russian problem one has to know the country -- its real values and particularly its hidden values.

Here, to start with, is one fact which explains more than perhaps anything else in this story. M. Paléologue, witty and courtly ambassador of the French Republic to the last Tsar, states in his diary: "This people is more religious than its Church." The observation is true, but not because Russians are ignorant or superstitious; it applies not only to the masses but also to the best Russian minds. Hardly any really intelligent person can fail to recognize this even as he enters the country. I remember the words of Harold Williams, our greatest Russian scholar: "Don't you feel when you are leaving Russia as if something were being taken out of you?" All native Russian philosophy has always been idealistic. Of itself, without any special pleading, it arrived at the recognition of the unseen world, of the guiding Deity. When I was translating an article on Lopatin, one of the best Russian philosophers, I remember how a great and loved teacher of mine stood by and listened. As Lopatin's argument reached the conclusion just indicated, my friend commented: "A spirit such as that could dwell in no meaner shrine." It was within the people of all classes, not within the formal Church, that the spirit of religion dwelt.

In no country did the great German philosophers from Kant to Hegel leave a greater impression than on the educated élite in Russia; but no sooner did a German idea, perhaps quite secular in its origin, take root in Russia than it at once took on a religious character. Of course, this happened among the native Slavophils, men of enlightened, conservative and patriotic thought. The leader of the school, Kireyevsky, was at one time a pupil of Hegel. But even the westernizers like Belinsky could only preach atheism in the language of religion -- "the cowl has been placed on our heads." The same thing occurred in the case of Marxism. And the giants of Russian literature, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (especially the last two, who were the most characteristically Russian), were all permeated with religion and had their chosen spiritual advisers in one or other of the great monasteries. Dostoyevsky, in particular, who is far the best interpreter of the mysteries of Russian thought, speaks of his beloved Russia as the Christopher or Christ-bearer, who always carries Christ with him. He is speaking of the Russian peasant and it would be crass ignorance to count this all off as superstition, as has been done by so many foreign visitors and as indeed was fashionable even before the Revolution among some Russian intellectuals, who regarded religion as something entirely out-of-date.

But in the upper levels of the church hierarchy religion had come near to exchanging the substance for a distorted formalism. In the earlier great period of unrest in Russia, the "Time of Troubles" at the turn of the sixteenth century, there was for a while no Tsar. But there was still an independent Head of the Church, the Patriarch, and it was the Church, more than any other leadership, that brought the country back to health and order. The third ruler of the new dynasty of the Romanovs, Peter the Great, resented any rival authority and let the Patriarchate lapse. He put the Church under a civil official whom he significantly described as "the Tsar's eye." From that time the independence of the Church was gone. By the time of the Revolution, the official church had become something very like an extra police ministry. Priests were expected to report the words of their parishioners to the police, some had to send in their sermons for censorship, and two of my own friends among them were actually unfrocked -- one for mildly liberal opinions, and the other for speaking against capital punishment which -- it must be remembered -- was only retained for military offenses or for those who challenged the authority of the government.[i]

It is this debasement of the official church which alone can explain the medieval caricature of the last two years of the Monarchy. Then, as is shown by the most clearly documented evidence, the principal appointments in the Church were dictated by the lewd Rasputin, whom the distraught Empress regarded as the savior of the life of her sick child and as infallible. It is the established fact that Rasputin, who was meanwhile making a public scandal of himself at the most notorious places of entertainment, so bad that even the police reports are unprintable, was able to appoint a political adventurer, Pitirim, to the highest post in the Russian Church. We have the amazing record of the offer of a very large sum of money to him by the Prime Minister A. F. Trepov on condition that he should cease to interfere in political affairs but might do what he liked with the Church. Rasputin refused the offer and it was not he but Trepov who was dismissed. Then, and not now, was the time when religion was in real danger in Russia.

The real Church -- that is, the community of Orthodox believers -- hated all this far more than the outside public. In 1905, simultaneously with the great liberal movement which took shape in the creation of the Duma, the Church, through its clergy and laity, demanded the calling of a church council to give it a new congregational basis and the restoration of the Patriarchate as the symbol of its freedom. The Tsar nearly gave way. Rasputin advised against any change. Directly after the fall of the Monarchy, this great movement went through of itself. The Church Council was called, and the Patriarchate was restored. The head of the government, who was present to give the sanction of the State, was the labor leader, Alexander Kerensky.

I possess the legislation which, after the fall of the Tsar, the government of Kerensky prepared to propose to the impending Constituent Assembly. It included toleration and even support of all religious bodies, with the recognition that Russian Orthodoxy was the Mother Church of Russia.

The general chaos which followed the fall of Tsardom was only ended by the seizure of power by the Communists in November 1917. They were mostly emigrants returned from Europe. One of their mottoes was the superficial statement of Marx: "Religion is dope for the masses." Yes, it had been used in that very way; but anyone who thought that this phrase exhausted the subject could only be without any understanding of religion, and above all of what religion meant to the Russian. I have often asked Soviet friends: "Is it not quite clear that Jesus Christ was what you call a proletarian?" and they find it impossible to deny it. They then insist that religion had become perverted. But why challenge the reality as if it were the perversion? In Russia, the attempt to stamp out the religious feeling was from the first doomed to failure.

The new dictators nationalized all church buildings, funds and property, but they did the same all round. The church buildings could be leased back to parish communities for worship, but they could be alienated again by a majority of the inhabitants of a community on a show of hands. (The ballot had now been abolished.) There were about a thousand priests and as many as forty bishops who perished by violence in the Civil War; but after the initial hysteria official interference with the performance of worship was not attempted. The constitution declared freedom of conscience and of religious and anti-religious propaganda. The vital threat was a law forbidding religious instruction to persons under eighteen in groups of more than four. The intention was to cut off religion at the source, allowing it to die out with the old believers. The direct attack was on ministers of all religions, who were thereby called upon to betray their ordination vows and to abstain from instructing the young; it is surprising that clerical sympathizers abroad have never understood this.

This direct threat was manfully resisted, and in the spring of 1923 two trials were prepared. That year the Western Easter preceded the Eastern by one week, and this was utilized to test public response to persecution of the clergy. In the Western Easter week, with deliberate imitations of the Passion, foreign priests -- Polish Catholics -- were put on trial. A précis of the trial, which was often verbatim, was taken by my friend, Captain Francis McCullagh, an Irish Catholic and one of the most famous of prewar correspondents in Russia. At one point, the public prosecutor actually set the code of Soviet laws against the Bible and quoted: "We have a law and by that law you have to die." The refusal of the Catholic priests was magnificent and unanimous: they would continue teaching the young as before. The Catholic Archbishop Cieplak was condemned to death. When he heard the sentence, he stood forward and gave the blessing: many of those in court fell on their knees, and McCullagh succeeded in sketching the scene. The Archbishop's principal lieutenant, Monsignor Budkiewicz, was actually martyred -- I believe on Good Friday. McCullagh got the whole of his account out of Russia, and there was such a storm of indignation all over Europe and America that the Russian Patriarch, Tikhon, who was to have come before the court in the succeeding Orthodox Easter Week, was set free without trial. The Soviet Government feared for its recently concluded trade agreements. This was the end of the frontal attack, which has never been repeated in the same form. The Patriarch was everywhere welcomed by crowds of devoted believers, but he was a broken man.

Up to 1928-9, the atheist attack was waged by arguments which could carry little conviction: for instance, the holy communion spread infection, the holy communion encouraged drunkenness, there was nothing left in the world to explain, the machine had superseded God. The silliest was the evidence of two airmen who said they had gone up to heaven and could not find God. There was much indirect harassing of believers and especially of priests. In 1928, the Minister of Education, Lunacharsky, who led this attack, made the fatal admission: "Religion is like a nail; the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood." Any thinking peasant could have told him this in advance.

More desperate measures, though not in the domain of force, were now attempted. The words "Religious and" were now deleted from the provision in the constitution to which I have referred, thus leaving only freedom of anti-religious propaganda. School-teaching, instead of being non-religious, was made antireligious. This was a fatal mistake. You cannot teach a negation. The attempt to do so in Russia stimulated the very force which it sought to explain away. I have heard it tried, and seen it fail obviously to satisfy even the teacher himself. There were anti-religious museums to which school-children were taken to implant a contempt for religion. In the end this phase passed from anti-religious propaganda to the safer ground of emphasis on scandalous pages in the history of all the churches.

Meanwhile, by a complicated omnibus law, built up on various local ordinances, the Church -- which had energetically set itself to carry out some of the excellent social legislation of the government -- was debarred from all activities except the performance of worship. Priests were forbidden to live in the towns and had to come in for their work. Many were arrested on the charge of hoarding, because they were inevitably found in charge of the offertories, by which alone the church buildings could be leased. Other expedients were adopted to cut off the priest from his parish and many priests became travelling missionaries, carrying on their work in the same conditions and with the same support as the first ministers of Christianity. There was plenty of courage. Where the attack came home with most effect was in the matter of training, which had become almost impossible. And another heavy blow was given to church organization by the removal of bishops or by obstacles put in the way of any regular visits to their dioceses.

I am quite convinced that the attack on the Church has driven religion back to the individual conscience. In the Orthodox communities, with the closing of the church, the icons or religious pictures turn every cottage into a chapel, and it is seldom that one does not find them there. The trend of religion in Russia is toward simple Bible Christianity. At the outset of the Soviet period, the non-conformists, themselves persecuted by the Orthodox Church under the Tsars, were left unmolested. They suffered in turn. And were likewise strengthened. The Baptists, for example, now harassed like the rest, have made numbers of conversions which have attracted the alarm of the official press. One read also in their own literature the achievements of various missionaries who could never give their real names or indicate the scene of their labors. In a recent census which, among other statistics, took those of religious belief, so many confessed boldly to it that the figures were never published. I have been informed that there were many others who evaded the question but held as firmly as before to their religion.

More successful were indirect measures, such as the establishment in the towns of a six-day week, which practically eliminated Sunday, and the conversion of village churches, by open vote, to other purposes. As the labor laws threatened everyone with the loss of food and lodging for a day's non-attendance at work, the six-day week was a serious blow, for only once in six weeks did the official rest day correspond with Sunday.

Since 1929, the government has relied on a semi-official body called the "Union of the Godless." Its President, E. Yaroslavsky, a highly intelligent man, has been described as a religious atheist who still hopes to carry his cause by conviction. I possess his instructions of 1937 to his followers and they prove his complete failure. He tells them that his organizations "have fallen to pieces," that there is only the most languid interest in the attack, that the churches are more active than ever, that there is an organized nucleus of something approaching a million Christians in the country, that religion has as much influence among the young as among the old (and this is best shown by the congregations on the great feast days), and that, in spite of everything, one-third of the town population and two-thirds of the country population (which is, of course, much more numerous) are still believers. This implies that something like half of the Red Army falls into this category.

There is one interesting development which Yaroslavsky, honest as he is, does not mention. Under the common pressure, the bitterness between rival forms of belief disappeared altogether. Orthodox and Jews supported each other in the difficult task of keeping open their places of worship. Baptists contributed to the upkeep of Orthodox parishes. As in the old days with liberal and revolutionary thought, the prison became a common meeting-house of fellowship and sympathy for the religious minded, and on their release the ministers of one religion would be visited and congratulated by those of another. It was inevitable too -- in such a country as Russia, where sympathy with the suffering and oppressed has always been a primary instinct -- that the hardships suffered by the priests should have banished the last traces of any class barriers that separated them from the laity. In country parishes they found a solid support in the peasantry, which served to carry them through the worst of their troubles. The humorlessness of the government propagandists was a repetition of an error which, in the old days, was often made by the educated -- whether governors, generals or revolutionary propagandists -- who all alike would spoon-feed the peasants as if they had no minds of their own, and often came in for rude surprises.

On the other side, Marxism itself, though acknowledging no foundation but sheer materialism, in Russia inevitably, like any other form of belief, became an idealism. After all, as has been recognized by the acutest of all its critics -- once a Communist leader and now a Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Professor Sergius Bulgakov, the Marxist objective was the happiness of all -- the poor, the maimed, the oppressed, the weak, the very old, the very young, the weaker sex -- in other words, what we should describe as the Kingdom of God on earth, and the really great things that have been achieved in these directions are the finest part of the Soviet record. Does not God see all this, the critic asks, and will He hold to shame this will to a better world? Young Communists themselves felt the void in which their materialist creed had left them. They have set themselves the sternest standards in ethics, but this could not fill the gap. In the end it becomes like a contest between two creeds which cannot see how alike they are: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" The view of Communism now accepted everywhere in Russia is that it is an ideal not yet attained and far-off; and that is how we all regard Christianity. Communism no longer means to Russians anything connected with the first blood-stained years of the Revolution; it is the ideal, to be realized fully in the future, of complete and absolute devotion to the community. The guerrilla fighter shows it when he dashes in on the German tanks with his hand grenade regardless of any thought of escape. The Russian airman shows it, if he finds his wings on fire, when he automatically dives for any neighboring German munition dump, and blows it up and himself with it. This devotion is to be found in many other countries in the present struggle: we were proud of its presence under the blitz in London. One of the most sympathetic accounts of the courage and devotion of the travelling church missionaries of today comes from the pen of Yaroslavsky himself. And from a sturdy priest comes the most understanding appreciation of the moral value of the Communist training in a boy of 10 or 12, ending with the words: "Lord, what a good child of our Mother the Church might be made of him!"

Can I describe the conquering appeal of the great church festivals? The deep church bells, with their moving tone, the reminder that one was among the great family of Mother Russia, are now no longer there. But the roads are thronged with a mass of silent, reverent worshippers, whole families going to the great act of loyalty under fire. All have that set face which one recognizes everywhere as the hallmark of the new breed in Russia. There is only room for half of them indoors, and the rest will wait a full two hours in the wintery weather till the priests are ready for the second service. Even so, the big church is so crowded -- all standing -- that it is only with great difficulty that one can make one's way through to find a place. The deacons can only just get through to collect the generous alms for the poor; by our standards all there are poor. High up in the middle sit the twenty "church-wardens," a target for all eyes and for every threat, the stalwart leaders who keep the church still open. The heartsearching Russian church music is wonderfully full and beautiful, for the choir has been reinforced from churches which have been closed. Candles are reverently lit to be passed from hand to hand till they are placed before a favorite icon or religious painting. Constantly the close throng has to part to let through individuals or even whole families who, while the church is under challenge, will not leave the building till they have given their pledge of loyalty by kissing the cross. At the end, we make our way out to the street where the crowd is patiently waiting.

No sooner had Stalin defeated Trotsky and expelled him finally from the country than he switched all the main forces of the new Russia from the wild-goose chase after world revolution to the practical task of raising the level of well-being in his own country and making it defensible -- of which we see the most impressive proofs in the present war. As soon as the author of "Mein Kampf," with its plain-spoken challenge of invasion of Russia, became the absolute ruler of Germany, Stalin set about rallying his forces of defense. Within definite restrictions, he made striking concessions to the instinct of property in the peasant and workman, and he entirely restored the family to its old position of honor. Divorce, which had earlier been allowed almost without formality, now became subject to a progressive tax! Abortion, formerly indulged, now became a grave penal offense. No wonder that Trotsky, who is still the high priest of many of the Communists outside Russia -- whether or not they admit it consciously -- wrote in "The Revolution Betrayed" (meaning betrayed by Stalin): "The fifth Commandment has returned in Russia, and also the seventh, though so far without any actual reference to God."

He was right. I have never expected the flag of atheism to be pulled down. But I have always felt sure that religion, as I understand it, was winning through. One could also be sure that any improvement in Russian relations with Britain and America would bring easier times for the Christians in Russia. The persecutions were a quite unnecessary sideline of the Marxian dogma. Yaroslavsky had himself exposed their failure. Stalin, though Yaroslavsky was the friend of his youth, had too much sense to follow his fanaticism, and since 1936 significant changes have taken place. Even before then priests regained the vote, and Yaroslavsky himself wrote approval of this. Christian belief no longer debars from posts in Church and State. Icons can be manufactured and sold, and plenty of cottages seem to want one. The famous Iberian chapel over which was once placed the Marxian motto "Religion is dope for the masses" has been reopened. Polish priests, and apparently even Russian priests, could hold their service in the front line; some are serving in the Russian guerrillas. The Godless had to publish an article by one of Stalin's publicists stating that Sunday must be restored because that is the wish of the majority of the people. And The Godless has since been discontinued "in view of shortage of paper."

In my view, we have no need to be anxious for the future of religion in Russia and certainly not for the effects of our present close partnership with her on the lot of Russian Christians. There are, of course, many changes in the practice of religion in Russia and there will be more. The years of trial have put far more responsibility on the individual conscience, as we have noted. With the out-of-date trappings of the old régime has disappeared that reign of sheer compulsion by which the many and diverse live currents of Russian religious thought were suppressed under a kind of tombstone of official uniformity. These varieties will come out into the open air, which is just what ought to happen. But Russia, in my opinion, has remained the most religious country in Europe. "Sometimes," said the acute critic to whom I have referred earlier, "it falls to one or other branches of the Church of Christ to stand in the front line; that honor has fallen to the Church of Russia, and in our harassed churches you will find a fervor of devotion which I should be happy to see in the churches of Western Europe."

The attack on religion was, from the first, the weakest link in the general Communist offensive. Of this the latest incident in the story is peculiarly significant. A Russian book has recently reached America in a shipment of a thousand copies. Since publishing is a Soviet monopoly, it could only have appeared with the permission and the active coöperation of the State. It is a de luxe edition, with copious illustrations, written by the official heads of the Russian Church and designed to show that in the Soviet Union religion is alive and is tolerated. To those who have followed the story throughout, this implies that the Soviet Government fully realizes that the attack on religion has been a direct preventive of good-will in the countries of its Allies, and desires to reassure us on that point for the future. Whatever the importance to be attached to the statements contained in this book, that is the purpose of its publication. Those who have regarded the Soviet hostility to religion as one of the chief impediments to better relations between Russia and the world beyond her borders have at last been fully justified. Though we cannot forecast the future, we have every reason to say that the attempt to extirpate faith from the Russian spirit has failed, and that this failure has been recognized in Russia.

[i] Ordinary murderers were not executed.

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  • SIR BERNARD PARES, former Director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the University of London; an Editor of the Slavonic Review; author of "A History of Russia," "The Fall of the Russian Monarchy" and other works, and editor of "Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar"
  • More By Bernard Pares