CHRISTIANITY entered Russia from Byzantium. In the year 988, Prince Vladimir was baptized in the River Dnieper, with all the inhabitants of Kiev, and the pagan statues were destroyed. Thus was born the Russian Orthodox Church, and thus Byzantine theology, liturgical forms and church-state relationships were established as basic characteristics of popular religion in Russia. Since this missionary enterprise took place at the height of the quarrel between the Patriarch of the East and the Pope of the West, the Russian Church and people inherited the Eastern Church's antagonism to Rome and the West and shared its isolation from the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of modern concepts of social Christianity. Instead, the Russian Orthodox Church entered the twentieth century with the religious outlook developed no later than the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787. The Russians claim with pride that the Orthodox Church is the true Church of the Apostles, the Scripture, the creeds and the canons accepted in the first seven Councils, and they look gingerly at all other churches, which, they say, separated from it at the time of the Great Schism.

What is the present status of this Russian Orthodox Church in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? Statistics are meager, but the Patriarchate has declared that there are now 22,000 churches, served by about 25,000 clergy. There are 73 diocesan bishops, 69 monasteries and convents, eight lower and two higher theological schools, with more applicants each year than classroom seats. The Soviet census omits the item of religious affiliation, and the Patriarchate has been persistently hesitant when asked about the total number of adherents; estimates run from 25,000,000 to 50,000,000 Orthodox faithful. It is easier to reconcile these figures with the impression held abroad that the Church has been driven underground when we remember that from 1918 to World War II the Communist Party's efforts to destroy the Church were violent and effective, but that the change in policy in 1941 has resulted in a significant resuscitation. It was Stalin who directed both the policy of destruction and the change.

When the Nazi armies opened their attack on June 21, 1941, the once mighty Russian Church barely existed. Yet underneath the bleak exterior lay a broad and deep yearning for religious expression. It was natural, therefore, that when the invading forces announced a crusade to "restore religion," great masses of the people, in the Red Army and in the occupied villages, deserted to the enemy. Stalin was astute enough, however, to foil the Nazi ruse. If Hitler could cause desertions through the offer of religion, Stalin could help preserve the country by the same tactic. Let the voice of the Church itself be heard.

Two days after the invasion started, therefore, Stalin opened the Soviet press and radio to the Metropolitan Sergius, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. When he spoke it was like the voice of the ancient prophets. He told of the way in which the Church had supported the Russian people in repelling the invasions of the Tartars, the Teutonic knights and the Lithuanian-Polish grandees; he called on the faithful to rise to the defense of the Fatherland. The people hearkened, lent their spirit and offered their bodies to the fight. The invaders were driven out.

The Metropolitan's response to Stalin's invitation marked not only the beginning of popular resistance to Hitler, it inaugurated a revival of Church life, the restoration of the ecclesiastical apparatus, the resumption of relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the other heads of Eastern Orthodox Churches, and, to a limited degree, the establishment of contact between Russian Orthodox faithful and Christians in other lands.

The Great Patriotic War, as it was called by both secular and religious leaders, provided four years for testing and proving the reality of common interest. The military chaplaincy was not restored, but it was symbolic of the Church's interest and influence that money was collected at church services to pay for an entire battalion of tanks, which were formally dedicated by Metropolitan Nicholas. Regimental commanders are known to have led in prayer before battle. Many churches which had been closed during the campaign of the Society of Militant Atheists were now allowed to reopen for worship. Priests who had been in hiding or put to work in factories returned to their parishes. Ikons reappeared from chests or under beds to hallow the common tasks of the household from behind the "lampadka" in the ikon corner.

The tide had turned for the Church. From having been suppressed or terrorized nearly to extinction, it was now given status. On September 5, 1943, Stalin received in audience the Metropolitans, Sergius of Moscow, Alexis of Leningrad and Nicholas of the Ukraine and Galicia. Four days later 19 bishops gathered and raised Sergius to the office of Patriarch. This office had been vacant since the death of Tikhon, who himself had been the first Patriarch since the days of Peter the Great, and whose tenure from 1918 to 1924 had been marked by the almost complete destruction of the Orthodox Church as an administrative body.

In the same way that the watchword for this resuscitation had been patriotism, so the external expressions of church life have been characterized by the common interest of church and state in history and national culture. Holy Russia was by no means holy in the sense that all her tsars or all her people were at the zenith of moral perfection. Nevertheless, the concept of Russian nationality, statehood and culture was, from the tenth century, impregnated with the idea of a sacred calling and destiny.

Today the Soviet youth who visit the modern Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism in the desecrated Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad, with its crude portrayal of the faults of religion, go also to the National Museum and to the Tretyakoff Gallery, or to the great cathedrals (now museums) in the Kremlin. They stand in respect if not in reverence before the beautiful fourteenth century ikons of Andrei Rublev and the modern painting of Christ Appearing to the People by A. A. Ivanov. All of these religious elements enter into the concept of Russian nationalism, which is the solid foundation without which Communist ideas of grandeur would be merely theoretical.

It is a confusing situation. Many American visitors to the Soviet Union return with the report that the Orthodox Church is only a great show of brocaded vestments, deeply intoned chants and a theatrical moving about with incense pots and candles for two or three hours before a vast congregation silently watching. They are impressed with the ceremony and music, but fail to find religion in it. It is readily understandable, they say, that modern Soviet people will not like such long services, particularly as the congregation must stand throughout. Some have inquired about the Church's program of activities, Sunday schools, women's groups, and so on, and learn that the Church has none, but only holds services of worship. They conclude that such a church cannot long survive. And yet, there it is, and seemingly holding its own.

Rome emphasizes the word Catholic, or universal, the Greeks emphasize Orthodox, or right doctrine, and the Russians say Pravoslavny, or right praising. The essence of Russian Orthodoxy is glorifying God, with services of worship which elevate the spirit while impressing the mind. Humility, hospitality to strangers, help to the needy, but above all kenosis, the emptying of one's self in service to God--these are Orthodox virtues. A sense of the pervading presence of God in man, in nature and in created things is characteristic, and is expressed in reverence for ikons, which are images of Christ, of the Ever-Virgin Mary, the saints, or events in their lives. Spiritual life revolves around prayers before ikons at home and in the liturgical cycle of the Church. Ethical concepts grow out of the spiritual experience of God, rather than being a primary element of religion, as in Protestantism. It is in terms of this kind of religion that the status and practices of the Orthodox Church under the Soviets must be understood.

However, the nature of Orthodoxy is not the only reason for its emphasis on worship rather than on parish activities. Worship is the only "activity" permitted. Article 17 of the law of April 8, 1929, reads:

Religious associations are forbidden: (a) to establish mutual aid funds, coöperative and productive associations, and in general to use the property at their disposal for any other purpose than the satisfying of religious needs; (b) to give material aid to their members; to organize either special meetings for children, youth, women, for prayer and other purposes, or general meetings, groups, circles, departments, biblical, literary, handworking, labor, religious study, and so on, and also to organize excursions and children's playgrounds, to open libraries and reading rooms, to organize sanatoria and medical aid. Only such books as are necessary for the performance of services are permitted to be kept in the church buildings and houses of prayer.

This law must be read in light of the provisions of the Soviet Constitution, Article 124:

In order to insure to citizens freedom of conscience, the Church in the U.S.S.R. is separated from the State and the school from the Church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.

The Patriarchate's book published during the war, entitled "The Truth About Religion in Russia," commented on this article in the Constitution as follows: ". . . it may be said with complete objectivity that the Constitution, guaranteeing full freedom of religious worship, definitely in no way restricts the religious life of the faithful and the life of the Church in general." This is a hard saying for Western Christians to accept, feeling as they do that every Christian child should have an opportunity for systematic instruction in the faith and its meaning in life, that the congregation should be free to organize for activities by age or interest groups and for charity, and that the Church as well as individual Christians should be free to publish, and bookstores to sell, literature for the interpretation of religious truths as applied to community and world problems. When asked about these restrictions, Russian churchmen tend to say that such things are unnecessary--worship is the thing. Yet there is an occasional shrug of the shoulder or other indication of private longing for the pre-revolutionary possibility of expression recorded in countless books, pamphlets and church magazines, and in the thousands of buildings of former Church schools, charitable institutions and social service enterprises which covered the country in days gone by.

The existence of these varied and widespread activities of the Russian Church under the tsars is little appreciated in the West. Rather, the impression abroad is that the "corruptness" of the Orthodox Church and its subservience to the tsars was the reason the Communists turned against the Church and restricted its life and work. Venality and subservience there were, yet there also was a constant struggle within the Church by village priests, sincere bishops, theologians, ascetics and great writers, working for its purity and service to humanity. Rasputin is often referred to as a "type" of Orthodoxy, although he was not Orthodox, but a member of a proscripted sect.

Actually, the Communist Party's hostility to the Orthodox Church, to all churches--for Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists are under the same Soviet laws--stems less from the past faults of ecclesiastics and synods than from the basic atheism of Marxist philosophy. When Karl Marx used the phrase "religion is the opium of the people," he had little knowledge of the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, his studies of philosophy and science had convinced him that the idea of the supernatural was false, irrelevant and indeed harmful. Engels in "Anti-Duehring" and Lenin in "Materialism and Emperiocriticism" developed Marxist thought and established the Party's atheism: there is no God. Since that time an important task of the Party has been to wean individuals and society away from the idea of God, though if possible without offending popular sentiments and convictions to such a degree that willingness to share in the productive processes is weakened and social solidarity is reduced.

The restoration of the Patriarchate in 1943 represented a complete reversal of policy on the part of government and party. Instead of scattering the parishes, let them unite; instead of arbitrary action by local organs of government, maintain control from Moscow; instead of independence of local congregations, facilitate the establishment of a centralized and disciplined hierarchy under the Patriarch; instead of suppressing worship, sanction it and even permit training of priests; instead of stimulating the crude activities of the Society of Militant Godless, concentrate on scientific education in the schools, and on social atheistic influence in the Comsomol and the Pioneer movement; instead of literature emphasizing the faults of the tsarist church, produce books, pamphlets, magazines which portray religion as natural to the old class society, but unnatural, wasteful and harmful in the new classless, scientific society. In brief, sanction worship, eradicate religion.

This dialectic practice is under the control of the Council on the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church attached to the Council of Ministers, with agents throughout the country, paralleling the entire church structure. The president of the Council explained to the writer that his task was to see that Soviet law is observed by all concerned, whether church or state. A similar Council exists to regulate the affairs of all other religious organizations in the Soviet Union--Christian, Jewish, Moslem, etc.

The constitutional line of separation of church from the state might seem to be abrogated by this arrangement. High church officials, however, insist that the government does not interfere in the internal affairs of the church. Does the church seek to influence government? We know of one instance. On February 19,1930, Metropolitan Sergius presented to Comrade Smidovitch, then head of the Kremlin's commission on religion, a memorandum listing 21 points on which the Church requested relaxation. In this document, and possibly in others, appeal was made for modification of state practices affecting the Church itself. We know of no appeal or declaration or proposal suggesting a change in policy on social or international affairs. No article in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate has ventured criticism of government or party policies or actions. However, on February 15, 1960, Patriarch Alexis delivered a remarkable speech at a Kremlin meeting, calling attention point by point to the contributions which the Church throughout history had made to the Russian nation.

In one field the Church has been a direct partner with government. The Patriarch issues occasional statements in support of the Soviet "peace policy." Metropolitan Nicholas, until last July President of the Church's council on foreign relations, has been even more active. His impressive appearance in his white "klobuk" (monastic headdress), his eloquence and his air of conviction made him an effective platform orator, and by speaking as a churchman he has given a moral tone to what otherwise would have been a purely political movement. There can be no question of the authentic desire of the Orthodox faithful for peace, but the Metropolitan's unswerving adherence to the Soviet line for its achievement raises the question whether the Church has considered and formed an independent judgment on international affairs. Perhaps participation in the "peace" movement is one of the gauges of loyalty to the régime without which the Church might lose such toleration as it now enjoys.

Through the centuries the Russian Orthodox Church undertook only two ventures which could be called foreign missionary activity in the sense in which this term is used by the Roman Catholic or the Protestant Churches--the mission to the Aleuts of Alaska in the eighteenth century and the mission of Archbishop Nicholas in the nineteenth century which led to the foundation of the Japanese Orthodox Church. Other missions were to non-Christians in the Russian Empire. However, the Holy Synod throughout the nineteenth century took great interest in the Holy Land and in Mt. Athos, and was also active in establishing chapels and chaplaincies for Russians residing or travelling abroad, particularly in Western Europe and the United States. They also developed considerable friendly intercourse between Russian theologians and prelates and their counterparts in the Anglican communion, in both England and the United States.

In 1943 Stalin agreed to welcome an official delegation under the Archbishop of York to bring greetings from the Church of England to Metropolitan Sergius and the Orthodox Church in Moscow. This visit thrust the Russian Church again into the diplomatic arena after 25 years of isolation. During the war years, Church dignitaries were sent on various visits abroad--to Sofia, Tehran, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Ostensibly, and probably authentically from the Church's standpoint, these visits were intended to renew and strengthen the ties which bind the Orthodox Churches together. In this they were successful. Yet no one can doubt that Stalin had well in mind the fact that Russia under the tsars had considered herself the Protector of Christians living under the yoke of the Sultan, and that it was advantageous for the Soviet Union at least to intimate a continuance of this policy. Events in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon during the past five years tend to confirm this hypothesis.

Relations with the Phanar, where the former American Greek Archbishop Athenagoras is now enthroned as "Patriarch of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch," deserve special comment because of the historical claims on the part of the Russian state, whether tsarist or Soviet, as well as of the Russian Orthodox Church itself. The right of the Russian fleet to free exit to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea was a claim put forward frequently in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps the age of airplanes and missiles has modified the Soviet interest in this matter. The Russian Church, however, has made no radical change in its policy regarding Constantinople. There is still an ambiguity in relationships. On the one hand, the Moscow Patriarchate publicly acknowledges the Ecumenical Patriarch not only as "brother in Christ," but as primus inter pares among the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church. At the same time, ever since the coming of the new deal for the Moscow Patriarchate, hints or rumors or even articles in its monthly journal point up the relative merits of each, to the advantage of Moscow.

After the Patriarch of Constantinople became a vassal of the Moslem Sultan in 1453, his movements and influence were restricted and his flock was more and more reduced as one Balkan nation after another gained independence. At the close of World War II he had less than 100,000 followers in Turkey, plus disputed authority over certain dioceses in northern Greece. To these should be added the Greeks of the Diaspora, no small number; in the United States alone the Greek Church claims about 2,300,000 in some 300 parishes, besides scores of thousands in South America, Europe, Africa and Australia, perhaps a total of 3,000,000. By comparison, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate now can claim 25,000,000 to 50,000,000 faithful in the Soviet Union. In terms of numbers, therefore, Moscow is well ahead. Yet the Ecumenical has the advantage of antiquity, recognized primacy among all Orthodox Churches and, in the last decade, the vigorous leadership of a truly great churchman who is pressing forward along the whole front of ecclesiastical policy represented by the word "ecumenic."

In 1948 a test of strength came when the Moscow Patriarch issued a call for a conference of the heads or representatives of Orthodox Churches. The occasion was the 500th anniversary of the autocephalicity of the Russian Church, that is to say, its declaration of independence from Constantinople and therefore of parity with it. The Moscow Patriarchate's intention to assert a right to leadership equal to that of Constantinople in the Orthodox world was scarcely veiled. Constantinople reacted vigorously, making clear its stand that only the Patriarch on the Bosporus had the right to summon an all-Orthodox meeting. This position was confirmed when the Patriarch's delegates announced in Moscow that they had come only for the celebration and refused to participate in the conference.

In addition to their formal canonical and administrative relationships within the Orthodox fold, both Moscow and the Phanar are now showing increasing interest in relations with other confessions. As lately as 1948 the Moscow Patriarchate had denounced the World Council of Churches; yet now it has entered fully into the Council's work. It sent two representatives, a priest and a layman, for two months of study at the World Council Headquarters in Geneva and then to attend as observers a meeting of the Central Committee on Rhodes in August 1959. A staff delegation from Geneva was entertained for a fortnight in the Soviet Union the following December. A strong Anglican theological delegation headed by the Archbishop of York met in Moscow with a corresponding Russian Orthodox delegation in a conference lasting ten days in 1956. Many exchanges of theologians between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Evangelical Church of Western Germany have increased the feeling of mutual interest between Lutherans and Orthodox.

A basic question is the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church toward the Vatican. The break between East and West which occurred in 1054 has never been healed. But the question of Christian unity is being much discussed at present because of the prospective "Ecumenical Council" announced by Pope John XXIII in 1959. Will the Orthodox be invited? Should they accept if invited? Both Moscow and the Phanar agree that the Orthodox must continue to reject papal claims to be the Vicar of Christ and the various heresies which they charge to Rome. The Phanar, however, feels that the time has nevertheless come to seek grounds for common action in the world by all the Christian Churches, and that a discussion of such matters with Rome will not harm Orthodoxy. Moscow is silent except for repeating historical grievances against Rome.

In all of the Patriarchate's foreign contacts the Soviet state must have had a conscious interest, since without its consent no Soviet citizen can travel abroad and no foreign delegation can enter the country. The interest is apparent--propaganda value. There can be no doubt that such contacts have in a measure modified the popular notion abroad that Christians in the Soviet Union are persecuted, and to that extent hostility toward the Communist régime is reduced. For its part, the Church can say that its foreign contacts are authentically religious, aiming to strengthen the cause of Christianity at home and abroad. Certainly the Russian Church itself has been strengthened.

The internal life of the Church is governed by the Constitution adopted at its Sobor (Assembly) in 1945. At the head is the Patriarch. He is assisted by a Holy Synod of six diocesan bishops, three being permanent members, viz. the Metropolitans of Krutitsk and Kolomna, of Leningrad and Ladoga, and of Kiev and Galicia, the other three being chosen in rotation. The dioceses generally conform to civil geographic units. The Church is held together by the requirement of strict canonical and liturgical conformity and by traditional spiritual unity. Pilgrimages are also important. Vast numbers of pilgrims visit the sacred monasteries and shrines at Kiev, Zagorsk, Pochaev in Volhynia and Pechorsk near Pskov. Indeed the passion of the Russian Orthodox for pilgrimages unquestionably is a great sustaining force for the Church. Ikons which have special historical significance or which venerate especially beloved saints have their annual days for crowded celebrations. Chief among them at present is the ikon of the Virgin of Kazan, now found at the right of the royal door in the ikonastasis of the Patriarchal Cathedral in Moscow. It is venerated for the part it played in the recovery of Moscow from the invaders in 1612.

The number of churches in use is far less than before the Revolution. Thus Moscow has about 50 churches for a population of 8,000,000, and there are half that number for the 5,000,000 inhabitants of Leningrad. The rule seems to be that the great cathedrals and a few historic churches should be maintained in each city. Since there are no seating facilities in Russian churches, great numbers may attend. Thus in St. Nicholas Cathedral in Leningrad there are two completely separate churches, one above the other, each with the capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 persons. The small number of churches in use, particularly in cities of large populations, accounts for their being filled at each service; in fact two or more liturgies may be celebrated on a Sunday or a Holy Day. Most city churches have daily services, one very early at six or seven, another in the evening. Contrary to pre-revolutionary practice, a sermon at each service is the rule. These sermons are generally brief, 10 to 20 minutes, and emphasize the spiritual and moral interpretation of the gospel for the day.

A program exists for the reconstruction of disused or wardamaged churches with funds provided by the faithful. On the other hand, few new churches have been built. It is likely that some of the great new industrial cities have no churches at all except as there may be a previously existing church in a nearby village. As regards the villages it is explained that whereas formerly nearly every "selo" had a church, this is no longer necessary, since members of the collective farms supposedly have means of transportation to functioning small churches which are conveniently located.

Do only old people go to church? The great majority attending do appear to be old, but this appearance may be partly the result of the sufferings and hardships of recent years. Of the generation now in their forties, a large proportion were killed in the war. But of course the absence of young people results chiefly from the strenuous Soviet effort to detach them from religion and train them in Communism, using formal education and atheistic indoctrination in youth organizations as well as millions of anti-religious books and pamphlets.

One offsetting aspect is the widespread practice of infant baptism. In one Leningrad church, about 200 are baptized on a single Sunday. At a suburban church the writer found young godparents bringing 72 infants for baptism on a Sunday morning. Church weddings are less frequent, and if a member of the Comsomol is involved he will be censured or even expelled. As regards burials, it is explained that even though there may be no priest for the funeral, requiem prayers will be sung for "nearly everybody" who dies, on the request of some member of the family on the customary fortieth day.

Plainly there are elements of both strength and weakness in the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. A believing Christian would say that its greatest strength lies in the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the worshipping church and in the hearts of the faithful; in worship there is a dialogue between man and God which creates a feeling of sharing in the power of the Almighty. The elaborate, traditional liturgical services provide a psychological framework binding worshippers together with each other and with all elsewhere who may be praying, and with those who have gone before. The celebration of the sacraments is literally "an outward and visible sign" of Divine action in the world.

The weaknesses of the Church do not lie so much in the areas designated by Western Protestants--lack of specialized forms of religious education for youth, or the absence of parish activities. Rather they lie in the enforced insulation of the Church from the main streams of life and growth in the Soviet Union, and in the economic affluence of the higher clergy, which could both reduce their spiritual vitality and create a cleavage between them and their less favored flocks.

Characteristic of the first is the complete separation of religion from science, economic life and social studies. Professors and graduate students in theology write only on church history, usually patristics, or on doctrine. The first collection of five such dissertations was published in 1959. No religious works dealing with problems of modern society (except "peace") are published. In fact, the only regular publications of the Church are the official monthly journal of the Patriarchate, liturgical manuals and occasional collections of sermons by the top prelates of the Church. Even these publications can be distributed only within the Church; they cannot be sold in bookstores.

As regards the economic status of the higher clergy, it must be remembered that large sums accrue at each service of worship out of the sale of candles and other liturgical items. This income amounts to millions of rubles in each diocese annually. The Church is forbidden to spend money for charitable, educational or missionary purposes, but only for the maintenance and embellishment of churches and monasteries, for the ten theological schools, and for the salaries of clergy and choirs. The Church pays no taxes, although each priest or bishop pays a stiff income tax.

What must we conclude as to the eventual future for religion in the Soviet Union when we consider the ubiquitous and vigorous processes for weaning children and youth from religion, the prohibition against public sale of Christian literature, the voluminous production of anti-religious propaganda, the restriction on parish activities, and what critics consider the irrelevant or anachronistic character of Orthodox worship? The Soviet Constitution and legislation imply that religion will continue indefinitely. The struggle to eradicate belief in God is vigorous, yet it has been held under restraint since Khrushchev's decree to that effect in 1954. The Roman Catholic Churches, largely confined to Lithuanians, Latvians and Byelorussians, show no signs of weakening. The Lutheran Churches in Estonia and Latvia have made a comeback approximately in the same degree as the Orthodox. The Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists maintains its level of between 500,000 and 600,000 baptized persons. The Orthodox are confident that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the Church and that religion as a spiritual force has wide influence among the people. Even though Christianity seems to be eclipsed by Communist doctrine, they believe that God will not only sustain but will strengthen His Church in Russia and the world.

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  • PAUL B. ANDERSON, Secretary of the International Committee of the Y.M.C.A. and Director of the Russian YMCA-Press in Paris; served in Y.M.C.A. in China, 1913-17, and in Russia and Siberia, 1917-18; author of "People, Church and State in Modern Russia"
  • More By Paul B. Anderson