Written by Vladimir Moss



     One of the aims of the Moscow Patriarchate’s entry into the World Council of Churches in 1961 was to mask a new persecution inside the Soviet Union. The ultimate intention of the Soviets – the complete destruction of the Church – remained unchanged in the post-war period; but their tactics showed some flexibility. The Khrushchev persecution demonstrated how fragile and one-sided was the State-Church accord, and how easily the State’s concessions could be retracted without compunction or compensation.[1]

     Until the death of Stalin, while True Orthodoxy was persecuted as violently as ever, “Soviet Orthodoxy” enjoyed a comparatively peaceful period. However, on July 7, 1954 the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a document entitled “On Major Inadequacies in Scientific-Atheist Propaganda and Measures for its Improvement”, which called for a return to the pre-war course of “attacking religious survivals”. That summer some parishioners were persecuted and some churches closed. Public criticisms of this new course were issued by Metropolitan Gregory of Leningrad and Archbishop Luke of Simferopol.

     However, in November the Central Committee began to change course again, in 1955 the number of registered churches began to rise, and in 1956 a print-run of 50,000 Bibles was permitted.[2] Then came Khrushchev’s famous speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, at which the cult of the personality of Stalin was condemned. Soon thousands of people who had been condemned for their religious or political beliefs were returning from the camps, including 293 clergy of the MP and unknown number from the Catacomb Church. In July G. Karpov informed Patriarch Alexis that he did not need to worry about the question of the opening of churches, since this process would now be uninterrupted…[3]

     On October 4, 1958 the Central Committee sent a secret letter to the Union Republics called “On the inadequacies of scientific-atheist propaganda”. All party and public organizations and state organs were required to attack the Church. There followed the Khrushchev persecution of the years 1959-64, when most of the seminaries and monasteries and 12-15,000 of the parish churches, “religious survivals” of Soviet people, were destroyed. In accordance with the instructions of the Central Committee and of Khrushchev personally, on October 16 the Council of Ministers accept the first anti-ecclesiastical resolutions: “On Monasteries in the USSR” and “On Taxing the Income of Enterprises of Diocesan Administrations, and also the Income of Monasteries”.

     In the first of these the monasteries were forbidden to take on hired labour, and a significant diminution of land holdings was envisaged, as also of the numbers of communities. Moreover, the 1945 tax on building and land rent was re-introduced, and the tax rate on plots of land was sharply increased. A heavy blow was dealt to the material base of the patriarchate. Raising the tax on the income from candle factories touched every parish. The factories were forced to raise their output prices, but at the same time it was forbidden to change the old prices in the churches. An absurd situation was the result – the parishes, on acquiring the candles, were forced to sell them to themselves at a loss. To make up for this, in many parishes they began to disband the paid choirs and economize on repairs and the upkeep of the churches. The clergy fell into poverty. The patriarchate was flooded by desperate pleas for help from the hierarchs. As a result of the new regulations, all the dioceses found themselves in debt to the state and on the edge of complete insolvency. An appeal was made to the Council for the Affairs of the Orthodox Church, but it was firmly rejected. An appeal to put off the introduction of the new taxes until January 1, 1959 was also rejected.[4]

     In November and December a massive purge of Church libraries was carried out; many books were removed, and all foreign literature was placed under censorship. On November 28, the Central Committee accepted a resolution “On Measures to stop pilgrimages to so-called ‘holy places’.” Various methods were used to stop pilgrims visiting 700 such places. In 1958 91 church communities were deprived of registration; the tolling of bells was forbidden; hierarchs were deprived of their telephones, churches were cut off from the water system, repairs were forbidden.

     In January, 1959, at a closed session of the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, the president, G. Karpov was attacked by I. Sivenkov for having been “too soft” in relation to the Church. In March Karpov, having recovered from illness, counter-attacked. He declared: “Out of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the world 9 completely support the initiatives of the Moscow Patriarchate… Now there is a suggestion to prepare and convene, in the course of one or two years, an Ecumenical Council or congress of all the Orthodox Churches in the world… How shall we carry out this work… if we encourage crude administrative methods in relation to the Church and do not react to the distortions in scientific-atheist propaganda?... I consider such actions as the blowing up of church buildings to be inadmissible.” Karpov went on to speak of the mass discontent of the clergy, and of the fact that the patriarch was thinking of retiring; and even suggested making some concessions to the Church. As a result, he kept his post for another year, and a temporary departure from extreme forms of anti-religious aggression was observed in the country.[5]

     Nevertheless, by November, thirteen monasteries had been closed, and another seventeen by January, 1960. In spite of a prior agreement between the patriarch and the Council for Religious Affairs, some communities were closed, not gradually, but almost immediately – sometimes within 24 hours. In this period about 200 clergy were compelled by various means to renounce their rank.[6]

     Another aspect of the Khrushchev persecution (so called because he was the chief inspirer and strategist of it) was the infiltration of agents into the ranks of the Church. Anatoly Golitsyn, who defected from the KGB in 1961, writes: “As part of the programme to destroy religion from within, the KGB, in the late 1950s, started sending dedicated young Communists to ecclesiastical academies and seminaries to train them as future church leaders. These young Communists joined the Church, not at the call of their consciences to serve God, but at the call of the Communist Party in order to serve that Party and to implement its general in the struggle against religion.”[7] As regards the ordinary priests, Fr. Alexander Borisov writes: “Almost everyone was recruited into the KGB. I myself was recruited, and I know that our other priest, Fr. Vladimir, was also recruited. I think those who say they were not recruited are deceiving us… After all, in earlier times one could not become a bishop without making some compromise, it was simply impossible…”[8]

     Schema-Monk Epiphany (Chernov) recounts the following story about a communist party member and his wife, who was secretly a member of the Catacomb Church. When their son was born, she wanted to have him baptised – but not in the Moscow patriarchate. He then “tried to convince his wife of a truth which she was well aware. But in the given case the husband’s words were very convincing and concrete:

     “’So you have firmly decided to baptize the child?’

     “’Yes, of course!’ 

     “Well, that’s your affair. Only I would like to introduce into this matter a certain correction or rationalization.’

     “’Please, I’m listening.’

     “’Well, here it is. Tell me, please, have you saved an extra seven rubles which you’re intending to give our ‘pope’ or ‘priest’? If they are extra, give them to me, and I will drink them away, and I’ll baptize the child for you… Tell me, what’s the difference: either he’ll drink them away, or I will. He and I are absolutely the same. And we sit next to each other at party gatherings…. Whether you give the child to him to be baptised or to me, we are both atheists. So it would be better and more humane for you to give the seven rubles to your atheist husband that to an atheist stranger. And listen: your husband is more righteous and decent that that atheist. After all, he pretends to be a believer. But he’s an atheist! Moreover, he pretends so much that he’s even become a priest! While I, honourably and in the sight of all, am an atheist! But I can baptise our child with the same effect as he…

     “‘Well, tell me, have I convinced you?’”[9]

     While Patriarch Alexis and Metropolitan Nicholas protested against the persecution, they remained completely loyal to Soviet power. Thus in January, 1960, Karpov wrote to the Central Committee: “The patriarch is completely loyal with regards to the authorities, always and not only in official declarations, but also in his entourage he speaks sincerely and with exaltation about the government and Comrade Khrushchev. The patriarch does not pay enough attention to work abroad, but even here he accepts all our recommendations…”[10]


     Meanwhile, the pressure on the MP was increasing. On March 16, 1961 the Council of Ministers passed a resolution “On the strengthening of control for the fulfilment of the legislation on churches”, which gave power to the local authorities to close churches and remove registrations. On April 18, 1961 the MP Synod decided to present the resolution “On Measures to Improve the Existing Order of Parish Life” for discussion at the Council in July. This measure, which had been imposed on the Church by the Council for Religious Affairs, deprived the priest of all financial and administrative control of his parish, passing it instead to councils of twenty (the dvadtsatky), which were easily controllable by the authorities.

     As Victor Aksyuchits writes, this “reform” “presented them with new possibilities for destroying the organism of the Church from within. The priests were completely separated from the economic and financial administration of the parishes, and were only hired by agreement as ‘servants of the cult’ for ‘the satisfaction of religious needs’. The diocesan organs of administration of the life of the parishes were suspended… Now the atheist authorities not only carried out the ‘registration’ of the priests and ‘the executive organs’, but also took complete control of the economy and finances of the parishes, appointing the wardens and treasurers, and using all their rights, naturally, to promote the atheists’ aim of destroying the Church.”[11]

     Fearing that the July Council might oppose this “reform”, the authorities did not invite to the Council three hierarchs who had expressed themselves against it. Most of the hierarchs were invited, not to a Council, but to a celebration in honour of St. Sergius, and were amazed to learn that a Council was about to be conducted.[12] Archbishop Hermogen of Kaluga, who appeared without an invitation, was not allowed at the session on the grounds that he was not a ruling hierarch. In the absence of all potential opponents, the parish reform was passed. It was also decided that all clergy should be banned from becoming members of the dvadtsatky or the parish councils. Patriarch Alexis cooperated with the parish statute and with other measures harmful to the Church during the Khrushchev persecution.[13]

     Meanwhile, in the single year of 1961, 1500 churches were closed in the Soviet Union. In 1963 the Kiev-Caves Lavra was closed. Attempts were made to close the Pochaev Lavra, too, but determined action by the monks and the local inhabitants, some of whom were imprisoned or exiled, saved the day.[14]

     On October 14, 1964, Khrushchev fell from power, and the persecution against the MP – but not True Orthodoxy - ceased. The main party ideologist and secretary of the Central Committee, Suslov, thought that it was necessary to continue a decisive “struggle against religion”, but in such a way as not to turn the West against them and “not to give rein to all kinds of extremists”. Illegalities, it was agreed, had been committed, and several people were freed from the prisons and camps.[15]


[1] Pospielovsky, Russkaia Mysl' (Russian Thought), N 3698, 5 November, 1987.

[2] A.B. Vinnikov, Ottepel’ 1943-1960 (The Thaw of 1943-1960); Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 4, pp. 22-23, 24.

[3] Monk Benjamin, Letopis’ Tserkovnykh Sobytij (Chronicle of Church Events), part 4,,p. 27.

[4] Vinnikov, op. cit.; Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 4, pp. 30-31.

[5] Vinnikov, op. cit.; Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 4, pp. 32-33.

[6] Vinnikov, op. cit.

[7] Golitsyn, The Perestroika Deception, London and New York: Edward Harle, 1998, p. 116.

[8] Anatoly Krasikov, “’Tretij Rim’ i Bol’sheviki” (The Third Rome and the Bolsheviks), in L.M. Vorontsova, A.V. Pchelintsev and S.B. Filatov (eds.), Religia i Prava Cheloveka (Religion and Human Rights), Moscow: “Nauka”, 1996, p. 204.

[9] Chernov, Tserkov’ Katakombnaia na Zemle Rossijskoj (The Catacomb Church on the Russian Land), typescript.

[10] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 4, p. 37.

[11] Aksyuchits, "70 let Vavilonskogo plenenia" (70 Years of Babylonian Captivity), Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizhenia (Herald of the Russian Christian Movement), 1988, N 152.

[12] Monk Benjamin, Letopis’ Tserkovnykh Sobytij (Chronicle of Church Events), part 5,, pp. 1-2.

[13] G. Pankov, "O politike Sovetskogo gosudarstva v otnoshenii Russkoj pravoslavnoj tserkvi na rubezhe 50-60-x godov" (On the Politics of the Soviet State in relation to the Russian Orthodox Church on the border of the 50s and 60s), in Bessmertny, A.R. & Filatov, S.B., Religia i Demokratia (Religion and Democracy), Moscow: Progress, 1993, pp. 217-31.

[14] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 5, pp. 15-16.

[15] Monk Benjamin, op. cit., part 5, p. 19.

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