Two of the focus areas of our blog are 20th century history and Communism. In this article, Brian Schmied looks at the struggles that the Church faced in the Soviet Union in the Communist period, and argues that it has become a powerful force in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.


The Russian Orthodox Church is an integral part of Russian society, and a powerful political force. Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. The Russian Orthodox Church has moved out from under the heel of brutal suppression and near extinction, to political dominance within the lifetime of most people reading this.


The Soviet Era Church

Communism, with its state atheism, had an official policy of religious tolerance that permitted the existence, but not the propagation of religion. Its rise resulted in the confiscation of the vast lands and property of the Orthodox Church. It was illegal to criticize atheism and to proselytize, and there were massive government led efforts to end religion[1] through education and persecution.

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

It did not help that the Orthodox Church opposed the rise of Communism, encouraging believers to fight against the new regime. When Lenin abolished religious education and the privileges and legal status of the Church, the Patriarch excommunicated the government, which led to mass executions of clergy. 

Almost 600 convents and monasteries were liquidated and the inhabitants executed in those first few years, and it only got worse with time. In 1929, the USSR outlawed all distribution of religious materials and proselytization. Special taxes implemented for the clergy raised their total taxes to over 100% of their income. Debtors were carted off to Siberia. Then Stalin came to power.

He purged the Russian clergy in 1938, executing an estimated[2] 100,000 of them on the spot, and arresting the rest. Just as it looked like religious expression may be fully stamped out, World War II broke out and brought it back. The Nazi invaders reopened churches in conquered Russian territory. Stalin, fearing that this might make the still largely religious Russian populace sympathetic to the Germans, ended his campaign of persecution and reopened the churches.

The number of churches recovered to over 20,000 within a decade, but, like the war, it did not last. In the late 1950’s Nikita Khrushchev, resumed the persecution. All of the previous laws were enforced again, and a few new ones added. By 1963, it was illegal to bring a child to a church service, and to administer the Eucharist to a child over the age of four.

Time wore down the conflict, however. The Russian Orthodox Church ended its feud with the state, endorsing its various accomplishments and integrating with the KGB[3] to ensure their survival. The Russian state granted reprieve, weakening restrictions, allowing theological schools to open and train clergy, and allowing people to privately fund churches and hire priests for their communities.

It wasn’t until the Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, however, that ownership of some Russian churches was returned to the institution.


The Post-Soviet Renaissance

The Russian Orthodox Church has bounced back. While Russians are not overly religious, with only about 15-20% practicing Orthodoxy[4], far more Russians identify with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian nationalism has become tied to the religion, driving many conservatives, neo fascists and anti-foreign elements, into the arms of the Church.

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

Perhaps because of his ties to the former KGB, Vladimir Putin has built a strong bond between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State. He has voiced support[5] of increasing the political influence of the Church, and the Church has voiced their support of him in turn. The Patriarch, rather than fearing execution, like his predecessors, now walks the halls[6] of the Kremlin in return for bringing the votes of the faithful.

The orthodox people of Russia no longer fear the desecration of their holy sites by their government, but rather call for support in protecting them. There are scientologists are facing possible legal action on behalf of the Orthodox Church against their worldwide expansion efforts[7]. Russians protesting these Scientology proselytization efforts claim[8], “…anyone who cares about the survival of Russia must join the body of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Mere decades ago the same statement would have brought the KGB to your door.

Already by 2006, Russia boasted an impressive 27,000 Orthodox parishes and over 700 monasteries. Religion is uncharacteristically popular with the youth[9], as it helps them establish a cultural identity and connects to the international Russian community. As of 2007, the Moscow Patriarchate has brought the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which split off when the Soviet Union cut Moscow off from the world, back into the fold[10].


Do you agree? Has the Church really become a major force in modern Russia? Let us know your thoughts below..

Brian Schmied loves to learn about the history of religion and politics. He has a B.A in political science, and enjoys writing because it pushes him to think analytically and objectively, and to learn new things.

If you enjoyed that article, and want to find out more about religion’s struggles in the Soviet Union, a great book is Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my favorite writers. Get the book - Amazon US | Amazon UK



[1] Kowaleski, David. Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR. Russian Review, 1980. Vol. 39, No. 4.

[2] Yakovlev, Alexander. Paul Hollander transl. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2004, Pg 165.

[3] Meek, James. Russian Patriarch ‘was KGB Spy’. Guardian News and Media Limited. 12 February 1999.

[4]The World Factbook: Russia. Central Intelligence Agency, 10 July 2013.

[5] Grove, Thomas. Church should have more Control Russian Life: Putin. Thomson Reuters, 1 February, 2013.

[6] Bennets, Marc. In Putin’s Russia, Little Separation Between Church and State. The Washington Times, LLC, 13 August 2012.

[7] Creating an New Era of Expansion. Church of Scientology International, 2013.

[8] Robinson, Robert. Orthodox Rally in Moscow condemns Scientologists. 1 July 2013.

[9] Orthodoxy in Russia Today. The Mendeleyev Journal, 30 March 2012.

[10] Kishkovsky, Leonid. After 80-plus Years, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Reconcil. The Orthodox Church News Magazine, 2007. Vol. 43.