100 years on, the Russian Orthodox Church still hasn't overcome brutal state atheism
The spiritual significance of the October Revolution – which actually took place in November 1917 according to our calendar – has largely been viewed by Catholics through the lens of that year’s apparitions at Fatima. Fatima, in turn, read through the life of St John Paul II, has led to a Catholic view that the challenge of 20th-century communism was a time of great persecution but also great heroism, leading to the ultimate triumph of Christian humanism.
The view from Russia itself would be rather different. Consider that, for John Paul II, the aftermath of the Great War meant the return of Poland to independence, and a rebirth of Polish freedom, subsequently to be tested. For his fellow Slav, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the end of World War I meant the end of Russian freedom. Both of course are true. In last week’s issue, Jonathan Luxmoore gave some of the highlights of the Catholic heroism in which Poles played a prominent part. However, the Fatima/John Paul lens does shift attention away from one of the principal religious dramas of our time – the October Revolution’s execution of Orthodoxy.
The persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church – the largest by far of the patriarchates in the Orthodox Church – was brutal and total. The figures are staggering. More than 100,000 Russian Orthodox priests were killed, some by crucifixion on their own churches. A Church that had over 300 bishops in 1917 was reduced to a mere handful by World War II. So fierce was the totalitarian atheism of Lenin and Stalin that the possibility of an underground “church of the catacombs” was practically foreclosed. A regime prepared to kill millions of its own for ideological purposes left no ground upon which resisters could stand, or under which they could hide.
The Russian Orthodox Church was effectively liquidated, and was on the verge of being eliminated. Then, in one of history’s great surprises, a reprieve came with Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Stalin, deciding to marshal all national energies against the Nazi threat, reconstituted the Russian Orthodox Church, but now as a branch of the communist state. Russian Orthodoxy would live, but only as a corrupted government bureau.
Thus in 1946, the state-run Patriarchate of Moscow acceded to the suppression and looting of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, making Ukrainian Catholics the largest illegal Christian community on earth. It was a historic betrayal of a loyal Christian community by its ostensible fellow Christians.
The illegal synod (sobor) of 1946 was a sign of things to come. Anyone who aspired to leadership in the Russian Orthodox Church – especially clergy who were to study abroad – had to be part of the KGB, the secret police. At the very least, several generations of Russian Orthodox leadership were forced to be passive collaborators with the regime. The Russian Orthodox Church, with its millennium-long tradition, was destroyed and replaced.
Even a quarter of a century after the dissolution of the communist party and the Soviet Union itself, the restoration of Russian Orthodoxy remains a generational challenge. A leadership generation has yet to emerge that is free from historic entanglement with the KGB. The alliance of the current Patriarchate of Moscow with the regime of Vladimir Putin – evident above all in Putin’s aggression in Ukraine – is a clear sign that the Stalinist reconstitution of the Church has yet to be overcome. Even today, the Patriarchate of Moscow cannot renounce its participation in the 1946 sobor of suppression in Ukraine.
The great dream of Catholic-Orthodox reunion is one casualty of the October Revolution. While formal relations between Rome and Constantinople are exceptionally warm, Russia remains the demographic centre of Orthodoxy. There can be no move towards greater unity without movement in Moscow.
St John Paul spoke of the Church breathing with “both lungs” in reference to west and east, Latin and Greek, Rome and Constantinople, Catholic and Orthodox. The eastern lung had been severely punctured in 1917, and the Christian Church will not be fully herself until that near-mortal wound is healed. That healing will be the work of generations.
In Ukraine and Poland and elsewhere in the evil empire, Soviet totalitarian atheism could be resisted in part as an act of national resistance; there was an occupying power imposing foreign ideas. Russians never had that recourse; their tyrants were their own. While the massacre of Russian bodies was vast, the corruption of the Russian soul was profound. That is what began in October 1917. It still remains to be overcome.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario,and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the November 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here