The aggressive and repressive atheism of the USSR intrigues me. John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Orthodox Church, gives a very brief history of the Russian church during this period, and some of the tribulations he describes are astonishing.
Under communism all expression of Christian freedom was dangerous. All formal evangelistic and catechetical work was forbidden to the church…The Bolshevik government rapidly passed anti-religious legislation even before it had secured a totalitarian grasp on the state. It confiscated all private and all ecclesiastical property in December 1917, and in January 1918 withdrew any state subsidy for ecclesiastical institutions, separating church and state, and outlawing any form of religious instruction of the state’s citizens. Between 1917 and 1923, when the Bolshevik zeal was hot, twenty-eight Russian bishops and 1,400 priests were executed.
From there McGuckin goes on to describe the thousands more, both clergy and laity, who were sent to work in labor camps, many of whom died while imprisoned there. If the human cost were not incalculable enough, the USSR went further still. They converted churches into museums and cinemas, stripping them of their icons, relics, and religious memorabilia. Whatever had value was sold in Western markets at obscenely reduced prices (considering that the often ancient items were in fact priceless); whatever did not was burned or defaced. And still the state atheism rolled on.
In 1926 the law explicitly forbade the continuing exercise of communal monastic life in the fewer than half the monasteries that had somehow managed to carry on in spite of the persecutions, a measure that accelerated the monastic decline, but still could not quence monasticism completely. The measures against the church were conducted by the ‘League of Militant Atheism’ with cells in every village. In 1927 the Council of People’s Commissars tried to initiate a Five Year Plan, whose aim was to ‘eradicate the very concept of God from the minds of the people, and to leave not a single house of prayer standing in the whole territory of the USSR.’
McGuckin’s account is, he admits himself, brief and incomplete, and yet at the same time it feels like he never runs out of new and horrible ways that the government of the USSR could enforce its program of dogmatic atheism. Monks and nuns were sent to Gulags and asylums (on the grounds that to be a monastic is to be insane). Christian universities were closed. Mobs were organized to interrupt the liturgy. McGuckin notes, and cites others who have the same observation, that the persecution under the communist regime in the USSR has been the most extensive, both in relative casualties and sustained duration, in the history of the church. The cost is of course beyond the grasp of cold numbers, but he estimates that the Soviets killed 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, and 120,000 monastics.
Yet in all that, this is what truly struck me:
Even so the religious life of Russian Orthodoxy was irrepressible. Even in the dark times of communist persecution the Orthodox attendance at the divine liturgy was far higher than European church attendance.
It cannot help but reinforce for me the truth that a church that does not suffer with Christ cannot call itself the body of Christ, not in the truest sense.