Persecution of Christians in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet and Post-Soviet Union

Mark R. Elliott

Eastern-Rite Catholics

At the beginning of the 20th century, tsarist Russia banned or restricted all expressions of Christianity other than Russian Orthodoxy, the privileged state church. Among the Christian communions with no legal existence was Eastern-Rite Catholicism (worshipping according to the Orthodox liturgy and served by a married priesthood, while submitting to the authority of the pope in Rome). Pejoratively called the Uniate Church by Russians, it had been suppressed throughout most of the empire in 1839 and as well in the former Austrian Kholm District in 1875 (Elliott 1985: 212).


Tsarist Russia also denied a legal existence to Stundists—Slavic Evangelicals hailing originally from Ukraine, who were named for the prayer hour (stunde) they borrowed from their German Mennonite mentors. Authorities came to label as Stundists any Protestants they chose to harass or arrest. Other Evangelicals facing concerted state and Orthodox opposition included Slavic converts to Baptist faith (originating in the Caucasus and Ukraine), followers of Protestant convert Colonel Vasilii Pashkov, known as Pashkovites, and later, as Evangelical Christians (originating in St. Petersburg), Methodists, and Seventh-day Adventists (Sawatsky 1981: 34).

Roman Catholics

In 1900 Latin-Rite Roman Catholics, predominantly Poles, Belorussians, and Lithuanians in Russia’s western borderlands, had a legal existence but were being subjected to heavy-handed state policies of russification. In the 19th century thousands of Poles who had opposed tsarist rule had been deported to Siberia, giving Catholicism an unintended presence east of the Urals (Chaplitskii and Osipova 2000: lxi).

Old Believers

Working in tandem, the Russian state and its state church imposed numerous restrictions on another Christian community, the Old Believers. Also known as Raskolniki (Schismatics), they had rejected changes in the Orthodox liturgy and in the rendering of icons imposed by Patriarch Nikon in the late 17th century. By 1900 state executions, imprisonments, and harsh discriminatory taxation, countered by Old Believer flight, self-immolations, and predictions of the Apocalypse, had long since given way to a patchwork of bureaucratic carrots and sticks that nevertheless failed to cow this intransigent and increasingly prosperous religious opposition (Beeson 1982: 91; Robson 1995: 14-40).

German Protestants

As of 1900 German Baptists, German Mennonite colonists, and Lutherans, also mostly German in origin, came the closest to tolerated, non-Orthodox churches. However, they, as well, were subject to various bureaucratic impediments, and the latter were legally confined to the Baltic region and certain larger cities of the empire. In every case, non-Orthodox churches were legally proscribed from accepting converts from Russian Orthodoxy.

Orthodox and State Opposition to Religious Pluralism

An ideological amalgam of xenophobia, nationalism, and Orthodox triumphalism served as the justification for the wide array of measures taken by the Russian state against non-Orthodox Christians—and other faiths as well. Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar (1896-1917), and his reactionary advisor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Oberprokurator of the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod (1880-1905), personified the ingrained intolerance of the Russian state and its state church. Both men were passionately ethnocentric and anti-Semitic, fearing that non-Orthodox expressions of faith would undermine the viability of the Russian realm. Difficulties faced by Evangelicals under the procuracy of Pobedonostsev included discrimination in employment, disruption of worship, inability to buy or lease land for prayer houses, fines, beatings, prejudicial passport identification as “Stundist,” lack of state recognition of “stundist” marriages, deprivation of parental rights, exile abroad, and arrest and deportation to the Transcaucasus and Siberia (Brandenburg 1974: 123 and 125; Hefly 1979: 227; Sawatsky 1981: 35-36).

In 1884, Alexander III had personally ordered the banishment abroad of Colonel Pashkov. Another prominent Evangelical in the capital, Ivan Prokhanov, eluded Russian police by fleeing abroad in 1895. Prior to 1917 Baptist preacher Feodor Kostronin spent nine years in prison and 16 years in exile, while Vasili Ivanov-Klyshnikov (later, secretary of the Baptist Union) was arrested 31 times and exiled twice (Brandenburg 1974: 130).

The Edict of Toleration

The 1905 Russian Revolution brought a momentary reprieve to non-Orthodox via Nicholas II’s Edict of Toleration (April 1905). For the first time in Russian history all citizens of the empire were granted freedom of conscience, including the legal right to leave the Orthodox fold for another church. However, once the immediate threat to his throne passed, Nicholas II gradually reneged on his own 1905 October Manifesto with its provisions for representative government and civil liberties, including freedom of religion. Evangelicals suffered increasing harassment and discrimination, including censorship, limitations on youth work, and a requirement for police permission for Protestant meetings (frequently denied). An anti-Protestant climate fostered by the state, the state church, and the state-influenced press led to extra-legal repression, namely, mob actions, sometimes fomented by priests, leading to injuries and deaths (Brandendburg 1974:152; Sawatsky 1981: 36). Only the inefficiencies of an inept bureaucracy spread over 11 time zones saved Evangelicals and other non-Orthodox believers from more systematic persecution.

World War I

The coming of World War I brought new trials to Evangelicals who were correctly accused of pacifist leanings but incorrectly accused of pro-German sympathies. Wartime authorities subjected evangelical services to police surveillance, closed meeting houses, and arrested and deported pastors. The president of the Baptist Union went into hiding in Central Asia while Evangelical Christian leader Ivan Prokhanov faced trial in 1916, but was acquitted. Russian German Baptist pastors Walter Jack and Karl Fullbrandt were exiled to Siberia and northern European Russia, while William Fetler was deported abroad (Brandenburg 1974: 150, 157-58, 173).

On the eve of the revolutionary upheavals of 1917, it should be noted as well that the favored Russian Orthodox Church also suffered its own crippling disabilities. From Peter the Great to Nicholas II the state church languished in velvet chains imposed upon it by a Holy Synod that was forced to function as a branch of government. Its civilian oberprokurators—even including military generals—thwarted all attempts at internal church reform and renewal.

Communist victories in the October 1917 Revolution and the Russian Civil War (1918-21) brought to power a determinedly atheist regime that would be responsible for the most comprehensive and deadliest persecution of Christianity—and of all religions—in history to that date. Dwarfing in size, intensity, and thoroughness the intermittent persecutions of the Roman Empire, the Soviet anti-religious campaign of 1917-1989 appears to have been surpassed in lethal consequences by only one other, that of Communist China from 1949

The Soviet Assault on Orthodoxy

The Russian Orthodox Church, perceived by the new Marxist state to be a major source of opposition, was subjected to an especially unrelenting assault during the first two decades of Soviet power. The 54,147 Orthodox churches and 25,593 chapels as of 1914 were reduced to between 100 and 300 by August 1939 (Beglov 2008: 68; Davis 2003: 12-13; Ellis 1986: 4 and 14; Emel’ianov 2004: 3; Hefly 1979: 270; Newton 1990: 83; Pospielovsky 1988: 66; Tsypin 1994: 107). By 1939 Moscow had only 15 to 20 functioning parishes from over 600; Leningrad, five from 401; Tambov, two from 110; and the Kiev Diocese, two from 1,600 (Davis 2003: 12-13; Pospielovsky 1988: 66; Tsypin 1994: 107).

Of 1,025 Orthodox monasteries and nunneries functioning in 1914, with some 95,000 monks, nuns, and novices, not a single one remained open in 1929 (Beeson 1982: 58; Davis 2003: 164 and 166; Emel’ianov 2004: 3; Shkarovskii 1999: 67; Stroyen 1962: 9). Likewise, from 1914 to 1939, all 57 Orthodox seminaries and four theological academies were suppressed (Beeson 1982: 58; Shkarovskii 1999: 67). In addition, by 1939 Soviet authorities had closed or nationalized 37,528 Orthodox parochial schools, all 1,131 of its homes for the aged, and all 291 of its hospitals (Beeson 1982: 58).

Of roughly 300 Orthodox bishops in 1914, less than 20 were alive by 1943. Only four bishops enjoyed some degree of liberty, while living in fear of imminent arrest or worse (Davis 2003: 11 and 64; Hefly 1979: 27; Zugger 2001: 247). Of some 51,000 priests in 1914, no more than 300 to 400 were still serving parishes in 1939 (Beeson 1982: 58; Davis, 2003: 129). Of the 1,000 plus priests in the vicinity of St. Petersburg in 1917, only 15 were free to conduct services in the renamed Leningrad Region in 1937. German forces advancing through Ukraine in 1941 found only two remaining Orthodox priests in two open churches in the Kiev Diocese, down from 1,435 priests in 1917 (Davis 2003: 11 and13).

Orthodoxy’s staggering institutional and human losses must also, of necessity, be calculated in terms of arrests, executions, and forced labor terms, with mortality rates in confinement as high as 85 percent (Pospielovsky 1984: 177). Patriarch Aleksei II estimated that by the late 1930s Russia’s Communist government was responsible for the deaths of some 80,000 Orthodox clergy, monks, and nuns (Davis 2003: 11; Hefly 1979: 270). Executions of priests in 1918-19 and 1930-31 alone have been estimated at over 15,000 and 5,000 respectively, not counting deaths in prisons and labor camps (Emel’ianov 2004: 2-3). In addition, the number of Orthodox parishioners who perished for their faith in the interwar decades must have run at least into the hundreds of thousands (Shkarovskii 1999: 93).

The Soviet Assault on Catholicism

Before World War I the population of tsarist Russia included over five million Roman Catholics, with the heaviest concentrations in western Ukraine, partitioned Poland, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Latvia (Chaplitskii and Osipova 2000: xxii; Zugger 2001: 21-22, 36, 42, 45, and 264). Wartime territorial losses saw Russia shorn of sizeable portions of its western frontier with its large Catholic populations, such that by 1917 the new Soviet state was home to a much-reduced 1.4 million Catholics. Unwavering Kremlin hostility toward the Vatican and fear of fifth columnists in its vulnerable western borderlands led to the nearly complete institutional demise of Catholicism on Soviet territory in two decades. Communist repression reduced the number of functioning Catholic churches from 980 in 1917 to two showcase parishes in Moscow and Leningrad in 1939 (Beeson 1982: 23; Solchanyk and Hvat 1990: 53). Likewise, the number of priests fell drastically from 912 in 1917 to two in August 1939. By 1934, Soviet Russia had not a single serving Catholic bishop, from 21 in 1917, not a single functioning parochial school or social institution, from 300 to 500 in 1917, and no functioning seminaries, of the four previously in operation (Beeson 1982: 123; Hefly 1979: 232). ♦


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Editor’s note: The concluding sections of this article will be published in the next two issues of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Summer 2012) and (Fall 2012).

Reprinted with permission from Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom, ed. by William Taylor, Tonica van der Meer, and Reg Reimer (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012).

Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Wilmore, Kentucky.