Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Spring 2012): 9-11.

Protestants, 1917-1939

Protestants initially benefitted from the fall of the Romanovs and Bolshevik fixation on the perceived threat of Orthodoxy. The new regime’s relatively benign neglect permitted dramatic evangelical growth in the 1920s. Baptists and Evangelical Christians, who together numbered just over 100,000 members in 1905, grew to 250,000 by 1921, and to 500,000members with up to one to two million counting children and adherents by 1929 (Elliott 1981: 17;Elliott 1992: 192; Elliott 2003: 26; Sawatsky 1981: 27;Sawatsky 1992: 240).

The 1930s, however, brought crushing repression in the form of wholesale church closures, arrests, prison and labor camp sentences, and executions. The ruthless, indiscriminate antireligious campaign of that decade led to the total elimination of institutional life for Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists. In the Leningrad Region in 1937-38 alone, 34 Evangelical Christian and Baptist pastors and activists lost their lives (Nikol’skaia 2009: 105). A single Evangelical Christian church in Moscow may have been the only Protestant congregation still legally functioning in1939, down from over 7,000 in 1928 (Elliott 1981: 17;Elliott 2003: 26; Sawatsky 1981: 48; Sawatsky 1992:243).

The 1930s also witnessed a crescendo of state sponsored antireligious propaganda directed against all faiths. The Soviet regime went to extraordinary lengths and committed prodigious resources in this effort, for example, in its League of the Militant Godless, whose membership reached 5.5 million in 1932. While the antireligious campaign obviously succeeded in closing churches, it failed to make atheists of millions of believers, so many that results of the 1937 census were suppressed on this account (Powell 1975a: 35 and134).

The partitions of Eastern Europe precipitated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 included Red Army occupation of Eastern Poland (1939) and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (1940).These territorial gains temporarily brought into the Soviet Union many millions of Latin- and Eastern-Rite Catholics and Protestants, including Lutherans, Evangelical Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Moravians, Methodists, Churches of Christ, and Reformed. Religious repression quickly commenced in these newly annexed lands but was cut short by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June1941. In most respects Nazi occupation policies whereas draconian as the Kremlin’s, but the Germans did permit thousands of churches to reopen.

Stalin’s Compromise with Religion

In 1943 Stalin made a surprising about face, granting concessions to believers that seem to have been motivated by a desire: 1) to facilitate the war effort; 2) to counteract the enthusiasm that accompanied church revival in German-occupied territories; 3) to utilize the Orthodox Church in the suppression of Eastern-Rite Catholicism in lands to be annexed at the end of the war; and 4) to employ the church in the furtherance of Soviet foreign policy. Following Metropolitan Sergei’s summons to a late-night meeting with Stalin in September 1943, Soviet authorities, on Stalin’s orders, actually expedited the convening of an Orthodox Council a month later that elected Sergei patriarch.

By 1950 Stalin had permitted the Moscow Patriarchate to reopen over 14,000 churches led by some 12,000 priests (Davis 2003: 126 and 130). In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church was able to reestablish 67 monasteries and nunneries, eight seminaries, and two theological academies (Beeson,1982: 58). For convenience of control, Stalin also engineered a merger of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in October 1944. State recognition for this new denomination was such that by the 1950s it could claim 5,400 churches and 512,000 members, with the number of adherents reportedly “many times greater” (Sawatsky 1981: 67. See also Brandenburg1974: 198; Newton 1990: 83). At the same time, Roman Catholicism within Soviet borders managed new growth, not from Kremlin concessions, but simply through the absorption after World War II of western Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Latvia that included many more Catholics than could be completely eliminated.

Continued Repression of Eastern-Rite Catholics

Eastern-Rite Catholicism, however, Moscow once again destined for total annihilation with, once again, the willing collaboration of the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1946 in those portions of western Ukraine seized from Poland and in 1949 in Trans Carpathian Ukraine seized from Czechoslovakia, Eastern-Rite Catholicism once more ceased any legal existence. Russian Orthodoxy thereby gained millions of unwilling adherents and thousands of churches. In the process thousands of Eastern-Rite priests were “converted” to Russian Orthodoxy, went into hiding, or were arrested and deported to Siberian labor camps(Bociurkiw 1996: 148-228; Chaplitskii and Osipova2000: liv-lv; Elliott 1985: 214-16; Solchanyk and Hvat1990: 54-56). All seven of the church’s bishops were arrested and dispatched to Soviet camps with only one, Cardinal Joseph Slipyi, ever leaving Siberia alive(Chaplitskii and Osipova 2000: lvii; Elliott 1985: 214;Pelikan 1990: 169).

Baltic Repression

Stalin’s wartime compromise with religion, which did not extend to Eastern-Rite Catholics, did not apply to the newly annexed Baltic states either. Rather, following their reoccupation by their Army in 1944, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania experienced systematic religious repression. Closure of churches, arrests, brutal interrogations, executions, mass deportations to Central Asia and Siberia with high rates of death in transit—these were the lot of Baltic Catholics, Lutherans, and smaller Protestant communities as well. In 1940 a strong Lithuanian Catholic Church numbered 1,180 churches, just under 1,500 priests, 1,530 monks and nuns in 158monasteries and convents, and four seminaries. By1979 only 574 churches still functioned; by 1969 only some 700 priests still celebrated mass; and by 1982 all monasteries and convents had been closed and only one embattled seminary remained open in Kaunus(Beeson 1982: 120 and 125-26; Bourdeaux 1979: 152and 166)). In Latvia after World War II the number of Catholic churches fell from 500 to 179 in 1964(Pospielovsky 1988: 152; Solchanyk and Hvat 1990:59).

 Khrushchev’s Antireligious Campaign

Nikita Khrushchev, one of Stalin’s chief lieutenants in the postwar suppression of armed resistance and religious opposition in Ukraine, ultimately succeeded his mentor in the Kremlin. His antireligious campaign of 1959-1964 accounted for the second-most intense persecution of Christianity in the Soviet era, surpassed only by the even more repressive1930s. Of the 13,325 functioning Orthodox churches in 1959, only 7,600 remained open in 1964, a drop of47 percent (Davis 2003: 126. See also Tsypin 1994:160). State actions reduced the number of Orthodox priests from 12,000 in 1950, to 10,237 in 1960, to6,800 in 1966 (Davis 2003:130-31. Tsypin 1994:160, gives slightly lower numbers.). The number of Orthodox seminaries fell from eight in 1955 to three in 1964 (Davis 2003: 181-82; Ellis 1986: 120), while Orthodox monasteries and nunneries fell from 64in 1957 to 18 in 1964 (Davis 2003:165). Paralleling Orthodox losses, Evangelical Christians-Baptists saw their functioning churches reduced from 5,400 in 1960to 2,000 in 1964 (Steeves 1990: 84).

The Beginnings of Organized Religious Dissent

Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign involved not only widespread utilization of the country’s administrative and police apparatus in wholesale closure of churches, monasteries, and seminaries, it entailed mass mobilization of the media, schools, universities, even psychiatric hospitals, in the denigration of largely defenseless believers. Nevertheless, what most clearly set Khrushchev’s repression apart from Stalin’s assault on the church was the emergence of Orthodox and Protestant opposition movements that the Kremlin proved incapable of eliminating.

Even before Khrushchev’s campaign, Eastern-Rite Catholicism had set the precedent, from 1946on, by refusing to disappear. In western Ukraine a defiant catacomb church competed vigorously with state-imposed Russian Orthodoxy. In a remarkable challenge to a police state, Eastern-Rite Catholics participated in clandestine worship, supported—and were supported by—underground monks and nuns, operated secret seminaries, and circulated protests against the multiple violations of freedom of conscience they endured (Elliott 1985: 216-18;Zugger 2001: 443-44). The same can be said for Lithuanian Catholics who, despite grievous state attacks, organized determined opposition to Soviet antireligious campaigns, fueled by a fusion of longstanding Russophobia and faith, much as in neighboring Poland.♦


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Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (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.