The pragmatic leader’s social reforms could have little effect on official policy toward religion.

Author Brian O’Connell coordinates the Peace, Freedom, and Security Studies Program at the National Association of Evangelicals’ Office of Public Affairs. Last fall he visited pastors and lay people in the Soviet Union.

In religion, as in other aspects of life, the Soviet Union is a land of contrasts. Soviet officials point to guarantees of religious freedom in their constitution, but they forbid teaching children about God. The red flags of the Communist party hang outside ornate cathedrals that have been closed by the government.

A new generation of Soviet leaders presents still another contrast. Mikhail Gorbachev, completing his first year as general secretary of the Communist party, possesses qualities never seen in a Soviet leader. The air of uncertainty and paralysis that surrounded Kremlin social policies during the final years of Leonid Brezhnev—and the abbreviated terms of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko—is gone.

Gorbachev, 54, is mastering the art of Western-style politicking. Gone are the brusqueness, lack of sophistication, and absence of poise that characterized other Soviet leaders. Robert Kaiser, a former Washington Post Soviet Union correspondent, calls Gorbachev “a new Soviet man.”

The Soviet leader began consolidating his power by appointing many of his proteges to key governmental and party positions, giving him more direct control over foreign affairs and domestic policy. For example, Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister since 1957, was replaced by the unknown but loyal Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Soviet economy, burdened by shortages of consumer goods, poor or nonexistent telephone service, and a scarcity of housing, may force economic reforms. It is unclear what effect, if any, those changes would have on religious freedom. Only a handful of observers say less repression and increased acceptance of religion may be looming on the Soviet horizon.

Effects On Believers

Bruce Rigdon, who has led National Council of Churches delegations to the Soviet Union, said he is “quite hopeful of the possibilities Gorbachev presents for Russian believers.” Although he tempers his remarks by saying “it’s too early to tell,” Rigdon says the situation “is in no way worse than when Gorbachev took power, and is most likely better.”

In the past, Soviet policy toward religion has vacillated between extreme hostility and reluctant tolerance. Bohdan Bociurkiw, a Canadian authority on Soviet church-and-state relations, describes this ebb and flow as a tension between “fundamentalist” and “pragmatist” government officials. The fundamentalists favor an intense campaign against all groups to rid the country of religion as soon as possible. The pragmatists advocate a more selective approach—favoring religious groups that cooperate with the regime and punishing those that don’t.

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Indications of change must be measured against Soviet history. Many Russians were optimistic in the 1950s when the more pragmatic Nikita Khrushchev replaced Joseph Stalin, advocating proposals for economic and social reform. His moderation in social policy, however, accompanied one of the most severe antireligion campaigns in Soviet history. A fundamentalist government policy strengthened the role of centralized religious bureaucracies, making manipulation of church leaders more widespread. Many churches were closed, and systematic “scientific atheistic” indoctrination was intensified.

Gorbachev, too, is a pragmatist. But his social reforms may have little effect on the Soviet government’s official policy toward religion. Indeed, a young Christian in Leningrad said it does not necessarily make a difference who the national leaders are, or where they stand. “Local and regional authorities are the ones who enforce the laws,” she said, “and they will not easily change their policies.”

It is unlikely that Gorbachev will fundamentally change the system that permitted his rise to power. However, it is likely that Soviet authorities will engage in more sophisticated posturing on religious policy. Diplomatic gestures, such as the recent release of Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, may be stepped up in an attempt to gain international favor. Such strategies may affect some religious believers, but they do not suggest a basic change in official Soviet policy toward religion.

The Registered Churches

Historically, the Russian church has continued to flourish despite government opposition. But deep disagreements exist within the Soviet Christian community over how to respond to official repression of religion.

In order to meet legally, churches are required to register with the government. This restricts church life, primarily by limiting the number of church buildings. Only one registered Baptist church is open in Moscow, for example, even though the city’s population approaches eight million. Soviet officials try to justify the shortage of churches, saying there is no demand for them since most people have abandoned religion due to its unscientific nature.

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The government also limits the number of services congregations are allowed to hold. Educational programs, medical assistance, charity, and other traditional church functions are outlawed. Only pastors are allowed to evangelize, but solely from the pulpit. Violating these restrictions brings a heavy fine and, often, imprisonment.

Some Soviet Christians adhere to government regulations. Submitting to state control, renouncing public criticism of the government’s treatment of religion, and supporting Soviet policies are the price they generally pay to operate legally. At times, the government uses the registered church to influence the international community. However, many of these Christians are still persecuted by being denied job advancements, adequate housing, and moving privileges.

The Unregistered Churches

Other congregations sometimes meet secretly. Some of them have been unable to register with the government, and others have resisted registration. These underground or “unregistered” congregations resist government intervention in the affairs of the church. They say God’s commands impel them to disobey Soviet laws when those laws conflict with Christian convictions. Thus, they give religious training to their children and practice personal evangelism. As a result, Soviet authorities have taken children away from some Christians to prevent them from learning about the faith.

Tension still exists between unregistered and registered churches. Many registered believers question the patriotism of the unregistered church. Some members of the unregistered community accuse registered churches of “collaborating with atheism.” Despite such disagreements, both groups tend to be evangelical in doctrine.

Differing positions on government policy exist within both communities. And both groups are pressured to disown activists within their ranks. A Christian living in Lithuania was ostracized from his registered congregation for attempting to emigrate to the West. He is shunned for being “unpatriotic” and “unfaithful to the motherland.” A woman in Leningrad is isolated from the entire Christian community in her city. Her husband, excommunicated from their registered church for illegally working with street people, is in prison. The registered church members are not allowed to visit her, and the unregistered community fears doing so because authorities are watching her home.

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Some registered congregations walk a fine line between obeying the government and carrying out the duties of the church. While legally holding public meetings of worship, they also hold secret Bible training sessions for youth, provide assistance to the needy, and communicate their problems through contacts in the West.

This type of response to government repression is becoming more widespread, even though it jeopardizes the legal status of individual churches. “Russian believers are becoming even bolder and are taking more risks to practice their faith,” says Anita Deyneka, director of the Slavic Gospel Association’s Institute of Soviet and East European Studies.

Help From Outside

Registered and unregistered churches alike look to Western Christians for support. The pastor of a registered Baptist church said Russian Christians “have their true hope in Christ, but many also place their hope for better treatment in the response of the West.” Unfortunately, that response becomes politicized when groups in the West take sides in the debate over registration.

Many who monitor violations of religious liberty say that taking sides is counterproductive. Jeffrey Collins, executive director of Christian Response International (CRI), says the best strategy is to “aid and encourage both the unregistered and registered communities by publicizing their plight.” CRI has sponsored trips to Romania, the Soviet Union, China, and Nepal during the past year to document religious persecution.

Other avenues of support include prayer and religious broadcasting. Mark Elliott, professor of history at Asbury College, has identified 254 Western organizations that are responding to the plight of Christians in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Observers say religious activity and renewal is on the rise in the Soviet Union, the first modern nation to declare atheism an official state policy. Michael Bourdeaux, director of Keston College, a center that studies religion in Communist-dominated countries, says the religious revival in the Soviet Union is due to the repression that is occurring. “Youth are rejecting Marxism because of the perceived intellectual bankruptcy,” Bourdeaux says. As a result, he adds, many are turning to religion.

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Says Anita Deyneka: “Marxism has failed, and people are disillusioned. They are searching for an alternative to atheism. When I was in the Soviet Union recently, Christians told me many new converts are coming from two sectors of Soviet society—youth and intellectuals—which Communists have considered impervious to religion.”

Like cactus in the desert, Russian believers tenaciously adapt to their environment and continue to bloom. It is unclear whether they are more free to exercise their faith under Gorbachev. But it is clear they need the continuing concern and support of Christians in the West.


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