Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

As the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church met this week in Moscow to discuss church policies for the future, many tough issues from the past also demanded attention. To understand the bishops' stated positions on church-state relations and their guarded canonization of Bolshevik-era New Martyrs, we have to look at what happened to the church in the early 1900s and before.

Orthodoxy became Russia's official religion in 988, when Prince Vladimir authorized/ordered a mass baptism of the citizens of Kiev, and until recently the church's identity was always largely determined by its relation to the state. Orthodox patriarchs grew in power and esteem until the mid-17th century, when the reforming Patriarch Nikon attempted to assert ecclesiastic independence from he government. In 1721, Czar Peter I abolished the patriarchate of Moscow and replaced it with a state-controlled synod modeled on those of other European countries (like Germany and Sweden) with state churches. There would not be another patriarch for nearly 200 years.

In 1917, six days after the Bolshevik takeover, metropolitan Tikhon was elected patriarch and given the difficult responsibility of defining the church's relationship to a new government. Since Marxist ideology considers religion merely the "opium of the people," revolutionaries moved swiftly to bring down the church. In 1918 the church lost all its legal rights, including the right to own property. Tikhon initially resisted, excommunicating the "open or disguised enemies of Christ" (without naming the government specifically), but persecution soon overwhelmed him. His official position during the civil war was neutrality, though this did not stop the state from subjecting the church to bloody terror—or from employing an even craftier tactic.

In the early 1920s, the state aided and abetted a schism known as the "Living" or "Renovated" church. The state didn't invent the conflict; since the 1890s some church leaders had been calling for reforms such as separation of church and state, decentralization of authority, worship in the living Russian language, and an end to monastic control of higher church offices. But it was Leon Trotsky's idea, later adopted by Vladimir Lenin, to use the conflict to destroy the church from within.

The plan's execution began with a lie. In 1920-22, thanks largely to the civil war and the Soviets' disastrous economic schemes, Russia experienced severe famine. Patriarch Tikhon quickly organized relief efforts, but they weren't enough. The government claimed that more money was needed and ordered the churches to hand over whatever valuable property they had left. The churches complied for the most part, keeping only the chalices and other worship items deemed too holy to relinquish. The government then turned around and told starving people that the church cared more about gold tableware than about saving lives. The Soviets, through the secret police, also began supporting any clergy who defied Tikhon by offering up sacred items. "To impose a schism onto the clergy ranks," Lenin wrote, "[the Politburo] ought to take a decisive initiative in this matter, taking under government protection those priests who openly support the confiscations."

By playing leftist lower clergy (the "proletariat") against more conservative church leaders (the "elite"), the Soviets accomplished three things. First, they divided the loyalties of Orthodox believers and weakened the church. Second, through their support of breakaway clergy, they gained a lot of spies inside the church. Third, they established a front for their ongoing persecution of Christians. As long as they were supporting one faction of the church, they could tell the rest of the world that they had nothing against religion per se, only against counter-revolutionaries, many of whom happened to be religious.

The schism wasn't politically advantageous for long, since most Russian Christians stayed loyal to Tikhon. Government support had begun to wane by 1923, and the schism disappeared in 1943. Nonetheless, the idea of politically motivated schism caught on and was copied by Marxist governments in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and China (remember that bishop-ordination battle in January between the China's state-supported Catholic Church and the Vatican?).

Getting back to this week's council, one stipulation for canonization of the New Martyrs is that they remained faithful to Patriarch Tikhon and his immediate successor, Metropolitan Pyotr Polyansky; Renovationists need not apply. However, the martyrs are not required to have been faithful to Polyansky's successor, Metropolitan Sergy Stragorodsky, because he aligned himself with the Soviets. Also this week, the church declared again that it "does not tie itself to any state or public regime, nor to any political force." A change from old policy, to be sure, but the only conceivable stance in light of the last 100 years.

* Information for this article was gathered from,, and "The Renovationist Movement in the Orthodox Church in the Light of Archival Documents" by Dmitry Pospielovsky (Journal of Church & State, Winter 1997).

* Though it doesn't cover the fall of Communism (it was published in 1988), Christian History issue 18 focuses on Russian Christianity and is available in the CH Store. Issue 54: Eastern Orthodoxy is also available.

Elesha can be reached at