It was once known as “Holy Russia,” a land blossoming with the multi-domed church buildings so associated with the Eastern Slavs’ Orthodoxy, a land pregnant with spiritual heritage and strongly in touch with the oldest traditions of the faith. But around the turn of the 20th century, something drastic happened.

The chief nation of the USSR, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, was once considered to be among the “most Christian” nations in the world—a land with a rich, age-old history of churches and monasteries, the wellspring of numerous revered saints and martyrs, with a cherished and abundant legacy of sacred music, iconography and spiritual literature. Yet within less than a year after March 1917, when the last tsar abdicated, a band of militant atheists had seized power; many Russians were looting churches; were mocking religion and religious people unmercifully; were even murdering priests, monks and other believers by the thousands. What had happened?

To ascribe it all to “the Revolution” begs the question. In fact, there had been more than one revolution in Russia in the first decades of the 20th century. The anti-tsarist uprisings of 1905 had resulted in a constitutional government with an elected legislature, the Durma, and had ushered in a period of liberal reform. The revolution of March 1917 had seen the formation of a provisional government composed mainly of moderate liberals, though with a growing number of socialists. Yet none of this directly threatened the church or religion.

Revival, Then … Revolution!

Indeed, during these years Russia was experiencing something of a spiritual revival. Many disillusioned Marxist intellectuals turned to Christianity. Some yearned for a mystical revolution that would transform ...

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