Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

The Soviet Attack on Religion

The Soviet Attack on Religion

The Soviet Attack on Religion

THE Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed in 1922, with Russia being by far the largest and most prominent of its original four republics. It eventually expanded to include 15 republics and nearly one sixth of earth’s land surface. But in 1991 the Soviet Union was suddenly dissolved. * Significantly, it was the first State to attempt to eradicate belief in God from the minds of its people.

Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Soviet Union, was a disciple of Karl Marx, who portrayed Christianity as a tool of oppression. Marx called religion “the opium of the people,” and Lenin later declared: “Any religious idea, any idea of any god at all, . . . is the most inexpressible foulness.”

When the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon died in 1925, the church was not permitted to elect another patriarch. The attack on religion that followed resulted in most church buildings being either destroyed or converted to secular uses. Priests were condemned to slave-labor camps, where many perished. “Under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and ’30s,” explains the Encyclopædia Britannica, “the church suffered a bloody persecution that claimed thousands of victims. By 1939 only three or four Orthodox bishops and 100 churches could officially function.”

Practically overnight, however, a remarkable change occurred.

World War II and Religion

In 1939, Nazi Germany, then an ally of the Soviet Union, invaded Poland, thus beginning World War II. Within a year the Soviet Union had absorbed the last 4 of its 15 republics—Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldavia. In June 1941, however, Germany launched a massive attack on the Soviet Union, which took Stalin totally by surprise. By the end of the year, German troops had reached the outskirts of Moscow, and the fall of the Soviet Union appeared imminent.

In desperation, Stalin sought to mobilize the nation for what the Russians called the Great Patriotic War. Stalin recognized that he needed to make concessions to the church to win the support of the people for the war effort, since millions of them still remained religious. What was the result of the spectacular reversal of Stalin’s policy toward religion?

With the cooperation of the church, the Russian people were mobilized for the war effort, and by 1945 a dramatic Soviet victory over the Germans was realized. After the Soviet attack on religion was suspended, the number of Orthodox churches increased to 25,000, and the number of priests reached 33,000.

Attack Renewed

In reality, though, the goal of Soviet leaders to eradicate the concept of God from the minds of their people had not changed. The Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “A new antireligious move was initiated by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev in 1959-64, reducing the number of open churches to less than 10,000. Patriarch Pimen was elected in 1971 following Alexis’ death, and, although the church still commanded the loyalty of millions, its future remained uncertain.” *

Later we will discuss how the Russian Orthodox Church succeeded in surviving the renewed Soviet attack. But how did other religions in the Soviet Union fare? Of these, which one became a chief focus of the attack, and why? This will be discussed in the following article.


^ par. 2 The following are 15 independent countries that were formerly Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

^ par. 11 The names of Alexis I, Russian Orthodox patriarch from 1945 to 1970, and Alexis II, patriarch from 1990 to the present, are also at times spelled Alexy, Aleksi, Aleksei, and Alexei.

[Picture on page 3]

Lenin called ‘any idea of God inexpressible foulness’

[Credit Line]

Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine—BDIC