How Religion Survived

BY THE time Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, the Soviets had practically annihilated the Russian Orthodox Church. But after the Nazi invasion, the Soviets began to change their attitude toward religion. What prompted this?

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King’s College, London, explained in his book Russia’s War—Blood Upon the Snow: “Metropolitan Sergei [Sergius], head of the Church, appealed to the faithful on the very day of the German invasion to do everything to bring about victory. He published no fewer than twenty-three epistles in the next two years, calling on his flock to fight for the godless state they lived in.” So, as Overy continued, ‘Stalin allowed religion to flourish again.’

In 1943, Stalin finally agreed to recognize the Orthodox Church by appointing Sergius as its new patriarch. “The Church authorities responded by raising money from the faithful to fund a Soviet armored column,”  Overy noted. “Priests and bishops exhorted their congregations to observe the faith, God’s and Stalin’s.”

Describing this period of Russian history, the Russian religious scholar Sergei Ivanenko wrote: ‘The official publication of the Russian Orthodox Church, The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, praised Stalin as the greatest leader and teacher of all times and nations, sent by God to save the nation from oppression, landowners, and capitalists. It called upon believers to give their last drop of blood in defending the USSR from its enemies and to give their all to build Communism.’

“Highly Valued by the KGB”

Even after World War II ended in 1945, the Orthodox Church remained useful to the Communists. The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years, edited by Harrison Salisbury, revealed how this was so: “With the war’s end, church leaders fell in with the Cold War demands of Stalin’s foreign policy.”

The recent book The Sword and the Shield describes how church leaders served Soviet interests. It explains that Patriarch Alexis I, who had succeeded Sergius as patriarch in 1945, “joined the World Peace Council, the Soviet front organization founded in 1949.” The book also notes that he and Metropolitan Nikolai “were highly valued by the KGB [the Soviet State Security Committee] as agents of influence.”

Remarkably, in 1955, Patriarch Alexis I declared: “The Russian Orthodox Church supports the totally peaceful foreign policy of our government, not because the Church allegedly lacks freedom, but because Soviet policy is just and corresponds to the Christian ideals which the Church preaches.”

In the January 22, 2000, issue of The Guardian of London, England, dissident Orthodox priest Georgi Edelshtein is quoted as saying: “All the bishops were carefully picked so that they would work with the soviet government. All were KGB agents. It is well known that Patriarch Alexy was recruited by the KGB, under the code-name of Drozdov. Today, they are preserving the same politics that they had 20 or 30 years ago.”

 A Handmaiden of the Soviet State

Regarding the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Soviets, Life magazine of September 14, 1959, observed: “Stalin gave some concessions to religion, and the church treated him like a czar. Orthodoxy’s collaboration is ensured by a special government ministry and the Communists have utilized the church ever since as an arm of the Soviet state.”

Matthew Spinka, an authority on Russian church affairs, confirmed the existence of a close Church-State relationship in his 1956 book, The Church in Soviet Russia. “The present Patriarch Alexei,” he wrote, “has deliberately made his Church a tool of the government.” Indeed, the Orthodox Church, in effect, survived by becoming a handmaiden of the State. ‘But is that so reprehensible?’ you may ask. Well, consider how God and Christ view the matter.

Jesus Christ said of his true disciples: “You are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” And God’s Word pointedly asks: “Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (John 15:19; James 4:4) Thus, as the Bible presents it, the church made itself a religious harlot with whom “the kings of the earth committed fornication.” It has shown itself to be part of what the Bible calls “Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots and of the disgusting things of the earth.”—Revelation 17:1-6.

How the Witnesses Survived

In contrast, Jesus Christ revealed how his true followers would be known, saying: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) This love was a key factor in the survival of the Witnesses in the former Soviet Union, as indicated by the following report in The Sword and the Shield. “Jehovists extend assistance of all kind to their co-religionists who are in the [labor] camps or in internal exile, supplying them with money, food and clothing.”

Included in the “food” provided for those in prison camps was that of a spiritual kind—Bibles and Bible literature. The Bible contains ‘utterances of God,’ which Jesus said we need in order to sustain our spiritual lives. (Matthew 4:4) The literature was smuggled into the camps at great personal risk, since anyone found doing this was severely punished.

Helene Celmina, a Latvian, was imprisoned in the Potma penal camp in Russia from 1962 to 1966. She wrote Women in Soviet Prisons, a book in which she explained: “Many Jehovah’s Witnesses receive ten years of hard labor merely for having a few issues  of the magazine Watchtower in their apartments. Since people are arrested for possession of these writings, the anxiety and exasperation of the administration over the presence of this literature in camp is understandable.”

Surely, risking personal freedom and safety to provide spiritual help was an evidence of Christian love! But while this was an important factor in the survival of the Witnesses, there was an even more important one. “No one could understand,” Helene Celmina noted, “how this land of barbed wire and limited human contact could be penetrated by forbidden literature.” It seemed impossible, since everyone entering the prison was thoroughly searched. “It was as if angels at night flew over and dropped it,” this author wrote.

Indeed, God promised that he would not leave, or desert, his people. So Jehovah’s Witnesses in the former Soviet Union readily acknowledge, as did the Bible psalmist: “Look! God is my helper.” (Psalm 54:4; Joshua 1:5) Indeed, his help was important to the survival of the Witnesses in the former Soviet Union!

How Circumstances Changed

On March 27, 1991, Jehovah’s Witnesses became a legally recognized organization in the Soviet Union with the signing of a legal charter that includes the following declaration: “The purpose of the Religious Organization is to carry on the religious work of making known the name of Jehovah God and his loving provisions for mankind through his heavenly Kingdom by Jesus Christ.”

Among the ways listed in the charter for carrying on this religious work are preaching publicly and visiting the homes of the people, teaching Bible truths to those who are willing to listen, conducting free Bible studies with the help of Bible study publications, and distributing Bibles.

Since the signing of that document over ten years ago, the Soviet Union has been dissolved, and the situation of religion has changed substantially in the 15 former Soviet republics. What can be said about the future of religion there as well as throughout the rest of the world?

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Church Collaboration With the Soviets

In his 1945 book, Russia Is No Riddle, Edmund Stevens wrote: “The Church took great care not to bite the hand that was now feeding it. It fully realized that in return for the favors bestowed the State expected the Church to give its firm support to the system and to operate within certain limits.”

Stevens went on to explain: “The tradition of centuries as the official State religion was deeply rooted in the Orthodox Church, and it therefore slipped very naturally into its new role of close collaboration with the Soviet Government.”

The Keston Institute thoroughly researched the past collaboration between the Soviets and Alexis II, today’s patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its report concluded: “Aleksi’s collaboration was nothing exceptional—almost all senior leaders of all officially-recognised religious faiths—including the Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, Muslims and Buddhists—were recruited KGB agents. Indeed, the annual report that describes Aleksi’s recruitment also covers numerous other agents, some of them in the Estonian Lutheran Church.”

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Reaching Those in the Camps

Viktors Kalnins, a Latvian journalist, spent most of his ten-year sentence (1962-72) in the Mordovian camp complex, about 250 miles [400 km] southeast of Moscow. In an interview with an Awake! writer in March 1979, Kalnins was asked: “Do the interned Witnesses know about what is going on here in the United States or other countries with regard to the organization?”

“They do,” Kalnins responded, “and it is through the literature that they receive. . . . They even showed me their magazines. I never knew where the literature was hidden; this changed from time to time. But everyone knew the literature was in camp. . . . The guards and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were like Tom and Jerry, trying to hide the literature and trying to find the literature!”

To the question “Did Jehovah’s Witnesses try to talk to you about their beliefs?” Kalnins responded: “Oh yes! They are very well-known. We know all about Armageddon . . . They talked a lot about sickness ending.”

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Witnesses in the Mordovian camps courageously shared Bible truths

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The Vovchuks were deported to Irkutsk, Siberia, in 1951 and continue as faithful Christians today

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Because of church support during World War II, Stalin allowed religion to flourish temporarily

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U.S. Army photo

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Patriarch Alexis I (1945-70) said: ‘Soviet policy corresponds to the Christian ideals which the Church preaches’

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Central State Archive regarding the film/photo/phono documents of Saint-Petersburg