God in the Gulag: Christianity’s Survival in Soviet Russia
In 64 A.D., approximately thirty years after Christ’s death and resurrection, a raging fire swept through the city of Rome. As rumors spread that the fire had been started by the Emperor Nero, the emperor chose as his scapegoat a small group of believers who called themselves Christians. Nero announced that the Christians had started the fire that destroyed Rome and decreed that all Christians in the city should be arrested and executed. According to Dr. Sophie Lunn-Rockcliffe, lecturer at King’s College in London, “Some were torn apart by dogs, others burnt alive as human torches.”1 Christianity endured sporadic persecution by the Roman authorities, alternating with several periods of more intensive oppression like Nero’s, until the fourth century. Yet the Christian population during these years increased dramatically. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that in the year 40 A.D., there were no more than one thousand professing Christians in the world. By 180 A.D., the one thousand had grown to one hundred thousand, and by the year 300 to six million.2 Nor did the persecution of Christians end in the fourth century; although the Roman Empire and other nations subsequently adopted Christianity as their official religion, on many other occasions Christianity has clashed with state power. The French Revolution of 1789 sparked a period of dechristianization in France which included the banning of religious holidays, the destruction of crosses and bells, the seizure of church lands, and the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of priests. Christianity remains a persecuted religion today, as Brendan Woods illustrates in his article “Christianity and Culture, Lessons from China” in the Spring 2010 issue of The Dartmouth Apologia. Even amid these examples, the Soviet Union’s effort to eradicate Christianity through persecution stand out as one of the most determined. Yet just as in Nero’s Roman Empire, Christianity in the Soviet Union neither disappeared, nor was it significantly weakened, by decades of persecution. The character, loyal community, and sincere belief of Russian Christians enabled them to maintain their faith and even to gain additional followers despite all the efforts of the Soviet government to eliminate them.
The Soviet attitude toward religion, and toward Christianity in particular, was unceasingly hostile. Karl Marx, the founder of Communism, saw religion as “the opiate of the masses,” believing that religion was used by the ruling class to promise lower classes a good life after death. Marx thought such promises were invented to prevent the lower classes from seeking to establish a better life on earth through revolution. This outlook was wholeheartedly adopted by the Russian Bolsheviks who came to power in the October Revolution of 1917; they passionately pledged to “destroy all churches and prisons.”3 At least regarding churches, this attitude persisted in Soviet policy until the fall of the Soviet Union.4 Josef Stalin stated flatly in the 1930s that, “God must be out of Russia in five years.”5 Even as late as 1984, Soviet premier Konstantin Chernenko vowed to “protect the ideological purity of young people against the pernicious taint of religion.”6
The reasons for the Soviet leaders’ unrelenting war on religion were both ideological and symbolic. Beginning with Marx, the Communist movement had rejected religious ideologies as inimical to their own. If the Russian Communists were to succeed in establishing a perfect society on earth, they needed to eradicate a faith that believed this to be impossible. Christianity teaches that God alone is free from imperfection and that the redemption and perfection of the world is to be realized only in the resurrection. The Christian doctrine of original sin remained in stark opposition to the view championed by the Soviet government that, with appropriate direction, humanity could right itself. Furthermore, Christians believed God’s law to be higher than the demands of the socialist cause; they opposed the Soviet ideology that glorified the common good over the individual at any cost. Metropolitan Sergii, who was imprisoned throughout the 1920s, declared, “Far from promising reconciliation of that which is irreconcilable and from pretending to adapt our faith to communism, we will remain from the religious point of view what we are, i.e., members of the traditional Church.”7 This traditional Church was also symbolically offensive to the Communist Party, to whom it represented the old, hierarchical world of the tsars.
To eliminate such a compromising element in society, the Soviet government organized attacks that infiltrated every layer of religious life. Even as the Bolsheviks were still consolidating their power, churches were closed, priests were ridiculed, and believers were arrested. The Soviet government used law, intimidation, and propaganda to suppress Orthodox beliefs and practices. The first legal blow to the established body of religion was an act passed in 1918 which, among other things, removed the legal entity of churches and forbade them from completing monetary transactions and holding property. The Law on Religious Associations followed in 1929 and placed more restrictions on Christians. The law forbade evangelism, the printing of religious literature, making donations to religious causes, and the attendance of children at religious meetings. Religious organizations could not sponsor or host any community events,8 and people were only allowed to attend religious meetings within a certain distance of their homes. Christians faced regular “harassment, investigations, interrogations, demotion and dismissal from jobs, expulsion from universities, and interference with worship,”9 and atheist education for all young people was compulsory.
The chief weapons of the Soviet propaganda machine were the schools, Communist Party meetings that enforced political indoctrination, and the press. Newspapers often reported on clerics who had recanted—usually under duress—and ridiculed the religious as stupid or pathetic. For instance, one newspaper named a girl, Gunta Kieksts, as a Christian and printed her address underneath a caricature of her falling to her knees and grabbing the robes of a priest.10 Believers were regularly defamed and accused of black-marketing, perverting minors, homosexual activity, and other crimes under the Soviet code. Children were the easiest targets for propaganda, since they had to attend state-run schools where teachers were fired if found to be religious. Schools had outings on Sunday mornings,11 and children who admitted to attending church received poorer marks.12 Because of the anti-religious tone of education, students frequently mocked their believing peers. All children were taught to have a higher loyalty to the state than to their families and encouraged to denounce their parents for anti-Soviet activities like attending church.
The punishment for being a Christian in the Soviet Union was just as severe as the punishment for murder. There were two groups of laws under which believers were prosecuted. The first was for religious activity specifically, such as breaking one of the anti-religious laws. The second was for political or civil crimes, including “parasitism,” “hooliganism,” “slandering the Soviet system,” and “anti-Soviet propaganda.”13 Christians had to endure frequent searches and fines, harassment that was made serious by repetition and by the low incomes of those harassed. They were often fired from their jobs, demoted to menial positions, and exiled or banished, usually to northeastern Russia. Those who were arrested could be held up to one year before a trial as the State “gathered evidence.” They waited in overcrowded cells infested with rats, lice, and bedbugs, sometimes in filthy water up to their ankles. Many Christians endured interrogations and torture by the KGB, including threats of castration, the electric chair, prison, confinement to a psychiatric hospital, and harm of family members.14
Christianity in the Soviet Union was forced to endure under the hostile and often deadly conditions of the Gulag, a Russian acronym for The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies. Suffering itself did not come as a surprise to Russian Christians; Christ taught that, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,”15 and again, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.”16 The promises of support in suffering that are found in Scripture sustained many in the Church through difficult trials and decades of persecution. In prison, interrogators often tried to persuade Christian prisoners to recant or to betray one another. Solzhenitsyn recounts the story of an old woman in the Butyrki prison who was interrogated night after night to reveal the location of a priest. She told her tormenters: “There is nothing you can do with me even if you cut me into pieces. After all, you are afraid of your bosses, and you are afraid of each other, and you are even afraid of killing me… But I am not afraid of anything. I would be glad to be judged by God right this minute.”17 Solzhenitsyn does not tell his readers what happened to this old woman, but like her, many Christians found the courage to resist interrogation and refused to give up their faith or betray their fellow Christians.
Solzhenitsyn, himself a prisoner in the Gulag, observed that,
No camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept that pitiful ideology which holds that “human beings are created for happiness,” an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel… Tatyana Falike writes: “Observation of people convinced me that no man could become a scoundrel in camp if he had not been one before.”18
Christians, Solzhenitsyn declared, “knew very well for what they were serving time, and they were unwavering in their convictions! They were the only ones, perhaps, to whom the camp philosophy did not stick.”19 It is impossible to underestimate the significance of a prisoner comprehending and accepting the reason for his own imprisonment. The man who sees his imprisonment as a trial of faith or as an opportunity to serve has a far stronger defense against the dehumanization and scheming cruelty that often accompanied ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years behind barbed wire. Father Tavrion Batozsky, who had been in various prisons and camps for around thirty years, exclaimed, “If you only knew how grateful I am God for my wonderful life!”20 Solzhenitsyn describes the Christians’ “self-confident procession through the Archipelago—a sort of silent religious procession with invisible candles… A steadfastness unheard of in the twentieth century!”21 The Gulag could not touch these people who were sustained by their faith that they were loved by God. Indeed, it would seem as though they truly lived out Jesus’ statement that man does not live by bread alone, for in refusing to cheat their fellow prisoners, to collaborate with the guards, or to bully their way to a needed bowl of oatmeal, they did not receive enough bread to live on. Their faith subjected them to other dangers, as well; nuns were often held with prostitutes and thieves, suffering sexual abuse from guards and prisoners alike. Camp officials would frequently focus their attentions on and harass religious prisoners with greater frequency and cruelty through various punishments, tortures, and sexual assaults intended to dehumanize their victims.22 Nevertheless, these believers were not dehumanized, for they saw their worth in Christ, not in the sadistic treatment they received at the hands of the guards; they looked at the world from Christ’s perspective and found their strength in forgiveness. Upon being asked how he survived months of torture without becoming embittered, Father Roman Braga said, “God bless [the torturers], if there are still alive some of them. I forgave them at that time… Jesus on the Cross forgave them… they don’t know what they do… We forgive them because we want them to come to God and become people.”23 Priests, monks, and other Orthodox Christians reached out to criminals in many ways, sometimes even at the behest of camp officials. Because it made the guards’ jobs easier, priests and monks were permitted and even encouraged in the 1930s to “reeducate” non-believing prisoners by introducing literature to them and discussing morality.24 Furthermore, the ministry of Christians was not limited to these sponsored activities. Priests would often nurse sick men, sometimes criminals, back to health. Ivan Alexandrovich Sazikov, a criminal who was cared for by Father Arseny, told the priest: “I don’t trust people in general. I believe priests even less. But you, Pyotr Andreyevich, I trust. I know you won’t turn your back on me. You live in your God, you do good not for your own benefit, but for the sake of others.”25 Sazikov eventually became a Christian upon witnessing this same priest successfully halt a violent fight between criminals in the name of God.26 This kindness, courage, and power—which stood out so starkly in the labor camps—won the attention and respect of many criminal prisoners who had never witnessed such traits while they were free. Intellectual dissidents who were imprisoned alongside Christians also started to engage in religious dialogues with them, often impressed by the education and intelligence of priests. Alexander writes, “It seemed that for many the concepts of God, science, and ‘intelligentsia’ were becoming more closely related.”27 Many prisoners observed that their Christian comrades had strength in their faith and yearned to share in that hope and comfort.
Instead of the mass exodus away from the Church that the Soviet government expected to result from the persecutions that were heaped on Christians, men and women continued to flock together to devote their lives to God. In 1923 a secret census undertaken by the Bolshevik government reported 3,126,541 people were involved in religious organizations, compared to the 1,737,053 in 1910. One must take into account the fact that these numbers represent only the believers who were not afraid to reveal their religious participation to an atheist government census.28 As the population aged and as children were forbidden to attend church services and were educated in an atheist school system, these numbers cannot be explained by a merely cultural adherence to Christianity. Historian Dmitry Pospielovsky concluded that by the 1980s, the percentage of believers had either very marginally declined or was in fact higher than during the years 1915-1917, when the tsar was still in power.29 The church in Russia had not survived as a relic but as a strong community of believers.
The growth of Christianity in the Soviet Union is evidenced by first-hand testimony, by historians, and by the preservation of the Christian population in Russia through seventy years of determined persecution. Christianity withstood the trials of those years, as it has many other times of suffering, because the believers in the Soviet Union knew that the suffering inflicted on them because of their faith was no more than Jesus had predicted and undergone himself. In the prisons and camps, non-believing prisoners observed the indomitable faith held by the Christians, and many began to seek God themselves. As it has for the last two millennia, Christianity withstood state persecutions and has re-emerged in Russia after decades of public suppression; the number of Christians is still small, but growing.
1 Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, “Christianity and the Roman Empire,” BBC, 6 June 2010 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ ancient/romans/christianityromanempire_article_01.shtml>.
2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 6-9.
3 Gerald Buss, The Bear’s Hug: Christian Belief and the Soviet State, 1917-1986 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 137.
4 During the Second World War, the government declared an armistice with the church in order to unify and strengthen the country as much as possible while fighting against the Nazis. The state also sponsored initiatives to infiltrate and control the Orthodox Church that met with some success.
5 Karl Tobien, Dancing under the Red Star (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2006) 7.
6 Philip Walters, “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet State,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 483 (1986): 143.
7 William C. Fletcher, A Study in Survival: The Church in Russia 1917-1943 (New York: Macmillan, 1965) 25.
8 Howard L. Parsons, Christianity Today in the USSR (New York: International, 1987) 161.
9 Ibid. 162.
10 Alexander Veinbergs, “Lutherism and Other Denominations,” Aspects of Religion in the Soviet Union 1917-1967, ed. Richard H Marshall, Jr, Thomas E Bird, and Andrew Q Blaine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971) 410.
12 Buss 104.
13 Ibid. 144. Religious activity charges are found under Articles 142 and 227 of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSRSR) Criminal Code. The civil and political charges are found under Articles 70, 190:1, 206, and 209 of the RSRSR Criminal Code. “Parasitism” effectively meant unemployment, as it is expressed in Article 209. “Hooliganism,” found in Article 206, was applied to resistance to searches. The more serious charges of “slandering the Soviet system” and “anti-Soviet propaganda” carried prison terms, not fines.
14 Buss 112.
15 Matthew 13:12-13.
16 Mark 13:12-13.
17 Aleksandr I Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. 1, trans. Thomas P. Whitney, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) 131.
18 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. 2, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 626.
19 Ibid. 310.
20 Jennifer Jean Wynot, Keeping the Faith: Russian Orthodox Monasticism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1939 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004) 138.
21 Solzhenitsyn, vol. 2, 623.
22 Wynot 136.
23 Beyond Torture: The Gulag of Pitesti, Romania, DVD (Worchester, Pennsylvania: Vision Video,
24 Wynot 138.
25 Alexander and Vera Bouteneff, Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, trans. Vera Bouteneff (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1998) 21.
26 Ibid. 23.
27 Ibid. 20.
28 Wynot 95.
29 Dimitry V. Pospielovsky, Soviet Studies on the Church and the Believer’s Response to Atheism, vol. 3 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1988) 223.
Alexandra Heywood ’11 is from Potomac, Maryland. She is a Russian Language and Literature major.
Tags: Bolshevik, Catholic, Christian, Communism, government, Gulag, history, hope, Marxism, persecution, revolution, Rome, Russia, Soviet Union, Stalin