Conflict with the Church

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Subject essay: James von Geldern The Russian Orthodox Church had a long history of collaboration with the tsars and hostility to the political left. The Bolsheviks, as atheist materialists, judged religion to be the ‘opium of the people’ of Marx’s famous formulation. Although they were relentless in their enmity toward religion, it is important to remember that the conflict between church and state began with the February Revolution, and arose when the church defended the unfair privileges it had enjoyed under the Romanovs. The conservative Orthodox hierarchy misread the tenor of the times. In June 1917, they demanded reinstatement of the primacy of Orthodoxy in the Russian state, ignoring the fact that Russia was a multinational secular state. Soon the church suffered two more serious blows. The first was the forced transfer of parochial schools to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. The second was the Law on Freedom of Conscience. Together the legislation ended the official monopoly of the Orthodox church, and undermined its ability to force its faith upon the population.

One of the great ironies of history is the election of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a dignity rescinded by Peter the Great, in the week leading up to the October Revolution. Though church liberals objected to the institution as non-democratic, the new Patriarch Tikhon was inaugurated on November 21, 1917. He immediately rallied resistance to the Bolsheviks when they continued the policies of the Provisional Government. Early acts passed by the Bolsheviks transferred church schools to the Commissariat of Education, and reaffirmed the freedom of conscience. Relations quickly grew bitter. On January 29, 1918, the People’s Commissariat of War declared all property of military church units subject to confiscation by non-church units, should the soldiers of the unit so desire. This minor act was perceived as an attack on all church property. Faced with legal state expropriations, impromptu seizures carried out in the name of the state, and seizures by peasants in the midst of rural turmoil, the church instructed parish clergy to resist expropriation by non-violent means. Measures included excommunication (hardly a threat to the Bolsheviks) and the use of the pulpit to condemn revolutionary laws. The Bolsheviks saw such sermons as ‘hostile propaganda,’ preached to an already wary peasantry.

The conflict escalated in February with the law separating church and state. Though similar to legislation debated under the Provisional Government, the Bolshevik law went much further. Education was fully secularized, and the church monopoly on civil ceremonies was abolished. Among the gravest measures was the nationalization of church property, and the denial of church rights to act as a juridical person. The assault was directed at the legal authority of the church, but it was directed also at the church monopoly on ceremonial life. The Bolsheviks adopted of the Gregorian calendar used by the western nations, replacing the outdated Julian calendar favored by the church. Church holidays no longer had state sanction, and the Bolsheviks began introducing a long list of their own revolutionary holidays, including May Day, Paris Commune Day (later revoked), and the anniversary of the Revolution (November 7, new style). Like the French revolutionaries they so admired, the Bolsheviks invented a new set of rituals for their holidays and ceremonies. It was clear that church-state relations were permanently abysmal by February, when the new Patriarch Tikhon pronounced an anathema on the Bolsheviks, not only condemning their souls to damnation, but forbidding the faithful from any concourse with them.

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