Confiscating Church Gold

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Ever since the new Patriarch Tikhon had anathematized the Bolsheviks in 1918, church-state relations had been touchy. The period of NEP, which otherwise saw a moderation of state policies, sharpened state attacks on the church. Cheka pressure on the clergy increased, and Lenin and his colleagues devised a three-prong plan to undermine church authority. The plan included attempts to split the church from within, leading to the creation of the Living Church by new-thinking young clergy; assaults on the religion of national minorities, particularly Muslim; and a scheme to confiscate the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church.

The latter goal inspired a brutally cynical scheme hatched by the Bolsheviks in connection with the appalling famine of 1921-1922. The need to buy grain abroad compelled authorities to collect and impound all the gold and foreign currency. Lenin proposed turning this against the church, demanding that the church surrender the rich collection of gems and precious metals represented by its ceremonial implements, and blaming the church for the starvation when it did not. Surely the Bolsheviks carried far more blame than the church, yet the campaign was effective, tarring the church as an irrational organization caring little for its flock, and allowing the authorities to launch a full-scale attack on church property. On February 23, 1922 the VTsIK issued a decree ordering the church to turn over objects containing jewels and other valuables that could be exchanged for hard currency with which to make purchases of food abroad. Faced with accusations of insensitivity towards the sufferings of famine victims, some Orthodox clergy complied with the decree but others, including the Patriarch Tikhon resisted. The ransacking of churches and trials and executions of priests followed, notwithstanding demonstrations against such measures. By July of 1922 the state had confiscated vast stores of precious items from the church.

The campaign for the church gold radicalized church-state relations in a way that could not be undone for twenty years, forcing even moderates to choose sides. Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd initially championed using church valuables to aid the starving population, but under a strict church control. Once inclined towards reconciling with the state, the confiscation of property and creation of the Living Church drove him to opposition. He was arrested in May 1922 and executed in August; after 1991, he was among the first Soviet-era hierarchs canonized.

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