Advanced search
CrossRef citations to date
Special Feature: Evaluating the Centenary of the Revolution

Rethinking the Russian Orthodox Church and the Bolshevik Revolution

This article argues that, since the majority of Russians in 1917 belonged to the Orthodox Church, it is impossible to gain a full picture of the experience of the Revolution without taking into account the fate of Orthodoxy during the Revolution. Nevertheless, there has been no serious reassessment of the Orthodox Church in 1917–18 in English, and as a result most English-language scholars tend to fall back on older scholarship that is still driven by an outdated paradigm that ultimately derives from Soviet propaganda. Key recent Russian work on the subject is discussed to suggest new ways of understanding events. The old paradigm interpreted the Bolsheviks as progressive secularizers and the Church as counter-revolutionary. This article suggests rather that, during the first year of the revolution, both the church and the new state were shifting their policies towards one another until, by the autumn of 1918, the architects of the regime's policy towards the Church took a hard line against it.

A substantial majority of the population of the Russian Empire – and an overwhelming majority in those regions dominated by ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians and others – belonged to the Orthodox faith on the eve of 1917.1 This fact alone should cause us to pause and think that Orthodoxy played a significant role in shaping the beliefs, culture and values of the majority of the Empire's population. What that meant was subject to great variation; being baptized an Orthodox Christian certainly did not mean that the person necessarily believed the tenets of the Orthodox faith, followed its ethical teachings or respected the Church and its clergy. At the same time, assumptions that used to dominate the historiography of Russia – namely, that the Orthodox Church was a moribund institution that was largely propped up by the state and had lost popular support to sectarians or through de-Christianization – have largely been overturned by prodigious scholarship devoted to the religious questions of late imperial Russia over the past two decades.2 According to Gregory Freeze, roughly 90 per cent of those who formally belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church (87 per cent of men and 91 per cent of women) fulfilled their basic religious duties of participating in confession and communion at the beginning of the twentieth century, and this did not change substantially before 1917. What is most striking is that, even until the time of the Revolution, Russia was characterized by an ‘extraordinarily high and consistent rate of religious observance,’ much higher than in Western Europe.3

I would like to suggest that overlooking the dynamics of Orthodoxy and the role of the Orthodox Church during the Russian Revolution is to miss an enormous part of the picture of what was actually happening in Russian society. In recent years, the number of studies on Russian Orthodoxy during the Revolution has risen substantially (especially in Russia), yet the findings of this new scholarship are not well reflected in general works on the Russian Revolution, especially in English. This is due in part to the fact that monographs on religion or anti-religious policy in English have focused on the 1920s, yet there has yet been no reassessment of religion during the critical early years of the Revolution itself.4 The impressive publication of sources and monographs that has taken place in Russia over the past two decades is not reflected in the broader English-language historiography. With nothing else to take its place, the starting point still often remains John Shelton Curtiss's 1953 work, The Russian Church and the Soviet State, which tends to draw heavily on Soviet works, accounts by liberal and leftist clergy known as ‘Renovationists’ (obnovlentsy), as well as Western accounts (like Matthew Spinka’s) that were generally more sympathetic to the Soviets than to the Orthodox Church and failed to present an objective picture.5

This article argues that it is time for a fundamental re-thinking of the role and fate of Orthodoxy during the Russian Revolution. I assert, first, that Orthodoxy did not simply crumble or wither away and cease to be important once the Bolsheviks seized power, but rather it continued to claim the adherence of ordinary Russians that was only undermined by decades of the deliberate secularization of society; and, second, that the inherited paradigms – either of the Church as a counter-revolutionary agent, or as a passive victim of Bolshevik persecution – are inadequate in the light of sources and studies made available since the fall of the Soviet Union. This article focuses on the year between the autumn of 1917 to the autumn of 1918, particularly key declarations by the Church and decrees by the Soviets in the light of recent Russian scholarship in order to see the relationship between the two in a new light. I will focus on the political dimensions of church–state relations to suggest a new paradigm, while at the same time acknowledging that this is only the first step in reassessing religion and revolution, and needs to be complemented by other approaches.

In Imperial Russia, the Orthodox Church was enshrined in Russian law as the ‘predominant and pre-eminent’ faith, which granted it certain privileges within the multi-confessional Russian Empire. The hierarchy was generally conservative and supported the monarchy. The system of church government created by Peter the Great – who abolished the patriarchate and replaced it by a collegial body, the Holy Synod – had become increasingly under the control (and meddling) of the state in late Imperial Russia, causing a great deal of resentment within the Church. By 1917, relations between the Church and the monarchy had become so strained that the Holy Synod refused to issue a statement in defence of the monarchy on the eve of the February Revolution. The majority of clergy either passively accepted the February Revolution or openly embraced it, seeing an opportunity to renew church life free from state interference. The Church immediately began preparations for a major Church Council (Sobor) for that purpose; congresses were held in each diocese which, among other things, elected delegates (both lay and clerical) to participate in the Council, which opened in August 1917. Such congresses also held popular elections to replace ousted bishops, particularly those who had been removed because of ties to Rasputin. As 1917 progressed, however, the Church became increasingly disenchanted with the Provisional Government, especially over the government's plans to secularize the Church's extensive parochial school system and broaden the scope of religious tolerance. Virtually every aspect of church life was under consideration during the Sobor; one of the key issues was church governance, in particular undoing Peter the Great's reforms and restoring the patriarchate, an issue that was debated throughout September and October until the Bolshevik seizure of power.6

The Bolsheviks, with their Marxist materialist world-view, sought to disestablish the Church and undermine its influence on Russian society, although there was no clear-cut plan about how to accomplish these goals. In the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks primarily attempted to undermine the Church's position through a series of decrees (on land, on marriage and divorce and so forth). In January 1918, they issued a decree on the separation of Church and state, and also began the process of confiscating the Church's property and closing institutional chapels belonging to government offices, schools and the like. There were sporadic arrests and executions of clergy, though often these were local initiatives. The Bolshevik assault on the Church intensified in late summer 1918, when the government issued harsh instructions for the implementation of the decree of the separation of Church and state that stepped up the confiscation of property as well as the removal of religion from all levels of education and the public sphere. That timing also coincided with the escalation of the Civil War, during which the regime attacked aspects of Orthodoxy that were seen to have particular influence over ordinary believers, especially monasteries and the veneration of saints.7 Clergy also suffered severe persecution during the Red Terror, because the Reds automatically assumed – not always justifiably – that they supported the Whites. The introduction of New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 also meant a greater degree of tolerance of local religious practice, which was primarily the target of anti-religious propaganda rather than persecution. But the assault on the institutional Church intensified in 1922 with a campaign to confiscate church valuables, ostensibly for famine relief but this was used as a cover to bolster the financial resources of the regime itself and to provoke the clergy into opposition as a pretext for an assault on the conservative hierarchy, which was still regarded as a counter-revolutionary threat. Patriarch Tikhon and other leading bishops were arrested, and the Bolsheviks allowed Renovationists to take control of the Church administration, who supported the Soviet regime and proceeded to carry out extensive church reforms. The regime's intention, and the end result, was to cause a schism within the Church. The Church leadership was in disarray after the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, though local religious practice continued to thrive until Joseph Stalin profoundly escalated the direct persecution of all religious practice in the 1930s.8

The Soviet interpretation of these events was formulated in works of the 1920s that were part of the Soviet anti-religious campaign to demonize the Church and justify Soviet policy. Such works cannot be considered scholarly: they were commissioned by the government for specific ideological goals.9 Nevertheless, the narrative that they shaped proved surprisingly influential not only on all subsequent Soviet, but even on Western historiography. Paradoxically, though Western scholarship usually developed counter-narratives to the Soviet ones during the Cold War (at least before the advent of revisionist historiography), religion was one area where the Soviet interpretation was largely accepted by Western scholars – perhaps because it coincided with their assumptions about the inevitability of secularization. According to the Soviet view, the Church was a reactionary institution that sought only to exploit the masses, and therefore was intractably hostile to the ‘People's’ government. They argued that the Soviet government was being modern and progressive in passing the ‘great decree’ of the separation of church and state in January 1918. The Church, this narrative continued, opposed the decree because it stood to lose its privileges. It therefore called on the people to rise up against the Bolsheviks. The masses, however, supported the decree of separation and did not respond to the Church's call, and those cases of opposition that Soviet scholars could not ignore they dismissed as provocations by the clergy. Unable to count on the people for support as it supposed, the Church then turned to the Whites as the Civil War began; indeed, they alleged that the Church was the primary ideological force behind the White resistance. (Curiously, Soviet works about the Church made such assertions; the Church did not feature prominently in Soviet accounts devoted to the Whites themselves.) In short, according to the Soviet narrative, the clergy were all Black Hundreds and reactionaries who supported the Whites and counter-revolution without qualification. Patriarch Tikhon himself was the ringleader of these Black Hundred counter-revolutionaries, and because of his supposed opposition to the ‘People's’ government, he was ‘enemy of the people’ number one; his famous ‘anathema’ epistle of January 1918 was a ‘call to insurrection and murder.’10 The government's decrees were progressive and reasonable, the government open to compromise and negotiation, but the Church was intractable and reacted only with hostility. In general, Soviet works passed over government repression of the clergy but, to the extent that this was admitted, it was justified as having been provoked by the counter-revolutionary actions of the clergy themselves. Sources were used tendentiously and selectively to prove their point; for example, every time the Patriarch or the Sobor called believers to defend their churches, this was automatically interpreted as a call to arms against the Soviets.11

The view of the counter-revolutionary Church was developed in Soviet works during the 1920s and 1930s, and this basic narrative did not fundamentally change in Soviet scholarship until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.12 In addition to Soviet sources, the Renovationist clergy of the 1920s presented a picture that complemented the Soviet one: their goal was explicitly to discredit the Patriarch and his supporters as anti-Soviet in order to justify their revolution within the Church. It is, of course, no accident that only these kinds of ‘religious’ works were permitted to be published in the 1920s, because it served to further the government's campaign against the Patriarch and the conservative clergy. In addition to this narrative, however, there was also a completely contrary one produced by Russian émigrés. Although in some cases there were serious attempts by Whites to investigate and carefully document Bolshevik atrocities, many émigré accounts were based on oral testimony that was not always reliable. Moreover, émigré accounts tended to lack objectivity as much as Bolshevik accounts: their works were aimed at demonstrating the ruthless persecution of the Church as the innocent victim.13 The latter, however, tended not to have much influence in Western academic scholarship with its primarily secular orientation.

Though not driven by the same ideological concerns, and more nuanced than the Soviet interpretation, Curtiss's work adopts the same basic framework. Curtiss argues that the Church supported the monarchy to the eve of the February Revolution, although it did not take a strong stance during the Revolution itself. The hierarchy remained conservative, but the parish clergy and diocesan congresses embraced the revolution in the beginning. As 1917 progressed, however, even the lower clergy swung to the right. This was partly a consequence of the Provisional Government's secularization of the parochial school system, partly a consequence of the threat of ‘revolutionary’ laity ousting their clergy. Thus the Church became increasingly conservative and political; in particular, Curtiss describes the Sobor that convened as openly political, interpreting various statements as anti-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik, and its major act – the restoration of the patriarchate – also as a reaction to the Bolshevik seizure of power.14 For the period after October, Curtiss describes a counter-revolutionary Church that refused to compromise with a more conciliatory Bolshevik regime and then openly supported the Whites. Although he differs from the Soviet interpretation on some individual points, his general framework is almost entirely the same as that created by the Soviet scholars and propagandists outlined above – in part because he relied heavily upon sources the Soviets made available. He even goes so far as to state that Bolshevik repressions against the Church were ‘understandable’ and even justified.15

What is most surprising, however, is the degree to which Curtiss's paradigm continues to hold sway even in English-language works produced since the fall of the Soviet Union, though many works continue to pass over religion entirely. Even the treatments in three of the most recent general histories by Mark Steinberg, Laura Engelstein and S. A. Smith are not adequate, which is surprising given that all three of these scholars are more familiar with and sensitive to religious dynamics than their predecessors. Orthodoxy simply does not appear in any significant way in either Engelstein's or Steinberg's books, either concerning the Church as an institution or Orthodoxy as a belief system, as if they did not matter.16 Smith at least has a brief and more nuanced section about the Bolshevik assault on the Church, though still holding that the Whites ‘had the Church on their side’ and ‘the Bolshevik leadership was largely content to leave ecclesiastical institutions and the network of parish churches intact’ – and while the latter half of the statement is accurate, the first half is not.17 More surprising is the degree to which even works devoted to the study of religion during the Revolution fail to break free of the paradigm inherited from Curtiss. Recent works on Orthodoxy in the early Soviet period repeat the notion that the Church called on believers to rise up in a ‘holy war’ against the Bolsheviks and that its hierarchy supported the Whites, so that Bolshevik suspicions of the Church as a counter-revolutionary agent were ‘justified.’18 It should also be noted that the older paradigm continues to be put forth in modified form by contemporary Russian scholars as well. Mikhail Odintsov, in particular, was the first to challenge aspects of the Soviet paradigm still during Perestroika; however, his views have not evolved much since. In a recent publication, for example, he argues that the Church was threatened by the Bolshevik efforts to secularize society and was aggressively engaged in the political struggle to prevent this, although lost the struggle because popular sympathies supported the Soviet efforts. Odintsov, who currently serves as head of the department on the freedom of conscience under the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation, is shaped in his interpretation of the past by concerns over the Church's attempts to ‘re-clericalize’ post-Soviet Russian society.19

A fundamental reassessment of Russian Orthodoxy during the Revolution is therefore necessary. A number of scholars, especially in Russia, have already begun the work, but their findings have yet to be integrated into broader narratives regarding the Revolution.20 The process is greatly facilitated by the substantial publication of key sources, such as the official declarations of Patriarch Tikhon and his administration; documents from the highest levels of Soviet leadership concerning the Church; and materials gathered in the case against Patriarch Tikhon after his arrest (from the Federal Security Service [FSB] archive).21 Many of these documents, however, concern the later period of 1922–25, rather than the initial revolutionary period; an exception is a valuable new collection of documents on the separation of church and state, primarily from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GA RF).22 There has also been a great deal of interest in the Church Council of 1917–18.23 Of particular note is the massive publication project of materials from the Church Council itself.24

This article focuses on the crucial period between the autumn of 1917 and the autumn of 1918 in order to demonstrate how the paradigm inherited from Soviet historiography and Curtiss is inadequate and inaccurate, and to suggest new ways of understanding the relationship of church and state in the revolutionary period based on recent scholarship. The early period is particularly crucial as a formative one in the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Soviet state.25 In particular, I will focus on the work of Anatolii Kashevarov. Kashevarov is professor of history at the St Petersburg State Polytechnic University and professor of the history of journalism at St Petersburg State University. His research has focused especially on the church and the early Soviet state the Church, and he has contributed several monographs and numerous articles.26 Kashevarov's work Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’ i Sovetskoe gosudarstvo (1917–1922) (2005) presents the most thoroughly researched reconsideration of this early revolutionary period to date. It is particularly compelling because it does not take for granted either the Soviet account or the Church's accounts. Rather, he draws on sources that reflect not only on the perspectives of the church and the state, but also those of society and ordinary believers, keeping in mind that there was a diversity of perspectives even within each of those. For these reasons, I follow and develop Kashevarov's model in much of what follows as an alternative to the Soviet paradigm.

In analysing the development of church–state relations during the Revolution, a crucial starting point is understanding the political involvement of the Church, particularly the statements made by the Patriarch and the Church Council. Those sympathetic to the Church tend to argue that the Church was apolitical from the beginning, while those sympathetic to the Soviet viewpoint interpret statements by the Patriarch and the Sobor as explicitly counter-revolutionary. The debated statements by the Sobor began even before the Bolshevik seizure of power. On 24 August 1917, the Sobor issued two addresses, one to the army and navy specifically, and another to the Russian people generally. The first one addressed the disarray and growing problem of desertion at the Front and called on those in the armed forces to stand fast and not betray the Motherland while it was under threat from enemy forces. The second addressed the general collapse of law and order in society and in particular the rise in sacrilegious acts against the Church, and called on the people to listen to the voice of the Church and to repent. It appealed directly to each social category to help the Motherland in appropriate ways.27 Certainly the Sobor believed that both the soldiers and the common people were being led astray by preachers of anti-Christian ideas and, naturally, called upon the people not to listen to such ideas.

In an even more explicit statement on 30 September, the Sobor issued an Epistle to the Russian people regarding the approaching elections for the Constituent Assembly. In this case, the Sobor had quite a heated debate about the position it should take with regard to the elections for the Constituent Assembly and whether it should take a position at all. There were some delegates who argued that the Sobor should take an openly political position to the point of providing lists of suitable candidates. Boris Titlinov, liberal professor of the Petrograd Theological Academy, argued that the Sobor should stay out of politics altogether. Evgenii Trubetskoi, supported by Sergei Bulgakov, called for a ‘middle path’ between these two extremes: he argued that the Sobor was above party politics and should not advocate positions of particular parties, but at the same time it could not stand aside from engagement in social and political life altogether. Therefore he advocated that the Sobor not issue any statements that support any particular party programme, but rather called upon the people to select candidates who were, whatever their programme, at least faithful to the Church and the Motherland.28

It is clear from the Sobor's Epistle of 30 September, that its delegates were fully aware that party and class conflicts were causing civil strife and could easily lead to civil war and the complete collapse of the Russian government. The Sobor sought to uphold law and order, which meant accepting the Provisional Government as legitimate, despite serious tensions between the Church and the government by that point; it also sought to avoid the disintegration of the nation, which was a real threat. Therefore it warned that a nation divided by class and party conflict would collapse. ‘It is necessary not to turn the competition of parties, classes, [and] nationalities into an internecine quarrel.’29 The Sobor called upon the Russian people to elect candidates who were faithful to the nation and its traditions – and not those who promoted divisions that could lead to the country's collapse.

One of the challenges of doing the history of this time period is that the same texts can be read in very different ways, depending on the perspective, and historians must take care to avoid replicating the divisions of the time that they study. Rather they should precisely bring out clashing interpretations. The Soviets, and many historians since, interpreted these addresses as explicit anti-socialist polemic, disregarding the Sobor's claims that it was acting in a ‘supra-party’ fashion.30 Kashevarov, by contrast, argues these statements were a warning to the country to avoid a path that would lead to civil war; the intent was to call Russia to a greater sense of unity and to avoid conflict based on class or party.31 The leadership of the Council believed that Christian truth should shape the moral life of the nation; as the faith of the majority of Russians and one of (if not the) largest non-governmental institutions in the nation, it was natural from the Church's perspective that it should support the election of representatives who supported rather than opposed the faith and the Church. The Sobor's declarations reflect the fact that it valued the maintenance of law and order, of civil harmony and unity, and further supported a peaceful governmental transition and the successful completion of the war. The Bolshevik position was virtually the opposite on all these points: it presupposed class conflict and one party seizing power to the exclusion of others, and the overthrow of the regime by revolutionary means; their programme was explicitly atheist, hostile to Christianity, and envisioned the disintegration of the Orthodox Church; and they believed they would come to power precisely through the collapse of the Russian state and subsequent civil war. It was, therefore, inevitable that the Bolsheviks would read the Sobor's statements opposing civil war and class conflict as directed against them. This would be even more true after the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and succeeded, after intense fighting, in taking Moscow, when the Sobor stated in an Epistle of 11 November that ‘for those who see the sole basis of their power in the force (nasilie) of one class over the entire people, there does not exist a motherland or anything sacred. They become traitors to the Motherland … To our misfortune, there has not yet been born a government that is truly of the people, worthy of receiving the blessing of the Orthodox Church.’32 In this way, the Sobor challenged the Bolshevik claim to be a ‘people's government’ since the latter explicitly sought to represent certain classes and not the whole people.

Another moment that is variously interpreted is the restoration of the patriarchate: was the Sobor's vote to restore the patriarchate explicitly a response to the Bolshevik seizure of power? Vladislav Tsypin, a church historian at the Moscow Theological Academy, treats the history in such a way that he discusses the restoration of the patriarchate exclusively in terms of the ecclesiastical debates that took place during the Council, entirely divorced from the political context (which is only treated in a subsequent chapter), and emphasizes that the restoration of the patriarchate was supported by the overwhelming majority of delegates by the time it came to a vote.33 Odintsov, by contrast, stresses how divided the Sobor was in its discussions on restoring the patriarchate until the Bolshevik seizure of power, at which point the advocates of the patriarchate cut short the discussion and voted to restore the patriarchate despite the fact that the Sobor remained divided.34 I would argue that both of these interpretations – that the restoration of the patriarchate was driven either by religious or by political considerations – are equally one-sided. The Sobor did vote to restore the patriarchate immediately after it learned of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Although the majority of delegates had not been in favour of its restoration when the Sobor opened in August, through the course of September and October opinion gradually reversed through a combination of the ecclesiastical arguments and the degenerating political situation. A clear majority of delegates favoured its restoration already weeks before the Bolsheviks seized power, by which point the debates centred more on what the restored patriarchate would look like and what its powers and authority would be, rather than on whether or not to restore it.35

It is quite clear that in November and December the Sobor did not believe the Bolsheviks would last. Contrary to those who assume that it was full of monarchists and really sought the restoration of the monarchy, the Sobor was in fact committed to the democratic process in establishing a government that would be truly ‘of the people.’ They therefore treated the Bolsheviks as another ‘provisional’ or ‘temporary’ government until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, which would determine the true shape of Russia's government. The Sobor's declaration of 2 December 1917 concerning church–state relations has been interpreted either as indicating how out of touch the Sobor was with political realities in the country or as a direct challenge to the Bolsheviks; Odintsov goes so far as to state that it set the Church on a collision course with the new government and with society.36 Kashevarov, however, convincingly argues that this declaration should be understood as directed towards the upcoming Constituent Assembly rather than against the Bolsheviks.

During the summer of 1917, the Church had not delineated its stance vis-à-vis the new government and therefore had not been in a strong position to oppose decisions taken by the Provisional Government with which it disagreed. In order not to repeat that situation, the Sobor was trying to be proactive and was in fact acting on a charge given to it by the Provisional Government itself – namely that the Sobor articulate its vision of church–state relations for consideration by the Constituent Assembly. In the last months of 1917, after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Sobor was not looking to the restoration of the monarchy or the overthrow of the Bolsheviks. By this point it accepted the democratic process as legitimate and looked to the Constituent Assembly to establish Russia's legitimate government.

In the discussions leading up to the Sobor's resolution, Bulgakov gave an important speech on 15 November 1917. He argued that it was of secondary importance to the Church what form the future government of Russia would take. But, he continued, just as Christ became incarnate in the world, the Church must bring into the world, into all aspects of life including the government, its light and grace. The task of the Church was to remain in the midst of national life, to infuse the government with a Christian spirit. Without being somehow informed by a Christian spirit, Bulgakov asserted, the government would become ‘bestial.’ Because the Church's role was to transform the world in a Christian spirit, Bulgakov asserted that it was unimaginable (or at least undesirable) that the Church not inform social and political life – and in this sense the complete separation of church and state was not desirable. Bulgakov's ideas greatly influenced the Sobor's resolution on church–state relations, the purpose of which, the Sobor delegates hoped, would serve as a blueprint to be taken up for discussion by the Constituent Assembly. That resolution asserted that Orthodoxy be preeminent above other confessions in Russia with regard to the law; in addition to stipulating that the head of state and ministers of confessions and education be Orthodox, it also asserted that the state pass no laws regarding religion without consulting the Church. In short, the Sobor's declaration was intended as a proposal for negotiation with the Constituent Assembly.37

Throughout December, the Bolsheviks continued to pass decrees that directly affected the Church such as the decree that transferred all educational institutions (including theological schools) to the People's Commissariat of Education and decrees validating only civil marriage and removing the registration of births and deaths from the domain of religious institutions. On 31 December the Bolsheviks issued a draft of the law on the separation of church and state that promised radical change. As yet, most of the Bolshevik decrees were only on paper, although the new regime took its first moves against the Church (closing institutional chapels and seizing the Synodal printing house). But after the Bolsheviks dispersed the Constituent Assembly on 5 January 1918, the prospect was dashed for the Church to simply ignore the Bolsheviks until the formation of a new, truly democratic government. The Church attempted to express to the new government its disagreement with these new decrees in the hopes of modifying the final decree of separation, but Vladimir Lenin's response was to push the commission drafting the law to hasten its efforts.38

On 19 January, Patriarch Tikhon issued his infamous epistle was published in which he ‘anathematized’ those who were instigating attacks upon the Church. The Soviets at the time, and many historians since, have seen this epistle as a statement of the Church's complete opposition to Soviet power and essentially a call for the people to openly resist it. While the Bolsheviks understood any opposition as counter-revolution, historians need to be more nuanced. Kashevarov presents a convincing argument that the ‘anathema’ epistle was indeed a political act, but that it was a defensive reaction against the state's encroachments upon the Church. It called believers to defend the Church, but ‘spiritually,’ not with arms. It was not a call to overthrow the government, but a call for believers to refuse to participate in the government's implementation of decrees against the Church.39 In other words, it was not intended as a statement about Bolshevik power per se, but a condemnation of specific aspects of their actions – and this would be a consistent theme in all of Patriarch Tikhon's declarations in the course of 1918. By implication, if the Bolsheviks ceased their encroachments on the Church and violations of civil rights, the Church would cease its criticism.

The Soviets issued the decree on the separation of church and state, as if in answer to Tikhon's epistle, on 20 January (officially dated 23 January). Both sides – the Bolsheviks and the Church – claimed that the ‘masses’ were on their side. Odintsov asserts that there was widespread support for the decree of separation and that the Soviets were only acting upon the ‘persistent’ demands of the masses – though he cites only Soviet sources such as Izvestiia as evidence. Further, he asserts that the Church's opposition to this ‘progressive’ decree was its opposition to the principle of freedom of conscience. Finally, he maintains that, as both the Bolsheviks and the Church claimed the ‘masses’ supported their respective sides, the historical outcome tells us which one the masses were really behind.40 The last assertion is questionable, for it likely tells us more about which side had the power to enforce its position. Many in the Church certainly were opposed to the principle of freedom of conscience, if that meant absolute equality of all confessions before the law (this was clear in the Sobor's resolution on church–state relations). Nevertheless, the majority in the Sobor were quickly adapting their position to the realities at hand, and they were not opposing the principle of freedom of conscience, but rather two specific clauses of the decree that went far beyond that: namely that it entirely stripped the Church of any standing before the law by denying it juridical personhood, that it stripped it of the right to own property and prohibited all religious education. But these elements were deliberate: the Church as an institution effectively ceased to exist in the eyes of the law. Far more than a simple separation of church and state, the Bolsheviks sought to undermine the institution of the Church by depriving it of its property and driving it to financial collapse, and to undermine it as a hierarchical organization by recognizing only the rights of believing citizens to conduct religious services, which would then remain the only sphere of the Church's activities.41

Once the Church's hopes in the Constituent Assembly were dashed and it became clear that the Bolsheviks were proceeding on a course of aggressive restrictions against it, the Church came to a new position. Kashevarov argues that this new position, as represented by the Patriarch's ‘anathema’ epistle and the Sobor's resolutions that followed, was neither ‘apolitical’ and merely a condemnation of general evils taking place in the country, as some church historians claim, nor a call for direct opposition to the Bolshevik regime, as the Soviets and historians such as Curtiss and Odintsov assert. Rather, its position was a boycott of Bolshevik policies towards the Church. In effect, the Patriarch and the Sobor ordered the clergy and believers not to cooperate with the implementation of the decree as a protest, a form of passive resistance. In addition, the Sobor called on believers to demonstrate their support for the Church through mass religious processions (which took place in Petrograd, Moscow and other cities) as well as by forming brotherhoods to support churches and monasteries. The purpose of these was to demonstrate widespread popular support for the Church, which they hoped would force the Bolsheviks to modify their anti-Church policies as contrary to the will of the people and violating the free practice of their religion.42 In effect, though denying the Soviet's right to claim to be the ‘people's government,’ they still assumed that the Bolsheviks would have to conform to the will of the people. It would only become clear in time that, despite their rhetoric, the Bolsheviks had no intention of protecting the free practice of religion, nor would contradicting the will of the people (with brute force when necessary) deter them from enforcing their policies. The Sobor and the Patriarch were explicit in calling for resistance even unto death – but a Christian, passive resistance that absolutely did not condone taking up arms against the Bolsheviks. Kashevarov argues that the separation of church and state was a very complex and sensitive issue which demanded great caution and care in its implementation – but that, on the contrary, the Bolsheviks forced their policies with great rigidity and harshness.43

It is important to note that there were massive religious processions across Russia in 1918 and many manifestations of support for the Church and opposition to Soviet religious policies; this suggests that there was in fact widespread support for the Church and opposition to Soviet policies toward it. Kashevarov has analysed documents of parish and diocesan meetings that expressed their opposition to the decree of separation; what the people opposed was not the separation of church and state per se, but above all decree's prohibition against religious education.44 At the same time, as Kashevarov cautions, one ought not to ignore the fact that there were also widespread expressions of hostility towards the Church. This often took the shape of very cruel acts of violence against clergymen, especially perpetuated by soldiers, that were spontaneous and not ordered from above. There was a whole range of such actions, some expressions of real hostility while others were, rather, excuses for robbery and banditry. Often this violence was accompanied by language of Bolshevik anti-religious rhetoric, and it was very difficult for the Church – and indeed it is still difficult – to differentiate what was Bolshevik persecution of the Church and what were random acts of violence or banditry. Indeed, the Bolsheviks encouraged such acts by their rhetoric and utilized them for the implementation of their policy; and at the same time there were those who used Bolshevik rhetoric as a cover for banditry.45

By the spring of 1918, it became clear that boycotting Bolshevik policy alone was insufficient and that the Church would have to negotiate with the new regime. In mid-March 1918, a delegation under A. D. Samarin (one-time chief procurator and leading lay church activist) began negotiations with Bolshevik leaders, particularly the more conciliatory Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich. Bonch-Bruevich assured the delegation that the government would include representatives of various confessions when continuing to work out the details of the implementation of the Decree of Separation. Soviet leaders invited the Sobor to prepare a report on those aspects of the decree that needed to be changed, or where an ‘improper understanding’ had led to abuses against the Church. N. D. Kuznetsov, a lawyer and lay church activist, proposed amendments to the Decree, which was approved by the Sobor, that focused especially on making religious education optional rather than prohibited, and taking out the elements of the denial of juridical personhood and the right to own property.46

But in the end the Bolsheviks did not make compromises. They began to prohibit religious education in schools, which elicited enormous protests from the people, resulting in countless petitions with tens of thousands of signatures. In May a new department was formed under the Commissariat of Justice, under the leadership of Krasikov, who was fanatically hostile to religion. Although the purpose of this so-called ‘liquidation department’ was to disentangle church–state relations, in reality its work was much broader. All of this culminated in the August instructions on how Soviet institutions were to implement the decree, which were uncompromising and gave a very harsh interpretation of the decree and how it should be implemented. The instructions focused particularly on the confiscation of all types of church property; they also forbade all religious instruction in any type of school (public or private) except specifically theological courses of instruction for those over the age of 18, while also transferring to the government all property belonging to any religious educational institution. A key clause declared that all church property – the church buildings and the objects inside them – henceforth belonged to the state but allowed for local believers to submit petitions to use the church building and its objects for religious purposes so long as they could get a minimum of 20 people to sign such a petition. This, in effect, undercut the hierarchy from having any control over the Church, placing the power in the hands of parishioners, who became the only official direct link with the government. This was a critical turning point, according to Kashevarov, because if the Church continued its approach of boycotting Soviet decrees, and continued to prohibit believers from cooperating or participating in their implementation, this could become the pretext for the massive closure of churches. Some Church leaders, such as Sergii Stragorodskii, realized this immediately and permitted their dioceses to sign these agreements even before the Sobor approved. Although many of the Sobor's delegates were ambivalent about any compromise – they seemed particularly worried that the ‘wrong’ sort might enter into the parish councils and have power over the local parish – the Sobor in the end did compromise and allowed ‘groups of believers’ to enter these contracts.47

The harsh implementation of the Decree of Separation that began after the August instructions coincided with the escalation of the Civil War. Historians have long simply assumed, following Soviet assertions, that the Church sided with the Whites. These assumptions and assertions have not, however, been based upon any systematic research. While it is clear that some clergymen in White controlled territories welcomed and supported the Whites, it is equally clear that Patriarch Tikhon strictly followed a policy of political neutrality during the Civil War. Beyond such generalizations, however, there was enormous local variation and far more research needs to be completed before conclusions can be drawn about that period.48

In sum, Kashevarov sees several phases in the development of the Russian Orthodox Church's response to the Bolsheviks in the first year, and it is important to note that these shifts came about because both Bolshevik policy and the Church's responses were evolving, and not only as a result of their interactions with one another but also of different positions within each body. At the end of 1917, the Council generally ignored the Bolsheviks, waiting for the Constituent Assembly to meet. In January and February 1918, as it became clear that there would be no Constituent Assembly and that the Bolsheviks would enact measures against the Church, the Council and the Patriarch criticized the regime's attacks on the Church and called for believers to boycott participation in implementing the anti-Orthodox elements of their legislation. By the spring it became clear that they would not be able to pressure the Bolsheviks into any compromise in that way, and the Council opened the doors for negotiation. This, too, ultimately led nowhere until, by August, the Sobor was forced to concede that parishioners must enter into negotiation with the regime by registering their parishes or the consequences would be far more dire. This measure would save the majority of parish churches from being closed for the next decade, though it in no way protected the Church hierarchy from the persecutions that would follow in the Civil War and after.

Although the model of the Church as apolitical and a passive victim of persecution, as advocated by the Church's apologists, is certainly inadequate, the dominant paradigm based on the Soviet model and transmitted with some modification by historians such as Curtiss and Odintsov must also be discarded. The argument that the Church leadership sought the overthrow of the Bolsheviks and restoration of the monarchy, and in taking this openly counter-revolutionary position provoked the otherwise conciliatory Bolsheviks into justifiably cracking down on the Church, is not borne out by the evidence. At no point did Patriarch Tikhon, for example, ever call for the overthrow of the Bolsheviks, either openly or implicitly. But this did not mean he remained silent on the Soviet encroachments upon the Church, or its abuses of human rights, whether those be the restrictions to the freedom of the press, suppression of political opponents, or use of terror (in terms often not so different from those used by Maxim Gorky during this time). The Patriarch (along with the Sobor until it was shut down) was one of the few non-socialist voices in a position to criticize Bolshevik abuses publicly, and a voice that commanded the respect of millions – probably more than the number of those who truly believed in Bolshevism. Inevitably, therefore, it was a voice that had to be silenced, which is no less an important story than the Bolshevik suppression of other political parties and alternatives.

But not only the voice of the Patriarch, and other Church leaders, is important. As Vera Shevzov has so persuasively argued, ‘the Church’ is not only the institution and its clerical leadership, but also the laity.49 Therefore for a full rethinking of Orthodoxy during the Revolution – and indeed for a full understanding of the experience of ordinary Russians during the Revolution – it is paramount that future research also take into account the experiences of ordinary religious believers. This type of approach has recently been fruitfully explored for the post-revolutionary period.50 The ‘voices of revolution’ we tend to hear are either those that sympathized with the revolution, or those that opposed it on political or ideological grounds. But what, for example, about those tens of thousands who came out to participate in religious processions in Moscow, Petrograd and other cities in the spring of 1918? What of those who sent in petitions to defend religious education or their saints from desecration? What of those who came out in 1922 to defend their parish churches from being stripped of sacramental items? We rarely hear the voices of those who did not share the Bolshevik world-view, who may not have been involved in any political opposition, but whose lives were disrupted and turned upside down by the experience of the Revolution. Such voices can, however, be found in sources connected to the Church – for example, in letters written to Tikhon after his enthronement as patriarch, in which a range of people express their hopes and fears for Russia's future.51

The types of sources now available for this research are fairly abundant and diverse, and much remains virtually unexplored by historians. Historians of pre-revolutionary Orthodoxy draw primarily from church archives and press, whereas historians of the later Soviet period are forced to draw almost exclusively from state archives (church archives being either non-existent or inaccessible to researchers). But historians of the revolutionary period have documents produced by both the church and the state, which adds a particular richness, although the Church's press virtually disappears, and the Soviet press must be used with extreme caution. Although the dynamics of these documents are different than those of the post-Second World War period, many of the issues raised by Sonja Luehrmann in her treatment of working in the Soviet archives are relevant here.52 Researchers must naturally be concerned with who produced a particular document, who was its intended audience and what was its intended purpose. Especially in this period, documents very often were not simply reports containing information for historians to mine, but calls to action that had real-life consequences. The scholar must be particularly sensitive to the presuppositions of the authors of the documents and how that shaped their perceptions (for example, that the Bolsheviks assumed all the higher clergy were Black Hundreds and read all of their statements through that lens). Finally, historians must be aware that certain events, facts or documents may have been fabricated or forged. To take but one example, when Red forces were confiscating property from the Aleksandr Svirskii Monastery and opened up the massive silver reliquary in October 1918, Soviet papers later claimed that what they found inside was not the incorrupt remains of the saint, but rather a ‘wax effigy.’ Internal Soviet documents make it clear that they did not find a wax effigy, but rather a human skeleton (though one they did not consider to be ‘incorrupt’). Nevertheless, historians seem reluctant to question the established Soviet narrative, even when internal Soviet documents indicate that that narrative is false.53 Such practices of falsification began in the revolutionary period, but would become official procedure in later years, and statements by church leaders were frequently edited or even composed by Soviet authorities from the mid-1920s onwards.54 Therefore it is crucially important to double-check claims made in the press for public consumption against internal documents.

Sources produced by the Church include the wealth of material stemming from the Church Council of 1917–18, which are now being published, as well as from the Chancellery of Patriarch Tikhon and the Holy Synod, which remain underutilized.55 Although the Council was concerned with issues of Church reform, and the patriarch's chancellery with questions of Church administration, both of these contain a wealth of reports and letters coming from churches and clergy all across Russia reporting on local conditions, as well as the ways in which central and local church authorities tried to respond to these circumstances.56 In addition, there are a myriad of archival collections for particular dioceses, parishes and monasteries. Sources produced by the state include not only those from the Party and highest levels of government that set anti-religious policy, but also the archives of those bodies in charge of implementing policy, such as the ‘Liquidation Commission’ of the Commissariat of Justice, a generous selection of which are now published.57

On the basis of such sources, there are multiple ways to move this history forward; the most fruitful ones will touch not only on the high questions of religion and politics, but how these played out on the ground, how they affected not only Church leaders but also ordinary clergy and believers. One way is to take particular episodes: the process of implementing the decree of separation of church and state as revealed in the documents mentioned earlier; specific Bolshevik campaigns, such as those against the relics of saints (Kashevarov and Greene) or the assault on monasteries (Kenworthy and Wynot). Another way is the dynamics of local history.58 There are particularly rich episodes that get at a multitude of questions, such as A. I. Mramornov's monumental 800-page publication of documents on the prosecution of church leaders in Saratov. Such episodes reveal not only Soviet implementation of policy on the ground and responses of the clergy, but also contain a wealth of information revealing religious practice among ordinary believers in revolutionary times.59

The main point of this article is to challenge the inherited paradigm of the role of the Orthodox Church during the Bolshevik Revolution and make the case that the entire story has to be understood in a fresh way, without seeing the story through the lens of old presuppositions. That, however, is only the starting point. The myth of the ‘counter-revolutionary Church’ must certainly be abandoned. As perhaps the most important non-governmental institution in Russia, and one that did not simply disintegrate and disappear as often assumed, relations between the Orthodox Church and the Soviet state should not fail to be of significance to the political history of the Revolution. But there is far more to the story than the ‘high politics’ of Council and patriarchal declarations versus Soviet decrees. Since, as was pointed out at the beginning, the majority of Russians were Orthodox believers at the time of the Revolution, the impact that the Revolution had on Orthodoxy affected in very profound ways the daily experience of tens of millions of Russians. Such a story cannot fail to be of relevance for both social and cultural historians, and no complete history of the Revolution can be told without it.

Although this article began by arguing that the accepted paradigm of the ‘counter-revolutionary Church’ is inadequate and needs to be overturned, in fact that narrative has already been overturned by specialists currently researching the field, especially in Russia but increasingly in the West as well.60 For example, in October 2017 there was an international conference on Religion and Revolution at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. There were 50 presentations at the conference, indicating a high level of current interest in the field. Of the 50 presentations, just over half dealt with aspects of Orthodoxy, and the remainder treated other religious traditions, as well as engagement with religious ideas and themes, including apocalyptic and utopian ideas broadly conceived. The work presented there demonstrated the tremendous ferment in all spheres of religious belief, thought, practice and institutions in a period of revolutionary upheaval in which nothing could be taken for granted anymore. When the laity were actively participating in local church conventions and even constituted the majority of delegates to the Church Council itself, how did this change the nature of religious authority, and how did it affect the concerns of those meetings themselves? What happened to religious practices, such as the sacrament of Confession explored by Nadieszda Kizenko, when they were no longer ‘required’? When everyone agreed that old institutions, such as the despised diocesan consistories, were to be replaced, what took their place? When Bolshevik anti-religious activists sought to displace religion, in what ways did they draw upon religious language and imagery in the process of attempting to subvert it? When things once taken for granted, such as the authority of Orthodox canon law, were contested, how did their continued authority get negotiated, and how did these internal contestations within the Church get exploited and turned against it by the Bolsheviks? In effect, after February 1917 everything was open to re-interpretation and re-negotiation, both within religious communities themselves and in the relationship among those religious communities, society at large and those in power.

It is clear in looking at the spate of new publications, however, that this new research is not yet reflected in broader narratives of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps this is a natural process: it was once possible to write histories of Imperial Russia that either ignored religion altogether, or simply repeated the old tropes of the Church as the ‘handmaiden of the state.’ After the prodigious research published especially in the 2000s (see n. 2), that is no longer the case, as new works, such as Melissa Stockdale's monograph on the First World War or Douglas Smith's new biography of Rasputin, demonstrate.61 Now it is time for the same to happen with the Russian Revolution: as Gregory Freeze argued at the conference in Moscow, those practising religious history ought not to practise the history of the Church, but rather the Church in history. I would argue that the converse is also true: not only must those researching religious history place their subjects in the broader social and political context, but those practising social and political history ought to integrate religious history into the broader narrative.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Scott M. Kenworthy is Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Religion and a core faculty member in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Miami University (Oxford, OH). His research focuses on the religious history of modern Russia, particularly the Orthodox Church. His first book, The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism and Society after 1825 (Oxford University Press, 2010) won the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History. He has also published numerous articles in journals and edited volumes. He is currently working on a critical biography of Patriarch Tikhon Bellavin and the Orthodox Church in North America and Revolutionary Russia, 1865–1925.

Additional information


This work was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.


1 Other ethnic groups would have belonged to other religions, so that what is said here about Orthodoxy may well apply, for example, to Islam in the predominantly Muslim regions of the Empire.

2 For overviews and reviews, see Worobec, ‘Lived Orthodoxy’; Werth, ‘Lived Orthodoxy’; Wagner, ‘Religion in Modern Russia’; Freeze, ‘Russian Orthodoxy’; Coleman, ‘Introduction: Faith and Story in Imperial Russia’. For studies, see Kizenko, A Prodigal Saint; Chulos, Converging Worlds; Kivelson and Greene, eds., Orthodox Russia; Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution; Basil, Church and State in Late Imperial Russia; Himka and Zayarnyuk, eds., Letters from Heaven; Steinberg and Coleman, Sacred Stories; Herrlinger, Working Souls; Hedda, His Kingdom Come; Paert, Spiritual Elders; Greene, Bodies Like Bright Stars; Kenworthy, The Heart of Russia; Kornblatt and Michelson, eds., Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia.

3 Freeze, ‘Critical Dynamic of the Russian Revolution’, 56.

4 Luukkanen, The Party of Unbelief; Young, Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia; Peris, Storming the Heavens; Husband, ‘Godless Communists’; Roslof, Red Priests.

5 Curtiss, Russian Church.

6 See Rogoznyi, ‘The Russian Orthodox Church during the First World War’ and Evtuhov, ‘The Church's Revolutionary Moment’.

7 On monasteries, see Kenworthy, ‘Monasticism in War and Revolution’; Wynot, Keeping the Faith. On relics, Greene, Bodies Like Bright Stars.

8 The summary here is based on all the work cited throughout this article.

9 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 20.

10 This interpretation comes from the indictment of Patriarch Tikhon, reproduced in Gubonin, ed., Akty Sviateishego Tikhona, 231.

11 For overviews of historiography, see Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 19–30; Pavlov, Otechestvennaia i zarubezhnaia istoriografiia.

12 This is not to say there was not valuable research, such as Zybkovets, Natsionalizatsiia monastyrskikh imushchestv v Sovetskoi Rossii, but such works could not challenge the overarching historiographical schema.

13 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 37–46, and Pavlov, Otechestvennaia i zarubezhnaia istoriografiia, 33–42.

14 Curtiss, Russian Church, 9–43.

15 Curtiss, Russian Church, 66. Virtually the only other comprehensive work on the early Soviet period was that of Dmitry Pospielovsky, though his work has had less influence – perhaps justifiably, since it also served an ideological purpose (in his case, to defend the Moscow Patriarchate against various intra-church schisms): Pospielovsky, The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime.

16 Steinberg, The Russian Revolution; Engelstein, Russia in Flames.

17 Smith, Russia in Revolution, 181, 243. On p. 243, Smith includes a quote from the Commissariat of Justice about the ‘painless’ liquidation of monasteries, citing Curtiss as his source. There is now sufficient recent research on the liquidation of monasteries in Revolutionary Russia (which Smith does not cite) that demonstrates it was hardly ‘painless’ for those deprived of their livelihood and stripped of their rights.

18 For example, Wynot, Keeping the Faith, 48–50; although Greene states that Bolshevik fears were exaggerated, even he writes that the Bolsheviks imagined ‘with some justification’ that the clergy were involved in a nationwide conspiracy to undermine the regime: Bodies Like Bright Stars, 120.

19 Odintsov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’, 34–71.

20 For an overview, see Firsov, Vlast’ i Ogon’, 424–71. Some of these studies include: Shkarovskii, Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov’; Lobanov, Patriarkh Tikhon i Sovetskaia vlast’.

21 Gubonin, ed., Akty Sviateishego Tikhona; Vorob’ev, Sledstvennoe delo Patriarkha Tikhona; Pokrovskii and Petrov, eds., Arkhivy Kremlia; Kazakevich, ed., Pravoslavnaia Moskva; Lobanov, ed., Protokoly Komissii; a German translation of these was also prepared: Steindorff et al., Partei und Kirchen im frühen Sowjetstaat (Komissii); Luchshev, Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i religiia.

22 Miliakova, ed., Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva.

23 Cunningham, The Gates of Hell; Destivelle, The Moscow Council (1917–1918); G. Schulz, ed., Sviashchennyi sobor pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi tserkvi 1917–1918 gg.

24 The acts of the Council were re-published in the 1990s: Deianiia Sviashchennogo sobora pravoslavnoi rossiiskoi tserkvi, and Sobranie opredelenii i postanovlenii sviashchennogo sobora pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi tserkvi. See also Krivosheeva, ed., Prispelo vremia podviga … . The new project under way to publish the full materials from the Sobor is Mramornov, ed., Dokumenty Sviashchennogo Sobora Pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi Tserkvi; 36 volumes are planned, a number of which have already appeared.

25 I am not going to deal here with the period between February and October. There has been some literature on this period, though indeed much work remains to be done. On the Church and the February Revolution, see Brown, ‘The Orthodox Church in Revolutionary Cheliabinsk’; Rogoznyi, Tserkovnaia revoliutsiia 1917 goda; Vorob’ev, ed., 1917-i: Tserkov’ i sud’by Rossii; Babkin, Dukhovenstvo Russkoi pravoslavnoi tserkvi; Babkin takes an idiosyncratic view that the Church hierarchy was responsible for the fall of the monarchy, an argument which caused quite a sensation in Russia. Babkin also edited a collection of primary documents, mostly focused on the Church's relations to the Provisional Government: Babkin, ed., Rossiiskoe dukhovenstvo i sverzhenie monarkhii v 1917 godu.

26 Kashevarov, Gosudarstvo i tserkov’; Pechat’ Russkoi Zarubezhnoi tserkvi; Sovetskaia vlast’ i sud’by moshchei pravoslavnykh sviatykh.

27 Krivosheeva, ed., Prispelo vremia podviga … , 87–96.

28 Tsypin, Russkaia tserkov’, 26. The debate can be found in Mramornov, ed., Dokumenty Sviashchennogo Sobora Pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi Tserkvi 19171918 godov, vol. 5: Deianiia Sobora s 1-go po 36-e, 272–86.

29 Krivosheeva, ed., Prispelo vremia podviga … , 102.

30 For example, Odintsov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’, 37–38.

31 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 86.

32 Krivosheeva, ed., Prispelo vremia podviga … , 125.

33 Tsypin, Russkaia tserkov’, 45–46.

34 Odintsov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’, 40. His account is misleading, because he states that the vote to restore the patriarchate passed with an ‘insignificant majority of votes’ – when in fact the vote he referred to was that taken on 30 October on whether or not to proceed immediately with electing the patriarch.

35 For more on the restoration of the patriarchate, see Evtuhov, ‘The Church in the Russian Revolution’; Solov’ev, ‘Vosstanovlenie patriarshestva v Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi’; Lavrov, et al., Ierarkhiia Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi, 103–57.

36 Odintsov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’, 46.

37 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 81–87. Bulgakov's report and the ensuing debate can be found in Mramornov, ed., Dokumenty Sviashchennogo Sobora, vol. 6: Deianiia sobora s 37-go po 65-e, 157–85.

38 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 92–96; see Metropolitan Veniamin's letter to Lenin of 10 January, in Tserkovnye vedomosti (Pribavlenie), no. 1 (1918): 24–25.

39 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 115–16.

40 Odintsov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’, 50–51.

41 See discussion, Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 119–23. For more on the decree of separation, see Firsov, Vlast’ i Ogon’, 13–47; A. G. Kravetskii, ‘K istorii Dekreta ob otdalenii Tserkvi ot gosudarstva’, in Vorob’ev, ed., 1917-i: Tserkov’ i sud’by Rossii, 134–40.

42 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 135.

43 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 132.

44 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 133–34.

45 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 136–37.

46 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 138–45.

47 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 147–60.

48 Kashevarov, Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia Tserkov’, 319–45; for local studies of the Civil War period, see Nechaev, Tserkov’ na Urale; Kail’, Pravoslavnaia tserkov’ i veruiushcheie Smolenskoi eparkhii.

49 Shevzov, ‘Letting the People into the Church’.

50 Wanner, ed., State Secularism and Lived Religion.

51 Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (GARF) f. 4642, op. 1, d. 2 and f. 3431, op. 1, d. 231.

52 Luehrmann, Religion in Secular Archives.

53 Greene, Bodies Like Bright Stars. Smith discusses a report produced by a commission under Zinoviev, which makes it clear they found a skeleton and not a wax effigy in ‘Bones of Contention’, 157; yet inexplicably, even he repeats the story of the wax effigy in his recent book, Russia in Revolution, 244. Some of the documents pertaining to this episode are available in Miliakova, ed., Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva, 456–60.

54 Just to take one example, in 1930 Soviet and foreign papers published an interview that Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodskii) gave to journalists claiming there was no religious persecution in the Soviet Union, which had scandalous consequences for Sergii. Igor Kurliandskii has recently demonstrated that the entire text – journalists’ questions and Sergii's answers – was composed by Stalin, Molotov and Iaroslavskii. Kurliandskii, Stalin, Vlast’, Religiia, 443ff.

55 Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv (RGIA), f. 831.

56 Many of these letters coming in to the Church Council, together with the Council's responses, can be found in Krivosheeva, ed., Prispelo vremia podviga … ’.

57 Miliakova, ed., Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva; see the introductions to this volume for an overview.

58 For example, Kail’, Pravoslavnaia tserkov’ i veruiushcheie Smolenskoi eparkhii; Poliakov, Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’ i svetskaia vlast’.

59 Mramornov, Sudebnyi protsess protiv Saratovskogo dukhovenstva.

60 Particularly noteworthy is the recent dissertation by Silano, ‘“In the Language of the Patriarch”’.

61 Stockdale, Mobilizing the Russian Nation; Smith, Rasputin.


  • Babkin, M. A. Dukhovenstvo Russkoi pravoslavnoi tserkvi i sverzhenii monarkhii (nachalo XX v. – konets 1917 g.). Moscow: Gos. Publichnaia istoricheskaia biblioteka Rossii, 2007. [Google Scholar]
  • Babkin, M. A., ed. Rossiiskoe dukhovenstvo i sverzhenie monarkhii v 1917 godu: Materialy i arkhivnye dokumenty po istorii Russkoi pravoslavnoi tserkvi. 2nd ed. Moscow: Indrik, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Basil, John D. Church and State in Late Imperial Russia: Critics of the Synodal System of Church Government (1861–1914). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. [Google Scholar]
  • Brown, Patrick.The Orthodox Church in Revolutionary Cheliabinsk: Reform, Counter-Reform, and Popular Revolution in 1917’. Canadian Slavonic Papers 59, no. 1–2 (2017): 70100. doi: 10.1080/00085006.2017.1306185 [Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]
  • Chulos, Chris J. Converging Worlds: Religion and Community in Peasant Russia, 1861–1917. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003. [Google Scholar]
  • Coleman, Heather J.Introduction: Faith and Story in Imperial Russia’. In Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Sourcebook on Lived Religion, edited by Heather J. Coleman, 121. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Cunningham, James W. The Gates of Hell: The Great Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church, 1917–1918. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. [Google Scholar]
  • Curtiss, John Shelton. The Russian Church and the Soviet State, 1917–1950. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1953. [Google Scholar]
  • Deianiia Sviashchennogo sobora pravoslavnoi rossiiskoi tserkvi 1917–1918 gg. 10 vols. Moscow: Izd. Novospasskogo monastyria, 1994–2000. [Google Scholar]
  • Destivelle, Hyacinthe. The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. [Google Scholar]
  • Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. [Google Scholar]
  • Evtuhov, Catherine. ‘The Church's Revolutionary Moment: Diocesan Congresses and Grassroots Politics in 1917’. In Russian Culture in War and Revolution, 1914–1922, Book 1: Popular Culture, the Arts, and Institutions, edited by Murray Frame et al., 377402. Bloomington, IN: Routledge, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Evtuhov, Catherine. ‘The Church in the Russian Revolution: Arguments for and Against Restoring the Patriarchate at the Church Council of 1917–1918’. Slavic Review, 1991. vol 50, 497–511. [Google Scholar]
  • Firsov, S. L. Vlast’ i Ogon’: Tserkov’ i sovetskoe gosudarstvo, 1918–1940-kh gg. Moscow: PSTGU, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Freeze, Gregory L.Critical Dynamic of the Russian Revolution: Irreligion or Religion?’. In Redefining the Sacred: Religion in the French and Russian Revolutions, edited by Daniel Schönpflug and Martin Schulze Wessel, 5182. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2012. [Google Scholar]
  • Freeze, Gregory L.Russian Orthodoxy: Church, People and Politics in Imperial Russia’. In The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 2, Imperial Russia, 1689–1917, edited by Dominic Lieven, 284305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Greene, Robert H. Bodies Like Bright Stars: Saints and Relics in Orthodox Russia. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. [Google Scholar]
  • Gubonin, M. E., ed. Akty Sviateishego Tikhona, Patriarkha Moskovskogo i vseia Rossii, pozdneisie dokumenty i perepiska o kanonicheskom preemstve vysshei tserkovnoi vlasti, 1917–1943. Moscow: Tikhonovskii Bogoslovskii Institut, 1994. [Google Scholar]
  • Hedda, Jennifer. His Kingdom Come: Orthodox Pastorship and Social Activism in Revolutionary Russia. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Herrlinger, Page. Working Souls: Russian Orthodoxy and Factory Labor in St. Petersburg, 1881–1917. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2007. [Google Scholar]
  • Himka, John-Paul and Andriy Zayarnyuk, eds. Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Husband, William B. ‘Godless Communists’: Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. [Google Scholar]
  • Kail’, M. V. Pravoslavnaia tserkov’ i veruiushchie Smolenskoi eparkhii v gody revoliutsii i grazhdanskoi voiny, 1917–1922: Gosudarstvenno-tserkovnye otnosheniia i vnutrikonfessional’nye protsessy. Moscow: Izd. Ippolitova, 2010. [Google Scholar]
  • Kashevarov, A. N. Gosudarstvo i tserkov’: iz istorii vzaimootnoshenii Sovetskoi vlasti i Russkoi pravoslavnoi tserkvi, 1917–1945 gg. St Petersburg: Sankt Peterburgskii gosudarstvennyi. Tekhnicheskii Universitet, 1995. [Google Scholar]
  • Kashevarov, A. N. Pechat’ Russkoi Zarubezhnoi tserkvi. St Petersburg: Roza mira, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Kashevarov, A. N. Pravoslavnaia Rossiiskaia tserkov’ i Sovetskoe gosudarstvo (1917–1922). Moscow: Izd. Krutitskogo podvor’ia, 2005. [Google Scholar]
  • Kashevarov, A. N. Sovetskaia vlast’ i sud’by moshchei pravoslavnykh sviatykh. St Petersburg: Nauka, 2013. [Google Scholar]
  • Kazakevich, A. N., ed. Pravoslavnaia Moskva v 1917–1921 godakh: Sbornik dokumentov i materialov. Moscow: Izd. Glavarkhiva Moskvy, 2004. [Google Scholar]
  • Kenworthy, Scott M. The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism and Society after 1825. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. [Google Scholar]
  • Kenworthy, Scott M.Monasticism in War and Revolution’. In Russia’s Home Front in War and Revolution, 1914–1922, Book 2: The Experience of War and Revolution, edited by Adele Lindenmeyr, Christopher Reed and Peter Waldron, 22149. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2016. [Google Scholar]
  • Kivelson, Valerie A. and Robert H. Greene, eds. Orthodox Russia: Belief and Practice under the Tsars. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. [Google Scholar]
  • Kizenko, Nadieszda. A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. [Google Scholar]
  • Kornblatt, Judith and Patrick Michelson, eds. Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Krivosheeva, N. A., ed. Prispelo vremia podviga … : Dokumenty Sviashchennogo Sobora Pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi Tserkvi 1917–1918 gg. o nachale gonenii na Tserkov. Moscow: PSTGU, 2012. [Google Scholar]
  • Kurliandskii, I. A. Stalin, Vlast’, Religiia. Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2011. [Google Scholar]
  • Lavrov, V. M., et al. Ierarkhiia Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi, patriarshestvo i gosudarstvo v revoliutsionnuiu epokhu. Moscow: Russkaia Panorama, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Lobanov, V. V. Patriarkh Tikhon i Sovetskaia vlast’ (1917–1925 gg.). Moscow: Russkaia panorama, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Lobanov, V. V., ed. Protokoly Komissii po provedeniiu otdeleniia tserkvi ot gosudarstva pri TsK RKP(b)-VKP(b) (Antireligioznaia komissii), 1922–1929 gg. Moscow: Izd. PSTGU, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Luchshev, E. M. Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i religiia, 1918–1939 gg. Dokumenty iz arkhiva Gosudarstvennogo muzeiia istorii religii. St Petersburg: Kalamos, 2012. [Google Scholar]
  • Luehrmann, Sonja. Religion in Secular Archives: Soviet Atheism and Historical Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Luukkanen, Arto. The Party of Unbelief: The Religious Policy of the Bolshevik Party, 1917–1929. Helsinki: Studia Historica, 1994. [Google Scholar]
  • Miliakova, L. B., ed. Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva i shkoly ot tserkvi v Sovketskoi Rossii. Oktiabr’ 1917 – 1918 g. Sbornik dokumentov. Moscow: Izd. PSTGU, 2016. [Google Scholar]
  • Mramornov, A. I., ed. Dokumenty Sviashchennogo Sobora Pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi Tserkvi 1917–1918 godov. Moscow: Izd. Novospasskogo monastyria, 2012 (vols. 1–6, 12, and 19). [Google Scholar]
  • Mramornov, A. I., ed. Sudebnyi protsess protiv Saratovskogo dukhovenstva v 1918–1919 gg. Moscow: Izd. Novospasskogo monastyria, 2013. [Google Scholar]
  • Nechaev, M. G. Tserkov’ na Urale v period velikikh potriasenii, 1917–1922. Perm’: Permskii gos.universitet im. Gor’kogo, 2004. [Google Scholar]
  • Odintsov, M. I. Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’ nakanune i v epokhu stalinskogo sotsializma. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Paert, Irina. Spiritual Elders: Charisma and Tradition in Russian Orthodoxy. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. [Google Scholar]
  • Pavlov, D. B. Otechestvennaia i zarubezhnaia istoriografiia gosudarstvenno-tserkovnykh otnoshenii, 1917–1922 gg. Moscow: PSTGU, 2011. [Google Scholar]
  • Peris, Daniel. Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. [Google Scholar]
  • Pokrovskii, N. N. and S. G. Petrov, eds. Arkhivy Kremlia: Politbiuro i tserkov’, 1922–1925, 2 vols. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1997–98. [Google Scholar]
  • Poliakov, A. G. Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’ i svetskaia vlast’ v 1917 – seredine 1920-kh gg. (na materialakh Viatskoi gubernii). Kirov: Moskovskii gos. industrial’nyi universitet, 2007. [Google Scholar]
  • Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Russian Church under the Soviet Regime, 1917–1982. 2 vols. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984. [Google Scholar]
  • Rogoznyi, P. G.The Russian Orthodox Church during the First World War and Revolutionary Turmoil, 1914-1921’. In Russian Culture in War and Revolution, 1914–1922, Book 1: Popular Culture, the Arts, and Institutions, edited by Murray Frame et al., 34975. Bloomington, IN: Routledge, 2014. [Google Scholar]
  • Rogoznyi, P. G. Tserkovnaia revoliutsiia 1917 goda: vysshee dukhovenstvo Rossiiskoi Tserkvi v bor’be za vlast’ v eparkhiiakh posle Fevral’skoi revoliutsii. St Petersburg: Liki Rossii, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Roslof, Edward E. Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 1905–1946. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. [Google Scholar]
  • Schulz, G., ed. Sobranie opredelenii i postanovlenii sviashchennogo sobora pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi tserkvi 1917–1918 gg. Moscow, 1918; reprinted Moscow, 1994. [Google Scholar]
  • Schulz, G. Sviashchennyi sobor pravoslavnoi Rossiiskoi tserkvi 1917–1918 gg.: Obzor deianii, 3 vols. Moscow: Izd. Krutitskoe podvor’ia, 2000–2. [Google Scholar]
  • Shevzov, Vera. Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Shevzov, Vera, ‘Letting the People into the Church’. In Orthodox Russia: Belief and Practice under the Tsars, edited by V. A. Kivelson and R. H. Greene, 5977. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. [Google Scholar]
  • Shkarovskii, M. V. Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov’ v XX veke. Moscow: Veche-Lepta, 2010. [Google Scholar]
  • Silano, Francesca. ‘“In the Language of the Patriarch”: Patriarch Tikhon, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Soviet State (1865–1925)’. Unpublished Ph.D. diss. University of Toronto, 2017. [Google Scholar]
  • Smith, Douglas. Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. New York: Picador, 2016. [Google Scholar]
  • Smith, S. A.Bones of Contention: Bolsheviks and the Struggle against Relics, 1918–1930’. Past and Present 204 (2009): 15594. doi: 10.1093/pastj/gtp023 [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890–1928. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. [Google Scholar]
  • Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905–1921. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. [Google Scholar]
  • Steinberg, Mark D. and Heather J. Coleman, eds. Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. [Google Scholar]
  • Steindorff, Ludwig, et al. Partei und Kirchen im frühen Sowjetstaat: Die Protokolle der Antireligiösen Kommission beim Zentralkomitee der Russischen Kommunistischen Partei (Bol’seviki) 1922–1929. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2006. [Google Scholar]
  • Stockdale, Melissa K. Mobilizing the Russian Nation: Patriotism and Citizenship in the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Tyspin, Vladislav. Russkaia tserkov’ (1917–1925). Moscow: Izdanie Sretenskogo monastyria, 1996. [Google Scholar]
  • Vorob’ev, Vladimir, ed. Sledstvennoe delo Patriarkha Tikhona: Sbornik dokumentov. Moscow: Pravoslavnyi Sviato-Tikhonovskii Bogoslovskii institut, 2000. [Google Scholar]
  • Vorob’ev, Vladimir, ed. 1917-i: Tserkov’ i sud’by Rossii: K 90-letiiu Pomestnogo Sobora i izbraniia Patriarkha Tikhona. Moscow: Izd. PSTGU, 2008. [Google Scholar]
  • Wagner, William G.Religion in Modern Russia: Revival and Survival’. Kritika 15, no. 1 (2014): 15168. doi: 10.1353/kri.2014.0006 [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Wanner, Catherine, ed. State Secularism and Lived Religion Soviet Russia and Ukraine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. [Google Scholar]
  • Werth, Paul W.Lived Orthodoxy and Confessional Diversity: The Last Decade on Religion in Modern Russia’. Kritika 12, no. 4 (2011): 84965. doi: 10.1353/kri.2011.0044 [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Worobec, Christine.Lived Orthodoxy in Imperial Russia’. Kritika 7, no. 2 (2006): 32950. doi: 10.1353/kri.2006.0028 [Crossref][Google Scholar]
  • Wynot, Jennifer Jean. Keeping the Faith: Russian Orthodox Monasticism in the Soviet Union, 1917–1939. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004. [Google Scholar]
  • Young, Glennys. Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. [Google Scholar]
  • Zybkovets, V. F. Natsionalizatsiia monastyrskikh imushchestv v Sovetskoi Rossii (1917–1921 gg.). Moscow: Nauka, 1975. [Google Scholar]

Related research

People also read lists articles that other readers of this article have read.

Recommended articles lists articles that we recommend and is powered by our AI driven recommendation engine.

Cited by lists all citing articles based on Crossref citations.
Articles with the Crossref icon will open in a new tab.