Are Churches Free In Russia?
Raymond Arthur Davies
The Communist Party is still anti-God, but the Russian State has given the churches freedom to build —and worship—Davies
A FEW months ago, along with other world press correspondents in Russia, I was invited to visit the Old Believers Convent just outside the town of Botoshani, Romania, then recently occupied by the Red Army. We were driven through the lovely rolling countryside of northern Romania, then through a quaint ancient village. The convent came into sight. We stopped. This was a haven of peace amidst war’s turbulence.
The Mother Superior met us at the gate, bade us welcome, then showed us around the rambling, timeworn structures. Our heads bared we attended church service. The old church was filled with about 100 people; an aged priest, white-bearded and solemn, intoned the prayers. We stood hushed. And with us, hushed also, their hats in hand, stood Red Army officers and soldiers and even grey-uniformed officials of the Soviet Foreign Office who accompanied us. Somehow the scene laid sharp emphasis upon the fact that the Russians have made their peace with the church.
During a whole year’s stay in the Soviet Union I was deeply impressed by the fact that the Soviet Church, or, rather, churches, has emerged as an actual influence in the life of the Russian people. Many changes have occurred in the life of the churches during the years of the war. And these changes have given the church a new-found freedom to work and to convince, a freedom it did not always enjoy since the Russian Revolution.
To grasp the complex picture, all the more compli-
cated because it depicts a vast multinational and multireligioned state, it is necessary to discover the factors that have brought about the church’s reestablishment. At the same time it is necessary to know what are the churches’ rights and limitations, as well as what is the opposition which the churches must overcome if they wish ultimately to win a firm position among the multitude of peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union.
Many abroad tend to believe that a great religious revival has taken place in Russia. I believe that to hold this view is to fall prey to exaggeration. What has happened is that the church—Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Baptist, Moslem, etc.—has factually proven its loyalty to the Soviet State and to this State’s leadership as personified by Marshal Joseph Stalin. In return the State has granted new rights to the church, and in some respects has even begun to help in her work. At the same time the Communist Party shows no sign of relaxing its antireligious education and propaganda. This is only seemingly contradictory. The Soviet State is following in this respect a policy of maintaining the right of every citizen actively to
believe or not to believe in God, to attend or not to attend a church.
Only a short while before my departure the Soviet newspapers reported the presentation of medals for the defense of Moscow to Metropolitan Alexei, one of the great leaders of the Creek Orthodox Church, and to a large number of priests. These medals were awarded, as is the custom, at the suggestion of local authorities and approved by the Communist Party. How did it happen that the clergy should be so decorated?
Father Kolchitsky, manager of affairs of the Supreme Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church in Russia, told me how, during the grim days of the German advance on Moscow, with the enemy only 16 miles away, the city priests rallied their congregations to dig trenches for the defense of the capital. Crosses in hand and wearing their black cassocks the priests paased through the trenches, inspiring the people. The younger priests helped dig trenches and handled picks and shovels with as great a skill as other citizens.
No wonder, therefore, that the substantial concessions made to the churches during the past three years stemmed from the conviction of the Soviet leaders that the State need no longer fear the church as a hostile influence; that the church, in fact, especially because of its wholehearted support of the war effort, has become a valuable asset in national unity.
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The church-state rapprochement did not arise suddenly in wartime. It has its roots in developments which began long before the war.
Before the Revolution of 1917 the orthodox church was headed by the czar. With the collapse of czarism the church leadership also collapsed. The Communist Party fought for the young Soviet State and in this fight the church also became involved and suffered. But by 1930 an end to antireligious excesses was demanded, and the Communists turned to propaganda of scientific theories which oppose belief in God. Within the country a new spirit of tolerance toward the church became evident, nurtured by the knowledge that many priests, monks and nuns, as well as all religious leaders of most denominations, were taking an active part in the industrial life, working in factories, offices or teaching in schools.
The fear of the church had all but disappeared bv 1936 when the new Soviet Constitution provided for “freedom of conduct of religious worship and freedom for antireligious propaganda for all citizens.” All restrictions formerly imposed upon priests and rabbis, barring them from the use of the ballot, to take but one example, were removed.
Church Gains Ground
The next stage opened when the Germans invaded Russia in June, 1941. The Greek Orthodox Church led by acting, later Patriarch, Sergius immediately threw its full support behind the Russian Army. Those priests who gave comfort to the enemy were excommunicated. The Church began to collect funds for the war effort; raised more than five million rubles for a Red Army tank column, blessed those who joined the Army and called upon them in the name of Motherland, Stalin and Christ, and other faiths in the name of Allah and Jehovah, to defeat the enemy. Early in 1943 Metropolitan Nikolai of Kiev was appointed to the Soviet Commission named to investigate German atrocities, a work which has been taking nearly all of his time ever since.
Since then events have followed one another in quick order. Marshal Stalin openly thanked the church for its support of the war; a new orthodox synod was established; Sergius was elected patriarch; more churches were allowed to open; in the middle of 1943 the Council of Peoples Commissars established a State Council on Orthodox Church Affairs headed by Georgi Karpov; finally,last June, a companion Council, headed by Ivan Polyansky, was established to deal with affairs of all other churches and religious groups.
Of the two men, Karpov occupies the more important position. He is a man of very high erudition. His offices, located in the old, but renovated, Ostrovsky street mansion next to the Government Guest House, reminded me of an office of an important industrial executive in Canada. They could easily be called luxurious, but not ostentatiously so.
At my first interview with Karpov— I saw him many times—I arrived at the mansion a few minutes before two, the appointed time. As if by magic the front door opened. An attendant took my coat, then led me across thickly carpeted floors to a secretary. The well-dressed girl asked my name, checked my appointment and led me into an inner suite. Here another
secretary asked me whether I should prefer an interpreter. I declined, the girl pressed a buzzer, a door opened. I heard a hearty voice saying in Russian, “Please enter. Make yourself comfortable.”
Karpov stood at his large desk. He immediately impressed me as a gracious and highly intelligent person. About 47 years of age, with greying hair, he wore a blue suit and resembled a manager of a Canadian bank. He extended his hand for a Russian handshake. The man had great charm and personality and seemed then, I became certain of it later, admirably suited to the task of liaison officer between a great state and a powerful church.
“Gospodin (Mister) Karpov,” I began. “Our people have only the haziest notion of the relationship of church and state in Russia. I am sure they should like to know something of the work of your council, the more so since we have nothing like it in our own country.”
“This is very easily done,” Karpov smiled as he went on to give me the history of his committee. He said it had been established in October, 1943, and had since gathered a great deal of experience. It had had no conflicts with the church. “Our basic task,” he emphasized, “is to maintain liaison between government and church.”
“But, Mr. Karpov,” I interjected, “what need is there for your Council? In our country the church works without any such liaison body with government.”
“Well, sir,” he said, “here the State owns all land and all industries. Many questions arise to solve which the church must turn to us. Church leaders approach my representatives in the field, and then, if the question proves important, it is generally sent on to me and I do my best to solve it. Problems constantly arise among church leaders that require government deliberation, decision and sometimes sanction.”
“What kind of questions?”
“An outstanding question,” Karpov explained, “was that of the establishment of a theological seminary and priests’ training courses. The synod discussed this first and arrived at an agreement. The Patriarch then took this matter up with our Council. We agreed and submitted it to the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, which fully approved and ordered all state organizations involved to give immediate necessary aid.” Karpov summarized the purposes of his committee as contact between church and State, formulation of laws and regulations concerning church problems, vigilance over existing laws to ensure that neither church nor State exceed their legal rights in their relations. He also added that representatives of the Council have been appointed in all regions and all provinces, where they maintain constant liaison between local authorities and local churches. I enquired about their work.
“One matter engaging their attention,” Karpov replied, “is that of reopening or building churches. If a group of believers wish to open a church they sign a petition, which requires at least 20 registered signatures, and refer it to both church and local administration leaders. The local Soviet then examines the matter and sends it to us in Moscow, along with its own opinion. We give final approval or disapproval.”
“On what basis?”
“Usually we approve. Sometimes, however, we feel that there are enough churches in a given community or, perhaps, that not enough support is available to make possible church maintenance in proper style and
dignity. In such cases we reject the petition.”
The balance of our first discussion was devoted to religious education. Karpov told me, and later this was substantiated by synod leaders, that the church is being fully enabled to open seminaries and theological schools, but that it has not yet taken full advantage of permissions already granted. Thus, although two seminaries were permitted by the Government, the church has thus far opened only one. The problem before the Orthodox Church, I discovered, is that of finding suitable applicants for priesthood. Father Kolchitsky elucidated this in his office at the synod one afternoon. He revealed that too many of the applicants for theological education had been divorced and thus, under canonical law, are unacceptable. This is a problem that probably has no parallels abroad.
Education of children in religious matters is a complicated problem. One gets the impression that neither the Soviet leaders nor church dignitaries have yet reached complete clarity in this respect.
“What about Sunday schools?” I asked Karpov.
“Sunday schools? What are Sunday schools?”
“This has not arisen,” he stated positively. “The Orthodox Church had never had Sunday schools nor young people’s services and has not raised the matter with us.”
Our first interview ended on this. But I had more questions to ask and a few weeks later saw Mr. Karpov again. “How soon will Soviet authorities permit churches and priests to conduct religious education among youth and what restrictions, if any, will govern this education?” I enquired.
Karpov toyed with his pencil. “Under our laws,” he finally explained, “each person may or may not teach his children religion if he so desires. No religion may be taught in schools, according to our law. But parents may educate their children in matters of religion in the privacy of their own homes. They may gather groups of children for this purpose and may also get the priests to conduct this education on their behalf.”
“A supplementary issue to one of religious education in the eyes of our public,” I told Karpov, “is whether or not the Russian church can proselytize. Can it print and distribute religious propaganda?” I asked.
Karpov’s face reflected genuine surprise. “There is no ban on this!” he exclaimed. “The church may print whatever it wishes. In fact we have given explicit permission for the church to order any desired quantity of prayer and liturgical books. As to the distribution of such material, there are no restrictions of any kind.”
What do these statements mean in practice? .
The churches are crowded, and on high holydays are jammed to overflowing. Bibles are being printed for the first time in three decades. People seem to feel that they can go to church and that this is not against anything. A girl worker in a large factory and member of the Young Communist League said to me, in reply to a question as to whether she was married, “Not yet, but soon I shall be, and in church too!”
“In church?” I asked in surprise. “And you a Young Communist!”
“But sure,” she responded. “It is so much more formal, you know.”
A situation similar to that in the Orthodox Church prevails also with the
other churches and faiths. The liaison of the Soviet State with these churches and faiths is in the hands of Ivan Polyansky. Polyansky is not to be envied for his job, which handles probably the most intricate problems in the Russian religious picture, if for no other reason than that they include relations with the Catholic Church.
Polyansky is a man of considerable education but not equal to Karpov either in personality, frankness or responsibility. He told me that his Council has jurisdiction over relations with five churches; namely, Armenian, Gregorian, Old Believers, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Lutheran. In addition, he deals with affairs of the Moslem, Jewish and Buddhist faiths, and with Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other evangelical sects. Quite a job !
We talked at great length of the Baptists, who, he said, are well unified and have a Baptist Council in Moscow, and especially of the Catholics. He insisted that the Russian Catholics share all existing rights and privileges of all believers. “The rules governing opening and maintenance of Catholic churches are the same as for other faiths. Any registered Catholic society of more than 20 members may receive charge of a building for religious services or may build one and may freely invite all people to come there. Catholics may maintain priests and bishops, collect funds, print prayer books and other materials, hold conferences and proselytize.”
In connection with religious education of Catholic children Polyansky said that this could be done at home by the children’s parents, and that groups of parents could bring their children together for this purpose, but that no religious instruction could be given inside churches or, for that matter, in synagogues or mosques. “That would be against our established laws that maintain that the church building is given to the congregation for prayer and for no other purposes,” Polyansky stressed. He said that speaking from a purely church viewpoint there was no objection against Russian Catholics communicating with the Pope, consulting him and obtaining advice, and that there could be no objection against the nomination of a cardinal or his election in some other way by the Catholics in Russia.”
Friendly to Moslems
If the Catholic problem is one of the most intricate facing religious leaders in Russia, especially because they seem to consider the Pope rather friendly to the Germans and hostile to the Russians, that of the Moslems is almost certainly the most interesting. The relations of the Soviet State and the Moslems are already creating considerable comment in the Near and Middle East and India. I understand that one of the secretaries of the Soviet Embassy in Cairo is a well-known Moslem religious leader.
Not long ago I cabled an interview with Ahund Aga Alizade Sheikh U1 Islam, that aged and honorable cleric who received his education in Mecca and was recently elected sheikh at the Moslem Kurultai (congress) held in Baku.
In this interview Ahund Aga declared: “All my predecessors have
cause to envy me who heads the Moslems under the Soviet Government. Moslems in Russia were never so free in matters of religion as under Soviet power. Since the war began all faithful Moslems, like all other people in the Soviet Union, have devoted all their thoughts and deeds to one end, the speedy defeat of the fascists, that gang
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of tyrants and bandits that has brought the world such a burden of blood, tears and torment. Everybody who believes in Allah must fight against fascism. Do not the words of the Holy Koran apply to Fascists?
“ ‘Allah hates the tyrants’ (Chapter 38). Throughout the whole of history there has never been a more terrible tyrant than Hitler.
“True believers of the Moslem faith are prepared to render all moral or material support to the war. They bless their sons who go to the front and order them to do their duty to their country. The Mullahs consider that the annihilation of the Fascist is a necessity and call on all faithful to take part in this.”
The policy of friendship toward the Moslems has paid big dividends. One may search a long time and fail to find a similar statement against Hitler made by any Moslem leader anywhere else in the world.
In order to discover the facts of the situation of the Jewish faith I attended the Moscow Choral Synagogue both during the Jewish New Year (Rosh Haahonah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) services. On both occasions the synagogue was filled to overflowing, and thousands unable to gain admittance were congregated in the narrow street before the ornate structure The service was the same as in Canadian synagogues. Many soldiers and officers were among the worshippers. It was interesting to hear the prayer of the Rabbi for Stalin’s health and for Soviet victory. The Rabbi admonished the faithful to be grateful, for, he said, they all would have been dead had it not been for the Red Army.
One day I met a 72-year-old Jewish guerilla just arrived from enemy-held territory. It was Saturday and his first question was, “Where is the synagogue?”
All Have a Faith
All this is one side of the picture. There is yet another. It is quite evident to the foreign observer that while more people go to church, mosque and synagogue now than did at any time during the past 25 years, still greater numbers of people do not go. What do they believe? What is their faith?
They do have a faith. They are the very embodiment of belief in their country and their people. Patriotism motivates them and many have gone to their death in service to it in fighting against the enemy. Patriotism' in the Soviet union is quite overwhelming, quite amazing to the foreigner^ And it is encouraged, indeed spoqpored, by the Communist Party.
The Coinmimist Party has not made its peace with belief in God, however.
In a recent issue of the magazine Sputnik Agitatora, the Agitator’s Companion, published by the Communist Party Central Committee, Doctor of Sciences G. Schmidt wrote:
“Man has arrived on earth in a most natural and not at all supernatural manner. In the old times, when there were no sciences or they were in their beginnings, people could not properly explain to themselves from where they appeared. Babylonians, for example, and other peoples believed that men were made by magic from clay. These and other explanations are antiscientific fairy tales.”
Just a few weeks before I left Russia M. Suslov, Secretary of the Stavropol Provincial Committee of the Communist Party, writing in the official organ of the Young Communist League, Komsomolskaya Pravda, castigated
teachers who “practice toleration toward religious superstition.”
“Our Party’s attitude toward religion is known and it is unchangeable. Our Party fights against religious prejudices because it stands for science, and religious prejudices are antiscientific.
“With what methods does our Party fight against religion?
“This question was well answered by M. I. Kalinin, president of the Soviet Union, who said, ‘We persecute no one for religion. We consider religion a delusion and we combat its spread.’ It is necessary in this connection to carefully avoid all insult to the feelings of believers, which leads only to the strengthening of religious fanaticism.” I have deliberately let Mr. Suslov speak because he puts the question quite sharply, uncompromisingly, and openly. Probably the most that can be said in comment is to cite Mr. Karpov in his interview with me:
“Imperceptibly,” he told me, “many things are changing in respect to the church. Some changes have not yet been formalized, but we are proceeding, step by step, and so far the results are good.”
People Free to Worship
Without doubt religious people in Russia can and do go to church, synagogue and mosque. They can reopen churches and build new houses of God, if they are prepared to do so at their own expense. No force is now being exerted to prevent citizens from worshipping. Nor is there any force being exerted (this is evident from Mr. Suslov’s remarks) to prevent anyone from propagating against religion and worship. The Communist Party argues against religion, agitates against religion, but at the same time appears to defend the right of people to practice it.
Religion in Russia today can be propagated. A dynamic church can gain converts. But it can only do so on the basis of openly struggling for the mind of man. In this it again faces a situation such as it faced long ago when it fought to establish its very bases by proselytizing.
Can those Russians who do not believe in God be considered to lack all faith? I believe not. For the faith of the Russians is warm and remarkable and it has stood the tests of the fires of war and sacrifice and martyrdom. The meaning of this is pregnant with possibilities. It may be said that all Russians are moved by a faith as great as thät of any people in the world, and greater than some. This faith is not a religion in itself. In fact religious and nonreligious Russians seem to partake of this faith in quite similar degree.