Is There Freedom of Religion?
For the outside world the Soviet government’s attitude toward religion has been one of the most frightening specters raised by the Bolshevik Revolution. Most of the reformist or revolutionary movements which swept Europe after the French Revolution of 1789 were to some extent anticlerical in character. But, until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; these movements had usually sought only to restrict the sphere of action of the church and to separate the church from the state. They did not attempt to abolish religious organizations, or to exclude religious beliefs from the consciousness of human beings.
Marx’s statement that “religion is the opium of the people,” frequently repeated by Lenin, and the Soviet government’s campaign against all religious creeds alike—Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Moslem—profoundly shocked the rest of the world. Without doubt Marxist atheism antagonized many Westerners who might otherwise have had some sympathy for Soviet economic and social ideals. Here, again, it is important to remember the backwardness of Russia in 1917 and the prevailing illiteracy of the people, which the Russian Orthodox church had done little to alleviate.
The position of organized religion in Russia in 1917 was not in any way comparable to that now existing in Great Britain or the United States. Many of the leading Orthodox clergy were closely associated with the czarist regime. They supported its policy of repressing liberal movements and encouraged its tendency to look with disfavor on popular education. The regime of Alexander III (1881–94), whowas very much under the influence of extremely reactionary ecclesiastical officials, was distinguished by severe measures of repression against the non-Russian nationalities of the Empire and against Jews as well as dissenters from the Orthodox church.
This does not mean that the Russian people were not religious. On the contrary, there was in Russia a deep-rooted feeling of mysticism which, at least in a great many of the older generation, survived 20 years of Soviet repression and anti-religious propaganda. But in the minds of many Russians, the Orthodox church was identified with czarism and with a system of private property and political reaction which held out little hope of improvement for the mass of the people. It is therefore not unnatural that during the Bolshevik Revolution the church, which owned large tracts of fertile land and other property, was under attack along with the monarchy, the nobility, and the landowners.
At the same time, it should be noted that Marxist doctrine is basically opposed to religious belief. Even in a country whose church was less reactionary than was the Orthodox church in Russia, a thoroughly Marxist government could hardly have done otherwise than follow an antireligious policy.
What did Soviet Russia do about it?
In the early years of the revolution, the Soviet government took vigorous action against religious leaders of all faiths whom it regarded as allies of czarism. The Soviet press scoffed at expressions of religious sentiment, and the government actively promoted the Godless League. This organization campaigned against religious beliefs and practices and especially against those clustered around the ritual of the Orthodox church.
The Soviet constitution of 1936 stated that “freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.” In reality, however, freedom of religious worship remained subject to important qualifications. A small number of churches were allowed to stay open in
Moscow and other cities of the USSR. But many were either demolished to make way for new construction or were converted to other uses.
No active measures of repression were taken against people who went into the churches to pray. At the same time, all possible ways of influencing public opinion—schools, press, radio, theater, movies, lectures, and antireligious exhibits—were used to disparage religious superstitions and beliefs. Only the most determined people—largely belonging to the older generation—could withstand such a constant mocking. Moreover, the Soviet government prevented the education of new religious leaders and barred the religious education of children in schools—although such education could be given by parents at home.
There has been some change
Following the German invasion, the situation began to change. Moscow permitted religious services for Polish forces that had been formed on Soviet soil and stopped publication of the organ of the Godless League, ostensibly because of a shortage of paper. During the war years the Orthodox religion has been recognized as a factor in the national life, and the Russian church has gained favor as an important rallying point for peoples of that faith in other Slav countries—notably Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Stalin like the czars is using the church to promote pan-Slavism. The Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Kiev, a leading Russian churchman, has taken an active part in national affairs. In November 1942 he was appointed a member of the Soviet commission on Axis atrocities and in May 1943 he was one of the principal speakers in Moscow at the Third All-Slav Congress.
The Soviet government has recognized that, while its anti-religious campaign disrupted religious organization, it did not destroy religious sentiment. By now the Soviet regime has presumably succeeded in indoctrinating the young generation with Marxist ideas and the spirit of rationalism and scientific inquiry. It has effected a drastic separation of church and state. It may, therefore, have far less reason than it did during the past 25 years to fear the restoration of some measure of, influence to church organizations.