The Russian Orthodox Church During the Soviet Union

The Russian Orthodox Church has a long-standing political and spiritual presence in Russia. However, during Soviet rule it retreated into a state-controlled religious facade until it regained both membership and political influence in the early 1990s.

Elena Papkova, an author and historian, states that while the Soviet government acknowledged the Russian Orthodox Church’s demands due to 80 percent of its membership, their actual concerns did not align with government objectives.

The Patriarchate of Moscow

During Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Church was one of few religious institutions with some freedom. Stalin allowed some churches to remain open but sought to limit its impact on society at large.

Despite these obstacles, the church continued its work in a limited capacity. Additionally, it established several religious institutions for training priests and teachers.

After World War II, the Soviet government began to relax restrictions on church activity. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches, an effort designed to distract attention away from state repressions.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, several new Orthodox churches were founded across Europe and Africa. Although these ecclesiastical structures are not officially affiliated with Moscow Patriarchate, they all belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Synod of the Holy Governing Synod

The Holy Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church is the highest authority within Orthodoxy. Led by the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, it consists of 12 members; seven permanent (most senior metropolitans) and five temporary chosen from diocesan bishops.

The Tsar’s confessor and head chaplain of the army, as well as several ecclesiastical officials, make up this governing body. Originally there were to be twelve ecclesiastical members; however, this number has always been altered at his pleasure.

During the Soviet union, the Synod was responsible for reorienting church policies towards state power and subordinating it to that entity. To oversee their activities, a secular official known as the chief procurator was appointed.

The Moscow Patriarchate

The Moscow Patriarchate is the highest church authority within Russian Orthodox Christianity. It has jurisdiction over orthodox communities throughout former member republics of Soviet Union as well as their diasporas abroad.

Its main governing bodies are the local council, bishops’ council and holy synod chaired by patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. These interpret the teachings of the Orthodox Church, maintain doctrinal and canonical unity with local churches, canonize saints and elect a patriarch.

Stalin legalized Orthodoxy in 1943, encouraging the reopening of thousands of churches and the opening of theological schools. Unfortunately, Khrushchev’s regime (1953-64) began a six-year campaign against all forms of religion.

At that time, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced widespread repression – house searches, arrests and forced exile of clergy and religious activists. Additionally, its church buildings were pillaged by the Renovationist Church. This collection contains unofficial documents, records and testimonies as well as articles written by those whose lives were affected by persecution within the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Throughout the Soviet Union, Stalinist authorities sought to subjugate and exploit the Russian Orthodox Church. Thousands of churches and monasteries were shut down, seminaries were shuttered, and religious material was censored.

Clergy were pressured into signing loyalty pledges with the Soviet regime, leading to many imprisonment or exile for their religious beliefs. Furthermore, the church served as a major source of propaganda for the communist government which promoted Soviet foreign policy and encouraged Russification among non-Russian Orthodox believers.

Mikhail Gorbachev usher in a new era for the Russian Orthodox Church during the 1980s and 1990s. Many church buildings were restored to use by parishioners and religious facilities were greatly expanded. Additionally, relations with other Christian denominations were strengthened while religious education began to be provided to children.

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