The Amazing Survival of Russian Christianity
As early as 867 AD, there were probably Christian missions and churches in the Kievan-Rus State, the predecessor of the Russian Empire. We know that the Kievan-Rus had considerable contact with Byzantine Christians in Constantinople. Vladimir the Great (958-1015) was raised as a pagan, but his grandmother, Olga, was a Christian and had considerable influence on her grandson. After much study and negotiation, Vladimir became a Christian. Many of his subjects were already enthusiastic Christians, when he became the Ruling Prince of the Kievan-Rus in 980 and called all his subjects to baptism in the Dnieper River. This 980 date is generally considered the formal beginning of Christianity in Russia.
By the beginning of the reign of Tsar Alexander I (1801-1823), Russia was considered one of the most Christian and culturally conservative nations in the world. Alexander fought three wars against Napoleon. During the third, beginning in 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia in June and temporarily occupied a deserted Moscow on September 14. The Russians did not surrender, however, forcing Napoleon to withdraw in winter, resulting in one of the most disastrous military campaigns in history and French defeat. Interestingly, Russian General Kutuzov used an attrition strategy similar in concept to what the Russians have used successfully in the present war in Ukraine.
The Tragedy of World War I with its casualties, shortages, and breadlines weakened the people’s trust in government and made Russia vulnerable to Marxist agitation and revolution.
In 1914, there were in Russia 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches, and 29,593 chapels, 550 monasteries, 475 convents, 112,629 priests and deacons, and 95,259 monks and nuns associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Christianity has always been strongly Russian Orthodox. Currently about 87 percent of Russian Christians are Russian Orthodox and the total Orthodox about 91 percent. Independents, Protestants, and Catholics make up most of the remaining balance of the Christian population in Russia.
The attitude of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries toward Christians and the Russian Orthodox Church and other churches was merciless. They intended to eliminate every trace of Christianity. Their anti-Christian objectives soon became first priority over other Marxist ideology. In the 1918-1920 Civil War that followed, the Bolshevik Red Army eventually defeated the anti-Bolshevik “White” Army forces. Most of the Christian clergy were openly hostile to the Bolshevik Revolution and favored the White forces, thus exposing them to further persecution and violence.
In the first five years of Communist revolution, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. This only foreshadowed much greater tragedy. Lenin was seriously ill by late 1921 and was effectively replaced by Joseph Stalin in April 1922 and completely on Lenin’s death on January 21, 1924. Stalin launched a massive anti-Christian campaign in 1928, which continued until 1941, when he needed to have something more than bleak Communist ideology and misery to motivate Russians to save Mother Russia.
Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested, and 95,000 were executed by firing squads. The number of churches had been reduced to 29,584 by 1927, but by 1940 there were less than 500 churches left.
During the purges of 1937 and 1938, church documents record that 168,300 Russian Orthodox clergy were arrested and 106,300 were shot.
The total Russian clergy executed from 1917 to 1943 is over 201,000. This number is from a Soviet government commission. There are no easily documented figures on total Christian deaths associated with Stalin’s purges. and there is a danger of mixing them with civilian war dead during the Great Patriotic War from 1941-1945.
The magnitude of suffering endured by the Russian people during the Great Patriotic War, however, should be recognized. According to a 1993 Russian Federation government report, Soviet military dead numbered 8.7 million, and civilian deaths were 17.6 million, bringing the total to 26.3 million. According to Russian President Putin, 70 percent of the total deaths, or 18.7 million were suffered in what is now the Russian Federation. Most of the rest were suffered in Ukraine.
Rod Dreher describes one witnessed example of this terrible purge of Russian Orthodox clergy in his 2020 book, Live Not by Lies, named for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1974 published speech. He relates the confession of a prison guard who witnessed the execution of at least 20 Russian Orthodox priests in a rural setting [probably circa 1937-1938]. The NKVD (Soviet Secret Security Police from 1917 until the death of Stalin in 1953) would gather 20 to 30 priests they had been holding in prison and take them far out in the woods for execution. They were lined up in two ranks and one by one each priest was given a chance to renounce his faith. If a priest refused to renounce his faith, he was shot in the forehead, and the blood and brain debris splattered on the nearest fellow priests. The executioner then went to the next in line with the same choice of denying the Christian faith or a bullet in the forehead. The guard never saw any priests deny their faith. They shot them one by one in the forehead as they confirmed their faith in God. The guard, terribly distressed for years, later became a Christian.
Beginning in 1941 and increasingly by 1943, Stalin had to make peace with the Russian Orthodox Church and the millions of Russian Christians fighting to save the Motherland from Nazi Germany. Stalin was a ruthless and absolutely committed Communist, but he had to make a compromise with reality. Few Russians would fight for Communist ideology, but they would sacrifice for God, family, and Mother Russia. In addition, the Germans were rebuilding Russian churches in the areas of Russia they had occupied.
Stalin probably had access to official Soviet figures that up to one-third of urban and two-thirds of the rural population of Russia still held religious beliefs in 1937. This was even though the anti-religious campaign and terror tactics of the militantly atheist regime had effectively eliminated all public expressions of religion and religious gatherings. The Communists had still failed to crush the deeply Christian public life and culture that had developed over nearly a thousand years. As Ekaterina V. Haskins explained in her 2009 essay on reimagining Russian National identity, The Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Reimagining of National Identity:
“Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort and presented Russia as a defender of Christian civilization, because he saw the church had an ability to arouse the people in a way that the party could not and because he wanted western help.”
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to restore religious liberties in Russia. Stalin did not respond but obviously considered it in his calculation.
Anti-Christian executions in Russia largely ended for the sake of victory over the Germans, but anti-Christian discrimination and indoctrination continued at a slightly lower key under Stalin, who died in March 1953. By 1959 active Russian Orthodox churches has risen to 22,000.
Nikita Khrushchev became Chairman of the USSR Communist Party six months after Stalin’s death and a power struggle that eventually ousted Premier Georgy Malenkov in 1955. Khrushchev ally Nikolai Bulganin became Premier until Khruschev took over the office in March 1958. Khrushchev also made known his secret opposition to Stalin’s bloody and ruthless methods.
However, Khrushchev launched his own anti-Christian campaign in 1959. By 1985, only 7,000 active churches were left. Khrushchev continued anti-Christian political and social pressure but not the murderous methods of Stalin’s purges. However, Khrushchev began to lose hardline Communist support when he became more concerned about the dangers of nuclear war after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), Yuri Andropov (1982-1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985) continued state atheism and anti-Christian policies similar to Khrushchev’s 1959 campaign.
Things would begin to change for the better for Christians when Mikael Gorbachev became Soviet leader in March 1985. By 1986 Gorbachev would introduce his new policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reconstruction).
In 1987, although the Soviet Union’s official atheist and anti-Christian attitudes were still in place, according to the Russian Orthodox Church, 40 to 50 percent of parents in the RSSR had their children baptized. About 60 percent of funerals were Christian. This was evidence both that Russian Christianity had not been destroyed by 70 years of severe anti-Christian Marxist rule and that believers sensed change was in the wind. The Russian Orthodox Church and Christianity began to be heard and treated with positive deference. By 1988, all the Soviet Union would be able to celebrate the millennial birthday of 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia.
However, Gorbachev’s democratic and religious freedom reforms angered hardline Communists. They were also greatly concerned about Gorbachev’s proposals for nuclear disarmament and shutting down several missile development programs. Some were even accusing Gorbachev of abandoning the key Communist doctrine of atheism. Indeed, Gorbachev was an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi and met with Pope John Paul II in 1989 and agreed to diplomatic recognition of the Vatican. He had Christian icons in his home. U.S. President Ronald Reagan thought Gorbachev was a “closet Christian” because Gorbachev had told him they had Christian morals in common. Most people recognized that Gorbachev was a man of high moral character, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Under Soviet government reorganization in 1990, Gorbachev became the first President of Russia.
All this led to a failed coup by Communist Party hardliners in August 1991. The coup failed, but the Soviet Union was brought down and lost its hegemony over eastern Europe. Boris Yeltsin, who had also confessed his recent conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, became the new Russian Federation President in 1991. Vladimir Putin replaced Yeltsin in 1999 and was officially elected President in March 2000.
Putin has been a highly visible supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church and sometimes quotes Russian Christian writers in his speeches—Solzhenitsyn, Ilyn, Berdiaev, and Solovyov, and occasionally the Bible on current social issues. Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church are traditionalist conservatives on the Bible and social issues and are strongly opposed to the latest “woke” fashions spreading over the West. Liberal Western political pundits tend to discount the strong religious and spiritual influences underlying many Russian political and foreign policy issues. Western dismissal of Russian religious and social culture is a serious foreign policy mistake. According to Statista, Putin’s April 2023 favorable rating in the Russian Federation was 83 percent, tied with previous highs. The U.S. State Department, CIA, and their captive Western media have been straining every nerve and their own credibility to demonize Putin since at least 2008, but with little effect on the Russian public. Demonizing is not understanding and leads to moral blindness and woeful consequences.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Russian adults identifying themselves as Christian increased from 31 percent in 1991 to 72 percent in 2008 and 73 percent in 2017, higher than the declining U.S. number of 65 percent. A recent 2021 survey for the Russian Orthodox Church done by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) estimated that 66 percent of Russian adults were Orthodox Christians. This would indicate the Christian total would be close to 73 percent. In 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church had 40,512-full time clergy. The number of churches is now estimated to be over 21,000 versus less than 7,000 in 1991. More than 40,000 parishes are being served. There are about 90 million family members of the Russian Orthodox Church within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. Polls indicate an amazing 93 percent of Russians have respect for and a favorable opinion of the Russian Orthodox Church.
On May 14, Dr. Steve Turley, who is an Orthodox Christian, gave five reasons for Putin’s strong support among Russian Christians. First, Putin is seen as a defender of the faith. Second, he is bluntly and articulately “unwoke.” Third, Putin is a defender of family values. Fourth, he gets credit for revitalizing the Russian Church, and fifth, he is seen as a courageous patriot, who is willing to stand up for Russia’s traditional values and re-establish Russia’s rich pre-Communist civilization and culture.
The survival of Russian Christianity is an epic memory for all Christians. Perhaps we should rethink the veracity and continued relevance of Cold War ideology and propaganda. To quote
C. S. Lewis, the good news everywhere among all peoples is: “Aslan is on the move.”