Religion in the Soviet Union

Religion in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was an atheist state, in which religion was largely discouraged and heavily persecuted. According to various Soviet and Western sources, however, over one-third of the country's people professed religious belief. Christianity and Islam had the most believers. Christians belonged to various churches: Orthodox, which had the largest number of followers; Catholic; and Baptist and various other Protestant sects. The majority of the Islamic faithful were Sunni. Judaism also had many followers. Other religions, which were practiced by a relatively small number of believers, included Buddhism and Shamanism.

The role of religion in the daily lives of Soviet citizens varied greatly. Two-thirds of the Soviet population, however, were irreligious. About half the people, including members of the ruling Communist Party and high-level government officials, professed atheism. For the majority of Soviet citizens, therefore, religion seemed irrelevant.

Prior to its collapse in late 1991, official figures on religion in the Soviet Union were not available.


Orthodox Christians constituted a majority of believers in the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, three Orthodox churches claimed substantial memberships in the Soviet Union: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. They were members of the major confederation of Orthodox churches in the world, generally referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The first two churches functioned openly and were tolerated by the regime. The Ukrainian AOC was not permitted to function openly. Parishes of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church reappeared in Belarus only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they did not receive the recognition from the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church that controls Belarusian eparchies.

Russian Orthodox Church

According to both Soviet and Western sources, in the late 1980s the Russian Orthodox Church had over 50 million believers but only about 7,000 registered active churches. Over 4,000 of the registered Orthodox churches were located in the Ukrainian Republic (almost half of that number in western Ukraine). The distribution of the Russian Orthodox Church's six monasteries and ten convents was equally disproportionate. Only two of the monasteries were located in the RSFSR. Another two in Ukraine and one in Belarus and in Lithuania. Seven convents were located in the Ukrainian Republic and one each in the Moldavian, Estonian, and Latvian republics.

Georgian Orthodox Church

The Georgian Orthodox Church, another autocephalous member of Eastern Orthodoxy, was headed by a Georgian patriarch. In the late 1980s, it had 15 bishops, 180 priests, 200 parishes, and an estimated 2.5 million followers. In 1811 the Georgian Orthodox Church was incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church but regained its independence in 1917 after the fall of Tsarism. Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church did not officially recognize its independence until 1943.

Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1919, when the short-lived Ukrainian state adopted a decree in 1919 declaring autocephaly from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The church's independence was reaffirmed by the Bolsheviks in the Ukrainian Republic, and by 1924 the church had 30 bishops, almost 1,500 priests, nearly 1,100 parishes, and between 3 and 6 million members. From its inception, the church faced the hostility of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Ukrainian Republic. In the late 1920s, Soviet authorities accused the church of nationalist tendencies. In 1930 the government forced the church to reorganize as the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church," and few of its parishes survived until 1936. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church continued to function outside the borders of the Soviet Union, and it was revived on Ukrainian territory under the German occupation during World War II. In the late 1980s, some of the Orthodox faithful in the Ukrainian Republic appealed to the Soviet government to reestablish the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Armenian Apostolic

The Armenian Apostolic religion is an independent Eastern Christian faith. In the 1980s, the Armenian Apostolic Church had about 4 million faithful, or almost the entire Armenian population of the country. The church was permitted 6 bishops, between 50 and 100 priests, and between 20 and 30 churches, and it had one theological seminary and six monasteries.


Catholics accounted for a substantial and active religious body in the Soviet Union. Their number increased dramatically with annexation of Territories of Second Polish Republic in 1939 and the Baltic republics in 1940. Catholics in the Soviet Union were divided between those belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, recognized by the government, and those remaining loyal to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, banned since 1946.

Roman Catholic Church

The majority of the 5.5 million Roman Catholics in the Soviet Union lived in the Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Latvian republics, with a sprinkling in the Moldavian, Ukrainian, and Russian republics. Since World War II, the most active Roman Catholic Church in the Soviet Union was in the Lithuanian Republic, where the majority of people are Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church there has been viewed as an institution that both fosters and defends Lithuanian national interests and values. Since 1972 a Catholic underground publication, "The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania", has spoken not only for Lithuanians' religious rights but also for their national rights.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1939, which included largely the historic region of Galicia. The population there, despite being Ukrainian, was never part of the Russian Empire and hence was Eastern Rite Catholic in belief. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church's close identity with the nationalist aspirations of the region aroused the hostility of the Soviet government after the Second World War, who was in combat with Ukrainian Insurgency. In 1945 Soviet authorities arrested, deported and sentenced to forced labor camps in Siberia and elsewhere the church's metropolitan Josyf Slipyj and nine bishops, as well as hundreds of clergy and leading lay activists. All the above-mentioned bishops and significant part of clergymen died in prisons, concentration camps, internal exile, or soon after their release during the post-Stalin thaw [ The Ukrainian Greek Catholics: A Historical Survey, RISU] ] . The exception was metropolitan Josyf Slipyj who, after 18 years of imprisonment and persecution, was released thanks to the intervention of Pope John XXIII, arrived in Rome, where he received the title of Major Archbishop of Lviv, and became cardinal in 1965 [ The Ukrainian Greek Catholics: A Historical Survey, RISU] ] .

In 1946 a "synod" was called in Lviv, where despite being uncanonical in both Catholic and Orthodox understanding, the Union of Brest was annulled, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was officially annexed into the ROC. The St. George Cathedral in Lviv became the throne of the Russian Orthodox archbishop Makariy [ The Ukrainian Greek Catholics: A Historical Survey, RISU] ] .

For the clergy that joined the Russian Orthodox Church, the Soviet authorities refrained from large-scale persecution of religion that was seen elsewhere in the country. In the city of Lviv alone only one church was closed. In fact, the western dioceses of Lviv-Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk were the largest in the USSR. Canon law was also relaxed on the clergy allowing them to shave beards (a practice uncommon to Orthodoxy) and conduct liturgy in Ukrainian as opposed to Slavonic.

In 1989 the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was officially re-established after more than 40 years of catacomb period [ The Ukrainian Greek Catholics: A Historical Survey, RISU] ] . The conflicts followed between the Orthodox and Catholic clergy and faithful in ownership of church-buildings, a conflict which continued after the Independence of Ukraine into the 1990s. (see History of Christianity in Ukraine)


By 1950, there were an estimated 2,000,000 baptists in the Soviet Union, with the largest proportion in Ukraine. [ [ Baptist Union in Russia, by Christian History Institute] ]

Many leaders and ordinary believers of different Protestant communes fell victims of the communist regime persecution, including imprisonment and executions. Leader of the unregistered Seventh-day Adventist movement in the Soviet Union Vladimir Shelkov (1895–1980) spent almost all his life since 1931 in imprisonment and died in Yakutia camp. Pentecostals were in mass number given 20-25 prison terms and many perished there, including one of the leaders Ivan Voronaev. [ Book of L.Alexeeva, Memorial Page, Russian] ]

In the period after the Second world war, Protestant believers in the USSR (baptists, pentecostals, adventists etc.) were compulsively sent to mental hospitals, endured trials and prisons (often for refusal to enter military service). Some were even compulsively deprived of their parent rights. [ Book of L.Alexeeva, Memorial Page, Russian] ]

The Lutheran Church in different regions of the country during the Soviet Epoch was persecuted and church property was confiscated. [ RISU on Lutherans in Ukraine] ] Many of its believers and pastors were oppressed, and some were forced to emigrate. [ Keston Institute and the Defence of Persecuted Christians in the USSR] ]

Various Protestant religious groups, according to Western sources, collectively had as many as 5 million followers in the 1980s. Evangelical Christian Baptists constituted the largest Protestant group. Located throughout the Soviet Union, some congregations were registered with the government and functioned with official approval. Many other unregistered congregations carried on religious activity without such approval.

Lutherans, making up the second largest Protestant group, lived for the most part in the Latvian and Estonian republics. In the 1980s, Lutheran churches in these republics identified to some extent with nationality issues in the two republics. The regime's attitude toward Lutherans was generally benign. A number of smaller congregations of Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Russian Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses and other Christian groups carried on religious activities, with or without official sanction.


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In the late 1980s, Islam had the second largest number of believers in the Soviet Union, with between 45 and 50 million people identifying themselves as Muslims. But the Soviet Union had only about 500 working Islamic mosques, a fraction of the mosques in prerevolutionary Russia, and Soviet law forbade Islamic religious activity outside working mosques and Islamic schools. All working mosques, religious schools, and Islamic publications were supervised by four "spiritual directorates" established by Soviet authorities to provide governmental control. The Spiritual Directorate for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the Spiritual Directorate for the European Soviet Union and Siberia, and the Spiritual Directorate for the Northern Caucasus and Dagestan oversaw the religious life of Sunni Muslims. The Spiritual Directorate for Transcaucasia dealt with both Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. The overwhelming majority of the Muslims were Sunnis.

Soviet Muslims also differ linguistically and culturally from each other. Among them, they speak about fifteen Turkic languages, ten Iranian languages, and thirty Caucasian languages. Hence, communication between different Muslim groups has been difficult. Although in 1989 Russian often served as a lingua franca among some educated Muslims, the number of Muslims fluent in Russian was low. Culturally, some Muslim groups had highly developed urban traditions, whereas others were recently nomadic. Some lived in industrialized environments; others resided in isolated mountainous regions. In sum, Muslims were not a homogeneous group with a common national identity and heritage, although they shared the same religion and the same country. In the late 1980s, unofficial Muslim congregations, meeting in tea houses and private homes with their own mullahs, greatly outnumbered those in the officially sanctioned mosques. The mullahs in unofficial Islam were either self-taught or were informally trained by other mullahs. In the late 1980s, unofficial Islam appeared to split into fundamentalist congregations and groups that emphasized Sufism.

Policy toward religions in practice

Soviet policy toward religion was based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which made atheism the official doctrine of the Communist Party, though, in theory, each successive Soviet constitution granted freedom of belief. As the founder of the Soviet state V. I. Lenin put it:

Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class. [cite web
last = Lenin
first = V. I.
title = About the attitude of the working party toward the religion.
work = Collected works, v. 17, p.41

Marxism-Leninism has consistently advocated for the suppression, and, ultimately, the disappearance of religious beliefs, due to their unscientific and superstitious character. In the 1920s and 1930s, such organizations as the League of the Militant Godless were active in anti-religious propaganda. Atheism was the norm in schools, communist organizations (such as the Young Pioneer Organization), and the media.

The regime's efforts to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union, however, varied over the years with respect to particular religions and have been affected by higher state interests. Official policies and practices not only varied with time but also differed in their application from one nationality to another and from one religion to another. Although all Soviet leaders had the same long-range goal of developing a cohesive Soviet people, they pursued different policies to achieve it. For the Soviet regime, the questions of nationality and religion were always closely linked. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attitude toward religion also varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.

Nationalities and religion

The Soviet Constitution, in theory, describes the regime's position regarding nationalities and religions. It states that every citizen of the Soviet Union is also a member of a particular nationality, and every Soviet passport carries these two entries. The Constitution grants a large degree of local autonomy, but this autonomy has always been subordinated to central authority. In addition, because local and central administrative structures are often not clearly divided, local autonomy is further weakened. Although under the Constitution all nationalities are equal, in practice they have not been. Only fifteen nationalities have had union republic status, which grants them, in principle, many rights, including the right to secede from the union. Twenty-two nationalities have lived in autonomous republics with a degree of local self-government and representation in the Council of Nationalities in the Supreme Soviet. Eighteen additional nationalities have territorial enclaves (autonomous oblasts and autonomous okruga) but possess very little power of self- government. The remaining nationalities have no right of self- management. Joseph Stalin's definition in 1913 that "A nation is a historically constituted and stable community of people formed on the basis of common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup revealed in a common culture" has been retained by Soviet authorities through the 1980s.Fact|date=September 2008 But, in granting nationalities a union republic status, three additional factors were considered: a population of at least 1 million, territorial compactness of the nationality, and location on the borders of the Soviet Union. Although Vladimir Lenin believed that eventually all nationalities would merge into one, he insisted that the Soviet Union be established as a federation of formally equal nations. In the 1920s, genuine cultural concessions were granted to the nationalities. Communist elites of various nationalities were permitted to flourish and to have considerable self-government. National cultures, religions, and languages were not merely tolerated but in areas with Muslim populations were encouraged.

Although demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s whittled down the Russian majority overall, they also led to two nationalities (the Kazakhs and Kirgiz in the 1979 census) becoming minorities in their own republics and decreased considerably the majority of the titular nationalities in other republics. This situation led Leonid Brezhnev to declare at the Twenty-Fourth Party Congress in 1971 that the process of creating a unified Soviet people had been completed, and proposals were made to abolish the federative system and replace it with a single state. The regime's optimism was soon shattered, however. In the 1970s, a broad national dissent movement began to spread throughout the Soviet Union. Its manifestations were many and diverse. The Jews insisted on their right to emigrate to Israel; the Crimean Tatars demanded to be allowed to return to Crimea; the Lithuanians called for the restoration of the rights of the Catholic Church; and Helsinki watch groups were established in the Georgian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian republics. Petitions, literature, and occasional public demonstrations voiced public demands for the rights of nationalities within the human rights context. By the end of the 1970s, however, massive and concerted efforts by the KGB had largely suppressed the national dissent movement. Nevertheless, Brezhnev had learned his lesson. Proposals to dismantle the federative system were abandoned, and a policy of further drawing of nationalities together was pursued. Soviet officials closely identified religion with nationality. The implementation of policy toward a particular religion, therefore, has generally depended on the regime's perception of the bond between that religion and the nationality practicing it, the size of the religious community, the degree of allegiance of the religion to outside authority, and the nationality's willingness to subordinate itself to political authority. Thus the smaller the religious community and the closer it identified with a particular nationality, the more restrictive were the regime's policies, especially if in addition it recognized a foreign religious authority such as the pope.


As for the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet authorities sought to control it and, in times of national crisis, to exploit it for the regime's own purposes; but their ultimate goal was to eliminate it. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests. Many others were imprisoned or exiled. Believers were harassed and persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and publication of most religious material was prohibited. By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I.

Such crackdowns occurred in the context of many people's dissatisfaction with the Church in pre-revolutionary Russia. The close tie of the Church and the state led to the perception of the Church as corrupt and greedy by many members of intelligentsia. Many peasants, while highly religious, also did not view the institution of the church favorably. The respect for religion did not extend to the local priests. The Church owned a significant portion of Russia's land which was a point of contention (land ownership was a big factor in the Russian Revolution of 1917).

The Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 forced Stalin to enlist the Russian Orthodox Church as an ally to arouse Russian patriotism against foreign aggression. Religious life revived within the Russian Orthodox Church. Thousands of churches were reopened and multiplied to 22,000 before Khrushchev came to power. The regime permitted religious publications, and church membership grew.

The regime's policy of cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church was reversed by Khrushchev. Although the church remained officially sanctioned, in 1959 Khrushchev launched an antireligions campaign that was continued in a less stringent manner by his successor. By 1975 the number of operating Russian Orthodox churches was reduced to 7,000. Some of the most prominent members of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and activists were jailed or forced to leave the church. Their place was taken by a docile clergy who were obedient to the state and who were sometimes infiltrated by KGB agents, making the Russian Orthodox Church useful to the regime. The church has espoused and propagated Soviet foreign policy and has furthered the Russification of non-Russian believers, such as Orthodox Ukrainians and Belarusians.

The regime applied a different policy toward the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Viewed by the government as very nationalistic, both churches were suppressed, first at the end of the 1920s and again in 1944 after they had renewed themselves under German occupation. The leadership of both churches was decimated; large numbers of priests were shot or sent to labor camps, and the believers of these two churches were harassed and persecuted.

The policy toward the Georgian Orthodox Church was somewhat different. That church fared far worse than the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet regime. During World War II, however, the Georgian Orthodox Church was allowed greater autonomy in running its affairs in return for the church's call to its members to support the war effort. The church did not, however, achieve the kind of accommodation with the authorities that the Russian Orthodox Church had. The government reimposed tight control over it after the war. Out of some 2,100 churches in 1917, only 200 were still open in the 1980s, and the church was forbidden to serve its faithful outside the Georgian Republic. In many cases, the regime forced the church to conduct services in Old Church Slavonic instead of in the Georgian language.

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Soviet government's policies toward the Catholic Church were strongly influenced by Soviet Catholics' recognition of an outside authority as head of their church. As the result of the Second World War millions of Catholics (including Greco-Catholics) obtained Soviet citizenship and new repressions were applied. Also, in the three republics where most of the Catholics lived, the Lithuanian SSR, Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR, Catholicism and nationalism were closely linked. Although the Roman Catholic Church in the Lithuanian Republic was tolerated, large numbers of the clergy were imprisoned, many seminaries were closed, and police agents infiltrated the remainder. The anti-Catholic campaign in the Lithuanian Republic abated after Stalin's death, but harsh measures against the church were resumed in 1957 and continued through the Brezhnev era. Fact|date=March 2008

Soviet religious policy was particularly harsh toward the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Ukrainian Greek-Catholics fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when western Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Although the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was permitted to function, it was almost immediately subjected to intense harassment.Fact|date=March 2008 Retreating before the German army in 1941, Soviet authorities arrested large numbers of Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, who were either killed or deported to Siberia [ The Ukrainian Greek Catholics: A Historical Survey, RISU] ] . After the Red Army liberated western Ukraine in 1944, the Soviet regime liquidated the Ukrainian Greko-Catholic Church by arresting its metropolitan, all of its bishops, hundreds of clergy, and the more active faithful, killing some and sending the rest to labor camps. At the same time, Soviet authorities forced the remaining clergy to abrogate the union with Rome and subordinate themselves to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Prior to World War II, the number of Protestants in the Soviet Union was low in comparison with other believers, but they have shown remarkable growth since then. In 1944 the Soviet government established the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists (present Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Russia) to give the government some control over the various Protestant sects. Many congregations refused to join this body, however, and others that initially joined the council subsequently left. All found that the state, through the council, was interfering in church life.


The regime's policy toward the Islamic religion was affected, on the one hand, by the large Muslim population, its close ties to national cultures, and its tendency to accept Soviet authority and, on the other hand, by its susceptibility to foreign influence. Since the early 1920s, the Soviet regime, fearful of a pan-Islamic movement, sought to divide Soviet Muslims into smaller, separate entities. This separation was accomplished by creating six separate Muslim republics and by fostering the development of a separate culture and language in each of them. Although actively encouraging atheism, Soviet authorities permitted some limited religious activity in all the Muslim republics, under the auspices of the regional branches of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims the USSR. Mosques functioned in most large cities of the Central Asian republics and the Azerbaijan Republic; however, their number had decreased from 25,000 in 1917 to 500 in the 1970s. In 1989, as part of the general relaxation of restrictions on religions, some additional Muslim religious associations were registered, and some of the mosques that had been closed by the government were returned to Muslim communities. The government also announced plans to permit training of limited numbers of Muslim religious leaders in courses of two- and five-year duration in Ufa and Baku, respectively.


Although Lenin found anti-Semitism abhorrent, the regime was hostile toward Judaism from the beginning. In 1919 Soviet authorities abolished Jewish community councils, which were traditionally responsible for maintaining synagogues. They created a special Jewish section of the party, whose tasks included propaganda against Jewish clergy and religion. To offset Jewish national and religious aspirations, an alternative to the Land of Israel was established in 1928.

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast with the center in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East was to become a "Soviet Zion". Yiddish, rather than "reactionary" Hebrew, would be the national language, and proletarian socialist literature and arts would replace Judaism as the quintessence of culture. Despite a massive domestic and international state propaganda campaign, the Jewish population there never reached 30% (as of 2003 it was only about 1.2%). The experiment ground to a halt in the mid-1930s, during Stalin's first campaign of purges. Jewish leaders were arrested and executed, and Yiddish schools were shut down. Further persections and purges followed.

Training of rabbis became impossible, and until the late 1980s only one Yiddish periodical was published. Hebrew, because of its identification with Zionism, was taught only in schools for diplomats. Most of the 5,000 synagogues functioning prior to the Bolshevik Revolution were closed under Stalin, and others were closed under Khrushchev. For all intents and purposes, the practice of Judaism became impossible, intensifying the desire of Jews to leave the Soviet Union.

See also

* Ivolginsky datsan
* Society of the Godless
* Culture of the Soviet Union
* Demographics of the Soviet Union
* Religion in Russia
* Religion in China


*loc - [ Soviet Union]

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