Orthodox Church in the USSR

To distract myself a little, I want to tell you about the history of the Orthodox Church in the USSR which explains why, after converting at age 8, I didn’t become baptized until 2018.

Stalin was anti-church until 1941. Not as much as Lenin, who was completely rabid, but still a lot. But when Nazis invaded, Stalin decided to use everything possible to motivate people to fight. For instance, he permitted a small amount of nationalism in the republics, especially in Ukraine because it was particularly heavily hit. He also decided to permit a small dose of religion.

Stalin called in the Patriarch and proposed a deal. Some of the church buildings would be allowed to hold services. They’d not be molested. Even a few small processions with crosses would be allowed. In return, the priests would break the seal of confession and inform on their parishioners. Lists of parishioners would be handed over to the KGB because anybody who wanted to visit a church was by default suspicious.

Many brave priests refused. They were murdered, persecuted, sent to the camps, tortured in madhouses. Some managed to worship and hold services in secret. But the official church was comprised solely of KGB informants.

I had an opportunity to observe how it all worked with my own eyes. One of my closest school friends was from a practicing Orthodox family. Obviously, this was a closely held secret. She never told me or anyone else.

One day, the literature teacher drags this poor kid in front of the classroom and proceeds to mock and humiliate her. Turns out the teacher’s dad was a KGB officer who curated the church. He was informed that not only did my friend’s parents go to the services, they even – oh, horror – had their kids sing in the choir.

The literature teacher really went to town on my friend. This was a tiny, scrawny kid in ill-fitting clothes. Underfed and terrified. (They were religious, so had many kids and not enough food.) We were all terrified and confused. We had no idea why the teacher was screaming or what was so bad about singing in the choir. We all sang in the school choir, and it was incomprehensible why the teacher would get so mad.

After the USSR fell apart, everybody expected the KGB church to go away or at least do penance for these crimes. We expected that the heroic catacomb priests would be allowed to take the place of the KGB priests and cleanse the church of this garbage.

This never happened. The KGB priests remained fully in control. It’s so bad that they rent out the banquet hall at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for oligarch orgies. Their main source of income is tobacco sales. You just can’t make it up.

The priest who baptized me here in Illinois is a convert to Orthodoxy. He told me about how he went to the seminary in Russia to get trained, and he was horrified. Had to move to a Bulgarian diocese because, while not perfect, it was better than any heir to the Soviet church.

Of course, seeing all of this put me off the idea of church attendance for a very long time.

26 thoughts on “Orthodox Church in the USSR

  1. All, true, unfortunately… “Jesus wept.”

    (I’m sure you didn’t miss my earlier crack about Patriarch Breguet.)

    I remember being schooled in this by a foreign Orthodox bishop resident in Moscow during the dark decades of the Cold War when I had the opportunity to share dinner with him there two decades ago.

    He recounted in hushed, saddened tones how he had performed many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of secret baptisms of children of Russian believers afraid to have open dealings with any local Russian clergy.

    But, as he explained, there’s also more to the story.

    All through the dark years Soviet repression, there were many lower-level Russian clergy along with faithful worshipers who were true to the Orthodox faith. These folks had began to come out into the open in the 1990s and rebuild with their own sweat and treasure local churches that had been used as warehouses (or whatever) during the Soviet decades.

    I would like to think that the priests and deacons who signed the anti-war appeal that I reproduced here yesterday are the spiritual inheritors of this tradition.

    Their appeal is not just sentimental ‘war is bad, let’s have peace’ pablum. They actually threaten that those Russian officials who “give murderous orders” may suffer “eternal torment” for their actions and compare these officials to Cain. I don’t think they’re phonies, I fear that they may suffer greatly for their courage and I pray that they won’t. I wish I could be certain that I would do the same in similar circumstances but…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You know about Father Alexander Men, right? A heroic person. And yes, absolutely, there were such amazing, wonderful people who even in the darkest times did what they could. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us weren’t allowed to know they existed. Also, all true about the people who rebuilt churches in small villages in the 1990s.

      I swear to God, I didn’t get the joke about Patriarch Breguet on the first try. I’m not getting any sleep, so I’m completely out of it. But now I get it. I’m not hopeless.

      Thank you for your comments. They are always deeply appreciated.


      1. “I didn’t get the joke about Patriarch Breguet on the first try”

        Unfortunately, it’s no joke – or if its a joke, it’s a very, very, very bitter one.

        Fr. Men – why hasn’t he been declared a saint by the ROC (wait, wait, I know the answer to that one…)

        You know we pray in the liturgy that our hierarchs are “rightly dividing the word of Thy truth.”

        I’ve always taken this to mean that it can’t be taken for granted that they are. Clearly, much more fervent prayer needs to be applied in the cases of the Breguet’s of this world.

        Thank you for allowing me the favour of posting on your blog. We can’t always see eye to eye but that’s as it should be in life. I can see what stress you have been under because of this war – perhaps many deep breaths and look for points of light in the darkness? (I thought the Russian priests and deacons “appeal” was a definite point of light here.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Heh. My son’s patron saint is Kirill of Kazan, who may have been the last guy elected patriarch of the Russian church before the hierarchy became subservient to the communists. I don’t think he was ever officially installed. Executed by firing squad after he refused to sell out to the new government. I think of him, like Constantine XI, as sort of a patron of lost causes and honorable death.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Executed by firing squad after he refused to sell out to the new government.”

      According Russian archival research in the 1990s, some 200,000 Orthodox priests were murdered/tortured to death by the CPSU, 85,000 in 1937 alone.

      This is the terrifyingly brutal context of the historical sketch Clarissa presents above.

      Putin’s regime has lived in denial of the actual history of Soviet Russia and fairly recently shut down one of the principal NGO’s that sought to preserve the grim historical record claiming that it “was creating ‘a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state’ and was seeking to rehabilitate ‘Nazi criminals.'”


      Lord have mercy!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The closure of Memorial was a terrible loss. They were doing great work.

        How much was taken from us historically. How much was destroyed. The best people slaughtered.


    1. I’m ethnically Jewish on my father’s side and Ukrainian on my mother’s. We haven’t practiced Judaism in over 100 years. My father was a crypto-Christian during the USSR but didn’t get actually baptized until 2007.

      It’s ethnic origin vs faith.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. “That’s all so terrible.”

      Not to put words in your mouth, but given that we’re talking about the mass murder of priests here, I’d suggest “demonic” in place of “terrible.”

      It’s outrages like this – and we could find many more in the 20th century with even greater numbers of innocent victims – that make me strongly believe there’s an actual Satan accompanied by legions of evil spirits at work in the world.

      One of the neat things about Orthodoxy that fits well with the way I see the world is that it personifies evil.

      For example, a translation of the Lord’s prayer that ends in “deliver us from The Evil One” rather than the more abstract “deliver us from evil” is commonly employed among the Orthodox.

      Another example, candidates for Orthodox baptism must go further than promising to be good, or love God, etc. they must renounce Satan three times using this formula “Dost thou renounce Satan, and all his angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride.”


      Liked by 2 people

      1. I pray in Russian because it’s what I’m used to, and in Russian we do say “the evil one.” I never thought about it before but it’s definitely a different meaning of how it’s often said in English.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “it’s definitely a different meaning of how it’s often said in English”

          Absolutely different.

          “Deliver us from evil” obscures the source of evil constructing it as a sort of randomized “abstract principal or force” along the lines of the cliched “bad things happen to good people.”

          “Deliver us from the Evil One” is more consistent with the overall direction of Christian theology which teaches that there is full intentionality and direction to manifestations of evil that we see in the world.

          It seems that a 4th century latin mistranslation of this phrase in the Greek original New Testament was responsible for introducing the “deliver us from evil” error. And, this error was later reproduced in Orthodoxy in modern English translations of liturgical materials.


          Liked by 1 person

          1. “Deliver us from the Evil One”

            I’m not a Christian (but might be described as kind of a cultural Protestant…)

            Given what comes before…

            “lead us not into temptation,
            but deliver us from evil”

            I always interpreted the evil not as some free floating entity but rather internal, deliver us from the potential for evil within ourselves….


            1. “cultural protestant… the potential for evil within ourselves…”

              Interesting point of view.

              I’m no theologian but, crudely, the western and eastern traditions in Christianity have a different interpretation of the fall. Crudely, the western tradition emphasizes an inbuilt inclination towards sin while the eastern church emphasizes the general goodness of humankind and free will in choosing between good and evil.


              And so it follows that evil in Orthodoxy is understood to be intentional and externally active/prompted – as in “the Evil One” that we pray we will be delivered from.


  3. Metropolitan of the Georgian Church: Any Patriarch or Bishop who supports Russia’s actions has nothing to do with Orthodoxy (March 23, 2022)

    “Any Patriarch or Bishop who supports Russia’s actions is a heretic and has nothing to do with Orthodoxy,” said Metropolitan Ioseb of the Patriarchate of Georgia.

    Metropolitan Ioseb of Shemokmedi, a member of the Holy Synod of the Church of Georgia, referred to the tragic consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine in his sermon last Sunday.

    “Some, including the clergy, honestly I am ashamed of them, come out and say that Ukraine is being punished because it was a sinful country and that Russia is not being punished because it is not sinful… How can a clergyman justify the killing of children?!

    How can a clergyman justify the death of another man?! They talk about “Holy Russia”… is Russia, that invaded Ukraine, Holy?! We see that cities are being razed to the ground. Are these Holy things?! These are false prophecies.

    Some of you know what they say, why Ukraine was attacked?! The Ukrainian state was very sinful and Russia came to fulfill God’s will that Ukrainians should no longer live in sin. Isn’t that a cult?

    Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but how can I not say it: If the Patriarch and the Bishops support this, they are really heretics and have nothing to do with Orthodoxy,” said Metropolitan Ioseb, as reported by “Ecclesiastical News of Georgia”.

    Elsewhere in the sermon, Metropolitan Ioseb stressed that no one on earth has the right to judge others.

    Condemning the actions of the Russians as an “Inquisition”, he added that the statements of Patriarch Kirill of Russia are unacceptable, who stressed that Ukraine is being punished for gay pride parades.

    “Once the Roman Catholics performed the “inquisitions”, burning the people in the fire, and in order to justify their actions, they argued that with this fire and the suffering they receive, they are sanctified. Do you understand what they were saying?! That’s what serious heresy means.

    The Russians are doing the same thing in Ukraine. What right do we have to kill sinful people? We Orthodox Christians have no right to kill people.

    On the contrary, we must sacrifice ourselves for others, regardless of whether the other is a Roman Catholic, an unbeliever, an atheist, or anyone, first and foremost he is a human being. If we do this, rest assured that we will sacrifice ourselves for Christ,” said Metropolitan Ioseb of Shemokmedi.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Russian Orthodox support of war ‘heresy’ (March 24, 2022)

    The Orthodox world, including nearly 40 Canadian Orthodox scholars and clergy, has risen up to condemn the Russian Orthodox Church for giving moral and spiritual support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    The Volos Academy in Greece, one of the world’s most influential centres of Orthodox theology, has issued a declaration calling the “Russian World” or “Russkii Mir” teaching of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill a “heresy.” Over 500 clergy, theologians and scholars have signed the declaration so far.

    “We reject the ‘Russian World’ heresy and the shameful actions of the Government of Russia in unleashing war against Ukraine which flows from this vile and indefensible teaching with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church, as profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian and against humanity, which is called to be justified… illumined… and washed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” reads the March 13 statement.

    Richard Schneider, Canadian historian of Orthodoxy and founder of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto, calls the Russian Orthodox teaching “practically racist.” Orthodox Archpriest Geoffrey Ready, current director of the Trinity College Orthodox School of Theology, calls it a “cancer,” while Concordia University Orthodox scholar Lucian Turcescu draws direct parallels between Russian Orthodox encouragement of war in Ukraine and Naziism before and during the Second World War.

    “The declaration I signed is of the magnitude of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 and Pope Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge,” Turcescu told The Catholic Register. Mit Brennender Sorge was a papal encyclical issued in German in 1937 condemning National Socialism.

    The war in Ukraine confirms a schism that has been brewing in Orthodoxy since the Russian Orthodox Church engineered a partial boycott of a pan-Orthodox synod in Crete in 2016. The split between the Moscow Patriarchate and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople is entirely on the Moscow side, Ready said.

    It’s the Russian Orthodox Church which has provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with ideological justification for invading Ukraine, he said.

    “He (Putin) just borrowed an ideology from the Church, gladly,” Ready explained. “This guy was a Soviet apparatchik in search of an identity and an ideology. And the Church handed it to him. That’s what is so disturbing for the Orthodox.”

    At the beginning of Lent, Kirill used a sermon to justify the war as a spiritual struggle.

    “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” he said on March 6.

    Churches of the Moscow Patriarchate outside of Russia are beginning to jump ship, beginning with the Moscow Patriarchate Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Onufry in Kyiv has condemned the war as “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” The Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam has announced it has split off from Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church in Lithuania is seeking independence and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Georgia has condemned the war.

    Canadian Russian Orthodox Archpriest Sergei Rassazovsky doesn’t want to talk about it. A call from The Catholic Register was most unwelcome and Rasskazovsky refused to answer any questions.

    “We pray, much pray, on our knees,” he said. “In a political sense, I’m not ready to tell you things, OK?”

    The theological heart of the complaint against Moscow is the accusation that Kirill and his bishops have engaged in “ethno-phyletism,” a heresy condemned by all Orthodox churches at the 1872 Council of Constantinople. Though Orthodox churches have been largely organized along ethnic lines, this merging of Christian identity with a particular language and culture easily becomes heretical, said Ready.

    “It is a problem wherever you confuse nation, language, culture with the Church, which we know is supposed to be neither Jew nor Greek,” he said.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. As bombs fall on Ukrainian churches, the Metropolitan of Murmansk says this is a war against Antichrist (March 25)

    Metropolitan Mitrofan is the highest ranked clergy man in the Kola Peninsula and a powerful prelate in Russian Orthodox church hierarchy. Before he entered a theological institute in 1999, he had worked for two decades in the Northern Fleet. He served as captain of several major naval vessels and even graduated from the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg.

    He is well known as a hardliner and close associate of Patriarch Kirill…

    For Mitrofan, the war against Ukraine is fully legitimate and even a necessity.

    On the 23rd of March, the metropolitan with increasing desperation lashed out against the neighbouring nation, that he describes as “a people that has lost its heart to the Prince of Darkness.”

    According to Mitrofan, it all started in 2014, when Ukrainians were “jumping around like monkeys at [central square] Maidan.”

    “Normal people simply do not behave this way, it is not human. Chimpanzees love to jump around, but not people. It was bitter to observe, and it was orchestrated by devils. It was simply shameful, like it can be shameful to see a relative behave badly. It was sinful.”

    The Russians have a big job to do, the metropolitan argues.

    “We now see how hard it will be to heal the country, how hard it will be de-nazificate the country, remove the infection, the fascism that now holds everyone in fear as hostages, and nobody dares to open their mouth for fear, because they will all be killed, tortured, and people are disappearing, mass graves are discovered by our advancing forces.”

    According to Mitrofan, “this kind of atrocities were not even seen in Germany during the fascists.”

    The mission will be accomplished and the Ukrainians succumb, he underlines. It is a Russian sacred mission, he argues.

    “Again the Russian people is coming to help, again we do what is needed, and our men are dying. But the mission will be accomplished because if not, it will be the end of everything, and the Dark Prince will reign.”

    “Russia is the last barrier, you and I are the last ones to oppose Antichrist […] We are the last ones that can fulfill this historical mission that has fallen on our shoulders; to die for truth, for justice, for faith.”



      1. If there was going to be any kind of a return of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, autocephaly was crucial. There wasn’t an overnight transformation but I did see some signs of religious feeling awakening after the thomos.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Three observations:

      1) These ravings of the Murmansk Metropolitan confirm Clarissa’s original post, namely, “We expected that the heroic catacomb priests would be allowed to take the place of the KGB priests and cleanse the church of this garbage. This never happened. The KGB priests remained fully in control.”

      I would really like to believe that this extreme level of demonic cra cra is largely confined to the ROC hierarchs and that at the lower levels of the Church there are significant numbers of faithful clergy and parishioners in Russia – but how can I know that one way or the other? Frankly, reading this garbage makes me somewhat more sympathetic to evangelical protestant missionaries who travel to Russia to convert the heathen locals.

      2) “it was orchestrated by devils…” A perfect, perfect, perfect example of accusing others of the very thing that you yourself are guilty.

      3) “It was simply shameful, like it can be shameful to see a relative behave badly. It was sinful.” See point 2 above. The Ukrainian government is claiming that 2 religious sites per day have been seriously damaged by the Russian invasion.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is painful to watch. It’s a complete decomposition of religious sentiment. This is the legacy of the 70 years of the Soviet perversion and devastation of the church.


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