Written by Vladimir Moss



     The second major decision of the Moscow Council of 1917-18 after the restoration of the patriarchate was its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Soviet power. In fact, it was as if the Church emerged out of a deep sleep to take up arms with unexpected vigour. Thus already on the day after the coup, when Lenin nationalized all land, making the Church’s and parish priests’ property illegal, the Council addressed a letter to the faithful on November 11, calling the revolution “descended from the Antichrist and possessed by atheism”: “Open combat is fought against the Christian Faith, in opposition to all that is sacred, arrogantly abasing all that bears the name of God (II Thessalonians 2.4)… But no earthly kingdom founded on ungodliness can ever survive: it will perish from internal strife and party dissension. Thus, because of its frenzy of atheism, the State of Russia will fall… For those who use the sole foundation of their power in the coercion of the whole people by one class, no motherland or holy place exists. They have become traitors to the motherland and instigated an appalling betrayal of Russia and her true allies. But, to our grief, as yet no government has arisen which is sufficiently one with the people to deserve the blessing of the Orthodox Church. And such will not appear on Russian soil until we turn with agonizing prayer and tears of repentance to Him, without Whom we labour in vain to lay foundations…”[1]

     This recognition of the real nature of the revolution came none too early. On November 15, a Tver peasant, Michael Yefimovich Nikonov, wrote to the Council: “We think that the Most Holy Synod made an irreparable mistake when the bishops went to meet the revolution. We do not know the reasons for this. Was it for fear of the Jews? In accordance with the prompting of their heart, or for some laudable reasons? Whatever the reason, their act produced a great temptation in the believers, and not only in the Orthodox, but even among the Old Ritualists. Forgive me for touching on this question – it is not our business to judge that: this is a matter for the Council, I am only placing on view the judgement of the people. People are saying that by this act of the Synod many right-thinking people were led into error, and also many among the clergy. We could hardly believe our ears at what we heard at parish and deanery meetings. Spiritual fathers, tempted by the deception of freedom and equality, demanded that hierarchs they dislike be removed together with their sees, and that they should elect those whom they wanted. Readers demanded the same equality, so as not to be subject to their superiors. That is the absurdity we arrived at when we emphasized the satanic idea of the revolution. The Orthodox Russian people is convinced that the Most Holy Council in the interests of our holy mother, the Church, the Fatherland and Batyushka Tsar, should give over to anathema and curse all self-called persons and all traitors who trampled on their oath together with the satanic idea of the revolution. And the Most Holy Council will show to its flock who will take over the helm of administration in the great State. We suppose it must be he who is in prison [the Tsar], but if he does not want to rule over us traitors,… then let it indicate who is to accept the government of the State; that is only common sense. The act of Sacred Coronation and Anointing with holy oil of our tsars in the Dormition Cathedral [of the Moscow Kremlin] was no simple comedy. It was they who received from God the authority to rule the people, giving account to Him alone, and by no means a constitution or some kind of parliament of not quite decent people capable only of revolutionary arts and possessed by the love of power… Everything that I have written here is not my personal composition alone, but the voice of the Russian Orthodox people, the 100-million-strong village Russia in which I live.”[2]

     Many people were indeed disturbed by such questions as: had the Church betrayed the Tsar in March 1917? Were Christians guilty of breaking their oath to the Tsar by accepting the Provisional Government? Should the Church formally absolve the people of their oath to the Tsar? What about the oath of allegiance that the Russian people had made to the Romanov dynasty in 1613? Had the people fallen under the anathema-curse of the 1613 Council against all those who broke that allegiance?

     The leadership of the Council passed consideration of these questions, together with Nikonov’s letter, to a subsection entitled “On Church Discipline”. This subsection had several meetings in the course of the next nine months, but came to no definite decisions…[3]

     The Council’s decree of December 2, “On the Legal Status of the Russian Orthodox Church”, ruled, on the one hand, that the State could issue no law relating to the Church without prior consultation with and approval by her, and on the other hand, that any decree and by-laws issued by the Orthodox Church that did not directly contradict state laws were to be systematically recognized by the State as legally binding. Church holidays were to remain state holidays, blasphemy and attempts to lure members of the Church away from her were to remain illegal, and schools of all levels organized and run by the Church were to be recognised by the State on a par with the secular schools. It is clear from this decree that the Church was determined to go Her own way in complete defiance of the so-called “authorities”.

     On December 11 Lenin decreed that all Church schools be transferred to the Council of People’s Commissars. As a result, the Church was deprived of all its academies, seminaries, schools and all the property linked with them. Then, on December 18, ecclesiastical marriage was deprived of its legal status and civil marriage introduced in its place. The Church responded by declaring that civil marriages were sinful for Orthodox Christians…

     As if to test the decree “On the Legal Status of the Russian Orthodox Church”, on January 13, Alexandra Kollontai, the People’s Commissar of Social Welfare (and Lenin’s mistress), sent a detachment of sailors to occupy the Alexander Nevsky monastery and turn it into a sanctuary for war invalids. They were met by an angry crowd of worshippers and in the struggle which followed one priest, Fr. Peter Skipetrov, was shot dead.[4]

     According to Orlando Figes, Lenin was not yet ready for a confrontation with the Church, but Kollontai’s actions forced his hand.[5]On January 20 a law on freedom of conscience, later named the “Decree on the Separation of the Church from the State and of the School from the Church”, was passed (it was published three days later in Izvestia). This was the Bolsheviks’ fiercest attack yet on the Church. It forbade religious bodies from owning property (all property of religious organizations was declared to be the heritage of the people), from levying dues, from organizing into hierarchical organizations, and from teaching religion to persons under 18 years of age. Ecclesiastical and religious societies did not have the rights of a juridical person. The registering of marriages was to be done exclusively by the civil authorities. Thus, far from being a blow struck for freedom of conscience, it was, as the Council put it, a decree on freedom from conscience, and an excuse for large-scale pillaging of churches and murders, often in the most bestial manner.[6]

     Fr. Alexander Mazyrin points out that this decree in effect deprived the Church of its rights as a legal person. “This meant that de jure the Church ceased to exist as a single organization. Only local religious communities could exist in legal terms, the authorities signing with them agreements on the use of Church property. The Eighth Department of the People’s Commissariat of Justice, which was due to put into practice Lenin’s decree, was officially dubbed the ‘Liquidation’ Department. It was the elimination of the Church, not its legalization as a social institution, that was the aim pursued by the ‘people’s commissars’ government.”[7]

     “The ending of financial subventions,” writes S.A. Smith, “hit the central and diocesan administrations hard, but made little difference to parish clergy, who depended on parishioners for financial support. During the land redistribution even the pious took an active part in seizing church lands, but villagers provided local priests with an allotment of land and some financial support. The Bolshevik leadership was largely content to leave ecclesiastical institutions and the network of parish churches intact. The major exceptions were the monasteries. By late 1920, 673 monasteires in the RSFSR had been dissolved and their 1.2 million hectares of land confiscated.”[8]

     According to other sources, more than one thousand monasteries were “nationalized”...

     On January 19 / February 1, Patriarch Tikhon, anticipating the decree on the Separation of Church and State, and even before the Council had reconvened[9], issued his famous anathema against the Bolsheviks: “By the power given to Us by God, we forbid you to approach the Mysteries of Christ, we anathematize you, if only you bear Christian names and although by birth you belong to the Orthodox Church. We also adjure all of you, faithful children of the Orthodox Church of Christ, not to enter into any communion with such outcasts (izgoiami) of the human race: ‘Remove the evil one from among you’ (I Corinthians 5.13).” The decree ended with an appeal to defend the Church, if necessary, to the death. For “the gates of hell shall not prevail against Her” (Matthew 16.18). This anathema against the collective Antichrist was appropriately recorded as Act 66.6…[10]

     The significance of this anathema lies not so much in the casting out of the Bolsheviks themselves, as in the command to the faithful to have no communion with them. In other words, the government were to be regarded, not only as apostates from Christ (that was obvious), but also as having no moral authority, no claim to obedience whatsoever – an attitude taken by the Church to no other government in the whole of Her history.[11] Coming so soon after the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, it indicated that now that constitutionalism had proved its uselessness in the face of demonic barbarism, it was time for the Church to enter the struggle in earnest…[12]

     It has been argued that the Patriarch’s decree did not anathematize Soviet power as such, but only those who were committing acts of violence and sacrilege against the Church. However, this argument fails to take into account several facts. First, the patriarch himself, in his declarations of June 16 and July 1, 1923, repented precisely of his “anathematization of Soviet power”.[13] Secondly, even if the decree did not formally anathematize Soviet power as such, since Soviet power sanctioned and initiated the acts of violence, the faithful were in effect being exhorted to having nothing to do with it. And thirdly, in his Epistle to the Council of People’s Commissars on the first anniversary of the revolution, November 7, 1918, the Patriarch obliquely but clearly confirmed his non-recognition of Soviet power, saying: “It is not our business to make judgments about earthly authorities. Every power allowed by God would attract to itself Our blessing if it were truly ‘the servant of God’, for the good of those subject to it, and were ‘terrible not for good works, but for evil’ (Romans 13.3,4). But now to you, who have used authority for the persecution of the innocent, We extend this Our word of exhortation… “[14]

     It was important that the true significance of the anathema for the Church’s relationship with the State be pointed out. This was done immediately after the proclamation of the anathema, when Count D.A. Olsufyev pointed out that at the moleben they had just sung ‘many years’ to the powers that be – that is, to the Bolsheviks whom they had just anathematized! “I understand that the Apostle called for obedience to all authorities – but hardly that ‘many years’ should be sung to them. I know that his ‘most pious and most autocratic’ [majesty] was replaced by ‘the right-believing Provisional Government’ of Kerensky and company… And I think that the time for unworthy compromises has passed.”[15]

     On January 22 / February 4 the Patriarch’s anathema was discussed in a session of the Council presided over by Metropolitan Arsenius of Novgorod, and the following resolution was accepted: “The Sacred Council of the Orthodox Russian Church welcomes with love the epistle of his Holiness Patriarch Tikhon, which punishes the evil-doers and rebukes the enemies of the Church of Christ. From the height of the patriarchal throne there has thundered the word of excommunication [preshchenia] and a spiritual sword has been raised against those who continually mock the faith and conscience of the people. The Sacred Council witnesses that it remains in the fullest union with the father and intercessor of the Russian Church, pays heed to his appeal and is ready in a sacrificial spirit to confess the Faith of Christ against her blasphemers. The Sacred Council calls on the whole of the Russian Church headed by her archpastors and pastors to unite now around the Patriarch, so as not to allow the mocking of our holy faith.” (Act 67.35-37).[16]

     Another source quotes the following response of the Council to the patriarch’s anathema: “The Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in his epistle to the beloved in the Lord archpastors, pastors and all faithful children of the Orthodox Church of Christ has drawn the spiritual sword against the outcasts of the human race – the Bolsheviks, and anathematized them. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church adjures all her faithful children not to enter into any communion with these outcasts. For their satanic deeds they are cursed in this life and in the life to come. Orthodox! His Holiness the Patriarch has been given the right to bind and to loose according to the word of the Saviour… Do not destroy your souls, cease communion with the servants of Satan – the Bolsheviks. Parents, if your children are Bolsheviks, demand authoritatively that they renounce their errors, that they bring forth repentance for their eternal sin, and if they do not obey you, renounce them. Wives, if your husbands are Bolsheviks and stubbornly continue to serve Satan, leave your husbands, save yourselves and your children from the soul-destroying infection. An Orthodox Christian cannot have communion with the servants of the devil… Repent, and with burning prayer call for help from the Lord of Hosts and thrust away from yourselves ‘the hand of strangers’ – the age-old enemies of the Christian faith, who have declared themselves in self-appointed fashion ‘the people’s power’… If you do not obey the Church, you will not be her sons, but participants in the cruel and satanic deeds wrought by the open and secret enemies of Christian truth… Dare! Do not delay! Do not destroy your soul and hand it over to the devil and his stooges.”[17]

     One member of the Council said: “If the father, mother, brothers and sisters did not receive the returning evil-doer, but expelled him, saying: ‘You are a scoundrel, your hands are covered in blood, you are not our son, nor our brother,’ the disorders would cease.”[18] 

     During the same session A.A. Vasiliev said: “We thank the Lord for giving us what we have been waiting for – that is, finally to hear the true Church voice of our Most Holy Father and Patriarch. For the first time in this year of disorder, a truly ecclesiastical word, a word spoken with regard to the events about which nothing has been said up to now. And a pastoral judgement delivered on all those who are guilty of these events… Our Christian conscience must suggest to each of us what concessions he can and cannot make, and when he must lay down his life for the truth. People are puzzled about precisely who is subject to this ban that his Holiness the Patriarch speaks about in his epistle. After all, it is not just since yesterday, and not since the coming of the Bolsheviks, that we have been experiencing a real satanic attack on the Church of Christ, these fratricides, fights and mutual hatred. At the very beginning of the revolution the authorities carried out an act of apostasy from God (voices: “Right!”). Prayer was banned in the armies, banners with the cross of Christ were replaced by red rags. It is not only the present powers that be that are guilty of this, but also those who have already departed from the scene. We shall continue to hope that the present rulers also, who are now shedding blood, will depart from the scene.”[19]

     Then Fr. Vladimir Vostokov spoke: “In this hall too much has been said about the terrible things that have been suffered, and if we were to list and describe them all, this huge hall would be filled with books. So I am not going to speak about the horrors. I want to point to the root from which these horrors have been created. I understand this present assembly of ours as a spiritual council of doctors consulting over our dangerously ill mother, our homeland. When doctors come up to treat a sick person, they do not stop at the latest manifestations of the illness, but they look deeper, they investigate the root cause of the illness. So in the given case it is necessary to reveal the root of the illness that the homeland is suffering. From this platform, before the enlightener of Russia, the holy Prince Vladimir, I witness to my priestly conscience that the Russian people is being deceived, and that up to this time no-one has told them the whole truth. The moment has come when the Council, as the only gathering that is lawful and truly elected by the people must tell the people the holy truth, fearing nobody except God Himself…

     “The derailing of the train of history took place at the end of February, 1917; it was aided first of all by the Jewish-Masonic global organization, which cast into the masses the slogans of socialism, the slogans of a mythical freedom… So much has been said here about the terrors brought upon the country by Bolshevism. But what is Bolshevism? – the natural and logical development of Socialism. And Socialism is – that antichristian movement which in the final analysis produces Bolshevism as its highest development and which engenders those phenomena completely contrary to the principles of Christian asceticism that we are living through now.

     “Unfortunately, many of our professors and writers have arrayed Socialism in beautiful clothes, calling it similar to Christianity, and thereby they together with the agitators of revolution have led the uneducated people into error. Fathers and brothers! What fruits did we expect of Socialism, when we not only did not fight against it, but also defended it at times, or almost always were shyly silent before its contagion? We must serve the Church by faith, and save the country from destructive tendencies, and for that it is necessary to speak the truth to the people without delay, telling them what Socialism consists of and what it leads to.

     “The Council must say that in February-March a violent coup took place which for the Orthodox Christian is oath-breaking and which requires purification through repentance. We all, beginning with Your Holiness and ending with myself, the last member of the Council, must bow the knee before God, and beseech Him to forgive us for allowing the growth in the country of evil teachings and violence. Only after sincere repentance by the whole people will the country be pacified and regenerated. And God will bestow upon us His mercy and grace. But if we continue only to anathematize without repenting, without declaring the truth to the people, then they will with just cause say to us: You, too, are guilty that the country has been reduced to this crime, for which the anathema now sounds out; you by your pusillanimity have allowed the development of evil and have been slow to call the facts and phenomena of state life by their real names!

     “Pastors of the Church, search out the soul of the people! If we do not tell the people the whole truth, if we do not call on them now to offer nationwide repentance for definite sins, we will leave this conciliar chamber as turncoats and traitors of the Church and the Homeland. I am so unshakeably convinced of what I say now that I would not hesitate to repeat it even if I were on the verge of death. It is necessary to regenerate in the minds of people the idea of a pure central authority – the idea that has been darkened by the pan-Russian deception. We overthrew the Tsar and subjected ourselves to the Jews! [Voices of members of the Council: ‘True, true…’] The only salvation for the Russian people is a wise Russian Orthodox Tsar. Only through the election of a wise, Orthodox, Russian Tsar can Russia be placed on the good, historical path and re-establish good order. As long as we will not have a wise Orthodox tsar, there will be no order among us, and the people’s blood will continue to be shed, and the centrifugal forces will divide the one people into hostile pieces, until the train of history is completely destroyed or until foreign peoples enslave us as a crowd incapable of independent State life…

     “We all must unite into one Christian family under the banner of the Holy and Life-Creating Cross and under the leadership of his Holiness the Patriarch, to say that Socialism, which calls people as if to brotherhood, is an openly antichristian and evil phenomenon, that the Russian people has become the plaything of the Jewish-Masonic organizations behind which the Antichrist is already visible in the form of an internationalist tsar, that by playing on false freedom, the people is forging for itself slavery to the Judaeo-Masons. If we say this openly and honestly, then I do not know what will happen to us, but I know that Russia will be alive!”[20] 

     On March 12, 1918 the Council reaffirmed the patriarch’s anathema, proclaiming: “To those who utter blasphemies and lies against our holy faith and Church, who rise up against the holy churches and monasteries, encroaching on the inheritance of the Church, while abusing and killing the priests of the Lord and zealots of the patristic faith: Anathema (Act 94).

     However, in 1918, the rite of the Triumph of Orthodoxy with the anathemas against the atheists, was omitted on the First Sunday in Great Lent. As Valery Shambarov writes: “The Bolsheviks were in power, and such a rite would have constituted an open challenge to on the part of the hierarchs of the Church. Nevertheless, one cannot find any decision on removing the traditional rite of the celebration of the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the materials of the Local Council of 1917-1918.”[21]

     The Bolshevik decree on the separation of Church and State elicited strong reactions from individual members of the Council. Thus one exclaimed: “We overthrew the tsar and subjected ourselves to the Jews!” And another said: “The sole means of salvation for the Russian nation is a wise Orthodox Russian tsar!” In reply to this remark, Protopriest Elijah Gromoglasov said: “Our only hope is not that we may have an earthly tsar or president… but that there should be a heavenly Tsar, Christ”.[22]

     The section of the Council appointed to report on the decree made the following recommendations: “The individuals wielding the governmental authority audaciously attempt to destroy the very existence of the Orthodox Church. In order to realize this satanic design, the Soviet of People’s Commissars published the decree concerning the separation of the Church from the State, which legalized an open persecution not only of the Orthodox Church, but of all other religious communions, Christian or non-Christian. Not despising deceit, the enemies of Christ fraudulently put on the appearance of granting by it religious liberty.

     “Welcoming all real extension of liberty of conscience, the Council at the same time points out that by the provisions of the said decree, the freedom of the Orthodox Church, as well as of all other religious organizations and communions in general, is rendered void. Under the pretence of ‘the separation of the Church from the State’, the Soviet of People’s Commissars attempts to render impossible the very existence of the churches, the ecclesiastical institutions, and the clergy.

     “Under the guise of taking over the ecclesiastical property, the said decree aims to destroy the very possibility of Divine worship and ministration. It declares that ‘no ecclesiastical or religious association has the right to possess property’, and ‘all property of the existing ecclesiastical and religious associations in Russia is declared to be national wealth.’ Thereby the Orthodox churches and monasteries, those resting-places of the relics of the saints revered by all Orthodox people, become the common property of all citizens irrespective of their credal differences – of Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans, and the holy objects designated for the Divine service, i.e. the holy Cross, the holy Gospel, the sacred vessels, the holy miracle-working icons are at the disposal of the governmental authorities, which may either permit or not (as they wish) their use by the parishes.

     “Let the Russian people understand that they (the authorities) wish to deprive them of God’s churches with their sacred objects! As soon as all property of the Church is taken away, it is not possible to offer any aid to it, for in accordance with the intention of the decree everything donated shall be taken away. The support of monasteries, churches and the clergy alike becomes impossible.

     “But that is not all: in consequence of the confiscation of the printing establishments, it is impossible for the Church independently to publish the holy Gospel as well as other sacred and liturgical books in their wonted purity and authenticity.

     “In the same manner, the decree affects the pastors of the Church. Declaring that ‘no one may refuse to perform his civil duties on account of his religious views’, it thereby constrains them to fulfil military obligations forbidden them by the 83rd canon of the holy Apostles. At the same time, ministers of the altar are removed from educating the people. The very teaching of the law of God, not only in governmental, but even in private schools, is not permitted; likewise all theological institutions are doomed to be closed. The Church is thus excluded from the possibility of educating her own pastors.

     “Declaring that ‘the governmental functions or those of other public-juridical institutions shall not be accompanied by any religious rites or ceremonies,’ the decree thereby sacrilegiously sunders all connections of the government with the sanctities of the faith. 

     “On the basis of all these considerations, the holy Council decrees:

     “1. The decree published by the Soviet of People’s Commissars regarding the separation of the Church from the State represents in itself, under the guise of a law declaring liberty of conscience, an inimical attempt upon the life of the Orthodox Church, and is an act of open persecution.

     “2. All participation, either in the publication of the law so injurious to the Church, or in attempts to put it into practice, is not reconcilable with membership of the Orthodox Church, and subjects all transgressors belonging to the Orthodox communion to the heaviest penalties, to the extent of excommunicating them from the Church (in accordance with the 73rd canon of the holy Apostles, and the 13th canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council).”[23]

     These recommendations were then adopted by the Council as its official reply to the decree (February 7).

     Although, as we have said, it was unprecedented for a Local Church to anathematize a government, there have been occasions in the history of the Church when individual hierarchs have not only refused to obey or pray for a political leader, but have actually prayed against him. Thus in the fourth century St. Basil the Great prayed for the defeat of Julian the Apostate, and it was through his prayers that the apostate was killed, as was revealed by God to the holy hermit Julian of Mesopotamia. Neither St. Basil nor his friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, recognised the rule of Julian the Apostate to be legitimate.[24] Moreover, they considered that Gregory’s brother, St. Caesarius, should not remain at the court of Julian, although he thought that, being a doctor, he could help his relatives and friends through his position there.[25] These and other examples show that, while the principle of authority as such is from God (Romans 13.1), individual authorities or rulers are sometimes not from God, but are only allowed to exist by Him, in which case the Church must offer resistance to them out of loyalty to God Himself.[26] 

     As Bishop Gregory (Grabbe), the foremost canonist of the Russian Church Abroad, wrote: “With regard to the question of the commemoration of authorities, we must bear in mind that now we are having dealings not simply with a pagan government like Nero’s, but with the apostasy of the last times. Not with a so far unenlightened authority, but with apostasy. The Holy Fathers did not relate to Julian the Apostate in the same way as they did to the other pagan Emperors. And we cannot relate to the antichristian authorities in the same way as to any other, for its nature is purely satanic.”[27]

     There were some who took the anathema very seriously and fulfilled it to the letter. Thus in 1918, the clairvoyant Elder Nicholas (Parthenov), later Hieromartyr Bishop of Aktar(+1939), “following the anathema contained in the Epistle of his Holiness Patriarch Tikhon, and not wishing to enter into relations with ‘the outcasts of the human race’, went into reclusion…”[28]

     The future Hieromartyr Metropolitan Hermogen of Tobolsk (+1918) presciently said of life under the anathematized Soviet power: “During the time of the antichrist, anyone who obeys the laws of civil society, even if it does not directly clash with faith, will legitimises the domain of the antichrist, because he will submit as a participant of his society and The True Orthodox, in the time of the antichrist, will live in loneliness, away from the world, will not obey any law of civil society, because those who obey and register in society and its standards, even if reluctantly, will be legally registered in the antichrist, and therefore expelled from the heavenly authority and government of God.”

     In general, however, the Church and the People paid no attention to the anathema – which must be counted as perhaps the major reason why the revolution gained strength and survived for generations to come…

     The Council had exhorted the faithful to protect church property, and soon there were reports of people mobbing the officials and soldiers detailed to carry out the decree. Several hundred thousand people marched through Petrograd in protest. As Michael Shkarovskii writes: “Numerous religious processions, some of which were fired upon, took place in the towns; services in defence of the patriarchate were held in public places and petitions were sent to the government. There followed a mass religious upsurge in Russia. From 1918, thousands of new converts, including some prominent intellectuals, joined the now persecuted Orthodox Church. And an ‘All-Russian Union of United Orthodox Parishes’ was also formed.

     “The Sovnarkom had expected its decree to be implemented quickly and relatively painlessly, but this was prevented first and foremost by the opposition of millions of peasants, who supported the expropriation of church and monastic property but were against making births, marriages and deaths a purely civil affair, depriving parishes of their property rights, and dropping divinity from the school curriculum. Peasants thus resisted Bolshevik efforts to break the ‘unshakable traditions’ of ‘a life of faith’ in the Russian countryside. The implementation of the law was also hindered by the lack of suitable officials to carry it out, and by the inconsistence of the local authorities’ understanding of the law.”[29]

     A Barmenkov wrote: “Some school workers began to interpret [Church-School separation] as a transition to secular education, in which both religious and anti-religious propaganda in school would be excluded. They supposed that the school had to remain neutral in relation to religion and the Church. A.V. Lunacharsky and N.K. Krupskaia spoke against this incorrect interpretation…, emphasising that in the Soviet state the concept of the people’s enlightenment had unfailingly to include ‘a striving to cast out of the people’s head religious trash and replace it with the light of science.’”[30]

     In the midst of this chaos, as James Cunningham writes, “the Patriarch was again and again urged to violate his November decision to avoid inciting armed resistance to the Bolsheviks. He was reminded that Patriarch Hermogen had not hesitated, and that traitors and foreigners had been defeated as a result. The Bolshevik Executive Committee watched nervously to see if Tikhon would be another Hermogen. Church leaders cautiously avoided advocating restoring the monarchy…”[31] 

     “On March 14/27,” writes Peter Sokolov, “still hoping that the existence of the Church could be preserved under the communist regime and with the aim of establishing direct relations with the higher state authorities, a Church deputation set out in the name of the Council to the Council of People’s Commissars in Moscow. They wanted to meet Lenin personally, and personally present him with their ideas about the conditions acceptable to the Church for her existence in the state of the new type.” This initiative hardly accorded with the anathema against the Bolsheviks, which forbade the faithful from having any relations with them. It was therefore unsuccessful. “The deputation was not received by Lenin. The commissars (of insurance and justice) that conversed with it did not satisfy its requests. A second address to the authorities in the name of the Council that followed soon after the first unsuccessful audience was also unsuccessful…”[32]


     The Council made two other decisions relating to Soviet power and its institutions. On April 15 it decreed: “Clergymen serving in anti-ecclesiastical institutions, as well as those who put into effect the decrees on freedom of conscience which are inimical to the Church and similar acts, are subject to being banned from serving and, in the case of impenitence, are deprived of their rank.”[33] On the assumption that “anti-ecclesiastical institutions” included all Soviet institutions, this would seem to have been a clearly anti-Soviet measure.

     However, on August 15, 1918, the Council took a step in the opposite direction, declaring invalid all defrockings based on political considerations, applying this particularly to Metropolitan Arsenius (Matsevich) of Rostov and Priest Gregory Petrov. Metropolitan Arsenius had indeed been unjustly defrocked in the reign of Catherine II for his righteous opposition to her anti-Church measures. However, Petrov had been one of the leaders of the Cadet party in the Duma in 1905 and was an enemy of the monarchical order. How could his defrocking be said to have been unjust in view of the fact that the Church had officially prayed for the Orthodox Autocracy, and Petrov had worked directly against the fulfilment of the Church’s prayers?

     The problem was: too many people, including several hierarchs, had welcomed the fall of the Tsarist regime. If the Church was not to divide along political lines, a general amnesty was considered necessary. But if true recovery can only begin with repentance, and repentance must begin with the leaders of the Church, this decree amounted to covering the wound without allowing it to heal. And so, as Bishop Dionysius (Alferov) of Novgorod writes, the Council, in spite of its positive achievements, could be criticized for its “weakening of Church discipline, its legitimization of complete freedom of political orientation and activity, and, besides, its rehabilitation of the Church revolutionaries like Gregory Petrov. By all this it doomed the Russian Church to collapse, presenting to her enemies the best conditions for her cutting up and annihilation piece by piece…”

July 15/28, 2020.

Holy Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

[1] Nicholas Zernov, "The 1917 Council of the Russian Orthodox Church", Religion in Communist Lands, vol. 6, N 1, 1978. On the same day, however, the Council decreed that those killed on both sides in the conflict should be given Christian burials.

[3] M. Babkin, “Pomestnij Sobor 1917-1918 gg.: ‘O Prisiage pravitel’stvu voobsche i byvshemu imperatoru Nikolaius II v chastnosti” (The Local Council of 1917-1918: On the Oath to the Government in general and to the former Emperor Nicholas II in particular),

[4] Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, London: Fontana, 1995, p. 343. 

[5] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 528; Archpriest Michael Polsky, The New Martyrs of Russia, new edition, Wildwood, Alberta: Monastery Press, 2000, pp. 91-92.

[6] New Confessor Professor Ivan Andreyev, "The Catacomb Church in the Soviet Union", Orthodox Life, March-April, 1951. For details of the destruction wrought against the Church in these years, see Vladimir Rusak, Pir Satany (Satan’s Feast), London, Canada: Zarya, 1991.

[7] Mazyrin, “Legalizing the Moscow Patriarchate in 1927: The Secret Aims of the Authorities”, Social Sciences: A Quarterly Journal of the Russian Academy of Sciences, No 1, 2009, p. 28. This article was first published in Russian in Otechestvennaia Istoria (Fatherland History), N 4, 2008.

[8] Smith, Russia in Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 242-243.

[9] “When they asked the holy Patriarch why he had issued his epistle on the eve of the Council’s Sitting, Vladyka replied that he did not want to put the Council under the hammer and preferred to take it on himself alone” (Andreyev, op. cit., p. 9), a characteristic remark of this truly self-sacrificial man of God.

[10] Russian text in M.E. Gubonin, Akty Sviateishego Patriarkha Tikhona (The Acts of His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon), Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, pp. 82-85; Deiania Sviaschennogo Sobora Pravoslavnoj Rossijskoj Tserkvi (The Acts of the Sacred Council of the Russian Orthodox Church), 1917-1918, Moscow, 1918, 1996, vol. 6, pp. 4-5.

[11] In a letter to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) that was captured by the Bolsheviks, the Patriarch called the Bolsheviks “oprichniki” – that is, he compared them to the murderous henchmen of Ivan the Terrible (Za Khrista Postradavshie (They Suffered for Christ), Moscow, 1997, vol. 1, p. 426).

[12] On January 1, 1970 the Russian Church Abroad under Metropolitan Philaret of New York confirmed this anathema and added one of its own against “Vladimir Lenin and the other persecutors of the Church of Christ, dishonourable apostates who have raised their hands against the Anointed of God, killing clergymen, trampling on holy things, destroying the churches of God, tormenting our brothers and defiling our Fatherland” (

[13] Gubonin, op. cit., pp. 280, 296.

[14] Gubonin, op. cit., p. 151.

[15] Deiania, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 7; quoted in A.G. Yakovitsky, “Sergianstvo: mif ili real’nost? (Sergianism: myth or reality?), Vernost’, 100, January, 2008.

[16] Deiania, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 36.

[17] "Iz sobrania Tsentral'nogo gosudarstvennogo arkhiva OktIabr'skoj revoliutsii: listovka bez vykhodnykh dannykh, pod N 1011" (From the collection of the Central State Archive of the October Revolution: pamphlet without dates, under N 1011, Nauka i Religia (Science and Religion), 1989, N 4; partly translated in Arfed Gustavson, The Catacomb Church, Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1960, p. 9.

[18] Deiania, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 40.

[19] Deiania, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 40; Yakovitsky, op. cit.

[20] Deiania, op. cit.,vol. 6, pp. 41-43.

[21] Shambarov, “Vosstanovit’ prervannuiu pravoslavnuiu traditsiu!” (Restoring an interrupted Orthodox tradition), February 28, 1917,

[22]Deiania, op. cit., p. 159.

[23] Gustavson, op. cit.; John Sheldon Curtiss, The Russian Church and the Soviet State, 1917-1950, Boston, 1953, pp. 125-127. Curtiss refers to pages 177 to 179 of the Acts of the Local Council.

[24] V.A. Konovalov, Otnoshenie khristianstva k sovietskoj vlasti (The Relationship of Christianity to Soviet Power), Montreal, 1936, p. 35.

[25] Protopriest Benjamin Zhukov, Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov’ na Rodine i za Rubezhom (The Russian Orthodox Church in the Homeland and Abroad), Paris, 2005, p. 17.

[26] Konovalov, op. cit., p. 35.

[27] Grabbe, Pis’ma (Letters), Moscow, 1998, p. 85.

[28] Alexis Rufimsky, “Biografia sviaschennomuchenika Nikolaia (Parfenova), episkopa Atkarskago, radi Khrista yurodivago ‘malenkago batiushki’” (A Biography of Hieromartyr Nicholas (Parthenov), Bishop of Aktar, fool for Christ, ‘the little batyushka’), Pravoslavnaia Rus’, N 17 (1782), September 1/14, 2005, p. 5.

[29] Shkarvoskii, “The Russian Orthodox Church”, op. cit., pp. 420-421.

[30] Barmenkov, in Alexander Mikhalchenkov, “Tserkov’ v ogne” (The Church in the Fire), Pravoslavnij Vestnik (The Orthodox Herald) (Canada), June-July, 1989, p. 9.

[31] Cunningham, “Reform Projects of the Russian Orthodox Church at the Beginning of the XXth Century”, in J. Breck, J. Meyendorff and E. Silk (eds.), The Legacy of St Vladimir, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990, p. 134.

[32] Sokolov, “Put’ Russkoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi v Rossii-SSSR (1916-1961)” (The Path of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia and the USSR (1916-1961), in Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov’ v SSSR: Sbornik (The Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR: a Collection), Munich, 1962, p. 15.

[33] Bogoslovskij Vestnik (The Theological Herald), N 1, 1993, p. 217.

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