The Plot to Kill God – The Human Consequences

My last “Reflections on Russia” discussed the insights in Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), and focused on the revolutionary basis upon which Communist Party attempted to eradicate religion in the newly created Soviet Union.  As one of the ideological leaders of the Communist Party, George Plekhanov, made clear: “We are obliged to do all that depends on us in order to destroy that faith . . . of a man who is infected with religious belief.”

The leaders of the Communist Party were steeped in 19th and 20th century Marxism that fervently advocated a world without religion.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian Marxists saw the Russian Orthodox Church as an important supporter of the oppressive Romanov dynasty and a defender of a morally unjustified war effort.

When they came to power, after an astonishing series of events, the Bolsheviks excitedly debated how they would eliminate private property, totally restructure the economy, and produce a Soviet culture with a new set of values and beliefs.  To them, religion was a “castle made of sand” and it needed to be quickly swept away.  It was their conviction that if Prince Vladimir could Christianize Russia overnight in 988, they could secularize it in similar fashion.

The Persecution

Soviets’ demolition of Cathedral of
Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

As Froese carefully documents, religious groups were the victims of extreme violence immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Bolshevik leaders targeted Orthodox churches, monasteries, and clerics, accusing them of antirevolutionary activity.  Church properties were seized and religious leaders, monks and nuns were often killed.  In 1922, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon, wrote a letter to Lenin in which he protested that thousands of clergy were being killed and over a hundred thousand religious believers had been shot.  His protest was ignored and he was placed in exile.  A decade later Patriarch Tikhon was executed.

The persecution of religious leaders was accelerated in the 1930s and periodically reemerged according to the whims of Communist Party leadership.  The ongoing violence was the direct result of the fact that Russians refused to give up their faith in God and the Party leadership felt that more “reactionary zealots of religion” had to be exterminated.

Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many people were murdered during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, the most recent figures, according to Froese, indicate that more than 100,000 religious leaders were executed between 1937 and 1941. Former Soviet official Alexander Yakovlev, a close adviser of Mikhail Gorbachev, had privileged access to private Communist Party records before his death in 2005 and he maintained that 85,300 clergy were executed in 1937, 21,000 in 1938, and 3,900 between 1939 and 1941.  In addition, hundreds of thousands were sent to prison camps for “religious crimes.”  Although the initial attacks were targeted against Orthodox leaders, the antireligious campaign soon spread to Protestants, Muslims and groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Froese summarizes his discussion of the persecution of religious leaders with this observation: “The brutality and inhumanity of the Secularization Experiment in the 1930s cannot be overstated.” 

The Consequences of This Plot

This radical experiment by the Communist Party resulted in enormous consequences for subsequent generations of Russians.  The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, had 54,000 functioning churches in 1914; by 1941, only 4,200 remained open – less than 8 percent.  By 1964, only ten Orthodox monasteries and convents were in existence from the hundreds that were active before 1914.  While there were 50,000 Orthodox priests before the Russian Revolution of 1917, by mid-1939, there were no more than 3-400 clergy left.  Similar data can be cited for Protestant and Muslim communities.

Unfortunately many of Russia’s citizens have little knowledge of the persecution conducted by Communist Party leaders.  I have witnessed this lack of knowledge in students who attended our Institute, many of whom were surprised when faced with this information.  In fact, Russian students share this characteristic with American students who are often also ignorant of the history of their country and the role religion played in shaping it. 

While some national leaders decry the lack of ethics and moral values in Russian society, they rarely recognize the importance of rebuilding the religious foundations of Russia.  Religion was not eliminated in the Soviet Union despite the “plot to kill God,” but active church attendance in Russia is very low, even lower than that of Western Europe.  As Froese noted, the end of Soviet Communism in 1991 resulted in two basic realities: millions of religiously unaffiliated individuals and a free religious environment.  We will analyze what these two realities meant during the last twenty years in Russia in my next “Reflections on Russia.”