The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years, Part III: The Role of Religious Dissidents

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR.  On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation.  This is the third in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Human Rights Protesters in Moscow, April 1980

Based on my experience in Russia since 1990, I am convinced that the role of religious leaders and institutions, as well as religious belief, are not only critical to Russia’s future development, but were also key factors in why the USSR collapsed.  This is not a topic that gets much attention in foreign policy circles either in the States or in Russia.

The First Protests Inside Russia

When Nikita Khrushchev began to close down churches in the late 1950s, hundreds of Christians decided to resist.  During this period, the first open letters of protest to the Communist leadership began to appear.   They predated the political samizdat (underground literature) generated by human rights groups by a decade.

Three thousand residents of the village of Pochaev signed a letter to the leaders of the USSR claiming that Party officials had tortured local nuns and that some of these nuns had died from the beatings they received.  In a follow-up letter, the villagers demanded that Party officials stop meddling in church affairs.  This became known outside the USSR when a copy of this letter was given to Western tourists in September 1962.

A better-known dissident appeal from the early 1960s was a forty-page letter written by two parish priests and sent to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The priests asked the Patriarch to petition the Communist government to stay out of church affairs and respect the separation of church and state.  The priests also requested that the Patriarch convene an All-Union Church Synod to review activities of the church hierarchy and all other aspects of church life.

It is significant that these two priests cited the existing Soviet constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion and they used as a rallying cry “Respect your own Constitution” which later became the central theme of the human rights movement in Russia.  The immediate results of this letter were prison terms for the two priests and a suspension of their status as priests by the Church hierarchy.  But the deeper significance of this bold action was that it ended the period of silence of parish leaders and people of faith.  They now became convinced that they must resist the submission of church leaders to the Soviet government.

Religious Leaders and the Human Rights Movement

In the decades that followed, clergy and laymen became active in building human rights organizations and sowing dissidence against the Communist regime.  The first of these was the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights and many of the noted human rights activists from these early days specifically cited their Orthodox faith as the inspiration for their political activities. 

By the mid-1970s, “. . . it was religious samizdat alone that accounted for more than half of all underground publications,” according to Professor Nicolai Petro, and “. . . by the end of the 1970s, religious dissidents of all faiths numbered roughly fifty thousand as compared with ten thousand human rights and civil rights dissidents.”  It is a little known fact that for most of these people their struggle for a free society coincided with their struggle for a free church.

In 1976, the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR was formed.  During the next four years, although its leaders were being arrested and jailed, the Committee distributed more than four hundred documents on violations of the civil rights of people from all religions.  It is interesting to note that leaders of this Committee did not see their activities as anti-Soviet government, but rather as a natural extension of their Orthodox faith.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms and Russia’s Future

The anti-Soviet movements of the 1960s and 1970s were the products of grassroots organizations, many of which were formed by religious leaders.  Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign of 1960 -1964 unexpectedly raised the stature of Christians who took leadership in the human rights movement.  The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in religious samizdat, as well as the founding of underground journals devoted entirely to religion.   Regular sections on religion were also included in leading cultural publications.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he was convinced that he needed to the stop the persecution of the churches and, instead, partner with them.  He joined forces with the surging underground movement – top-down now connecting with bottom-up. 

Years later, Gorbachev made this observation: ‘The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels; it was defeated on the cultural level.  Our society, our people, the most educated, the most intellectual, rejected the model on the cultural level because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically.”
I agree with Nicolai Petro’s unique insights: “In post-communist Russia, the [Russian Orthodox] Church will continue to play an important role in the reassertion of Russia’s alternative political culture.  For now it is primarily the politically conservative forces who have recognized this and tried to associate their agenda with the Church, but it is only a matter of time before these values will be espoused by a much broader political spectrum.  .  . Without a proper appreciation of this religious context, it will surely be impossible to understand post-communist Russian politics.”  I would add, however, that the role of all Russian churches and religious institutions, not just the Orthodox Church, will be important influences in shaping Russia’s future.