Why Stalin at first destroyed the Church, but afterwards restored it?



Turn Russia into the godless land – that was the aim of soviet policy in 1930-th years. The great war had changed the situation.

  1.       Stalin and Church Ierarchs 1946

In our study of the documents, we have not come across any facts of Stalin’s active personal participation in the anti-religious campaigns of 1918-19 and 1922-23, although he was a member of the Politburo which in March 1922 adopted a decision on terror concerning the matter of church valuables. However, from 1927-28, he took the initiative in the struggle against religion and the Church. To seize and reinforce his personal power he needed an exacerbation of the political situation in the country, a restoration of the atmosphere of civil war. His plan to abolish the “new economic policy”and take the hand from the peasants by enforced collectivization served this purpose. As in the period of “war communism”, in order to crush peasant resistance it was necessary, first and foremost, to strike a blow at their spiritual foundations, at deep-rooted popular traditions. The hatred and profound demoralization of whole strata of society which had accumulated over the years of civil war ensured the success of his plans.

At the end of 1927 in a political report at the 15th Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party (B), Stalin dropped a most significant remark:

 ”We still have such a defect as the weakening of the antireligious struggle”. The grain requisitioning campaign carried out under his personal leadership served as a kind of “reconnaissance”, a “dress rehearsal” for the decisive blow against the peasants. In the spring of 1928 Stalin planned the strategy of a new anti-religious offensive. He reinforced his plan with the authority of Lenin, drawing a direct parallel with the campaign to confiscate church valuables:

“What has happened is to a certain extent the same manoeuvre (with corresponding reservations, of course) as took place in 1921, when, in view of the famine in the country, the Party led by Lenin raised the question of removing valuables from churches for the purpose of acquiring grain for the famine-stricken regions, basing a large-scale anti-religious campaign on tins, and when the priests, hanging on to the valuables, spoke out against the starving masses and thereby aroused the anger of the masses against the church in general, against religious superstition, in particular, and especially against priests and their leader. There were some cranks in our party then who thought that Lenin only began to understand the need for a struggle against the church in 1921 (laughter), and not before then. This is ridiculous, of course, comrades. Of course, Lenin understood the need for a struggle against the church before 1921 as well. But this is not the point. The point is to link a broad, large-scale anti-religious campaign with the vital interests of the masses, so that it, this campaign, is supported by the masses”.
J.Stalin. 0 rabotakh aprel’skogo ob’edinennogo plenuma TsK i TsKK. Gosizdat. 1928, pp. 28-30.
Stalin’s plan of struggle against religion began to be implemented energetically in 1928, and at the beginning of 1930 acquired the nature of a state program. A decree of 2 January, 1930 depriving the clergy of part of their civil rights led to the mass eviction of priests’ families from their homes and their loss of rights to ration cards and medical care. Tins large-scale and effective method replaced the administrative exiles and shootings of the early 1920s. 

“I am a godness one”. The cover of atheistic
 magazin, 1932

The League of Militant Atheists (SVB in its Russian acronym), became a vast and ramified organization with the slogan “The struggle against religion is the struggle for the five-year plan”. In a report “on the five-year plan of atheists’ work” the head of the League E.M.Yaroslavsky explained:
  “The process of full-scale collectivization in connected with the liquidation if not of all churches, at least of a considerable part of them.”
Of course, the initiative in such a large-scale measure could not have come from the League itself, which only carried out the clear directives of the central party and governmental bodies. The final word at the 2nd Congress of the League of Militant Atheists (in January 1930) belonged to M.I.Kalinin, who said:
“At the present time the religious cult is turning into a refuge where the whole bourgeois gang are scurrying”.
Finally, at the 16th Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party (B) in June-July 1930 the real initiator and conductor of the whole campaign, Joseph Stalin, again made himself heard:
“Collectivization, the struggle against the kulaks, the struggle against saboteurs, anti-religious propaganda and so on are the inalienable right of the workers and peasants of the USSR, which is consolidated by our constitution. We must and will carry out the constitution of the USSR most consistently. It goes without saying, therefore, that whoever docs not agree with our constitution can get up and go, wherever the fancy takes him”. J.V. Stalin. Voprosy leninizma, izd. 10-e, p. 36.
The program of war against our own people was carried out on a vast scale with ruthless consistency. As a result of the famine caused by the confiscation of the grain for sowing and of the mass deportations to places unfit for human habitation in the period of 1930-33, several million rural inhabitants perished (the most likely figure is about ten million). Maxim Gorky in his “letter to Stalin” (1930) stresses the spiritual motive behind this action of grandiose dimensions:
“It is a cataclysm of almost geological proportions, immeasurably greater than everything the party has done… A whole way of life is being destroyed which has existed for millenia… the destruction of the most profound foundation of a life which has existed for many centuries is beginning…”
And who does Gorky blame for this – the destroyers? No, those who are perishing:
“And people are cursing furiously, often concealing under this phrase the revengeful feeling of primitive man, whose end is now nigh!”. 
“Ogonek”. No. 37, 1989. p. 23. 

Blowing up of the Cathedral of Christ
Savior, 5 dec. 1931

By what was Stalin guided in methodically arousing this bacchanalia of death? Pathological hatred of the Russian people? But subsequent experience showed that he was equally indifferent to the life or death of any other people, if it were a question of his own aims. And he invariably had one aim and one only – the glorification of his own self. There were various ways of achieving this, of course. But in the particular way which Stalin chose, he could be extolled and conquer his rivals only in an atmosphere of ceaseless terror: and he showed inexhaustible inventiveness in his search for and creation of new objects for the hatred of the masses.
Can one detect any ideological considerations or at least emotional preferences of Stalin’s in the unexpected switch in the second half of the 1930s, when his propagandist arsenal began to include nationalistic and even church-historical motives?
There are at least two reasons which may have prompted Stalin to make this switch. The first was that the circumstances of the struggle for power demanded a change in the main object of terror at home. As long as the object of terror was the Russian peasantry, Stalin preached ruthless hatred of all things Russian; now that the object of destruction was the previous cadres of the NKVD, the old Bolshevist party and the urban intelligentsia with their international composition and cosmopolitan convictions – an aggressive nationalism was put at the service of this terror.
The second reason was a purely personal one, and it can only be surmised – but one cannot avoid discussing it, for this reason was perhaps the decisive one. Examining Stalin’s activity as a whole, one can conclude that he had no ideological convictions at all. However, he attached great importance to examples of outstanding figures who had gained power, glory and authority. He tried to learn from them, copying them and seeking to identify himself with them in the popular mind. There can be no doubt as to who provided him with his first model, and he himself made no secret of this, proclaiming:
“Stalin is Lenin today”.

Stalin, early 1930-th

Of course, this invitation was a caricature, since he did not possess a fraction of the personal qualities which Lenin had, and imitated only the latter’s worst qualifiers and methods, yet nevertheless the very striving for such an identity determined in many respects the nature of the early period of his rule.
In the mid-thirties, however, a new object for emulation appeared, which opened up completely new possibilities for Stalin. The breathtaking success of Hitler showed Stalin what a powerful force in the struggle for power and influence the skilful use of nationalism could be. In tills connection we quote the interesting testimony of Marshal Tukhachevsky (from the words of people who knew him well):
“I see that he is a secret, but fanatical admirer of Hitler… No sooner does Hitler take a step towards Stalin, than our leader rushes to the fascist, with open arms (how convincingly this forecast came true in 1939!  -  L.R.)… Stalin tried to justify Hitler’s repressions against the  Jews,  by  the  saying  that Hitler  was  removing from  his path  everything  that  prevented  him  from  reaching  his goal, and  that Hitler  was  right  from  the point of view of his idea. Joseph Vissarionovich is too impressed by Hitler’s successes, and on closer scrutiny, he copies the Fuehrer in many things. In my opinion, envy of the German leader’s glory plays no small part”.  “Znamya”. 1989. No. 10, pp. 26-27.
Here is another valuable testimony: the distinguished researcher on Stalin’s activity and personality A. Avtorkhanov maintains that Hitler was: “his secret idol”, “the same fanatic lover of power as he was”. A.Avtorkhanov. Tekhnologia  vlasti. Frankfurt/Main, 1974, p. 280.
It is motives of this kind that explain why Stalin ordered official historians to declare the baptism of Russia “a positive historical phenomenon”, and people in the arts to glorify Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. By extolling the most famous and also most despotic figures in Russian history in the hope that a reflection of their glory would fall on him too, Stalin did not take a single real step to alleviate the fate of the Russian people, in particular, to return the Church to them if only as a national sacred institution. He saw no personal gain for himself in this, and no external or internal forces compelled him to do so. The repressions of 1937 came down with full force upon the vestiges of the clergy as well, particularly the higher clergy; more and more churches were closed, so that by 1939 the number of working Orthodox churches was not more than 1% of the pre-revolutionary figure. At the end of the thirties Stalin virtually disbanded the League of Militant Atheists, transferring the functions of the struggle against religion to bodies of the NKVD. The following statement (by the head of the NKVD for the Gorky region, I.Ya.Lavrushin) is characteristic of the period:
“A special place in the criminal activity against Soviet power and the socialist economy is held by priests –
diversionists in cassocks. Apart from anti-Soviet propaganda, conducted under the guise of “Christian preaching”, the spiritual fathers do not disdain any methods in their struggle against the Soviet system. They organize counter-revolutionary groups, sabotage and arson, act as spies for foreign intelligence services and prepare acts of terrorism…
It is hard to draw any clear line between Trotskyites, Bukharinites. Social-Revolutionaries, priests, kulaks and spies. They are all the same highwaymen, the true hounds of fascism and capitalism. And there can be only one sentence for them – death!”. Diversanty v ryasakh. Gorky, 1938.
During these years Stalin did not make any anti-religious appeals personally, but, of course, it is impossible to think that, for example, P. Fedoseyev’s brochure “J.V.Stalin on religion and the struggle against it”. Voenizdat, 1941, could have appeared without his consent (and, most likely, initiative). This brochure reads, in part, as follows:
“The struggle against the reactionary priesthood is an integral part of the class struggle against the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the people. Comrade Stalin has stressed that our propaganda work must be organized in true Bolshevik fashion. And anti-religious propaganda should be organized in true Bolshevik fashion as well… It would be wrong to think that religious prejudices could disappear just like that, that their dying away would happen naturally… Comrade Stalin has revealed the invalidity of arguments that we have already overcome the vestiges of capitalism in people’s consciousness… The struggle against religious prejudices and the unmasking of the priesthood is one of the areas of struggle for the triumph of communism”.
The situation changed radically with the outbreak of war, which Stalin feared mortally, sought to avoid at all costs, and had therefore not given the country and the people the chance to prepare for it properly. Stalin respected force and knew how to take into account the pressure of circumstances. The switch in Stalin’s policy with relation to the Church during the war was of quite a different nature from the national-propagandistic innovations of the thirties. The change in church policy during the war was, firstly, a forced and, secondly, a real one.
The attitude of believers to Stalin is determined largely by their evaluation of the motives which led to the restoration of, the Church during the Great Patriotic war. What could these motives have been? Let us examine them one by one.
1. The demands of the Allies to improve the position of religion in the USSR. Such pressure really was put upon Stalin, at least by the public and president of the United States. During a discussion at the end of 1941 of the declaration of the “Allied powers” Roosevelt insisted on the inclusion of a clause about the “freedom of religion”. In fact this was one of the conditions of providing American help on Lend-Lease, After some opposition Stalin gave way (the negotiations were conducted by Harriman in Moscow and Litvinov in Washington). However, to satisfy the allies it was enough to make a few demonstrative steps in favor of the Church, namely, to stop atheistic propaganda, to publish some positive material about the Church in the press, to abolish a curfew during the celebration of Easter, and the like. All this was done already at the beginning of 1942. There was still a long way to go to the real restoration of the Church, however.


Nazist’s leaflets

2. The large-scale opening of churches on the occupied territories. Generally speaking, the ideological strategy of fascism consisted of breaking up, perverting and, wherever possible, liquidating Christianity, as one of the “fruits of Jewry”, and in replacing it by local pagan cults. However, for propagandist reasons, the military occupation authorities did not stop believers from opening churches. When these territories were liberated by the Soviet army, the churches remained open – otherwise the contrast would have been too striking. Accounts have survived of mass christenings and baptizing of the Russian population during occupation. Thus, a certain ieromonk Georgy, performing such christenings in the village of Kushevskaya in Kuban Region in October 1942, asked believers:
     “Why are you in such a hurry?”
      To which he received the characteristic reply:
      “Each day is precious, Father, our lot may come and put an end to the church again before a permanent priest arrives…”
       “Russkoye Vozrozhdenie”. Paris. No. 18, pp. 113-117.
In connection with the administration of a large number of newly opened churches Stalin was faced with the problem of restoring the church hierarchy. He may at first have been impressed by the national-pagan orientation of fascism, but gradually as the military defeat of Germany began to emerge, his worship of Hitler declined and he began to look for a new ideological strategy which was more promising for his future personal glorification. 

Prague, 1944. Congress of Liberation
of Russian Peoples.
Gen. Vlasov – with glasses

3. The danger of the emergence of a Russian national movement against Bolshevism and Stalin. This danger was personified in General Vlasov, who persistently suggested to the Germans that they should set up a powerful multi-million “Russian liberation army”. As an essential condition he proposed the creation of an independent Russian government in emigration, which would establish relations with German as an ally.
A number of accounts suggest that Stalin considered this possibility as the main trump in the enemy’s hands (just as the German commander General von Bock regarded Vlasov’s proposal as “decisive for the outcome of the whole campaign”). Eventually Hitler rejected this idea, but Stalin could not count on such luck beforehand, particularly as the Germans took some major propagandist actions to help Vlasov.
Evidently it was fear of a Russian nationalist movement supported by the Germans that became the main motive for a real change in Stalin’s church policy. Here he could no lounger limit himself to cosmetic measures. Here it was a matter of a real struggle for the mass popular mind. As one of the main elements in Vlasov’s program was the restoration of the national Church, Stalin had only one course open to him – to try and seize the initiative.

Orthodox Priest among russian partisans, 1944

4. Stalin’s personal religious motives: the awakening of the “fear of God” in him under the influence of catastrophic failures and a sense of his own helplessness and excessive responsibility. Such a movement of the soul could have been promoted by his upbringing from a mother who was a believer and by Stalin’s seminarist education.

 There is a church legend that Metropolitan Elijah of the Lebanon Mountains (Antioch Orthodox Church) wrote to Stalin with a prophecy and advice about the course of the war. In “Dates and documents” under 1942 we quote extracts from this prophecy which was copied and circulated widely among believers. The question of the authenticity of this text and the events connected with it, in particular, its influence on Stalin, can be clarified only by work in the state archives, to which we have no access. Indirect proof of Metropolitan Elijah’s particularly close relations with the Soviet government could be the unusually lavish reception he was given during his visit in 1947, the opening in Moscow of the court of the Antioch Church in 1948 (together with the Serbian and Bulgarian) and the active participation of the Antioch Patriarchate in all the propagandistic acts of the Moscow Patriarchate in the postwar years.
Can one admit the possibility of a similar religious change of heart in such a person as Stalin?
We believe that such a possibility should not be excluded. Stalin must have known that Hitler regarded himself as the servant of powerful mystical forces and he could have concluded the need to somehow imitate and challenge him in this. The depth, sincerity and power of the popular religious revival during the Great Patriotic war shows that the activity of the Holy Spirit came to the aid of the peoples of Russia at the critical moment, when the fate of mankind was being decided.
But if Stalin was compelled by force of circumstance to even partly subject himself to this Spirit, this makes his spiritual crime in the postwar years all the more terrible: saved from shame and destruction by the Power of God, he planned to claim for himself the glory, honor and worship which belonged to God alone.


 L.Regelson. Participation of Russian Church in the cult of Stalin.