The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB

By Christopher Andrew; Vasili Mitrokhin | Go to book overview

TWENTY - EIGHT
THE PENETRATION AND PERSECUTION OF THE SOVIET CHURCHES

Though paying lip-service to freedom of religion, the Soviet state was the first to attempt to eradicate the concept of God. Marx had famously denounced religion as "the opium of the people," but also spoke with some compassion of its role as "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world." Lenin's denunciation of religion, however, was uncompromisingly venomous:

Every religious idea, every idea of God, every flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness, . . . vileness of the most dangerous kind, "contagion" of the most abominable kind. Millions of filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of a God decked out in the smartest "ideological" costumes.1

During the 1930s most priests were condemned to a gulag from which few returned. Most churches, with their religious symbols removed or defaced but their onion domes usually left more or less intact, were turned into barns, cinemas and garages, or given over to other secular purposes. After two decades of brutal persecution which had left only a few hundred churches open for worship, the Russian Orthodox Church was unexpectedly revived as a public institution by Stalin's need for its support during the Great Patriotic War. In 1943, after a gap of seventeen years, the Moscow Patriarchate, the Church's administrative center, was formally reestablished.2 During the remainder of the decade, Orthodox Christians reclaimed and lovingly restored several thousand of their churches.3

The Church, however, paid a heavy price for its restoration. The Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church (later the Council for Religious Affairs) worked in close cooperation with the NKVD and its successors to ensure the subservience of Church to State.4 Both Patriarch Aleksi I and Metropolitan Nikolai of Krutitsky and Kolomna, second in the Orthodox hierarchy, joined the World Peace Council, the Soviet front organization founded in 1949, and were highly valued by the KGB as agents of influence.5 Aleksi declared in 1955:

The Russian Orthodox Church supports the totally peaceful foreign policy of our government, not because the Church allegedly lacks freedom, but because

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