Vienna, October 21 – Most people, Russians and non-Russians alike, recall Nikita Khrushchev as the man who denounced Stalin and began the process of opening up Soviet society, but one group – religious leaders and the laity – remember him as the author of the last great Soviet anti-religious campaign.
Fifty years ago this month, Khrushchev launched an “all-union” campaign against religion, an effort that lasted until his ouster in 1964 and both led to the closing of thousands of churches, mosques and other religious sites and to the start of a new wave of religious and ethnic activism (stoletie.ru/territoriya_istorii/hruschevskiy_udar_po_pravoslaviju_2008-10-17.htm).
Convinced that atheism was an important part of Leninism from which Stalin had departed during and after World War II, Khrushchev believed that the destruction of religion – and he promised in 1961 that he would “show the last priest on television” – was an essential step toward the building of communism.
The Soviet dictator imposed new and higher taxes on churches and other religious facilities, including cemeteries, refused to supply religious sites with water, electricity or sewage facilities, re-introduced a ban on the ringing of bells, and closed thousands of churches and mosques, including many that Stalin had allowed to reopen.
During the course of this campaign, Moscow closed more than 4,000 Orthodox churches, including 70 percent of those that had been opened between 1941 and 1954. These churches were mostly located in the Russian Federation, and their destruction had the effect of recreating “the Catacomb church” that most people link to the dark days of the 1920s and 1930s.
And the Soviet premier ordered the selling off of much of the property that the Russian Orthodox Church had held abroad, including most infamously the Monastery of Mary Magdalene in the Middle East in exchange for shipments to the Soviet Union from Israel of oranges and other fruit.
Some leaders of the official Russian Orthodox Church protested Khrushchev’s anti-religious effort. Metropolitan Nikolai, for example, told the Kremlin that he could not hold diplomatic receptions for foreign visitors as long as Moscow continued its anti-religious campaign, but the government’s response was to remove him from office.
Other Orthodox leaders, particularly those who had personal connections with one or another senior official in the Soviet government, were more successful in blocking this or that action, but they were not able to dissuade Khrushchev and his regime from continuing this campaign against the Russian church.
Far more successful in limiting Khrushchev’s anti-religious efforts were the Uniates in Western Ukraine and the Muslims in Central Asia and the Middle Volga in large measure because of the close link between religion and nationalism in these areas and the willingness of leaders to threaten resistance if they were ignored.
That allowed what some historians call “the ‘unofficial’ rebirth of the Uniate Catholic confession in Western Ukraine” and as one notes, “the energetic protests of Muslims caused the authorities to stop their campaign lest the closure of mosques in Central Asia and the Middle Volga spark a new basmachi movement.”
The success of these non-Russian actions was not lost on the Orthodox and on Russians more generally, and they saw Khrushchev’s willingness to make concessions to those groups as part and parcel of his willingness to allow the deported peoples to return to “Russian” regions and his decision to transfer Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine.
Not only did that become part of the reason that Russian communists like Leonid Brezhnev moved to oust Khrushchev in October 1964, but it is one of the reasons by Russians and Russian Orthodox to this day cannot forgive him for the closing of churches, many of which have never reopened.
And for both of these reasons, many Russian Orthodox nationalists today find more to admire in Stalin than in Khrushchev, an ability that helps to explain the otherwise counterintuitive union of communists and those who were under both Khrushchev and Stalin their victims.