Vienna, October 17 – In a study that could have profound implications for the Russian Orthodox Church and other denominations in Russia in the future, a Moscow historian has concluded that in Soviet times, “the underground church did not exist separately from legal congregations.”
On the one hand, that finding could help the Moscow Patriarchate to overcome the stigma still attached to it for its often slavish forms of cooperation with the Soviet authorities by suggesting that the “official” church helped the underground or “catacomb” church to continue to exist.
But on the other, that suggestion – and it is certain to be disputed by some religious activists – could be used by the Russian authorities to argue that officially registered religious organizations must be subject to even tighter government regulation lest they protect or even promote believers who are pursuing a more independent line.
In an interview posted on the Bogoslov.ru portal yesterday, Aleksey Beglov, a researcher at the Center for the History of Religion and the Church at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences, talks about his latest book, “In Search of ‘the Sinless Catacombs’: the Underground Church in the USSR” (bogoslov.ru/text/350943.html).
Inspired by people he met who had participated in the underground church in Soviet times and drawing on privately held archives, the archives of the Soviet security services and those of the Moscow Patriarchate itself, Beglov presents one of the most comprehensive portraits yet of the catacomb church, a movement that was marked by heroism but remains controversial.
Typically, the Moscow historian says, “when people right about the history of some ‘catacomb’ movement, they consider exclusively those in it who stood in opposition to the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” and thus miss a large part of what was going on.
“The underground [church in the USSR] did not exist separately from the legal parishes and from the legal priests and bishops,” he says, an argument that can be confirmed by “studying more carefully the daily life of believers in the framework of the working and underground churches and the activity of the hierarchy toward the one and the other.”
Beglov says that he “can with all responsibility say that the activity of the [Orthodox] episcopate was not always drive only by considerations of church politics or pressure from the powers that be. The bishops of Soviet times knew very well the needs of the simple people and could not fail to react to them.”
And he says they acted within their possibilities to ensure that the faith survived whatever the communists insisted upon. That requires still more study, of course, because as Beglov says, “we do not understand all the complexity and depths of those church realities” as they existed for the hierarchy, the priests and the community of believers before World War II.
Asked by his interviewer why he had listed the archives of the Moscow Patriarchate as a less important source than either private archives or those of the Soviet security services, Beglov responded that much in the archives of the church was inaccessible to him and that access to them remains quite restricted.
While he responded that as a professional historian he would much prefer that these archives be more open, the Moscow historian said that “it is necessary to approach this situation with understanding. There are a number of problems which do not allow free access to church documents even at the present time.”
“On the one hand,” Beglov argues, “a large part of [these] archives have not been fully organized or described. And on the other, there exists a healthy concern by the hierarchy concerning who should have access to these documents and who [in the current environment] should not.”