Urbanna, October 28 – Fifty years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched the most sweeping anti-religious campaign in the USSR since the very first years of Soviet power, a campaign the recollection of which continues to help explain why so many Russian Orthodox leaders and the faithful have a far more positive attitude toward Stalin than others might expect.
Most people in the West and many members of the Russian intelligentsia have a positive image of Khrushchev because of his attacks on Stalin and of his shift away from the longtime Soviet dictator’s totalitarian system, but many in the Russian Orthodox Church remember Khrushchev not for that but for his concerted effort to wipe out the church in 1959-1964.
During that period, Khrushchev, who has been celebrated for his “liberalization” of the Soviet system, closed down half of the Orthodox congregations and three quarters of the monasteries that had either survived from the pre-Soviet past or had been allowed by Stalin during and after World War II to reopen.
And the contrast between Khrushchev’s “Leninist” antagonism to religion and Stalin’s pragmatic use of the faith during and after the war, Deacon Vasilik Vladimir argues in the current issue of Bogoslov.ru, is why many Orthodox Russians have more positive feelings toward Stalin and less positive ones toward his successor (bogoslov.ru/text/487477.html).
Both because of his own experience in “the terrible communist school” of the 1920s and 1930s and because of his “blind hatred to Stalin” and to everything connected with the dictator, including his more tolerant approach to the Church during the war and after, the deacon says, Khrushchev launched his attack on religion.
“In the consciousness of Khrushchev,” Vasilik insists, “the Church was connected with the former Georgian seminarist. And objectively, the persecution of the church was linked to a rejection of the Stalinist model of foreign and domestic politics.” If Stalin felt that he needed the Church to help win the war, Khrushchev believed that he did not need the Church at all.
According to the Bogoslov.ru commentator, “in the last years of his life, Stalin was not seeking ‘to build communism’ or to extend the socialist camp to the entire planet. His task was to preserve the Union along with the bloc of satellites” the USSR had acquired as a result of the World War II.
“Khrushchev’s model in contrast,” Vasilik says, “was in a certain sense a return to ‘the Leninist heritage’ – to internationalism, cosmopolitanism, communist construction throughout the entire world, and a policy directed at moving beyond the natural geopolitical borders of Russia.”
Indeed, the deacon argues, “objectively the Khrushchev thaw, just like the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, in a certain sense was the first step to the disintegration of the USSR and the destruction of Russia,” as can be seen, he says in “the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, the undermining of the peasantry of the Russian countryside,” and other policies.
Khrushchev’s aides –from the Komsomol and security agencies like Shelepin and Semichastny as well as from among “Marxist fundamentalists” like Suslov, Pospelov, and Ilichev – all encouraged the Soviet leader in his hatred of the church and helped carry out his anti-religious policies.
The direction Khrushchev wanted to pursue was indicated in July 1954 with the CPSU Central Committee decree “On major shortcomings in scientific-atheist propaganda,” but only after Khrushchev consolidated power in 1957-58 was he able to move against the church using all the administrative resources of the state.
After launching a propaganda campaign against religion that recalled “the bacchanalias of the 20s and 30s,” Vasilik continues, Khrushchev in 1959 closed 348 Orthodox parishes and 18 monasteries. And his aides struck positions so radical that the Moscow Patriarchate looked for ways to prevent “the liquidation of the Church.”
Khrushchev himself offered one such occasion, the deacon writes. In February 1960, the Soviet leader organized a conference on disarmament to which Patriarch Aleksii was invited. The Russian churchman delivered what for those times was a remarkable attack on the policies of the state and an equally remarkable defense of the Church.
Not surprisingly, Khrushchev was outraged, and he stepped up the campaign, installing more committed anti-religious figures in key state agencies and moving to close more churches and monasteries. During the remainder of 1960, the Soviet government closed 1437 churches, many of which were then confiscated or destroyed, and 11 monasteries.
Several dozen priests were arrested, and “for the first time after 1945,” Soviet officials arrested a member of the Orthodox hierarchy, Archbishop Iov of Kazan. But those actions did not slow the campaign: In 1962, 1423 more churches were closed as well as more monasteries and seminaries. And the following year, 1700 more Orthodox parishes were shut down.
Khrushchev showed no signs of letting up: He even declared that he intended by 1980 to “show the last priest on television.” But in October 1964, he was overthrown by what Vasilik describes as “a more national and more realistic leadership.” As a result, Khrushchev’s persecutions “quieted down, but not immediately because of inertia.”