Patriarch Kirill speaks about Confessing the Orthodox Faith under an atheist system and the meaning of our freedom today

Address by His Beatitude Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, delivered at the solemn session of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, 28 October 2017:


Your Beatitude Most Blessed Daniel, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church!

Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences and Graces,

Esteemed archpastors!

I was sincerely pleased to receive your kind brotherly invitation to visit the Romanian Orthodox Church to participate in the festivities on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Patriarchal enthronement of Your Beatitude and speak before you and your brothers archpastors at the session of the Holy Synod.

I am grateful to Your Beatitude for the proposal to highlight in my presentation the topic of confessing the Orthodox faith in an atheistic state. I firmly believe that we ought to study more deeply and completely the history of the life of God’s people in the period of totalitarianism and discuss the experience acquired by the Orthodox Church in these years of persecution.

Along with a number of presently alive Orthodox hierarchs of my generation, the Lord judged me to be a direct participant and witness to the events of that time. The experience of the Church’s life in those years is part of my own spiritual experience. I can testify that the lessons to be drawn from this experience have importance also for today’s generation of Church ministers as much as for those who will come after us.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of revolutionary events in Russia and the anti-God persecutions that followed them. In our Church, his memorial date has provided good cause for understanding her historical path over the past century and the heroic feat of the new martyrs and confessors of the Church of Russia. I know that in the Romanian Church too this year has been declared the year of commemoration of all those who have suffered from the atheistic regime.

The 20th century was a difficult epoch for the whole of world Orthodoxy. Many of our brothers have had to undergo the horror of the catastrophe in the Asia Minor. The Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe were subjected to a different trial – persecutions from militant atheists.

In 2011 in Moscow this topic was put at the centre of attention by participants of the meeting of the Primates and representatives of the Russian, Georgian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish Orthodox Churches, as well as the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. At the end of our discussion a communiqué was signed which stated that the Church remembers the persecutions and holds dear the freedom she as acquired.

During the period of totalitarianism, each of our Churches in her own way resisted pressure from state atheism and fought for the preservation of Holy Orthodoxy. Brotherly communication between us in those difficult years allowed us to withstand the oppressors, preserve both our faith and the national authenticity of our cultural traditions.

The hardships experienced by our Churches, the sufferings of the confessors and the blood of the martyrs are now our common offering and contribution of our peoples to the treasure-trove of world Holy Orthodoxy.

In the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox Church and the peoples in her care have been subject to the cruelest persecutions never seen before at the hands of the militant godless.

Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians were arrested under various pretexts: bishops, priests, monks, nuns and lay people. Many of them were shot, often without a court case or investigation.

The first murder of a priest took place in the days shortly after the October coup. Archpriest Ioann Kochurov was shot in Tsarskoye Selo. He was the first new martyr to suffer at the hands of the persecutors. Soon persecutions against the faithful took on a systematic and mass character. On 19 March 1922, Lenin wrote in a secret letter to the Politburo: “The confiscation of valuables, especially from the richest monasteries and churches ought to be carried out with merciless decisiveness, stopping at nothing and in the shortest period. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary bourgeoisie and the reactionary clergy we can shoot for this reason, the better. It is now that we need to teach the public so that in the forthcoming decades they would not even dare to think of the slightest resistance.[i]

From 1918 there began the countrywide closure of monasteries and parish churches. In Moscow by 1 January 1930, there were only 224 working churches and in 1932 – only 87. In 1931 the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown up. In 1928, the Russian Orthodox Church still had over 30 thousand parishes.[ii] The closure of churches and the development of a mocking, aggressive anti-church campaign grew apace. Thus, throughout 1928 there were closed 534 churches, and in 1929 –1119. In the 1930s, the number of churches closed went into the thousands. By 1939 throughout the whole country there remained unclosed around 100 Orthodox churches from more than 60 thousand active in 1917.[iii]

The sound of the church bells fell silent throughout the Land of Russia. The Russian cities, once embellished with cupolas of churches and gold crosses, changed beyond recognition – the majority of churches were destroyed in them, while crosses were removed from those church buildings which had survived. The holy vessels, icons, precious vestments, bells and holy objects were removed from the churches. That which had been bequeathed and given to the Church by the pious people over the centuries was mercilessly destroyed and stolen, and only a small part of these riches has been preserved in museums.

In its struggle against the Church, the Bolshevik regime tried all means to weaken her from within by provoking schisms, the largest of which were the ‘renovationists’ ‘and the ‘Living Church’ schisms of the 1920s. A display of solidarity on behalf of the fraternal Local Orthodox Churches was very important to the Russian Orthodox Church at this time. Thus, in 1930 at the session of the Inter-Orthodox Commission for the preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council Bishop Titus of Targoviste who represented the Romanian Church replied to the proposal to invite the renovationists: “We positively know that the ‘Living Church’ is not Orthodox, and if it could come, it would have no right to attend as equal with us, but as the accused.

Parallel with the violent rupture of the structure of Russian society under the pretexts of industrialization and collectivization, the process continued of a constant struggle to uproot religion from the life of Soviet society. The League of the Militant Godless was set up in the USSR. Activists carried out acts of hooliganism during services, despoiled churches, attacked the clergy and parishioners, sowed gossip, and supported an atmosphere of suspicion and intolerance towards the Church in society. The Soviet regime set itself the task of the universal liquidation of illiteracy, but along with compulsory secondary education hatred towards religion and intolerance towards believers were implanted in minds of the younger generation of Soviet citizens. Children of parents imbued with atheism joined special children’s organizations such as the Young Godless. Those children who did not succumb to atheist propaganda were branded with shame on the front pages of newspapers.

I have in my personal archive an issue of the newspaper The Godless, the official organ of the Central Council of the League of the Godless of the USSR from 19 May 12 (that is, 1929, as the new era was counted from the October Revolution). The front-page article is called “The Children of Engine Driver Gundyaev”. It says: “They behave unmannerly at school. They tell other pupils about the lives of the saints. They play truant from lessons on social studies. We have tried to ask why, and they answer: ‘We know that the authorities will soon be replaced.” The articles end with the words: “We should think about the question of whether there is any use in teaching such children in Soviet schools, while at the same time get the trade union to check out who engine driver Gundyaev is.” The article signed ‘working correspondent, is about my grandfather Vasily Gundyaev who worked on the railways and brought up his family. By the time the article came out, he had already been ‘checked out’. In May 1929 he was sent to the Solovki labour camp. Long years of incarceration and exile followed. In spite of the severest conditions in which prisoners were kept, my grandfather survived and in the year of Stalin’s death (1953) he became a priest at the age of seventy.

By that time my father was already a priest, one of those very same children who were mentioned in the article from the ‘The Godless’ newspaper. He also experienced the Stalin camps in the 1930s and he also managed to survive.

In the 1930s the number of victims of repressions among the clergy was among the tens of thousands, while among the faithful – hundreds of thousands. The statistics of the use of the ‘highest measure of social protection,’ as the death penalty was then cynically called, in relation to the Church’s ministers is quite striking. In 1937, According to figures by the NKVD now published, 33,382 “ministers of religion” were arrested in 1937, and 13 438 people were arrested for “ecclesiastical-sectarian counterrevolution” in 1938. In 1937 of the general number of sentences 44 percent were death-penalty, and in 1938 the number rose to 59 percent.[iv]

Only four ruling bishops remained free in 1939,[v] while ‘evidence’ for their arrest had been fabricated against them, which could have occurred at any time. Thousands of pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church passed through concentration camps, prisons and exile at that time.

Counted by official propaganda as a “remnant of the past”, humiliated and robbed, the Russian Orthodox Church, all the same, remained an object of hatred for atheists who continued to view her as a serious opponent for the influence on the minds and hearts of the people of the country. Anti-religious ideologues who came up with materials for the programmes of “Five-Year Plans of Godlessness” liked to boast that by the 1 May 1937 the “name of God would be forgotten throughout the territory of the country.”[vi]

But, in spite of the loud propaganda of theomachism, in spite of repressions, as well as the mass closure and destruction of churches that went on in 1937, the census of the population showed that the majority of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union called themselves believers as in former times. 55, 3 million people or 56, 7 percent in the category of age sixteen and over identified themselves as believers.[vii]

During the Great Patriotic War, the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church was temporarily weakened. In 1943 the authorities allowed a Local Council to take place which elected Sergius as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. Throughout the country there began the process of a gradual opening of churches and monasteries. The League of the Godless was disbanded. The schismatic ‘Living Church’ ceased to exist.

However, the period of a warming in church-state relations did not last long. A new persecution of the Church was launched in the second half of the 1950s in the USSR. Anti-religious propaganda was greatly intensified and assumed an aggressive character; new conditions were created for the maximum ousting of the faithful from the life of Soviet society; churches and monasteries were again closed down on a mass scale, and the state established strict control over the inner life of the Church.

The systematic discrimination of Orthodox Christians and the undisguised forceful pressure on the Church returned to the life of Soviet society. The police and organs of state security exercised systematic control over the churches, at times not letting the faithful inside. The attendance of services entailed a risk not only for one’s career but also for the elementary welfare of a Soviet citizen. Believers were presented with obstacles when wanting to receive a higher education, while those who already had a higher education had no opportunity of entering the theological schools of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The half-forgotten formulas of the League of the Godless started to return. Thus, in 1961 the Soviet leader Khruschyov personally promised to show the “last priest” on television in 1980.

The strengthening of the anti-religious policy was experienced on a psychological level no less harder than in the pre-war years. In the years of the “godless five-year plans”, millions of people were subjected to persecution not only for their faith but also for other reasons, for example for their “class affiliation.” The Moloch of the Stalinist repressive machine destroyed at that time not only the clergy, but representatives of other social layers, and at the end of the 1930s, it had begun to devour old Bolsheviks. Under Khrushchev, by contrast, a “thaw” had begun in society, accompanied by the broad rehabilitation of political prisoners, while the clergy and faithful were practically the only category of Soviet citizens who were treated with greater severity by the state in an ever more intolerant manner.

The Soviet authorities decided to review their negative attitude towards the Church only towards the end of the 1980s. The celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia in 1988, which was perceived by the authorities initially as a narrow ecclesiastical event, became a popular festivity that testified to the Church’s vitality, unbroken by persecution, and of her lofty authority in the eyes of the people.

At that time I was the ruling bishop of the diocese of Smolensk – one of the poorest dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church. My diocese included the city of Vyazma with a population of 60 thousand people, and I asked the city mayor for the use of a stadium to celebrate the event. He asked: “What do you need a stadium for? You won’t get more than a thousand believers.” But when 40 thousand people took part in the festive procession, that is, two-thirds of the city’s population, this came as a revelation to many, including the mayor: surprised, he approached me and said that he had no idea how religious the people were over whom he had control.

In the years since then, the number of church buildings of the Russian Orthodox Church has increased by 30 thousand: from 6 thousand in 1988 to almost 36 thousand today.[viii] The number of monasteries in this period has grown from 21 to 1000; [ix]the majority of monasteries have been restored from ruins, while some have been built anew.

In 1988 we had three theological seminaries and two theological academies. Today we have 56 theological academies and seminaries, two Orthodox universities, and other educational institutions.

All of these figures concern the area of the canonical responsibility of the Russian Church. If we are to speak only of the Russian Federation, then apart from the theological educational institutions, in over 40 of the state institutions of higher education in Russia there have been opened departments for theology in accordance with the state standard on theology adopted in 2001. Today, according to statistics, around 75 percent of Russians believe themselves to be Orthodox,[x] while the total number of members of the Moscow Patriarchate living in both Russia and beyond her borders comprises some 180 million people.

In looking back, we cannot but thank God for the great miracle shown to us of the preservation of the Orthodox Church, which has survived long and harsh persecution, for the miracle of the return of a multitude of people to the faith of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. What is happening is precisely a miracle, since in the external conditions of the life of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet years it was impossible to see the foundation for such a swift rebirth.

We believe that this miracle has become possible thanks to the heroic feats of the great host of new martyrs and confessors of Russia, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity. Only in the light of this truth can we understand the historical experience of our Church of the last quarter century.

At the same time, we ought to master the lessons of the past and understand the causes of the catastrophe of the 20th century so that in the conditions of the freedom which is now here we should not repeat the former errors. The root of persecution of the Church is in the spiritual crisis which had enveloped society in the pre-revolutionary period. Its causes were manifested in the foreign policy of the Russian Empire which weakened the Church and deprived her of her legitimate place in society.

After the demise of Patriarch Hadrian in 1700 the Russian Tsar Peter I did not give his assent to the election of a new patriarch for a long time, and in 1721 he altogether abolished patriarchal rule, declaring himself to be the head of the Church, while the functions of the patriarch were transferred to the collegial organ of the Holy Governing Synod, at the head of which the emperor placed a secular official with the rank of Chief Procurator. Often appointed to the post of Chief Procurator were people who had little to do with faith and piety and disinclined to heed the opinion and needs of the Church. This state of affairs, harmful from the canonical perspective, remained in place up until 1917, when, after Emperor Nicholas II abdicated, the purpose of the institution of Chief Procurator as the ‘eye of the sovereign’ had ultimately exhausted itself.

For the two centuries of the synodal system, the Russian Orthodox Church was perceived by many as merely one of the institutions of the state, as a ‘department of the Orthodox confession’, impersonal and deprived of its own voice in appraising state policy in issues that concerned the religious life.

An important landmark in the history of the de-churching of Russian society was the decree issued in 1764 by Empress Elisabeth II on the secularization of church property, in accordance with which the colossal amount of church property was appropriated by the state. The clergy had to be satisfied with a pitiful salary, which placed them in the humiliated and despised position of the ‘poor relative’ of the strong ones of this world who believed they had the right to interfere in the running and order of the Church.

The social structure of the Russian Empire turned the clergy into a socially closed circle, where representatives of the nobility, the merchant classes and landowners rarely appeared. The Lives of such heroes of the spirit as St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) – a member of the nobility who desired to dedicate his whole life to Church service – demonstrates what sort of wall of misunderstanding and hostile psychological pressure was met by any person who attempted to break down this system of social differentiation.

All of these factors enabled the rapid de-churchification of Russian society, prevented the Church from effectively counteracting the negative tendencies in society. Although the most renowned pastors of the Church – St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov, St. Theophanes the Recluse, St. John of Kronstadt – raised the alarm by pointing out the decline of faith, the Russian Church did not have the strength to overcome the situation quickly.

The rejection of divine truth at all times has been the sad reason for subsequent calamities, catastrophes, and trials. This concerns the life of each person individually and the life of human societies and nations. A monstrous experiment was conducted upon the Russian people which has demonstrated to all of humanity that society cannot be built up without God. Yet even today many have not taken notice of this example, have not thought about the historical phenomenon of the Russian catastrophe and its projection onto modern-day life.

Today Christianity has encountered a growing aggressive intervention of militant secularism into all areas of the life of society. Today sin is becoming the norm since in a consumer society there is being lost the Christian understanding of the mutual link between the notions of freedom and responsibility. Freedom of choice, which contemporary liberal doctrine preaches, is in itself incapable of bringing people happiness and well-being when choice is defined exclusively by material factors. Indeed, choices made in favour of evil render valueless human freedom, especially if it used for the destruction of human dignity. When freedom becomes an idol, when it is perceived aside from a notion of responsibility, a fatal danger hangs over humanity.

Beloved brothers! Our Churches today are experiencing an “acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2) and make use of a great earlier unseen freedom of the inner life and confession of the faith of our forefathers. This freedom has been purchased with the bitter experience of previous generations and the price of the suffering of many thousands of confessors and new martyrs of Orthodoxy who suffered in the years of communism. The time in which we carry out our ministry now and the opportunities that we have comprise a precious talent given to us by the Heavenly and Divine Pastor. In using this talent we, the “labourers together with God” (1 Cor 3:9) will answer before Him and history.

We ought to carefully preserve and attentively study the historical experience of the Holy Church which she has acquired in the harsh years of trials, care for the edification of our flock when confronted with new challenges which modern-day life brings and which future prepares for us. This creative multifaceted labour in the vineyard of the Holy Church of Christ is impossible without close fraternal cooperation among all of us, without the constant strengthening of links between our sister Orthodox Churches and the peoples in their care.

Through the prayerful intercession of the host of new martyrs and confessors of faith, pastors and hierarchs who have labored for God in the years of persecution may the Lord Jesus Christ send down upon us his gracious aid in our joint labours for the cause of strengthening the unity of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

+Kirill
Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia


[i] Cited according to the Kremlin archives. The Politburo and Church: 1922 – 1925 in 2 books / ed.N.N. Pokrovsky and S.G. Petrov. Book 1. Novosibirsk. Moscow, 1977, pp.141-143.

[ii] The Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarch locum tenens Metropolitan Peter (1925 – 1936) / The Russian Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Encyclopedia, Moscow, p.145.

[iii] Ibid., p.149.

[iv] Priest Alexander Mazyrin. Leninskie, stalinskie I khruschovskie goneniya na Tserkov. Moscow, 2006.

[v] The Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarch locum tenens Metropolitan Sergius (1925 – 1936) / The Russian Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Encyclopedia, Moscow, p.149

[vi] The Godless Five-Year Plan. The Orthodox Encyclopedia, vol. 4 pp.443-444

[vii].Volkov, A.G. Census for 1937: truth and fiction/ Census of the USSR for 1937. Issue 3 – 5 (Part II0, Moscow, 1990, pp.6-63

[viii] At present in the Russian Orthodox Church there are 35,907 churches or other premises in which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.

[ix] On the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church there are 462 monasteries and 482 convents, and another 56 monasteries and convents abroad.

[x] The figures come from the All-Russian VCIOM research centre poll from 23 – 24 January 2010 / Press release by VCIOM no.1461 30 March 2010.

Photograph: Robert Nicolae / Basilica.ro

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