From all appearances there is a decided change in the attitude of the Soviet government toward religion, which, according to some reporters, promises to outlast the war.
Ever since the rise of the Soviet Union repeated attempts have been made to suppress, if not to wipe out religion in Russia. The first assault was launched in 1917 when Communism came into power. Priests and bishops were jailed, exiled and executed by the thousands. The church schools and press were outlawed, while property was confiscated and turned into nurseries, granaries, anti-religious museums and the like.
In 1928 other steps were taken to suppress religion. A six day week was instituted, which put away with the Sunday. Religious instruction for anyone under eighteen years of age was considered an offense against the State. Some one thousand clergymen were imprisoned. The printing of Bibles was forbidden. While a powerful League of Militant Atheists, which published a weekly journal satirizing religion, was given a government backing.
In 1937 the clergy that remained in office were forbidden the right to vote and were diligently guarded against influencing the vote of the laymen.
As late as 1943 reports from Russia stated that religion in Russia was tolerated, but at the same time discouraged as much as possible. At that late date the churches were charged exorbitant taxes. It is said that Moscow’s St. Elias Church paid $19,000 annually “just for the privilege of keeping its doors open”, in addition to other regular taxes. Priests paid a forty percent income tax. Agents were sent out from the government to take down sermons verbatim. And the training of the clergy was forbidden, so that it was impossible to replace those who died. Even today not all of these conditions are changed.
All this in spite of the fact that the Constitution of the Soviet regime favors “freedom of religion”. President Roosevelt reminded the country of this in 1941 when our pact with Russia was being established. In fact, he compared it to the freedom of religion ae guaranteed by our own Constitution, which at the time created quite a stir in the country. Article 121 of the Russian Constitution reads: “In the object of ensuring to the citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the U.S.S.R. is separated from the State and the school from the church. Freedom of service of religious cults and freedom of anti-religious propaganda is acknowledged for all citizens.”
It may surprise us that the churches in Russia were still able to eke out an existence through all this suppression. Of the hundred thousand congregations under the Czar there were an estimated thirty thousand still active a few years ago. Particularly the Russian Baptists seem to have ridden out the storm, often without clergy to serve their churches, but with a strong determination to remain in existence. They are considered to be a group of Biblical fundamentalists, a comparatively new movement springing from German Protestantism and having no political ambitions. According to some reports they have grown to a total of four million, which is two thirds the number of Northern and Southern Baptists in the United States.
It is now commonly agreed in all reports from
Russia that the Soviet government has definitely changed its attitude toward religion. Jerome Davis in “The New Republic” of March 5, 1945, writes, “Russia is not abandoning religion. AH who wish to worship God are free to express their faith as their conscience dictates. This right is being exercised today and will be in the future.” He adds that the church has been permitted to open a theological seminary for the training of candidates for the clergy. The government has established a council for religion under the Council of People’s Commissars. It is cooperating with the religious bodies of all faiths. The Church is once more allowed to publish its own literature and run its own press. Military medals have been awarded to the clergy for their patriotic efforts in the war, particularly in Leningrad and in Moscow. The atheist society has been disbanded. Officers now attend religious services and new churches have been opened.
Other sources say that the clergy is once more allowed to vote, the seven day week is back, and textbooks for the schools have been revised to eliminate offensive references to religion.
All of which speaks of a change of attitude on the part of the Soviet government toward religion. Freedom of religion seems to have been restored once more. And evidently under the same constitution under which it has been suppressed for so long. This is quite significant.
The change of attitude must be considered a change of policy rather than a change of principle. The Soviet government has not changed its principles one iota, but is just as communistic as it ever was.
This iis evident from a leading article on education in the Russian paper “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, taken over in the “New Republic” of March 5, 1945. This article states, “There is no use concealing the fact that among teachers there are people—a small number, it is true—who have begun to show great tolerance toward religion.
“Cases of observance of religious ceremonies by teachers have been increased somewhat. Our party’s attitude toward religion is well known and has not changed. Our party fights against religious prejudices because it stands for science, while religious prejudices go against science, since all religion is contrary to science.
“By what means does our party fight religion? Kalmin gave a good answer in his talk to front-line agitators in 1943: “We don’t persecute anyone for religion. We regard it as an error and fight it with enlightenment.” In conformity with the requirements of our party, care must be taken to avoid any offence to the feelings of believers, which can lead only to the strengthening of religious fanaticism. It is regrettable that some of our educators have shown themselves to be prisoners of religious errors. This is naturally due to slack work in political education by the teachers.”
The main question is, why this change of policy on the part of the Soviet government in granting freedom of religion where it was formerly suppressed?
Especially two reasons have been suggested which are worthy of our consideration.
This change is partly due, no doubt, to the change of attitude by the church itself toward the Soviet government. The churches of Russia are said to have favored the Czar and opposed Communism. Prominent leaders in the church, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church, put forth every effort to overthrow the Soviet regime. But in later years the churches either hushed their opposition or gave the Soviet government their support. The war seems to have influenced, the churches to no small extent to rally their support to the Communistic government. This at least in part accounts for the change of attitude of the Soviet government toward religion. And possibly also accounts for the fact that the Russian Baptists, who never burdened themselves with political matters, are far better off under the present government than they ever were under the Czar.
But Russia’s change of policy is evidently also a political move. Walter Graebner, Time and Life correspondent in Russia, writes in his “Round Trip to Russia” in 1943: “It may be that, as the Soviet Union grows older, it is taking a less stern attitude toward religion. This is certainly what the government would like the world to think. Many, however, feel that the changed attitude is more a wartime expediency than the real things. Most, foreign observers believe that Kremlin is basically just as anti-religious as it ever was. But no one knows for sure.”
In his “Report on the Russians”, William L. White writes: “The Bolshevik Party now feels strong enough to tolerate, even to recognize, the Church. The patriarchs have loyally supported the war. The principal reason for the Party’s original opposition lay in the fact that the Church had in previous generations preached unquestioning obedience to the Czars. The Party has not overlooked the fact that a patriotic, nationalistic Church can be as useful to their regime as it was to the Romanoff dynasty.
“Although the Church is now recognized and tolerated, it is not officially encouraged. The Party realizes that the new policy is popular abroad, and strengthens in America and England their own position and that of their friends in those countries. Consequently, they encourage all new stories and picture layouts coming out of Russia portraying the new state of affairs.
“. . . . Marx called religion “The Opium of the People.” The private attitude of the Party would be, “If the people still want opium, why not give them a little ? We are strong now, and today the Church is patriotic.”
Summing up these various reports, we can only conclude that Russia’s change of attitude is only a change in policy. The motive seems to be to establish a united home-front to aid her in her war, and at the same time to gain the good-will of her allies who are fighting a common cause with her. The Soviet Union may also have learned that military power and suppression may subdue a people, but will never succeed in winning them for the cause. They seem to have chosen to don the sheep’s garment as far more becoming and much more influential in gaining their end. Russian Communism is taking on the appearance of the Beast of Revelation 13.
While the churches in Russia, at least for the most part, seem to realize that their modernistic principles are not so different after all from the aims of the
Communists. They are evidently quite willing to accept the embrace of the Russian Bear.
It begins to look very much as if the devil will return to find his house garnished and clean, ready to be inhabited by seven other demons, all more powerful than the first. That sort of freedom of religion forebodes only oppression for the true Church of Jesus Christ in the world. At least, we do well to be forewarned and watch developments.