Anti-religious campaign 1917–1921
Main articles: USSR anti-religious campaign (1917–1921) and 1922 confiscation of Russian Orthodox Church property
In August 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox Church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch.
In November 1917, within weeks of the revolution, the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment was established, which a month later created the All-Russian Union of Teachers-Internationalists for the purpose of removing religious instruction from school curricula. In order to intensify the anti-religious propaganda in the school system, the Chief Administration for Political Enlightenment (Glavpolitprosvet) was established in November 1920.
Lenin’s decree on the separation of church and state in early 1918 deprived the formerly official church of its status of legal person, the right to own property, or to teach religion in both state and private schools or to any group of minors. The decree abolished the privileges of the church and thus ended the alliance between church and state. The clergy openly attacked the decree. The leadership of the Church issued a special appeal to believers to obstruct the enforcement of the decree.
In addition, the Decree “On the Separation of the Church from the State and the School from the Church” also determined the relationship between school and church. “School shall be separated from church,” the Decree said. “The teaching of religious doctrines in all the state and public, as well as private educational institutions where general subjects are taught shall not be permitted. Citizens may teach and be taught religion in private.”
Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow excommunicated the Soviet leadership on January 19, 1918 (Julian Calendar) for conducting this campaign. In retaliation the regime arrested and killed dozens of bishops, thousands of the lower clergy and monastics, and multitudes of laity. The seizing of church property over the next few years would be marked by a brutal campaign of violent terror.
During the Russian Civil War, many clerics were killed. Some died as a result of spontaneous violence endemic in the power vacuum of the war and some were executed by state security services for supporting the White armies. The church claimed that 322 bishops and priests had been killed during the Revolution. Between June 1918 and January 1919, official church figures (which did not include the Volga, Kama and several other regions in Russia) claimed that one metropolitan, eighteen bishops, one hundred and two priests, one hundred and fifty-four deacons, and ninety-four monks/nuns had been killed (laity not recorded). The estimate of 330 clergy and monastics killed by 1921 may have been an underestimate, due to the fact that 579 monasteries/convents had been liquidated during this period and there were widespread mass executions of monks/nuns during these liquidations.
Many sections of the Russian Orthodox Church supported the anti-Soviet regimes such as those of Kolchak and Denikin during the civil war. In 1918, the Bishop of Ufa made xenophobic and anti-Bolshevik speeches and rallied the people to the White cause in 1918. The Archbishop of Ekaterinburg organized protest demonstrations when he learned of the Romanov family’s execution in July 1918, and he held a victory celebration when Admiral Kolchak took the city in February 1919. In both the Siberian and Ukrainian fronts, “Jesus Christ Regiments”, orthodox by Orthodox hiearachs on the scene, aided White Armies. In December 1918, the priest Georgy Shavelsky joined the propaganda agency of the White government in the South.
This widespread violence by members of the Red Army against the church was not openly supported by Lenin, however, in later years high-ranking Soviet officials including Emelian Yaroslavsky claimed central responsibility for these killings. They justified the violence by revising history and declaring that the church had been actively fighting against them.
The church had expressed its support to General Kornilov’s counter-revolutionary coup attempt, assisted the rebellions of Kerensky and Krasnov, and had called on believers to fight against the new state, and even to shed blood in fighting against it. There was Tikhon’s appeal “To the Orthodox People” in which he presented Tikhon’s call for believers to be willing even to give up their lives as martyrs in the effort to preserve their religion (“It is better to shed one’s blood and to be awarded martyr’s crown than to let the enemies desecrate Orthodox faith,” said the Appeal.)
Most of the clergy reacted toward the Russian Revolution with open hostility. During the Civil War, many representatives of the Russian orthodox clergy collaborated or had sympathies with the White Armies and foreign invading armies, hoping for a restoration of the prerevolutionary regime. The church had expressed its support to General Kornilov’s counter-revolutionary coup attempt. The church adopted the Enactment on Legal Status of the Church in Russia which tried to vindicate the rights that the church had enjoyed for centuries under the old regime. The Orthodox Church, said the document, “holds the pre-eminent public and legal position in Russian state among other denominations”. Tikhon anathematised the Soviet government and called on believers to fight against it and its decrees. The church leadership openly urged fighting against Soviet Government in its appeal entitled “To the Orthodox People”. “It is better to shed one’s blood and to be awarded martyr’s crown than to let the enemies desecrate Orthodox faith,” said the Appeal.
The church’s opposition to the Soviet Government was part of a general counter-revolutionary movement. In the first days after the victory of the October armed uprising in Petrograd, the clergy assisted the rebellion of Kerensky and Krasnov as they attempted to overthrow Soviet power. The activity of the Local Council in Moscow supported the cadets who had revolted. When the rebels seized the Kremlin for a time, its cathedrals and bell-towers were placed at their disposal at once.
Church resistance was not organized nationally, however, and Tikhon never gave his blessing to White forces. The Patriarch in fact declared his neutrality during the civil war and attempted to issue instructions to the Russian orthodox church on political neutrality and disengagement. Propaganda at the time claimed that this was a camouflage for the church’s real position which was supposedly support for a return of Tsarism
Furthermore, the fraudulence of later Soviet revisions is clearly shown through the fact that none of the documented acts of brutalities against members of the clergy by the Reds involved anyone who actually took up arms with the Whites, and only a few of them were cases of clergy who gave vocal support. The fraudulence of such revisionism was shown even further by the fact that the slicing up of unarmed prisoners, scalping and torturing believers, shooting priests’ wives and children, and many other such acts recorded in the documented acts of brutality by the Reds against the Orthodox church during the civil war have nothing to do with acting in ‘self-defense’.
Anti-religious atheistic propaganda was considered to be of essential importance to Lenin’s party from its early pre-revolutionary days and the regime was quick to create atheist journals to attack religion shortly after its coming to power. The first operated under the name Revolution and the Church (Revolustiia i tserkov). It was originally believed in the ideology that religion would disappear quickly with the coming of the revolution and that its replacement with atheism would be inevitable. The leadership of the new state did not take much time, however, to come to the conclusion that religion would not disappear on its own and greater efforts should be given to anti-religious propaganda.
For this purpose atheistic work was centrally consolidated underneath the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the CP Central Committee (Agitprop) in 1920 using the guidelines of article 13 of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) adopted by the 8th party congress.
Article 13 stated:
As far as religion is concerned, the RCP will not be satisfied by the decreed separation of Church and State… The Party aims at the complete destruction of links between the exploiting classes and… religious propaganda, while assisting the actual liberation of the working masses from religious prejudices and organizing the broadest possible education-enlightening and anti-religious propaganda. At the same time it is necessary carefully to avoid any insult to the believers’ feelings, which would lead to the hardening of religious fanaticism
The article would be very important in later years for anti-religious policy in the USSR, and its last sentence—which was both ignored and recognized at different points in Soviet history—would play a role in subsequent power struggles between different Soviet leaders.
Public debates were held between Christians and atheists after the revolution up until they were suspended in 1929. Among famous participants of these debates included on the atheist side, Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky. People would line up for hours in order to get seats to see them. The authorities sometimes tried to limit the speaking time of the Christians to ten minutes, and on other occasions the debates would be called off at last minute. This may have been a result of a reportedly high quality of some of the religious debaters. Professor V.S. Martsinkovsky, raised as Orthodox but who had become an evangelical Protestant, was one of the best on the religious side, and Lunacharsky reportedly canceled one of his debates with him after having lost in a previous debate. On one occasion in 1921 a large crowd of Komsomol hecklers arrived at one of Martsinkovsky’s debates and occupied the two front rows. When the leader tried to heckle, he found himself unsupported by his boys, and afterwards they told him that he was not saying what they were told he was going to say.
Anti-religious campaign 1921–1928
Main article: USSR anti-religious campaign (1921–1928)
The tenth CPSU congress met in 1921 and it passed a resolution calling for ‘wide-scale organization, leadership, and cooperation in the task of anti-religious agitation and propaganda among the broad masses of the workers, using the mass media, films, books, lectures, and other devices.
When church leaders demanded freedom of religion under the constitution, the Communists responded with terror. They murdered the metropolitan of Kiev and executed twenty-eight bishops and 6,775 priests. Despite mass demonstrations in support of the church, repression cowed most ecclesiastical leaders into submission.
In August 1921, a Plenary meeting of the CPSU Central Committee (the highest leadership of the state) adopted an 11-point instruction on the interpretation and application of article 13 (mentioned above). It differentiated between religious believers and uneducated believers, and allowed the latter to have party membership if they were devoted to Communism, but that they should be re-educated to make them atheists. It also called for moderation in the anti-religious campaign and emphasized that the state was fighting against all religion and not simply individual ones (such as the Orthodox church)
The public debates began to be suppressed after the 10th congress, until they were formally suspended in 1929 and replaced with public lectures by atheists. V. S. Martsinkovsky was arrested and sent into exile in 1922 on account of his preaching that was attracting people to religion and told he could return in a few years once the workers had become wiser (he was in fact never allowed to return).
The church allegedly tried to set up free religio-philosophical academies, study circles and periodicals in the 1920s, which Lenin met by arresting and expelling all the organizers abroad and shutting down these efforts with force.
Despite the August 1921 instruction, the state took a very hard line against the Orthodox Church on the pretext that it was a legacy of the Tsarist past (the difference in practice and policy may have reflected internal disagreement among the party leadership). Leon Trotsky wanted Patriarch Tikhon to be killed, but Lenin forbade it for fear it would produce another Patriarch Hermogenes (a Patriarch who was killed by the Poles when they occupied Moscow in 1612).
In order to weaken the Orthodox church, the state supported a schism called the Renovationist sect, by giving it legal recognition in 1922 and continuing to terrorize the old Orthodox as well as deprive it of legal means of existence. The Patriarch was arrested in 1922 under thinly veiled criminal proceedings, and his chancery was taken over by the Renovationists. The Renovationists restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.
In 1922 there was a famine in Russia. Factory and office workers in 1921 proposed that the church’s wealth be used for hunger relief. These proposals were supported by some clergymen. In August of 1921, Patriarch Tikhon issued a message to the Russian people calling them to help famine victims and he gave his blessing for voluntary donations of church valuables that were not directly used in liturgical services. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the RSFSR issued a decree that all church valuables should be expropriated in response to the people’s requests on February 26, 1922, and action which according to the 73rd Apostolic Canon of the Orthodox Church is regarded as sacrilege. Because of this, Tikhon and many priests opposed giving any part of the valuables, doubting that the valuables would go to help the hungry. Tikhon threatened repressions against those clergymen and laymen who wanted to give away church riches.
Under the decree, part of the gold and silver articles were to be confiscated from the property placed at the disposal of believers by the state free of charge. Articles made of precious metals were to be taken away with caution and the clergymen were to be informed in advance of the procedure and dates for the confiscation. It was stipulated that the process of expropriation should not hinder public worship or hurt the interests of believers.
Soviet police reports from 1922 claim that the peasantry (and especially women) considered Tikhon to be a martyr after his arrest over his supposed resistance and that the ‘progressive’ clergy were traitors to the religion; there were also rumors circulated that Jews were running the Soviet Supreme Church Administration, and for this reason Lenin forbade Trotsky from involvement with the campaign, and prevented certain key roles being given to those of Jewish descent.
There was bloody incident in a town called Shuia. Lenin wrote that their enemies had foolishly afforded them a great opportunity by this action, since he believed that the peasant masses would not support the church’s hold on its valuables in light of the famine and that the resistance that the church offered could be met with retaliation against the clergy. Otto von Radowitz, the counselor at the German embassy in Moscow, recorded that the campaign was a deliberate provocation to get the clergy to react in order to attack it in response.
Lenin outlined that the entire issue of the church valuable campaign could be used as a pretext in the public eye to attack the church and kill clergy.
The sixth sector of the OGPU, led by Yevgeny Tuchkov, began aggressively arresting and executing bishops, priests, and devout worshipers, such as Metropolitan Veniamin in Petrograd in 1922 for refusing to accede to the demand to hand in church valuables (including sacred relics). Archbishop Andronik of Perm, who worked as a missionary in Japan, who was shot after being forced to dig his own grave. Bishop Germogen of Tobolsk, who voluntarily accompanied the czar into exile, was strapped to the paddle wheel of a steamboat and mangled by the rotating blades. .
In 1922, the Solovki Camp of Special Purpose, the first Russian concentration camp and a former Orthodox monastery, was established in the Solovki Islands in the White Sea. In the years 1917–1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested; 95,000 were put to death, executed by firing squad.[self-published source?] Father Pavel Florensky, exiled in 1928 and executed in 1937, was one of the New-martyrs of this particular period.
In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, an English journalist estimated that 28 bishops and 1,215 priests were executed. Recently released evidence indicates over 8,000 were killed in 1922 during the conflict over church valuables.
Specialized anti-religious publications began in 1922, including Yemelyan Yaroslavsky’s Bezbozhnik, which later formed the basis for the League of the Militant Godless (LMG).
With the conclusion of the campaign of seizing church valuables, the terror campaign against the church was called off for a while. The church closings ended for a period and abuses were investigated. The propaganda war continued, and public institutions worked to purge religious views from intellectuals and academia.
The old Marxist assumption that religion would disappear on its own with changing material conditions was pragmatically challenged as religion persisted. The Soviet leadership debated how best to combat religion. The positions ranged from the ‘rightist’ belief that religion would die on its own naturally with increasing education and the ‘leftist’ belief that religion needed to be attacked strongly. Lenin called the struggle to disseminate atheism ‘the cause of our state’.
The government had difficulties trying to implement anti-religious education in schools, due to a shortage of atheist teachers. Anti-religious education began in secondary schools in 1925.
The state changed its position on the renovationists and began to increasingly see them as an independent threat in the late 1920s due to their great success in attracting people to religion. Tikhon died in 1925 and the Soviets forbade the holding of patriarchal elections. Patriarchal locum tenens (acting Patriarch) Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky, 1887–1944) issued a declaration in 1927, accepting the Soviet authority over the church as legitimate, pledging the church’s cooperation with the government and condemning political dissent within the church.
He did this in order to secure the survival of the church. Metropolitan Sergius formally expressed his “loyalty” to the Soviet government and thereafter refrained from criticizing the state in any way. This attitude of loyalty, however, provoked more divisions in the church itself: inside Russia, a number of faithful opposed Sergius, and abroad, the Russian metropolitans of America and western Europe severed their relations with Moscow.
By this he granted himself with the power that he, being a deputy of imprisoned Metropolitan Peter and acting against his will, had no right to assume according to the XXXIV Apostolic canon, which led to a split with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia abroad and the Russian True Orthodox Church (Russian Catacomb Church) within the Soviet Union, as they remained faithful to the Canons of the Apostles, declaring the part of the church led by Metropolitan Sergius schism, sometimes coined as sergianism.
Due to this canonical disagreement it is disputed which church has been the legitimate successor to the Russian Orthodox Church that had existed before 1925. 
In 1927, the state tried to mend the schism by bringing the renovationists back into the Orthodox church, partly so that the former could be better controlled through agents they had in the latter.
The Komsomol and later LMG would try to implement the 10th Congress resolution by various attacks, parades, theatrical performances, journals, brochures and films. The Komsomol would hold crude blasphemous ‘Komsomol Christmases’ and ‘Komsomol Easters’ headed by hooligans dressed as orthodox clergy. The processions would include the burning of icons, religious books, mock images of Christ, the Virgin, etc. The propaganda campaign, however, was a failure and many people remained with their religious convictions. The church held its own public events with some success, and well competed with the anti-religious propaganda during these years.