Holy Counter-Revolution on Trial: The Russian Orthodox Church and the Bolshevik State, 1918-1921




Dockham, Carol J.

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The first “official” assault of the Bolsheviks against religion was carried out against the institution of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1918-1921, during the civil war period in Soviet Russia. The assault was two-pronged, consisting of legal measures and a propaganda campaign against the Church and its leaders, consisting of clergy and laymen, who were collectively termed as “churchmen.” Of the legal measures, the most important was the decree on the separation of the Church from the State, which deprived the institutional Church of its former privileges, income, and property. When the Church leaders reacted protested the violence and bloodshed caused by the revolutionaries as well as the new conditions imposed by the decree on the separation of the Church from the State, the Bolsheviks claimed they had declared a “holy war” against the regime and had instigated a “holy counter-revolution” to overthrow it. The Bolsheviks sought to discredit the Church leaders through a slanderous propaganda campaign in newspapers that denounced them as monarchists and reactionaries. In early 1918, churchmen began appearing before revolutionary tribunals, which had been established in November 1917 to combat counter-revolutionary activities. The tribunals existed alongside the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, or Cheka, which shot thousands of people, including churchmen, on an extrajudicial basis without trial. The revolutionary tribunals received the right to use the death penalty in June 1918; however, their primary purpose with regard to the Church was not to kill off churchmen, but to discredit them in the eyes of the people. Although exact statistics were not kept during as to the total number of trials involving churchmen, the chief accuser of the tribunals, Nikolai Vasilievich Krylenko, declared in January 1920 that such trials had been heard in nearly every revolutionary tribunal of Soviet Russia. The trials of the churchmen were considered by Soviet scholars to have been instrumental in breaking the back of the Church counter-revolution and contributing to the break-away of the masses from religious belief. While the Church was undeniably weakened as an institution during the civil war years, this was probably due more to other factors, with the trials playing only a minor role. The trials played a slightly more important role in conveying the Bolshevik views on religion to the masses, which resulted in a reduction of overt religious displays in public life. They also helped changed the behavior of the churchmen, who never again challenged the authority of the Soviet State.



Russian Orthodox Church, Counter-revolution, Trial, Bolshevik, Revolutionary tribunal