I thought I knew what believers experienced under communism. But I was unprepared for a story of persecution comparable to the Roman Empire
When Russia’s small Catholic community commemorated its post-communist revival this spring, it was a time to take stock of progress achieved over the past quarter of a century. Catholics still face discrimination in Russia, as the Orthodox Church, backed by President Vladimir Putin, rebuilds its power and wealth. Yet the sufferings inflicted under Soviet rule are remembered with particular bitterness.
The eight decades from the Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the Iron Curtain brought waves of anti-religious repression comparable to the persecutions of the first centuries. Yet they also produced acts of witness paralleling the most heroic of Christian history.
When I began gathering material for a two-volume history, I had a pretty sound grasp of what Christians, so many of them Orthodox believers, had endured. But I had little idea of the sheer scale of persecution.
Lenin’s power system claimed possession over minds and souls, and commanded not just obedience but also active approval. By promising absolute good, it eroded any sense of evil, unleashing primal instincts usually constrained by law and ethics. Christians were shocked at how the potestas tenebrarum, the power of evil spoken of by St Paul, had surfaced again in their own lifetimes.
“In childhood and adolescence, I immersed myself in the lives of the saints and was enraptured by their heroism and holy inspiration,” the youthful Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd confided to a friend as he awaited execution in 1922 as an “enemy of the people”. He and other priests were dressed in rags so the firing squad would not recognise them. “I sorrowed that times had changed and one no longer had to suffer what they suffered,” he said. “Well, times have changed again, and the opportunity has arisen to suffer for Christ both from one’s own people and from strangers.”
The paradigms of persecution and martyrdom, established in the Early Church, had indeed made a drastic comeback. Under Roman rule, there had been secret police and informers, show trials and forced labour sentences. Propagandists such as Celsus and Porphyry had ridiculed Christian beliefs, while Roman officials had followed the tactic of “striking the shepherd so the sheep will scatter” – using torture to break the will of Christians and force them to incriminate others. Whereas the Romans had defended the established religious order, communists sought to destroy it. But the impulses of suspicion and hostility were much the same. In both cases, Christians represented an alternative value system. They owed temporal loyalty to the state, but spiritual loyalty to a heavenly kingdom beyond it. When the two came into conflict, they were bound to obey God. For regimes demanding absolute submission, this could not be tolerated.
St Augustine had recognised the importance of the martyrs to Christianity’s expansion. It was those who had said “Christianus sum” (I am a Christian) in the face of death who had truly followed Christ. By then, the Church’s persecution had long since ended with Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Toleration. Yet “red martyrdom”, the martyrdom of blood, would never disappear.
Eleven centuries later, St Thomas More would advise Christians facing a test of conscience to consider their situation carefully, and to “appoint with God’s help in their own mind beforehand what thing they intend to do”. Martyrdom required spiritual and intellectual readiness.
But the persecutors were often well-prepared too, as became clear when mass martyrdom returned with the new ideological state ushered in by the French Revolution. Reading interrogation records from revolutionary France and the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, I was struck by the similarities with later communist-era methods: the same remorseless drive to wear down victims, expose their contradictions and destroy their moral certainties.
The Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia had learnt lessons from these events. Lenin revered the Commune, seeing it as a practice run for 1917. But he concurred with Marx that the Communards had been weakened by their “conscientious scruples”. The Commune’s suppression, with 20,000 dead, had revealed what the vengeful bourgeoisie would do when attempted revolutions collapsed. Preventing this required a new “revolutionary boldness”.
Lenin was baptised in 1870 and 18 years later was married with Orthodox rites. But he had studied the 19th-century arguments over religion and left it firmly behind. To call religion the “opium of the people” was too kind, Lenin wrote in 1909, paraphrasing Marx and Feuerbach. It was “a kind of spiritual rotgut, by which the slaves of capital blacken their human figure and their aspirations for a more dignified human life”. Churches were “organs of bourgeois reaction”. Rooting them out was the logical extension of Marx’s historical inevitability.
“Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness,” Lenin told the writer Maxim Gorky. “Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions … are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest ideological costumes.”
A paramilitary police, the Cheka, was operating with 40,000 agents within a year of the Revolution from Moscow’s Lubyanka. “We have no concern about justice at this hour,” its Polish founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky, confidently proclaimed, as his newspaper ran copious lists of arrests and executions, province by province. Dzerzhinsky had planned to become a priest, and would have Masses of expiation said for him, arranged by his anguished sister Aldona, in a Warsaw church.
Even then, Lenin believed his regime was being “inordinately soft” and urged the Cheka to make fuller use of its summary powers, “so people will see it all, understand it, tremble”. Hundreds were slaughtered during French-style “September massacres” in the prisons of Moscow, while the press recorded 15,000 executions in a month, at least twice the number from an entire century of Tsarist rule. In Russia’s southern republics “enemies of the people” could be denounced, tried, killed and buried in a single afternoon.
An estimated 25 million people died in peacetime under communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Documentation concerning anti-Christian persecution has been slow to emerge. A Russian state commission has confirmed that 45,000 Orthodox churches were left in ruins and tens of thousands of Orthodox priests, monks and nuns killed in the first two decades of Soviet rule. As for Russia’s Catholics, no systematic study was undertaken until the late 1990s, when experts revealed the extent of the repression. Of the 2,000 Catholics whose fates are known, 422 priests were killed, up to a third in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-38, while all but two of 1,240 Catholic places of worship were turned into shops, warehouses, farm buildings or public toilets.
When communist rule was brought to post-war Eastern Europe by the Red Army, the persecution started again. The region’s cardinals – Stefan Wyszyński in Poland, Josef Beran in Czechoslovakia, József Mindszenty in Hungary and Alojzije Stepinac in Croatia – tried to rally the faithful and were all brought down, with only Wyszyński regaining his position, while Greek Catholic communities were savagely suppressed.
Whereas Lenin’s regime had consolidated its power through open violence in the early years, by the 1960s communist methods had changed. We know now that the churches of Eastern Europe were more extensively infiltrated by secret police agents than previously thought. Even in staunchly Catholic Poland, up to 40 per cent of Catholic clergy were listed as informers in some dioceses. The Vatican itself was also infiltrated.
Yet some top communist rulers had complex personal attitudes to religion. Stalin, for all his anti-faith brutality, often used religious language and had an excellent knowledge of the Bible gained from six years in an Orthodox seminary.
In later years, Czechoslovakia’s Gustáv Husák made his Confession before he died, while Hungary’s János Kádár asked to see a Catholic priest and Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito was cared for, at his own request, by Catholic nuns.
Poland’s General Wojciech Jaruzelski received Holy Communion and, in May 2014, a full Catholic cathedral funeral, while Mikhail Gorbachev donated his parents’ house to the Orthodox Church.
In the euphoria which accompanied communism’s collapse in 1989-91, there were echoes of the rejoicing that followed the 4th-century Great Deliverance, when, as the historian Eusebius described, new bishops were consecrated, places of worship reopened and confiscated properties returned, as newly liberated citizens “lost all fear of their former oppressors”.
But the Church still suffers today from the wounds inflicted on it. Eastern Europe’s democratic governments have honoured many of communism’s Christian victims, such as the young Jesuit Fr Władysław Gurgacz, shot in 1949 for ministering to Poland’s post-war “doomed soldiers”, and the Sister of Mercy Zofia Łuszczkiewicz, who died of TB in 1957 after receiving three death sentences for her underground links. Yet most communist-era villains have escaped judgment and are now enjoying a comfortable retirement, unrepentant and undisturbed. Perhaps this was a price worth paying for communism’s peaceful overthrow. Yet even within the Church, recognition of communist-era sufferings has been half-hearted.
Communist rule produced its own Polycarps and Perpetuas, its Cyprians and Tertullians. Whereas Early Church accounts of martyrdom were heavily embellished, the communist-era martyrs were absolutely real, witnessing and suffering in living memory. Yet barely 40 have so far been beatified, compared to the thousands honoured from the French and Mexican revolutions and the Spanish Civil War.
In an age of relativism, the very notion of martyrdom has been derided. Its misuse by Islamist suicide bombers has tainted the term with fanaticism. While political and ideological causes can also have their martyrs, true martyrs cannot violently kill themselves or murder others in the process.
Yet for many even genuine martyrdoms involve barely credible stories of otherworldly defiance, outdated certainties which glorify pain and evoke intolerance. Ideals and principles may be fine things, but can they ever be worth dying for? In the Christian tradition, the answer can only be a resounding yes: Christianity is, ultimately, about following Jesus Christ come what may.
We urgently need to learn the lessons of the communist-era persecutions. One is that the Church must always stay united and independent of the state.
Repression and persecution, however fearsome, are less dangerous than accommodation and indifference, the compromising of the Church’s values and the corrupting of its canonical order.
Another is that the Church must avoid siding with the vested interests of power and privilege, the charge levelled against it by past revolutionary movements, but must find its place in a democratic environment as a modernising social and cultural force.
However enlightened and reasonable, the Church will always have its enemies. So its leaders must find the right balance between testimony and diplomacy, confrontation and collaboration, and avoid compromising their spiritual independence for the sake of institutional advantage.
In the end, the martyrs remind us that Christianity is resilient. The persecutions showed where militant atheism and secularism lead when those who ridicule the faith end up attempting to suppress it. But the onslaught also highlighted Christianity’s contribution to the power of truth, a force that can expose destructive ideologies and bring down dictatorships. There will indeed be occasions when truth matters more than life itself.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag: Martyrs in an Age of Revolution and Martyrs in an Age of Secularism, is published by Gracewing
This article first appeared in the June 10 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here