In September 1943, as the tide of the Second World War was turning in the Soviet Union’s favour, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called a meeting at the Kremlin. Alongside the foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the head of the secret police Vsevolod Merkulov were three men in Stalin’s office for the first time: Metropolitan Sergius, Metropolitan Aleksey, and Metropolitan Nikolay, three of the few Orthodox Church hierarchs left in the Soviet Union.
The fact of such a meeting taking place is naturally surprising. Even those who know little about the Soviet Union are familiar with its anti-religious policies, especially thanks to Cold War rhetoric about ‘godless communists’. Indeed, this meeting was being held after decades of persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church by the officially atheist Soviet state. The three Metropolitans came to this meeting after decades of watching their Church decimated all around them. As they greeted Stalin at the Kremlin, many of their fellow clergy were imprisoned in labour camps – and others were dead. By the end of the 1930s, the Soviet state had effectively destroyed much of the official existence of what had been for centuries imperial Russia’s most powerful and wealthy religious institution.
But in September 1943, as Stalin imagined a role for a victorious Soviet Union in a postwar world, he began to reconsider his government’s position with regards to the Russian Orthodox Church, and eventually to the entire question of the role of religion in an atheist empire. At this meeting, Stalin presented these men with a bold proposal: the same Soviet state that had destroyed their Church was now going to devote its resources to bringing it back.
The story of this meeting and the proposal to revive Orthodoxy is rarely told – but, when it is mentioned, it is dismissed as a wartime measure, as temporary as the friendship campaigns between the USSR and the United States that also characterised the war years. Yet to gloss over this meeting is to miss its significance as a shift in the Soviet approach to religion, one that would leave a mark on religious life for Soviet people and their descendants in the decades that followed.
What was the nature of this shift? It began with an acknowledgement that, despite the state’s efforts, religious ties and ideas of religious belonging resonated with its population. Instead of ignoring the continued influence of religion, the state might be able to use it to its own advantage. Rather than allow religious life to operate outside of Soviet society in the depths of the underground, the state could create an official religious life that could be surveilled, regulated, taxed and, most critically, used to accomplish political goals. [Continue reading…]