Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 17. Control of the Church

The wicked shall go to the sanctuary, with axes and with fire they will break down and burn its doors; and they will take the just men and burn them in the center of the city.

Savonarola, Sermon of 1491

FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE had been a plank in the Bolshevik platform—even the Salvation Army was permitted in Moscow from 1918 to 1920—but the Orthodox Church, the prop of the Tsarist state, met with implacable hostility from Lenin’s party. Only Anatoli Lunacharsky hoped to integrate the evangelical wing of the Church into Soviet ideology. In spring 1922, for the final time, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky acted in concert—to destroy this last bastion of hostile ideology.15 Menzhinsky, the GPU’s most experienced blasphemer, took charge. This campaign was a logical development of the Bolsheviks’ economic and military victory: the Church was singled out not just because of Lenin and Trotsky’s anticlericalism or Stalin’s, image’s, and Menzhinsky’s religious complexes, nor just because it was the last element of the old regime with any hold over the populace. The pretext for action was the Church’s riches.

War and drought had by the middle of 1921 killed some 5 million peasants, and despite its requests the Russian Church was refused permission to organize famine relief. In August 1921 Lenin authorized the American Relief Agency to distribute wheat in the Volga region with contributions coming from agencies such as Fridtjof Nansen’s organization and the Quakers. The ARA’s success embarrassed the Soviet authorities: the Volga quickly began feeding the cities again.

At first sight the Church was no danger to the regime; it had failed to give any lead in public affairs, in theology or philosophy, for 200 years. But Orthodox laymen like Aleksei Khomiakov, Konstantin Leontiev, and Fiodor Dostoevsky had revitalized Russian Christianity at the end of the previous century, and it had even competed with social democrats and Marxists for the minds of educated Russians at the time. In 1921 people still remembered the religious-philosophical debates of 1903 and 1904 which had unnerved both the Church hierarchy and the revolutionary movements when they saw with what verve Christians and Marxists could convert each other.

The Church’s offer to undertake famine relief now suggested a ploy to the Cheka and the party: the Church would be forced, not encouraged, to hand over its icons, gold, silver, and bronze for sale. In vain Patriarch Tikhon requested that parishes should keep objects used in the liturgy. Lenin believed that billions, not just millions, of gold rubles would be raised by selling Church property—although the Church’s land and many of its buildings had already been expropriated—and proposed thus to pay off enough of the Tsarist government’s debts to win recognition from European states. Trotsky, convinced of imminent worldwide conflagration, saw the Church’s money as a war chest, to be grabbed quickly, before world revolution devalued it.

Both Lenin and Trotsky overestimated the value of the booty: objects were seized so roughly and precious metal scrapped so crudely that barely 4 million gold rubles was realized of which 1 million was spent on famine relief. Dealers in jewelry and works of art did not want to buy the loot; the Bolsheviks, like burglars, could sell only to fences. Protests from liberal Bolsheviks were overridden. Lunacharsky asked Lenin to collaborate with, not antagonize, the hierarchy, “so that we can win over the peasantry in a way that is not dangerous for us.” image and Laimagecis of the Cheka dismissed this argument: “the usual quirks of God-seekers,” said Laimagecis. image announced, “The Church is distintegrating, therefore we must help this process but in no way should we resurrect the Church in a renewed form. Therefore the Cheka must conduct Church policy. . . . Any kind of connection whatever of priests with other organs will cast a shadow on the party—that is very very dangerous. We’ve had enough trouble with just the ‘specialists.’ ” 16 Trotsky’s wife Natalia Sedova also remonstrated. She wanted Russian museums to have items of artistic worth and deplored icons being hacked up for scrap silver. Lenin was adamant: for the Church he felt a fury as strong as his contempt for the peasantry and its blind faith in God and the land. When parishioners rioted, notably in the town of Shuia, the Cheka shot the ringleaders and Lenin supported extreme measures. On March 19, 1922, he wrote to the Politburo:

. . . the only moment when we can smash the enemy’s head with a 99 percent chance of success . . . Now and only now, when there is cannibalism in the famine areas and hundreds, if not thousands of corpses are lying on the roads, we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of Church valuables with the most furious and merciless energy, not stopping at the crushing of any resistance. . . . A clever writer on political questions [Machiavelli] rightly said that if it is necessary for the realization of a political goal to go for a series of atrocities, then they must be carried out in the most energetic way and in the shortest time, for the popular masses will not endure prolonged application of atrocities. . . . Therefore I come to the inevitable conclusion that it is now that we must give the most decisive and merciless battle to the obscurantist clergy and crush its resistance with such cruelty that they won’t forget it for several decades.17

On only one point was Lenin sensitive: he feared an anti-Semitic backlash if Jews were seen to be running this “pogrom in reverse” against Russian Christians, so an ethnic Russian had to be nominally in charge of crushing the Church. “Any measures whatsoever must be officially announced only by Comrade Kalinin—never under any circumstances may Comrade Trotsky make any public statements in print or any other way.”

In the parishes some 2,700 priests and 5,000 monks and nuns perished. Across Russia there were 1,400 bloody confrontations between Cheka or Red Army and parishioners, and over 200 trials. On March 20, 1922, the Cheka “indicted” Patriarch Tikhon for counterrevolutionary activity despite the latter’s eagerness to compromise; Trotsky wanted to arrest the entire Holy Synod. Tikhon remained free while the evidence was concocted. In Moscow fifty-four senior clerics and parishioners were put on trial, and eleven sentenced to death. In the light of possible international repercussions, Kamenev proposed shooting only two, but was opposed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin—“I personally vote against quashing the court’s decision”—and Molotov. They compromised: six were shot. Superstition rather than humanity made it hard for the executioners to shoot clergy so the priests were shaved and dressed in civilian clothes stripped from corpses before execution. The Petrograd Cheka, egged on by Zinoviev, put Bishop Veniamin on trial although he had meekly handed over Church treasures, and sentenced him and nine others to death. A Cheka commission reprieved six, but Veniamin and three others, including a professor of theology and a Church lawyer, were shot.

Menzhinsky’s GPU men ran puppet breakaway churches including the Living Church, or Church of Renewal, set up before the revolution by the defrocked priest Aleksandr Vvedensky. Most of its priests were GPU agents, and its costs were paid out of the proceeds of looted Church valuables, but their consciences were not entirely extinct. Vvedensky protested to Rykov: “If there are shootings, then we, the Living Church (and I above all personally), will be in the eyes of the mob the murderers of these wretches.” 18

Georgi Chicherin, commissar for foreign affairs, and Vatslav Vorovsky, the plenipotentiary in Switzerland working to win international recognition for the Soviet Union, warned the Politburo that all Europe was incensed by the persecution of the Church, but Stalin and Menzhinsky could not have cared less about foreign opinion, whatever the views of Soviet diplomats. On May 3, 1922, the GPU in Moscow formed a secret commission, headed by Unszlicht, Menzhinsky, and Iagoda, to “summon Patriarch Tikhon to the GPU to receive an ultimatum” requiring him to defrock and excommunicate all émigré Russian clergy. This proposal went to Trotsky and Stalin, who had the Politburo resolve “1) to bring Tikhon to trial; 2) to apply the death penalty to the priests.”

For interrogating Tikhon, a quiet but resilient man, the Cheka chose Evgeni Tuchkov. He had won his laurels crushing a rebellion by the Turkic Bashkirs in the Urals.19 Tuchkov had two missions: to break the Church into warring factions, each controlled by the GPU; to inveigle Tikhon into making treasonable statements.

International protests grew even louder. For the first time in 900 years, the Pope in Rome expressed concern for the Eastern Church; he also offered to buy back all the Orthodox Church’s valuables. The Pope was outraged when Polish Catholic priests were publicly tried in Minsk and Bishop Konstantin (Romuald) Budkiewicz was shot. Fridtjof Nansen told Trotsky that if Tikhon was executed famine relief for Russia would stop and an American senator warned that diplomatic relations with the USSR would not be established. image backed down, and proposed calling off Tikhon’s trial. Even Stalin wavered.

Menzhinsky tried a new tack: he asked Tikhon to lure the émigré bishops back to Russia where the GPU could arrest them. “Do you think they’d come here?” Tikhon asked. After making all the concessions he could, Tikhon was detained in a monastery 300 miles from Moscow. Tuchkov called a Church synod and GPU agents fixed a vote to depose Tikhon. This failed, since a synod without the patriarch was illegal by canon law. Tikhon died on April 7, 1925, probably unnaturally; Stalin composed the death announcement in Pravda. Tikhon’s designated successor, Piotr Poliansky, was arrested; Menzhinsky ordered newspaper articles “compromising Piotr” to be printed and Poliansky began a long road to his own Golgotha: a decade of imprisonment culminating in the announcement of his death in 1936 and his execution in 1937. In 1927 Piotr’s replacement, Metropolitan Sergi, formally surrendered the Orthodox Church to the Bolshevik party and state. Menzhinsky set up an antireligious commission; a youth movement and a workers’ organization called The Militant Godless were formed; Stalin’s crony the publicist Emelian Iaroslavsky founded a journal, The Godless, to which millions of workers and peasants had to subscribe.

Energetically repressing émigrés, intellectuals, and clerics, Menzhinsky had proved his value; he would now help Stalin crush all opposition, within the party and without.