Religion and the Church

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Religion and the Church


In prerevolutionary Russia the Orthodox Church occupied the dominant position. Administered by the Synod, it was a part of the state apparatus. The Orthodox Church and the organized bodies of other religions had served the Russian autocracy and the exploiting classes over the course of many centuries by opposing democratic and socialist ideas and the liberation movements of the peasantry and working class.

The position of religion and the church in the Soviet state was initially defined in a decree issued by the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR on Jan. 20 (Feb. 2), 1918: the church was separated from the state, and education from the church. Elaboration of the position was subsequently provided in the Constitution of the USSR and individual legislative acts. In order to guarantee citizens’ freedom of conscience, the church in the USSR is separated from the state, and the school from the church. All citizens have the right to conduct religious worship and the right to carry on atheistic propaganda. Every citizen has the right to profess or not to profess any religion. The laws of the USSR categorically forbid any kind of discrimination against believers. The teaching of religious dogmas, however, is not allowed in any state or public educational institution; citizens may teach or study religion only on an individual basis.

The bulk of the population in the USSR has been freed from the vestiges of religion as a result of far-reaching socioeconomic transformations, the liquidation of the exploiting classes, the triumph of socialism, scientific and technological progress, and the raising of the level of culture. The influence of religion has weakened: many churches and other houses of worship have closed, and the number of religious believers has decreased.

The principal faiths practiced in the USSR are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. In 1982 about 20,000 religious establishments were open, including synagogues, mosques, Buddhist datsany (monasteries with temples), Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Old Believer churches, and Evangelical Christian Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist prayer houses (molitvennye doma). All activities conducted within the religious bodies are carried out according to regulations and statutes that are adopted by the believers themselves at their congresses and meetings.

The religion with the greatest number of adherents in the USSR is Christianity, which has more than ten separate, independent denominations, several confessions, and numerous sects.

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest religious organization in the USSR and the largest of the 15 autocephalous Orthodox churches of the world. The supreme ecclesiastical body is the local council, which is convened when necessary; its membership comprises all the bishops under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate (including those in foreign countries) and representatives of the “white” (married) clergy and the laity. The most recent council met from May 30 to June 2, 1971. Between councils, the church is headed by the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia; since June 1971, the patriarch has been Pimen (secular name, Sergei Mikhailovich Izvekov), whose residence is in Moscow. The church is administered jointly by the patriarch and the Synod, which has five permanent members. For administrative purposes the Russian Orthodox Church is divided into four exarchates, 76 eparchies, and 11 vicariates, including foreign eparchies and vicariates in three patriarchal exarchates (Western Europe, Central Europe, and Central and South America). Within the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church has 16 monasteries; priests are trained at two theological academies and three seminaries. The church publishes the monthly Zhurnal Moskovskoi patriarkhii (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate) in both Russian and English; it also publishes theological works, liturgical literature, and church calendars.

The Old Believers have historically been divided into three independent groups—the Old Believers of the Belaia Krinitsa hierarchy, the Beglopopovtsy, and the Bespopovtsy. The first group is headed by the archbishop of Moscow and all Russia. The Beglopopovtsy—so called because they have traditionally accepted fugitive Eastern Orthodox priests—are headed by the archbishop of Novozybkov, Moscow, and all Russia. The Bespopovtsy do not recognize a church hierarchy, and their groups function independently in various sections of the country; in the Lithuanian SSR, however, they are united under the Supreme Old Believers’ Council.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is headed by a catholicos-patriarch, who directs the Georgian Orthodox seminary in Mtskheta. Since 1972, the catholicos-patriarch has been David V, whose residence is in Tbilisi.

The Armenian Gregorian Church unites the eparchies and religious societies of believing Armenians in the USSR and abroad. The church is headed by the supreme patriarch and catholicos of all Armenians, who also directs its theological academy. Since 1955 the catholicos has been Vazgen I, whose residence is in Echmiadzin (near Yerevan).

The Roman Catholic Church exhibits a diversified organizational structure. In the Lithuanian SSR, Catholic parishes are grouped into six regional bodies—the archdiocese of Vilnius and the dioceses of Vilkaviškis, Kaunas, Kaišiadoris, Panevėžys, and Telšiai. In the Latvian SSR, Catholic parishes are united under the archdiocese of Riga. In Transcarpathia, there is a vicariate centered at Uzhgorod. Catholic parishes also exist in the RSFSR and the Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakh SSR’s. As in the prerevolutionary period, the church has no single administrative center in the USSR.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church (Augsburg Confession), whose adherents live mainly in the Baltic region, has three independent consistories. The Latvian and Estonian consistories are headed by an archbishop, and the Lithuanian by a chairman-president.

The Evangelical Christian Baptist Church is governed by the All-Union Council, which is elected at congresses of the faithful. Headquarters of the council is in Moscow.

Associations of the Evangelical and Reformed Church in the Lithuanian SSR are headed by a consistory under a president. Methodist groups in the Estonian SSR are headed by the superintendent-chairman of the administrative board. The Reformed (Calvinist) Church in Transcarpathian Oblast is headed by a bishop.

In some regions of the USSR religious sects are found—not only indigenous Russian sects but also Protestant sects of Western European origin. The former—the Dukhobors, Molokans, and “spiritual” Skoptsy—have lost most of their influence and are not receiving new members. The latter, such as the Seventhday Adventists and Pentacostals, took root in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Individual groups of Reformed Adventists and Zionist Pentecostals exist in some areas; they are extremely reactionary and antisocial in character. The sects have no unifying administrative centers.

After Christianity, the religion with the greatest number of adherents in the USSR is Islam. Two branches are represented—Shiism (whose adherents are concentrated in the Azerbaijan SSR) and Sunnism (whose followers live mainly in the Kazakh SSR, the Volga Region, Transcaucasia, the autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus, the republics of Middle Asia, and a number of oblasts of the RSFSR). For administrative purposes, four regions are distinguished, each headed by a religious board: the Northern Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Middle Asia and Kazakhstan, and Siberia and the European USSR.

Buddhism in the form of Lamaism is practiced in the Buriat, Tuva, and Kalmyk ASSR’s and in Irkutsk and Chita oblasts of the RSFSR. The governing body is the Central Religious Board of Buddhists of the USSR.

Judaism is found mainly among the Jewish population of the RSFSR, the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Georgian SSR’s, and some other sections of the country.

Religious syncretism—or in theological terminology, paganism—exists in certain regions of Siberia and the Far East. It combines elements of primitive animism, totemism, fetishism, ancestor worship, and shamanism.

Religious associations and their administrative centers decide for themselves all questions relating to their activities; in making their decisions they take into account their doctrine, canonical requirements, and traditions, as well as the requirements of Soviet legislation concerning religion. Citizens of the USSR may form religious societies for the joint satisfaction of their religious needs if there are at least 20 believers who have reached the age of 18; if the number of believers is less than 20, a group may be formed.

The believers who compose a religious association (either a society or a group) may perform religious rites and organize meetings for prayer and other purposes connected with worship. They may hire or elect ministers and other persons to meet their religious needs. In addition, they have the right to use houses of worship and other religious property, and they may collect voluntary contributions in the houses of worship for the support of their ministers and religious officials and for the maintenance of religious property. The Soviet state grants to religious societies the free use of houses of worship and other property belonging to the people of the USSR.

In the USSR a state agency—the Council on Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers of the USSR—has been formed to ensure the consistent implementation of the Soviet state’s policy toward religion. The main tasks of the council are to make sure that legislation pertaining to religion is being observed, to study and draw conclusions about the application of legislation on cults, and to help religious organizations make international contacts and take part in the struggle for peace and the strengthening of friendship among peoples. The council also maintains liaison between the government of the USSR and religious organizations whenever questions requiring decisions by the government of the USSR arise.

The Communist Party considers religious ideology to be unscientific. It therefore conducts atheistic propaganda on a scientific basis in order to liberate the consciousness of believers from religious prejudices and educate the population of the USSR in the spirit of a scientific, materialist world view. The CPSU requires that all antireligious work be conducted by means of explanation and persuasion, without insults to the religious feelings of believers or infringement of their rights.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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