ONE hundred years ago, the Bolshevik Revolution shook the world. The Russian Orthodox Church is usually regarded as a victim of the event, but it could be regarded as one of its causes. The failure of Russian ecclesiastical Christianity to help the poor effectively, despite Christ’s core teaching on the matter, played a significant part in preparing the ground for Communism.
A few Russian Orthodox priests had indeed focused on charitable works before the Russian Revolution, such as the archpriest St John of Kronstadt, who died in 1908. Generally, however, the Russian Orthodox Church showed far less concern for the impoverished than did Western Christian churches, whose welfare work provided food and shelter for the poor, free schools, and hospitals.
Moreover, Christian Socialism did not develop to the same extent in Russia as it did in Western Europe, where, in the 20th century, it attracted support away from Communism. The founding of the British Labour Party — which, it has been said, owed more to Methodism than Marxism — was a good example of this.
Furthermore, the level of literacy of many Russian priests, although certainly not of all, was often low, and their behaviour was disreputable, as exemplified most dramatically by the dissolute monk Rasputin. In addition, the Church supported the social hierarchy, which had a wealthy monarchy and aristocracy at its apex, while the Tsarist government had given the Church many privileges.
IN THE Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow, there is a late-19th-century painting by the Russian artist Ilya Repin, Religious Procession in Kursk Province (1880-83) (above). It depicts a priest with a stick cruelly preventing a hunchbacked boy getting near an icon, behind which walk some self-important, well-dressed people. This painting is an illustration of the low esteem in which many Russians held the Church.
There were a few outstanding, heroic priests in the early 20th century, such as Father Gapon, who led the protest of workers in 1905 to present a petition to the Tsar for better working conditions and universal suffrage. Father Gapon’s courageous concern for the working class was not, however, shared by the Russian Church as a whole. The beauty of its services was not matched by its service to the poor. Had it been so, there might well have been little support for the Communist cause.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Tsar was overthrown, and Church and State were separated, meaning that the influence of the former declined. The Bolsheviks nationalised church lands, destroyed church buildings, and persecuted and executed many clergy, particularly those who had supported the Whites during the ensuing Civil War, and were therefore labelled “counter-revolutionaries”.
Along with dialectical materialism, the Communists propagated atheism based on the teachings of Karl Marx, who claimed that he was influenced by the arguments of Ludwig Feuerbach and a scientific approach to knowledge. But he was probably also affected by the fact that, when he was writing in the 1840s, the Western Churches were not looking after the poor as well as they did later in the 19th century.
Moreover, the authoritarianism of the Russian Orthodox Church meant that the authoritarianism of Communism was more readily absorbed than it would have been in a Protestant country, where congregations were more prepared to question their Churches’ teaching.
The Communists provided the poor with employment, cheap housing, free education, and medical care; so some people thought that the Bolsheviks were, in fact, realising Christ’s ideals. One who thought so was the poet Alexander Blok, who, in his poem “The Twelve”, portrays Christ as marching ahead of the Bolsheviks.
IT IS probable that, had the Russian Orthodox Church acknowledged that the Communists’ aim of improving the lives of the impoverished was also a Christian goal, and agreed to support some of the Bolsheviks’ reforms, it would not have been persecuted. It could, furthermore, have had a moderating influence on the Communists.
With the collapse of Communism, the Russian Orthodox Church was freed from persecution. It still has not, however, made caring for the impoverished its main goal. For example, many homeless people die in Russia from the bitter cold. In spring, when the snows melt, their bodies are revealed. They are euphemistically called “snowdrops”. Their lives could be saved if the Church led a campaign on their behalf, urging the public and politicians to care for them.
The Russian Orthodox Church could also use its ecclesiastical buildings to shelter them. Indeed, when the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in Moscow, (which had been blown up by the Communists) was rebuilt, there were suggestions that the lower floors should be used for the homeless. When it was reopened in 2000, however, they were used to house an underground car park.
The failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to concern itself with the plight of the poor was a significant factor in the Bolsheviks’ gaining power, almost destroying the Church and spreading atheistic Communism worldwide. Millions were deprived of a spiritual upbringing because of this.
As the centenary of the October Revolution is commemorated, the Russian Orthodox Church might well reflect on the lessons of its history, and on whether it is now abiding by Christ’s teaching concerning Dives and Lazarus.
Dr Audrey Wells is an Honorary Research Associate in the History Department of Royal Holloway College, University of London, and the co-author, with F. S. Northedge, of Britain and Soviet Communism: The impact of a revolution (Macmillan). Her latest book, The Rule of Reverse Results: The effects of unethical policies?, is published by Routledge.
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