In 1921, Lenin and Trotsky vowed to put the monasteries “under peasants’ and workers’ control.” In reality, Lenin hoped that the looting of churches would bring the government “several hundred million gold rubles” to settle Russia’s foreign debts. Trotsky coined the slogan “turn gold into bread,” as if the funds would fight the famine that the Bolsheviks themselves caused. This policy was “legalized” by a secret decree (“On Liquidation of Church Property”) on January 2, 1922. It failed to bring cash into the treasury, but by the end of 1922 no fewer than 1,200 priests had been executed. Many more were forced to leave Russia or were sent to the Gulags. (For more, see Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New Story. New York: Basic Books, 2017, pp. 231-334.) Until the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the surviving churches were turned into warehouses or museums; one of them, the magnificent Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and known as the Romanovs’ family church, became the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Ultimately, as Nikolai Berdyaev noted in The Russian Revolution, Karl Marx was viewed as virtually a god and the State worshiped as instrument of class struggle (and the inflictor of terror). Some countries still have mummified past Communist leaders on display in the main squares of their capitals, and people still stand in line to meet the Communist idols-in-the-flesh.
On pages 11 and 12, the authors describe Lenin’s policy of persecution:
The Soviets deprived the Orthodox church of its legal status and the right to own property. Teaching religion was banned in private and public schools … In response, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow excommunicated the government. The Soviet leadership retaliated by killing many bishops, lower clergy and monks: in the next five years, 28 bishops and 1,215 priests were killed, and 8,000 monks perished in 1922 alone … The number of Russian Orthodox churches dropped from 54,000 in 1914 to 7,500 in 1966.
Yurii Kuznetzov (a Russian economist, mathematician, and thoughtful Orthodox Christian), cited publications reasonably estimating that, from 1917 to 1953, more than half-a-million Soviet Orthodox subjects (members of clergy and their families) became “New Martyrs.” Of these, 80,000 vanished only in 1937. (The persecution of clergy and believers softened in the post-Stalin years but continued unabated until the 1980s.)
The incumbent patriarch of Russia and a number of high-ranking Russian clergy were KGB agents. Their role in facilitating Marxism was recently summarized for the English speaking audience by Spyridon Mitsotakis: They celebrated Stalin as almost equal to Jesus (although they had no icons of him in their churches); 700 Synod members that elected the patriarch of Moscow in 2009 were members of the secret KGB cohort; his predecessor, Patriarch Alexy II, had a KGB codename “Drozdov,” and was awarded the highest honors for his service to the state.
The Bolshevik destruction of Orthodoxy was copied by their postwar marionettes in other countries, the difference being one of degree. Until 2015, 11 out of the 15 members of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, including the patriarch, were collaborators with the Bulgarian analogue of the KGB. (This fact is mentioned in passing by none other than Djankov and Nikolova.) In fact, the planned destruction of religion (and its servants and institutions) was replicated by the Bolsheviks in all Soviet republics (e.g. two Georgian patriarchs were killed by them), and by all Communist countries, irrespective of whether their population belonged to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic (the two Christian churches well covered by Djankov-Nikolova’s paper), Armenian, Muslim, or Buddhist tradition.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s alliance with the government has hardly slackened since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ten years ago, as part of a Liberty Fund colloquium on “Liberty, Markets, and Orthodox Christianity,” I investigated and found the following: In 48 out of 49 websites affiliated with bishops and archbishops I found links to “partner-organizations” that were extreme nationalists or even quasi-fascist political parties and movements. The only site without such partners was that of the patriarch. This is not to say that there no profound and true Christian theologians and believers in Russia – to the contrary. After a year, I revisited the same list of websites, those links had been removed.
To quote Berdyaev again, “The Orthodox Church had its moments of historical sin, for the most part in connection with its external dependence on the State, but the Church's teaching, her inner spiritual path was not subject to distortion” (Truth of Orthodoxy, 1952). Djankov and Nikolova refer to many authors who recognize that sin. The problem, however, is the bridge which they construct between the Byzantine imperial era of church dependence on government and contemporary political sentiments.
Comparing bicycles with elephants
Methodologically the authors approach is off-base in this respect: One must be cautious combining opinion polls results (the World Value Surveys, WVS) with the expert assessment of Transition Progress by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), an analogue of the World Bank for the post-Communist countries. These data and indicators cover recent periods and cannot be used, from a methodological standpoint, to claim a causal relationship or even path-dependence (a direct impact of past cultural, political, and policy choices on contemporary affairs) between religious backgrounds and contemporary economic policies.