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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 3

The Burning Bush in the Communist desert

    From Eastern Europe to China, and from Laos to Venezuela, the followers of Marx and Engels used the most extreme forms of violence to annihilate religion. In many ways, the Bolsheviks only continued the Jacobite hostility towards “the throne and the altar.” Vladimir Lenin said in 1905, “Our propaganda, necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism.” Leon Trotsky said, “The highest expression of serfdom’s ideology is religion.” Pravda never ceased to call priests the “enemies of the people.” During the Russian famine of 1922, Lenin claimed the Orthodox Church was hoarding gold and food as a pretext to confiscate its wealth. Leading Christian intellectuals such as Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944), and Nikolai Lossky (1870- 1965) were put on “the philosophers’ ship” and forced into exile. Trotsky, who organized this trip, believed that all religions expressed an “illogical primitive ignorance.” This explains how even a scientific giant like the polymath mathematician and theologian Pavel Florensky was regarded as backward. By the late 1930s, Fr. Pavel ended up martyred by the NKVD in the Gulag Archipelago.

    The eminent British scholar Andrew Louth described the spiritual devastation that followed the October Revolution:

    The state of the Church in the Soviet Union made it impossible for any theology to flourish; it was hard enough for the Church to survive. According to Marxist theory, after the Revolution the Church, as a manifestation of religion, was meant to fade away. As it didn’t, its disappearance had to be encouraged, and the Church experienced persecution far more severe than ever before. The great persecutions of the early Church under the Roman empire were haphazard and episodic; with the structures of a modern state, the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union could aim at the extermination of the Church, and very nearly succeeded.

    This is why, during the twentieth century, the best works of Russian theology were written abroad. Nikolai Berdyaev, for instance, articulated a powerful defense of individual freedom and Christian personalism, in stark opposition to the horrors of censorship and collectivism.

    It was not just the USSR that attacked religion. The repression of religious sentiments was global.

    It was not just the USSR that attacked religion. The repression of religious sentiments was global. In post-1948 China, the Communist Party destroyed Tibetan monasteries. Mongolian Marxists imposed strict limitations on traditional Lamaism. Communist activists distributed a sarcastic commentary on the Holy Scripture (called The Jolly Bible) in Eastern Europe to discourage ordinary people from taking Church teachings and the sacraments seriously. Teenagers were taught the basics of “scientific atheism” in public schools instead of religious education, and winter festivals replaced Christmas. Youth organizations such as the Young Pioneers taught children to disrespect family norms and customs of the past. Dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1944 until 1985, wanted his nation to be the first officially atheistic state on the planet.

    After the Second World War, the Romanian Communist Party (which was under the direct control of Moscow) cut off all its relations with the Vatican and abolished the local Greek-Catholic Church. Hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests ended up in labor camps, suffering in the harsh wilderness of the Danube Delta, and many Orthodox monasteries and lay associations were dismantled. In November 1959, a State decree (no. 410) ordered that only elderly people living in Romania could take monastic vows. About 5,000 monks and nuns were forcefully removed from their ancient monasteries. Religious services were tolerated only as part of liturgical ghettoes. For at least two decades, the Church was deprived of any means of organizing social work, missionary activities, or cultural events. The space for personal belief shrank dramatically. Pilgrimages were restricted. Priests performed infant baptisms only in secret. Old books were taken out of circulation. Other faith-based sects, ranging from evangelical Christians to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as small communities such as the Old Believers or Jews who believed in Zionism, suffered political persecution.

    A particularly striking episode in the history of Romanian Communism was the birth and decline of a unique spiritual movement called the Burning Bush Group (Rugul Aprins), which was founded by the summer of 1943. Under the inspiration of a Russian monk, Ivan Kulîghin (“John the Stranger”), this association of laymen and clergymen located primarily at Bucharest’s Antim Monastery engaged in prayer, scriptural meditation, and philosophical reflection. From 1943 to 1947, after barely escaping the Bolshevik persecution in his homeland, Fr. John of Optina Pustyn near Moscow decided to teach his Romanian disciples the art of incessant prayer known as the “Jesus Prayer, ” described in The Pilgrim’s Tale. After he managed to impart the wisdom of the Hesychast tradition to his new Orthodox friends, the fugitive monk was again arrested and deported to Siberia, where he died.

    Romania was a cultural crossroads, where East and West met naturally. Communism, however, hated both the Oriental origins of Christianity and the Western foundations of liberal democracy. For the highly educated friends of the Burning Bush Group, freedom of thought was an essential component of life, especially religious life. The personal encounter with the Jesus Prayer had a transformative effect, by liberating the prayerful believer from the bondage of sin. Crass materialism could never explain how thieves, tax-collectors, and harlots could be turned into saints. Academics (such as Alexandru Elian, an expert in Byzantine history), poets and artists (Vasile Voiculescu and Paul Sterian, respectively), young novices (such as Sandu Tudor, Andrei Scrima, and Roman Braga), and even a towering theologian like Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae (a well-respected university professor and doctor philocalicus) attempted to preserve the values of Western civilization and rediscover ancient texts like The Philokalia.

    The disciples of Fr. Ivan met regularly in the library of a monastery where they could talk freely about literature, philosophy, and Christian spirituality. Trotsky believed that a “complete abolition of religion will be attained only when there is a fully developed socialistic structure … free from mystery.” The members of the Burning Bush Group dedicated their lives to an ongoing exploration of the mystery of existence, of the mystery of human consciousness, and of “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4), which “has been kept secret for long ages past” (Romans 16:25).

    Despite their insistence on non-violent and non-political means of expression, state propaganda branded Burning Bush members “socially deviant people, with mystical tendencies.” Marxist ideology persecuted free speech, especially because Christians believed in the metaphysical power of the Logos.

    Very few public advocates of Christianity escaped persecution in countries ruled by socialist hardliners.

    On June 13, 1958, most of the group’s members were arrested by the secret police, the Securitate, and jailed on the charge of “religious obscurantism” and “counter-revolutionary activity.” On September 3, the Communist regime sentenced Fr. Stăniloae to five years of solitary confinement. Behind bars, these Christian believers became either victims or eyewitnesses of sadistic acts of barbarism. Sandu Tudor (or monk Daniil) was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor and tortured to death. Roman Braga (who, after 1972, served as a priest in Ohio and Michigan) was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Many were physically abused. Fr. Stăniloae spent most of his time in the dreadful prison of Aiud, where he used prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me”) to combat negative thoughts. On January 15, 1963, he was released and a year later, under increasing pressure exerted by international bodies, the political prisoners – most of whom were old and crippled – left the jails.

    In brief, the Communist take on religion was ruthless. Very few public advocates of Christianity escaped persecution in countries ruled by socialist hardliners. Just like the KGB, Stasi, or the Albanian Sigurimi, the Romanian secret police violated personal privacy for decades while trying to annihilate anti-Communist networks and cells. In the late 1970s, the secret police crushed the open dissidence of Fr. Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa (defrocked in 1979, twice imprisoned, and expelled from Romania in 1985). Similar forms of intimidation were leveled against Doina Cornea, a Transylvanian Christian who was surveilled and tortured.

    There were, of course, countless examples of personal shortcomings and institutional compromises between the Church and the totalitarian State. However, the true stories of resistance and heroism need to be fittingly acknowledged. Though there were bishops who tolerated the “imperial cult” of shameless dictators, credit is due to those Christians (such as the Russian philosophers or the members of the Burning Bush Group) who were punished, marginalized, and killed because of their unwavering cry for freedom and justice.

    Image credit: Dmitry Boyarin (CC BY 2.0). Image cropped.

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    Mihail Neamtu, Ph.D., is an Eastern European conservative author and public intellectual. He has written 10 books on American politics, Christianity, and Islam, as well as new trends in Marxist culture. His forthcoming publication is The Trump Arena: How did a Businessman Conquer the World of Politics?