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.