Church, State and Belief in Soviet Russia, 1941-1991

Module code: HS3751/3752

Module co-ordinator: Dr Zoe Knox 

Module Outline

In February 2012, a feminist punk group, wearing brightly coloured outfits complete with balaclavas, protested against the collaboration between the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin by performing on the soleas, an extension of the sanctuary, in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. Footage of the protest was made into the video for Pussy Riot’s song ‘Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away’ and uploaded to YouTube.

The Cathedral performance was a very modern protest, but the central objection – the close links between church and state – is as old as the introduction of Eastern Orthodoxy to the Rus’ lands, conventionally dated to 988. Though the church-state relationship condemned by Pussy Riot would seem a dramatic departure from the more recent Soviet past, when religion was demonised as the ‘opium of the masses’, to draw on Marx’s famous aphorism, the tripartite relationship between church, state and belief was far more complex than we might think. In fact, the communist party’s approach to religion wavered with the whims of the regime, guided by pragmatism rather than ideological conviction. To cite just two examples, in 1943 Stalin made significant concessions to the Orthodox Church in order to garner support for the war effort, and the communists used the officially sanctioned Baptist organisation to isolate and criminalise Pentecostal believers, who could only meet illegally and at personal risk. Soviet citizens, too, cast their identities in shades more nuanced than the authorities ever recognised, and many – including communist party members – saw themselves as both religious believers and Soviet patriots.

The complex relationship between church, state and belief in Soviet Russia has shaped religious life in contemporary Russia, and this has been brought into sharp relief by the fate of the members of Pussy Riot. The response of the authorities – both political and religious - was swift and harsh and made headlines around the world. At the time of writing, 18 months after the performance, two of the participants are languishing in penal colonies, one in Mordovia and the other in Perm Oblast, and both are far from their families in Moscow. Without understanding the communist persecution of the churches, and the trials of ordinary believers, both from the traditional Orthodox faith and religious minority groups, we cannot hope to grasp the complexities of religious life in post-Soviet Russia, and the institutional arrangements which have emerged after 70-odd years of religious persecution, the most sustained anti-religious campaign of the modern era.

Topics covered

This Special Subject examines changing relations between church and state during World War II, the vicious anti-religious campaign of the Khrushchev years, and the persecution of religious minority groups – particularly illegal Protestant churches and Orthodox schisms – during the Brezhnev era. It looks beyond communist party policy to consider the activities of religious communities forced to operate clandestinely and their interactions with western co-religionists (from tourists smuggling Bibles to evangelist Billy Graham) and human rights organisations (from Britain’s Keston College to Amnesty International), thus exploring how religious protest intersected with other strands of the Soviet dissident movement. The Special Subject will examine the dramatic religious resurgence of the Gorbachev years, when the constraints of the party’s ideological monopoly were lifted. It will conclude by considering the legacy of the communist era on religious life in post-Soviet Russia, by focusing on the reconstruction of Moscow’s controversial Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the punishment of Pussy Riot for performing in its sacred space.


The module is taught through twenty seminars, each three hours long, which run over the course of the final year. The seminars are heavily based on student discussion. At the heart of the discussion and debate are a diverse range of primary source materials, ranging from the minutes of Stalin’s astonishing meeting with three Orthodox bishops in September 1943 to an Amnesty International investigation into the incarceration of believers in Soviet psychiatric institutions in 1980, and from communist anti-religious propaganda posters of the 1950s to religious tracts produced and circulated clandestinely in the 1970s in an effort to evade the Soviet censors.


The Special Subject is assessed by two short essays, one long essay, and two examinations, one of them (a ‘gobbet paper’) focusing on primary source extracts.


M. Bourdeaux, Religious Ferment in Russia: Protestant Opposition to Soviet Religious Policy (London, 1968)

T. A. Chumachenko, Church and State in Soviet Russia: Russian Orthodoxy from World War II to the Khrushchev Years (Armonk, London, 2002)

F. Corley (ed.), Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader (Basingstoke, 1996)

J. Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History (London, 1986)

W. C. Fletcher, The Russian Orthodox Church Underground, 1917-1970 (London; New York, 1971)C. Wanner (ed.), State Secularism and Lived Religion in Russia and Ukraine (Oxford University Press, 2012)