An Unorthodox Approach

Pavel Korin: “Metropolitan Sergii”(1937) Trtiakov Gallery, Moscow

To the average Russian, it must have seemed that in the summer of 1941 there was no salvation from tide of war. Within the first month of Germany’s “Operation Barbarossa”, Russian defenses had been obliterated and 84% of the Soviet’s pre-war active forces had been captured or killed by the end of the year (Freeze, pg 376). German military might was undisputed at this point , and it seemed that their aggressive aspirations would be realized at the cost of millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians. In the wake of bloody purges and social repression by Stalin and his regime, the Communists were ill-prepared to defend against such a vicious enemy and it took every trick in the book to push back the  invaders. Borrowing a strategy from WWI, Stalin revived the embattled Russian Orthodox Church with the purpose of uniting the Russian people and boosting their shattered morale. Against the backdrop of death and destruction in the world’s most costly war, it would  loosen the Soviet’s grip on Russian social life and provide a step forward, for a time, back to the  pre-Revolutionary period in what would be a religious resurrection of a once powerful institution.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow

The birth of the Communist Regime in Russia portended the death of all religious organizations within the state. By 1918, the separation of church and state led to the systematic suppression and decay of church power on the belief that the Party was the only acceptable “gospel” to be preached or followed. Before its demise, Orthodoxy was a dominating aspect of Russian life with many magnificent churches dedicated to the faith. This tradition would be reborn in the context of total war, where the fate of the Soviet Union was at stake. The decision was made on September 1943, when Stalin allowed the acting Patriarchate Metropolitan Sergei and other leadership to elect a new Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and form a Holy Synod under the new Patriarchate (Patriarkhii, 1943). This new dimension in the Russian social conscious motivated the people to fight for their state and for the hope of change (Freeze, pg. 391).

Russian Orthodoxy during the War

With religious fervor and a revitalized industrial base, the Soviets soon turned the tide after the decisive victory at Stalingrad and marched onward to Berlin. The Nazis were in full retreat and the Soviet Union stood stronger than ever as one of the eventual victors of the war. The hope of a bright and cheery future was not totally realized as many Russians were repatriated and many faced severe punishment for crimes ranging from surviving the war to being corrupted by Western influences (Freeze, pg. 396). Orthodoxy remained a beacon for many, but other religions continued to be barred from the nation due to their allegedly divisive behavior. The Russian church itself was not without restrictions, and any group or party that strayed from Stalin’s goals were shut down with haste. Even in the post-war atmosphere, the Church served the State’s designs, but it offered some refuge to the war-stricken masses. While members of the church were occasionally harassed by ]Soviet secret police, the terrors of the 1920s and 30s, were, albeit slowly and with many bumps, coming to an end.

An assembly of Soviet tanks and troops being inspected and addressed

The rebirth of the Church was a risky move for Stalin in the aftermath of his purges and social restrictions, but it paid off. The Soviet Union was in dire need of a morale boost following the famines, disease, and defeats of the Second World War. Russia was able to regain its hypothetical position as the successors to the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox faith, which has hibernated since the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. This was a harbinger to eventual de-Stalinization and a return to some of the traditional aspects of Russian culture. While the church would again come under attack during Khrushchev’s regime, Orthodoxy would continue to grow into the modern era and retake its position in Russian politics and affairs. We shall see how this survives in the epoch of Putin and how willingly the Russian president chooses to share power in his fourth term of office.



Freeze, G. L. Russia: A History. Third Edition. Oxford University Press [Oxford]. 2009. 

Patriarkhii Z. M. “Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, No. 1 (12 September 1943)”. pp. 5, 6, 11, 16. No. 1 (12 September 1943), pp. 5, 6, 11, 16.

Images (In Order of Appearance):

Orthodox Patriarch Appointed Images

Russian Orthodox Church in the Second world war



6 Replies to “An Unorthodox Approach”

  1. Ethan, I really enjoyed your post! This is a really interesting post; I think it’s interesting how after all the work the Soviet Union put in to destroy church influence, they had to bring it back in order to boost morale. The associations that Orthodoxy had with historical memory is really powerful. Why do you think the church was the best means of boosting morale? I also enjoyed your images and parallels to modern-day Russia. Great work!

  2. Ethan, great name by the way, I really enjoyed this post. Only Stalin could find a way to exploit the Orthodox church to meet the demands of his government. Very interesting tactics, as I imagine it reminded many Russians of the old Tsarist government, as the church had been much more prominent back then. I imagine the restrictions on this church were countless, and heavily monitored by political officers. I wonder why history plays down Stalin’s use of Christianity in hopes of winning the war, for I never Stalin worked with the church in the 1940’s!

  3. I’m glad you wrote about the restoration of the Patriarchate for lots of reasons. As the other Ethan notes, this episode is not generally well-known, which means it can be a good window for insight into the dynamics of the wartime alliance between the regime and the people. And that — as you pointed out — was definitely a primary motivator for Stalin’s relaxation of attitudes toward the church. He knew they were in the battle of their lives (literally), and if religious appeals to mother Russia could help comfort and mobilize people, then that was going to be ok. Another issue in play had to do with the Grand Alliance. Soviet hostility toward the church was among the many things that made the Soviet Union an unattractive ally for Great Britain and the US. Restoring the patriarch made the Soviet more desirable allies.

  4. Ethan,

    I really enjoyed your post. Your discussion of the necessity of the church revival despite Stalin’s hesitancy helps depict the truly dire condition the Soviets were in at the time. It is interesting to read about how Stalin, in his typical fashion, was able to take something like religion and manipulate in a way that coincided with his agenda. Thank you for introducing us to this lesser known part of Russian history, I look forward to reading more about it!

  5. Ethan, I thought your post was interesting and very knowledgable. I think looking at religion in Russia during the 20th century since there is such a connection between state and the church. I like how you mentioned that the rebirth of the church was a risk to Stalin but that it paid off, I think it would have been easy for religion to condemn Stalin (although he would have shut them down quickly then). But that religion was actually able to help boost morale and therefore Stalin’s influence is very interesting.

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