The New Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia

Patriarch Sergei, elected in 1943
Patriarch Sergei, elected in 1943

Comrade-Classmates, I remember your exhortations for more posts from myself and Dr. Nelson, and after reading through all of your wonderfully informative blog posts from this week, I saw a gap that I thought I could fill with this post.  No one blogged about the re-establishment of the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church.  Given the abundance of fantastic posts on the relationship between the Soviet government and the Church, I thought this needed to be rectified.  The appointment of a new Patriarch might at first seem like a retreat from communist ideology since it gave state approval to the Orthodox Church.  While it undoubtedly is such a retreat, re-establishing a Patriarch in Moscow had several significant benefits for Stalin, including a new way to boost moral during the War and a new method of control over Soviet citizens.

Stalin allowed the election of a new Patriarch in September of 1943.  Sergei Stragorodskii became the official Patriarch of the Orthodox Church after serving as its unofficial head for quite some time.  Patriarch Sergei went right to work, blessing Stalin and praying for victory in the war.  He also organized many charitable ventures and drives to gather supplies for the military.  James von Geldern argues that the election of the Patriarch and the general relaxation of restrictions on church activities afforded the state with a wealth of new symbols and iconography that could unite the people better than official Soviet propaganda could.  These new, or rather rehabilitated, symbols gave Stalin another method by which to rally the people to Russia’s defense, a method perhaps more effective than state sponsored propaganda or fear (von Geldern).

Not only did Stalin allow a Patriarch to be elected, he offered the destitute Orthodox Church a huge amount of state support.  In the minutes of Stalin’s meeting with three Orthodox bishops in which they hash out the details of the Patriarchal election, Stalin offers the Church many concessions.  The Bishops, for example, bring up the issue of offering theological courses to bolster a lackluster clergy.  Stalin goes one step further and offers to allow them to establish seminaries and theological academies, with the state’s logistical support.  The bishops declined, pointing out that they could not as of yet staff such institutions, and Stalin replied that whenever they were ready, the state would assist them.  The bishops pointed out the uneven distribution of Orthodox churches in the Soviet Union and Stalin assured them they would receive the materials necessary to fix the imbalances.  Stalin even pledged to build candle factories to supply the clergy with the materials they needed to conduct services, which is a significant commitment when your country is fighting a rather taxing war.  Stalin also offered the 3 bishops new buildings in which they could live and organize the revitalized Church and offered to improve their material living conditions.

On a more typically Soviet note, Stalin and the bishops also worked out how the Church would be organized.  They created a new council that would oversee the Church and its affairs and serve as a liaison between the Church and the state.  Comrade Karpov, who was present at the meeting, became the chairman of the new Council for for the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Stalin warned Karpov that he was not a chief procurator, which was a similar position from Tsarist times, and to “stress more in your work the independence of the church.”  The three bishops present readily agreed to these terms and thus Stalin reinstated the Patriarchate (Karpov).

Despite Stalin’s exhortation to Comrade Karpov to be less of a chief procurator than Konstantin Pobedonostsev had been and to respect the independence of the Church, this seems like window dressing.  The Orthodox Church had a history of being entwined with and heavily influenced by the Russian state and the organization of the revitalized Church proposed by Stalin kept with this tradition.  While Karpov could stress the independence of the Church in his work, the Church was still under the purview of his council, and therefore the state.  During Stalin’s time, it seems like this would point to some significant state interference in Church matters.

The first issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarch, which Stalin explicitly gave his blessing to, suggests that the Church held firm to the Party line.  The first issue described the meeting between Stalin and the three bishops and the unanimous election of Patriarch Sergei.  The Journal went on to bless Stalin as the country’s leader and pledge that the Church would “redouble our share of work in the nationwide struggle for the salvation of the motherland.”  It also, in no uncertain terms, denounced “Traitors to the Faith and Fatherland.”  It called anyone who collaborated with the Germans a Judas who would face the fate of Cain on earth.  It went on to excommunicate anyone who betrayed the Church or the country, which is a very serious punishment for a churchgoer.  The Journal’s first issue made clear the Church’s commitment to the state’s cause and cast the entire struggle in a religious light (Journal of the Moscow Patriarch).

Citizens who still had religious sentiments would have taken these warnings seriously.  I imagine that if one muzhik somewhere thought twice about collaboration because of the threat of excommunication, then Stalin might have considered his concessions to something so anti-communist worth it.  Reinstating the Patriarch and generally allowing for more church activity gave Stalin further control over his population.  If the people responded to the directives of the Church and the Church responded to the directives of Stalin, then the people were really responding to Stalin.  While, Stalin’s re-establish of the Patriarchate may seem like an ideological retreat, it had some very tangible benefits for Stalin, most importantly an effective way to improve wartime morale and as another way to exert his will over the Soviet Union.


“Orthodox Patriarch Appointed,” subject essay by James von Geldern on 17 Moments in Soviet History,

“Minutes of Stalin’s Meeting with Three Orthodox Bishops. September 4, 1943,” on 17 Moments in Soviet History,

“Statements of the Patriarchate of Moscow. September 12, 1943” in Journal of the Moscow Patriarch, on 17 Moments in Soviet History,





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