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Russian Orthodox Church After the Revolution of 1917

We get a lot of questions about what happened to the Russian Church after the revolution of 1917 and what religious life was like during the Communist regime in Russia.

As we know, in 1914 Russia had 55 173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29 593 chapels, 112 629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 nunneries with a total of 95 259 inhabitants.

As the twentieth century approached, Russia could boast the largest single national Church in the world.

Although freedom of religious expression was formally declared by one of the first decrees of the revolutionary government in January 1918, both the Church and its followers were heavily persecuted and deeply disadvantaged. Prior to the Russian Revolution, there were some 54 000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. There were soon bloody and cruel killings of bishops and priests, and massacres of believers during the Red Terror and the following years of repressions were shocking. These persecutions were even greater than the persecutions of the Ancient Christian Church both in the number of holy martyrs and the cruelty and ingenuity of the persecutors.

Many religious hierarchs fled Russia during the revolution and the civil war that followed. They contributed to the spread of the Orthodox Church in many countries. However, some hierarchs even formed their own organization that became known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. They split away from the Russian Church. During the 1920-30s, most church buildings were blown up, burned or converted into secular buildings; over 50 thousand priests were either executed or sent to labor camps. By 1939, there were less than 100 functioning parishes and only four bishops.

During World War II, the religious persecution in Soviet Union became less pronounced, in part due to cooperation of the Church with the state on national defense issues. Years 1944-45 saw the reopening of the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary that had been closed since 1918. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, relations between the Church and the state started to deteriorate again. Until Perestroika, public expression of religious beliefs - Christian or otherwise - was frowned upon; known churchgoers were deprived of some social rights, they could not become members of the Communist Party, which in turn, severely limited their career opportunities and many lost their jobs and any privileges. All Soviet university students were required to take courses in so-called "Scientific Atheism".

Cathedral of Christ the Savior was blown up in 1931 and turned into a heated open-air pool. Restoration was started in 1995.

Some priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other churches in the Soviet Union were secretly employed by the KGB for the government to discover who was a Church member. Despite the dangers, large numbers of people remained openly or secretly religious. In 1987 in the Russian Federation between 40% and 50% of newborn babies were baptized, and over 60% of all the deceased received Christian funeral services.

A pivotal moment in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennium of the Baptism of Russia. It appears now that the government had realized the fruitlessness of its efforts in its war against religion and instead tried to use religion to gain the support of the people.

Throughout the summer of 1988, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities and many churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban against religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, people could use their TVs to see live transmissions of services from central churches.

Today, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world. Over 90% of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. The number of people regularly attending church services is considerably lower, but growing every year. The Church has over 23,000 parishes, 154 bishops, 635 monasteries, and 102 clerical schools.

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