The government of the Soviet Union followed an unofficial policy of state atheism, aiming to gradually eliminate religious belief within its borders. While it never officially made religion illegal, the state nevertheless made great efforts to reduce the prevalence of religious belief within society. To this end, at various times in its history it engaged in anti-religious persecutions of varying intensity and methodology. Believers were never officially attacked for being believers, but they were officially attacked for real or perceived political opposition to the state and to its policies. These attacks, however, in the broader ideological context were ultimately meant to serve the ultimate goal of eliminating religion, and the perceived political opposition acted as a legal pretext to carry this out. Thus, although the Soviet Union was officially a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion in its constitutions, in practice believers suffered discrimination and were widely attacked for promoting religion.
As part of its anti-religious campaigns, the Soviet state enacted a significant body of legislation that regulated and curtailed religious practices. This, along with many secret instructions that were not published, formed the legal basis for the Soviet state's anti-religious stance. Laws were designed in order to hurt and hamper religious activities, and the state often vigilantly watched religious believers for their breaking of these laws to justify arresting them. In some places, volunteer neighbourhood committees, called "public commissions for control over observance on the laws about religious cults", watched their religious neighbours and reported violations of the law to the appropriate authorities. The state sought to control religious bodies through such laws with the intention of making those bodies disappear. Often such laws incorporated many ambiguities that allowed for the state to abuse them in order to persecute believers.
This article lists and discusses some of the most important legislation below, although this list is by no means comprehensive.
i) Act of the Commissar of Education, 11 December 1917: ... It is declared that all control of educational matters shall be handed over to the Commissariat of Education from all religious organizations. All church/parish schools, teachers colleges, religious colleges and seminaries, ... all missionary schools, [and] all academies ... with all of their property, both movable and immovable, i.e. with all buildings ... land, with all gardens, with all libraries ... valuables, capital and vulnerable papers ... and with all that was credited to the above-mentioned schools and institutions, shall likewise be handed over to the Commissariat of Education. ... (Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars VI Lenin).
ii) Decree on the Dissolution of Marriage (Divorce), 18 December 1917: ... 12 ... All records currently in the possession of any religious organization are to be handed over to the local courts without delay. ... All decisions regarding the dissolution of marriage already made or in the process of being ruled upon by any religious organization or by any of its representatives, are hereby declared destroyed and not valid, they are to be decided upon by the local courts upon their taking possession of the appropriate records. Parties not wishing to wait until this takes place have the right to issue a new petition for the dissolution of their marriage as described by this decree. ... (Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars VI Lenin)
iii) Decree on Civic Marriages, on Children, and on the Introduction of Books or Records, 18 December 1917: The Russian Republic from now on recognizes only civil marriages. ... (Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars VI Lenin)
iv) Order of the People's Commissar of Military Affairs No. 39, 16 January 1918, On the prohibition of all powers of religious departments:
v) Order of the People's Commissar of Welfare, 20 January 1918: The distribution of subsidies for the maintenance of churches, chapels, and for the operations of religious orders are to be halted. Governmental support of clergy and teachers of religion is to be halted as of 1 March of this year. ... Church services and the fulfillment of the needs of believers may be continued on the condition of an expressed desire by collectives of believers who must assume the full cost of repairs and maintenance of churches, [and] of all inventory and all servers. (People's Commissar A. Kollontai)
This meant that religious communities from then onward had to rely entirely upon the voluntary support of its laity in order to continue existence.
Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression, lying everywhere on the masses of the people, who are oppressed by eternal work for others, need and isolation. The helplessness of the exploited classes in their struggle with the exploiters just as inevitably generates faith in a better life beyond the grave as the helplessness of the savage in his struggle with nature produces faith in gods, devils, miracles, etc. To him who works and is poor all his life religion teaches passivity and patience in earthly life, consoling him with the hope of a heavenly reward. To those who live on the labor of others religion teaches benevolence in earthly life, offering them a very cheap justification for all their exploiting existence and selling tickets to heavenly happiness at a reduced price. Religion is opium for the people.
—Vladimir Lenin in Thoughts of Lenin about Religion
Lenin's important 1918 Decree on the Separation of Church and State was followed by another body of legislation. Lenin's legislative acts would form what would be called the 'Leninist legality' and would be considered a milestone and a reference point for later anti-religious campaigns and thought. Among key legislation passed included:
i) Separation of the Church from the State and the Schools from the Church: Decree of the Soviet of People's Commissars, 12 January 1918:
According to Gregory Freeze, church hierarchies and dioceses could not legally exist under Soviet law, and therefore if believers received instruction from priests or bishops as though such people were spiritual authorities, they could be punished along with the offending clergymen. In effect this made it extremely difficult for dioceses to be run except in a chaotic fashion; it also allowed for laity to assert increasing control over their churches and sometimes to have conflicts with the hierarchy as a result (and such conflicts were encouraged by the state).
Article Two: General Provisions of the Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic. Chapter Five:
This right to carry out religious propaganda was limited by censorship in 1918 up until the right was later removed. Church presses were confiscated and virtually all church periodicals were shut down; the hierarchy was denied much ability to influence lay opinion in the hope that this would sow discord and confusion in the church.
The Constitution was later modified in 1929, and the right of religious groupings to carry out religious propaganda was taken away, and it was made completely illegal to try to defend religion against atheist arguments or to engage in public discussion on religion. In its place the language read (Article 52) that all citizens had a right to "conduct religious worship or atheist propaganda".
Article Four: The Right to Vote. Chapter Thirteen:
iii) Declaration of the People's Commissar of Education, 17 February 1918:
All teachers of religion of all religions are relieved of all of their duties and responsibilities as of the 1st of January 1918. (People's Commissar AV Lunacharsky)
iv) Declaration by the People's Commissar of Public Property, 14 January 1918:
The Court Clergy is abolished.
The protection of Court churches, as artistic and national monuments, is temporarily assigned to the Committees and Commissars of those places and institutions to which the churches are attached. If any religious society declares a desire to celebrate in those churches, then it will have to take upon itself the full cost of supporting the clergy, other religious servers and other associated costs ... (Deputy People's Commissar Iu. Flakeerman)
v) Declaration of the People's Commissar of Justice, 24 August 1918:
The fact that, this was a 'minimum' and there was no stated 'maximum', allowed for local authorities to set the minimum number at a high level.[clarification needed]
This allowed for local authorities to fill a religious building's administration with citizens and thereby take control of the parish or faith community, even to the extent of 'voluntarily' shutting down the building.
i) Act #259 of the People's Commissar of Internal Affairs, 30 July 1929:
According to Dimitry Pospielovsky, this meant that religious minister could be charged from 5 to 10 times the rent that would be required from workers for the same property.
ii) Act of the All-Russian Central Administrative Committee and Soviet of People's Commissars RSFSR, 8 April 1929:
Pospielovsky argued that a priest could not live with a parishioner or relative in government-owned housing.
High taxes on religious buildings and clergy were meant to cripple the religious bodies financially.
i) Circular NKF USSR #398, 10 September 1929:
(Assistant Head of Taxation the RSFSR People's Commissariat of Finance Starobinsky)
These come from the latter part of the 1920s.
i) Law on military obligations, 1 September 1928:
Section 1: ... The armed defence of the USSR shall be carried out only by the workers. Non-worker elements are charged with the fulifillment of other tasks for the defence of the USSR.
Section 236: Citizens, free from military service on religious ground ... are to be assigned to: in peacetime – public benefiting work (combating natural disasters, epidemics, etc.) ... and in wartime – special brigades for the servicing of the front and rear.
Local courts freed people from military service.
The Central Committee and the Soviet of People's Commissars of the USSR decrees:
ii) Instruction for the Fulfilment of [the above] Decree, 25 April 1929:
(Assistant Head of Taxation)
iii) Instruction on the Elections to the Soviets, Confirmed by the Presidium of the Central Committee, 4 November 1926:
iv) Act of the Central Committee and the Soviet of People's Commissars, 11 January 1928:
All Citizens of the USSR, who possess voting privileges ... may organize consumer organizations to serve their consumer and household needs ...
According to Pospielovsky, all clergy members (e.g. the people mentioned in the above list who had their voting rights deprived) could not form, participate or benefit from consumer organizations. This was very critical in some places of the country, since it was essential to be a member of such an organization in order to have access to any consumer goods.
v) Confirmation of the Central Committee, 15 December 1928:
Pospielovsky argued that land organizations assigned land for all use. This meant that the clergy and non-voting members could not have a say in land allocation. This was a very harsh measure against rural clergy who often depended on small gardens and farms for their survival. If rural clergy did receive land from the land organization it was usually the worst land available, that no one else wanted.
A fairly large number of people wanted to refuse political rights to the priests lest they influence politics unduly. "The time has come to introduce universal suffrage without limitations," said Stalin, arguing that the Soviet people were now mature enough to know their own minds.
In 1936, this unequal status was repealed by Article 124 of the new constitution, also known as the "Stalin" constitution, which redesigned the government of the Soviet Union. Article 124 restored equal political rights to clergy (allowing them to run for office as well) on grounds that not all clergy were hostile to the regime and under the belief that the Soviet public ought to have been sufficiently 're-educated' by that point so as not to vote for people hostile to the regime.
vi) Act of the Soviet of People's Commissars of the USSR, 24 September 1929:
According to Pospielovsky, since only every Sunday was a day of rest, this made it impossible to have regular Sunday church attendance. The celebration of holidays such as Christmas or Easter was also hampered by mandatory work on those days.
A new volume of anti-religious legislation was introduced in 1929 due to the failure of the anti-religious campaign in the previous decade and the successful resistance that the church was able to fight against the atheistic propaganda. The legislation would form part of the basis for the harsh persecution that would be carried out in the 1930s. This 1929 legislation formed the main legal basis for the governing of religious activities in the USSR. It would be added to by the Instruction on the Supervision over the Fulfillment of Religious Cults in 1961 and the 1965 Statue of the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). The 1929 laws would be amended later in 1975.
The 1929 legislation effectively curtailed the church's public presence and mostly limited religious activities to services conducted within religious buildings only.
According to Christel Lane and the United States Department of State Bulletin of 1986, this meant that those under 18 years of age could not be part of a religion and therefore the law required that they be excluded from religious activities.
According to Edward Derwinski, the state used this right to de-register religious groupings, thus making it illegal for them to continue worship, and this was used to gradually reduce the number of registered religious buildings (i.e. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) across the country.
Article 17 banned churches from being used for activities beyond worship, thereby outlawing parish libraries, organized religious education, prayer meetings for women and young people, religious study groups and sewing circles.
According to Jennifer Wynot, priests were forbidden from living in cities.
This meant that they had to get advanced permission.
Legislation passed in 1929 also forbade clergy or monastics from wearing religious garb in public. Islamic courts in Central Asia that interpreted Shariah were fully eliminated after this legislation in 1929.
This legislation, drafted in 1961 during the height of a renewal persecution under Nikita Khrushchev, was designed to assist the anti-religious campaign especially with regard to the massive number of church closures that were conducted. It gave the state tight control over religious practices.
Instruction on the Application of the Legislation on Religious Cults. Approved on 16 March 1961:
II The Activities of the Clergy and the Religious Associations must correspond to the following demands
An exception was made for the sick and dying.
III. Supervision over the fulfilment of the Legislation on Cults
IV. Order and Procedures regarding Registration of Religious Associations, Opening and Closing of Prayer Houses
V. Rules on the Use of Objects (Utensils) of the Cult Basically the same as in LRA. A lesser role is given to the CROCA/CRC; a greater to local governments.
CROCA and CRC were amalgamated in 1965 to form the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). CROCA and CRC were originally created by Joseph Stalin during the second world war (1939–1945) as liaison bodies between religion and the government. Under Nikita Khrushchev this function began to evolve into dictatorial bodies that exerted control over religious activities in the country. Articles 24–26 were ambiguous enough, that in practice they could be effectively used in order to close churches on a wide scale, as occurred under Khrushchev. The meagre protection that they offered (such as in article 26) were eliminated in 1975.
Articles 6, 7, 10 and 11 could also be used. Choral singing, processions, church bells and other normal functions of churches could be interpreted as 'disturbing public order' and prohibited.
Article 7a–c could be used by the state, which could apply it to any homily or sermon it didn't like. For example, Bishop Khrizostom of Kursk criticized 'scientific atheism' and claimed that science also needed faith as a motivation for its development, and as a result the bishop lost his position in the Department of External Ecclesiastical Relations and was moved to the Urals in 1984. Monks who preached about concentrating on the spiritual life and disregarding the temptations of the material world could be interpreted as 'propaganda aimed at tearing believers away from active participation in the state'. Fr Amvrossi was harassed and expelled twice in 1976 as a result of such homilies. Before this legislation had taken effect, believers who preached against atheism could be arrested for making 'political' sermons that were interpreted as an attack on state ideology.
Article 10b in practice forbade priests from organizing pilgrimages, and from making claims of the miraculous. Priests were de-registered and even imprisoned for telling their parishioners about miracles. For example, Fr Sergi Zheludkov lost his registration in the 1960s for taking some of his parishioners to see supposed miraculous icon renewals (where an icon that is dark and covered with soot suddenly begin to shine again as though new).
Article 11, made it such that it was not the Church that decided to have a church council or how many theological colleges were needed for its spiritual needs but rather it was the government that decided.
Legislation in this year also gave the state control of financial activities of religious institutions and legally separated priests from control of parishes. A further law in 1962 gave the state control of all baptisms, marriages, burial services and other religious rites.
In 1965 the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) of the Council of Ministers was created from the amalgamation of CROCA and CRC. This organization inherited the role of dictatorial control over religious life in the country and it used whatever means it could in order to disrupt or put down religious activities. Its legal mandate was strengthened in the 1975 amendments to the LRA, although many of the powers that it would be officially given were things that it had already effectively been using (from its predecessors) since Nikita Khrushchev.
Adopted on 8 December 1965, confirmed on 10 May 1966
The 1929 legislation on religious associations was amended in 1975. The most prominent difference was the status of the Council for Religious Affairs (created in 1965), which was given effective legal control and interference in the spiritual life of religious organizations. The amendments are listed below.
According to Yakunin and Regelson, there was no time limit for when it had to make a decision and this legal ambiguity was abused by the CRA.
This allowed prayer houses to be closed down and reassigned for public purposes.
Deregistration of religious associations is enacted by the Council for Religious Affairs... on the representation from the Council of Ministers of an autonomous republic [etc.]...
The breaking of the laws on the separation of Church and State, and Schools and Church – is punishable by correctional labour for up to one year, or by a fine of up to fifty roubles... repeat offenders are to be imprisoned for up to three years.
The hindrance of prevention of the fulfillment of religious functions, so far as they do not harm the social order or infringe upon individual rights – is punishable by correctional labour for up to six months by a public reprimand.
Article 142 could only be applied to believers who violated the law, while article 143 was for non-believers. This meant that in the unlikely scenario that a group of religious believers who sued a Soviet official, and an even less likely scenario of them winning the case, the guilty administrator would likely only have to face a public reprimand. No matter how many times such an official could be found guilty, the most he could be punished would be six months or correctional labour, while believers could face up to three years imprisonment.
The systematic distribution of false information, harmful to the Soviet government, or to the social order, whether in oral, written, or any other form – is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, or by correctional work for up to one year, or by a fine up to 100 roubles.
This included homilies condemning religious persecutions.
... the unlicensed construction of a dwelling or an addition – is punishable by correctional work for a period of 6 months to one year with a confiscation of the construction or addition.
This punished the expansion of a church without government authorization.
Organizations or the leadership of a group, which function under the guise of fulfilling religious duties, that are harmful, or that enlist other citizens into harmful activities by threat of expulsion from the religious group, or attempt to enlist or force others to enlist minors into the group – is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years, or banishment for up to five years with or without confiscation of property...
According to Pospielovsky, this was interpreted to prohibit any missionary work, and threatened with imprisonment any person who attracted converts or who strengthened religious convictions. This also allowed for the punishment of clergymen who tried to invoke spiritual discipline upon those under them who exhibited immoral or spiritually demoralizing behaviour.
Other laws not mentioned included prohibitions of teaching religion to children under the age of 18, requirements to register all baptisms and religious rites with the state, as well as forbidding of priests to be on church councils.
Bulletins, journals and magazines