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The Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1948

From Decline to Resurrection

edited by: Daniela Kalkandjieva
published by
: Routledge
pp: 378
ISBN: 9781138788480
price: 20 €

Book's frontpage

This book tells the remarkable story of the decline and revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first half of the twentieth century and the astonishing U-turn in the attitude of the Soviet Union’s leaders towards the church. In the years after 1917 the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious policies, the loss of the former western territories of the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union’s isolation from the rest of the world and the consequent separation of Russian emigrés from the church were disastrous for the church, which declined very significantly in the 1920s and 1930s. However, when Poland was partitioned in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed the Patriarch of Moscow, Sergei, jurisdiction over orthodox congregations in the conquered territories and went on, later, to encourage the church to promote patriotic activities as part of the resistance to the Nazi invasion. He agreed a Concordat with the church in 1943, and continued to encourage the church, especially its claims to jurisdiction over émigré Russian orthodox churches, in the immediate postwar period. Based on extensive original research, the book puts forward a great deal of new information and overturns established thinking on many key points.


Table of contents


1. The Dissolution of the Russian Orthodox Church (1917-1939)
2. The Sergian Church in the Annexed Territories (September 1939 – June 1941)
3. The Holy War of the Sergian Church
4. The Sergian Church and Western Christianity
5. The Moscow Patriarchate Restored
6. The Growth of Moscow’s Jurisdiction
7. Russian Émigré Churches beyond Stalin’s Grasp (1945-1947)
8. The Moscow Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches outside the Soviet Union (1944-1947)
9. Toward an Eighth Ecumenical Council (1944-1948)



Chapter One traces “The Dissolution of the Russian Orthodox Church (1917-1939)”. It reveals how this process brought about the establishment of a set of successor churches which had their headquarters not only in the Soviet Union (the Moscow Patriarchate, the Living Church, etc.) but also abroad (in Sremski Karlovci, Paris and New York). At the same time, only the Moscow Patriarchate and the Living Church claimed to be the canonical successors of the imperial Russian Orthodox Church. The chapter also points to the losses of territorial jurisdiction by the Moscow Patriarchate and to its inability to exercise its administrative control over the dioceses which were integrated in the interwar state territories of Romania, Poland, Finland and the Baltic States. The chapter emphasizes the isolation of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Orthodox world and the refusal of the Russian church émigrés to recognize Metropolitan Sergii (Starogorodskii) as the canonical patriarchal locum tenens. Finally, it discusses the difficult choice between Hitler and Stalin that the Russian diaspora had to make on the eve of the Second World War.  

Chapter Two is entitled “The Sergian Church in the Annexed Territories (September 1939 – June 1941)”. It uses the term “Sergian Church” to denote a particular church administration: that led by Metropolitan Sergii (Starogorodskii), who claimed to be the only successor of the canonical rights of the late Patriarch Tikhon (1917-1925). In this regard, it is necessary to note other post-revolutionary off-springs of the Russian Orthodox Church, such as the Living Church in Soviet Russia and the Karlovci Synod abroad. The chapter explores the activities of the Sergian administration in the western borderlands (Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, Bessarabia, North Bukovina and the Baltic lands) annexed by the Soviets in 1939-1940. For centuries, these areas have been part of the Russian Empire and its Orthodox Church. After World War I, however, the change in the political status of these territories was not followed by amendments of the same scale in the local church structures. The Russian church leadership continued to regard those dioceses that had been integrated in the independent states of Romania, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of its canonical territory. Neither Patriarch Tikhon nor his successors relinquished their canonical rights over those dioceses that remained on the other side of the interwar Soviet borders. According to the Sergian Church, it was canonically legitimate to reestablish its administrative control over the Orthodox dioceses and believers in the newly annexed lands. The chapter pays special attention to the canonical arguments and ecclesiastical procedures used by the Sergian Church in this endeavor.

Chapter Three
discusses “The Holy War of the Sergian Church”. It explores the activities of the Sergian Church from the Nazi invasion (June 1941) to the election of Sergii as Patriarch of Moscow (September 1943). During these most arduous months of the war, the locum tenens Sergii and his supporters created an image of their organization as a patriotic church that defended its native people and fought for its own territorial and canonical integrity. The chapter presents a detailed analysis of the proclamations issued by the Sergian Church. It explores the ways in which the theme of a holy war was elaborated by church hierarchs. It also outlines the centrifugal processes and transformations in the ecclesiastical organization of the Orthodox communities in Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Transnistria during their occupation by German and Romanian forces. They were of special concern tothe Sergian Church and it issued a series of encyclicals to its flock there with an appeal to keep the integrity of their mother church and their unity with the Soviet motherland. The chapter also analyzes the appeals of Metropolitan Sergii to the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans. As victims of the same Nazi evil they were called to support the worldwide fight against Hitler.

Chapter Four, “The Sergian Church and Western Christianity” is focussed on the freedom of religion as a central issue not only in the relations of Stalin’s with his Western Allies, but also in those of the Sergian Church with Western Christianity. It analyzes unexplored before archival materials about the wartime relations between the Sergian church administration in Moscow and the leadership of the Church of England. Their analysis sheds light on the initial phase of the Sergian Church’s diplomacy (1942-1943) and particularly on the efforts of the Moscow church leadership to gain international recognition. It reveals new details about the correlation between the wartime state and church foreign policy of Moscow. It also points to specific ecclesiastical motives of the locum tenens Sergii (Starogordskii) that justified his collaboration with Stalin on the international scene. 

Chapter Five
“The Moscow Patriarchate Restored”, analyzes the short tenure of Patriarch Sergii – the first Russian hierarch who was allowed by the Soviets to take this position after the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925. It discusses the establishment of the Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of control over the Moscow Patriarchate. In this regard, the analysis highlights those areas in which the Church’s domestic and international interests were in harmony with those of the Soviet State. With the assistance of the Kremlin, Patriarch Sergii consolidated all Orthodox structures in the postwar Soviet territories and brought to an end the Renovationist, Georgian and Estonian schisms that had caused discord and conflict in the previous period. In a similar way, the new Russian patriarch gained international recognition not only from the Church of England and various Russian émigré church organizations, but also from the patriarchs of the most ancient Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. After Sergii’s death (1944), his policy was continued by Alexii (Simanskii), who was elected as the next Patriarch of Moscow in the beginning of 1945.  

Chapter Six
deals with “The Growth of Moscow’s Jurisdiction (1945-1946)”. It traces the expansion of the administrative and canonical authority of the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Alexii. Within the Soviet territories, this policy was aimed at getting rid of the so-called Uniates, i.e. Greek rite Catholics. The chapter points to the specific methods used by the Soviet state and church authorities for the ‘reunion’ of the Uniates in Western Ukraine (1946) and for that of the Uniates in Transcarpathia (1949). It also reveals the way in which Patriarch Alexii succeeded in spreading his authority over Russian and non-Russian Orthodox communities, which were situated outside the postwar Soviet borders, namely in Czechoslovakia and Central Europe. Finally, the chapter discusses the failure of the Moscow Patriarchate to restore its jurisdiction over the Orthodox community in Finland, which moved under that of the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1923.

Chapter Seven discusses the developments connected with “Russian Émigré Churches beyond Stalin’s Grasp (1945-1947)”. It deals with the postwar attempts of Patriarch Alexii to place under his jurisdiction those Russian émigré churches situated in territories outside Red Army control. Its analysis begins with the Karlovci Synod. From 1927, this Russian church center demonstrated firm and systematic opposition to both the Sergian Church and the Soviet regime. The chapter also discusses the negotiations of the Moscow Patriarchate with the other two major Russian churches abroad – the Western European Orthodox Russian Exarchate in Paris and the Russian Metropolia in North America. Under the influence of the wartime alliance of Stalin with Roosevelt and Churchill, they established contact with the Sergian church administration and even started negotiating their return under its jurisdiction. The chapter ends with an outline of the major success of Patriarch Alexii in his attempts to subject the Russian church communities beyond Stalin’s grasp – the establishment of the Eastern Asian Exarchate of his Church.   

Entitled “The Moscow Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches outside the Soviet Union (1944-1948)”, Chapter Eight analyzes one of the most canonically sensitive aspects of the foreign policy of the Moscow Patriarchate – its relations with the autocephalous Orthodox churches, i.e. with bodies that enjoyed equal rights and independence in their ecclesiastical affairs. Its analysis reveals the religious and political mechanisms used to redirect the development of the Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Albanian Orthodox churches in conformity with postwar Soviet geopolitics. Italso presents the failure of the idea of establishing a unified Orthodox Church in Hungary, where mostBalkan churches had had their own religious parishes for centuries. The chapter closes with a review of the negotiations of the Moscow Patriarchate with the ancient Orthodox patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, which were expected to assist in Stalin’s plan to transform the Moscow Patriarchate into an ‘Orthodox Vatican’.   

The last chapter, entitled “Toward an Eighth Ecumenical Council (1944-1948),” traces the adaptation of Stalin’s ‘Orthodox Vatican’ project to postwar international realities. It points to the factors that induced the Kremlin to give up its ambitious plan for a World Congress of Churches that was to embrace all branches of Christianity. It also reveals the failure of the alternative idea of the Moscow church hierarchy for convoking an Eight Ecumenical Council of all Orthodox churches. In this regard, the chapter discusses the importance of canon law for the success of such enterprises. Finally, it analyzes the organization of the so-called Pan-Orthodox Conference (1948), which was attended only by Orthodox churches from the so-called people’s democracies. It reveals how this forum was used by the Moscow Patriarchate and the Soviet government to strengthen their positions in those Eastern European countries where communist parties came to power.

About the Author

Dr. Daniela Kalkandjieva is a researcher affiliated with Sofia University St. Kliment Ohrisdki. She has PhD in History from the Central European University. Her research is focused on the study of Orthodox churches and societies and more recently on the history of education and science in Bulgaria.


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