Treatment of the different religious minorities in the early USSR

Old Believers

With different religious minorities is mainly meant different from the official state-religion during the tsarist period: the Russian Orthodox Church, of which the tsar was also the patriarch since Peter the Great established the system of caesaropapism in 1700 and abolished the Patriarchate of Moscow (until the Revolution).

An important group here are the different Russian sect, the Old Believers being the most important. In the mid-17th century the Patriarch Nikon decided to reform the Russian Orthodox Church and adapt practices from the Greek Church, practices that were (erroneously, will later be proven)  considered by most scholars of those days to be closer to the original Byzantine ritus, thus closer to the Early Christians. Amongst the changes were that the Sign of the cross has to be made with three fingers (thumb, index and middle finger), instead of two (index and middle finger) which was the habit of the Russian peoples.

Later it will be clear that the Sign of the cross with two fingers actually predates the Sign using three fingers, icons have been found from the 3nd and 4rd century where two fingers are clearly used, proving the Old Believers right[1]:

Fourth century icon of Saint Paul of Efeze

Fourth century icon of Saint Paul of Ephesus

A rather large part of the population outright refused to comply with these new rules implemented by patriarch Nikon, which they deemed blasphemous, and Nikon was publicly branded a False Prophet, forbode of the Antichrist. Nikon was the son of a peasant, who managed at a young age to obtain high positions in the Church thanks to his eloquence which had come to the attention of the pious tsar Alexei I. On 1 August 1652 he was elected patriarch of Moscow. It was only with the utmost difficulty that Nikon could be persuaded to become the arch-pastor of the Russian Church, and he only yielded after imposing upon the whole assembly a solemn oath of obedience to him in everything concerning the dogmas, canons and observances of the Orthodox Church. He proceeded to invite the most learned of the Greek prelates to Moscow, who convinced him (erroneously, as will later be proven) that the Muscovite service-books were heterodox, and that the icons actually in use had very widely departed from the ancient Constantinopolitan models, being for the most part imbued with the Polish baroque influences. Thus the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1653 were said to establish uniformity between Greek and Russian church practices.

Nikon at once (1654) summoned a synod to re-examine the service-books revised by the Patriarch Joasaf, and the majority of the synod decided that “the Greeks should be followed rather than our own ancients.” A second council, held at Moscow in 1656, sanctioned the revision of the service-books as suggested by the first council, and anathematized the dissenting minority, which included the party of the protopopes and Paul, bishop of Kolomna. The reforms coincided with a great plague in 1654. [Wikipedia]

The indignation of the Russian christians was manifold, and led to a split of the Russian Orthodox Church, called the Raskol, into an official church and the dissidents, who came to be called “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists” (Russian: старове́ры or старообря́дцы, starovyery or staroobryadtsy). They  found many supporters among different strata of the Russian society and were heavily, ruthlessly persecuted during the entire tsarist regime from then on, both by the Tsar, the Church and the Cossacks.[2] According to the Old Believers, Nikon acted without adequate consultation with the clergy and without gathering a council. After the implementation of these revisions, the Church anathematized and suppressed with the support of Muscovite state power the prior liturgical rite itself as well as those who were reluctant to pass to the revised rite.

Nikon’s forcible introduction of the new divine service books and rituals caused a major estrangement between the Zealots of Piety (influencial reformist ecclesiastical circle for the purification of the Russian faith) and  its former member, Nikon. Some of its members stood up for the old faith and opposed the reforms and patriarch’s actions. Avvakum Petrov and Daniel petitioned to the tsar in favour of the two-finger sign of the cross and bows during divine services and sermons. The dispute would take a turn for the worse, all so-called raskolniki were to be persecuted and Avvakum and the others were eventually  executed in 1682.

Incredibly strong-willed and powerful, Nikon set about crushing the opposition but his reign was brutally ended as he suddenly fell foul of the Tsar. It’s thought that his active interfering in politics and an ambition to make the Church independent on the state caused the Tsar’s anger. In 1666 Patriarch Nikon was formally deposed, made a simple monk and confined to a remote monastery.

Nikon’s reforms, though, were upheld by his successor. Old Believers were referred to as “raskolniki” or schismatics and endured severe persecution. Over the years many fled Russia altogether while many were sent to villages scattered across Siberia. Out of sight and often regarded with mistrust, they led a secluded life, carefully preserving the traditions of the past. [RT]

His soldiers and servants were charged first to gouge out the eyes of these heretical counterfeits and then carry them through the town in derision. He also issued an ukase threatening with the severest penalties all who dared to make or use such icons in future. Construction of tent-like churches (of which Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a prime example) was strictly forbidden, and many old uncanonical churches were demolished to make way for new ones, designed in the “Old Byzantine” style.  [Wikipedia]

Russian Church Council of 1654: Patriarch Nikon introduces new service books

Russian Church Council of 1654: Patriarch Nikon introduces new service books

The Raskol movement gained in strength after the church sobor in 1666–67, which had anathemized the defenders of the old faith as heretics and made decisions with regards to their punishment. Especially members of the low-ranking clergy, who had severed their relations with the church, became the leaders of the opposition. Propagation of the split with the church in the name of preservation of the Orthodox faith as it had existed until the reforms was the main postulate of their ideology. The most dramatic manifestations of the Raskol included the practice of the so-called ognenniye kreshcheniya (огненные крещения, or baptism by fire), or self-immolation, practiced by the most radical elements in the Old Believers’ movement, who thought that the end of the world was near.

The Old Believers would soon split into different denominations, thePopovtsy and the Bespopovtsy. Attracted to the preachings of the Raskol ideologists, many posad people, mainly peasants, craftsmen and cossacks fled to the dense forests of Northern Russia and Volga region, southern borders of Russia, Siberia, and even abroad, where they would organize their own obshchinas. This was a mass exodus of common Russian people, who had refused to follow the new ecclesiastic rituals. In 1681, the government noted an increase among the “enemies of the church”, especially in Siberia. With active support from the Russian Orthodox Church, it began to persecute the so-called raskolniki (раскольники), i.e., “schism-makers”. [Wikipedia]

Feodosia Prokopiyevna Morozova (Феодо́сия Проко́пьевна Моро́зова, 1632–1675) was one of the best-known partisans of the Old Believer movement. During the Raskol, with Archpriest Avvakum as her confessor, Feodosia joined the Old Believers’ movement and secretly took monastic vows with the name Theodora. From a boyar family, she convinced her sister, princess Evdokia Urusova, to join the Old Believers. The two sisters were incarcerated in an underground cellar of the St. Paphnutius Monastery at Borovsk, where Feodosia succumbed to starvation on December 1, 1675. Many Old Believer communities venerate her as a martyr. Painting by Vasily Surikov.



VICE has produced a documentary called Surviving in the Siberian Wilderness, as has RT, a documentary called Agafia, both which tell the story of Agafia Lykova, last remaining member of an Old Believer family that settled in the remote Sayan mountains in Siberia in 1936, fleeing Stalinist persecution, where the family was said to have lived secluded from all contact with outside civilisation (which was said to be 160 km away across the wild Siberian taiga) until 1975. Although it must be noted that VICE is not entirely correct, and that the Lykov family lived most of the time about 20 km from the village they left, where their relatives lived, also “староверы” or “Old Believers”. Naturally this village was already remote and very modest, for obvious reasons.

It was only in 1905 that the last tsar Nicolas II finally granted them officially freedom from persecution. In the early days of the Soviet-Union, the communists were quite friendly towards the Old Believers, as they admired the way they lived, which resembled the communist ideal, and their fierce resiliance towards the severe tsarist persecution which lasted more than 2 centuries. It was only later during Stalin’s Great Purges that the persecution started all over again for them, officially because they refused to renounce their religious ways in a way which could potentially endanger the communist ideal.

As late as 1971, the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians. Many still live in extremely isolated communities respecting ancient traditions.

Patriarch Nikon went to hell where he made a deal with Satan and introduced the new laws. He was the ultimate Satan worshiper. He abolished the two-fingered sign of the cross handed down to us by Christ himself, changed the books and the articles of church,”

-Old Believer and hermit Agafia Lykova.


Old Believers today (photo BBC)

Old Believers today (photo BBC)

Shortly after the Octoberrevolution and the subsequent civil war ended, the “Agricultural Commission for the Colonisation of Soviet Goods” published an official statement addressed to “the Old Believers and the adherents of the sects which separated themselves from the Russian-Orthodox Church”, in which was stated:

The land that used to be state property has partly been assigned to the Soviet exploitations. These are currently not very well managed. The adherents of the sects lead a sort of communist life and have done so for centuries. Commonly they will in their efforts quote the Acts of the Apostles as their platform: “Now all the believers were one in heart and soul, and nobody called any of his possessions his own. Instead, they shared everything they owned.” (Acts 4:32)
This is why the sect were harassed, persecuted, banished, yet they remained truthful to their faith and even facing death they would trust the continuation of their struggle for a communal life to their brothers. The adherents of the sects always belonged to the poorest proletarian classes.
Now the time has come, when you are free and can profess your faith in public. The Soviet regime brought you Freedom of Conscience, and has no interest in partaking in any disputes concerning worldview.


Unfortunately the incense and accolades were only short-lasting, and it wasn’t long before this touted Brotherhood-in-Arms was completely forgotten, and a whole different tune became heard: namely that the religious opposition against the czar from the side of the Old Believers merely side-tracked the Working Class and kept them from their revolutionary struggle!

Having embraced Christianity, Solzhenitsyn began to sympathize more than ever with those who had been persecuted for their religious faith. At Ekibastuz, he rubbed shoulders with many devout men who had been imprisoned for their beliefs and began to feel a deep affinity with them. The Old Believers, the traditionalist recusants of the Orthodox Church, were no longer the strange anachronism they had seemed to Solzhenitsyn in his days as a Marxist. Now they were the “eternally persecuted, eternal exiles”, the ones who three centuries earlier had “divined the ruthlessness at the heart of Authority”. He heard with a sense of growing admiration about the struggle of these Old Believers to retain their faith and way of life in the hostile environment of Stalin’s Russia.

In The Gulag Archipelago, he recounts the story of the Yaruyevo Old Believers who had fled from the oppression of Soviet collectivization. A whole village had literally uprooted itself and disappeared deep into the remoteness of the Russian wilderness. For twenty years, these uncompromising Christians had lived a self-sufficient existence in the vast basin of the Podkamennaya Tunguska, living in secluded isolation from the prying eyes of the outside world. The end came in 1950 when the previously unknown settlement was spotted from a plane and its position reported to the authorities. When Soviet troops arrived, they found a small but thriving community that had enjoyed “twenty years of life as free human beings among the wild beasts, instead of twenty years of … misery“. They were all wearing homespun garments and homemade knee boots, and they were all “exceptionally sturdy”. The whole village was arrested on a charge of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for constituting a hostile organisation and found themselves in the same labour camps as Solzhenitsyn.

In 1946, four years before the Yaruyevo Old Believers were discovered, another group of Old Believers was arrested in a forgotten monastery somewhere in the backwoods. They were then floated on rafts down the Yenisei River bound for the camps. “Prisoners still, and still indomitable – the same under Stalin as they had been under Peter!” – they jumped from the rafts into the waters of the Yenisei, where our Tommy-gunners finished them off.

Excerpt from: Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, by Joseph Pearce

Here is a cartoon against the Old Believers and diverse sects:

cartoon against sects


“He receives the loot.”

Pope: <<Join the struggle, the True Faith is in danger!>>

source: Besboshnik u Stanka 1926, IV, 9

Another documentary produced by RT on the life of Russian Old Believers is Children of the schism. The description: They lead a quiet life out of public view and keep distant from worldly matters. Religious books written in the Old Slavonic language are studied and food is all homemade. Married women are obliged to cover their head, while men have beards. The length of their dresses, trousers and shirt sleeves is strictly regimented – most of the body is covered. Living, eating or praying together with lay people is out of the question. They are the Old Believers.

[1] Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church realized that the forced introduction of the so-called “new rite” was carried out in a violent and uncanonical way, and that the old rite kept in Russia is actually a historic rite of the ancient Antiochian Patriarchate. At least three Fathers of that Patriarchate (namely,Meletius of Antioch, Theodoret of Cyrus and Peter of Damascus) had given homilies on the sign of the cross being made with two fingers, in the manner of the Russian Old Believers. Perhaps the fact that Michael I of Kiev, the first Metropolitan of Kiev, was possibly of Syrian origin, can explain how this tradition arrived in Russia. What cannot be understood is how the tradition was lost in Antioch itself. However, St. Nicodemus, in the Rudder also mentions that Christians made the sign of the cross with two fingers, in honor of the two natures of Christ, and that the current custom is now to use three fingers, for the Holy Trinity.  […]

In the 18th-19th centuries, church and secular historians formed a theory about the allegedly blatant illiteracy which prevalied in Russia in the 10th-16th centuries. The overwhelming majority of the population of Kiev, and then Moscow Russia was illiterate according to the opinion of such “scholars”. A small quantity of semi-literate people were occupied by written office management, and simultaneously copied spiritual literature. In this case into the liturgical books fell many errors, errors and even fabrications of these ignoramuses.

Today this pseudo-scientific opinion is completely disproven. In the course of impartial historical research in the 20th century, it was established that the very substantial part of the population of ancient Russia was literate. Archaeologists could find on the site of ancient cities and populated areas, thousands of birch bark certificates with records belonging to commoners. After the philological analysis of Old-Russian liturgical texts, the scientists drew the conclusion that their translators and compilers know the wide layers of the literature of the Christian east. The academician of RAN (Russian Academy of Sciences), V. Kirillin, conducted a tedious study of some canons of lenten and colored Triodions of the first half of the 15th century. It turned out that many texts of that time were philological more competent than contemporary ones, are more transparent for the perception and are theologically reconciled. A scientist characterizes the Old-Russian compiler of Lenten Triodion thusly: “There is an obvious and striking theological and philological culture, and a deep (Christian) understanding of unknown editor”. Sometimes the literary achievements of the ancient Russian church proved to be unprecedented throughout entire orthodox east. So in 1490, Novgorod archbishop Gennadiy’s efforts for the first time in the history of eastern Christianity created a manuscript bible.

[2] An Ukrainian/Russian friend told me this story he heard from his grand-parents, that the local Cossacks used to randomly stop peasants, whereafter they asked them to make the Sign of the cross. If a peasant made the Sign with two fingers, most often the Cossacks would proceed to kill him on the spot, in order to “protect the True Faith”.

It became a criminal offence to be a dissenter, and anyone who informed on a dissenter would acquire the property of the condemned.

Further reading:

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II, the story of the Lykov family (Smithsonian)

Old Believers break from Russian Orthodox Church (RT)

Orthodoxwiki: Old Believers

The Hidden Village of Alaska’s “Old Believers” (National Geographic)

Russian Old Believers in Estonia

Elena’s Place: story of an Old Believer in Erskine, Minnesota, USA (October 23, 2003)

Discovering Russian Orthodoxy: The Old Believers (Russia Beyond The Headlines, UK)

The Old Believers of Berezovka (Ph.D. Thesis D. Scheffel 1988) [PDF]

Secularizing Tendencies in Medieval Russian Hagiography of the 16th and 17th Centuries (Ph.D. Thesis Rosalind Y. McKenzie 1998) [PDF]

The Spirit of Russian Orthodoxy by Vasily V. Zenkovsky ; Russian Review Vol. 32,  No. 1, (1963)  pp 38-55 [PDF]

The Old Believers in the United States by Anton S. Beliajeff ; Russian Review, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1977), pp. 76-80 [PDF]

The Old Believers and the New Religion by Michael Cherniavsky ; Slavic Review, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1966), pp. 1-39 [PDF]

Does History Repeat Itself? Public Discourse of the Contemporary Russian Old Believer Elite by Ekaterina Levintova ; The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 753-779 [PDF]



With regards to the protestant faith, the Soviet Union in those days had several million Lutheran citizens, many of Finnish or Baltic descent. They were least targeted by the anti-religious propaganda, but that is best explained by the fact that they were a relatively small part of the population. The greatest reproach targeted at pastors and protestant believers was that they were accused of encouraging the people not to pay their taxes.
The foreign protestant churches, especially those from the USA, Germany and the UK were instead the favorite target point of the propagandists. In them the bolsheviks saw the embodiment of the bourgeoisie of these capitalist countries. The Archbishop of Canterbury was said to be the Lord-Protector of English colonial politics. American pastors and clergymen gave blessing to financiers and capitalists with the electric chair and the lynching of negroes nearby.
To illustrate, here is such a cartoon:

God Bless the lynching of negroes

“The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and the lynching of negroes in the English colonies”

source: Besboshnik u Stanka 1927, V, 6


Roman Catholic Church


When pope Pius XI of the Roman Catholic Church wrote to Cardinal Pompilj, the Vicar General of Rome, in 1930 an open letter where he condemned the persecution of religion in the USSR, the bolsheviks counterattacked ruthlessly and persisting for a long time, making the Pope the most hated man amongst the Russian communists, his image was caricaturized on an almost daily basis in thousands of several fashions. The papal call was held equal to a call “for a crusade” and “for an armed conflict”.


Everything ever used by enemies of the Roman Catholics through history, former enemies and current enemies, was brought as a charge against Rome. Hereby they lent a lot of material from their other adversaries, mostly Orthodox and the Russian sects.


The Pope was accused to be the fire-starter of all wars, to be a faithful servant of the English, French and American capitalists. The essence of the USA-Mexican War for example was according to them caused by the fact that the Pope wanted to sell catholic Mexico to the American capitalists. They referred to late 19th-early 20th century German historians Schulte and Strieder and claimed the essence of both their works was that all the Roman Popes indulged in chiefly one thing, during the whole of Church history, namely speculation with currency and land. Being stressed were the selling of Indulgences, remission of future sins, and the notorious ‘Popessa Johanna’, also know as Pope Joan :

“On the Roman throne many evil-doers took a seat, unsavory figures such as John VIII (Joan), Alexander VI (Borgia) and the like”.


Pope Joan (John VIII)  pregnant

Pope Joan (John VIII) giving birth

Pope Joan gives birth during a procession Pope Joan, legendary female pope, gives birth to a child while taking part in a procession through the streets of Rome — it is a shock to everyone, including herself. She is thought to have reigned for a time during the Middle Ages (but there is no contemporary evidence, possibly destroyed).


The Jesuits were declared the “Black Guards of his Holyness”, all sort of sexual debauchery was insinuated with the vow of celibacy. Also the so-called “monita secreta” were widely discussed, and although they admitted it was based on falsifications, their final argument was that the whole did at least show what the Jesuits were capable of doing.
Following cartoon is set during the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash:

wallstreetcrash banker

“When the World’s Imperialists see how the Pound Sterling, the Dollar and the Crown is perishing, now suddenly the priests start exercising religious practices in the bank vaults.”


source: Besboshnik u Stanka 1931, 22

               Joan Pope of Rome 856 – A Woman Pope (as History doth tell) – In High Procession once in Labour fell, And was Deliver’d of a Bastard Son ;_ Whence Rome some call The Whore Of Babylon.

Further reading:

The education of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy (1882-1946) by Ivan Kaszczak [PDF]

The Roman Catholic Church and Its Legal Position under the Provisional Government in Russia in 1917 by James J. Zatko ; The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 38, No. 91 (Jun., 1960), pp. 476-492 [PDF]

About Olivier Corveleyn

I'm a 35 years old biochemist from Belgium with a particular interest in Russian culture, history and politics, and general slavic culture and history. This blog is intended to put the Russian Godless Movement and its main media outlet, the journal безбожник, bezbozhnik (godless) and several others in its wake which existed during the interbellum period, in an objective historical perspective. Currently I must use mostly secondary sources as the journals are difficult to locate. The blog is a work-in-progress which I mostly put together during the little free time I have. I'll try to make it not too chaotic and keep it more or less structured. Also, English is not my first language, so forgive me any grammar and spelling mistakes in advance.
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