The eight decades from the Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the Iron Curtain brought waves of anti-religious repression comparable to the persecutions of the first centuries. Yet they also produced acts of witness paralleling the most heroic of Christian history. When I began gathering material for a two-volume history, I had a pretty sound grasp of what Christians, so many of them Orthodox believers, had endured. But I had little idea of the sheer scale of persecution.Share
Lenin’s power system claimed possession over minds and souls, and commanded not just obedience but also active approval. By promising absolute good, it eroded any sense of evil, unleashing primal instincts usually constrained by law and ethics. Christians were shocked at how the potestas tenebrarum, the power of evil spoken of by St Paul, had surfaced again in their own lifetimes.
“In childhood and adolescence, I immersed myself in the lives of the saints and was enraptured by their heroism and holy inspiration,” the youthful Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd confided to a friend as he awaited execution in 1922 as an “enemy of the people”. He and other priests were dressed in rags so the firing squad would not recognise them. “I sorrowed that times had changed and one no longer had to suffer what they suffered,” he said. “Well, times have changed again, and the opportunity has arisen to suffer for Christ both from one’s own people and from strangers.”
The paradigms of persecution and martyrdom, established in the Early Church, had indeed made a drastic comeback. Under Roman rule, there had been secret police and informers, show trials and forced labour sentences. Propagandists such as Celsus and Porphyry had ridiculed Christian beliefs, while Roman officials had followed the tactic of “striking the shepherd so the sheep will scatter” – using torture to break the will of Christians and force them to incriminate others. Whereas the Romans had defended the established religious order, communists sought to destroy it. But the impulses of suspicion and hostility were much the same. In both cases, Christians represented an alternative value system. They owed temporal loyalty to the state, but spiritual loyalty to a heavenly kingdom beyond it. When the two came into conflict, they were bound to obey God. For regimes demanding absolute submission, this could not be tolerated. (Read more.)