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Russian Parishes Are Asked to Donate Their Precious Articles: February 19, 1922

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


In December 1922, the tenth All-Russian Congress of Soviets gathered in Moscow and formed a union of four Soviet Socialist Republics (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic). A new constitution joined these republics in a federal union called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).


On paper, at least, the new union was both democratic and federal. It was democratic insofar as all working men and women, ages 18 and older, were given the suffrage. It was federal because each republic had its own independent government and sent representatives to the union’s central government in Moscow.


But the reality was far different from what appeared on paper. Several classes (such as landowners, employers, and clergy) were forbidden to vote. And those who voted could only vote directly for members of the village or city soviets. Local soviets appointed members of higher district governments, which appointed the members of the governments in the republics, and so on. Thus, many levels of government existed between the voters and the supreme governments in each republic and the federal union. Voting, too, was by show of hand—which meant voters could easily be intimidated to vote for the “right” candidates.


Lenin in 1920
Lenin in 1920

Though the constitution gave some authority to republic governments, in reality, the central government held almost all political power in the USSR. And this government was under the complete control of the Bolshevik party, which in 1919 had begun to be called the Communist Party. Since the Communist Party was the only legal party in the USSR, its members controlled all higher political offices both in the republics and the union. Directing the Communist Party was a Central Committee, called the Politburo (short for Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). The Politburo was controlled by its chairman, Vladimir Lenin, who held the power of a dictator over both the party and the government.


Lenin insisted on strict discipline in the Communist Party. To be a party member, one had to go through a probation period in which he learned to abandon his mind, will, and body to the control of the party leadership. Lenin demanded such discipline because party members were to lead all workers (by force, if necessary) into the Communist paradise. This paradise would have no private property and no government, for all would be equal; none would be poor or oppressed, for all together would hold all property and wealth. But, in the meantime, since society had not yet been “revolutionized,” a dictatorship was needed—Karl Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat.”


The Soviet Government
The Soviet Government

Lenin and the Communist Party used every means at their disposal to disseminate Communist ideas and to crush all opposition to the party. The party established Communist youth organizations for children, ages 8 to 16, and for young adults, ages 16 to 23. By means of the Cheka (which in 1922 became known as the State Political Directorate, or Ogpu), the Communists terrorized anyone who opposed their regime. Among the Communists’ chief opponents were religious groups, especially the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Like Marx, the Communists called religion the “opiate of the people.” By promising a future life after death, religion, the Communists said, made people willing to bear injustices in this life instead of rising up against them.


Communist persecution of the Church began as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Lenin’s government immediately passed laws separating church and state, denying the Church any legal rights, and seizing Church bank accounts. The Bolsheviks declared that church marriages were not legal marriages and forbade any organized religious instruction of anyone under 18 years of age. The Red Terror had killed large numbers of Orthodox priests in the most brutal fashion. (There were reports of priests crucified on the doors of their churches.) At least 28 Russian Orthodox bishops were murdered between 1918 and 1920.


Lenin stopped at nothing to destroy the Church. While the famine was raging in Russia, the government asked the Church to give over all its valuables to raise money to feed the poor, and on February 19, 1922, Moscow’s Patriarch Tikhon Bellavin asked all his parishes to donate their precious articles. They were to keep only the chalices, vestments, and other items used in divine worship. The Bolsheviks, however, called this generous act heartless; the clergy, they said, were refusing to give up their wealth even to feed the starving! The government then ordered the Church to give over all its valuables. Believers resisted. Fights broke out between Christians and Bolsheviks. The government retaliated by closing rural churches and arresting priests and bishops. This was just what Lenin had wanted to happen. “Now our victory over the reactionary clergy is guaranteed,” he told his fellow Communists.


Though he had greatly weakened the Orthodox Church, Lenin could not destroy it. Vast numbers of Russians remained faithful to their religion, and the Orthodox Church actually grew in numbers in the 1920s. The Communists, however, had not given over their fight against religion. That fight would continue and grow more violent under the man who was soon to seize control of the party and the government of the USSR—the ruthless “man of steel,” Josif Stalin.



Music in an Age of Revolution


In 1922, while a student at the Petrograd Conservatory in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg), Russia, the young Dmitri Shostakovich composed three, short dances for piano—the Three Fantastic Dances. This set of dances figured four years later as the first published work of a man who would become one of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th century. In the performance we feature here, the composer himself performs his own work.



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