IBDP Extended Essay: To what extent was Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet government in the period of 1917 to 1924 able to separate the Russian Orthodox Church from the State?

  IB Extended Essay

To what extent was Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet government in the period of 1917 to 1924 able to separate the Russian Orthodox Church from the State?

Candidate Number: 0023
Exam Session: May 2015


This extended essay has focused of on evaluation of the extent, to which the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was able to separate Christian Orthodox Church from the State. It analyzed the fundamentals and purpose of the separation, measures taken both legally and informally to implement it, and whether opposition to the regime was present. Furthermore, it evaluated the success of separation with respect to the Soviet society. In order to investigate the research question, sources from educational articles and historical non-fictional books were obtained, several being in the original language of Russian. Investigation into historical background leading up to formation of USSR was conducted to give insight on the reasons for a hostile attitude towards religion. Information was gathered on Marx’s views on the role of religion in society, which have influenced Lenin’s ideas. Thereby, it was discovered that Marx did not believe religion had a place in the Communist society. The magnitude of anti-religious legislation in the Soviet state was explored, with which the government wished to undermine the Russian Orthodox Church in terms of property, education and financial support. The methods of oppression towards religious officials were discovered to be forceful and merciless, aiming to destroy the inner structure of the church. The presence of opposition was recognized and analyzed in terms of its varied nature and substantial significance for maintaining church’s prestige. It was found that faith remained to have a large influence on the Soviet society, while religious members continued their practices unofficially. Imposition of violence has not destroyed determination to keep the Orthodox religion alive in the Soviet State, as it paradoxically united all believers in the struggle against governmental antireligious policies. Overall, it was concluded that Lenin was not successful in separating the Orthodox Church from the state to a full extent.

Word Count: 298 words


Vladimir Lenin was a Bolshevik Communist revolutionary and the indisputable leader of October revolution of 1917. The Bolshevik party was formed in 1903, aiming to establish socialism as a foundation for Communism in Russia. Bolsheviks, as translated from Russian, meant ‘the big ones’, the ‘majority’, differing from a Menshevik party due to a disagreement over the characteristic of an effective revolutionary group.  Lenin believed that the revolution must be carried out by a small and organized group of revolutionaries rather than a large party.  Until 1922 Russia was going through an extremely unstable period in its history: it was forced to recover from the fall of autocracy while the sudden seizure of power by the Bolshevik party resulted into bloody civil war. The tensions within the country reduced due to the domination of the Bolshevik-led Red Army, a Russian military revolutionary defense force, created in 1917, over the belligerent White Army.  Thus, the Soviet Government consisted entirely of Communist Party officials, the former Bolsheviks, who now ruled the newly established Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Russian Orthodox Christianity deeply associates faith with truth, its believers being called ‘pravoslavnye’, the ‘right worshippers’, making the idea of purity and accurate preservation of religious traditions its unique foundation.   Lenin, himself an atheist, was convinced that, amongst other factors, abolition of religion must take place if a society wishes to become Communist. His attempt to abolish Orthodox Christianity in the Soviet Union demonstrated the impact and value of religion as an institution on society, as it was seen as a threat bound for elimination. The original idea of secularization of the Soviet State came from Karl Marx, a German philosopher, who in his work ‘The Communist Manifesto’, written in cooperation with Friedrich Engels, outlined religion as a ‘bourgeois prejudice’,  an illusion unable to contribute to the happiness of the masses.  His arguments had a significant impact on the degrading relationship between the Communist state and the Orthodox Church in the early years of existence of the Soviet Union as its leader, Lenin, believed that religion was an obstacle to the ideological destination point of USSR.

Thus, in order to explore the extent to which Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet Government in the period of 1917 to 1924 able to separate the Russian Orthodox Church from the state, this essay will firstly discuss the unique ideas of Marx, which introduced Lenin to unacceptability of religion in a Communist state. It will examine the legal measures taken to separate the church from the State in USSR including those concerning property, religious organizations, and education with evaluation of their success. Furthermore, the essay will investigate methods of oppression towards the church with emphasis on religious officials evaluating whether those has an impact on the process of separation of Orthodox Church from the state. Finally, it will assess the significance and achievements of the opposition groups towards the actions of the Soviet Government.

John Keegan, Jennifer Wynot and Aleksii Marchenko present their positing with the perspective of strong disagreement that the separation of Church from the State was a successful notion during Lenin’s rule specifically with provision of alternative reasons for the verdict further discussed in this essay. However as asserted by Michael Bourdeaux, Lenin was able to eventually achieve his objective of separation.

The following topic is intriguing as it allows an exploration of the role of religion during a controversial time period Russia’s history. As Orthodox Christianity possessed a large role in Russian culture since it was adopted in 988,  examining the effect of Soviet regime on the Orthodox Church in the early twentieth century provides significant insight into how far suppression of a religious system impacts the lives of individuals and society as a whole.

Karl Marx’s Original Idea

Marxist ideology had a significant influence on soviet policy in terms of separation of the Church from the State. Marx recognized the injustice of societal structure as the major reason for the existence of religion,  ‘the opium of the people’, necessary to abolish if a state wished to transform itself into a classless society.  Karel Dobbelaere emphasizes the importance of Marx’s claim of religion being required by the wealthier class to support the idea of an afterlife and prevent those experiencing misfortune from standing up to the existing regime, as it had a large impact on the Russian leftist politicians.  Lenin, being one of them, was guided by ‘The Communist Manifesto’ to the notion of existing unfair treatment of the working class within the capitalist society,   which encourages religion to prosper.   Thereby, Lenin has willingly adapted a Marxist attitude towards religion based on his personal assumptions, which aided to lay the foundation for a potentially successful abolition of Russian Orthodox Church from the State.

Religion and Soviet Law

Lenin wished to begin the separation of Church from the State through legal measures, thus creating a framework for further the anti-religious actions taken by the government.

Communists saw religion as a potential rival when competing for power over the Soviet masses.  Therefore, as Sheila Fitzpatrick outlines, the official governmental aim was to defeat the ‘temptations of the bourgeois life’,  where religion was classified as more shameful than drunkenness and crime.  Lenin was not delusional concerning the difficulties of separation, as he realized, that evidently the society of 1918 was far from its ability to give up Orthodox faith.  The Bolshevik government made a decision that it would have to interfere in order to facilitate the process of abolition of religion through legislation.

Thus, one way that Lenin was able to separate the Church from the State was by establishing a Decree of Separation of Church and State and School from the Church on 20th  of January 1918.   The decree promoted ideas such as freedom of religious consciousness and private practice of religion. Religious activity was no longer subsidized, while registration of births, marriages and deaths, previously carried out by the Orthodox Church, was a duty legally delegated on to the civil authority.  Another formal request for separation appeared in an alternative form in the official constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic,  officially adopted by the Congress of Soviets in 1918.  Thus, as argued by Christel Lane, the separation of Church from the State was theoretically successful, legally promoting forceful elimination of dominance of Orthodoxy in the Russian society.  Nevertheless, as suggested by John Keegan, this did not guarantee a significant negative shift in the mass sentiment towards religion by as elimination of the deeply rooted religious traditions from societal makeup would be extremely challenging with most of the existing Soviet State remaining mostly rural, agrarian, and devout.

Religious Education and Youth

Edmund King highlighted, that education in the Soviet Union partially obtained a political function of separation of Church from the State.  Historically, religion was in the foundation of Russian education since the 1880s.  As claimed by Richard Pipes, Lenin considered this when targeting the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution through the decree of 1918.  The government no longer funded religious class in public or private schools.  It transferred all previously Church-controlled institutions to the Commissariat of Enlightenment, Narkompros, which took charge of administration of public education in USSR.   This significantly reduced status of the Church due to an inability to increase awareness of young individuals about God. The Young Pioneer Organization for children of younger age and Komsomol for adolescents, were youth organizations with largely anti-religious aims established in 1918.  The youth would engage in social activities whilst being persuaded to eliminate religion from their daily life and set up an anti-religious corner in their rooms.  Latchesar Ochavkov highlights, the first generation brought up without a strong religious influence on their education was manipulated to adapt an atheistic stance.  However, as argued by Ilya Zemstsov, anti-religious education had a less significant effect on separation of Church and the State due to persistent impact of commonly religious family values than political persecution.  

Religion and Property

The public religious property laws altered under Lenin’s government as those aimed to separate the Church from the State by undermining its significance materialistically. A ‘Decree on Land Nationalization’ of November 1917 left the government in full control over the fate of religious property.  Article thirteen of the Decree of Separation of Church and State and School from the Church targeted the place of religion in society in terms of wealth and belongings, which it possessed, stating that all religious property must be made state-owned.  Undoubtedly, this decreased the institution’s power and made it no longer able to provide the masses with an appropriate place of worship, where they sought religious support.  This presented a considerable loss to the Orthodox Church, the material power of which was diminished, while the working possibilities for priests and other religious officials were limited, thus effectively separating Church from State.

The Place of Priests

However, the government recognized that it must also eliminate arguably the most influential part of the institution, the religious officials. Many openly preached against the government  and spread the orthodox sentiment, becoming a large obstacle for the success of separation of Church from the state.  

Firstly, an article of the Soviet Constitution of 1918 denied monks and clergy of any denomination the right to vote, threatening their societal position.  Then, in the fear a power struggle, the government implemental brutal methods towards religious officials and other Christian believers, such as arrests, exiles and execution.  

The inevitable terror of the Soviet regime was brought upon the Christian Orthodox religious officials with the creation of labor camps, one of the first being the Solovki Prison Camp, established in 1921.  They were sent there as government criminals, forced to perform hard industrial or agricultural labor and often executed.  

The Orthodox priests were put on trial and often arrested for hoarding.  Some were forbidden to live in towns, which led to many becoming missionaries, who sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle for faith.   In 1923, a trial of Partiarch Tikhon, the 11th Patriarch of Moscow took place.  He had the support of the crowds, and although released, he appeared to be as a ‘broken man’ after the process, dying only two years later.   Thus, the way in which the religious officials were treated could be certainly classified as oppression, which was not only physical, but also psychological.

Another consequence of constant persecutions was its inability of the Russian Orthodox Church officials to practice the “errand of mercy”, allowing the church to operate as a charity.  Nevertheless, provision of humanitarian aid continued, opposing the idea of class struggle propagated by the Soviet Government.  Charity missions organized by fraternities were formed from 1917 to 1922, becoming the great examples of the values of a truly religious life. As suggested by Aleksii Marchenko, those gained the Orthodox Church a large amount of faithful supporters.  Lenin’s objective was considerably undermined as that support mutely proved that the Church was remaining to be a respected institution in the Soviet State.

Opposition to the regime

The forced separation of the Church from the state, although argued by Michael Bourdeaux to be progressively successful with emergence of the 1918 Decree,  was not functioning the way the Soviet Government had desired.  The concept of ‘inner-church’, preservation of faith ‘within oneself’, introduced by former religious officials remaining untracked by the government, became very widespread among the religious people.  ‘Counter-revolutionary groups of church folk’ emerged,  while passionate believers organized pilgrimages to various holy sites as well as private inside gatherings for prayer.  Moreover, the Church did not fail to negatively react and chose to oppose the newly established anti-religious laws, considering them as open discrimination. The Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church had decided to issue an official decision concerning the opposition to the government on the 5th of April in 1918.   

The Soviet government wished to denounce religion in the eyes of the faithful through an attempt to reveal religious fraud exercised by the Russian Orthodox Church by exposition of false relics, however this led to considerable resistance. For instance, an attempt of relic confiscation and fraud exposition from the Alexandra Nevsky Lavra Monastery in 1918 did not take place due to mass protests.   

As argued by Jannifer Wynot, it was not only the Orthodox spirit of the religious Soviet people, which has kept the religion alive through the years of the Leninist rule, but also the notion of Orthodox monasticism.  Russian Orthodox Church members met secretly and were able to keep a sense of community, even in labor camp conditions.  Their faith and courage to stand up to the regime disproved the illusion that religion could be effectively abolished within the State. This notion threatened the inherent aim of the Soviet government to separate the Church from the State. It effectively proved, that the faith could not be destroyed from within, but only externally in the form of restriction and regulation.


The process of separation of Church from the State led to an extensive degradation of the political significance of the Russian Orthodox Church and of its relationship with the Soviet State. One of the most significant separation acts was the Decree of 1918, which hindered the significance of Orthodoxy in the society by authorizing liberty of religious practice, as well as introducing perversion of educational and legal institutions with respect to establishment of the anti-religious sentiment. One could argue that Lenin had in fact had many powerful ideas concerning religion abolition and has made attempts to enact it with varying success.  However, although many were unable to stand up to the forcefulness and brutality of the regime and thus the immediate success of separation was present, mentally most Russians remained loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church. This contributed to prevalent public dissatisfaction with the way the Soviet regime approached one of the most fundamental aspects of the Russian society.  Uprisings took place even with presence of official religious fraud proof, indicating that Russians were reluctant to accept ineligibility of Christian Orthodoxy.  Meanwhile monks and priests, although often forced to leave their positions, chose to stay undercover and continue the practice of religion and preaching, rather than feel safe and completely abandon their practices.  Therefore in his seven-year rule Lenin was not able to fully abolish the Russian Orthodox Church from the Soviet State, involved in continuous struggle with actively and passively resisting religious officials as well as devoted believers. In the end, oppression seemed to be the trigger for opposition unity rather than utter separation of the churches around USSR and which is what the Soviet leader has not considered, as a result facing a failure the his implementation of the Marxist theory. Thus, the questions which remain out of the scope of this essay include the evaluation of how accurately the Marxist theory on religion abolition suited Russian societal position, and to whether violence and oppression were the main driving forces behind the effective aspects of separation rather than anti-religious propaganda. Orlando Figes argues that Lenin’s belief that human nature could be differed by changing the social conditions in which people lived, was utopian.  Possibly, this was the major underlying reason why Vladimir Lenin was not entirely effective with his aim of alienation of the Russian Orthodox Church from the Soviet State.

Word Count: 3, 865 words

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