Christians and the Soviet Union: A Cautionary Episode

Christians and the Soviet Union: A Cautionary Episode

“Thoughts about the Soviet Union,” by Herbert Waddams
November 11, 1946

It is a difficult and often unfruitful occupation to discuss the Soviet Union in conversation. For many years there have been two main sets of opinion about the Soviet Union, one maintaining that it is a kind of heaven, and the other equally sure that it is a sort of hell. Upon anyone holding either of these views, reasonable argument has no effect, since his presuppositions are so firmly held and clearly shaped that his mind is not permitted to respond to normal appeals. Both these groups do much harm to the chance of understanding between the Soviet Union and the West, the former quite as much as the latter.

A chief cause of the wide difference of opinions on this topic is the extreme paucity of information which is available to persons outside Russia. The facts available are so few that they can be easily interpreted as desired, the difficulties being explained away in simple fashion. All those who hope for mutual understanding between the U.S.S.R. and other countries deplore this situation, which appears to them to indicate a short sighted policy on the part of the authorities, since it is unlikely that conditions are as bad as their enemies paint them. Doubtless neither are they as good as their soi-disant friends insist, but no loss would be sustained by a revelation of this fact, since many people react against their evident exaggerations.

Many of us still move in the atmosphere of the period between the two World Wars. From 1917 until 1941 the Soviet Union was largely isolated, and for this isolation the Western lands must take some responsibility. The rest of the world was content to adopt an attitude of condemnation, and failed to make any notable attempts to dissipate the hostility of their own peoples and the suspicion felt by the rulers of the U.S.S.R. An effort is needed to shake off preconceived ideas and to install a new objectivity of mental approach.

We live in the midst of history and are carried along by the powerful stream of historical development. Yet we are not like sticks or leaves on a river, for we are men with the power of detached thought and with scope for spiritual apprehension. This mental detachment must be exercised in order to appreciate the historical processes which have led to the present and to enlighten our judgments of the actual situation. The Soviet Union and the Revolution have an immediate previous history of significance and also a more remote background from which spring many of the ideas and forces which exercise sway in the country today.

It is fatally easy to over-simplify any problem, and especially one in which facts are not readily accessible, and one moreover where words are used with varying meaning. In Britain and America the idea of democracy lies deep in their thinking, and is treasured beyond price. But the forms of democracy which Britons and Americans enjoy have sprung from many hundreds of years of experiment and experience: a certain wisdom is in the people because of this, even though it is for the most part unconscious. It is not necessary to probe very far back into British history to discover a state of affairs which would be abhorrent to the present generation.

In Russia the background is wholly otherwise. It is therefore not only foolish, but wrong, in our considerations of Russia to apply exacting standards which we have only hammered out after centuries of struggle, and civil war. Those who express a facile condemnation of the Soviet Union by stating that it is undemocratic, should ask themselves whether they could expect the British or American democratic systems to work in a country which covers one sixth of the earth’s surface, which includes the vast and largely untouched spaces of Central Asia, which must make room in one State for the peoples of Turkestan, Northern Siberia, and the Far East, and the vast mass of whose peoples were illiterate and uneducated twenty-five years ago.

These are some of the thoughts which should be pondered before proceeding to any detailed examination of the present position. No attempt can be made in an article of this length to provide a detailed analysis. Christians must, however, be especially careful that their attitudes are free from bias, so far as it is humanly possible to achieve such a result, and it is incumbent upon them to refrain from condemnation without conclusive evidence. “Judge not that ye be not judged.”

A complicating factor in the situation is the presence in most countries of Communist parties. There are several reasons why Communists abroad should not be thought to mirror the state of affairs within the Soviet Union. Two of these reasons may be mentioned here, one material and the other spiritual. In the first place the milieu elsewhere is quite different from that inside the U.S.S.R. Generally speaking, Communist parties abroad exist in a state of struggle, which is absent from the country of their political origin, and the problems with which they must deal are quite different. Secondly, there is a spiritual tension in Communists abroad which has a deleterious effect on their character. Communists in the West have a divided loyalty, they must try to strike a balance between patriotism and obedience to Moscow. It is not merely a question of political maneuver, but reaches deep down into personal life. For those who are out and out traitors there is of course none of this tension, but many Communists do not go to this extreme.

The words of our Lord, “No man can serve two masters,” has a relevance here. The result of trying to do so is self-deception, and loss of integrity and spiritual wholeness. In the Soviet Union there is no such inner strife.

In the U.S.S.R. today there are some striking qualities in the life of the people. There have also been great achievements which cannot pass unnoticed. Nobody can come into contact with Russians (the word is used here to describe all the various nationalities for which no satisfactory alternative exists), without recognizing an idealism which is both powerful and good. This is very evident in the educational field, in which great successes have been won for great numbers of people. Moreover many Russians have a remarkable sense of what we may call creative vocation. They feel that they are creating something together which is of lasting value, and which is in every way worthy of a lifetime’s devotion.

In some of these spheres the Communist Russians have something to teach Christendom. One of the most striking failures of Christianity today is that the sense of vocation has been largely lost, except perhaps in the case of the Church workers. Most Christians, at any rate in Great Britain, have absolutely no sense of vocation from God in their ordinary work. Yet it is Christians above all who should exhibit this quality in their lives: in our failure we may learn.

Another significant experiment in Soviet Russia is the treatment of minorities. In this matter the pre-revolutionary policy has been reversed, and the minority groups are encouraged to maintain their language and to retain cultural autonomy. Thus a vigorous cultural life can be found in such republics as Soviet Armenia, which contributes its own special characteristics to the overall cultural life of the Union. This is taking place at a time when some countries, which profess and call themselves Christian, have apparently admitted that they cannot live in peace with a minority of another tradition and language, which is also Christian.

Christians must bear all such considerations in mind, and others too. For good, or for ill, the neighboring countries are now linked closely with Russia politically. They have also many other ties of long standing: the Slav countries have a common origin and similar languages, the Orthodox Church forms another bond, and history adds many more. When Christian people in Britain and America speak and act vis-à-vis Soviet Russia, they also affect, by their words and actions, the peoples of the Balkans, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic Republics. No word, and certainly no action, is without effect on the total situation and relationship: it is not a healthy attitude, to assume that Christians should speak according to certain high-flown principles, without carefully weighing the probable effects of what they do.

It is too easy to condemn the activities of the present regimes in the countries of Eastern Europe which make up the Soviet Bloc (it might be termed a Cordon sanitaire). However distasteful, and even unpopular, the regimes may be, they do represent something positive. In some degree at least, they reflect the failures of the former governments to adopt satisfactory policies and to put them into practice. They have been able to exploit these failures and to embody necessary reforms in their programs. Perhaps one must condemn what is wrong, but not without remembering what is right.

But the subject which is of the most interest to Christians abroad is naturally that of the position of the Christian religion in Soviet Russia. No more than a few points can be made here, and first some doubtful assumptions must be examined. Large numbers of people seem to assume that religious propaganda is altogether prohibited in the Soviet Union. So far as the present writer is aware, this is not the case so far as the Constitution is concerned. Here the guarantee is for freedom of religious worship and freedom for anti-religious propaganda. But freedom for anti-religious propaganda is not the same thing as prevention of religious propaganda, and should not be confused with it. In fact, of course, the amount of freedom depends largely on the way in which the law is administered, but it would be difficult to maintain that there is no freedom of this kind today. The Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church publishes a monthly official paper, “The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.” References to Church activities appear from time to time in the Press and on the radio. This does not appear to be prevention of religious propaganda.

It is also clear that the atmosphere of the Soviet Union today is far less anti-religious than it has been in the past. The militant godless seem to have disappeared and the publication of anti-religious papers has not been resumed since they were suppressed at the beginning of the war. No one in his senses imagines that the Soviet Union has become a Christian State, or that the authorities have been moved by Christian motives in their change of attitude. But the change is nevertheless important, since there is a great difference between an anti-religious State and a religiously neutral State. Secularist States have been known elsewhere, for instance in France.

The present condition of Christianity inside Soviet Russia seems to be quite healthy. The Orthodox Church is flourishing and has largely reorganized itself under the leadership of the Patriarch Alexei. No doubt they are short of priests, perhaps seriously short, but so is the Church of England, as are other Churches.

The Russian Church is making substantial plans for the resumption of theological education and training for the priesthood, and has reestablished its relations with other Churches all over the world, though this work is not yet completed. The Russian Church desires to have close and brotherly relations with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, and has shown considerable interest in the activities of the World Council of Churches.

Anxiety is sometimes expressed by Christians about the relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Soviet State. In this connection it is important to appreciate certain differences of outlook between Eastern and Western Christendom. In the West, the problem of these relations has such a long and stormy history, that the theoretical distinction between Church and State is a basic mental attitude, even where the relations are closest. This is true of most countries, though perhaps not quite so clear in some Roman Catholic countries. In Orthodox countries, however, thought does not always follow this pattern. The Russian Orthodox see their Church as the spiritual expression of the Russian people. In this capacity it has limited religious functions and does not feel itself called upon to criticize the State. Indeed this idea would possibly appear completely strange to many Russian Orthodox. This is another point where it is misleading, simply to apply the categories of the West, to a totally dissimilar mental situation.

Christians of Britain and America have a plain duty toward Russian Christians. It must also be remembered that there are large numbers of Protestants, allied to the Baptists in practice and teaching, whose position also seems to be good. Christians elsewhere are bound to do their utmost to create a strong Christian fellowship with the Christians of Soviet Russia. Few would deny that the creation of such fellowship is a primary Christian task about which the New Testament has a good deal to say, both in the Gospels and in the Epistles. In the world in which we live the chance of such fellowship is affected by many other factors besides the ideas of the Christians, who presumably desire to create it. It is a heavy responsibility to pursue courses of action whose probable result is to make such fellowship more difficult than it already is.

It is such thoughts as those outlined above which make it difficult for many Christians to follow the Vatican in its condemnations of Soviet Russia. The matter is not as simple as the condemnations make it appear. There may be some things which are disquieting to Christians, but I hope that they have noticed some disquieting features in their own countries too, for it is unlikely that there are none. It is not much good throwing away the dirty bath water if the baby is thrown away with it.

In these rather disconnected thoughts I have not made any attempt to consider the political tensions between Soviet Russia and the West which are so great a feature of international relations today, and which are in the thoughts of all those multitudes who are thirsting for peace and stability. I have only tried to suggest one or two considerations which should have a place in the minds of Christians when they are thinking about the Soviet Union. Christians should not allow themselves to be swept along on the tides of popular resentment and feeling, but should plant their feet firmly on the rock of fact and of Christian love. Only thus will the truth be discerned amidst the babels of conflicting opinions.


Herbert Waddams (1911 – 1972), an Anglican priest and theologian, was general secretary of the Council on Foreign Relations (an ecumenical body for the Church of England) from 1945 to 1959; rector of St. James, Manotick, Ontario, from 1959 to 1962; and canon residentiary of Canterbury Cathedral from 1962 to 1972. His books include New Introduction to Moral Theology (1972) and Church and Man’s Struggle for Unity (1969).

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Christians and the Soviet Union: A Cautionary Episode