of persecuted christians in Russia and CIS

Khruschev's anti-religious campaign

Khruschev's anti-religious campaign

 Khruschev's anti-religious campaign was a period of the intensification of the struggle against religion in the USSR in 1958—1964. It was named after Nikita Khruschev, top political leader of the country who occupied the post of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CPSU) of the Soviet Union at that time. It was Khruschev who allegedly promised in public in late 1950s to “show the last priest on TV” by the end of the seven-year period set for the fulfillment of the plan of the economic development of the country (i.e. by 1965). Many historians and religious activists believe that the years of Khruschev’s campaign were the hardest times for the religious organizations of the USSR in the post-war period.

Father Georgy Edelstein, a well-known Russian Orthodox priest (he was a young layman in the years of the anti-religious campaign), characterized it as Khruschev’s Black Sabbath.


US historian Walter Sawatsky postulated two reasons for the start of the campaign. One of the reasons was Khruschev’s struggle for power. Against the backdrop of the denouncement of Stalin’s personality cult and the collective leadership of the country proclaimed after Stalin’s death Khruschev had gradually ousted his rivals from power and started imposing his own cult of personality. In Sawatsky’s opinion, unlike Stalin, reserved and taciturn, Khruschev, being an irrepressible man by his nature, had been haranguing all these six years until he was deposed from the head of state position by Brezhnev and Kosygin, his own protégés.

The other reason was an ideological one. Khruschev had been heavily criticized for the de-Stalinization of the country, as well as for his various whims. Yet, he was a devoted communist and his allegiance to the communist ideology was the very reason not only for his excesses in the educational and agricultural policies for which he was lambasted, but also for his politically unmotivated attack on religion. According to Sawatsky, in both cases the religion was turned into a needless ballast and a handy scapegoat.


On 7 July 1954 the Decree of the CPSU Central Committee “On major drawbacks in the scientific and atheist propaganda and measures for the improvement thereof” was published. The Decree mentioned a revival in the activities of the “church and various religious sects”, as well as a growth in the number of worshiping citizens of the country. In this context the organizations of the Communist Party and Komsomol (Youth Communist League), Ministry of Education and trade unions were ordered to carry out the anti-religious activities “consistently; with all perseverance; by way of persuasion, explanatory work to be carried out with patience and individual attention to the religious individuals”.

However, the country was still under collective leadership at that time and four months later (on 10 November 1954) a new Decree of the CPSU Central Committee, i.e. Decree “On the errors in the scientific and atheist propaganda among the population”, was published. This Decree condemned libel, insults, administrative interference with the activities of religious organizations “instead of consistent and meticulous work aimed at the propaganda of knowledge in natural sciences and ideological struggle against religion”. However, this did not eventually lead to a large-scale persecution of the faithful.

The anti-religious campaign was launched to the full extent after the XX Congress of the CPSU when Khruschev had asserted his power. The publication of the secret Decree of CPSU Central Committee “On the Memorandum of the Department of the CPSU Central Committee for Propaganda and Agitation in the Union Republics named “On the drawbacks in the scientific and atheist propaganda“” dated 4 October 1958. The Decree obligated the Communist Party, Komsomol and public organizations to unleash a propaganda assault on “religious anachronisms”.


- Pressure on religious leaders

Central agencies of the religious organizations in the USSR were liquidated in the years of Stalin’s purges. However, in the years of the Great Patriotic War Stalin’s policy towards religion became less rigid. In 1943 the meeting of the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was held at the initiative of Stalin. The meeting elected Metropolitan Sergiy (Stragorodsky) to the patriarchal see and in 1944 the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists (AUCECB), the managing body of the union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, was founded (later some of the Pentecostals were forced to join the Council). The All-Union Council of Seventh Day Adventists (AUCSDA) also resumed its activities in that period. However, it was disbanded in 1960.

Legalized religious leaders found themselves in an intricate situation: being religious persons, they had to keep the permanent balance between the interests of the faithful and the policy orientation of the atheistic state. On one hand, the centralized leadership allowed the confessions to exist on legal basis, and this meant a lot in this aggressive environment. On the other hand, striving to preserve their legal status, they had to search for compromises and occasionally went too far.

For example, in December 1959 two documents were adopted by the Plenary Meeting of AUCECB “in the atmosphere of pressure on the part of external forces”: Regulations on the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists in the USSR and Letter of Guidance to Senior Presbyters of AUCECB. The documents contained a recommendation to restrict access to baptism to those who are younger than 30, refrain from taking children to religious services, as well as put an end to the appearances of the visiting preachers, home meetings, visits to other congregations and even poetry recitals. The presbyters were required to “restrain unhealthy manifestations of missionary zeal” (i.e. to actually stop preaching to non-believers) and “strictly observe the laws on religious activities” (i.e. engage themselves in legal rather than spiritual work).

These requirements were contrary to the doctrinal statements and the convictions of Evangelical Christian Baptists. Discontent over these documents in the religious communities, along with the overall discontent over the methodology applied in the implementation of Khruschev’s anti-religious campaign led to the consequences that were unexpected and most undesirable for both the state and the leaders of the AUCECB, i.e. they led to the establishment of the illegal and oppositional Union of ECB Churches.

Pressure had also been exerted on the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Soon after the start of the campaign and throughout 1959 Patriarch Alexiy I had been unsuccessfully striving for a personal audience with Khruschev. He could only have meetings with the heads of the Council for ROC Affairs Georgy Karpov and Vladimir Kuroyedov who exerted pressure on him. In 1961 Kuroyedov forced the Patriarch to limit the role of the senior priests in parishes to purely liturgical and pastoral responsibilities and transfer all financial and economic responsibilities to the executive bodies of religious organizations (parishes), i.e. parish councils and churchwardens de facto appointed by the government authorities.

- Propaganda

Truth about Sectarians”, “To Whom the Word of God Serves”, “My Breakup with the Holy Roller Sectarians” – those were the names of the “anti-sect” books published by Primorye Publishing House in 1958—1959 within the framework of Khruschev’s anti-religious campaign.

The League of Militant Atheists had formerly been the key agency in charge of anti-religious propaganda. However, it ceased to exist in the war years. By the time when the Khruschev’s campaign began there was no single agency for handling such matters. The scientific and theoretical aspects of the fight against religion were attributed to the terms of reference of Znanie (Knowledge) Association, but its coverage was not as wide as the League’s. Zhanie’ responsibilities included lecturing, education of lecturers and arrangements for the publication of methodological literature. A popular propagandistic magazine named Nauka i Religia (Science and Religion) was published under the auspices of Znanie.

However, the key role in the anti-religious propaganda was played not by lectures, but by movies, books and numerous articles in the press. Soviet writers, film-makers and journalists received a social mandate for the release of anti-religious works. Short novels “Miracle-Working” and “Something Extraordinary” by Vladimir Tendryakov, “Sinner” by Nikolay Yevdokimov, “Clouds over Borsk” by Semyon Lungin and Ilya Nusinov, “Save Our Souls” by Sergey Lvov were published in this period.

Many of those books were cinematized. For example “Clouds over Borsk” became a cult movie of the time in spite of the apparent oddities in the plot and the ignorance of the subject of this creative work on the part of its authors (for example, in the plot the Pentecostals are trying to crucifix Olga, the lead character, such action being inexplicable from the viewpoint of both their doctrinal statements and common sense in general).

Press articles of that time were highly emotional; they were targeted not at the justification of atheism but rather at the stirring up of hostility against the faithful among the population. Such emotional epithets as “obscurants”, “holy fowls”, “fanatics” etc. were often used to describe those who believed in God.

A prominent role in the propaganda aspects of the campaign was given to the declarations of the former clergymen and church members who had relinquished their faith in God. Renunciation of God by Alexander Osipov, senior priest and professor of ROC’s Leningrad Ecclesiastical Academy, in December 1959 was one of the highly publicized cases. Protestants also had quite a few similar cases. The newspapers often printed and reprinted such stories (articles in the press organs of the Soviet Republics were reprinted by newspapers of regional level and district newspapers reprinted these articles in their turn). Many of the articles were then released in separate compilations.

Some of the abjurers were actively involved in the campaign against their former coreligionists. For example, Yuri (Rudy) Ens, a former choragus of the ECB congregation in Ussuriysk, witnessed in court against the faithful of his congregation. Former Orthodox priest Osipov had been writing anti-religious books until his death. The total of 11 books and brochures were published.

What made the faithful become traitors and clamor against their former churches? Apparently, each of them had his or her own motives. According to N. P. Gorety, Presbyter of the Pentecostal congregation of Nakhodka, Fyodor Myachin, their local abjurer, was in conflict with the congregation because of his spousal infidelity. While working as a driver he was involved in some road traffic accident. A local KGB officer promised to relieve him from criminal responsibility in exchange for the “unmasking of the wild Pentecostal fanatics”. Myachin agreed and became the author of the book named “My Breakup with the Holy Roller Sectarians”.

One of the main aspects of Khruschev’s antireligious campaign was the liquidation of local religious organizations. Council for ROC Affairs and Council for Religious Faiths (unified and re-established in 1965 as the Council for Religions Affairs) had been taking measures with a view to deregister (or refuse to register) religious communities, as well as to close monasteries, temples, prayer houses, mosques and synagogues.

Of eight ecclesiastical seminaries of the Russian Orthodox Church existing in 1947 only three were left after the campaign, two of them being the affiliates of ecclesiastical academies. In 1963 the total number of Orthodox parishes in the USSR was cut by more than half compared to 1953. By 1961 only 8,252 priests and 809 deacons were “registered”, i.e. officially permitted to conduct religious services, and by 1967 there were only 6,694 and 653 deacons left.

There were regions where ECB did not have even one legally registered congregation in spite of the large numbers of the faithful (for example, in Primorye Territory). As a result the congregations had to conduct their services illegally. Members of this church did not require any specific accessories for their services, so they were able to conduct their services in a forest in case of danger. For example, for several years members of the ECB congregation in Vladivostok had been conducting their religious services in the open air — on the ruins of their prayer house demolished by the authorities.

- Financial pressure

The fight against religion was financed in no small degree from the funds confiscated from the religious organizations that had been placed under constant fiscal control. The faithful were obligated to transfer significant portions of their donations to the Soviet Peace Committee, the de facto slate club of the CPSU Central Committee.

- “Social parasitism”

On 4 May 1961 the Decree “On the strengthening of control over the individuals evading socially useful work and leading an anti-social and parasitic way of life (idlers, vagrants, spongers)” was adopted in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

This Decree was widely applied in the course of the antireligious campaign as a means of oppression against clergymen of various confessions whom the authors of the Decree considered as the persons who led “an anti-social and parasitic way of life” and derived “non-labor revenues” from their activities. The punishment stipulated in the Decree was two to five years of exile in “specially reserved places” (this generally meant faraway villages in the regions with tough climatic and living conditions). It should be noted that the sentences to exile for social parasitism had been passed not only by the people's courts of districts or cities, but also by the collectives of employees in enterprises, plants, institutions, kolkhozes (collective farms) and kolkhoz brigades.

According to the data published by the Council for Religious Faiths of the USSR Council of Ministers, more 400 believers were exiled to the remote areas of the country in the period between 1961 and 1964. Even official employment did not always give a chance to avoid exile. In the Decree of 4 May 1961 official employment could be interpreted as a way of putting social parasitism into a semblance of conscientious work. For example, Vasily Lavrinov, presbyter of the ECB congregation in the town of Spassk-Dalny of Primorsky Territory, veteran of the Great Patriotic War, former chief officer of the local police station and former member of the Communist Party, was put to trial in his home town. He was accused of living on the donations from the faithful and allegedly buying a motor car for the donated funds. As it turned out in the course of the investigation, it was not a car, but a motor-mounted bicycle which he used for getting to the enterprise where he worked as a tinsmith. However, this was no obstacle for a social court trial against him in the local Palace of Culture. The time he had spent on visits to the investigator was recorded as absenteeism. As a result, he was sentenced to five years of exile.

- Criminal prosecution

In October 1960 the RSFSR Criminal Code was amended. In particular, amendments were made in Article 142 (“Violation of the laws on the separation of Church and State”). The term of imprisonment under this Article was increased to three years. Article 227 stipulated an imprisonment of up to five years as the punishment for the formation of groups (including religious groups) that were “detrimental to health”. In view of the intensity of emotions manifested in the course of the antireligious campaign quite often these articles were interpreted too broadly. 806 believers were convicted under these articles in 1961—1964. Some of them were subsequently declared not guilty, in whole or in part. For instance, two Pentecostal activists from the town of Myski in Kemerovo Region sentenced in 1963 to five years in prison each were released in 1965. Five Seventh Day Adventists from Irkutsk Region sentenced to various terms of imprisonment in 1963 were paroled or fully exculpated some time later.

However, the faithful were often tried under ordinary articles of the Criminal Code. For example, in 1963 three members of the ECB congregation in Vladivostok – Shestovskoy, Moskvich and Tkachenko – were sentenced to one-year imprisonment each for hooliganism. When the congregation met for a service on the ruins of their prayer house demolished at the order of the municipal administration, a camera crew of the local TV channel settled on the roof of a nearby shed to make their next “anti-sectarian” documentary. Three believers stopped the chirring camera and took the cassette with the film away from the operator in order to show it to the police as demonstrative evidence. Their behavior was considered by the court as an “act of hooliganism”.

Articles on tax evasion presented a wide array of opportunities for the criminal prosecution of “religious workers” (usually their revenues were deliberately multiplied by fiscal control authorities). In 1960—1961 repressive actions were taken even against two archbishops of the Moscow Patriarchate — Job (Kresovich) and Andrei (Sukhenko).

- Children

CPSU Program adopted at the XXII Party Congress envisaged the construction of communism in the USSR by the year 1980. It was therefore assumed that the young people will live in the religion-free environment. For this reason special emphasis was put on the atheistic upbringing of children. Natural sciences and history were taught in schools from the atheistic viewpoint. Atheism was propagandized (successfully in most cases) in the Young Pioneers and Komsomol organizations.

It was more difficult to advocate atheism among the children of the faithful who had their religious upbringing at home. This problem could be solved by way of triggering conflicts between children and their parents. For example, in January 1961 Lyuba Mezentseva, a seventh grade pupil from the city of Nakhodka, denounced her Pentecostal parents and expressed her desire to live in an orphanage. Her step was applauded by classmates, school teachers and Komsomol leaders.

Termination of parental rights of the faithful was yet another, but an even more radical measure of coercion against them. Most often such measure was applied to the confessions that were considered as “fanatic” (Pentecostals, Adventists-Reformists, Jehovah's Witnesses). In 1961—1964 in Kranoyarsk Territory alone 25 children were taken away from their believing parents. In Leningrad six children were withdrawn from the Baptist family of Mikryukovs and placed under the guardianship of 23-year old Robert Malozyomov who had recanted his faith in God. 1964 in the town of Zelyony, Dnepropetrovsk Region, an Adventist couple of Zaloznys were deprived of their parental rights over their four sons of 8 to 13 years of age because o the fact that the boys had not been attending school on Saturdays. Lydia Voronina, a human rights activist and a collaborator of Moscow Helsinki Group who had paid a visit to the Pentecostals of Nakhodka in 1976, wrote later: “There are many known cases of children being taken away from their parents and placed in residential schools. Children from the family of Voyevs (Nakhodka, 1961) escaped from such residential school more than once, but each time they were tracked down with dogs and taken back. There was also a case when the authorities made a decision to take a yet unborn child away upon the attainment of the age of 9 months.”

The procedure of removal of children from their families was often based on some pre-inspired verdict of a social court where the faithful were described as frenetic and wicked bigots.

- Reaction of the faithful

The Soviet system exerted pressure on the faithful not only from the “outside”, but from the “inside” as well, by way of involving religious leaders in the campaign. Seeking to reach a compromise with the authorities, these leaders sometimes took decisions that were contrary to the interests of their confessions. As a result, a powerful opposition movement emerged within Protestantism in the Soviet Union. This movement resulted in a split in AUCECB and the formation of an alternative inter-Church body — the Council of ECB Churches. Young presbyters G.K. Kryuchkov, G.P. Vins and others were the leaders of the movement.

As noted by historian Elena Panich, «in fact, there were two viewpoints of interdicted service in the ECB Church. One of them was unofficially implemented by AUCECB and was based on the notion that the interdictory documents would not always be in effect, so it should be normal for the local churches to act in violation of the provisions of such documents in their day-to-day religious practices. Another viewpoint gradually manifested itself among those who opposed the AUCECB position and was actively advocated by the adherents of the Council of ECB Churches. According to this viewpoint, it was necessary to organize a mass movement of the faithful so that they could demand the entry of relevant changes in the Soviet legislation. But, in their view, in order to attain this goal it was necessary to eradicate the opportunism of the ministers of AUCECB which allowed this organization to exist in the environment created by the totalitarian state and which the Council of ECB Churches considered as a deviation from the Truth of God”.

The Council of ECB Churches made its first statement in 1961 (at that time its leading presbyters named themselves as an “Initiative Group”). By 1963 its formation was completed and its first official press organ was released — “The Herald of Salvation” (still issued under the name “The Herald of Truth”). The number of the faithful in the churches of the Council reached tens of thousands (according to some estimates, it exceeded 100 thousand in the peak years; for example, Walter Sawatski estimated the number of the faithful at the level of 155 thousand).

The Council of ECB Churches ignored the provisions of the Soviet laws on religion. “The Christian” Publishing House was created which, in fact, was a network of clandestine printing establishments in various parts of the USSR. It had been publishing spiritual books using hectographs at the initial stage of its activities but later improved the quality of its products. The Council of Relatives of Imprisoned Evangelical Christian Baptists was established under the auspices of the Council. It was a body that rendered support to the jailed believers and members of their families. Almost all churches existing within the framework of the Council evaded official registration (later the absence of state registration became one of the key requirements for every congregation). Religious services were conducted in flats and private houses. Sometimes a service could take place on a clearing in the woods.

Similar opposition movements, although on a smaller scale, emerged in other confessions. Pentecostals had the Brotherhood of Unregistered Congregations, now known as the United Church of the Christians of Evangelical Faith. The Pentecostals also had a movement of those who wanted to emigrate. Seventh Day Adventists had a movement of those who opposed registration. Orthodox priests who were denied registration and were thus not allowed to conduct services on legal grounds joined the “catacomb” communities existing since 1920s.

- Reaction of the society

The anti-religious campaign left a deep scar in the public conscience. The Soviet lay audience had no access to the unbiased information and therefore accepted all those propagandistic statements at face value. Having seen movies like “Clouds over Borsk”, people were ready to take any story of the “fanaticism” of the faithful, especially the “sectarians”, for granted. Naturally, this caused negative attitude towards the faithful even in daily life.

Varvara Gorety (wife of N.P. Gorety, presbyter of the Pentecostal congregation of Nakhodka) was left alone to take care of her six children after her husband had been taken to a correctional labor camp and it took her quite a while before she could find a job. At last she found the job of practical nurse in a children’s hospital. Sometime later the head doctor of this hospital said to her: “I would gladly give you work in the kitchen, we need honest and skillful people there but I cannot do it because you are a Baptist (all “sectarians” were called Baptists even if they actually were Adventists or Pentecostals) and people know that you can empoison milk.” These words were addressed to the mother of six children who was nurturing them in severe conditions.

However, sometimes the antireligious propaganda led to an inverse effect, arousing interest towards religion. N.P. Gorety remembered: “Nakhodkinsky Rabochy (Nakhodlka Worker) newspaper and Pravda Dalnego Vostoka (Far East Pravda (Truth)) published KGB-inspired articles that were throwing “buckets of the most fetid mud” on us, the Pentecostals of the Soviet Far East. But, as an old Russian proverb says, “every dark cloud has a silver lining”. Very few people had known anything about our prayer meetings in a village called Amerikanka near Nakhodka. But when the newspapers printed the address of our prayer house many people took an interest in us.”


In 1964, even before Khruschev was ousted (October 1964), the antireligious campaign took a downturn (the initiative to curtail it may not have come from Khruschev). The atheist state was unable to eradicate religion in yet another “cavalry raid” — citizens of the Soviet Union did not see the “last priest” on the TV after all. However, the post-war relationship between the state and he faithful was destabilized: the state had to put up with such extremely undesirable organizations as the Council of ECB Churches and similar organizations in other confessions with members who were strongly convinced in their rightness, who were ready for sacrifice and who obeyed strict discipline. Up until the fall of the Soviet power the state could not do away with these organizations.

The antireligious campaign demonstrated the difficulty of tearing down the people’s faith, so further on the Soviet state had to be more cautious.

Interesting facts

In spite of being recognized as a talented actress, Inna Gulaya who played the lead role in the propagandistic movie “Clouds over Borsk” had a tragic life. Her husband, screenwriter Gennady Shpalikov hung himself in 1974. Inna Gulaya died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Her only daughter Darya Shpalikova also became an actress but was not in demand for roles except some third-rate ones. According to the mass media, she was placed in a mental health institution after becoming a victim of apartment swindlers.

According to the memoirs of Victor Gorety, son of the abovementioned N.P. Gorety, Fyodor Myachin who had denounced his coreligionists and written the propagandist brochure “My Breakup with the Holy Roller Sectarians” left his wife and children. After the fall of the “iron curtain” his family migrated to the US. In the early 2000s Fydor Myachin also left for the US at the invitation of his son who had forgiven him.

For the Vaschenkos and the Chmykhalovs, Pentecostal families from the town of Chernogorsk in Krasnoyarsk Territory, the Khruschev’s antireligious campaign ended in 1983, after five years of self-imposed confinement in a small room in the basement of the US Embassy in Moscow. Members of these two families had a lot to endure in the preceding twenty years: police raids, prisons, deprivation of parental rights, placement in a psychiatric hospital. US diplomats could not take them out of the country without permission from the Soviet authorities, but also could not hand them over to the Soviet police because in the US the public support of the Siberian Seven (as the American press called them) was as strong as the public support of Angela Davis in the USSR.

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