- From the inception of the Cheka, the Soviet security services were engaged at the behest of the ruling party in campaigns against all organized religion. The first target of the Cheka was the Russian Orthodox Church. Between 1918 and 1924, the majority of churches were closed; in 1922 alone, 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks, and 3,447 nuns were shot. During the collectivization campaign of the 1930s, 98 percent of the Orthodox churches were closed and more than 40,000 clergy were arrested. Many of these clergy and their families were shot or imprisoned in the gulag during the Yezhovshchina.Joseph Stalin allowed the Orthodox Church greater freedom during the war years to rally popular support. Nikita Khrushchev, however, moved against the Orthodox and Baptists churches in the early 1960s. The KGB arrested scores of church leaders, and the state closed more than half of the Christian churches. About 200 Baptist and Pentecostal believers were sent to the camps every year for refusing to obey the regime’s rules on church policy.Following the incorporation of the western Ukraine and western Byelorussia into the Soviet Union in 1939 and the annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, the security services targeted the Roman Catholic leadership. This campaign intensified with the return of the Red Army to the Baltic and the Ukraine in 1944–1945. One Lithuanian bishop was murdered in a Vilnius prison in the 1950s, and others remained in jail or under house arrest for decades. An aggressive anti-Catholic policy was followed by the KGB in the Baltic and western Ukraine until the collapse of the Soviet Union.Islam and Judaism also were targets for antireligious campaigns. Stalin mandated vicious anti-Semitic campaigns in the late 1940s, for example against the Anti-Fascist Committee. Jews were purged from the security service, the Communist Party leadership, and the professions. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 prevented a larger pogrom and the deportation of Jews to forced exile. While Khrushchev ended this campaign, the KGB continued to prosecute “Zionist” groups until 1988. By the late 1970s, there were only 60 Jewish houses of worship operating in the Soviet Union.In Central Asia, the Cheka cracked down hard on Islam in the early 1920s to break political opposition. Mosques and Islamic shrines were destroyed or turned into museums. Religious leaders who refused to be co-opted were arrested or silenced. These campaigns continued through the late 1980s, as even Mikhail Gorbachev pushed anti-Islamic campaigns in Central Asia. The KGB and the party’s effort to destroy organized Islam may have backfired, forcing many Muslim believers to seek more radical forms of religious expression. The growth of militant Islam in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia is the heritage of 60 years of persecution.While the KGB sought to limit organized religion within the USSR, it simultaneously tried to exploit religion to support Soviet foreign policy. Clergy and laypeople were recruited to endorse Soviet peace campaigns in the World Council of Churches and other international forums. Many Orthodox and Baptist clergy agreed to front for the KGB in order to obtain permission to open churches and train clergy. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksey II, was once a KGB co-optee with the cover name “Drozdov.”Through the 1980s, religious dissident leaders were harassed, arrested, and sometimes killed. In the 1980s, several Roman Catholic priests died under mysterious circumstances in the western Ukraine. In 1991 Aleksandr Men, an Orthodox priest, was murdered in Russia. These crimes were attributed to the KGB by dissident and foreign observers of the Soviet religious scene. The martyrdom suffered by the faithful did little to break the religious spirit of the people. Following the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Russian Orthodox Church was seen as the one credible institution, according to some polls. In Lithuania, Roman Catholic clergy and laypeople were the heart of the nationalist movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In Central Asia, Islam has enjoyed a renaissance.
Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. Robert W. Pringle. 2014.
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