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  • “God is Now on Our Side”:The Religious Revival on Unoccupied Soviet Territory during World War II
  • Daniel Peris (bio)

Together with the Orthodox renaissance on German-occupied territory, the religious revival in unoccupied Soviet Russia during World War II – epitomized by the late-night meeting of Stalin and the Orthodox Church's leaders on September 4, 1943 – represented a stunning repudiation of the nearly quarter-century effort to eradicate organized religion from the Soviet landscape. While the events on German-occupied areas have received substantial scholarly attention, the recent opening of Soviet archives has raised the curtain on the domestic revival. In addition to recounting a heretofore poorly understood facet of the Soviet home front during the war,1 these sources reveal the regime's approach to a resurgent Orthodoxy, how the religiously active population viewed the revival, and, most importantly, the revival's consequences for the Soviet regime's basis of legitimacy. Given Russia's current religious renaissance and the strength of religiously based nationalism,2 the experiences of the war also offer perspective on the most recent extreme reversal in modern Russian history. Now as then, the state and the Orthodox community find themselves unclear about what can and ought to be their relationship. Employing archival evidence focusing primarily on the Soviet "near-rear" of Iaroslavl' and Ivanovo oblasts, this essay offers an initial consideration of the wartime religious revival and its consequences for subsequent Soviet history. [End Page 97]

The new archival materials reveal how the regime continued to understand religion during the war in the same narrowly quantitative terms – the number of open churches, registered clergy, and church service attendees – that it had used during the 1920s and 1930s when it actively persecuted the Orthodox Church. As in the earlier period, it also created an elaborate administrative structure to control and limit the scope of Orthodoxy in Soviet life. Like Soviet officials, the Russian Orthodox also relied on bureaucratic strategies – primarily the use of petitions based on existing Soviet legislation – that had been developed in the 1920s and 1930s to resist, usually in vain, church closures;3 they were now deployed to facilitate church openings. There was little evidence, however, that these petitions were any more effective during the war than before it.

Occurring when the regime's very existence was challenged, the revival nevertheless contributed to a wartime shift in the regime's underlying political culture. While much of the religiously active population seemed to seek a renewed embrace of church and state after nearly 25 years of persecution, the local persecutors – the regime's antireligious propagandists and officials – had a great deal more difficulty accepting the acknowledgement of religion's role in society and Moscow's tacit support for the Orthodox Church. For these activists, the reversal of official policy may have contributed to the undermining of the regime's original ideological basis of legitimacy – the promise of constructing a socialist and necessarily secular society – in favor of an experiential legitimacy based on having led a united country through the war. The wartime accommodation with religion provides further evidence of the regime's pragmatic path after 1917 that took it further and further away from its motivating ethos.

Located 250 kilometers north of Moscow, Iaroslavl' was a city with 309,000 residents on the eve of the war. With roots deep in Russia's medieval past, the city had a collection of architecturally stunning seventeenth-century churches and an important archbishopric.4 Iaroslavl' industrialized rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and this process continued under the soviets with a variety of heavy and light industry. Although the boundaries of Iaroslavl' Oblast' changed frequently during the 1920s and 1930s, the territory encompassing the pre-revolutionary Iaroslavl' Province had 1086 churches at the [End Page 98] turn of the century.5 Most were closed in multiple waves in the late 1920s and again beginning in 1937. On the eve of the war, 262 churches were reported functioning in the oblast'.6 In contrast to Iaroslavl', the town of Ivanovo – 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow and 100 kilometers southeast of Iaroslavl' – was but a village until the expansion of textile production led to...


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pp. 97-118
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