A history of the Persecutions The Catholic Church in Russia

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Kniga pamiatiIntroductory Essay
Father Bronislaw Czaplicki

A History of the Persecutions

The Catholic Church in Russia

The position of the Catholic Church in tsarist Russia was very complex, especially because it was the religion of vanquished peoples. Their liberation movements and rebellions affected the Church, which could not denounce her own children; and after the crushing defeat of these rebellions, persecutions would come down upon the Church as well. In addition, by virtue of the structure of the Catholic Church, which had its center outside the bounds of the Empire, Church life from Peter I (reigned 1682 to 1725) to Nicholas II (1894-1917) was characterized by an uninterrupted struggle for the preservation of its independence and its ability to maintain ties with the Vatican without hindrance.

Peter I subjugated the Orthodox Church to the State; later in the same century, Empress Catherine II (1762-1796) hoped to subjugate the Catholic Church, which was located on territories acquired as result of the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Toward this end, immediately after the First Partition (1772) she created a new “Belorussian” diocese; she kept the Jesuit Order in the Russian Empire, even though it had been suppressed by the Papal See in 1773; and acting on her own, she changed the boundaries of previously existing dioceses.

Repressive decrees fell upon the Catholic Church in Russia as a result of the Polish Uprisings of 1830 and 1863. The Greek Catholic Church was completely liquidated; almost all religious orders were prohibited and their monastery property nationalized; serious roadblocks hampered the appointment of worthy bishops for vacant dioceses; and the government interfered in the management of church affairs and religious education. The “non-compliant” found themselves impoverished – they were internally exiled deep into Siberia for their participation in anti-government protests and their lands and property were transferred to others. But despite the fact that the Catholic Church existed under such constrained conditions, it nevertheless existed: diocesan offices and seminaries functioned, churches and chapels were built. By 1914, the territory of the Russian Empire (excluding the Kingdom of Poland) included 1,158 parishes, 1,491 churches, 1,358 chapels, 2,194 priests and five million faithful1

The 1907 [1905?] decree of Nicholas II on religious toleration was the first legislation that somewhat improved the situation of Catholics in Russia; but even after the decree, the State still subjected Catholic priests to punishments, in particular, imprisonment in a monastery, as we learn from their biographies. All this must be taken into account if one is to correctly assess the position of the Catholic Church in the changed political situation of 1917.

The February 1917 Revolution eased the status of Catholics inasmuch as the Provisional Government gave full freedom to all religious confessions. The decree concerning the abolition of national and confessional restrictions, the liberation of Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky,2 the legalization of the activity of the Russian [Eastern Rite] Catholic Church, the creation of a special commission within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the restoration of the position of Vilnius Bishop Edward Ropp, the dispatch of Ambassador A.I. Lysakovsky to the Vatican for the establishment of relations with the Vatican – these and other acts of the Provisional Government gave reason to suppose that the Catholic Church’s status as a “protected” church had come to an end and that the foundations had been laid for its full autonomy.3

Changes after the October Revolution


The favorable conditions created after the February Revolution inspired the hope that the Bolshevik regime, well-disposed toward working and oppressed peoples, would not oppress the previously persecuted Church. Such was the thinking that prevailed when Archbishop Edward von Ropp took the seat of the Mogiliev Archdiocese on December 2, 1917. This seat had been vacant since 1914 and the clergyman now appointed its leader had been an elected deputy at the First State Duma [1906] and in 1907 had been sent into internal exile for disagreement with the tsarist government on the question of its relationship toward Catholics.4 The archbishop was well-prepared to fulfill his new assignment. He came from a well-known family of the landed gentry, he had been educated abroad, and he had had episcopal experience in Saratov and Vilnius, where he had organized the Christian-Democratic Union that had elected him deputy to the Duma.

The Bolshevik regime, however, was anti-religious from the very first days of its existence. Proceeding from Marx’s claim that religion was nothing more than a structure built on a material base, Lenin asserted that one could put an end to the Church only by depriving it of its property.5 From its very first days the Soviet regime exhibited an amazing alacrity in realizing this thesis. The Decree on Land dated November 8, 1917, deprived the Church of the right to own land. A decree dated December 17 transferred all land holdings, including Church lands, to State ownership. By a decree dated December 24 all institutions of learning were placed under the jurisdiction of the People’s Commissariat for Education, and consequently the Church lost all its academies, seminaries and schools. As of December 31, 1917, Church marriages were no longer considered legal.

The beginning of 1918 saw a whole flurry of decrees and statutes aimed at suffocating the Church. On January 20, for example, the government issued a decree on the separation of the Church from the State, and schools from the Church; then on January 23 the People’s Commissariat of State Welfare [prizrenie] promulgated an order concerning the termination of stipends for the upkeep of churches and church workers.6 A decree dated February 2, 1918, deprived the Church of all property (and the right to acquire property) and terminated any State subsidies to religious organizations. From this point on, religious entities could rent rooms (churches) and objects needed for worship, but they would have the “free use” of these only upon receipt of permission from the authorities; moreover, any property given to religious entities was subject to tax. In fulfillment of this decree, hundreds of churches and monasteries were promptly taken from the Church as being particularly valuable historical or architectural monuments that were subject to coming under the “protection of the State.” All bank accounts of religious associations were also closed.7 The above-named decree also forbade the “teaching of religious doctrine in all State, public and private educational institutions.” From this time forward it was a crime to teach religion, even privately, to children and young people under the age of eighteen. Then on April 19, 1918, the government announced the creation of a Liquidation Commission within the People’s Commissariat of Justice for the purpose of enacting the Decree of January 20, 1918; this Commission then initiated new penal decrees.

Church workers became persons without civil rights and could not be a member of any supervisory body, even in religious societies. It was not just the priests who were deprived of voting rights, it was also their assistants – lectors and other church workers and their wives.8 Church organizations were deprived of the rights of a juridical person and placed on the same footing as private societies and associations. Thus, for all practical purposes, bishops and priests lost the possibility of guiding their congregations, which could lead to divisions and the Church’s complete submission to the State. These severe actions provoked a mass of protests on the part of all churches.

When the People’s Commissariat of Justice proposed to Archbishop Ropp on May 22, 1918, that he take part in meetings on the separation of the Church from the State, he advised the Commissariat that he was ready to come personally to Moscow, but the authorities expressed no desire to collaborate with Catholics in working out this question (Shkarovskii, p. 10). Instead, the authorities issued the Decree of August 20 (published August 30), “On the Procedure for Implementing the Decree on the Separation of the Church from the State and of the School from the Church.” It deprived all churches of the rights of a juridical person and transferred their property to the “direct management of the local Councils of Workers and Peasants” (Shkarovskii, p. 11). This Instruction definitively deprived the clergy of all rights and declared the groups of twenty lay people [“dvadtsatki”] to be the only body having the right to rent church buildings and property from the State. The archbishop protested this Instruction on September 9, 1918, and Leonid Feodorov, Exarch of the Russian [Eastern Rite] Catholics, supported him. Nevertheless the seminary and theological academy in St. Petersburg were closed, as was the Saratov Seminary of Tiraspol Diocese, although the latter continued to function for a few more years in Odessa. All Catholic schools were also closed.

Forceful and “legal” methods of liquidating “religious prejudices” did not end here, however. Various decrees in 1919 and 1920 marked the beginning of an open war against the veneration of relics, which were broken open and forcibly gathered into State museums. The implementation of all these orders and decrees met with opposition from Church authorities and the faithful. The clergy’s speeches and protests led to their arrests; the people rose to the defense of their pastors, and then they were also subjected to repressions.

The Catholic Church tried to save its churches by referring to the impossibility of transferring them to secular authorities without the consent of the Papal See, but it did not take such a principled stand against the transfer to parish books (records) to the Registry Office (ZAGS), or the transfer of cemeteries and property to local Councils. In their efforts to save their churches, Catholics looked to foreign states for support, but given the Soviet government’s disregard for all rule of law, these efforts failed to bring any results.9

After the publication of the Commissariat of Justice’s notorious Instruction of August 24, 1918, a struggle began surrounding “agreements” on the use of churches, a struggle that continued right up until the end of 1920. In the wave of political changes, lay Catholics formed committees for the defense of their churches and clergy in some parishes. In January 1919 representatives of the laity organized the Central Committee of Roman Catholic Communities of the Mogiliev [Arch]diocese. This body adopted a charter, certain articles of which disturbed the clergy. The problem of church councils was taken up at a conference of Petrograd clergy, with Archbishop Ropp participating. Recognizing the situation that had come about by that time, the archbishop obliged the pastors to select, at general meetings of the faithful, twenty to thirty authorized representatives from among the parishioners. The president of this council would become the head of the parish and would handle the church’s treasury. All negotiations of the laity with the authorities would have to meet with this person’s agreement. The goal of the laity’s Central Committee was the unification of parish councils and the organization of the defense of, and assistance to, diocesan government. It functioned over the course of approximately eighteen months and energetically protested the State’s anti-religious actions and defended the archbishop and priests.10

One cannot compare the resoluteness of the urban laity’s dedication to the Church with the situation in the provinces, where there were few Catholics, priests were a long way from one another, and all were subjected to repressions by frequently changing authorities that applied their own procedures. This is easily seen in a “Telegram from the Department of the Directorate of the Provincial Revolutionary Committee to the Tomsk Revolutionary Committee,” dated April 7, 1920, requesting that it provide information about the number of churches in the city, the number of believers, and the possibility of using the churches for public needs. In the telegram one sees such concepts as the “utilization of churches for general needs.”11 Local Communists, who sometimes had Catholic roots, wishing to curry favor with the authorities, acted promptly and finished off the priests without waiting for approval from above.12

The Church and the New Political Circumstances

The Catholic Church in Soviet Russia was also affected by the broader political situation that obtained after the First World War when several newly independent states appeared on the map: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Quite a few active parishioners abandoned Soviet Russia. Some Catholics returned to their historical homelands, others fled because of the famine. The Civil War worsened the situation even more, and Catholics became hostages of State interests. Archbishop Ropp was arrested in Petrograd April 29, 1919, and several priests were arrested the following day. A wave of arrests rolled through Belorussia as well. As later became clear, the hostages were taken in response to the fact that the Polish Army had occupied Vilnius and arrested Communists. Futile written and personal appeals by the Central Committee of Catholic Communities to the authorities requesting the release of the archbishop and priests were followed by a demonstration in Petersburg making the same demands. The government responded with new arrests of priests and laity. The archbishop was transferred to Moscow and after the Poles and Soviets had come to an agreement on the exchange of hostages, he was able to leave for Poland. Archbishop Jan Cieplak now became the head of the Mogiliev Archdiocese. Bishop Joseph Kessler, Diocese of Tiraspol, found himself in Bessarabia because of changes to international boundaries, and Soviet authorities would not allow him to return to his diocese.

Some suffragan dioceses of the Mogiliev Metropolitan Archdiocese found themselves partially or completely outside the boundaries of Soviet Russia, which led to administrative problems. Bishop Zygmunt Łoziński began anew by opening a seminary and setting up diocesan structures in Minsk. New bishops undertook similar tasks in Ukraine. But the Polish-Soviet War13 led to the partition of dioceses and new oppression of the Catholic Church. Bishops Zygmunt Łoziński, Ignacy Dub-Dubowski, and Piotr Mankowski departed for Poland, leaving their vicars general in charge in the east. Lands where Bolshevik power had not yet been established – Siberia, the Far East, the Caucasus, Crimea – received their own administrators, who, however, were not able to exercise their offices for long. The Diocese of Vladivostok, for example, was erected in 1923, but its bishop, Karol Śliwowski, was soon isolated, put under house arrest and was unable to govern his diocese.14

Events in Petrograd provide a typical example of the struggle for the preservation of the Catholic Church’s freedom in Soviet Russia. On July 26, 1919, the Petrograd Soviet ordered that the offices of the Curia and Consistory be sealed and turned over to the district branch of the Registry Office along with the Consistory’s archives. Owing to Archbishop Cieplak’s shrill protest, the seals were removed after a few months, but the Consistory’s archives had been removed by the authorities. There was concurrently a struggle with the requirement to enter into agreements over the transfer of churches to the laity. The Catholic Church insisted that the churches were its property and could not belong to the Soviet State. Archbishop Cieplak’s protest of September 29, 1919, against the nationalization of the Church Endowment was also very important.15 Catholic clergy, supported by parish committees, not only refused to allow the signing of agreements regarding the use of churches, they also managed to gain the freedom to teach religion (Shkarovskii, p. 15). Amongst themselves, priests discussed the question of Communism as an anti-Christian doctrine and they tried to shield their parishioners from its influence (Shkarovskii, p. 16).

Archbishop Cieplak was arrested April 2, 1920. Church committees sent out telegrams to the highest echelons protesting his arrest; the authorities responded with the mass arrests of laity, many of whom were sent to the camps. To avoid further repressions among Catholics, Archbishop Cieplak wrote a statement April 15 undertaking to “promote the calming of minds” and after two days he was released, but he was put under surveillance.

Priests were again arrested during the Polish-Soviet War. Article VII of the Riga Treaty of March 18, 1921, spelled out the right of the Catholic Church in Russia to exercise its activity independently, “within the bounds of internal legislation.” But it was precisely this legislation that was completely anti-Church and anti-religious, as already stated (Shkarovskii, p. 17), and thus this article did not relieve the situation for Catholics in Soviet Russia. But owing to the Riga Treaty, many Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians – including priests – were able to adopt citizenship of the new States without leaving Russia.

Seizure of Church Valuables

The famine along the Volga and in south Russia was linked to a new tact in persecuting the Church. Both Pope Benedict XV (reigned September 1914 – January 1922) and Archbishop Ropp (now living in Poland) organized aid to the famine victims. Thanks to an agreement between the Vatican and Soviet Russia it was possible to open a Mission to Aid Famine Victims (“Papal Relief Mission”). The newly elected Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) himself made a contribution and he called upon the whole world to hasten to help. The Papal Relief Mission, headed by the American Jesuit Father Edmund Walsh, arrived in Russia August 25, 1922, and launched a large-scale effort. Despite this assistance, the Bolsheviks used the famine to begin the seizure of Church valuables. A Politburo resolution dated November 11, 1921 appointed Leon Trotsky responsible for this campaign. The authorities issued new decrees, above all a Decree of the All-Union Executive Committee dated February 23, “On the Procedure for Seizing Valuables Found in Use of Groups of Believers” (Shkarovskii, p. 19). Churches of various confessions were the victims of this decree.

The Pope declared his readiness to buy the Church valuables – including those belonging to the Orthodox Church – and even the faithful were ready to hand over money and their own personal valuables in order that the sacred vessels not be violated. For the authorities, however, what mattered was the seizure of precisely these Church valuables from Catholic and Orthodox churches. In many places the parishioners energetically protested and here and there they managed to hand over their own personal valuables in lieu of the sacred vessels. Opposition to the seizure of Church valuables and the stubborn refusal of parish communities to sign “agreements” led to a new wave of church closures (Shkarovskii, p. 21).

Attempts to Break Up the Church

At the beginning of 1923, in response to Catholics’ protests, the authorities sealed all the Catholic churches. Priests then said Mass in apartments, and the faithful went around to various State offices with numerous petitions requesting that the churches be re-opened and appealed to international organizations including the Papal Relief Mission. But the regime once again reacted to these efforts in its own way: on March 2, 1923, Archbishop Cieplak and fourteen priests from Petrograd were hauled off to Moscow to appear before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The first Moscow trial showed the true intention of the new regime, which cared nothing about the actual guilt of those on trial. Having designated religion as an inimical phenomenon, the Soviet regime began its physical annihilation of these “enemies.”

The Soviet government found itself one more means of extracting financial gain from the Church: when demands for the release of a particular priest were very insistent, it would agree to exchange him for Communists arrested in Poland or the Baltic States. Thanks to such exchanges, Archbishop Cieplak and many other convicted priests survived.16 It sometimes happened that, with the beginning of World War II, a priest released under such an exchange would fall into the hands of Communists or Fascists, and this time death would catch up with him. In addition, for a large sum of money, the GPU often allowed the redemption of a convicted Catholic; Julia Danzas, for example, was redeemed from Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp by her brother.

Immediately upon their seizure of power, the Bolsheviks tried to instigate dissension in the Church from within. In the Orthodox Church, these efforts led to a real split; but in the Catholic Church no such split occurred, even though the authorities tried to bring one about by means of threats and promises to priests.

Religious Education

Underground educational institutions were created in Leningrad, Kiev and some other cities to counteract the closure of seminaries, which was weakening the Church. The first effort was undertaken in 1921 when Catholics attempted to open a seminary in Petrograd. Father Antoni Malecki was its rector, and after his arrest in 1923, Michaƚ Rutkowski assumed this post; classes were held in his apartment. Only two candidates – Bolesƚaw Juriewicz and Julian Cimaszkiewicz – completed the curriculum and were ordained in 1925-1926 in Ukraine by the retired Bishop Anton Zerr.

A second attempt followed upon negotiations between Moscow and the Vatican; these negotiations led nowhere, and it was decided to begin a new enrollment of students in October 1926 (Antoni Malecki was at this time already a bishop). Eight men enrolled and classes were held in Father Antoni Wasilewski’s apartment. The candidates, who worked during the day at State enterprises, met for classes in the evening. But as early as January 14, 1927, the rector’s apartment was searched and he and other priests were arrested: the starosta of seminarians, Kazimierz Tysowski, was sentenced to five years in the camps. Father Pawel Chomicz, who had been drawn into the case, was sentenced to ten years in the camps; and twelve laymen involved in the case were sent into internal exile.

A new attempt by Bishop Malecki to organize a seminary led to his arrest and the arrest of the seminarians. Evening gatherings for young people, sermons, contacts with other priests, receipt of [liturgical] calendars or money from abroad – these were the evidence of the bishop’s “crimes” (Shkarovskii, pp. 181-187). Candidates for the priesthood for the Zhytomyr Diocese studied in Poland and then clandestinely crossed the border into the USSR. Another opportunity for a seminary education opened up later in Rome at the “Russicum” [Pontifical Russian College of Saint Therésè of the Child Jesus, founded by Pope Pius XI in 1929, organized under the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and run by the Society of Jesus].

Parallel to the preparation of new priests, an enormous importance was also given to the religious instruction of children. This was formally forbidden, but priests paid greater heed to the voice of God and the Church than to that of the regime. The faithful organized various educational and religious clubs – this was a customary Church activity, responding to the need of the people in the development of their spiritual life. But in the regime’s understanding, these clubs were anti-Soviet organizations, undermining the foundations of the State. Monasteries also functioned, although secretly. There were several religious communities in Leningrad, Moscow and Ukraine. They were all crushed by the Soviet regime and the members of the communities sentenced to long prison terms.17

The “Committees of Twenty” were subjected to special pressure. On the one hand, they were the invention of the Soviet regime and therefore the clergy at first distrusted them. Their creation violated Canon Law and it was feared that the regime would use all means to subject these Committees to itself. On the whole, however, they came to the defense of the Church inasmuch as they bore responsibility for parish affairs and they gave the faithful the opportunity to help those in need, including “non-person” priests, especially those in prison and exile, many of whom survived thanks to the self-sacrificing aid of their parishioners. Members of these Committees were repeatedly arrested along with the priests and their personal assistants – organists, sacristans, housekeepers.

Reorganization and Annihilation of Church Structures

Repressions and atheistic propaganda were taking their toll on the Church. Many priests were in prison, some had been deported abroad. Not a single Catholic bishop remained in the USSR, not counting the elderly Bishop Anton Zerr of Tiraspol, who had long ago retired from his duties and now resided in Ukraine, and Bishop Karol Śliwowski of Vladivostok, who was completely isolated from his diocese. Therefore Pope Pius XI established the Pro Russia Commission within the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, for coordinating aid to the Church in Russia. The Vatican attempted to communicate with the Soviet government through diplomatic channels in order to find a way out of this complicated situation. Official negotiations had no success, but a clandestine emissary of the Vatican, Bishop Michel D’Herbigny, went to Russia several times in 1926 and was able to re-establish the demolished hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, to appoint apostolic administrators and even to consecrate some of them as bishops.

The administration of the Catholic Church on Soviet territory at that time had the following structure:

  1. Mogiliev Archdiocese, including the central and northern parts of European Russia and the northeast (Soviet) part of Belorussia

  2. Minsk Diocese (its eastern part was in the USSR)

  3. Zhytomyr Diocese, the greater part of which was in Soviet Ukraine (the northern and central part of Ukraine)

  4. Kamenets-Podolsky Diocese, completely within the USSR (southern Ukraine)

  5. Tiraspol Diocese, including the Volga [German] area and southern part of eastern Ukraine

  6. Vladivostok Diocese, erected February 3, 1923 (Eastern Siberia and the Far East)

  7. Apostolic Vicariate of Siberia (Western Siberia and Central Asia)

  8. Apostolic Vicariate of Crimea and the Caucasus, erected most likely during the Civil War from the southern part of Tiraspol Diocese

  9. Apostolic Administration for Armenian Rite Catholics

  10. Exarchate of the Greek-Catholic Church in Russia18

The clandestine reorganization that was carried out was intended to re-establish the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Russia. Removing the jurisdiction of those bishops living outside the boundaries of the USSR19 was an attempt to protect the Church against accusations of foreign interference.

The following administrations were created:

  • Moscow – Bishop Pius Neveu

  • Mogiliev and Minsk – Bishop Boleslavs Sloskans

  • Leningrad – Bishop Antoni Malecki

  • Kharkiv – Monsignor Wincenty Ilgin

  • Kazan, Samara, Simbirsk – Monsignor Mieczysƚaw [Michael] Joudakas

  • Odessa and Crimea – Bishop Alexander Frison

  • Northern Caucasus – Monsignor Johannes Roth

  • Volga ASSR – Monsignor Augustine Baumtrog

  • Transcaucasia – Monsignor Stepan Demurov

  • Zhytomyr Diocese – Monsignor Teofil Skalski

  • Kamenets Diocese – Monsignor Jan Świderski

Bishop Pius Neveu, the Moscow administrator and a French citizen, had special powers.

The Chekists soon uncovered these secret appointments and the new administrators were subjected to various repressions. On July 9, 1926, Monsignor Teofil Skalski, the Zhytomyr administrator, was the first of them to be arrested. Bishop Sloskans, the Minsk-Mogiliev administrator, publicly announced his appointment as bishop during a liturgy in Vitebsk on November 14, 1926. The GPU thereupon placed him under constant surveillance and he was arrested within a few months. Monsignor Jan Świderski, administrator of the Kamenets Diocese, was arrested April 25, 1929. The fate of Bishop Antoni Malecki, the Leningrad administrator, was no less complicated. He was repeatedly arrested and in 1930 – at age sixty-nine – was exiled to Siberia. The administrator of Kazan, Samara and Simbirsk, Monsignor Mieczysƚaw Joudakas, was also arrested and exiled.

Even more tragic were the lives of the German administrators who later died a martyr’s death. Bishop Alexander Frison was not able to reside in Odessa. For all practical purposes he only served in Simferopol; he was subjected to frequent arrests and then finally shot. Monsignor Baumtrog, apostolic administrator for the Volga region, was arrested with a group of priests and laity and died in a camp. Monsignor Roth, administrator for the Northern Caucasus, was repeatedly arrested, exiled and later shot. The fates of the Transcaucasian administrators of the Armenian and Latin rites were no different. Leonid Feodorov, Exarch of the Greek-Catholic Church in Russia, also endured prisons, camps and exile, dying at his final place of exile.20

The Catholic Church nevertheless continued to exist even under such conditions. Leningrad received two more bishops. The first was Teofil Matulianis, co-adjutor of Bishop Malecki. When he ended up in a camp and then later left for Lithuania as part of a prisoner exchange, Bishop Neveu secretly consecrated a French Dominican priest, Jean Amoudrou, to serve as bishop – but he was soon expelled from the USSR. Neveu himself, thanks to the protection of the French embassy, hung on in the USSR under very constrained conditions until 1936; but after he went to France for medical treatment he was not allowed back into Moscow (Shkarovskii, pp. 292-293).

Thus came to an end Pius XI’s attempt to re-establish the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the USSR, where by 1939 there remained not a single local Catholic priest still at liberty.

The Prayer Crusade

People in many countries urged the Pope to publicly condemn the actions of Soviet authorities, but Pius XI feared that the situation of Catholics in the Soviet Union would only be worsened by his speaking out. Negotiations between Vatican representatives and the Soviet government yielded not even the slightest results – the arrests of priests, the closing of churches, the ideological and physical destruction of the Church continued. When it became clear that all legal and illegal attempts to preserve the Church had come to naught, Pope Pius XI, having very soberly assessed the situation, yielded to pressure from various quarters and broke his silence. The February 9, 1930, issue of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, carried his letter dated February 2 to Cardinal Basilic Pompili, Vicar General of Rome, on “the need to grant sacred rights, cruelly violated on the territory of Russia.” The letter condemned the actions of Soviet authorities with respect to religion (Dzwonkowski, 1997, pp. 292-293). He recalled his efforts associated with the Genoa Conference in 1922 directed toward granting the Russian faithful guarantees of religious freedom. In addition Pius XI wrote about his speaking out in defense of Patriarch Tikhon, about the aid to famine victims in Russia that had been organized by the Papal Relief Mission and had saved 150,000 children from hunger and yet – despite the enormous need for the Mission – it had been forbidden by the authorities. He also mentioned the imprisoned bishops, Boleslavs Sloskans and Alexander Frison, as well as Leonid Feodorov, Exarch of Eastern Rite Catholics. The Pope likewise condemned the blasphemous anti-religious campaign that offended the faithful. He expressed his sympathy with their suffering and called for prayers of repentance (Dzwonkowski, 1997, p. 295).

The Pope’s message was well received throughout the world, and not only among Catholics. Thus began the famous Prayer Crusade in defense of the faithful in the USSR. Even though the whole world expressed its solidarity with the Pope and the faithful in Russia, in the USSR itself this call for prayer provoked an outburst of rage and accusations against Pius XI. The Communist press accused him of attempting to organize military aggression against the USSR. The fact that the Moscow Metropolitan Sergey Stargorodsky joined in the attacks on the Pope tells much about the state of the [Orthodox] Church in the USSR. The Metropolitan claimed that persecutions of the faithful were not related to their faith; rather, they were provoked by their anti-government and counter-revolutionary activity. This justification of the persecutions was well known and disseminated by all means of mass communication, so that there was no doubt as to who was its real author (Dzwonkowski, 1997, p. 297). [Translator’s Note: the same justification of the persecutions appeared in certain organs of the American press.]

Although attacks on the Pope continued to appear in the newspapers, his call for prayer had forced the highest authorities in the USSR to temporarily suspend and criticize in a restrained manner the excessively barbaric methods being used in the fight against religion. Nonetheless, priests being arrested even in the future would be accused of espionage on behalf of the Vatican, evidencing the danger that the tiny little Vatican posed for the enormous USSR.

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