Dealing with the Soviet past and democracy in the Russian Orthodox Church

Besides ambiguities in the Russian Orthodox assessment of the Soviet regime, even its rejection of the Soviet past has rarely translated into an engagement with a democratic agenda, writes Alexander Agadjanian (Yerevan State University, Armenia) in the current issue of the Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies (5:2, dated 2022, but just published). Agadjanian starts by discussing the veneration of the New Martyrs (martyrs and confessors who suffered under the Soviet regime). After the fall of the communist regime, the Moscow Patriarchate followed the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in canonizing modern martyrs, about 1,800 of them at this point. Despite expectations and efforts by the Patriarchate, with the exception of the widespread veneration of the last Tsar and his family, the cult of the New Martyrs has not developed deeply and “not acquired a really central role in the Church.” Agadjanian joins some other scholars in suggesting that one reason is an unclear perception of how the Soviet past “might be used, unused, or misused.” The church shares a convoluted memory of that past with Russian society as a whole.

There had been strong democratic aspirations in the church and in society in general in the 1990s, but “the democratic discourse was strongly compromised by general economic instability.” Over the following decades, antidemocratic trends increased, and the understanding of the Soviet legacy was transformed in church circles. When Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) called Stalin a “monster” in 2009, he received both support and criticism, a response that Agadjanian remarks would never have occurred in the 1990s. He explains that, while of course the Soviet anti-church terror is acknowledged, “state violence, however terrible, seems to be reinterpreted in terms of cosmic divine economy, as performing what we can call ‘fertile sacrifice’ that God admitted for higher purposes.” There is also the “idea of collective reconciliation, with patriotic overtones.”

Source:, 2007 (Wkimedia, Creative Commons).

In Russia, where there is an emphasis on the nation’s continuity with pre-communist “historical Russia,” the issue is how to integrate aspects of the Soviet past. The “Great Patriotic War” (the fight against Nazi Germany during WWII) remains a key event, seen as a victory of Russia and not of communism. A reappraisal of the Soviet past has emerged, with a continuity myth weaving “the Soviet period into the millennial historical fabric.” While well aware of anti-Christian repressions, there is an Orthodox discourse tending “to evade a clear rejection of the Soviet past as a whole.” True, one can find a number of individual voices—for instance on online forums—rejecting the Soviet past as completely incompatible with Christian values, but this does not mean that democratic values are seen as the best alternative. The communist terror is condemned by the church, but the Soviet period “is recoded into the image of a conservative order” overcoming the initial revolutionary chaos. On the other hand, Agadjanian writes, liberal democratic values never receive religious legitimation. He concludes that “Christian democratic discourse has been traditionally underdeveloped within the Russian Orthodox language game.”

(Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies,