In October 1917, as the bloodshed of the First World War continued to rage, the final apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima took place on Oct. 13, culminating with the “Miracle of the Sun.” The call of the Blessed Mother for the consecration of Russia during her apparitions and for the world to repent from sin was a powerful one, but few could have imagined the horrors that were soon unleashed in the very country named by Our Lady: Russia.
Indeed, only a few weeks after the final apparition at Fatima, the Russian Revolution took its last and darkest turn, and decades of suffering ensued.
A century ago, on Oct. 25, the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks — the Communists under Vladimir Lenin — to power in post-Czarist Russia. What followed was the first officially atheist state and one of the darkest eras in human history. Its name is taken from the events on Nov. 6 and 7, 1917 (or Oct. 24 and 25 on the Julian Calendar, which is why it is described as the “October Revolution”), when radical leftist forces led by the Bolsheviks staged a largely bloodless coup d’état against the debilitated provisional government of Russia that had been established after the fall of Czar Nicholas II from power earlier that year.
Karl Marx had predicted — and based many of his assumptions on the idea — that the inevitable revolution of the workers would take place in the advanced industrialized Western European countries, where the proletariat would rise up and create a worker’s paradise. As events transpired, the communist revolution did take place, but in the agrarian and only barely industrialized country of Tsarist Russia.
The Fall of Czar Nicholas II
Having endured several abortive efforts at modernization, the Russian Empire had limped into the 20th century and was already weakened by political unrest when World War I began in 1914. By 1917, the Romanov Dynasty under Czar Nicholas II was near collapse, and the city of Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg) faced food shortages, massive unemployment, inflation and a demoralized and defeated Russian Army. The communists, under the exiled Lenin, had long agitated for political chaos, but the initial revolution, in February 1917, created a provisional government made up of conservatives, moderates and liberal socialists, as well as so-called Mensheviks (Russian socialists) and other socialist revolutionaries.
Czar Nicholas abdicated Feb. 28, 1917 (he and his entire family were later murdered), but in the next months, extremists plotted a bloody takeover. The return of Lenin from exile — with the help of the Germans who wanted to destabilize Russia’s war effort — culminated in the revolution in which the radical Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the members of the provisional government.
When, in the next month, the Bolsheviks failed to win the majority in the elections, they dissolved the Constituent Assembly and took power with the barrel of their guns. Civil war followed between the Reds (Bolsheviks) and Whites (a loosely held alliance of former czarists, soldiers, Cossacks, moderate socialists and Orthodox Christians).
Despite the poorly organized intervention of the Allies (Great Britain, France and the United States) on Russian soil, the Whites failed to win the war, and in 1920, the Communists could claim power. What followed the Russian Revolution was the creation of one of the most evil regimes in human history.
Rise of the Soviet Union
Once securing control of Russia, the Bolsheviks under Lenin and his henchmen — including his eventual successor, Josef Stalin (1879-1953) — transformed the country into a single-party, communist, atheist dictatorship with absolute central control over every aspect of economic, political and social life. All forms of resistance or contrary thought were ruthlessly exterminated, and one of the most aggressive campaigns was against religion. Under Stalin, more than 50 million people were executed or exiled to die in gulags or Siberian camps as enemies of the state.
The Soviet Union (born out of the so-called Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was the first state in history to declare itself atheist and to take as one if its central policies the eradication of religion from all life in the country. This had been forecast, of course, by Karl Marx, and it was given its most brutal expression in the 20th century in Russia, although communist China and the Soviet satellites also embraced similar policies. The Soviet regime persecuted all forms of religious belief, confiscated churches and places of worship and arrested and tortured priests, men and women religious and dedicated laypeople, and used the state-controlled schools to indoctrinate young people against all notion of faith. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Orthodox Church was reduced in influence so that, by 1939, there were a mere 500 churches left open of the original 50,000 in 1922. Thousands of Orthodox priests had been shot or sent into forced labor, and over the decades, they were compelled to register with the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and agree to all conditions imposed by the state.
The Suffering of the Church
Particular fury was spent on the Catholic Church, especially the Ukrainian Catholic Church. In 1921, there were 245 Catholic priests in Russia; by 1925, these had been reduced to fewer than 70, and most were in labor camps. The rest had been murdered, tortured to death or died in the camps. By 1926, all of the bishops in Russia were dead. In 1917, there were 1,200 Catholic churches; by 1941, there were two. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was forced in 1946 to be subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church, all of its property confiscated and its priests watched closely by the NKVD. Similar treatment was given to the Georgian and Armenian Byzantine Catholics, and Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople were killed by the thousands after they refused to give up the faith. In the two gulags of Sandormoch and Leningrad alone, the Soviet authorities murdered thousands of Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Jews in a series of mass killings in the 1930s. Estimates place the number of Catholics murdered or exiled to Siberia and other camps by 1925 at 200,000.
The anti-Catholic and anti-Christian campaign included mandatory programs in the schools attacking the Church as an enemy of reason and a corrupt hypocritical institution that survived by feeding off the superstitions and fears of the people. Students were told about Galileo, the Inquisition, the “evil” popes and the Crusades. In the 1920s, Soviet propaganda included pamphlets, books, films and radio programs that mocked religion and portrayed the popes and priests as vile and hypocritical lechers. At the same, the virtues of atheism were extolled as the only way toward human progress and enlightenment.
Despite the unimaginable horrors faced by Catholics and others, religion persisted, as did fidelity to the Holy See, to the anger and frustration of the Soviet regime. In the darkest days of World War II, with German forces only miles away from Moscow in 1941, Stalin allowed the Orthodox churches to reopen to give some hope to the Russians who had lost hope in the state. Cynically using the Orthodox clergy to promote the defense of Mother Russia against the German invader, Stalin held together social order and then returned to oppressing religion once the war was over.
The persecution of the Catholics in the Byzantine tradition caused one other effect. Catholics — and many Orthodox — fled when they could, and tens of thousands departed Russia to find religious freedom. They settled across the world, in such cities as Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin, and even New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. These Catholics in exile tried to tell the world about the nightmare of life in the Soviet Union, but they were rarely heard because many in the West, including hosts of American and European journalists, were enamored with the propaganda of a worker’s paradise that had supposedly been established in Russia. The persecution of religion was dismissed as disgruntled complaints from old czarists and conservative ideologues opposed to the progress and “democracy” that had been established in the Soviet Union.
The Voice of the Church
The Church, of course, had always been opposed to communism, precisely for the reasons that were revealed by the Soviet Union with its demolition of the rights and dignity of the human person and the unprecedented oppression of religion.
In an effort to find a diplomatic solution with the Soviet regime, Pius XI instructed his chief diplomat in the region, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli (the nuncio to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII) to seek negotiations. The Soviets initially were willing to talk, but their terms demanded the Church surrender all rights in Russia. By 1927, contact was ended by the pope, as there was little use in continuing. Priests were sent secretly into the Soviet Union, especially courageous Jesuits, and a Jesuit from France was given the mission of consecrating bishops. Most died in gulags or in the torture chambers of Lubyanka, the dread headquarters of the NKVD.
In 1937, Pius issued the encyclical Divini Redemptoris (Atheistic Communism), a condemnation of communism in general and the Soviet regime in particular. He wrote: “Communism … strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse. There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cogwheel in the communist system.”
The Church remained an opponent to communism for the rest of the 20th century. The Church emerged triumphant over the Soviet Union through fortitude, prayer, courage and leadership from the popes, especially Pius XII and St. John Paul II.
The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has been marked by very little attention in the mainstream media, and the anniversary reminds us that the horrors caused by the revolution are being deliberately forgotten. A recent poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that only 55% of millennials believe communism was and still is a problem, and only 37% of millennials have a “very unfavorable” view of communism.
For Catholics, all of this casts an even sharper light on the dangers of communism and socialism for all people of faith. It tells us, too, that if we are not careful, we may see them again soon. Let us remember the words of the Blessed Mother at Fatima and pray that the nightmare of Soviet Russia is never repeated.
Matthew E. Bunson is a
Register senior editor.