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Introduction to Russia's Catacomb Saints

by Ivan Andreyev (and Fr. Seraphim Rose)

IN JULY 16/29, 1927, Metropolitan Sergius of Nizhni-Novgorod, the then acting Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne of Moscow, issued his infamous "Declaration" of the loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Soviet government and solidarity with its "joys" and "sorrows." This document was published in the official Soviet newspaper Izvestia on August 6/19 of the same year, and was the overt cause of the fundamental division which occurred then in the Russian Church and has lasted up to the present day. In the words of a church historian of this period (himself a "Sergianist"), the year of the Declaration was "a turning point. Up until now the whole life of the church proceeds under the sign of this year" (A. Krasnov-Levitin, Memoirs, YMCA Press, 1977, p. 91, in Russian).

This division is not merely one between two totally independent church organizations (though it is that also); more basically it is a division between two entirely different views of what the Church of Christ is and how it should act in this sinful world while conducting its children to the banks of the eternal sinless life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

One view, that of the present-day Moscow Patriarchate, to which the name of "Sergianism" has been most fittingly applied, sees the Church first of all as an organization whose outward form must be preserved at any cost; disobedience to or separation from this organization is regarded as an act of "schism" or even "sectarianism." The apologists for Sergianism, both within and outside Russia, continually emphasize that Metropolitan Sergius' policy "preserved" the hierarchy, the church organization, the church services, the possibility of receiving the Holy Mysteries, and that this is the chief business of the church or even its whole reason for existing. Such apologies, products of the general decline of the Orthodox church consciousness in our times, are themselves symptoms of the ecclesiastical disease of Sergianism, of the loss of contact with the spiritual roots of Orthodox Christianity and the replacement of living and whole Orthodoxy by outward and "canonical" forms. This mentality is perhaps the chief cause for the spread of Protestant sects in present-day Russia: the mere semblance of the primacy of spiritual concerns (even if devoid of true Christian content) is enough to overwhelm the mere attachment to outward forms among many millions of Russians who are convinced that the Sergianist church (because it is the only one visible) is Orthodoxy.

The other view, that of the True-Orthodox or Catacomb Church of Russia, sees the first responsibility of the Orthodox Church to be faithfulness to Christ and to the true Spirit of Orthodoxy, at whatever external cost. This mentality does not at all disdain external forms; we know that the Catacomb Church has preserved the Divine services and the church hierarchy down to our own day. The external cost of the Catacomb Church's faithfulness to true Orthodoxy has been the loss of immediate influence over the masses of the Russian people, many of whom do not even know of its existence and the majority of whom would not know where or how to enter into contact with its members. But the loss of outward influence has as its counterpart a moral and spiritual authority which cannot be appreciated by those who judge these matters outwardly, but which will become evident when freedom returns to Russia.

The mentality of the Catacomb Church in the USSR is best described in the words of its own members. Here is how I. M. Andreyev, an active participant in the church events of 1927 and later, describes the formation of the Catacomb Church in those years.

"According to the testimony of the close friend of Patriarch Tikhon, the professor and doctor of medicine M. A. Zhizhilenko (the former chief physician of the Taganka prison in Moscow), the Patriarch, not long before his death, becoming convinced, with great fear, that the boundary of the 'political' demands of the Soviet regime would go beyond the boundaries of faithfulness to the Church and Christ, expressed the idea that probably the only way for the Orthodox Russian Church to preserve faithfulness to Christ would be, in the near future, to go into the catacombs. Therefore, Patriarch Tikhon blessed Prof. Zhizhilenko to accept secret monasticism, and then, in the near future, in case the leading hierarchs of the Church should betray Christ and give over to the Soviet regime the spiritual freedom of the Church, to become a secret bishop.

"In 1927, when Metropolitan Sergius issued his Declaration, after which the church schism occurred, Prof. Zhizhilenko fulfilled the will of Patriarch Tikhon and became the first secret catacomb bishop, Maxim of Serpukhov.

"After the schism of 1927, the followers of Metropolitan Sergius, who accepted his Declaration, began to be called 'Sergianists,' while those who remained faithful to the Orthodox Church, who did not accept the Declaration and separated from Metropolitan Sergius, began to be called 'Josephites' (after Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd). This latter name, given by the 'Sergianists, did not define the position, either in essence or formally, of those who protested. Apart from Metropolitan Joseph, other hierarchs, the most outstanding ones, together with their flocks, departed from communion with Metropolitan Sergius. The religious-moral authority of those who protested and separated was so high, and their qualitative superiority was so clear, that for the future historian of the Church there can be no doubt whatever of the correctness of the opponents of Metropolitan Sergius. These latter could more correctly be called faithful 'Tikhonites.' And the activities of Metropolitan Sergius and those with him must be characterized as a neo-renovationist schism.

"All those who protested against the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius were arrested by the Soviet regime as 'counter-revolutionaries'; they were shot or sent to concentration camps and exile. At interrogations the jubilant Chekist-interrogators with sarcasm and evil joy would prove the 'strict canonicity of Metropolitan Sergius and his Declaration, which 'has not altered either canons or dogmas.' The mass executions, persecutions and tortures which descended upon the faithful of Christs' Church are beyond description.

"For the True Orthodox Church there was left no alternative but to go into the catacombs.

"The spiritual father who gave birth to the very idea of the Catacomb Church was Patriarch Tikhon. In the first years of its existence the Catacomb Church had neither organization nor administration, was dispersed physically and geographically, and was united only by the name of Metropolitan Peter. The first Catacomb bishop Maxim was arrested in 1928 and sent to the Solovki concentration camp; in 1930 he was sent from the camp to Moscow and shot.

"Beginning in 1928 in the Solovki and Svir concentration camps, in the 'Belbaltlag' camp, and in many camps in Siberia, there began to be performed many secret ordinations. (In the Solovki camp, where I was, these were performed by Bishops Maxim, Victor, Hilarion, and Nectary.)

"After the death of Metropolitans Peter and Cyril (both died in exile in 1936), the spiritual and administrative head of the Catacomb Church—which by this time had achieved a certain degree of organization—became Metropolitan Joseph (even though he was in exile).

"At the end of 1938, precisely for his leadership and guidance of the secret Catacomb Church, Metropolitan Joseph was executed.

"After his death, the Catacomb Church began yet more strictly to keep its secrets, especially the names and locations of its spiritual leaders.

"I will not speak of the mystery to Thy enemies"—it is with such a motto that brief information has appeared from time to time on the life of this secret Church." (I. M. Andreyev, Brief Review of the History of the Russian Church from the Revolution to our Days, Jordanville, 1951, pp. 70-72.)

There exists a mass of materials documenting this early period in the history of the Catacomb Church, both in the epistles of bishops and others who separated from Metropolitan Sergius, and in the memoirs and other accounts of individual members of the Catacomb Church who escaped from the Soviet Union during World War II. Many of these documents are contained in the two volumes of Russia’s New Martyrs, compiled by Archpriest Michael Polsky (Jordanville, 1949 and 1957); the most important of these, and a number from other sources, are presented in Parts II and III of this book, most of them for the first time in English.

On the eve of World War II, the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union reached its fiercest peak, when even the "Sergianist" church organization came near to liquidation, and the Catacomb Church disappeared entirely from view. Only a few of the most notable collaborators with the Soviets, such as Metropolitan Sergius himself, escaped imprisonment or banishment, a fact which led to the charge of Boris Talantov thirty years later that "Metropolitan Sergius by his adaptation and lies saved no one and nothing, except his own person."

When Stalin, in order to take advantage of the patriotic and religious feelings of the Russian people in the war against the Germans, opened a number of the closed churches and allowed the election of a "Patriarch" in 1943, a new period began in Church-State relations, when the Moscow Patriarchate became in effect, the "State Church" of the Soviet government, spreading Communist propaganda throughout the world in the name of religion, and categorically denying the existence of any religious persecution whatever in the Soviet Union. The mere existence of a Catacomb Orthodox Church opposed to this policy, of course, could have a disastrous effect on the policy, especially if it became widely known abroad. All groups of Catacomb Orthodox were mercilessly uprooted by the Soviet authorities when discovered, and their members were given long prison terms. Most of the little information we have from this period of the history of the Catacomb Church in Russia comes from the Soviet press; but almost nothing is known to this day about the organization and leadership of the Catacomb Church during this time.

Under Khrushchev in 1959 a new and intense persecution of religion was undertaken in the USSR, inaugurating the most recent period of Russian church history, a period in which the Sergianist puppet church organization is itself being used to liquidate Orthodoxy in Russia, while continuing its Communist propaganda abroad and its now totally incredible assertions of the absence of any persecution of religion in the USSR. A majority of the remaining Sergianist churches, monasteries, and seminaries have been closed in this period, and an especially fierce persecution has been conducted against "unregistered" church bodies such as the Catacomb Orthodox Church, which is known to the Soviet authorities under the names of "Josephites," "Tikhonites," and the "True-Orthodox Church." The persecution was especially fierce in the years 1959-1964; since the downfall of Khrushchev it has been less intense, but it continues all the same, especially against the "unregistered" bodies.

In this most recent period a new spirit of boldness has entered church life in Russia; this, coupled with a greatly increased freedom of communication between the USSR and the free world, has produced what, beginning with a few isolated protests in the early 1960's, has now become a wave of protest and indignation from believers in Russia directed against the religious persecutions of the Soviet government and the spineless apologies for it of the official church organization. The Open Letter to Patriarch Alexis of the Moscow priests Gleb Yakunin and Nicholas Eshliman in 1965, the articles on "Sergianism" by Boris Talantov in 1968, the righteous protests against the church policy of the Moscow Patriarchate from Orthodox Christians as diverse as Archbishop Ermogen and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and most recently the desperate cries of conscience of Father Dimitry Dudko and the new church history of Lev Regelson (who has given the first sympathetic account of the "Josephites" from within the Moscow Patriarchate)—have led to a veritable "crisis of Sergianism" in Russia; the chief factor, it would seem, that now prevents a new break with the Moscow Patriarchate on the scale of the "Josephite" movement of 1927 is a certain fear of the specter of "schism" and "sectarianism," coupled with a widespread ignorance of the actual state and mentality of the present-day Catacomb Church. The most striking testimonies regarding the meaning of "Sergianism" from within the Moscow Patriarchate today are included in Part IV of this book.

Finally, the past few years, beginning with the death of Patriarch Alexis in 1971, have seen a certain re-emergence of the Catacomb Church itself in Russia. In particular, the two "catacomb documents" of 1971 have given us the first real view in forty years of the mentality of the present-day Catacomb Church, which would seem to be quite sober and not at all "sectarian" or "fanatical" (an impression which is only reinforced by the just-printed catacomb epistle of 1962, the very existence of which was known up to now only by a few people in the Soviet Union); the testimony of A. Krasnov-Levitin after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1974 has provided us the first real information since 1935 concerning the episcopate and the chief hierarch of the Catacomb Church; and the information from the Soviet press in 1976 concerning the trial of Archimandrite Gennady is the most striking evidence since before World War II of the actual activity of the Catacomb Church and its astonishing scope. These documents are contained in Part V of this book.

This book should not be regarded as a mere "apology" for the Catacomb Church; our attempt has been to be a little more "objective" than that. In fact, the present historical moment, just after the 50th anniversary of the "Declaration" that divided Russian Orthodoxy in the 20th century, offers an unparalleled opportunity for an "objective" view of the past half-century of church life for us who belong to the only free and uncompromised part of the Russian Church. The soul of Russia is speaking today, more dearly than at any time since the beginning of Sergianism; but the pain and difficulty of speaking make it almost impossible for those inside the Soviet Union to understand the message fully. In particular, those within the Moscow Patriarchate find themselves still enclosed in an "enchanted circle" of inherited opinions about the church organization, which will probably not be broken until the realization finally dawns upon them that the Catacomb Church of Russia is not primarily a rival "church organization" which demands a change of episcopal allegiance, but is first of all the standard-bearer of faithfulness to Christ, which inspires a different attitude towards the Church and its organization than now prevails throughout much of the Orthodox world. This realization will perhaps not dawn until the downfall of the godless regime; but when it does, the Sergianist church organization and its whole philosophy of being will crumble to dust. In this light, it is surely no exaggeration to say that the future of Russia, if it is to be Orthodox, belongs to the Catacomb Church.

A deliberate attempt has been made, in the appendix to this volume where the sources for the history of the Catacomb Church are presented, to indicate the "bias" of the authors, whether "Sergianist" or "Josephite." There have, of course, been exaggerations on both sides. To the future historian of the Russian Church there will indeed be no doubt (in fact, the church history of Lev Regelson already proves it) that the Josephites were correct and the Sergianists were fatally wrong. But the significance of the Catacomb Church does not lie in its "correctness"; it lies in its preservation of the true Spirit of Orthodoxy, the spirit of freedom in Christ. Sergianism was not merely "wrong" in its choice of church policy, it was something far worse: it was a betrayal of Christ based on agreement with the spirit of this world. It is the inevitable result when church policy is guided by earthly logic and not by the mind of Christ.

From Ivan Andreyev's Russia's Catacomb Saints (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 1982), 15-21.