The Soviet Union was based on an atheist Marxist-Leninist conception of society that saw history as a march of progress towards higher levels of existence driven by revolution, with communism being the highest level of society based on the most egalitarian economic foundation, that is socialist ownership of the means of production. The Russian communists saw organized religion as a feudal organization, working alongside the aristocracy in support of the Czar’s rule of society. At best religion was seen as a harmless relic, at worst a counter-revolutionary threat. This antagonism characterized much of the relationship between the Christian churches and the communist government in Russia, and was repeated in many other countries that followed the Russian example.
The communists seized power in October 1917 declaring a Soviet government. The new regime faced the hostility of conservative and bourgeois forces, including liberals, royalists and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church had stated its opposition to the atheism and revolutionary nature of the Communists and threw its support behind the right-wing “White Army,” a coalition of anti-communist forces that declared war on the new state.
The victorious communists viewed the church as a subversive, counter-revolutionary organization, and closed many churches. According to the Library of Congress, after Stalin’s rise to power, persecution against Orthodox Christians escalated to a great extent. Many more churches were closed and many clergy were arrested and executed or sent to forced-labor camps known as gulags. 50,000 churches existed in pre-revolutionary Russia, but only 500 were still open by 1939.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany by the allies, The Soviet Union occupied most of Eastern Europe, extending communist rule through the backing of local communist governments. These states followed the example set by the Soviet Union by repressing and persecuting the clergy of local Christian churches.
Although organized religion continued under the eastern bloc countries, they were restricted in their expression and had to find an accommodation with the new regimes in order to survive. A few Christian churches even openly supported the new regimes. The Romanian Orthodox Church continued to support the communist regime right up until the assassination of its leader and the fall of the government.
People's Republic of China
“New China,” as the Communist Party refers to China after the 1949 revolution, was founded on the Marxist-Leninist ideology inherited from the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong followed Soviet examples. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that widespread religious persecution took place in China.
The "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" initiated a long period of religious and political persecution. Mao Zedong had called “red guards,” idealistic students, to rise up against the Communist Party and the old feudal and reactionary elements in society. This movement targeted feudal, religious, foreign and bourgeois elements. Very few groups were left untouched.
Churches and temples were desecrated. The Christian churches and cathedrals of the large eastern cities had their crosses and statues pulled down and their stained glass destroyed. Those who practiced religion, especially clergy and monks, became targets of “criticism” sessions by the red guards, and were harassed and beaten. Tibetan Buddhist monks were tortured, Catholic Priests were sent to labor camps, and Muslim schools and mosques were turned into pig slaughterhouses.
Certainly the bloodiest regime to declare itself communist was that established by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, renamed “Democratic Kampuchea.” Their leader, Pol Pot, took some inspiration from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but took the idea much further. The regime sought to wipe Cambodia’s history clean and start from “year zero,” with the intention of wiping out every trace of history and traditional culture and religion.
The educated classes, urban residents, and the religious were undesirables who were targeted for forced labor, torture and execution in the fields and death camps of the regime. Cambodian Buddhism, with very deep roots in the culture and history of the country, became a primary target for elimination.
In the 1960s, prior to the Khmer Rouge seizing power, the number of Buddhist monks and novices was around 65,000. When the Khmer Rouge was finally forced out of power by the Vietnamese army, fewer than 100 monks remained in Cambodia. Most had been killed or sought refuge in neighboring Vietnam. It has been estimated that one out of every five Cambodians was killed under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
- Library of Congress Soviet Archives Exhibit: Anti-Religious Campaigns
- Oxford Journals-Journal of Church and State: Editorial- Rising Expectations for Religious Rights in Eastern Europe
- Facts and Details: Cultural Revolution-Enemies and Horrors
- Cultural Survival: Buddhism and Revolution in Cambodia
- Georgetown University: Buddhism Survived the Khmer Rouge to Give Hope to Cambodia
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images