The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an
ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that
end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed
religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the
schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were
determined by State interests, and most organized religions were
The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s
and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest
number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its
believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools
were closed, and church publications were prohibited. By 1939
only about 500 of over 50,000 churches remained open.
After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941,
Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify
patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957 about 22,000
Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita
Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian
Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches.
By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Members of
the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places
taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB.
Campaigns against other religions were closely associated
with particular nationalities, especially if they recognized a
foreign religious authority such as the Pope. By 1926, the Roman
Catholic Church had no bishops left in the Soviet Union, and by
1941 only two of the almost 1,200 churches that had existed in
1917, mostly in Lithuania, were still active. The Ukrainian
Catholic Church (Uniate), linked with Ukrainian nationalism, was
forcibly subordinated in 1946 to the Russian Orthodox Church, and
the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches of Belorussia and Ukraine
were suppressed twice, in the late 1920s and again in 1944.
Attacks on Judaism were endemic throughout the Soviet
period, and the organized practice of Judaism became almost
impossible. Protestant denominations and other sects were also
persecuted. The All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian
Baptists, established by the government in 1944, typically was
forced to confine its activities to the narrow act of worship and
denied most opportunities for religious teaching and publication.
Fearful of a pan-Islamic movement, the Soviet regime
systematically suppressed Islam by force, until 1941. The Nazi
invasion of the Soviet Union that year led the government to
adopt a policy of official toleration of Islam while actively
encouraging atheism among Muslims.