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The Church of Russia was less unprepared than generally believed to face the revolutionary turmoil. Projects of necessary reforms had been prepared since 1905, and most clergy did not feel particularly attached to the fallen regime that had deprived the church of its freedom for several centuries. During the rule of the provisional government, in August 1917 a council representing the entire church met in Moscow, including 265 members of the clergy and 299 laymen. The democratic composition and program of the council had been planned by the Pre-Conciliar Commission. It adopted a new constitution of the church that provided for the reestablishment of the patriarchate, the election of bishops by the dioceses, and the representation of laymen on all levels of church administration. It was only in the midst of the new revolutionary turmoil, however, that Tikhon, metropolitan of Moscow, was elected patriarch (October 31, 1917—six days after the Bolshevik takeover). The bloody events into which the country was plunged did not allow all the reforms to be carried out, but the people elected new bishops in several dioceses.
The Bolshevik government, because of its Marxist ideology, considered all religion as the "opium of the people." On January 20, 1918, it published a decree depriving the church of all legal rights, including that of owning property. The stipulations of the decree were difficult to enforce immediately, and the church remained a powerful social force for several years. The patriarch replied to the decree by excommunicating the "open or disguised enemies of Christ," without naming the government specifically. He also made pronouncements on political issues that he considered of moral importance: in March 1918 he condemned the peace of Brest-Litovsk that brought an unsatisfactory armistice between Russia and the Central Powers, and in October he addressed an "admonition" to Lenin, calling on him to proclaim an amnesty. Tikhon was careful, however, not to appear as a counterrevolutionary and in September 1919 called the faithful to refrain from supporting the Whites (anti-Communists) and to obey those decrees of the Soviet government that were not contrary to their Christian conscience.
The independence of the church suffered greatly after 1922. In February of that year, the government decreed the confiscation of all valuable objects preserved in the churches. The patriarch would have agreed to that measure if he had had the means to check on the government contention that all confiscated church property would be used to help the starving population on the Volga. The government refused all guarantees but supported a group of clergy who were ready to cooperate with it and to overthrow the patriarch. While Tikhon was under house arrest, this group took over his office and soon claimed the allegiance of a sizable proportion of bishops and clergy. This became known as the schism of the "Renovated" or "Living" Church, and it broke the internal unity and resistance of the church. Numerous bishops and clergy faithful to the patriarch were tried and executed, including the young and progressive metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd. The "Renovated" Church soon broke the universal discipline of Orthodoxy by admitting married priests to the episcopate and by permitting widowed priests to remarry.
Upon his release, Tikhon condemned the schismatics, and many clergy returned to his obedience. But he also published (presumably against his will) a declaration affirming that he "was not the enemy of the Soviet government" and dropped any public opposition to the authorities. Tikhon's attitude of conformism did not bring immediate results. His designated successors (after he died in 1925) were all arrested. In 1927 the "substitute locum tenens" (holder of the position) of the patriarchate, Metropolitan Sergius, pledged loyalty to the Soviet government. Nevertheless, under the rule of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and '30s, the church suffered a bloody persecution that claimed thousands of victims. By 1939 only three or four Orthodox bishops and 100 churches could officially function: the church was practically suppressed. The martyrdom of the Russian Church during the Soviet period was probably a most intensive and bloodthirsty persecution of the Church in its whole history.
A spectacular reversal of Stalin's policies occurred, however, during World War II. Sergius was elected patriarch in 1943 and the "Renovated" schism was ended. Under Sergius' successor, Patriarch Alexis (1945-70), the church was able to open 25,000 churches and the number of priests reached 33,000. But a new antireligious move was initiated by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev in 1959-64, reducing the number of open churches to less than 10,000. Patriarch Pimen was elected in 1971 following Alexis' death, and, although the church still commanded the loyalty of millions, its future remained uncertain.
After 70 years of repression and antireligious propaganda, however, the church experienced greater religious freedom in the late 1980s, culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.