Religion in the USSR, A Lecture by Vasily Furov, May 1976 (41.2)

At the end of May 1976, staff working on the Large Soviet Encyclopaedia heard a lecture on the situation of religion in the Soviet Union by a visiting speaker, [Vasily] Furov, deputy-chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs (USSR Council of Ministers).

In general, religious life in the USSR was in decline, the speaker said, and was dying out. In support of this view, he reported that over the last five years about 700 religious congregations had ceased to exist; of the registered Orthodox churches about one thousand of those formally listed were not in use.


During the years of Soviet rule, the number of Orthodox churches has declined to about one tenth of their former numbers: of the 77,676 which existed before the [1917 October] Revolution, there were now 7,500. Out of the 4,200 Catholic churches in the Baltic area at the moment of its integration into the USSR, 1,000 were now left. In areas where Islam was widespread, 1,000 mosques were left out of 24,000, although only 300 of these were registered, the rest only “half existed”. Of the 1,500 Old Believer churches in the pre-revolutionary period, only 300 were left. Of 5,000 synagogues there were 200 today (only 92 of which were registered), but as there were only 50 rabbis in the country, the remaining synagogues functioned only from time to time.

The chief rabbi had been found by the Council of Religious Affairs itself: he was a former janitor at the Likhachov automobile plant [ZIL], who had graduated from the Moscow yeshiva. It was not only among the Jews that there were not enough people to fill the ranks of the clergy. Orthodox teaching institutions, too, could not supply the needs of the church, and were not even managing to replenish the clergy’s ranks. They had two applicants for each place, but the selection committee rejected many of them: on grounds of health, for example, or because they were “religious fanatics”. As a result, there were only 5,900 priests for the 7,500 Orthodox churches in the country; Lutheran churches had pastors for only half of the total.

There were no more than 15 theological institutions in the USSR. The Higher Theological School in Tashkent, moreover, had been founded by the Council for Religious Affairs itself — chiefly in order to supply the personnel necessary for foreign relations, the lecturer explained. In Ulan-Ude [east Siberia] a theological school for Buddhists had been opened: there were only two Buddhist monasteries in the country. Between 1945 and 1965 the theological academies of Moscow and Leningrad had produced 700 Masters, Candidates and Doctors of Theology.


The lecturer noted with satisfaction a fall in the number of Soviet citizens who observed religious rituals. According to his figures, in 1965 over 30 % of all children born were christened or took part in corresponding rituals for the newly-born in other religions. By 1975 this had fallen to 19 % of the total, while only 2.5 % of marriages took place in church; at that time 40 % of funerals took a religious form.

About 20-25 % of all residing in urban areas and 20-25 % of rural inhabitants were religious believers. The fading of religious consciousness was observable also in the prevalence of “Sunday religiosity” among those going to church.

There were 48 religions and religious tendencies in the USSR. Among these were sects which had arisen after the revolution, such as the True Orthodox Christians, who were openly hostile to Soviet power. “There are now 16,000 congregations of all religious cults, but in print we make the number 20,000,” said Furov, “so the anti-Sovietists won’t shout ‘They’re stamping out religion’.”

Furov described the relations between Church and State as ‘normal’, noting that modernist, reforming tendencies were penetrating ever deeper into parish life, actively supporting the domestic and foreign policy of the USSR. The clergy spoke to their flock not merely of patriotism, but of Soviet patriotism; they supported the Soviet regime and called on believers to observe strictly all legal norms. In this the moral and political unity of the Soviet people was revealed. The Soviet clergy of various denominations had links with 82 countries in the world, to which they sent their representatives — and not one had failed to return, Furov remarked proudly. For this reason, the government considered it possible to give the church its political support, but, of course, it would not end its ideological struggle against it.


Furov complained that individual servants of the church and believers allowed themselves to make anti-Soviet statements. Hierodeacon Varsonofy Khaibulin, for example, had suggested that as the Church was separated from the State, Atheism should also be separated from the State as well. Active opposition to the church policy of the Soviet government was being carried on by Regelson, and also by Shafarevich, who has published a book on religious legislation in the USSR [see note 1].

Among the 4,000 sectarian congregations which now existed, numbering about 400,000 people, only 60 % were loyal to the Soviet system. 1,200 congregations of sectarians led an illegal existence, and the majority of these had “an anti-Soviet attitude”: schismatic Baptists, the Adventists, the Innokentians (in Moldavia), the Murashkovites and the True Orthodox Christians.

At the conclusion of his lecture Furov emphasized that the Council was doing a great deal of work to strengthen legality in Church-State relations and was disciplining local officials who became over-zealous.



[1] Igor Shafarevich, Zakonodatelstvo o religii v SSSR [Legislation about religion in the USSR], YMCA Press: Paris.