After the October Revolution of November 7, 1917 (October 25 Old Calendar) the officially proclaimed objective of the Soviet Union was to unite all of the people of the world in a communist state free of "capitalist exploitation" (see Communist International). In such a worldview any ethnic heritage closely tied to traditional religion and it's clergy was targeted by the Soviet authorities.
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 never outlawed. The establishment of the gulags was an integral part of carrying out this objective as many Orthodox clergy and laymen were sent to camps like Svirlag and Solovki.
Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture being sent to these prison camps and orlabour camps or also mental hospitals. Many Orthodox (along with peoples of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation, in order to force them give up their religious convictions (see Piteєti prison).
Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or used as warehouses, recreation centers, "museums of atheism", or even Gulags. It was impossible to build new churches.
Practising Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored (funded) and encouraged by the government, which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond to. The government youth organization, the Komsomol, encouraged its members to vandalize Orthodox Churches and harass worshippers. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press.
In November 1917, following the collapse of the tsarist government, a council of the Russian Orthodox church reestablished the patriarchate and elected the metropolitan Tikhon as patriarch. But the new Soviet government soon declared the separation of church and state and nationalized all church-held lands. These administrative measures were followed by brutal state-sanctioned persecutions that included the wholesale destruction of churches and the arrest and execution of many clerics. The Russian Orthodox church was further weakened in 1922, when the Renovated Church, a reform movement supported by the Soviet government, seceded from Patriarch Tikhon's church, restored a Holy Synod to power, and brought division among clergy and faithful.
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.
After 1928 a mass closure of churches continued until 1939, by which time there was only a few hundred left. According to the official data of the government Commission on Rehabilitation.: in 1937 136,900 Orthodox clerics were arrested, 85,300 of them were shot dead; in 1938 28,300 arrested, 21,500 of them shot dead; in 1939 1,500 arrested, 900 of them shot dead; in 1940 5,100 arrested, 1,100 of them shot dead.
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. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius (Stragorodsky), Alexius (Simansky) and Nikolay (Yarushevich) were officially received by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who proposed to create the Moscow Patriarchate. They received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, that elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. This is considered by some violation of the XXX Apostolic canon, as no church hierarch could be consecrated by secular authorities. A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened.
Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000. 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. It is estimated that 50,000 clergy were executed by the end of the Kruschev era. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB.
In the postwar era, having changed its political orientation, the Orthodox Church reviewed its traditional positions. It went on to approve the accomplishments of the socialist state, and it called on believers to participate in the international peace movement. Modernist tendencies grew stronger, even inthe religious aspects of ideology and practice. For example, the church no longer glorified senseless suffering, which it once considered as a road of "salvation."
Relations between the church and state improved considerably
By 1987 the number of functioning churches in the Soviet Union stood at 6893 and the number of functioning monasteries to 18.
Citizens of the USSR were permitted to form religious societies for their religious needs if at least 20 believers reached the age of 18. Believers who composed an association performed religious rites, organized meetings for prayer, and other purposes connected to worship. They hired ministers and other persons to meet their needs, collected voluntary contributions in houses of worship for the support of their property. The Government granted the free use of houses of worship and other publicly-owned property of the USSR. Russian Orthodox priests were trained at theological academies and seminaries.
In the Soviet Union the charitable and social work formerly done by ecclesiastical authorities were regulated by the government. Church owned property was nationalized. Places of worship were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. After the advent of state funded universal education, the Church's influence on education declined. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it was restricted from evangelizing.
Then, beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 - the millennial anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus'. Throughout the summer of that year, major government-supported celebrations took place in Moscow and other cities; many older churches and some monasteries were reopened. An implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world and has seen a resurgence in activity and vitality since the end of Soviet rule. Up to 90% of ethnic Russians and Belarusians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox (although to a large degree this is a cultural identification, rather than a religious one). In keeping with other Orthodox churches, which do not place a high importance on weekly church attendance, the number of people regularly attending services is relatively low, however it has grown significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December 2006 the Church had over 27,000 parishes, 169 bishops, 713 monasteries, two universities, five theological academies and 75 theological schools in the territory of the former Soviet Union and has a well-established presence in many other countries all over the world. In recent years many church buildings have been officially returned to the Church, most of these being in a deteriorated condition.
There have been difficulties in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, especially since 2002, when Pope John Paul II created a Catholic diocesan structure for Russian territory. The leadership of the Russian Church saw this action as a throwback to prior attempts by the Vatican to proselytize the Russian Orthodox faithful to become Roman Catholic. This point of view is based upon the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Church of Rome is but one of many equal Christian organizations, and that as such it is straying into territory that was already Christianized by the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while acknowledging the primacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, believes that the small Catholic minority in Russia, in continuous existence since at least the 18th century, should be served by a fully developed church hierarchy with a presence and status in Russia, just as the Russian Orthodox Church is present in other countries (including constructing a cathedral in Rome, near the Vatican).
The issue of encroachment by other Christian denominations into Russia is a particularly sensitive one to many members of the Russian Orthodox Church. They argue that the Orthodox Church now finds itself in a weakened position as a result of decades of secular Communist rule, and is therefore unable to compete on an equal footing with Western Churches. Thus, proselytizing by mostly foreign-based Catholics, Protestant denominations, and by many non-traditional sects can be seen as taking unfair advantage of the still-recovering condition of the Russian Church. On the other hand, many of these groups have argued that the position of Russian Orthodoxy is today no weaker than that of most Western European Churches. Smaller religious movements, particularly Baptists and members of other Protestant denominations, that have become active in Russia in the past decade claim that the state provides unfair support to the Orthodox Church and suppresses others, referring to the 1997 Russian law, under which those religious organizations that could not provide official proof of their existence for the preceding 15 years were seriously restricted in their rights and ability to worship. The law was formally presented as a way to combat destructive cults, but was condemned by representatives of other religions and human rights organizations as being written in a manner that explicitly favored the Russian Orthodox Church, as the Soviet Union had prohibited the establishment of other religions. Consequently, this law gave full rights only to a small number of "first-rank" religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. The situation is expected to normalise as the 15-year window starts to slide over the post-Communist period.
On 17 May 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia signed the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the provisions of the Act, the Moscow Patriarchate guarantees that ROCOR will maintain its independent hierarchy, continuing to be "an indissoluble, self-governing part of the Local Russian Orthodox Church," the only change being that when she elects a new First Hierarch, his election must be confirmed by the Patriarch of Moscow. In turn, ROCOR recognizes the Patriarch of Moscow as the head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church.