American Catholic Press: Religious NEP, Repression and Laicization (1925–1939)
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American Catholic Press: Religious NEP, Repression and Laicization (1925–1939)
Annotation
PII
S013038640012696-3-1
DOI
10.31857/S013038640012696-3
Publication type
Article
Status
Published
Authors
Gregory Freeze 
Affiliation: Brandeis University
Address: USA
Edition
Pages
121-139
Abstract

Recent scholarship, reflecting the “religious turn” and research opportunities after the “archival revolution” of 1991, has substantially increased our knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church and other confessions in Soviet Russia. However, most of that research has focused on Soviet religious policy and relies overwhelmingly on documentation from the state, party, and police—a voluminous, but biased source base. Those documents (including the famous “investigative files” in police archives) reveal more about Bolsheviks than believers and tell us very little about everyday religious practice. To explore the religious life at the local level, it is essential that we find a new complex of documentation. This article suggests one such set of materials: the newsfeeds and internal files of the American Catholic press agency, founded in 1920 with the task of making diocesan papers less parochial and more global—by gathering information from around the world. It is argued here that: (a) despite interwar “deglobalization,” this press agency transmitted information about religious life in the USSR that increased in volume and proved highly reliable; (b) those reports helped to trigger and sustain a Vatican shift from accommodation to anticommunism—a perspective that dominated American Catholicism well into the Cold War; (c) the press agency also demonstrated the counter-productive impact of Soviet anti-religious policies: the closing of churches and repression of clergy inexorably led to the laicization of religious practice that enabled popular Catholicism to survive in the Soviet era and to undergo a striking resurgence in post-Soviet Russia.

Keywords
Roman Catholic Church, Soviet Union, antireligious policies, repression, religious NEP, laicization, League of Militant Atheists
Received
16.10.2020
Date of publication
07.12.2020
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5
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102
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1 In recent decades, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and onset of the “religious turn,” specialists on the Soviet era have greatly expanded research on confessions, including Catholicism1. In the case of Catholicism, this scholarship has focused on Vatican-Moscow diplomacy and antireligious policy (repression of leading prelates and priests) and has drawn upon new archival materials, even police investigative files2. Whether the focus is diplomacy or repression, that scholarship has tended to concentrate on institutional Orthodoxy, not lay believers. That is no accident: study of everyday religious practice is exceedingly difficult because of a defective, skewed source base. Precisely because the regime disestablished religious organizations, historians have had to rely on documentation from the state, party, and police organs—all determined to extirpate “superstition” and hardly inclined to collect objective data on believers and their religious live3. So far, at least, the “religious turn” has raised important questions but provided few answers4.
1. Freeze G. L. Confessions in Imperial Russia: Analytical Overview of the Historiography // Былые годы. Vol. 29. 2016. P. 261-281; edem. Confessions in the Soviet Era: Analytical Overview of the Historiography // Russian History. Vol. 4. 2017. P. 1-24.

2. Токарева Е. С. Отношения СССР и Ватикана: от переговоров к разрыву. 1922-1929. М., 1998; Shkarovskiy M. History of the Roman Catholic Church in the Northwest of Russia in 1917—1941 According to Documents of the St. Petersburg Archives // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (access date: 15.07.2020); Римско-католическая церковь на Северо-Западе России в 1917-1945 гг. Ред. сост. М. В. Шкаровский, Н. Ю. Черепенина, А. К. Шикар. СПб., 1998; Осипова И. И. «Возлюбив Бога и следуя за Ним...» Гонения на русских католиков в СССР: по воспоминаниям и письмам монахин-доминиканок Абрикосовской общины и материалам следственных дел 1923-1949 гг. М., 1999; Осипова И. И. «Шпионы Ватикана...» О трагическом пути священников-миссионеров: воспоминания Пьетро-Леони, обзор материалов следственных дел. М., 2012; Wenger A. Catholiques en Russie d’aprés Archives du KGB 1920-1960. Paris, 1998; Pettinaroli L. La politique russe du Saint-Siège (1905-1939). Rome, 2015.

3. What historians once imagined to be the Holy Grail (access to police files) has not only become severely limited but very disappointing: the investigative files (sledstvennye dela) of the repressed proved highly unreliable if not a mine of disinformation. For a searing critique of the misuse of this source, see: Беглов А. Л. Прозелитизм среди мертвых: католическая пропаганда записывает в ряды приверженцев Римского престола расстрелянных православных епископов // НГ-религия. 11.VIII.1999. № 15 (38). С. 6.

4. For a general assessment of the historiography and source problems, see: Beglov A., Freeze G., Tokareva E. USSR, Russian Catholics and Vatican on the Eve of the II World War: Main Events and Research Directions // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (access date: 23.08.2020); Beglov A. L., Freeze G. L., Tokareva E. S., Beliakova N. Catholics in the Soviet Union: New Research and New Sources on Everyday Religious Life (1917–1958) // Catholic Historical Review. Vol. 106. 2020. Р. 477-489.
2 That traditional approach has yielded useful scholarship on institutional religion, but ignores the principal dynamic of laicization—that is, the growing role of ordinary believers in sustaining and shaping confessional life. Western scholarship has long since shifted the focus to believers, including those who “believe but do not belong,”5 as an antidote to the obsolete secularization paradigm that long prevailed. To broach this important problem of popular religion, historians must tap into new sources about and from ordinary believers.
5. Davie G. Religion in Britain: Believing without Belonging. Oxford, 1994.
3 This study examines one such source—the newsfeeds and archive of the Catholic press agency6. Founded by American Catholic bishops in 1920, it began as the press department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (N.C.W.C. ), with the charge to collect information about Catholicism around the world, including the Soviet Union. The primary mission was to provide a global perspective and enhance the appeal of diocesan newspapers, but N.C.W.C. soon began to provide material for Catholic and secular papers around the world. Its core audience, however, was American Catholicism, the largest denomination in America (with more than a third of all registered Church members, several times more than the next religious group)7. N.C.W.C. had full-time correspondents and “stringers” around the world. After the initial startup, when N.C.W.C. was able to provide elaborate reports on the Soviet Union (a central interest and the focus of the papal mission to assist the starving in the famine of 1921-23)8, it subsequently encountered the obstacles of interwar de-globalization, when political barriers and economic crisis impeded its ability to assemble and disseminate information. Drawing upon the agency’s archive of newsfeeds and administrative files9, this study argues that despite deglobalization, N.C.W.C. managed to find alternative sources and informal avenues of communication and produced a very well-informed picture of religious life in the USSR10 It also promoted a growing appreciation of the laity, who, given authoritarian antireligious campaigns and disestablishment of ecclesiastical organizations, became the primary bearer of Catholicism11.
6. For an institutional overview, see: Reilly M. J. A History of the Catholic Press Association 1911-1968. Metuchen, 1971.

7. The Census Bureau reported that the Catholic Church had 17,721,315 members in 1916; the next largest denomination was the Methodist Church, with 3,717,785 members. 20 years later, in 1936, the Bureau reported that the Catholic Church had grown to 19,914,937 members, representing 35.7 percent of all who self-identified as belonging to a religious organization // Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies: 1916. Washington (DC), 1919. P. 29-33; Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies: 1936. Washington (DC), 1941. P. 10, 20.

8. Freeze G. L. A New Source for Russian Religious History: The American Catholic Press, 1917-1924 // Новая и новейшая история. 2019. № 6. С. 65-84.

9. The administrative records of the National Catholic Welfare Council are preserved at the archive of the Catholic University of America (hereafter cited as CUA); the files are unpaginated, so references will indicate the specific document within a given file. The newsfeeds of N.C.W.C. (as printed documents, often with supplementary mimeographed materials), are online at the Catholic National Archive (hereafter CNA). URL: >>>> (access date: 15.07. 2020).

10. For the role of diplomatic missions in assisting the Church, see: Клибер Р. Австрийская дипломатия первой республики на службе интересов святого престола в Советском Союзе // Россия и Ватикан / Под ред. Е. С. Токаревой. М., 2007. С. 282-308.

11. For various reasons, scholars made little use of emigre publications before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There has been a significant attempt to tap into these materials relevant to the Russian Orthodox Church, see: Косик О. В. Голоса из России. Очерки истории сбора и передачи за границу информации о положении Церкви в СССР. 1920-е – начало 1930-х годов. М., 2011. Some researchers have explored émigré papers for issues in secular history. For example, see: Реброва М. А. Национальный вопрос в СССР в освещении меньшевистского журнала «Социалистический вестник», 1921-1965 гг. (Автореферат канд. дисс.). М., 2001.
4

Catholic Press Agency: Interwar Challenges

5 After some initial prewar attempts, in 1920 an association of American Catholic bishops established the Press Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council, with the goal being to serve the growing number of American Catholic newspapers12. From the outset N.C.W.C. was highly professional; it appointed a newspaperman as its director and hired lay journalists as correspondents in major cities around the world. Although N.C.W.C. had some financial support from American bishops, it relied mainly on revenues from a growing list of subscribers—which rose from 23 to 84 in its first decade, including a substantial share of foreign papers (from 0 to 22)13. The latter is in good measure explained by the global orientation: N.C.W.C. sought to overcome traditional parochialism (and exceptionalism) in the American Catholic press and to make it more aware of broader transnational and transconfessional developments. As the N.C.W.C. head explained to a foreign correspondent, “What we desire is information which will have an international interest,” not simply reflect some local event14. The weekly “news sheet” and supplementary mimeographs sent to subscribers were indeed international, as the headlines for any issue demonstrate.
12. Baumgartner A. Catholic Journalism: A Study of Its Development in the United States, 1789–1930. New York, 1967; Slawson D. J. The Foundation and First Decade of the National Catholic Welfare Council. Washington, 1992.

13. National Catholic Welfare Council, 10th Anniversary of the N.C.W.C. News Service // N.C.W.C. Review. Vol. 12. 1930. P. 6-13.

14. CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 38 (Justin McGrath to W. von Capitaine, 20.IX.1921).
6 No less revealing are the statistics on citations: they show an increase not only in absolute numbers, but also in diversity. A case study based on seven countries (China, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Russia, and the Vatican) shows a total increase in citations—from 12,119 (1920-29) to 19,266 (1930-1939). All these states, with the marginal exception of France, recorded an increase (for example, 55 percent for Russia and 90 percent for the Vatican). The citation data show that N.C.W.C. greatly increased the volume of global reporting, that it took particular interest in Mexico and China (areas directly relevant to the United States and Catholic missions), and that Russian reporting was but one segment of a broader transnational focus.
7 N.C.W.C.: Country Citations 1920-1939
Country 1920-1929 1930-1939
China 1,127 2,594
France 2,649 2,559
Germany 1,565 2,844
Great Britain 1,314 2,156
Italy 1,608 2,437
Mexico 2,147 3,443
Russia 1,001 1,552
Vatican 2,022 3,837
Source: Catholic News Archive: >>>> (access date 15 July 2020)
8 The citation statistics from the 1930s are impressive, all the more given the serious difficulties that N.C.W.C. had to face. One obvious problem was economic: the Great Depression brought an end to the growth of subscribers, thereby forcing N.C.W.C. to exercise general frugality and especially tighten its budget for foreign correspondents15. That was due not only to the fall in revenues16, but also to the depreciation of the dollar. As its chief editor explained in 1933, “it is simply impossible to consider sending more dollars to our foreign correspondents at this time” and referred specifically to the depreciation of the American dollar17.
15. In 1931 N.C.W.C. had thirteen staff at the central office, along with sixteen foreign correspondents—a number that would stagnate during the economic doldrums of the Thirties // CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 8 (Frank Hall to L. Guizeriz, 31 July 1931).

16. As the N.C.W.C. head complained in 1932, the depression had triggered the cancellation of some subscriptions, with inevitable impact on his organizations activities // CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 18 (Frank Hall to Elmondorff, 23.IX.1932).

17. Ibidem. (Frank Hall to Max Jorden, 11 May 1933).
9 Another problem was political: new authoritarian regimes, as in Soviet Russia and later in Nazi Germany18, sought to restrict and manipulate the flow of news. In the Russian case, authorities there came to regard the Catholic Church not as a prime interlocuter, but a prime adversary, and as a result N.C.W.C. —deprived of an official correspondent—instead was forced to rely on an anonymous source in Moscow. N.C.W.C. also resorted to codes whenever it sent communications over open channels. Matters were scarcely better in Germany, but N.C.W.C. did manage to retain a formal correspondent in Berlin. Revealingly, shortly after the Anschluß [German annexation in March 1938], the Nazis arrested the Vienna correspondent and sent him to the concentration camp in Dachau19. To compensate for the financial and political barriers, N.C.W.C. drew on Catholic and other media, chiefly in Europe and America. Its newsfeeds thus consisted of original reports from an unnamed correspondent in Moscow20, but also from other press services21, from Catholic and Protestant papers22, secular newspapers23, Russian émigré papers24, and the official Soviet press25. In some instances N.C.W.C. drew on letters from private Soviet citizens26, statements by American officials and academics27, and reports by recent travelers to the Soviet Union28. It also made use of diplomatic channels, as indeed did the Vatican29, to transmit documents and bypass Soviet control. N.C.W.C. also had some self-imposed constraints on what it might report about Vatican diplomacy30, In short, despite the economic and political hurdles, N.C.W.C. significantly expanded the volume of reports, even from the Soviet Union.
18. See: Tworek H. News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications 1910-1945. Cambridge (MA), 2019.

19. CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 18 (report by M. Massiani, the Paris Correspondent, dated 22.VIII.1938).

20. In a newsfeed from 1928, emanating from an unidentified “staff correspondent”, N.C.W.C. reported that “Russian Soviet Is Striking to Crush Out All Religion” (CNA. 3.XII.1928. P. 1 [Washington, 30.XI.1928]). Another newsfeed (“Oppression of People in Moscow Described”) carried a Moscow byline and description as “special correspondence” // CNA. 31.XII.1933. P. 8 (Moscow, 24.XII.1933).

21. For example, The Polish Catholic Press Agency, Katolicka Agencja Prasowa (KAP), as in a report from Warsaw in September 1935 // CNA. 30.IX.1935. P. 8 (Warsaw, 23.IX.1935).

22. Thus a report in 1933 cited the leading Lutheran paper, “Allgemeine Evangelisch-lutherische Kirchenzeitung” (CNA. 27.II.1933. P. 9 [Freiburg, 20.II.1933]). Another dispatch emanated from the leading Catholic daily in Berlin, “Germania” (CNA. 20.II.1933. P. 8 [Berlin, 13.II.1933]). Reports based on the Vatican newspaper, “Osservatore Romano”, were rare; an exception appeared in a N.C.W.C. newsfeed about the apostolic administrator in Zhitomir (CNA. 23.I.1928. P. 26 [Rome, 16.I.1928]).

23. In 1937 N.C.W.C. circulated an article, “Soviet Anti-Religious Campaign a Failure”, by the Moscow correspondent of the Cleveland “Plain Dealer” (CNA. 30.VIII.1937. P. 23 [Cleveland, 27.VIII.1937]). Another article (“135 of 137 Priests in Russia in Prison”). Dispatched by the Geneva correspondent on 6.III.1939, originated in “Der Ost-Express: Nachrichtendienst für Politik, Wissenschaft, Kultur”, a German news agency “specializing in Russian affairs” // CNA. 13.III.1939, P. 6 (Geneva, 6.III.1939).

24. For example, a report from Paris cited “Последние новости” (CNA. 10.XII.1934. P. 14 [Paris, 3.XII.1934). The N.C.W.C. correspondent in Vienna sent a dispatch about popular piety (“Religion Still Lives in Russia, Despite Tyranny”), based on the emigre paper “Vozrozhdenie” (CNA. 6.II.1928. P. 3 [Vienna, 30.I.1928]). The diocesan press, in turn, republished this material (for example, Witness, 9.II.1928. P. 2).

25. The references to “Pravda”, “Izvestiia”, and “Bezbozhnik” are countless // CNA. 31.XII.1928 (Moscow, 25.XII.1928).

26. CNA. 20.X.1934, P. 11 (London, 15.X.1934). In 1931 the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Berlin (Dr. W. Elmensdorff) cited a letter to Pope Pius XI from German Catholics in the Volga. CNA. 3.VIII.1931, p. 1 (Berlin, 27.VII.1931). In 1933 N.C.W.C. summarized a letter from a 70-year old Catholic (about the “suffering in Russia persecution”) that had been published in a Catholic daily in Germany (“Kölnische Volkszeitung”) // CNA. 5.VI.1933, P. 39 (Cologne, May 1929).

27. Citing Vatican sources, in late 1931 Edmund Walsh reported that, since 1917, the number of Catholic Churches had decreased by 70.4 percent (from 614 to 182) and priests by 86.5 percent (from 810 to 110) // CNA. 28.XII.1931, P. 35-36 (Minneapolis, 29.XII.1931). Walsh published the paper six months later: The Catholic Church in Present-Day Russia // Catholic Historical Review. Vol. 18 (1932). P. 177-204. Walsh was not the only academic to speak up: Sir Bernard Pares, regarded as a leading specialist on Russia, was the source of a report in 1930 (“Persecution Charges against Soviet Justified by Facts, Declares English Scholar”) disseminated by N.C.W.C. // CNA. 17.III.1930. P. 9-10 (London, 12.III.1930).

28. N.C.W.C., for example, relayed the report of a Protestant who had visited the Soviet for an extended visit: “Protestant Clergyman Warns Religious Leaders Communism Is Their Foe” // CAN. 8.II.1937. P. 42-43 (New York, 6.II.1937).

29. Becker W. Diplomats and Missionaries: The Role Played by the German Embassies in Moscow and Rome in the Relations between Russia and the Vatican from 1921 to 1929 // Catholic Historical Review. Vol. 92. 2006. P. 36-37; Tokareva E. S. Vatican and Catholics in Russia in 1920-1930: Communication Problems // Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 236. 2016. P. 379-384.

30. In a letter of 5 December 1933, the N.C.W.C. director, Frank Hall, explained to his Swiss correspondent that he had to discard “two thirds” a recent dispatch: “Any reference to the Vatican or things that happened or were told at the Vatican will be eliminated. There will be no mention of the supposed complaints at the Vatican about the Concordat [of 20 July 1933 with Germany]” // CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 38 (unpaginated; Frank Hall to Max Jordan, 5.XII.1933). Hall was responding to an earlier dispatch from Jordan, who (citing an unnamed but “the best imaginable source”) claimed that Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII) was eager to sign a concordat with Adolf Hitler (“who now may be considered the most moderate of the Nazi leaders, and that means something!”) // CUA. Collection 10. Box 18. File 18 (Max Jordan to Frank Hall, 26.VI.1933).
10

Religious NEP and Vatican Diplomacy

11 In the month following the Catholic show trial of March 1923, culminating in multiple prison sentences and an execution that elicited worldwide condemnation31, the Soviet regime suddenly sounded the call for retreat and adopted a “religious NEP” [New Economic Policy]. Party leaders concluded that, to enhance peasant support for NEP, it should avoid provoking hostility by an aggressive antireligious policy. Foreign opinion also played a role: reports of “religious persecution” generated hostile propaganda abroad and severely complicated the task of establishing “normal” diplomatic relations and attracting foreign investment32. The shift became official at the XII Party Congress (17-25 April 1923)—two years after the adoption of NEP; the party now sought to maximize propaganda and minimize persecution33. The regime was eager to emphasize the shift in policy, as in a statement from the Soviet consul who issued a visa to Michel d’Herbigny in September 1925: “Just as we had the new economic policy (the NEP), we are now practicing a new religious policy. We have observed that millions of men, the majority of the Russian people, are closely attached to religious ideas, and we have decided to cease the indirect struggle against these tendencies provided they do not serve as a cover for political agitations”34. The religious NEP, however, was as conflicted as other dimensions of NEP: it remained vulnerable to inconsistent directives from above and deviant implementation from below35. Still, the regime did reduce the scale of repression, notably in the numbers of clergy arrested36 and churches closed.
31. Freeze G. L. A New Source for Russian Religious History. P. 77-78.

32. On 8 May 1923 Great Britain announced the Curzon Ultimatum, citing religion as factor preventing relations with USSR. Walters Philip. A Survey of Soviet Religious Policy // Religious Policy in the Soviet Union / Ed. S. P. Ramet. Cambridge, 1993. P. 10.

33. The congress condemned excesses that were needlessly provocative: “It is necessary to avoid any offense to the feeling of believers, as that will only lead to reinforcing religious fanaticism. Deliberately crude methods, often practiced in the center and in the provinces, mockery of the objects of belief and the cult in lieu of a serious analysis and explanation will not accelerate, but impede the liberation of the toiling masses from religious prejudices.” Коммунистическая партия Советского Союза в резолюциях и решениях съездов, конференций и пленумов ЦК (1898-1986) / Под ред. А. Г. Егоровой, К. М. Боголюбовой. М., 1983-1990. Т. 3. С. 114-115.

34. State of Religion in Russia Vividly Shown by Priest. Rev. Michel d’Herbigny S. J. at the Pontifical Oriental Institute Makes an Interesting Study // CNA. 25.1.1926. P. 1 (Paris, 18.I.1926). For a more general study of d’Herbigny, see: Tretjakewitsch L. Bishop Michel d’Herbigny SJ and Russia. Würzburg, 1990. Pettinaroli L. Pio XI e Michel d’Herbigny: analisi di una relazione al vertice della Chiesa alla luce del materiale delle udienze pontificie (1923-1939) // Pius XI: Keywords. International Conference Milan 2009 / Eds. A. Guasco and R. Perin. Berlin, 2010. P. 279-297.

35. It proved difficult indeed to rein in anticlerical, antireligious zealots, who still leaned toward coercion. To cite a typical case (as reported by the OGPU in 1925): “In Radomysl’ and Korostynskii districts local authorities have conducted antireligious propaganda in a rather unique manner: carol singers who did not wish to disperse were beaten with rifles” // Государственный архив Житомирской области. Ф. r-85. Oп. 1. Д. 320. Л. 23 (OGPU report of 3.II.1925).

36. The clergy comprised a small proportion of those repressed in 1923-27—for example, 895 in 1925 (1.2 percent of the total 72,653 repressed). Мозохин О. Б. Право на репрессии. Внесудебные полномочия органов государственной безопасности. Статистические сведения о деятельности ВЧК-ОГПУ-НКВД-МГБ СССР (1918-1953). М., 2011. С. 373.
12 For its part, Vatican pursued a Realpolitik aimed at a modus vivendi with the Bolsheviks. No doubt, the Vatican sought to ease the plight of co-religionists in Russia and, impressed by the religious upsurge of the late 1920s, still dreamed of mass conversions and even reunion of Churches. But the prospects of a formal agreement had largely vanished, despite rumors to the contrary; in October 1929 Edmund Walsh S.J. issued a statement, apparently authorized by the Vatican, reiterating its commitment to the defense of Russian Catholics and explicitly affirming that “the Holy See has declined every offer, direct and indirect, of the Soviet Government to enter into negotiations until elementary justice is established in Russia, and the sanctity of individual rights as well as the inviolability of international law is guaranteed”37. In any case, the current diplomatic truce enabled some legerdemain aimed at rebuilding the Catholic organization in Russia. Most famously, in 1926 Pius XI established ten apostolic administrators (to replace diocesan structures) and dispatched d’Herbigny to consecrate a new set of prelates and rebuild a hierarchy decimated by arrests and deportations.
37. CNA. 14.X.1929. P. 4 (Washington, 8.X.1929). The Vatican too repeatedly had issued statements repudiating negotiations about recognition. See, for example, the N.C.W.C. dispatch with a declaration by the papal secretary of state that “there is not a single word of truth in the rumors that conversations are being held to prepare an agreement between the Soviet government of Russia and the Holy See” // CNA. 8.IV.1929. P. 31 (Rome, 8.IV.1929).
13 N.C.W.C. offered a balanced but increasingly critical picture of the “religious NEP”. Bitterness over the 1923 trial did no easily dissipate; in September 1924, for example, the N.C.W.C. correspondent at the Vatican reported that there was not a single Catholic bishop in Russia and warned that, because of the crisis in the Orthodox Church, the Soviets could now focus its repression on the Catholic Church38. N.C.W.C. subsequently summarized the optimistic report by d’Herbigny after his multiple trips to Russia in 1925-192739. But N.C.W.C. did not ignore the dark side—persisting reports that the regime made the establishment of new parishes almost impossible, did not permit seminaries to train new priests, and continued its assault on monasteries. Cases of individual arrest and incarceration received due attention40. N.C.W.C. also published a report that d’Herbigny sent to the Vatican, describing the pressure put on Catholic priests; Fr. Pie Neveu41, for example, had been subjected to twenty-six searches and interrogations. N.C.W.C. also emphasized the acute shortage of Catholic priests; in one city, it reported that only two priests remained to serve 30,000 believers in the last two open parishes42. A Russian emigre who had recently spent two months in Russia gave this dismal report: “My home parish still has its priest, but he is the only one left in the entire province.”43 Reports from Paris and Warsaw also emphasized the difficulties that the regime posed for the Catholic church44. Indeed, archival data show that the Catholic Church suffered disproportionately in terms of church closings: whereas the patriarchal and renovationist Orthodox churches actually increased (9.1 and 8.7 percent respectively in 1926-1928), Catholic churches decreased (12.3 percent)45. That was but a harbinger of the onslaught commencing in 1929.
38. CNA. 29.IX.1924. P. 1 (Rome, 15.IX.1924).

39. See the N.C.W.C. summary of publications by Msgr. d’Herbigny’s. - CNA. 30.V.1927. P. 1 (Paris, 23.V.1927).

40. Typical was the dispatch relating that the Catholic bishop of Kiev district had been convicted of various crimes and sentenced to ten years in prison // CNA. 30.I.1928. P. 36 (Moscow, 30.I.1928).

41. URL: >>>> (access date: 15.07.2020). Osipova I. The Mission of Bishop Pius Neve in the Eyes of the Soviet State. Based on the Materials of the Investigation Cases and the Letters of Bishop Pius Neve. 1923—1936 // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (access date: 15.07.2020).

42. CNA. 6.XII.1926. P. 23 (Paris, 24.XII.1926).

43. CNA. 3.XII.1928. P. 17 (Washington, 30.XI.1928).

44. CNA. 17.VIII.1925. P. 15-16 (Paris, 10.VIII.1925); CNA. 7.III.1927 (Warsaw, 27.II.1927).

45. Государственный архив Российской Федерации (далее - ГАРФ). Ф. 393. Оп. 2. Д. 1633. Л. 104.
14

Two Great Turns: Soviet Religious Policy and Vatican Diplomacy

15 In the late 1920s the Soviet regime became increasingly alarmed by evidence of resurgent piety and was clearly drawn to more decisive measure—on the religious front as in other spheres. Tensions had been steadily rising in 1927-1928, amidst evidence of a religious revival46, presaging the “great turn” (velikii perelom) of 1929. A Central Committee resolution of 24 January 1929 warned that the intensification of the class struggle had its counterpart “on the religious front, where one can see a surge in the activism of various religious organizations.” Despite claims that the godless had achieved “positive results”, the resolution admitted to serious shortcomings and the need for the party, Komsomol, and other organizations to join the battle against religion47. The critical turning point came a few months later, first in the famous decree of 8 April (requiring the re-registration of religious communities and providing the bureaucratic mechanism to close them), then in the second congress of the League of Godless (duly renamed League of Militant Godless) on 11-15 June 1929. The regime now declared war on religion. That meant an exponential growth in the organization of the godless (from 465.000 members in 1928 to 3.500.000 in 1931)48, the closing of nearly all religious communities, and the mass repression of clergy and believers (with religious arrests jumping from 832 in 1926 to 13.354 in 1930)49.
46. Фриз Г. Л. Вся власть приходам: возрождение православия в 1920-е годы // Государство, религия и церковь в России и за рубежом, 2012, № 3-4, с. 86-105; Freeze G. L. From Dechristianization to Laicization: State, Church, and Believers in Russia // Canadian Slavonic Papers. Vol. 57. 2015. P. 6-34.

47. ГАРФ. Ф. 5263. Оп. 2. Д. 7. Л. 1-2 («О мерах к усилению антирелигиозной работы»).

48. Васильева О. Ю. Русская Православная Церковь и коммунистическое государство 1917-1941: документы и фотоматериалы. М., 1996. С. 273.

49. Мозохин О. Б. Указ. соч. С. 399, 406.
16 The N.C.W.C. provided full and accurate coverage of the shift in Soviet religious policy. It did not come like a bolt from the blue; N.C.W.C. reported about growing Soviet disillusionment with the religious NEP and hints of a new hard line50. In late 1928, for example, N.C.W.C. noted that the regime had begun to cast the religious issue in class terms: Soviet organs, it reported, were now asserting that antisoviet groups like Nepmany and kulaks had taken control over religious organizations51. From 1929 the Catholic press agency made this radical shift in policy a central theme. Even before the Soviets issued the statute of 8 April 1929, the Catholic press carried a steady stream of reports about the curtailment of religious life and repression of selected clergy. Msgr. d’Herbigny, who had earlier been restrained in his comments, openly denounced the shift in policy and attracted considerable attention from N.C.W.C. 52. In January 1929 Neveu, installed as the titular bishop of Kitros and apostolic administrator in Moscow, wrote to d’Herbigny about the “painful and humiliating position of the Catholic bishop of Moscow”53. After the Soviet government promulgated the new law on religious communities on 8 April 1929, N.C.W.C. reported that the Soviets had launched a vigorous “war on religion” and made this a focal point of its reporting54. N.C.W.C. reported an address by Fr. Walsh in Brussels, where he urged the press “to continue the exposure of Soviet persecutions”55. Significantly, N.C.W.C. covered the repression not only of Catholicism, but of other faiths (as, for example, in a dispatch from Vienna about the razing of a historic Orthodox Church)56. An identified Moscow correspondent likewise reported the mass closure of churches in Tula and elsewhere57.
50. CNA. 9.7.1928. P. 1 (Riga, 2.VII.1928).

51. CNA. 31.12.1928. P. 3 (Moscow 25.12.1928).

52. D’Нerbigny M. The "Anti-God Front" in Soviet Russia since April 1929 // Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. Vol. 19. 1930. P. 1-10. N.C.W.C. coverage of his staunch critique included a front-page article // CNA. 18.VIII.1930. P. 1 (Paris, 11.VIII.1930). All this was part of a widespread international reaction. A German Jesuit, for instance, delivered a public address (with pictures of outrageous antireligious cartoons), which was then published: Schweigt P. Moskau gegen den Vatikan. Augsburg, 1930.

53. CNA. 4.III.1929. P. 17 (Paris, 25.II.1929).

54. CNA. 27.V.1929. P. 1 (Warsaw 20.V.1929).

55. CNA. 8.IX.1930. P. 2-3 (Brussels, 3.IX.1930).

56. CNA. 23.XII.1929. P. 17 (Vienna, 8.XII.1929).

57. CNA. 17.III.1930. P. 11-12 (Moscow, 10.III.1930).
17 The Soviet declaration of war on religion precipitated a parallel “great turn” in Vatican—from pursuit of a modus vivendi to open confrontation. A critical, public turning point was the “prayer crusade” proclaimed on 2 February 1930 by Pope Pius XI, who urged Christians everywhere to join in prayer on 19 March for believers of all faiths—the common target of Soviet persecution58. N.C.W.C. duly reported about a fierce editorial in Pravda, which ascribed the papal appeal to crude material interests and falsely denied that the Vatican had ever cared about the fate of other confessions59. The pope’s appeal, as N.C.W.C. emphasized, elicited widespread international support—for example, in the English press60, Anglican Church61, and Italian prss62). N.C.W.C. was indeed at pains to emphasize that “all faiths decry Soviet war on Russian churches”63. In America Edmund Walsh published a brochure (distributed to all parish priests in the country) and spoke widely in defense of the prayer crusade64. On 15 May 1931 Pius XI issued an encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (“In the Fortieth Year”), commemorating and expanding the Leo XIII’s famous Rerum novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change) of 15 May 189165. The new encyclical went further in elaborating Catholic social teachings and took issue with the basic tenets of communism.
58. For the most recent analysis, see: Beglov A. “Prayers Crusade” of 1930 and the Reaction to It in the USSR // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (access date: 23.08.2019).

59. CNA. 17.II.1930. P. 30 (N.C.W.C. correspondent in Moscow, dated 13.II.1930). The Soviets conducted their own counter-crusade abroad—as, for example, in an English text published in 1931: Imperialism and the Church Prepare War against USSR. Moscow, 1931. P. 34-36.

60. CNA. 17.II.1930. P. 64 (London, 11.II.1930).

61. Ibid. P. 1. (London, 14.II.1930).

62. CNA. 24.II.1930. P. 37 (Moscow, 17.II.1930).

63. CNA. 17.III.1930. P. 42 (New York, 15.III.1930).

64. Walsh E. A. Why Pope Pius XI Asked Prayers for Russia on March 19. Washington (DC), 1930. The booklet was published on 8 March in 25,000 copies and distributed to each priest in America // CNA. 10.III.1930. P. 24-25 (Washington, 8.III.1930). Walsh added appendices with sacrilegious cartoons and an annotated text of the 8 April 1929 decree that unleashed a massive assault on religious communities. His brochure attracted attention in the diocesan press; see, for example, the article in the Dubuque diocesan paper: Father Walsh: Pope’s Reasons for Asking Prayers for Christians in Russia // Witness, 13.III.1930. P. 3. Walsh also took issue with the “insinuation” of Walter Duranty, the “New York Times” correspondent in Moscow, that the prayer crusade was a response to the “success” of the first five-year plan: Pope’s Appeal on Russia Purely Spiritual, which was distributed by N.C.W.C. // CNA. 24.II.1930. P.15 (Washington, 14.II.1930).

65. For the official Vatican version in English, see: URL: >>>> (access date: 15.07.2020).
18 The Vatican’s categorical rejection of communism resonated well with American Catholics. Previously they had already been skeptical of the Vatican’s soft line on Moscow, partly because of the influence of Edmund Walsh (a fierce anti-Soviet), and partly because the Soviet anti-religious contagion seemed to have spread to America itself66. As anti-Catholicism gained momentum (for example, in the campaign to ban Catholic parochial schools and to mandate public education67), the Catholic press fought back and used the word “Soviet” as an incriminating pejorative. The domestic situation became especially dire with the Great Depression, which sharply reduced trade with the Soviet Union (from 114 million dollars in 1930 to just 12.5 million in 1932) and encouraged calls for diplomatic recognition as a way to revive trade68. N.C.W.C. fought back: it emphasized the menace of communist subversion69, warned of dire economic consequences (dumping of goods produced at a minimal wage and by slave labor70), and predicted that Soviet grain exports would necessarily aggravate the famine enveloping the Soviet Union71. But pro-recognition steadily gained momentum; a survey of 1,139 periodicals in 1933 showed that 63 percent favored recognition, 27 percent opposed, and the remaining 10 percent were undecided72. The newly elected F.D. Roosevelt initially claimed to be “neutral” on the question73, but in the fall of 1933 decided to cut the Gordian knot and established formal diplomatic relations on 17 November 1933. To sweeten this bitter pill, Roosevelt persuaded the Soviet foreign minister, Litvinov, to exchange letters guaranteeing the right of Americans to practice their faith while in the U.S.S.R74. The Catholic press nonetheless remained critical, emphasizing that recognition failed to bring the great economic benefits that had been promised75 and that any citation of Soviet laws was meaningless, since these have been broken with monotonous regularity”76.
66. For a detailed account of Walsh’s career and views, see: McNamara P. Edmund A. Walsh S. J., and Catholic Anti-Communism in the United States, 1917-1952 (PhD diss.), Catholic University of America, 2003; McNamara P. Catholic Cold War: Edmund A. Walsh S. J. and the Politics of American Catholic Anti-Catholicism. New York, 2005.

67. For headline-making battle over parochial, with the direct engagement of N.C.W.C., see: Shelley T. J. The Oregon School Case and the National Catholic Welfare Conference // Catholic Historical Review. Vol. 75. 1989. P. 439-457.

68. Gribble R. United States Recognition of Soviet Russia, 1917-1933: Church and State Responses // American Catholic Studies. Vol. 119. 2008. P. 34. See also: Filene P. G. Americans and the Soviet Experiment, 1917-1933. Cambridge (MA), 1967. P. 101-129.

69. CNA. 15.XI.1932. P. 3-4 (Brockton, Massachusetts, 15.XI.1932).

70. CNA. 12.I.1931. P. 27 (Washington, 12.I.1931); CNA. 13.IV.1931. P. 27 (Washington, 13.IV.1931).

71. CNA. 28.VIII.1933. P. 53 (Washington, 28.VIII.1933). A similar argument appeared in an editorial column published in a diocesan paper: Notebook by Observer // Witness, 1.VI.1933. P. 1.

72. Flynn G. Q. American Catholics And the Roosevelt Presidency, 1932-1936. Lexington, 1968. P. 95, 141.

73. Roosevelt’s equivocation did not fool Walsh. Describing Roosevelt’s position as “hazy”, Walsh sarcastically declared that Roosevelt “is probably the only intelligent male of voting age in the United States remaining in that condition of bucolic innocence” // CNA. 17.X.1932. P. 35 (no dateline).

74. For reports of the informal agreement (through an exchange of non-binding letters), see the texts and discussion in CNA. 18.XI.1933. P. 1-2 (Washington, 18.XI.1933). Some Catholics were nonetheless dissatisfied with Roosevelt’s agreement precisely because it failed to provide any real protection for “Soviet believers” // CNA. 19.III.1934. P. 19 (Milwaukee, 15.III.1934). Still, the agreement did enable the appointment of Americans to serve as resident Catholic priests and provide an important window on religious life in the capital.

75. CNA. 9.IV.1934. P. 46 (Washington, 9.IV.1934); CNA. 2.VII.1934. P. 45 (Washington, 2.VII.1934).

76. CNA. 4.XII.1933. P. 5-8 (no dateline). For the argument that the informal agreement on American religious rights in Russia had no grounding in international law, see: Brown P. M. The Recognition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics // American Journal of International Law. Vol. 27. 1933 P. 291.
19 Having lost the battle against recognition, N.C.W.C. turned its attention to the religious persecution that became overt Soviet policy77. Indicative of the change was d’Herbigny, who had sounded a moderate tone earlier, but now provided details of recent outrages—which N.C.W.C. then passed along to its transnational subscribers78. Walsh, widely regarded as the leading “expert” on the Soviet Union, was particularly active in disseminating reports about the intensification of religious persecution and appealed to the press to pursue the issue aggressively79. At the end of 1931 Walsh, drawing upon official data in the Vatican, reported the massive disestablishment of the Catholic Church in Russia between 1917 and 1931: from 614 to 182 churches, from 581 chapels to none, from 810 priests to 110, from seven seminaries to none, from eight to two bishops80. In October 1932 the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Berlin, Dr. E. Elmendorff, reported that the Soviets planned to close all but 20 Catholic churches in 1933 and thus leave most of the two million Soviet Catholics without pastoral care81. In 1932 N.C.W.C. also reported about of a “five-year-plan” for the total suppression of religion82. The press agency was eager to demonstrate that the antireligious campaign had little support, as demonstrated by the plummeting subscriptions to godless publications among Soviet German (by 50 percent in the first five months of 1932)83. By November 1933 the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Berlin cited Vatican sources as evidence that “there are still about 200 Catholic priests and three bishops in Russian captivity”84.
77. CNA. 26.5.1930. P. 12 (Geneva, 19.V.1930).

78. CNA. 18.VIII.1930. P. 1 (Paris, 11.VIII.1930).

79. CNA. 8.IX.1930. P. 2-3 (Brussels, 3.IX.1930).

80. CNA. 28.XII.1931. P. 35-36 (Minneapolis, 29.XII.1930 [sic]). The discrepancy the two dates is due to the fact that the Walsh article appeared in a mimeograph supplement and was embargoed for release until noon on 29 December.

81. CNA. 24.X.1932. P. 3 (Berlin, 17.X.1932).

82. CNA. 7.XI.1932. P. 15 (Paris, 31.X.1932).

83. CNA. 4.VII.1932. P. 1 (Vienna, 27.VI.1932).

84. CNA. 27.XI.1933. P. 33 (Berlin, 20.XI.1933).
20 As the Soviets stepped up the campaign to “dechurch and declericalize,” N.C.W.C. provided a steady stream of reports. The following are typical examples of its vigorous reporting, much from an unidentified “correspondent” in Moscow, and with attention not only to the plight of Catholics but adherents of other faiths as well:
21 The expulsion of the famous Dominican, Father Amoudru, administrator of the church in Leningrad, has been a blow to his flock and has caused great anxiety among the Catholics of that city (Warsaw, 23 Sept. 1935)85.
85. CNA. 30.IX.1935. P. 8 (Warsaw, 23.IX.1935). Reference is to Jean-Baptiste Amoudru. URL: >>>> (access date: 15.VII.2020).
22 By order of Yezhov, all churches, synagogues [are] closed in Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Chita (Riga, 26 July 1936)86.
86. CNA. 2.VIII.1937. P. 55 (Riga, 26.VII.1937).
23 In the village of Rosenthal, thirty km. away from Simferopol, the Catholic Church has been changed into a club and dance hall! (Berlin, 21.IX.1936)87.
87. CNA. 28.IX.1936. P. 23 (Berlin, 21.IX.1936).
24 To such lengths have the enemies of religion gone that there are hardly any churches left in Russia. In the important city of Kiev, for example, there are but two Orthodox churches still open. The two Catholic churches have been closed and their clergy imprisoned. (Moscow correspondent, 20 Sept. 1937)88.
88. CNA. 27.IX.1937. P. 7 (Moscow, 20.IX.1937).
25 In the September 1937 pre-election purge, there was an unprecedented number of arrests. Included in the number of Catholic priests arrested at that time were some who had been released after ten years’ exile in the White Sea region and the northern fisherie3s. Most of them were of German or Polish origin. (Moscow correspondent, 21 Nov. 1938)89.
89. CNA. 28.XI.1938. P. 1-2 (Moscow, 21.XI.1938).
26 There is but one active chaplain in the whole of White Russia. (Warsaw, 8 Nov. 1937)90.
90. CNA. 15.XI.1937. P. 39 (Warsaw, 8.XI.1937).
27 Up to the middle of 1936, according to the statistics of the Soviets, 42,800 priests had been “liquidated.” The same year, 800 priests were tried, 102 of this number being executed and the remainder banished. Of the 810 Catholic priests and eight bishops in Russia in 1917, only 10 are at liberty. The rest have been killed, banished to Siberia, or expelled. Of the 200 Evangelical ministers in Russia in 1917, only four are still functioning. (Moscow, 20 Dec. 1937)91.
91. CNA. 27.XII.1937. P. 16 (Moscow, 20.XII.1937).
28 While most dispatches focused on a specific city or province, N.C.W.C. also attempted to tally the overall impact. In October 1937, for example, the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Moscow sent a detailed statistical report showing how little remained of the prerevolutionary Catholic Church92. The individual dispatches, coming from all across the Soviet Union, accompanied a trenchant critique of foreign apologists seeking to downplay the religious persecution. A dispatch of May 1936, for example, used a statement in the Soviet antireligious periodical Bezbozhnik to show that in fact it relied on the state, not society, for its funding93. The Moscow correspondent showed a solid familiarity with Soviet methods by identifying the main weapons against religion: “taxation, moral violence, ‘popular vote’, and the imposition of unnecessary repairs”94. When some cited the 1936 Stalin constitution as evidence of religious freedom, the Moscow correspondent posted an article entitled “New Constitution of Russia Actually Spurs Persecution,” emphasizing that the constitution gave no new rights to believers and merely affirmed the “freedom of anti-religious propaganda is recognized for all citizens”95. In another article attacking defenders of the 1936 Constitution, N.C.W.C. reported that the regime had eliminated virtually “all external manifestations of religion”96. In October 1936 an N.C.W.C. report from Moscow cited the Soviet press and laws to demonstrate the magnitude of the “campaign to eradicate religion”97. The Catholic agency was particularly critical of attempts by pro-Soviet sympathizers to defend the 1936 “Stalin Constitution” and emphasized that it only “gives full protection to anti-religious propaganda”98. A later dispatch argued that the Constitution actually legitimized and intensified antireligious persecution99. The Catholic press castigated those who portrayed Russia as an earthly paradise and pulled no punches in denouncing “the American intelligentsia, radicals, liberals, pinks, red left-wingers generally”100. N.C.W.C. ’s global perspective also disposed it to see the Soviet “godless movement” as more than a Russian problem, but rather as a threat to civilization—and confessions everywhere101. Such warnings proliferated in the 1920s, as in a report from Mexico in 1925 that this country was “imitating Soviet Russia in its persecutions” of clergy and believers102. In 1930, for example, the agency distributed the complaint of a British prelate that Soviet propaganda was in fact driving the campaign to repeal blasphemy laws103 and warned “against the spread of atheistic poison in the United States”104. N.C.W.C. issued a plethora of similar warnings about atheist movements in other countries, such as France105, Mexico106, and Spain107. In 1936 it reported a speech in London by the venerable d’Herbigny—who had once commented favorably about the religious NEP—that the “red menace [is] spreading” and that “no country [is] safe”108. In late 1938 the NCWS correspondent in Moscow reported the growth of godless organizations in the United States and cited Soviet propaganda calling the Vatican a “supporter of fascism”109.
92. CNA. 28.X.1935. P. 47-48 (Moscow, 21.X.1935). Official records confirm these dire numbers. For Mogilev - Minsk diocese, the number of Catholic churches had fallen from 296 in 1926 to a mere 2 by 1940. Zugger C. L. The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin. Syracuse, 2001. P. 257. But the plight of other confessions was scarcely any better. In the RSFSR, for example, there were 22.676 religious associations in 1933, but only 1.700 still existed by 1940-41. Макаров Ю. Н. Русская православная церковь в условиях советской действительности (1917 г. - конец 1930-х гг.). Краснодар, 2005. С. 289.

93. CNA. 25.V.1936. P. 6 (Moscow, 18.V.1936).

94. CNA. 18.V.1936. P. 1-2 (Moscow, 8.V.1936).

95. CNA. 19.X.1936. P. 8 (Moscow, 12.X.1936).

96. CNA. 28.XI.1938. P. 1-2 (Moscow, 21.XI.1938).

97. CNA. 5.X.1936. P. 8 (Moscow, 28.IX.1936).

98. CNA. 12.X.1936. P. 10 (Moscow, 5.X.1936).

99. CNA. 19.X.1936. P. 9 (Moscow, 12.X.1936). See also CNA. 29.III.1937. P. 5 (Moscow, 22.III.1937).

100. Witness, 10.IX.1936. P. 4.

101. Tokareva E. The Comintern and the International of the Proletarian Freethinkers in the Struggle against Religion and the Vatican // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (access date: 23.08.2019).

102. CNA. 7.IX.1925. P. 2 (Mexico, 1.IX.1925).

103. CNA. 10.III.1930. P. 17 (London, 1.III.1930).

104. CNA. 24.III.1930. P. 10-11 (Washington, 21.III.1930).

105. CNA. 24.IX.1934. P. 28 (Paris, 17.IX.1934).

106. CNA. 19.XI.1934. P. 59 (Washington, 19.XI.1934). Another dispatch in 1935 quoted an American congressman who castigated Mexican communism as “Moscowism, bloody and unadorned.” CNA. 29.IV.1935. P. 33 (Washington, 26.IV.1935).

107. CNA. 3.VIII.1936. P. 49 (no dateline).

108. CNA. 13.IV.1936. P. 4 (London, 6.IV.1936).

109. CNA. 26.XII.1938. P. 12 (Moscow, 12.XII.1938).
29 All this formed the background for the papal encyclical Divini Redemptoris (“Of the Divine Redeemer”), issued on 19 March 1937110. Going much further than Quadragesimo Anno of 1931, the new encyclical anathematized “bolshevistic and atheistic Communism” and warned that it “aims at upsetting the social order and at undermining the very foundations of Christian civilization”111. According to an N.C.W.C. report from Riga, Moscow directed its mass media to ignore “the communism encyclical” 112. That did not prevent, however, a new wave of anti-Catholic invective. As the N.C.W.C. correspondent reported from Moscow: “And now comes renewed, intense and violent slander of the clergy in general and of the Catholic Church in particular, special mention being made of the Holy Father, openly styled a spy who is working in the employment of the Fascists”113. In December 1938 the agency’s Moscow correspondent reported that the League of Militant Atheists (LMA) was training “propagandists to fight the Church’s Mission Work” and it systematically demonized the Catholic Church to be the world’s chief counter-revolutionary114. The head of LMA, Iaroslavskii, likewise described the pope as “the chief foe of atheism” and as a prime leader “of all movements directed against the Soviet Union”.115
110. Chenaux P. Condemnation of Soviet Communism // Istoriya. 2018. Vol. 9. Issue 4 (68). URL: >>>> (accessed date: 23.08.2020).

111. See the full text in: URL: >>>> (access dаtе: 15.07.2020).

112. CNA. 29.XI.1937. P. 38 (Riga, 22.XI.1937). The decision to ignore the encyclical reflected the Realpolitik that later inspired Stalin’s derisive comment (in response to W. Churchill’s suggestion that the pope be conciliated): “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Cited from 13 May 1935 by Churchill W. S. The Gathering Storm. New York, 1985. P. 121.

113. CNA. 17.X.1937. P. 46 (Moscow, 4.X.1937).

114. CNA. 12.XII.1938. P. 6 (Moscow, 5.XII.1938).

115. CNA. 3.III.1939. P. 9 (Moscow, 28.II.1939).
30

Persecution and Piety

31 Even as N.C.W.C. rang the alarm about the Soviet godless movement abroad, it drew an increasingly negative assessment of the LMA. The latter had boasted in 1936 of having 5 million members116, but the following year N.C.W.C. gleefully quoted Pravda and Izvestiia about a recent plunge in membership (from 5 million to 2 million), along with criticism of LMA officials “who do not only lack complete understanding of anti-religious propaganda but who are simply half-literate.” The result, complained party leaders, was that “in the villages religious propaganda is stronger than ours”117. N.C.W.C. offered a steady stream of such reports based on official sources118. In August 1937, for example, the Moscow correspondent sent a dispatch about M.I. Kalinin’s letter in Izvestiia, castigating “the failure of Soviet Godless to check the spread of religion”119. The Moscow correspondent also offered specific instances where public support for the godless was embarrassingly negligible; in April 1938, for example, the correspondent reported that LMA had reserved an auditorium to hold 800 people, but only 100 showed up120. Nor was there much interest in antireligious propaganda. That was apparent in a dispatch from the Moscow correspondent in July 1939 reporting that “anti-religious publishers show a huge deficit” of 4.5 million rubles121.
116. For a report based on official Soviet press // CNA. 20.IV.1936. P. 5 (Berlin, 13.IV.1936).

117. CNA. 7.VI.1937. P. 14-15 (Moscow, 31.V.1937).

118. CNA. 17.V.1937. P. 39 (Moscow, 10.V.1937); CNA. 20.IX.1937. P. 12 (Moscow, 13.IX.1937). LMA woefully fell short of anticipated growth: instead of its 1932 plan for 22 million, by 1938 it had only 2 million; Васильева О. Ю. Указ. соч. С. 273.

119. CNA. 2.VIII.1937. P. 26-27 (Moscow, 26.VII.1937).

120. CNA. 4.IV.1938. P. 10-11 (Moscow, 28.III.1938).

121. CNA. 10.VII.1939. P. 34 (Moscow, 3.VII.1939).
32 Official statistics only confirmed the failure of the LMA and the tenacity of popular piety. In October 1933, for example, N.C.W.C. summarized a Iaroslavskii speech conceding that only 18 percent of the peasants were “actually opposed to religion,” that 90 percent in one province still possessed icons, that few visited the antireligious museums122. The well-informed N.C.W.C. was quick to report that the “Stalin” constitution of 1936, with its rhetoric about religious freedoms, had inadvertently unleashed a torrent of demands by believers to return the churches and clergy. For example, Izvestiia openly complained that “the activity of churchmen has become remarkably active” and specifically noted a tendency to cite the Constitution to justify their demands123. The 1937 census also emerged as evidence of popular piety: suppressed at the time, the census revealed that 57.1 percent of adults self-identified as believers—even after twenty years of propaganda and repression124. N.C.W.C. coverage of the census is particularly interesting. It initially dismissed the census was rigged to present false data: “In view of the persecution to which religion has been and is being subjected, it cannot be hoped that the statistics on religion obtained through this census will present anything like the true picture”125. Within two months of the census, however, the Moscow correspondent for N.C.W.C. had already learned that authorities were waging a “vicious campaign” to twist the data into a favorable outcome, a tacit admission that the census had actually shown antireligious propaganda and persecution to be a huge failure126. By year’s end, after authorities pronounced the census “faulty,” N.C.W.C. emphasized the shocking implications: “There is a widespread belief that the census was declared ‘faulty’ after it had revealed a surprisingly large number of people still professed their belief in God despite the cruel and terrific pressure put upon them”127. Other data confirmed this picture of persisting popular piety. In February 1938, for example, LMA admitted that 75 percent of the children in Kiev had crucifixes, and that the churches of Moscow and Leningrad were crowded at the last Christmas128. In the short term, at least, all this only intensified the regime’s determination to eliminate churches, clergy, and lay activists. As the Moscow correspondent wrote in March 1938: “Now that the Government realizes that there is a very disturbing number of believers still in existence in the U.S.S.R., and especially since the promulgation of the ‘new’ Constitution, a concerted effort is being made to end once and for all the ‘remnants of religious prejudices’”129.
122. CNA. 9.X.1933. P. 11 (Berlin, 2.X.1933).

123. CNA. 7.VI.1937. P. 14-15 (Moscow, 31.V.1937).

124. Всесоюзная перепись населения 1937 г.: краткие итоги / Ред. Ю. А. Поляков, составители Н. А. Араповец, В. Б. Жиромская, И. Н. Киселев. М., 1991. Всесоюзная перепись населения 1937 года: общие итоги. Сборник документов и материалов / Сост. Ю. А. Поляков, В. Б. Жиромская. М., 2007. См. также: Казьмина О. Е. Вопрос о религиозной принадлежности в переписях населения России и СССР // Этнографическое обозрение. 1997. № 5. С. 156-61; Жиромская Б. В. Религиозность народа в 1937 году // Исторический вестник. 2000. № 5. URL: >>>> (дата обращения: 15.07.2020).

125. CNA. 1.III.1937. P. 32 (Moscow, 20.II.1937).

126. CNA. 3.IV.1937. P. 9 (Moscow, 29.III.1937).

127. CNA. 20.XII.1937. P. 55 (no dateline).

128. CNA. 14.II.1938. P. 12 (Moscow, 7.II.1938).

129. CNA. 28.III.1938. P. 33 (Moscow, 21.III.1938).
33 Not only official statistics but individual reports confirmed the tenacity of popular piety. In August 1937, for instance, N.C.W.C. cited interviews by an Italian correspondent confirming “a resurrection of religious life and sentiment in Red Russia.” Of particular interest was his account of the catacomb church, confirming that “the people in general are not interested in anti-religious propaganda,” and that, despite “this systematic disorganization of religious groups,” religious sentiment persisted130. In early 1939 the Moscow correspondent sent a dispatch summarizing a recent brochure by a leading LMA propagandist, F.M. Putintsev, confirming that “there is still widespread practice of religion in Russia”131.
130. CNA. 28.XI.1938. P. 1. (Moscow, 21.XI.1938).

131. CNA. 24.IV.1939. P. 10 (Moscow, 17.IV.1939).
34 The Soviet regime may have decimated organized religion, but not popular religion: in the absence of clergy and churches, the laity took charge—in effect, the “church” (parish) became the “Church.” Reports on that appeared early and steadily proliferated. In December 1933, for example, the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Brussels relayed reports about a “priest-pilgrim” phenomenon and concluded that “the closing of churches is not the end of religion”132. Reports about unregistered religious communities sharply increased in the second half of the decade. In August 1937, for example, an Italian journalist133 – after interviewing a long-time resident in Russia – reported “a resurrection of religious life and sentiment in Red Russia” and drew particular attention to “clandestine churches” that have shown “an increase all over Russia” as “itinerant priests go from church to church, dressed as laborers.” And wherever they go, these itinerant priests “are well received and treated as friends.” Itinerant priests include Orthodox clergy “who are still at large or have escaped death.” When no such priest is available, the laity assumed the priestly role: in such cases, “a peasant reads the Holy Scriptures and prays in the name of all present for peace and security”134. Such accounts continued to proliferate135. A letter from Russia, published in a Catholic newspaper in Mainz, explained how the seven-day workweek (eliminating Sunday as a day of rest) had caused a shift in liturgical practices (communion in the evening), and how closing so many parishes had made the remaining churches even more impressively crowded and attracted many youth as well136.
132. CNA. 25.XII.1933. P. 1-2 (Brussels, 18.XII.1933).

133. Luigi Barzini was a journalist at a newspaper in Milan, “Corriere della Sera”; the N.C.W.C. correspondent in Rome summarized his report // CNA. 16.VIII.1937. P. 8-9 (Rome, 9.VIII.1937).

134. CNA. 16.VIII.1937. P. 8-9 (Rome, 9.VIII.1937).

135. Christians of Russia Lead “Catacomb’ Life” // CNA. 1.V.1939. P. 10 (Warsaw, 24.IV.1939); Secret Convent Found in Moscow, Liquidated // CNA. 29.IV.1939. P. 5 (Moscow, 24.IV.1939); Female of the Species More Obstinate than Male // CNA. 3.VII.1939. P. 4 (Moscow, 26.VI.1939).

136. CNA. 30.IV.1934. P. 12 (Berlin, 23.IV.1934).
35 In effect, the general pattern of “dechurching”—shift from organized to private religious praxis—was well underway in Russia as well. But the dynamics were radically different: whereas general social and cultural processes drove this process in the West, an antireligious regime was the main driver in Russia: by repressing clergy and closing churches, the Soviet regime de facto handed all responsibility and power to the laity. And it was precisely the latter who sustained religious life over the next several decades and provided the underground base for the religious revival in post-Soviet Russia.
36

Conclusions

37 Given the deficiencies in official documentation about religious life in the Soviet era, it is essential to identify and analyze alternative sources. Among those are the files held in institutional and private archives in the West—in the case of the Catholic Church, an array of repositories throughout Europe and America. But is also important to exploit the materials generated by the “communications revolution” of globalization, which grew exponentially in scale and significantly improved the quality of information (including that relevant to Catholicism in the Soviet Union). While the press itself can be a valuable source, this paper has suggested the potential of using an engine of journalistic globalization—the Catholic press agency, above all its raw “news feeds” (composites for newspapers in America and around the world) along with its administrative records. Despite all the attempts by the Soviet regime to regulate and restrict the transmission of news abroad, it was really a huge sieve—leaking reports and letters through a variety of channels and to multiple targets abroad. That was especially true in the case of so transnational a confession as Catholicism; not only the Vatican, but adherents all across Europe and America received a flow of accurate reporting. The news was not only increasing in quantity, and improving in quality, but gave ever greater attention to believers themselves. Precisely because the repressive tactics eliminated institutions and repressed so many clergy, the laity became the repository and defender of Catholicism. Anti-religious policies, in effect, proved effective in dismantling official Catholicism, but inadvertently empowered and legitimized popular Catholicism.

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