Suppose the National Socialist Party still held a monopoly of power in Germany but now claimed to be pursuing "de-Hitlerization." The first question to ask such a party would clearly be, "How do you treat Jews?" The equivalent question for the Soviet Communist Party is, "How do you treat religious believers?"
Religion should be the key barometer for all Kremlin watchers who believe in freedom of conscience—not because theists deserve more rights than atheists or agnostics, but because they endure especially vicious persecution under Leninist regimes. Though the precise total will never be known, it is almost certain that more Christians have died for their faith at the behest of this one ideology than in the previous 19 centuries combined. Leninism preaches not mere indifference to religion, but militant hatred.
Furthermore, freedom of conscience is probably the most fundamental of all human rights. Governments that deny this right are denying the existence of any loyalties beyond politics; they are claiming jurisdiction over our very souls.
Russians will not be truly free until Moscow dismantles and repudiates such organs as the Council for Religious Affairs. In direct violation of Soviet claims about "separation of church and state," this body regulates almost every aspect of church life. It often blocks the opening of new parishes—even in villages hundreds of miles from the nearest church. Working with the KGB, it closely monitors individual priests and bishops, penalizing activities such as religious classes for children.
The laws enforced by the council may be summarized in one sentence: All organized religious activities are forbidden, except for formal worship services in state-registered churches. In essence these laws reduce Christianity and other religions to purely ceremonial "cults," barring evangelical or charitable activities beyond that role.
For most of the Soviet era, these laws have been vigorously enforced. The state has even gone beyond them in persecuting religion—for example, by barring believers from the most desirable jobs and educational opportunities, thus violating its own laws against discrimination. Though such discrimination is still common, the Gorbachev era has seen significant relaxation in other areas.
Most prisoners of conscience have now been released (though not formally rehabilitated). The secular media now frequently carry sympathetic stories about church life—even criticizing officials of the Council for Religious Affairs. About 2,000 Orthodox churches, seized by previous Soviet governments, have been allowed to reopen—though at least 50,000 more remain closed. Officials have announced the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, outlawed since 1946. In one especially striking reform, the government now openly encourages churches to provide volunteer workers for hospitals and nursing homes, violating its own laws against religious charities.
Welcome as such changes are, they have two glaring weaknesses. First, they depend entirely on the administrative discretion of Gorbachev and his appointees. As of this writing, the Stalin-era Law on Religious Associations is still on the books, and Russians are still not protected by anything like an enforceable bill of rights or common-law tradition. If Gorbachev is ousted by a hard-line faction—or if he decides to appease the hard-liners by reversing course—the recent concessions could be revoked overnight.
Second, even seemingly dramatic improvements can turn out to be meaningless in the topsy-turvy world of Soviet "legality." Given well-established precedent, it would not be surprising for the Supreme Soviet to proclaim that it is junking the Stalinist laws but for the actual behavior of the KGB and the Council for Religious Affairs to remain unchanged. That is precisely what happened when Moscow pledged adherence to the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.
For the last two years, Soviet officials have been telling human-rights activists that a new law guaranteeing freedom of conscience is on the way. Action has repeatedly been postponed, but Gorbachev has now raised the stakes by publicly reaffirming this pledge at his December meeting with Pope John Paul II. Early in 1990, a new law may finally be passed. Even if this law seems to meet Western standards of freedom, we should withhold our applause until we see whether and how it is enforced.
We should also be alert to more-subtle forms of antireligious repression. For example, the Council for Religious Affairs controls churches from within through its veto power over the selection of bishops and other leading members of the clergy. As long as the churches are led by people who owe their jobs to atheists, they can hardly be called "free."
If the Gorbachev regime truly wanted to unchain religious believers, it would abolish the Council for Religious Affairs completely. Instead, it has in some ways been moving in the opposite direction. The newly appointed chairman of the council, Yuri Khristoradonov, has an unsavory record as Communist Party leader in Gorky, where he fought efforts to increase the tiny number of functioning churches. And the KGB apparently now has a license to dispose of religious activists through mysterious "traffic accidents."
One independent journal, the Bulletin of the Christian Community, published by gulag veteran Aleksandr Ogorodnikov, has seen three of its staffers and associates die in such "accidents" since late 1988—including Ogorodnikov's brother. In November it lost its new computers and other printing equipment to armed robbers, who "escaped" without difficulty past the KGB agents who constantly monitor the Bulletin's office.
On questions such as religious freedom, Westerners have a built-in progressive bias. Observing that Russians enjoy greater liberty today than they did a few years ago, we tend to assume that further improvements are inevitable—mirroring the gradual development of tolerance and pluralism in our own countries. Most Russians are far more skeptical. They remember how Stalin relaxed, his antireligious policies during World War II to rally the nation against the German invaders but cracked down again once the crisis was past. We should not assume that we can predict the Soviet Union's future better than its own people can.
Lawrence A. Uzzell is a John M. Olin media fellow at the Hoover Institution.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Soviet Union: Church Politics".