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World War Two and the Intersection of Soviet Anti-Religious and Foreign Policies in Soviet-Vatican Relations East of the Curzon Line (1941-46)

Although Article 124 of the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union ostensibly guaranteed “[f]reedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda,” the reality both before and after 1936 belied the ideas encoded in Soviet law.

Although Article 124 of the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union ostensibly guaranteed “[f]reedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda,” the reality both before and after 1936 belied the ideas encoded in Soviet law. Militant atheism, or the state-sanctioned assault against religious believers and institutions, including the looting and destruction of houses of worship and executions of priests, characterized Soviet antireligious policy of the 1920s and 1930s under both Lenin and Stalin.

Events during World War II – most notably the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the 1945 Yalta Conference – complicated the standing of religious institutions, including the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Roman Catholic Church relative to the Soviet state.

In a conversation with Reverend Stanislaus Orlemanski in May 1944, Stalin described the shift in Soviet anti-religious policy as follows: “The war eliminated the contradictions between the church and the state. The believers abandoned their positions of rebellion, and the Soviet government abandoned its own militant position toward the religion.”

Stalin, here, was likely referring to efforts of Metropolitan Sergey of the ROC to support the Soviet war effort after the German invasion in June 1941. Stalin’s claim that the Soviet government abandoned militant atheism because the ROC chose to advance the interests of the Soviet state reflects how Soviet antireligious policy under Stalin, at its core, was driven by an impetus to eliminate real and perceived political opposition.

Relations between the Soviet state and the Roman Catholic Church, however, were far more contentious than between the Soviet state and the ROC. Contrasted with the ROC – a local church led by a locally chosen head, the Metropolitan  – the Roman Catholic Church was a transnational church led by the Pope, whose authority transcended the boundaries of any one nation-state.[1] Stalin’s regime perceived the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church as more threatening because the Vatican was not subject to Soviet laws or governmental authority as was the ROC.

The Roman Catholic Church never hid its frustrations with the Soviet Union, to the extent that US cooperation with the Soviet Union became a point of contention with the Vatican well into the 1940s. In a July 13, 1944 memorandum about communism prepared for Pope Pius XII’s first audience with Myron C. Taylor (Roosevelt’s Personal Representative to the Pope), Pius XII recounted the persecution against the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union and continued anti-Catholic propaganda efforts by the Soviet state during the war.

The Pope expressed doubt in the success of any rapprochement with the Soviet Union on religious freedom in Polish territories east of the Curzon Line, including present day western Ukraine, whose population was predominantly Ukrainian Greek Catholic.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union did attempt to appear conciliatory towards the Pope with its Western allies, such as the United States. Historian Serhii Plokhy, in Religion and Nation in Modern Ukraine, argues that “[b]efore the Yalta Conference, Stalin was apparently looking for opportunities, if not to win the pope’s favour, then to neutralize the Vatican so that the Soviet Union could obtain approval from its Western allies for its territorial acquisitions in Eastern and Central Europe.”[2]

Stalin’s desire to cooperate with the Pope “in the struggle against the coercion and persecution of the Catholic Church” was evident in a statement by Rev. Stanislaw Orlemanski at a April 28, 1944 press conference. The Soviet government’s willingness to grant “a greater degree of recognition than heretofore accorded” to non-Orthodox religious groups was also cited in a July 5, 1944, Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Eastern European Affairs. Here the State Department wrote that although the Soviet government did “not indicate what policy will be pursued towards these groups, it does indicate that they will receive a greater degree of recognition than heretofore accorded, and is in line with the more tolerant attitude adopted towards religion since the outbreak of the Soviet-German war.”

The Soviet Union did tolerate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in 1944 because of the willingness of UGCC leadership, such as Metropolitan Josyf Slipyi, to help control the Ukrainian nationalist and anti-Soviet Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in western Ukraine.[3] The timing of the Soviet government’s liquidation of the UGCC in March 1945, after the Yalta Conference in February of 1945 suggests that both domestic and international power influenced Soviet antireligious policy.

The July 5 State Department Memorandum, however, highlights an ostensible contradiction between the idea of a “tolerant attitude” towards religion and the Soviet objectives that foreshadowed the Soviet state’s eventual liquidation of the UGCC.

The Memorandum also describes how “a distinction will be made in favor of the [Russian] Orthodox faith which has virtually been recognized as the State religion and unquestionably will be utilized in that guise as a political instrument of the Soviet State.” A letter written by Patriarch Alexei I of the ROC to Georgii Karpov, the head of the Council for the Affairs of the ROC (CAROC), on December 7, 1945, demonstrates this reality, recounting the ROC’s cooperation with CAROC in the liquidation, or, as Alexei describes, the “unification” of the UGCC with the ROC.

Moreover, Patriarch Alexei I’s detailed explanations of the necessary ecclesiastical considerations to legitimize the liquidation of the UGCC, including diocesan conventions to give the impression that UGCC priests “reunified” with the ROC willingly, display the extent of ROC-Soviet cooperation. The ideas in this letter became Soviet governmental policy in the March 1945 Karpov Memorandum, and the liquidation of the UGCC was completed at the 1946 L’viv Sobor.

The strategic deployment of the Russian Orthodox Church in a state-sanctioned liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in newly conquered territory conveys how Stalin utilized churches as political pawns to eliminate any legitimate counter to the Soviet state. His timing – waiting until the end of World War II and after the Yalta Conference to do so – also illustrates how the Soviet government projected religious tolerance to ensure continued Allied support at crucial junctures for Soviet diplomacy and the war effort.


[1] In Robert R. King, "Religion and Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe." Brigham Young University Studies 15, no. 3 (1975): 333. Accessed November 9, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43040567.

About the Author

Caroline Dunbar

Research Assistant, History and Public Policy Program

Caroline Dunbar is a fall 2020 staff intern for the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. She received her BA in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and Religion from Smith College.

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