100 Years After the Bolshevik Revolution: Bolshevik Famines and Theology


Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv, Ukraine

“The teacher placed an icon of Christ next to a picture of Stalin on the table and told us to pray ‘Our Father’. After we finished, there was a period of silence, and nothing happened. Then the teacher told us to ask Father Stalin for our ‘daily bread’. After we finished, the door opened and there was bread for all of us.” As relayed to me by my grandfather, Protopresbyter Nicholas Metulynsky

2017 delivered the gift of 500 years of Reformation, and we have had an opportunity to reflect on what has happened and what needs to be done. 2017 also brings us another commemoration: the centennial of the October Revolution. It seems fitting that the Russian Orthodox Church had prepared for a local council for a period of several years, and this council finally convened in 1917. The Moscow Council would be celebrated as a reforming council, and the story is interrupted by the brutality of the Revolution and the chaos it unleased throughout the former Russian Empire.
Many good things can be said and written about the 1917 council, especially its gift of conciliarity to the Orthodox Church, a gift the global Church is still pondering and deliberating, as it has not been completely received or implemented. Today, I will present the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution by reflecting on two inhumane crimes committed by Lenin, Stalin, and their associates: the purging of the Church and the starvation of the people.

I have recently been reading Anne Applebaum’s magisterial account of the Bolshevik regime’s literal starvation of Ukrainians in the Soviet’s Union’s attempt to subsume Ukraine into the new empire and flush away all aspirations of private ownership and independent statehood. Reading Applebaum’s account is like watching an epic battle scene filled with drama and bloodshed: you cannot look away despite the horror of the account and the emotions that come with viewing death, loss, and evil hatred of a group of people. Applebaum’s account resonates with me because my grandparents all survived the Soviet purges and starvation campaign, namely the one called the Holodomor (murder through starvation) ordered by Stalin in 1932-33.

In the everyday life of the people, even after the Revolution, participation in Church was vibrant. We have plenty of information on the liturgical history of this period, but the domestic dimension of Church life was strong among the people as well. The Bolshevik war was not waged against the Tsarist regime and the Church only: it was a war waged on the people, designed to coerce everyone—intelligentsia, clergy, urban workers, and peasants—to join an international war against capitalism by establishing a communist society. Each ideological alternative was to be eradicated by eliminating opponents to Bolshevism. Murdering the Tsar and the royal family was only one step of the brutal process: clergy were viewed as the Tsar’s allies, so their removal was necessary.

Establishing a Communist society proved to be challenging, since peasant farmers that owned private land resisted absorption into communal state farms. The creation of state collective farms involved a fierce internal war between so-called “kulaks” and the representatives of the state. Collectivization and dekulakization resulted in a fierce war between the people and local officials who seized property and personal possessions, including stored grain and food, forcibly closed churches, which involved the destruction of vessels, icons, relics, and bells, and arrested and executed local clergy, teachers, and anyone who could be labelled as an enemy of “the people.”

Applebaum presents the details of this ongoing war that raged between lower to middle class people and the state, with meticulous attention to the ramifications of forcibly displacing people and assembling them into hastily arranged collective farms with deficient tools and equipment, only to weigh them down with the expectations of record harvests to generate economic stability. Severe shortages of food in the cities heightened both the unrealistic expectations on the people and the pressure exerted on them by the state. Suffering from displacement, persecution, drought, and hunger, the people failed to reach the harvest objectives, and from 1932-33, Stalin authorized the removal of all grain, produce, livestock, and food from rural Ukraine to place his proverbial boot on the throat of the people. Scholars now estimate that 4-5 million people died from the Holodomor.

Applebaum notes that the state lumped everyone who could be deemed as an opponent of the Bolshevik agenda in the category of “kulak.” The only hope for a new utopian communist humanity to emerge from the mass graves of those who starved was to erase the entirety of the people’s identity. Since their lives revolved around regular participation in Church life, especially its feasts, seminaries were closed, churches converted into public buildings, clergy and theologians executed or forced to take up new work as laborers, and customs and feasts replaced by civil holidays (e.g., May 1 becomes the new societal focal point of spring instead of Pascha). Soviet ideology became civil religion. Teachers reinforced the idea that an invisible God could not produce bread for hungry children, but Stalin could.

Applebaum demonstrates that the Holodomor was not an isolated incident in an otherwise benign period of Soviet history. The Holodomor was an act of genocide that was part of an elongated campaign designed to create a new society that would defeat global capitalism. Reprogramming the people who had lived in that society for centuries involved the annihilation of their identities, beliefs, customs, traditions, and possessions.

Millions of people suffered and were murdered by the Soviet regime, and not only Ukrainians. The Bolshevik purge crushed Russians, Belarusians, Tatars, Khazars, Georgians, Poles, Germans, and many other peoples. I focused on the Holodomor in Ukraine because all four of my grandparents survived it, and two of the four shared their stories with me. I find Applebaum’s account to be haunting because her narrative is essentially an elaboration of my family’s stories.

A Theology of the Holodomor?

Christianity honors Christ’s death as the necessary defeat of death itself, leading to his resurrection, which is promised to humankind. Each Christian nation solemnly commemorates its martyrs: presumably, the martyr’s confession of Christ in defiance of apostasy is an occasion for joy, and not sorrow, especially since the Church teaches that the martyrs join the chorus of saints and pray for us at God’s throne.

In our age of anger and violence, we are too familiar with the broken lives created by human exploitation, persecution, and murder. In 2015, I attended a symposium in Olomouc, Czech Republic, and heard a presentation by a Polish scholar who was profiling the fate of Syrian Christians. He presented the lives of survivors and the conditions they endured, with large families crammed into tiny quarters with limited supplies of food and clean water. The homes provided by an international Catholic charitable organization had no windows for viewing green grass or a landscape of trees, and maintaining sanitary conditions was a serious concern with so many people sharing closed quarters and common bathrooms. The Catholic officials were trying to work up a budget to form a curriculum for the children. It seemed that they were just trying to give these people a chance at living, with no guarantee of success, however one defines it.

Learning about the plight of Syrian Christian refugees reminded me of the stories shared by my grandparents. During the Holodomor of 1932-33, they suffered from hunger, and survived, only to find themselves as displaced persons after World War II, arriving in the United States with no knowledge of English and education that could not translate to immediate work here (my grandmother was a specialist in the Ukrainian and Russian languages and my grandfather was a graduate of a teacher’s institute). Somehow, they scraped and survived, and they claimed that they flourished in a place of freedom, even though I always sensed that they lived on the edge of poverty.

I did not starve; I did not see my father led away because he was an “enemy of the people,” guilty of having an education and literacy; I was not beaten by local officials; I was not shot during a war; I did not flee from the returning Red Army, desperately looking for my siblings; I was not refused entry to the local parish for Liturgy; I did not live in displaced person camps. I do not know their suffering—I can barely tolerate a cold or stomach ailment without taking an assortment of medications or seeking medical attention. All I have is the legacy they handed on to me: the stories of what they and their families endured, and their pride in making new lives outside of their native homeland.

Is it possible to develop a theology of human exploitation, of genocide? Is it appropriate? Surely, the memory of human catastrophes should galvanize people of all religions to promote human dignity and condemn leaders, regimes, and industries that systematically exploit, enslave, and murder human beings. Christians gather resources to provide housing and education for people who are affected by catastrophes, whether natural or orchestrated by people. We also know that human catastrophe tends to result in theodicy—why didn’t God intervene? Theodicy has emerged in the context of the Holodomor—more than one Ukrainian Church leader has remarked that God permitted the Holodomor as punishment for the people’s sins, because of their lack of faith. Many of the people violated in one way or another by the Soviet regime attributed its collapse to a mighty act of God. Numerous theologians in Russia and Ukraine celebrate the return of Church life, construction of Churches, opening of seminaries, publication of books, and baptisms as a real resurrection of the Church from the dead. I had the privilege of personally witnessing that resurrection when I visited Ukraine in 1993, and again in 2016. I wish that the Centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution would inaugurate an era of peace among the Churches in the former Soviet Union, to honor the freedom to assemble for worship shared by Christians there, despite their differences.

The zeal and hatred of the Soviet campaign against the people could be used as a tool to enhance the anger that fuels the polemics in the political contexts of countries finding their footing in the post-Soviet period, as the people struggle to embrace plurality and seek to remove corruption. The Bolshevik starvation of the people yields a fundamental theology that can be renewed in our time: food is God’s gift grown from holy ground. Humanity is holy, not a commodity to be exploited for ideological tyranny or economic triumphs. And, it is not enough to prayerfully commend the souls of the martyrs to God, or to memorialize the murder of Christians in a prayer of lament. These prayers must lead to a kind of resurrection embodied by the best examples of Christian life in the post-Soviet context. In many of these places, pastors are struggling to find ways to bring the people to Church: Church attendance is tepid, just as it is throughout the West. Any one of us can find something else to do on a Sunday or holiday, especially if it’s productive.

The memory of mass martyrdom via starvation can translate into the action belonging to the fundamental theology of God as the nourisher of our lives: thanksgiving. This is the fundamental reason to go to Church: to give thanks for the ground, the food, shelter, education, and the people who provide these things. To give thanks for employment and safety. To give thanks for the freedom to worship God. And finally, to give thanks for the memory of those whose witness led them to death, and whose memory contributes to the resurrection God gives us today and promises us tomorrow.

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  1. After having a delightful late luncheon with my wife and friends at the Dolphin Yam in Jerusalem I left them ( the ladies had left their veils at home) to make my way to the nearby Russian cathedral of the Holy Trinity for the evening service. I had expected only a few people to be there on a Saturday night. What was my surprise when I opened the door to a crowded church! Moreover it was full of activity. In two little kiosks at the back of the church nuns were collecting prayer lists and selling the occasional eikon. People were going around the church venerating eikons and lighting candles. In the chapels on both sides of the church priests were busily hearing confessions which continued throughout Evensong. As to Evensong it was served by an elegantly attired bishop accompanied by several clerics along with a sweet singing choir of nuns.

    The whole experience was enough to make an Anglo-Catholic look for the nearest camel to ride into a Rose Macaulay novel.

    Actually what was most impressive was the faith that brought so many away from the pleasures of a Jerusalem Saturday night to spend time with Christ, His Mother, and His Saints.

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