D. Ivon Jones
Source: The Communist Review, August 1922, Vol. 3, No. 4.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
ISYATIE is the Russian word for “extraction” or “appropriation,” we are told. In the minds of the monarchist clergy it stands just now for “robbery” and everything that is bad. For the revolution, which has been biding its time, has arrived at the church door and is demanding admission.
After the revolution, Tikhon, the Patriarch of the Church and faithful henchman of the Czarist régime, started off by hurling anathemas and excommunications at the Bolsheviks. The Church still stood like a mighty Greek column among the ruins of the autocracy. Its hold was strong on the masses. But the masses had received land, and prospects of bread and peace and freedom in the revolution. So some chose the revolution, the others said, “Neechevo,” and marched one day in the Church parade, and the next day in the Bolshevik demonstration.
The revolution was able to lay rough hands on property, but could not touch the God of Property, its heavenly witness, the Holy Church. Nevertheless, the forces being equal, both sides postponed the battle. Tikhon then made a show of blessing the Soviet régime. The Soviet confined itself to placing a stone inscription on the wall near the famous shrine of the Virgin, which said “Religion is the opium of the people.” And there the people have been going daily by the hundreds to kiss the sacred symbols.
The Communists are atheistic in their opinions on religion. The bourgeoisie, in the days of its revolutionary youth, gave a fleeting homage to the Goddess of Reason, and carried the discoveries of science to their cosmic conclusions. But the bourgeoisie was not the last revolutionary class. The proletariat was hard upon its heels, and the bourgeoisie, as Engels wittily remarked, threw away rationalism like a bad cigar. Only the industrial proletariat and its fighting advance guard, the Communist Party, is able to carry science into all realms, and can thus dispense with supernatural idols.
But the Communists know history. They have a special philosophy of history which enables them not only to read history aright, but to make history. And an example of the Communist method of interpreting and making history is to be seen in “Isyatie.”
The Communists have refrained from frontal attacks on the unsophisticated religious faith of the peasant-toiling masses. Religious faith has two sides, like patriotism. One side of it is a reflection of the primitive outlook of the peasant; the other side is created by the exploiters who organise these native beliefs in the interest of reaction.
But it all depends what class is in power to organise the unsophisticated beliefs of primitive minds. Engels somewhere contemplated the possibility of the Salvation Army being a revolutionary organisation, because of its literal interpretation of the gospels by its votaries. And was it not the slogans of John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible that inspired the revolt of the English serfs under John Ball and Wat Tyler in the 14th century, one of the most winsome revolutionary movements? The first step, therefore, during a revolution is not to impose upon the peasant masses and the toilers who are new from peasant life a psychology that is appropriate to the full fledged industrial proletarian; but to draw out the revolutionary conclusions from the human side of their primitive beliefs. Only the proletarian State Power can afford to do this, to give the Christian Gospels a free field among the backward classes, while at the same time combating religious superstitions by the lessons of science.
And so we have to-day meetings of poor priests in Communist Party offices, both for the organisation of “Isyatie” and also for the fight against the Tikhon and the counter-revolutionary “anti-Christian” hierarchy! Pro-Soviet bishops write messages in Pravda beginning with “Brothers and Sisters in Christ”! The Rote Fahne in Berlin has not come to that yet, such is the difference that the capture of power by the proletariat makes in the form of the struggle.
Tikhon, we said, paid lip service to the Soviet régime and waited; always, as it now apears, keeping in touch with the counter-revolution. The Russian Church possessed movable wealth in gold, silver and jewels of fabulous value. This was listed and taken note of in the early days of the Soviet régime. But it actually still remained in the hands of the Church hierarchy. With the coming of the new economic policy, and the advent of forms of credit and exchange into the Soviets’ economic life, this Church wealth was capable of becoming a source of great economic power for the counter-revolutionary priesthood. It would be a state within the proletarian state, a centre of counter-revolution inside the Soviet power.
But the Church itself was never a homogeneous unit. The appointment of Tikhon as Patriarch, before the war, instead of the Czar as head of the Church, was a concession to the democratic elements below. It is only natural to expect that numbers of the lower clergy should reflect the unsophisticated religious beliefs of the peasantry in their life and conduct. This primitive religion could not breathe under Czarism, owing to the ruthless dictatorship exercised by the hierarchy under protection of the Czar’s guns. But when these guns fell into the hands of the proletariat, and the poorer priests could join in the benefits of free discussion of Church reform and doctrine, then Tikhon might rave in vain, and the reformation of the Church was already begun; in fact, it was no longer the same Church.
It was inevitable that this freer atmosphere should produce a ferment of change. Under “normal” conditions that change might trace three lines of cleavage: the Church as a definite counter-revolutionary agent; the swan song of a chronically sick bourgeoisie, for ever getting born, and ever dying in the alien atmosphere of the Soviet Power; and the Church of the primitive peasant masses, Lutheran in doctrine and Church government.
But these old terms cannot quite fit. It was mentioned in a meeting of proletarian poets the other day that prayers are offered in some of the poorer Churches for “nash dorogoi tovarisch Lenin” (our dear Comrade Lenin) in the place once reserved for the Czar!
However, the great Volga famine came. And this has sealed the fate of the Church. We do not mean that it will cease to exist. History moves not always by sharp revolutions, but often by dimly melting processes of transfiguration. The early Christians did not destroy the heathen temples, but took possession of them. This is the historical method adopted by the Russian Communists towards the Church.
As the famine situation became more and more harrowing, the priests in the Volga region bethought them of the removable wealth of the Church, which had in times of plenty been drawn from the labour of the now starving peasants, and they began to talk about the crime of storing this wealth when bread could be bought by it for their hungry flocks. The Soviet Government was not long in responding with a decree ordering the appropriation of all the Church valuables of every description that were removable and which were not essential to the ritual of the Church. Patriarch Tikhon immediately denounced the decree and urged resistance to its execution. But the Soviet, although aware of this bold step it was taking, felt confident of the support of the toiling masses and peasantry and propertyless priests.
But this support was not secured without intense propaganda. This propaganda took the usual form of the coloured picture poster. These posters were marvels of direct appeal, and demonstrated how naive religious or patriotic beliefs, so often attacked in the abstract by Communists, can be used for, as well as against, the proletarian revolution, once the proletariat is in power.
These posters in the main took the form of appeals to the peasants’ primitive conceptions of Christianity. For instance, we had the picture of the early apostle worshipping in the woods under the stars of night, with tallow candle (not a golden one) to light the reading of the sacred word. Then there was that other poster, in two sections, which needed no explanation; one section shows the peasantry flocking with riches to the Church in times of prosperity, and the other shows the Church and its riches guarded by a dense row of well-fed black priests, indifferent and unmoved by the appeals of the starving millions who are falling and dying of hunger around them. Then there is the Volga victim, emaciated and bleeding, in the form of Christ with a crown of thorns.
“A trick!” say the enemies of the Soviet. It is not a trick of the Soviet, but a peculiar trick that history has of making even calamities do the scavenging work for a revolutionary class that is entering into power. The Soviet need only concern itself with exploiting the wealth of the Church to save the Volga millions in response to the call of the poorer clergy themselves. The wealth thus derived is variously estimated at tens of millions of gold roubles, some talk in higher denominations. In any event, the proceeds can only be slowly realised on the world market in exchange for food, and Isyatie in no way relieves us of the urgent duty of sending food NOW for starving Russia. 
In spite of the general acquiescence in Isyatie there have been collisions. It has unmasked the Church hierarchy as a counter-revolutionary organisation. It instigated riots in several provinces and one affray even, in Moscow, in which a Red Army man was killed by a stone hurled by a church zealot. Communists are selected for the work, and in the working-class areas volunteers are called for from the non-party workers, who readily respond. “After all,” these workers say, “if Ilytch says it is right it must be done” (the workers reverentially call Lenin by his father’s name). I passed a church one evening where Isyatie was in progress. A motor trolly was outside with a few Red Army men in attendance. There was a crowd, mainly of working men, and working women with shawls round their heads, quietly looking on and discussing the matter. In the centre of the crowd a hot discussion was going on, and one could hear the word “counter-revolution” very much bandied about. A big round-faced Red Army man pleaded with the people, “Comrades, you won’t see anything, only boxes, please go away comrades, there is really nothing to see.” Everybody agreed with the soldier’s heartfelt appeal, but everybody waited quietly to see the boxes. The soldier sadly returned to the doorstep to sit down and console with a gun. I tried to imagine a London policeman appealing to the people as comrades, and the sympathy of the people with the soldier, and the soldier with the working people was of more worth than all the “boxes.”
Out of the riots, public trials before the revolutionary tribunal took place, and the hand of Tikhon was clearly detected behind them. Sentences of death were pronounced, but this strong action produced no revulsion against Isyatie, but rather against Tikhon. The pro-Soviet leaders of the Church formed a deputation, not to plea but to demand from Tikhon the calling of an All-Russian Church Congress, and his immediate abdication pending the decisions of such Congress. Tikhon, overawed by the course of events obeyed. And so the arena is now set for the transformation of the Russian Church, marking another defeat for the counter-revolution. We are going to have the Diet of Worms repeated, with the roles of accuser and defender reversed; the Diet of Worms, “the second time as farce,” coming after, not before, the political revolution. For as the master loved to say, “whereas in the bourgeois revolutions the phrase is far greater than the substance, in the proletarian revolution the phrase lags a long way behind the substance.”