Religious policy of USSR and Georgian SSR – regulations and restrictions

Destroy of the churches, mass killings of priests; and little more

Jamila Ibrahimova &Gulnar Salimova

Introduction to the past and current situations in religious issues in Georgia

Georgia is a country where the most of the population practices Orthodox Christianity. The faithful of Georgian Orthodox Church make up 83.9% of the population. Around 1% of the population belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, while about 3.9% follow the Armenian Apostolic. 9.9% of the population are Muslims. There is also a Jewish community in Tbilisi served by two synagogues.

In the first half of the 4th century Christianity was adopted as the state religion in Georgia. Christianity has been seen as a tool providing a strong sense of national identity. It helped to preserve a national Georgian identity.

Freedom of religion in Georgia is provided for by the constitution, laws, and policies. Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia provides for complete freedom of belief and religion.

The Russian Orthodox Church was deeply integrated into state during 1917 Revolution. This was one of the main or the most significant factor that contributed to the Bolshevik’s attitude to religion and the steps they took to control it.

The USSR was the first state to have, as an ideological objective, the elimination of religion and its replacement with universal atheism. The communist regime confiscated religious property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in schools.

State Atheism in the Soviet Union was known as gosateizm, and was based on the ideology of Marxism–Leninism. As the founder of the Soviet state, V. I. Lenin, put it:

Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.

Religion policy in USSR and Georgian SSR – regulations and restrictions

Destroy of the churches, mass killings of priests; and little more

Irakli Khvadagiani, researcher at Soviet Past Research Laboratory

In the beginnings of 1920s there were some political games related to religion with the involvement of Turkey. That was a reason why Soviets did not approach Muslim population aggressively. In the end of 20s when they figured out that this policy is not successful, they decided to change the route. The most affected region of Georgia was Adjaria, where the absolute population is Muslims. Soviet authorities started new campaign aimed forced education and emancipation of women. It was very active and aggressive campaign. Sending children to religious schools was banned and all families were obliged to send children to state schools. All these events led to a big counteraction by population which hardly escaped a riot.  As a result, Soviet authorities considered this religious policy unsuccessful and stopped it.

In the end of 1930s, on the background of mass terror in Soviets, there was terror in religious direction. All “undesirable elements” (population involved in religion) were eradicated without any oscillations. Soviets called them undesirable elements and also considered clergy as an extraneous element in its all territory. Looking at the statistics of great terror of 1937-38s it is possible to see how many people were victims for the religious reasons. The most affected regions by terror were regions such as South Kartli, Borchali and etc. Most of the victims of those regions were repressed for their religions. Soviet authorities always showed them as religious agents or diversionists of foreign countries.

Tbilisi was famous with its multiculturalism which combined all religious. The depth of the city was districts in the area of Metekhi, hamams and other areas dominated by Muslim population. In this region, there was a significant mosque which in 1920 was added to the monuments of historical-cultural heritage of the country. There were maximum 20 monuments of that value in Tbilisi. But these factors were never reasons for the Soviets to save religious monuments.

The reconstruction of Tbilisi started by Lavrentiy Beria in the mid 1930s, were continuing in 40s. This reconstruction included destroys of all historical elements of the city, as well as historical and Asian sides of the city. Within the framework of the reconstruction, the mosque with the historical-cultural heritage valued was destroyed. Destroy of that mosque is still considered to be a huge loss for the history of the city.

Statistics of the killed priests are still unclear as the sources are still left close. As the result of investigations only part of documents related to the priest killings found. In the mid 1940s when there was next breaking point in relations between the state and the church, the religion almost lost its existence. There were not powerful religious organizations and small ones involved no more than hundred people. Also religious buildings of all religions were no more than twenty in Tbilisi.

Revealed documents show that that time there was a governmental agency called Council of religion. There was a branch of Council of Religion in every republic of Soviet Union. The law on religion formally allowed population to create religious organization, also to own religious buildings.  But after the great terror of 1940s no one could declare that he wants to be a part of religious organization, wants to visit religious buildings. This situation lasted till 1980s. Starting from 1940s all religious unions were part of the state. Although they were functioning on the legal basis, they were highly controlled.

For example, the commissioner in the Council of Religion was the same level official and had the same function as Russian tsar’s time Chief-Prosecutor, who had civilian status, but basically controlled the clergy. The commissioner in the Council of Religion was competent to block the priest or clergyman, and conversely contribute to their development. All members of the religious communities were able to contact the commissioner within the frame of own organization. Basically, these commissioners were like ministries in separate republic of religion and they were controlling the life of religious communities. It was common formula for the whole Soviet system, how to control any kind of organization, and later in 70s they created one more mechanism.

Since Soviet Union started to represent itself as a modern state in international level, and it was included to the agreements and declarations targeted human rights and etc, they created mechanism to abide the legality in the direction of religion; in order to not to allow anyone to confront religious communities illegally. Formally, this mechanism was used conversely; to control people who showed their desire to be a member at religious communities. In every city and region there were created groups formed from local bureaucrats and nomenclature of partisans called “troika” (triple) or four persons in each area of the city or in each small regional town or settlement where religious communities, as well as buildings existed. Their function was following how the religious communities function; who visits churches or mosques and how they operate there. Formally, they were like defenders of the security of those religious communities, but in reality they were just controllers in places. Since Soviet Union was collapsing, in the end of 80s all these changed and turned out to be kind a vacuum. A huge country, bureaucracy and a structure which prevented religious freedom just disappeared and all these communities appeared in free space.

Within the process of development of Georgian church, we can see that approach and interrelations toward religion from the side of new state and government were not far from this old model. Last years, it was a return to the Soviet formula.

5 years ago the apparatus named Council of Religion, the same institution, was recreated in the government of Georgia; the apparatus which nominally considered being mediator between the government and religious communities while having a problem in life or activities. But in reality, it is the same attempt of formally controlling all religious communities like Soviet government did.

As for policy regarding religious ceremonies, it was within the frame of the same approach of 20-30s when religion basically did not exist. Religious communities did not have legal basis. Along with other activities, the first thing the Soviet authority did in Georgia after occupation it, was issuing decrees on separation the church and the government. The church used to hold all kind of religious ceremonies, and the first impression was like it was very modern secular approach. It was said that the state is apart from the church. But there was a small crucial detail in this issue that the religious community did not have juridical status. It did not exist on legal basis at all. It means that it does not have any relation with the state.

After the mid 20s, after the difficulties and counterreaction by the population, Soviet regime was forced to formally write laws which state that if there are some 10-20 people who declare themselves as religious people and their desire to be a cell of religious organization, they had a right to do it, and also to take a building of a church, mosque and etc. to use. In practice, it basically was impossible since local communist authorities always rejected to register those religious groups and also giving them a building saying that it is required for economic purposes. Based on this, lots of churches and religious buildings were destroyed or ruined.

As for religious ceremonies, proceeding from the fact that they were illegal at all, it was considered as illegal actions. Especially in 30s, it was the cause for arrest and repression. During the huge terror of 37-38, it was a final campaign of extermination of the rest of servants of the faith and religious ceremonies, as well as Muslim ones.  Statistics regarding religious directions is still unclear. For example, we know how many Georgian priests were shot, some hundreds. But no one did a calculation in KGB’s (Soviet Ministry of Intelligence) archive regarding the situation toward Muslims and other religious communities. These repressions were not separate. It was mass terror and all of them were put to death within the frame of general order. There was not a special place for servants of the faith and etc.

As for Shevarnadze’s issue, it’s a piece of collective memory, since he and several other Georgian cultural and science figures protested against destruction of Metekhi church. Methekhi church was in depth of the prison which functioned from XIX-XX century till 30s of XX. It was a prison for political prisoners. In the mid 30s the prison was abolished and announced that there should be arranged a new museum of culture of Georgia. Within the frame of this reconstruction, was implied that this church should be demolished. The group of these intellectuals and researchers reacted to this. They started to prove that this church is very important cultural heritage. They were successful, because their protest and proves served to that the Metekhi church was not destroyed.

These kinds of small protests and campaigns were hold during 20s-30s for protecting different cultural monuments, but the authorities had own opposite campaign which can be seen in direction of propaganda. In media propaganda was very sharp and non-ethical in all directions. It is seen especially toward Orthodox Church.  As the most influential opponent in case of the Republic of Georgia, in the end of 1920s, as well as during 1930s, all humorous media and not only, also special publications Orthodox Church was very popular topic and the way how they create the image of priests and church ministers was terrible; like they are alcoholics, morally decayed people, they conspire everywhere against the government, they are against the progress and etc. They created the image of churchman as an enemy. It was very active. In the frame of these processes, there even existed the separate organizations like Godless Union.

There was a motto where said that we should conquer the air, in the sense of the heaven, to prove that it’s applesauce; nothing exists. Within the frame of this propaganda, they acted very forcibly, publicly insulted ministers of faith, publicly destroyed any religious item in order to show that believing in that those items can somehow function, cause a miracle, or punish them is not true. They also destroyed any religious icons and religious temples.

Mass destruction of the mosques and the policy regarding Islam

Head of Tbilisi Juma Mosque, Tahmaz Hasanov

There were 350 mosques in Georgia during communist regime. There were more than 300 churches and 5 synagogues. There was difference in churches. As we know there are also differences between the sects of Christianity. If to talk about particularly about Tbilisi, there was a mosque built by Shakh Tahmasib on the side of the road, on the side of the bridge, inside of the river Kura. It’s believed to be built after VII century. It was very huge mosque. The only difference was sect. There were 5 mosques in Tbilisi. In two of those mosques-Kharkov and Tbilisi Juma Mosque, all kind of sects, Kazan Tatars, Crimean Tatars, lezgins were gathering there. Other mosques, including Shakh Tahmasib which later was renamed to Shakh Abbas Mosque served to all shias from regions. The main control was in the hands of Iranians. The majority of workers of that mosque were people who studied in Iran.

If to talk about the latest times, the situation was such that communists oppressed religion a lot. They oppressed both Christians and Muslims. Lots of churches were destroyed here. For example, I was witnessed of destroy of 4 churches in Leselidze street. The churches were not fully razed to the ground. Only the mosque named after Shakh Abbas was razed to the ground in 1952. In others the doors or windows were demolished, some were made useless, some were transferred to warehouses. For example, in Azerbaijan mosques were transferred to warehouses; warehouses for collective-farms, state farms, grain warehouses, corn warehouses and were used that way. Therefore, there was not something related directly to us, so they would destroy specially mosques.  They oppressed all sides. Oppressions, as well as repressions were related to both us and them (Christians). The only nation escaped the repression was Armenians. Both Muslims (Azerbaijanis) and Georgians were repressed.

Mass destruction of the churches; mass killings of priests

Father Toma of the church of Anchiskhati of Georgia

When Russian army-XII army stormed into Georgia they conquered independent Georgia. Communist Russia first conquered Azerbaijan and then entered Georgia from there.

Those times, when it happened in 1921, there were 15000 temples and churches, functioning temples. During the Soviet governance in the end of 1980 maximum 30-40 temples left in whole Georgia. Even less, I think. All churches were closed. All the treasures, all those icons, jewelries that were in churches were taken away; they were melted, and all they were disappeared. Thanks to God that a part of the holy icons and priests’ accessories saved and now are in the Museum of Culture of Georgia. In the end of 1980 the situation started to restore a little bit and in 1988 for example, our church Anchiskhati was opened. It is very old ancient church. There were times when enemies came and gone and the church was restored again and etc. But it always served the people. The church was closed up in 1929. There was a warehouse in communist times after which it was given to famous sculpture and it was his studio. In 1988 when the church was reopened there were busts of Lenin, Marx and other Bolsheviks. Can you imagine, those were people who struggled against churches? After that, the church was restored and serves till today and we hope it will serve and serve.

They did not allow holding holy ceremonies since the ideology was that there was no God and it was an atheist country. Of course, it was a politics for them. Their ideology was that there should not be any church, neither priest and etc. They did not allow also serving, but several churches left where church services were continuing. For example, there is a Sioni Cathedral close to us. There are also two Russian churches in Didube station which were functioning, but it was under their control; they were controlled by KGB. There was a department or office under the Council of Ministries where operated a person who was tracking it. They were giving instructions, they were controlling. For example, they even checked all new generation clergymen who started to serve at churches and etc. Besides Georgian churches, there were Russian churches, mosques, as well as in Batumi, also Armenian church, catholic churches in Georgia. All of them were under the control of department or office under the Council of Ministries and it was impossible even to move a paper from one point to another without them. There was a high control.

The biggest aftermath of these was that we, for example I grew up in atheistic country. Before I myself was an atheist; when I was at school, at university and etc. We were taught atheism. There were scientific communism, scientific atheism and etc. We were made to grow up without God. Can you imagine? Whole generation.

Although Stalin in youth till the time he went to Russia was studying at theological seminary. Now there is Georgian Museum of Art, but before it was theological seminary and he studied there. Even when he was General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, his mother who moved from Gori to Tbilisi and lived there, always begged his son that she wanted him to be a Pope. Can you imagine? Although he studied at theological seminary, he became a Bolshevik and there is nothing for Bolsheviks in life.

How can a person against the Christ, against God be pardoned? If you will insult me, me personally, I can forgive you as a human. How can I forgive you if you will insult God? God himself should pardon you. Or you yourself should guess that you violated something. It is very hard for me to imagine how people can forgive the destroy of churches, for being Bolshevik country. I cannot imagine.

For detailed video please click the video below:

Religion in Georgian SSR


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