Country Listing

Soviet Union Table of Contents

Soviet Union


Orthodox Christians constituted a majority of believers in the Soviet Union. They hold that the Orthodox Church is the true, holy, and apostolic church and that it traces its origin directly to the church established by Jesus Christ. Orthodox beliefs are based on the Bible and holy tradition as defined by the seven ecumenical councils held between A.D. 325 and 787. Orthodox teachings include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the inseparable but distinguishable union of the two natures of Jesus Christ--one divine, one human. Mary is revered as the mother of God but is not regarded as free from original sin. Other saints are also highly revered. Persons become saints simply by being recognized over a long period of time by the whole church. No official canonization is required.

Orthodox believers recognize seven sacraments and punishment after death for sins committed but do not recognize the concept of purgatory. Baptism and the Eucharist are the two most important sacraments. After the ninth century, the sacrament of marriage became requisite for a valid marriage. Holy orders are conferred on both married and unmarried men, but only the latter are eligible to become bishops.

Worship is an essential part of Orthodoxy and is centered on the liturgical celebration every Sunday and holy day. Laity fully participate in the liturgy, responding in unison to the priest and singing hymns a cappella (organs and other musical instruments are not allowed). Church services are notable for their splendor, pageantry, profusion of candles, and bright colors. Priests' garments, as well as altars and church vestments, are ornate and colorful. Icons--pictures of Christ, Mary, and the saints, as well as representations of biblical events--adorn church walls. An ornate screen of icons, the iconostasis, separates the altar from the worshipers. Icons, often lit by candles, also adorn the homes of most Orthodox faithful. Icons are venerated but not worshiped. Worship is reserved for God alone.

In the late 1980s, three Orthodox churches claimed substantial memberships in the Soviet Union: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. They, together with the much smaller Belorussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, were members of the major confederation of Orthodox churches in the world, generally referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The first two churches functioned openly and were tolerated by the regime. The Ukrainian and Belorussian autocephalous Orthodox churches were not permitted to function openly.

Orthodox churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy are autonomous bodies, sometimes referred to as autocephalous or self-governing. The highest authority in each church is either a patriarch or an archbishop who governs in conjunction with the Holy Synod, an assembly of bishops, priests, monks, and laity. The Holy Synod elects the head of its church, the patriarch or archbishop, and in concert administers the church. Matters of faith or other matters of importance are decided by ecumenical councils in which all member churches of Eastern Orthodoxy participate. Decisions of the councils regarding faith are accepted by the followers as infallible.

Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a strict hierarchical order with one head, but the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul is generally recognized as the leading official. Individual churches, however, share the same doctrine and beliefs.

Data as of May 1989