Political and religious persecution often accompany and reinforce each other. The Aleksandr Soldatov papers, recently acquired by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, show not only the extent to which this is true but also how nuanced the persecution can be. With regard to the Russian Federation and its predecessor, the USSR, most people associate religious persecution with Jews, Pentecostals, and Baptists, although repressions against Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and just about every other religious group were practiced with comparable severity. Today we read about persecutions against Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islamic fundamentalists, and other groups, but Orthodox Christianity is often seen as exempt from such repressions. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is considered almost a state church, and President Vladimir Putin claims to be a believer of this faith.

The Soldatov papers, however, show the degree to which this view is superficial. Below the surface, numerous dissident or alternative Orthodox Christian groups exist outside the organizational structure of the Moscow Patriarchate. These groups are the focus of attacks by state organs (police and prosecutors) aimed at taking away property and harassing their leaders and members. The papers show the emergence of these groups in the 1980s, either from existing “catacomb” Christian groups or from fresh, often syncretic, origins. The experiences of members of alternative Orthodox groups, as well as Catholics, Protestants, and representatives of other faiths, are documented in this collection by their issuances, appeals, and other printed matter. The presence of materials on similar groups in Ukraine makes it possible to analyze the differences in church-state relations in Ukraine and the Russian Federation based on the materials in this collection alongside other Hoover collections with similarly focused materials, such as the John Dunlop papers and the Soviet and Post-Soviet Independent Publications collection. Aside from organizations, the Soldatov papers focus on various individuals such as Anatolii Rusantsov, a minor political figure (municipal deputy in the town of Suzdal), who rose to become a leader (metropolitan) of an Orthodox Christian group in opposition to the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Among other religious organizations documented in this collection is the apocalyptic group known as the “Church of the Final Testament,” or the Vissarion cult, led by a former policeman-turned-mystic/guru named Sergei Torop, who went by “Vissarion” as the cult leader. He was arrested in 2020 and has since been in preliminary detention awaiting trial. Some of the documents pertaining to this group are shown here.

Anatol Shmelev Hoover Headshot

Anatol Shmelev

Robert Conquest Curator for Russia and Eurasia / Research Fellow

Anatol Shmelev is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Robert Conquest Curator of the Russia and Eurasia Collection at Hoover’s Library & Archives, and the project archivist for its Radio…

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