Mikhail Vasilyevich Trukhanov was born in 1916 in the Saratov region in the family of an Orthodox priest. During his childhood he was mainly educated at home since his family had to move constantly in order to avoid hunger and persecution.
Mikhail was not a strong believer since the beginning. His faith got stronger as his family was going through the hardships of that atheistic era. His father Basil shared the fate of the thousands of Orthodox priests who died for Christ in prison and exile. His father’s life became a great example of faith and love, an example that he decided to follow. Choosing to dedicate his life to God, Mikhail knew that society would reject him; no one would be a friend of the son of «an enemy of the state». It is hard for us to understand how a young man living in that time of religious persecution could make such a decision in his life. But Mikhail did not fall into the fear and despair so common among the people of that time.
In the late 1930s, Mikhail began to study Astronomy at the Moscow University. He started to lead a Christian life, studying the Holy Scripture and setting up a study group of young people who shared in the same spiritual need.
On December 14th, 1940, he was introduced to Vera, his future wife, at the Moscow Cathedral of Elokhovskiy. After only a few weeks of meeting each other, on the 21st of January in 1941, at half past midnight, Mikhail was arrested in a student dormitory and brought before the NKVD. He was sentenced to 8 years in labor camps on the charge of "organization and leadership of an illegal group of churchmen".
A few days before Mikhail’s arrest, his father sent him a letter, saying: «I do not know what you will do in your life, but always remember I bless each day of your future life seven fold.» Mikhail said that he always felt his father was praying for him, that his prayers guided him through all the hardships in his life.
Mikhail was shocked at his arrest, and filled with confusion: «Lord, why are you putting me through this? Was I a bad Christian? I did everything a real Christian should do!». His heart was filled with despair. But after three days in prison, he suddenly saw everything in a new light. He prayed: «God, thank You for everything… If this if Your will, how can I be against it? My Lord, bless this new chapter in my life». When he was brought before the court, he smiled knowing that there was no way to escape punishment for being faithful to the Truth. An inner joy of suffering for God gave him the strength to withstand the trial and imprisonment.
He spent sixteen years in prison, surviving the hard labour camp. The Russians tried in vain to convince him to become an informer, which was obviously contrary to his beliefs: «As a Christian I do not have the right to be an informer!» he replied. Camp authorities decided to send him to the “ice punishment cell” for five days. The floor, the ceiling and the walls were covered with ice. «I knew I would die. No one ever survived it… I prayed all the time, I would walk for an hour, I would stand for an hour». The Lord gave him the strength to survive, and a guardian would bring him once a day a glass of hot water, a piece of bread and a bit of porridge. Even though it was prohibited to bring him food, the guard would give it to him in secret, and it was enough to keep him alive.
In 1951, he was exiled to Krasnoyarsk Territory, but after Stalin's death in 1953, he was newly arrested for "anti-Soviet activities" and sent into a labor camp near Omsk. In 1956, freed and fully rehabilitated, he returned to Moscow, where he finally married Vera, who had waited 15 long years for his return, even though they had only known each other for a few weeks.
Mikhail was later ordained an Orthodox priest by the Bishop of Chernigov, the only bishop who did not fear the KGB during that time, as the majority of priests were informants in those years.
He died in March 16, 2006 and was buried in Moscow at the Vagankovo cemetery.
A type of religious renaissance took place during the Second World War, as Stalin needed the moral and patriotic support of the Church during the invasion of the German Army. In the war that lasted from 1941 to 1945, the repressive nature of the government’s politics toward the Church relaxed somewhat. The vast majority of the repressed clergy was released from prison or labour camps, many churches were re-opened, from 150 to 400 parishes and nearly 30 monasteries became active again. The “Union of Militant Atheists” stopped its activity.
In 1946, the “renovationists’ structures” – that is, the clergy that had embraced the Bolshevik authority having declared the relationship between Christianity and communist ideology as “natural” after the well-known Declaration of 1927 of the Metropolitan Sergei Stragorodsky – previously supported by the state were closed. The government gave the building of the former German Embassy as residence of the newly appointed Patriarch. The Bells of the town churches began to ring again.
Khrushchev’s ideas during the late 1950´s, which aimed at building up a real communist country and a real “communist man”, by the ‘80s, induced a stronger pressure against the Church, particularly in his native Ukraine.
In 1961, a prohibition was passed against the ringing of church bells and against charitable activity that benefited churches or monasteries. In the mass media, an extensive campaign was waged against the clergy. As a result, clergy members, their families, and even ordinary religious believers could be subjected to discrimination at work, in school, in the army and in their day-to-day life. In contrast to the pre-war repressions, in the 1960s neither priests nor laypeople were executed or sent to prison for their faith. They were given the choice to become informants of the KGB, the Secret Services, or denounce the church, that is, their faith. By the end of the 1960s, the pressure had reached the level of a large-scale suppression, being fulfilled, primarily, in the widespread closings of churches and in massive deportations of Christians and Catholics.
During the roughly twenty-year power of Leonid Brezhnev, the end of the de-Stalinization reduced the crimes of the long-standing dictator to mere faults, and the rehabilitation of his victims never appeared. The KGB played a pivotal role there, forcing social obedience, collecting knowledge on all political and private aspects of life, and in the end, permanently extending its own power.
While the Orthodox Church was forced to downplay their existence during Brezhnev’s administration, the Catholic Church was subject to even stronger restrictions. Only two catholic parishes remained open in Russia: one in Moscow (The Parish of St. Louis, related to the French Embassy) and one in Leningrad (The Parish of the Mother of God, Our Lady of Lourdes). From the late 1970s, these two communities experienced a growing participation of young people who belonged mainly to the government intelligence.
Following the grey period of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, at the end of 1987, Michael Gorbachev prohibited the official atheistic propaganda and the persecution against the religious communities. The cooperation of all people was required for the putting into action of the perestroika. As a result of the improvement of relations with the Western world, religious freedom was reborn in the Soviet Union after 70 years of darkness.
Did you know...
Unlike other European countries, the opportunity to test the democratic structures in Russia after the decline of the monarchy only lasted a few months, on account of the seizure of power by Wladimir I. However, in 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks wiped out this chance quickly in the course of the October Revolution. One dictatorship rapidly took the place of the other. Lenin replaced the Tsar and practiced powers like those of his predecessor, the Romanov family.
One of his first steps to safeguard the power of the new order consisted in turning the Russian economy into a planned economy by decree. His plan proved to be substantially more difficult than expected. The attempt to export the Russian revolution to the West would later end in a military defeat.
The heavy oppression of Christian Churches in Russia would continue with growing strength. Soon after the Communist seizure of state, the government proclaimed the decree: "About the separation of church and state" on January 23rd, 1918. This decree stated that all religious organizations were deprived of their legal rights and properties. With later decrees passed on December 26th, 1921 and January 3rd, 1922 the Soviets established a censorship of all religious sermons and passed a ban on any religious instruction for children under 14 years of age.
Lenin was the author of this atheistic regime and the leader of this merciless persecution. He affirmed that God was his “personal enemy”, and it is not at all surprising that on May 1, 1919, he sent to Dzerzhinsky, the head of the VČK (the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage) the following order: “we must put an end to priests and religions as soon as possible. Priests shall be arrested as counterrevolutionaries and saboteurs, and they shall be shot mercilessly, in all places and as many as possible. It is time to close down the Church.”
Some people in the western culture view Lenin in a romantic light. They consider him a “pure” revolutionary, a man who was able to preserve the modernization process in the USSR without the distortions of personality cult and without the excessive cruelty attributed to Stalin. This viciousness accredited to Stalin can be seen since Khrushchev’s famous speech at the XX Congress of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) in 1956, giving full details about the crimes and intrigues of the dictator and condemning the personality cult that surrounded him.
Nevertheless, in the Federation of Russia the actual supporters of Stalin claim that there was not a single atheistic or document against the church in Stalin’s reign. Relying on the decision of XII Congress of the RCP published on the 16th of August 1923, the closing of churches and arrests of Christians was brought to an end. Again in 1939, he accepted a confidential ruling of the Politburo to stop the persecution of the Orthodox priests.
However, many facts remain against this viewpoint. According to many researchers, the real grounds of the temporary changes during the ‘40s in the repressive policy against the Church are attributed to the need for increasing patriotism and winning the financial help of the Church, in addition to the personal participation of priests and bishops in the battle against the German invasion.
Nevertheless, we cannot omit major facts against the Church, which were approved by Stalin. For example, the campaign declared on May 15th, 1932 with the official goal of eradicating all religion in the country by the first of May in 1937. Another example is the “Hunger Holocaust” ordered by Stalin to liquidate the richer and middle class farmers in Ukraine, together with all clergy who sustained rural resistance (about seven million people died in this holocaust). Further evidence can be seen in the many terrifying measures taken in order to eliminate the existence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy completely from the USSR. These orders were carried out during several waves of arrests and trials in the 1930s, and they included many trials against priests and nuns, which were held in secret and were completely unknown to the public over several decades.