The Catacomb Church (Catacombniki or Catacombers) is the common name for a large group of Russian believers.
It included representatives of the Orthodox clergy, communities, monasteries and some laymen, which became illegal in the 1920s due to religious and political reasons.
In a narrow sense, this term refers to the communities that in 1927 refused to be subordinate to the Deputy Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) and took an anti-Soviet position. The “Catacomb church” is also often called the True Orthodox Church (TOC).
Despite their illegal status, the religious groups of the Catacombers did not interact with each other, and their ideology cannot be called common. They were also joined by representatives of non-Orthodox movements (Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church).
The catacomb movement arose as a response to political changes in russia. It had several stages of development.
The first secret churches were founded in Soviet Russia in 1918 right after the Great October Socialist Revolution. At that time, the January appeal of Patriarch Tikhon was published, resulting in all of the persecutors of the church being anathematized. By the spring of 1922, the schismatic Orthodox movement of renovationism became dominant, and this was the reason for many Orthodox communities to go underground to serve illegally. Some opponents of Patriarch Tikhon and the Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd (Veniamin Kazansky) also joined the Catacombers since they considered them to be the allies of the godless government.
An influential group from Danilov (St. Daniel’s) founded a system of unofficial monasteries. They were called “non-remembrancers” (this derived from “remembering” the Patriarch Peter of Krutitsy during church services), headed by Archbishop Feodor (Theodor) Pozdeevsky of Volokolamsk. After 1927, the Catacomb movement was led by many metropolitans and archbishops. There were “Iosifliane” (Josephites) in honour of Metropolitan Joseph (Petrovykh) and “Andreevtsy” (Andrewites) in honour of Archbishop Andrei (Ukhtomsky).
The Catacombers included:
In the 1930s the Catacomb church changed considerably. By the late 1920s, it consisted only of the “True Orthodox” and some Josephites but ten years later their number had reduced significantly.
The closure of many Orthodox churches contributed to the fact that many people who did not oppose Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) joined the Catacomb church. They were forced to preach illegally since the government prohibited legal preaching and church services. Moderate “Non-rememberers” also went underground.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the underground church life was quite active. The Catacomb Church grew since many Orthodox Christians tried to minimize any contact with Soviet society and government. For this reason, many of the “True Orthodox” believers refused to have Soviet passports, to apply for official jobs, to let their children go to Soviet schools, to use Soviet money and public transport or even to talk to Soviet officials. Such zealous Christians were called “molchuny” (“the Silent”).
During the Second World War some of the Catacombers, who were especially anti-Soviet, collaborated with the Nazi occupational administration. Many churches were opened or re-opened in Nazi-occupied territories. Later, laymen and clergy were able to emigrate to the West from those territories.
By the autumn of 1943, the persecutions against the Orthodox priests had intensified. The Soviet government changed its attitude to the Moscow Patriarchy; they legalized it and allowed it to renew church services. At the same time, the Catacomb priests were severely persecuted. After consideration, many Josephite and Non-rememberers joined the official (Patriarchy) Orthodox Church.
By the second half of the 1940s, the number of the Catacombers reduced sharply. In many ways, this happened because of various activities of the Communist Party. Yet the underground communities were still a problem for the Soviets. The situation was exacerbated by the early 1950s.
With the deterioration of the church policy from the state and the ban on the opening of churches, the True Orthodox Catacomb Church received many new adherents. At that time most of the secret Orthodox churches were located in the Russian SFSR which made it hard for the Soviets to detect them. By the late 1950s, there were thousands of illegal churches within the USSR.
Savage persecutions of the “true Orthodox” were especially active during the times of collectivization which was aimed at uniting peasant farms during the reign of Joseph Stalin. Then, from 1957 to 1965, an anti-religious campaign was headed by Nikita Khrushchev. During this campaign, between four and six thousand priests lost their registration.
Despite the prohibitions, many of them kept their ministration illegally. By the late sixties, according to the Soviet sociologists, a few million people attended illegal churches.
In 1961-1962 almost all the active adherents of the True Catacomb Church were arrested. Some were exiled, and in exile they often refused to have a legal job. These dissenters were arrested and imprisoned. If someone refused to work in a jail, they were sent to indefinite confinement in a punishment cell where many died. By the seventies most of the True Orthodox were freed but the movement lost its strength. Many illegal communities joined the official Russian Orthodox Church.
By the time of Perestroika, the Catacomb Church had lost almost the entire clergy that shared the anti-Soviet position of Patriarch Tikhon. The last true underground bishops were:
Many of their adherents joined the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA).
In the early 1990s, many of the illegal churches addressed the ROCA (which started planting new churches in post-Soviet countries) to join their jurisdiction. However, many Catacomb churches stayed separate both from each other and the official churches. They recognized only their local priests and preceptors.
The first mention of the word “Catacombs” in addressing the illegal churches is found in the letters of Ihumenia Athanasia (Gromeko) to metropolitan Eulogius (Yevlogy) Georgiyevsky in 1923.
People who called themselves the Catacombers compared their lives to the early Christians, who, during the persecution, gathered for worship in the catacombs, i.e. underground burial places in Roman cities.
Despite a large number of adherents, the term “catacomb church” was not widely used in the 1920s and 1930s. The phrases like “Old Orthodox,” “True Orthodox Christians,” and also “Tikhonovtsy” (as the opponents of the Renovationists called themselves) in honour of patriarch Tikhon were used more often.
Nevertheless, the concept of a “Catacomb Church” was actively used in the works of foreign authors (including Russian clergymen who fled to the West). Since the second half of the eighties, under the influence of the “glasnost” policy (“openness and transparency”), the concept of “Catacombs” has officially returned to journalism.
In the modern world, the Russian Catacomb Church has not disappeared, and its followers represent an extremely variegated set of groupings. Despite the steadfastness with which the Catacombists withstood all the tests in the course of history, the current ROCA communities are unlikely to become the Church of the majority of Russians and the basis of Russian Orthodoxy. Fully-fledged small churches exist in a few places, but most of the Catacomb churches today continue to exist in house prayer rooms (apartments or rooms converted into churches from sheds or garages).