Communist governments of Eastern Europe underestimated the significance of Christianity for the populace

Religious practices and church activity were closely regulated in communist states during the Cold War period. Even in their restricted position, they had a significant role as proponents of change, says a German visiting researcher.

Katharina Kunter, a researcher visiting the Department of Church History at the Faculty of Theology is currently giving a series of lectures to students on the topic Christianity and Communism in Europe.

She says that the incompatibility between the Christian and communist views of humanity created a fundamental tension between these two world views.

“Communism viewed Christianity as one of the most central forms of oppression and exploitation. Communism does not recognise a god, and Marxism sees the individual as the creator of their own environment. In Christianity, God is the creator,” says Kunter.

On the other hand, communism and Christianity do have some things in common.

“For example, in the 1960s, there was a strong desire among certain Christians to work for a better and fairer world on Earth. This liberation theology movement engaged in Christian-Marxist dialogue,” Kunter points out.

Christianity was a force for social change during the Cold War

Kunter has studied relations between Christianity and communism in Europe before, during and after the Cold War.

Was it possible for people to practice their religion under the communist systems? And what was the position of the churches in communist states?

“In theory, the constitutions of communist countries included freedom of religion, but in practice, there were restrictions on religious expression. The intention was to erase the church as an institution and the public dimension of religion. In many cases this was successful,” says Kunter.

According to Kunter, the remaining churches in Eastern Europe served as important providers of refuge and hope for Christians during the Cold War, while encouraging dissident thought.

“Around 1989-1992, opposition to totalitarian communism became visible through mass demonstrations. In addition, the spiritual and pastoral duties of the churches received more attention, as did the theologians and priests who worked for social change.”

Even though every country in Eastern Europe had its own special characteristics in the political context of the Cold War, the ecumenical contacts between Christian churches helped them reimagine Christianity as a multinational movement.

“This generated a very important sense of solidarity under communist rule and during the Cold War,” says Kunter.

The German church historian believes that communist governments underestimated the flexibility and significance of Christianity.

“Christianity has proven itself to be a dynamic religion with the ability to adapt to new practices,” Kunter states.

Religions play key role in Russian civic society

To hear more from Katharina Kunter, come to the University of Helsinki’s Think Corner (Yliopistonkatu 4) on 11 April, from 15.00 to 17.00, for a panel discussion on religion and politics in Russia.

Kunter hopes that the plurality of religion will be protected in Russia.

“Religions are a key factor in ensuring the cultural diversity of Russian society. Different religions unite groups of people and provide building blocks for identity construction in a changing society.”

Typically, attention in the media is focused on the leading elite of the Russian Orthodox church and their close ties to the powers-that-be in the Kremlin. However, Kunter wants to emphasise the important role of Orthodox Christian laypeople as actors in Russian civil society.

“It’s also interesting to see what the Protestants and Catholics will do. In addition, a large number of Russians have no connection to any religion. What are their values and hopes? Can we find connections between religions? Where will dissident voices arise from in the future?” asks Kunter.