Ivaylo Znepolski

author: Momchil Metodiev

title: Between Faith and Compromise. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Communist State (1944-1989).

Sofia: Institute for Studies of the Recent Past/Ciela, 2010, pp.652.

One can say with certainty that Momchil Metodiev’s book is the first comprehensive study on the subject in Bulgarian literature. Grateful to its predecessors, it builds upon previous studies but goes further, in a spirit of constructive debate. Even a cursory glance at the contents will give the reader a good idea of the scope and quality of the conducted research. This book is remarkable not just for the fact that it is based on rich archival sources, some of which have become accessible only in recent years, but also for the point of view of the author and the interpretative strategies built upon it. What makes the proposed point of view different from that in the majority of publications devoted to the relations between the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the communist regime? Above all, the spirit of Weberian disinterestedness, the productive scientific distance from the subject of study. This is not a denunciatory book in the traditions of anti-communist rhetoric from the first years of the transition, nor is it a defence. Momchil Metodiev does not belong to any of the factions involved in the internal leadership dispute in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, he is not emotionally connected to the subject of research in any way, and he is not driven by politics. He takes an exceptionally honest approach to his subject, an approach he defines from the very beginning, in the introduction of the book, as a ‘middle way’ between the perception of the Church as a quasi-political institution and the insistence on its out-of-time character which questions the possibility of judging the clergy. ‘The middle way’, writes Momchil Metodiev, ‘is based on a respectful attitude towards the ecclesiastical institution and its leadership, but does not exclude the possibility of studying ecclesiastical life in a historical context.’ In addition to the explicitly formulated problematics, the book also contains another, implicitly present, problematics or, rather, something like an open question, a query which the careful and committed reader cannot avoid. With this implicit problematics, the book is addressed at the present day, at contemporary people. In this sense, this is also its unspoken challenge. The text requires and must be enriched in an interpretative reading. The explicitly declared subject is the history of the Bulgarian ecclesiastical institution during a particular period of time. The implicitly contained problematics is related to the questions, ‘What can we base our faith on today?’ or ‘How can we be believers today?’


But let us first look at the main subject of the book: historical reconstruction of the life of the Bulgarian ecclesiastical institution in the 1944-1989 period. This history is represented through two parallel, inseparably intertwined but individually specific, narratives. One narrative is about the politics of the communist party and the communist State towards the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; the other narrative is about the behaviour of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the face of the terrible pressure it was subjected to. The first narrative is official, it was declared in the resolutions of the communist party and materialized in the normative documents and files of the DS (the Bulgarian acronym for State Security, the Bulgarian secret police). The second narrative is unofficial, it does not have its own archives, and it is read between the lines of the sources that inform the first, official, narrative. This second narrative had to be, and has been, reconstructed by indirect means. Let me note here that the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from 1944 to 1989 needs to be complemented by two other narratives that are beyond the subject declared by the author but which we need to trace in order to get a clearer picture of the studied period itself. The first of those two narratives ought to point us to the prehistory of the subject of the book: status, practices, behaviour of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church at least in the 1930s and 1940s. Truth is found by comparison: we have understood what totalitarianism is by comparing it with democracy. To understand exactly what happened with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church after the 9 September 1944 coup d’état that led to the establishment of the communist regime in Bulgaria, we need to at least briefly know and evaluate its previous history, we need to know its legacy. This is especially important for the younger public. As for the other narrative that is outside of the scope of the book, I will discuss it later on in this review. At this point I will only say that it relies on other sources of information: not on the archives of institutions but on the ‘archives of the soul’, as writer Stefan Bochev put it in referring to Belene, the most notorious forced labour camp in communist Bulgaria.


The history of the policy of the Bulgarian Communist Party and State towards the Orthodox Church has a central place in Momchil Metodiev’s book insofar as the latter is based mainly on his research in the different relevant archives. He traces the logic of this policy and its internal dynamic over the years as structured around three axes: goals, methods and means, and regulatory framework. After crushing all political opposition, the new regime saw the Church as a possible centre of influence and opposition, as an independent authority. Having gradually seized all levers of power, the secular political religion would not tolerate any other faith or competition in winning the ‘souls’ of people. In the concrete context at the time, it set itself a difficult but completely achievable goal. This goal was difficult because Orthodox Christianity and religious consciousness had deep historical roots, and the Christian ritual system had marked the rhythm of time in everyday life in Bulgaria. It was achievable because the communist party had enormous power that allowed it to ignore traditions, laws and morality. Thus, the goal was to minimize the influence of the Church, to socially marginalize the Church and discredit it ideologically. The book traces and analyzes the full set of methods and means of achieving that goal: (1) the repressions against priests in the 1940s and 1950s, when many priests were executed without trial or sent to prison or forced labour camps; (2) creation of an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and self-isolation; (3) implementation of the so-called ‘active measures’: spreading rumours, fabricating compromising materials, conducting smear campaigns; (4) a policy of disuniting and building a communist ‘fifth column’ among the lower clergy: the creation by the communist party of a ‘Clerical Union’ as a counterweight; (5) infiltration of agents into the clergy: the DS recruited agents from the upper clergy and infiltrated its agents into the leadership of the Holy Synod; (6) isolation from the rest of the world and provincialization of the Church: depersonalizing the clergy and lowering its prestige, replacing cadres and catastrophically lowering the intellectual level of clerics and of religious thought: the ‘unholy cleric’ phenomenon became dominant; (7) overt or covert string-pulling in the appointment of clerics to senior positions, and establishing a secret centre of power in the Church; (8) active mass anti-religious propaganda that built up an organizational structure across the country: the so-called ‘Homes of the Atheist’; (9) restrictive regulations: banning the construction of new churches; (10) developing and forcibly imposing alternative secular rites; and (11) various policies of internal destabilization and corruption of the clergy: in a later period, granting honours and privileges, and allowing senior clerics to feudalize the dioceses or eparchies they were in charge of. The result was isolation of the Church, confinement within its own everyday life, elimination or formalization of parish life and placing the latter under strict surveillance. It seems that the communist regime was not far from achieving its goal: turning the Church into a historical cultural phenomenon that was part of the national tradition, a phenomenon that was emptied of authentic content and acquired folkloric-decorative form, informed by the mythology of the monastic vineyard (one of the popular brands of wine at the time was called ‘Manastirsko shushukane’ or ‘Monastic Whisper’). People would think of the Church more or less only during the major religious festivals, such as Easter, Christmas or All Souls’ Day. The model was mapped out by communist leader Georgi Dimitrov in his 26 May 1946 speech during the celebration of the millennial anniversary of St John of Rila at Rila Monastery. This speech mapped out not only the possible framework within which the Church could continue to exist but also the example it had to follow: ‘the great Russian Orthodox Church’. In other words, the Church, too, was subjected to the process of Stalinization that was gradually and deliberately conducted across Bulgarian society. Maybe the author should have given more emphasis to the communist State’s sly policy of distinguishing between ecclesiastical institution and religion – the regime was more tolerant of the institution and much more intolerant of the religion.


For some analysts, that is all there is to the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the 1944-1989 period – but not for Momchil Metodiev. He avoids the temptation of turning into something like an ‘evaluator’ of the clergy and whereas he does not skip the topical issue of clerics who worked for the communist secret police, neither does he place this problem at the centre of his study. What is more important to him is to understand what really happened with the institution, to trace its history also from the inside by shedding light on the possible logic of its own behaviour. The narrative offered in the book on behalf of the Church can be traced along three main lines: (1) institutional; (2) personalization of the activity of the Church; (3) adaptation of the Church to the new conditions and the different strategies for preventing its complete depersonalization or retaining a modicum of autonomy.


Along the institutional line, the book offers a detailed account and interpretation of the main documents and statutory acts regulating the relations of the Church with the State and internal ecclesiastical affairs, starting with the restoration of the Patriarchate, monastic life, religious education, the ecclesiastical press, international ecclesiastical relations, relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox diaspora, and so on. Along the line of personalization of the activity of the Church, the focus is on the key figures who shaped its public image over the years and left a lasting imprint on the character of ecclesiastical life. Here, along with Exarch Stefan and the patriarchs Kiril and Maksim, the book also traces the positions and activity of two chairmen of the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs who left a mark on the history of the Church: Dimitar Todorov and Mihail Kyuchukov. The attitude towards the leading figures and the evaluation of their activity are delicately balanced, and due consideration is given both to the specificity of the relevant contexts and their actual human and theological qualities. The third line is the most interesting one as it is less descriptive and directly related to an evaluative position.


The Bulgarian Orthodox Church gradually adopted the model recommended by Georgi Dimitrov and turned into a national, patriotic and republican Church (an interesting modification of the caesaro-papist model). Once the period of open mass repressions ended, the Church turned away from the path of confrontation with the regime and took the path of compromise. This also led to a certain weakening of direct pressure on the Church and some minimal degree of normalization – in the theoretical literature devoted to late communism, this type of agreements is defined as a reciprocal relationship of ‘social exchange’. Momchil Metodiev is very cautious in answering the question, ‘Did the Bulgarian Orthodox Church actively collaborate with the regime?’ According to him, although the Church seemed like a conformist, state-supported organization, it succeeded in preserving some characteristics that are inherent to its traditions as a centuries-old institution. There was a limit to its depersonalization which, if crossed, would have led to the destruction of the Church. And in building its relations with the communist regime, the Church succeeded in retaining that limit. It even dared to be ‘disobedient’ at some points: electing, without preliminary approval by the regime, of ‘inconvenient’ senior clerics to leadership positions (proof of this is to be found in the character reference letters given by the state administration for the ‘reactionary’ individuals who played an important role in the management of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church: Metropolitan Paisiy of Vratsa, Metropolitan Mihail of Dorostol-Cherven, Metropolitan Neofit of Vidin, Metropolitan Sofroniy of Tarnovo, metropolitan Yosif of Varna, Metropolitan Filaret of Lovech, Metropolitan Kliment of Stara Zagora and Metropolitan Nikodim of Sliven), unofficial material support for clerics dismissed on political grounds, and even passively demonstrated opposition sentiments… All ‘deviations’ of the Church from the behaviour expected of it are carefully traced and documented. Whereas those ‘deviations’ were few and remained within the limits of a well-calculated minimal risk, they were watched vigilantly and were a cause of concern to the regime, as attested also by the latter’s dominant mistrust of the Church. Convincing proof of this is to be found in a 1949 reference brief by the authorities, cited in the book. The reference brief covers almost all clerics in Bulgaria (2235 in number) and categorizes them in eight types based on their attitude towards the new regime and degree of active collaboration. Four-fifths of the clerics are characterized as being opposition-minded and one-fifth are judged as demonstrating a positive attitude towards the Fatherland Front and as being actively involved in the undertakings of the government. But the conclusion is that only twenty-six of them were completely trustworthy insofar as they had been connected to the communist movement before 9 September 1944 as well. A large part of the ‘integrated’ clerics are characterized as being apolitical. This suggests that the Church was as conformist as all other organizations and institutions in Bulgaria, but the problem in this case obviously was that what was expected of it was more than mere survival and more than the behaviour expected of the other organizations and institutions. But insofar as the Church is perceived as the carrier of a moral imperative, it can also be criticized severely on some points. The author, however, has not found it necessary to specify some of those points. The problem is not even that in this difficult for it period the Church did not have martyr-clerics, but that it withdrew into itself and demonstrated, to a large extent, lack of social commitment. For example, there is no evidence of how it reacted to the more brutal repressions against Protestant and Catholic priests in Bulgaria.


What conclusions can be drawn from the two intertwined narratives from the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church under communism, presented by Momchil Metodiev? (1) Neither the methods of violence and corruption used by the regime nor the strategies for survival and adaptation of the Church were specific only to the latter. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church shared the fate of Bulgarian society and of the Bulgarian State. Thus, although the book does not explicitly describe the bigger context in which the private drama of the Church took place, it is also a document about the totalitarian system as such. The history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is also a history of Bulgarian society. (2) Without this part of the history of the Church, it is impossible to properly understand the situation of the Church after the changes of 10 November 1989. Therein lies the root of all problems we are witnessing today: the reasons for and purposes of the schism in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the proclamation of an alternative Holy Synod (the main actors in this process are former agents of the communist secret services), the commercialization and social insensitivity of the Church, the formalization of church rites… The past will continue to leave its mark on ecclesiastical life for years to come, just as it has left its mark on all of us. (3) Despite the strict restrictions under communism, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church preserved certain virtues: it had elements of internal democratism in an anti-democratic society; it avoided the trap of nationalism which some neighbouring Orthodox churches fell into and, ultimately, it preserved the ritual space where believers could seek communion with the transcendent.


The big question here, however, is how can we know whether preserving the ritual space also meant preserving the faith, whether the Church continued to serve as a mediator between believers and the transcendent force. This can be understood only by studying another narrative, which I mentioned at the beginning – a narrative that follows from the presumption that the Church does not consist only of the clergy situated hierarchically in the systems of the Synod and the State, but also includes the parishioners (be they scattered or organized), the congregation or, generally speaking, the believers. This narrative is absent in the book. I am fully aware that a single book, no matter how comprehensive, can hardly cover all aspects of the history of such a complex phenomenon. This missing narrative merits special study, it merits another book and I am only mentioning it here as an occasion for a more general reflection on the methodology of contemporary Bulgarian historiography. This missing narrative from the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church cannot be expounded without connecting event history with the social sciences: sociology, social psychology, interpretative anthropology, oral history… In other words, unless we overcome the purity of genres, we will not find an answer to the most important questions: what was the real place of the Church in the life of Bulgarian society under communism, what was the attitude of believers towards the Church, what was the attitude of village priests towards the Church bureaucracy, in what forms was the faith practiced, what was the extent of integration, were there conflicts in the faith, and so on.


My personal observations on the relationship between the Church and society under communism, for example, allow me to cite two quite commonplace situations. The first one: people took part en masse in the church calendar during the major religious festivals, such as Easter, Christmas or All Souls’ Day, which are deeply ingrained in traditions, in everyday-life habits. The second one: many people regarded any form of contact with the Church (baptisms, wedding services, funeral services, pilgrimages, and so on) as an act of opposition, as deviation from the ideological prescriptions. The Church offered an occasion for avoiding the communist party’s petty prescriptions at a low, everyday-life level. People intuitively believed that religion offered some kind of moral support, principles of highly authoritative behaviour of a different character, rooted in ordinary life… Back in the past Gombrowicz, referring to the Polish situation, wrote the following: ‘The Church is a weapon against Russia, Germany and communism.’ This sheds light on the present situation: the lifting of the restrictions imposed by the communist State has led to a strong decline in the number of people flocking to church at Christmas or Easter…


Those examples point us to the big subject of secularization and its various forms – a problem discussed by Momchil Metodiev, too. And as I noted at the beginning, his book implicitly points to a very important problem in the situation of discrediting of or declining trust in the ecclesiastical institution: the problem of the possible forms of religiosity today, of the values stemming from faith in a modern secularized society. This is the main idea in the conclusion of the book, which is wholly devoted to the situation after 10 November 1989. The expectations that the Church would play a bigger role in the processes of democratic transformation have not come true. The failure in reforming the Church itself – less in terms of personnel than in terms of doctrine, of behaviour and presence in society, of messages – coincides with a heightened inclination of people towards religious moral principles. The present attitude towards the Church and religion is symmetrical – but opposite – to that of the communist regime: whereas the communist regime flirted with the ecclesiastical institution and persecuted religion, today many people are turning away from the ecclesiastical institution and directly to religious messages. Against the background of the universal conclusion that communism destroyed the traditional foundations of morality, there are growing calls for returning to the fundamental principles of morality or, figuratively speaking, to the spirit of the Ten Commandments. The crisis of postcommunism has coincided with a spiritual crisis in the developed, democratic world as well, although that crisis has other roots: the crisis of instrumental reason and the transience of contemporary forms of life. Either way, two different in character, but essentially similar, problems from the West and East of Europe intersect at this point. Eastern Europe’s intuitive turning to the traditional forms of morality is conceptualized in a theoretical discourse in the West. It is argued that religious content can and must be translated into the language of the morality of the present. This raises the purely theoretical question of how the interest, manifested in everyday life, towards the religious foundations of morality can be reconciled with the universal perspective of, as Charles Taylor puts it, ‘the stages of the human race’. In other words, how the religious foundations of morality can be combined with the modern secularized society. This has also led to the appearance in literature of a programmatic term: ‘post-secular society’. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria the debate on the Church and the debate in the Church remain far from this problematics.


These last reflections are provoked by the wealth of the book, they are not meant as criticism for missed opportunities. This is a study that is not only ambitious in its task but also extremely successful in its realization. The book has already become a factor to be reckoned with in the disputes around the Bulgarian Orthodox Church regarding both its recent past and its present state. That the book contributes to the development of knowledge of an important social sphere is also attested by the exceptional media interest it has attracted in Bulgaria.

*This review was published in the Kultura weekly, No. 35/2010.

  • Ivaylo Znepolski
  • Momchil Metodiev – Between Faith and Compromise