Dr. Edward Roslof is the author of "Red Priests: Renovationism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Revolution, 1905-1946." Here, he talks about the men who strove to keep Russian Orthodoxy alive during the oppressive Soviet years--men usually considered traitors to the faith.

Your book talks about Russian priests who tried to integrate Soviet ideals--Bolshevism--with Orthodox Christianity. What was going on, especially in the early 1920s?

This was an attempt by this group of priests I call "Red Priests" because of their affiliation or their contacts with the Soviet Government. Their concern was that their church seemed to be missing the revolution. The revolution was changing Russian society in so many ways, and the new Soviet society was emerging. They were convinced that Russian Orthodoxy as it has existed before the revolution was on the verge of extinction, so they adopted various platforms for church change. They called the new church "The Living Church"--they took that name on purpose to indicate the "old church" was dying and they were living.

Some of them even embraced Communist methods for dealing with their enemies, which made them very unpopular among the many Orthodox believers who felt -and rightly so-that Christian clergymen should not be using terrorist tactics and other things against their enemies. Basically, they got into an untenable position.

Why did they think that the church was on the verge of extinction?

Part of it was all the trends that had emerged in the Church in the 19th century into the early 20th century, where the Church seemed to be fragmenting. The bishops were sort of at odds with the parish clergy. There was tension between laity and clergy, usually over issues like money. The seminaries seemed not to be working. Many sons of priests were not entering the priesthood. Large numbers of people were embracing revolutionary movements that the traditional church had ignored or even opposed. The government seemed not to have the Church's interests at heart. So, everything that was happening seemed to indicate that, just as Russian society was fragmenting, the church was fragmenting, and had nothing to say to this new revolutionary society. One of the things that the Bolsheviks promised when they came to power was that they would sweep away all the old culture. They thought that the Church seemed to be a prime candidate for such housecleaning.

What were some of the platforms of the Red Priests?

Some of them simply wanted liturgical reforms, such as using the vernacular Russian in the Divine Liturgy as opposed to Old Church Slavonic. Some even tried to change the way the churches were laid out. They thought that there was too much emphasis on mystery by having the altar behind the iconostasis, so they wanted to move the altar out among the people. This didn't last very long because the people would have none of it. It was too opposed to tradition.

Others wanted to change the service to make it shorter and more comprehensible to the ordinary layperson. Still others were much more radical in their demands, their beliefs and their programs. For example, some said "we have to actually be 'Bolshevik Christians' and have a faith that is based on the ideals of radical socialism."

Like shared property?

Shared property, and the church opposing the capitalists. Being for democracy, as being for the workers and the poorer peasantry. Solidarity with the downtrodden masses.

And surely they could find a lot of scriptural support for that.

Indeed. Opponents argue that Soviet Communism was a Christian heresy in many ways. It was sort of Christian utopian thought without God or Christ. You take God out and what you're left with is a social program that, at least on paper, advocates caring for the poor, caring for the needy. But it also is non-Christian in terms of its advocating violence against of those who own property.

Some the Red Priests just wanted the Church to be more democratic in general. That is, they wanted laypeople to have a greater say in the running of the Church and not to be quite so clerically oriented. Although some of these were also very traditional in upholding traditional Orthodox doctrine and belief. So it's a range.

Money was a big issue--as it always is in every church, right? The opportunity to give parishes greater say in spending their own funds in the parish had long been a sore point. It always is, whenever the authorities higher up say you have to give so much of your income to support the diocese, or to support some project outside the parish.

In the book you indicate that many of these Red priests were sincere and motivated by genuine religious conviction. But at the same time you implied that other priests just wanted to make sure that the Bolsheviks didn't obliterate Orthodoxy. Those clergy members seemed a bit more politically motivated.