HL Deb 20 March 1923 vol 53 cc454-63

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP of CANTERBURY had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any information with regard to the reported arrest by the Bolsheviks of Monsignor Cieplak, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Petrograd, and certain Roman Catholic priests, and the threat of immediate death; and also to ask whether His Majesty's Government has any recent information with regard to the present position of His Holiness Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow.

The most rev. Primate said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question of which I have given Notice. It is one which divides itself necessarily into two parts, the first of which is to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any information with regard to the reported arrest by the Bolsheviks of Monsignor Cieplak, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Petrograd, and certain Roman Catholic priests, and the threat of their immediate death. There is no subject on which it is more difficult at this moment for private individuals and, I believe I am right in saying, official persons and authorities as well to obtain accurate information as that which relates to the internal doings and affairs of Russia. With regard to this particular Question, the urgency of which is obvious on the face of it, I have had some communication from an independent source.

I received a telegram from one who takes a deep interest in all that concerns the Church of which he is an ornament, Cardinal Mercier, of Malines, who has telegraphed and written to me on the subject. I have also been in communication, at their initiative, with the Polish Legation in this country who had direct information, or what was believed to be direct information, from Petrograd upon the subject which was inviting our consideration and our aid. During the last forty-eight hours I have had communication from the Vatican indirectly, stating that it is their desire to co-operate in any inquiry which we can set on foot in regard to these matters, and that the Pope had already taken such steps as seemed to him possible and right for making inquiry, and, if it was necessary, public protest. But none of these give more information really than is to be found in the newspapers, and I am most anxious to know whether we can obtain from His Majesty's Government to-night any fuller information or details. To-day, from a source which I have hitherto always found to be trustworthy, though communication is necessarily difficult, I have heard that the Roman Catholic Archbishop has been taken to Moscow, that his trial is immediately impending, and that, apparently, a grave outcome is to be feared.

Your Lordships may possibly remember that this particular Roman Catholic Prelate was imprisoned some two years ago, in October, 1920, for what was alleged to be anti-revolutionary propaganda, and that he was subsequently released. We are anxious to know what the facts are now. Is it the charge which was made and apparently dropped in 1920 which has now been revived, or has there been a fresh accusation brought forward regarding the action of the eminent Prelate who is suffering this outrage at this moment, if it be true that he has been taken to Moscow upon a charge involving, as I understand, the possibility of the penalty of death on an accusation about which we know little or nothing?

If this was an isolated instance occurring in any other country it might obviously be regarded as something that belonged to the internal affairs of that country, and would not properly call for any intervention from outside or any protest on our part. If this was happening in some other country, we should all feel that to be almost certainly the case. But we cannot so isolate it from the wider movement of which we are witnesses, which is taking place not only in Moscow and Petrograd but throughout Russia generally, and is directed not against individual ecclesiastics, in whatever position they may be, but against religion as a whole. Evidence is accumulating rapidly in my hands as to the growth of a definite anti-religious movement in Russia, calculated to do intense harm even beyond the limits of Russia by the circulation of literature and the nature of the persecution—we can call it no less—which is going on as regards the religious folk of the country as a whole.

It is for that reason that in addition to my Question about the Roman Catholic Metropolitan of Petrograd, I have asked whether His Majesty's Government has any recent information with regard to the present position of His Holiness Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow. I want the two things to be connected together because they are, as it seems to me, indisputably part of something much larger and far more extended than the mere prosecution, rightly or wrongly, of an individual. They are part of a system which is calculated to spread far beyond Russia in its evil effects.

May I recall to your Lordships for a moment what happened last year? In May of last year I called attention to the story of the Patriarch Tikhon and his continued persecution. I ventured then to remind your Lordships of the history of that remarkable man, not yet an old man—he is not yet sixty or only just about sixty—who has served in different countries with extraordinary distinction as a scholar, as a divine, and as a promoter and lover of peace and good will in every way. During his tenure of the patriarchial chair of Moscow he has shown in the most marked way his dislike of anything which would be disloyal even to the existing Government in Russia, the Government which is persecuting him, and has deprecated again and again—and I can say this from personal knowledge and personal communication—anything which would be merely hostile to the Government itself, unless it could be shown that some definite wrong could be brought to light. I can speak of that from knowledge of a direct kind.

I can also speak from knowledge of a direct kind of the efforts which he made throughout the famine years in Russia to secure, if possible, that all the aid which the Russian Church might be able to render should be given to the relief of the famine-stricken districts. It was that which made more outrageous than one can readily describe the stories which were euriet—the statements were officially made by the Bolshevist Government—that he had abdicated, and that he had done this in consequence of the action of the Government, which was based upon the refusal which he had consistently made to give help to the famine-stricken areas, the facts being the very reverse.

The Bolshevist authorities tried to confiscate even the Church treasures for public purposes and not for the famine areas at all, so far as we can ascertain. He offered that the authorities should be, with his concurrence and his help, furnished with the utmost possible assistance on one condition only, and that was that he, or someone representing him, should be cognisant of the destination to which the money went. He stipulated that so as to ensure that the money should go to the famine area and so that there should be a check upon it by those who were responsible for the enormous sacrifices that the Church would be making in lending its treasures. But everything of that kind was denied him. He was held up to public opprobrium as a person who was declining to allow help to be given by a rich Church to the famine-stricken areas of Russia. That was done, it would seem to me, merely for the purpose of concocting stories against hint in order that he might lose the popularity which had been so markedly and rightly his.

When we called attention to that in the summer of last year, it was followed by an appeal from Christian ministers and others connected with definite Christian work in this country and elsewhere. That appeal was addressed to the Soviet Government asking for information as to the supposed wrongdoings of this Prelate, and the persecution to which we understood he was being subjected. This led to a violent letter from the other side making statements which, so far as I know, had no substantial backing whatever from any other quarter. It seemed to us, from what some of us knew, that these statements were contradictory, and on receiving them I ventured to write again asking permission for two or three representatives of Christian bodies in England or America or Europe to make an independent inquiry on the spot in order that we might learn whether the statements which the Bolshevist authorities had made could be substantiated or not. If they were substantiated obviously what we had said would fall to the ground. That request met with a reply couched in terms of almost studied insolence, and such a visit by representative persons was absolutely refused. We were told that nothing of the kind could be granted.

A little later, we were informed, on behalf of the Foreign Office—I think it was in August last—that an endeavour would be made to secure that a representative from the Allied Powers, or from ourselves, should attend the trial, which was then supposed to be imminent, of the Patriarch Tikhon in Moscow. The Foreign Office was led to hope that that request would be granted. I should like to ask now whether that holds good, and whether the Government has any information as to whether if a trial does take place, as it is said to be about to do, a representative of the Allied Powers will be allowed to attend as an independent authority.

The whole position of general persecution seems to have been aggravated and the difficulty has become more intense. I am startled to learn from the horrible journals which come to me, and which are published apparently under Soviet authority, of the persecution not only of Christians but of Jews. In these publications there are caricatures, blasphemous pictures, and things of that sort, the purpose of which is to deride religious administration of all kinds. Those journals are being circulated at the present time. It may be said that we have no responsibility for them, but they are the background to the overt actions to which we are now calling attention.

These eminent ecclesiastics are being tried for their lives after they have done great religious work not in Russia alone but in other parts of the world, and after they have earned respect wherever they have been. Organised processions are taking place under the authority of the Soviet in the streets of Moscow and elsewhere. There is abundant evidence of the strange stories which are told of the growth of what is called the Free Church of Russia, or the Independent Church of Russia, which is supposed to be the force now existing for religious life in Moscow, and perhaps in Petrograd also. To those who are trying to look at the matter all round this would seem to be a fictitious body, created for the purpose of cloaking the real business of those who would be afraid of popular indignation if all that they were doing were rightly understood.

Feeling on this subject is now very widely aroused in this country. Testimony comes to me both from home and foreign sources as to how anxious people are becoming in regard to it. It is not a mere Church of England matter. Your Lordships probably saw in yesterday's Press a letter from one of the leading Nonconformists in this country saying how strong and united is Nonconformist feeling on this subject. I have had several requests that I should call attention to the fact that from Rome itself an appeal is being made on behalf of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastics who are in peril, and a protest made against the wrongs which are apparently being endured and the perils run by the Patriarch Tikhon who belongs to the Russian Church. The condition of things seems to be such as is likely to arouse the feeling of the whole civilised world. In these circumstances I think your Lordships will not feel it to be wrong that I should ask the Government whether they can give us any information or guidance upon this important matter.


My Lords, the most rev. Primate, in his Question and in his most interesting speech, directed special attention to the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church, and to the atrocious treatment of the Patriarch Tikhon, but I am quite certain, from his speech, that he realised that this is only part of a very great whole. In the first four years of the Bolshevist rule in Russia 1,233 archbishops, bishops and priests of the Orthodox Church were foully murdered, in some cases with the most shocking torture. The attack on the Roman Catholic Church in Russia is of comparatively recent date, but before that the Orthodox Church had been robbed of property to the value of 30,000,000 gold roubles. I am afraid that far too little notice was taken of those atrocities in this country. In all, the Bolsheviks from first to last have murdered very nearly two million people, all Russians, and of course the majority of them peasants and workmen. The total loss of life from the application of the principles of Karl Marx to Russia is now very little short of twenty million people, including those who died from starvation and disease. This is the most horrible crime in all history. In comparison with Lenin and Trotsky, I think we may almost say that Attila and Tamerlane were humanitarian.

I was so glad to hear what the most rev. Primate said when he pointed out that this attack upon the Churches in Russia is only part of a great attack upon Christianity throughout the whole world, an attack which is being carried out, of course, by other methods both here and in America, and, I am sorry to say, not without some success. I feel sure that he will give his powerful support to all of us who are trying to put a stop to the conversion of our young children in Socialistic Sunday schools into revolutionary atheists. In view of what has happened—I have only given the slightest sketch—it is interesting to note that the Soviet propaganda paper in this country spoke of "the absurd stories which are at present being circulated concerning the attitude of the Russian Government towards religion." That is what we are asked to believe, and that is why I have this evening recalled these few terrible facts.


My Lords, the most rev. Primate was fully justified in raising this question, which is one of great gravity and importance. No one, as I know very well from long experience of the interventions of the most rev. Primate, takes greater trouble than he does to acquaint himself with every possible source of information before he addresses your Lordships, and sometimes in answering him I find that he has greater information than the Government have at their disposal. I am not certain that this is not the case in the present instance. When he asks me to supplement his own information by such knowledge as we have received I gladly respond to the appeal, and I will give him in detail exactly what we know about the matter.

The persecution of the Roman Catholics in Russia, as apart from the Orthodox, dates back to December 2, 1922, when the Roman Catholic Church at Gatchina was closed by the Bolsheviks. A few days later ten other Roman Catholic churches were closed in Petrograd. The reason given by the Bolsheviks was the refusal of the Roman Catholic clergy to recognise a Soviet decree of January 23, 1918, for the lease and use of Church property. The effect of this decree was to recognise the ownership by the State of Church property in contravention of the Canonical laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Monsignor Cieplak, Vicar-General of the Arch-diocese of Mogilev with the titular rank of Archbishop, appealed to the Pope through the Papal Nuncio at Warsaw on December 6, 1922.

Nothing further was heard of any persecution until a telegram was received On January 27, 1923,from His Majesty's representative at the Vatican stating that Monsignor Cieplak, together with other priests, had been arrested for opposing the confiscation of sacred vessels by the Soviet, and that the Vatican had requested M. Chicherin to intervene on the ground that Monsignor Cieplak had probably acted in good faith knowing that the Vatican had offered to redeem the property. On receipt of this news, a telegram was sent to the British Agent at Moscow instructing him to make strong representations to the Soviet, Government on behalf of Monsignor Cieplak and the other priests unless he considered that this would do more harm than good. As it appeared that Monsignor Cieplak was not at that time actually under arrest, and as the head of the Papal Mission in Moscow was endeavouring to obtain a postponement of the threatened proceedings, Mr. Hodgson judged it wiser to await developments before intervening.

But when it became clear a fortnight ago that the Soviet authorities were determined to proceed with the trial without delay, Mr. Hodgson made representations to M. Litvinoff pointing out the lamentable impression on opinion abroad which would be caused by such proceedings when no longer justified by revolutionary necessities. On March 15 Mr. Hodgson was again instructed to do everything possible to save the lives of those arrested. Our own information from Mr. Hodgson shows that the ecclesiastics in question were not actually arrested until March 10, though they had previously been threatened with it. On March 5, Monsignor Cieplak and fifteen other priests had been summoned from Petrograd before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Moscow. Apparently they were arrested on arrival in Moscow and were then transported through the streets in a military truck under armed guard. The trial was due to begin on March 14 before judges and was to be conducted by a prosecutor whose prejudices were well known.

There was ground for thinking, as the most rev. Primate indicated in one portion of his remarks, that the real object of the trial was to provide material for an anti-Christian demonstration for Easter—there have been several of these dreadful organised demonstrations of the most blasphemous and infamous character in several of principal Russian cities—and to prepare for the trial of the Russian Patriarch Tikhon. We beard this morning that the trial has been postponed probably till March 21. Mr. Hodgson will not desist from continuing his representations in the interval.

As regards the Patriarch Tikhon, about whose public spirited behaviour at the time of the famine and in general the most rev. Primate gave us particulars that must have greatly impressed your Lordships, I know very little; I mean I know very little about his present position. So far as we have ascertained, the date for his trial has not yet been fixed. Mr. Hodgson was asked by telegram on March 15 for information about his treatment, but no reply has yet been received. Of course this is not due to any inactivity or negligence on the part of Mr. Hodgson, who is a most active and capable representative of our interests, and who is fully aware of the great importance of this matter and the duty that lies upon him personally to do what he can in the interests of the accused.

The most rev. Primate referred to some engagement which was given last year, I rather think in my absence because I was ill, by the representative of the Foreign Office as to the intention of His Majesty's Government to press for a representative being present at the trial. Of course we will do our best to fulfil that engagement, and if it is possible to secure the presence of the British representative at the trial either of the Monsignor or of the Patriarch we will endeavour to secure it. We have learnt, as the most rev. Primate told us, that the Pope has made similar representations in Moscow both on behalf of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastics and the Patriarch Tikhon.

I wish I could give further information. Anything that comes to hand I will, of course, communicate to the most rev. Primate, and, if the occasion arises, to the House itself. I am as profoundly horrified and dismayed as he is, and as the noble Lord who spoke below the gangway can be, at the narrative of events, involving this wanton persecution that we hear of as proceeding in Russia at the present time. I wish our influence, or the influence of decency, was greater than it is at the moment, but any influence we can exert by our representative or otherwise the House can rely upon us to use. I only wish I was in a position this afternoon to make a more satisfactory if not a fuller statement than it has been in my power to do.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Marquess for the information which he has given. It is possible that many members of your Lordships' House are not familiar with the subject, and I note that the noble Marquess spoke of our ignorance at the present moment concerning the exact position of the Patriarch Tikhon. The Patriarch has been under arrest for two years. He may not be actually in prison, but he is under arrest in a monastery, he is not allowed to speak to anybody, or receive any messages, or gain any information from the newspapers, so that the amount of liberty which he is at present enjoying is approximately that of a man in gaol. Those are the circumstances. I thank the noble Marquess for the information he has given me.