Role of Religion in Diminishing Soviet Rule: Case Study of Poland

As we commemorate the centennial of Saint Pope John Paul II birth this year, it is important to recall his role in bringing an end to communism in Europe.

by PAC Intern Kamila Magiera

The Soviet Union, the first Marxist-Communist state, rose to power following Russia’s Civil War in 1921, and later became one of the world’s largest and most powerful states, encompassing fifteen republics and taking control of Central and Eastern Europe following World War II. To fulfill communist ideologies and remain in power, the state not only absorbed markets and property but also limited national identity and suppressed religion. These measures were deemed essential in controlling annexed territories and republics; however, the Soviet Union struggled with limiting religion, specifically in Poland, a territory of strong Catholic faith. The Roman Catholic Church played a prominent economic, social, and political role in Poland, and many believe that not only the decline but also the fall of Communism is credited to the strength and powers of religious faith and the Church’s involvement.  

Religion was an outlet of social support during political and economic disruptions, a notion that the Communist regime wanted to avoid fearing that they could no longer control its people; it was a threat against its rule. Instead of people focusing on and obeying the Party, citizens would turn to their Gods and faith for guidance. Although the Soviet Union did not abolish religion, they did destroy churches, create anti-religion propaganda, promote atheism, and harass clergy. In Poland specifically, the regime launched an anti-religious campaign, persecuting monasteries and Catholic leadership in hopes of creating atheism. Jerzy Popiełuszko, a priest supporting Solidarity through his public teachings, was one of the most known attacks by the Soviets. In 1984, at the age of 37, Popiełuszko was beaten to death by three officers of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This effort to “contain” opposition in Poland as well as to disenfranchise the Catholic faith only strengthened the people of Poland: at the priest’s funeral, over 250,000 people, including Lech Wałęsa, attended to pay their respects to this unlawfully murdered and tortured martyr. 

With over 93% of Poland’s population in the early 1980s being practicing Catholics according to Suzanne Herby in “The Church in Poland and Its Political Influence”, church attendance reached its peak and became the epicenter for anti-Communism activism and sentiments. Regardless of the decreasing rates of new church developments and constant undermining in the media by the Soviet Union during the 1980s, Poland’s clergy and Catholic leadership persisted and consistently pushed their anti-Communist beliefs. In many cases, priests disobeyed the Soviet Union by giving sermons that criticized government policies, publishing materials that expressed pro-democratic sentiments and reestablishing religious education to reach a younger audience. 

To create additional instability, the Cardinal of Kraków Karol Wojtyła, became the Pope John Paul II in 1978. During his visit to his homeland in 1979, it is said that everything in Poland changed: he inspired Poles to fight peacefully for their freedom with the support of their spirituality, and that same year, Solidarity was formed in Gdańsk. The Pope met with Lech Wałęsa in later years, and visited Poland multiple times despite numerous warnings from Communist authorities. At the same time, John Paull II partnered with the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in an effort to disband Communism in Eurasia, establishing pressure on the Soviet Union internally and externally. 

Reaching such a large, faith-driven population, the Catholic church empowered the Polish people to protest peacefully and undermine Soviet rule to fight for their freedom. The Soviet Union’s inability to control and suppress religion challenged the very nature of their political system, leading to the loss of control of its annexed territory, not only in Poland but across Eastern Europe. The religious movements acted as a catalyst for a revolution against communism across Europe.

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