Dragoș Ursu




With the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe, the churches found themselves in a precarious situation after the traumatic experiences of the Second World War. The churches were challenged to coexist with autocratic regimes. Institutionally weakened by the attempts of political power to limit their autonomy, the churches were confronted with the overthrow of the socio-political order by the Soviet-backed installation of communist regimes.

The Soviet model of the communisation of societies was also adopted by the regimes loyal to Moscow in terms of religious policy, which for most churches, it meant public and political marginalisation in exchange for limited autonomy. Thus, the regimes’ religious policies, which were not aimed at the total elimination of religious life and, implicitly, of the churches, included a range of practices and instruments that involved institutional control, informational surveillance and political repression. A special case was the Greek Catholic Church, which was abolished and its clergy and bishops repressed.

These methodological premises served as the basis for organising the international conference “Churches and Political Power During Communism. Individual Biographies and Institutional Mechanisms”, which brought together leading scholars from Poland, Hungary, the Republic of Moldova and Romania in Alba Iulia from 21 to 23 September 2023.

This academic meeting resulted in the publication of the present volume, which includes the most representative contributions. This volume is the result of a collaboration between the LIT publishing house and Annales Universitatis Apulensis (Alba Iulia), which publishes the volume as a special issue of this journal.

Here, the authors present the essence of their work and personal research, covering various aspects related to churches, religion and political power during the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, be it biographies of important, relevant, heroic or interesting individuals or highlighting the institutional mechanisms that made repression possible, be it accounts of oppression or cultural perceptions of religion and its ministers during the socialist period.

This research expands and enriches the historiographical landscape of religion during communist regimes. Each of the contributions in this volume is full of insights and highlights documents from the relevant archives (state, church or political police) of various Central and Eastern European countries or appropriately uses some of the most recently published literature on the topic in question.

How the authors approach the sources represents not only a fundamental reconstruction of historical events but also a critical positioning: discussing, relating and analysing the implications of how historians use archives and how archival information affects our knowledge of history. This is, of course, nothing new to the historian’s craft; it is neither the first nor the last initiative to do so. What is new about this volume, however, is the number of authors, the countries they represent and, notably, the religious denominations whose histories are reconstructed or brought to light. It is a carefully assembled puzzle of different historical colours and tonalities. The volume presents traditional biographical reconstructions. It also provides broader landscape discussions of the history of Central and Eastern European countries or their involvement in international religious relations and international politics during communist regimes. Finally, several authors discuss the challenges posed by the use of documents produced by repressive institutions in the reconstruction of biographies and histories.

Overall, a rich landscape emerges from these contributions. As mentioned above, these research papers stem from an international history conference that took place in Alba Iulia, Romania, in September 2023, which brought together scholars from many countries, who study and engage with the history of communist regimes. The common thread that runs through all this valuable research is that the churches had to find a modus vivendi with the communist states and leadership. These are either histories of repression or histories of accommodation to regimes that were not monolithic but dynamic in their evolution, in their personnel and in their conception of the relationship with the society they governed.

There is something for everyone in this volume. Those concerned with issues of institutional and political mechanics will be pleased to find in-depth discussions of what makes the institutions responsible for religious life tick, as well as the complicated relationship between religious institutions and power (i.e., the state). Similarly, those interested in political theology will find answers to questions about the situation of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Poland and Romania, the Reformed Church in Hungary, the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church in Romania, and how specific situations coming from within highlight religious and political imaginaries in relation to the secular state.

The contributions in this volume are grouped into four thematic sections that define the main topic of the articles: Churches and political power behind the Iron Curtain: religious policies of communist regimes; Discourse and institutional mechanisms: biographical studies; Heroes of the resistance against communism; Memorial projects and cultural reflections on the Communist past.

The first thematic section opens with Bánkuti Gábor’s paper, “The Catholic Church in Hungary and Romania during the Communist Dictatorship”, an in-depth comparative approach that sheds light on the interactions, acceptance and processing of the impacts of the Romanian and Hungarian regimes on the Roman Catholic Church. By showing how state and church strategies and actions were shaped more by the conflict of contexts and pressures to comply, Bánkuti brings a nuanced perspective that contextualises the Roman Catholic Church’s place in the Romanian interwar nation-building process and explains the differences between Romania and Hungary through different contexts and cross-generational ecclesiastical and social patterns.

Mirosław Szumiło’s work, “John Paul II and Opposition Activities in Soviet Bloc Countries”, focuses our attention on Poland and how the election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope and his subsequent activities had a profound impact on the emergence of Solidarity (Solidarność) and the revitalisation of Catholic religious life in Czechoslovakia and Lithuania.

Ion Xenofontov’s contribution, “The Situation of Monastic Houses in Soviet Moldova”, provides an apt excerpt from a brutal history: the measures taken by the Soviet authorities to repress religious personnel and restrict monastic life, which affected various religious communities of different denominations.

In “Relations Between the Soviet Union and the Vatican”, Dorin-Demostene Iancu discusses the content of two relevant archival documents on diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the Vatican in 1963.

Marius Silveșan’s work, “Baptists from Romania and the Revolution of December 1989”, also draws on memoirs and interviews to illustrate the history and presence of a religious community amid the turbulent events surrounding the fall of the communist regime in Romania, beginning with Timișoara and continuing with Arad, Brașov, București (Bucharest) and Constanța.

The second section of the volume focuses on the religious policies, discourses and institutional mechanisms of communist regimes. It consists of four papers that deal with the deep mechanisms of state-church relations during communist rule.

Ana Maria Iancu examines the history of the Union of Democratic Priests in Romania (1944–1947), a trade union organisation that functioned as a satellite formation to increase the popularity of the communists in Romania and deceive the Western public about the intentions of the Soviet-backed Romanian Communists.

As Ioana Ursu shows in “The Discourse of Repression. Narrativity and Semantics Inside the Securitate File of the Burning Bush from Antim Monastery”, it is not only the establishment of institutions that matters but also their language. Ursu’s article traces the story of a group of intellectuals and clergy known as the “Burning Bush”, who were subjected to communist repression in 1958 and collectively imprisoned on charges of conspiracy against the social order.

The mechanisms of repression extend not only to the language that creates reality but also to the various shifts in state and ecclesiastical legislation, as Răzvan Perșa discusses in his contribution, “Legal and Canonical Mechanisms for the Oppression of Orthodox Priests”, using the case of Father Arsenie Boca as an example.

Another case study expands the view of the functioning of state-church relations during the Nicolae Ceaușescu era (1965–1989). Based on the biography of the former political prisoner and archbishop Bartolomeu Anania, Dragoș Ursu’s paper describes the mechanisms of recalibration that intervened in the internal and international contexts after 1964.

The third section comprises biographical studies of heroes of the resistance against communism and opens with an article by Máthé Áron, “The Case of Sándor Joó. The Fate of a Pastor in the Light of State Security Documents”. In addition to the valuable biographical reconstitution of the Hungarian Reformed Pastor Joó, Máthé also discusses the use of political police archives and the status of the collaborating informants of the repressive institutions.

Next, Rafał Łatka’s “A Realist and a Prophet” introduces Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, whose primacy (1948–1981) spanned the longest years of the communist regime in Poland. Wyszyński withstood complicated times, dedicated himself to his religious mission and took a firm stand against communism.

Other fascinating accounts come from Cosmin Budeancă, who reconstructs the biography of the Catholic priest Ștefan Tătaru, who was sentenced to prison by the Romanian communist regime, and from Denisa Florentina Bodeanu, whose extensive work deals with the conversations of the Roman Catholic bishop Márton Áron, which were recorded by the Romanian political police, the Securitate, between 1956 and 1980. These papers not only reconstruct precise biographical and historical fragments but also provide a significant value based on documents from the archives of the political police (security services).

The fourth section addresses memorial projects and cultural representations of the communist past. Marcin Zwolski’s work, “Clergy Repressed by the Soviet Union in the Transmission of the Sybir Memorial Museum”, provides a nuanced account of Soviet repression in Poland, conveyed through both physical heritage and museum historical narratives. Finally, Radoslaw Domke’s “Church, Clergy and Religion in the Polish Film Discourse in the Years 1968–1990” boldly examines religiosity and secularisation in Poland through the narrative lens of cinematography.

There is a wealth of original information that will be useful to those interested in political repression or church-state relations, both long-time specialists and those new to the subject. The volume also reflects the following observation, which was felt in the atmosphere of the conference that led to its creation under this editorial umbrella: the joint presence, the bringing together of all this research and the fruitful debates that resulted from the coming together of scholars with similar concerns lead to progress in understanding the often-complicated threads of the historical past.

Finally, the monumental effort devoted to the publication of this volume qualifies it as an offering both to historical researchers and the general public interested in religious life and the political repression of religious life during communist regimes.



The conference, and thus the volume, are part of the post-doctoral research project “The Post-Detention Destinies of Clergy, Former Political Prisoners, During the (Re)calibration of State-Church Relations in the Ceaușescu Regime” (PN-III-P1-1.1-PD-2021-0597), which I conducted at 1 Decembrie 1918 University in Alba Iulia and which was supported by The Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding.

First of all, special thanks go to Dr Habil Cosmin Budeancă, my project mentor, who supported me throughout the writing and implementation of the project and played a crucial role in the organisation of the international conference.

The project was made possible thanks to the professionalism of the specialist staff (experts, accountants and lawyers) of the 1 Decembrie 1918 University in Alba Iulia, whom I would like to thank once again.

The Department of History at the Faculty of History, Letters and Educational Sciences of the University of Alba Iulia supported me in this project (and in the organisation of the international conference). Special thanks go to Professor Daniel Dumitran, the coordinator of the Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Historica, who gave me all his support in editing this volume. I would also like to thank Ioana Ursu for her professional involvement in organising the conference and editing the volume.

 The conference would not have been possible without the participation of the National Museum of the Union in Alba Iulia as a co-organiser. I would like to thank all the staff involved in the event.

I would also like to thank the LIT publishing house for accepting this project and, in particular, Timna Holzer for the excellent collaboration in the publication of the volume.

Lastly, I would like to thank Laura Badea, Project Officer at the Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding, who helped me overcome all the technical and bureaucratic difficulties of the project.

A final mention goes to Cambridge Proofreading and Editing LLC for their professional proofreading of the volume.