MOSCOW -- About 200,000 clerics perished during the Soviet era, many of them strangled, shot, crucified, or slowly frozen to death after being drenched with water and sent into the winter cold, a Russian government commission reported yesterday.
President Boris N. Yeltsin will issue decrees "rehabilitating" the half-million clerics who were officially repressed by being killed or jailed, said Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of Mr. Yeltsin's commission for the rehabilitation of the victims of political repressions. The religious repression will be declared criminal, he said.
Mr. Yakovlev added that government archives, including secret police records, have yielded ample evidence of Communist confiscation of millions of dollars worth of church valuables and land.
Restoring church property
"Local authorities will probably be instructed to participate in restoration of church property to the extent that they can," said Mr. Yakovlev.
The commission's investigation of religious repression of Christians, Jews and Muslims includes previously published material as well as new government archival evidence of Soviet-sponsored persecution.
The commission's work is part of the democratic government's efforts to uncover the wrongs of the past. But in the context of this election season, in which a born-again Communist Party appears to be on a comeback, the commission's work looks to some like a political ploy to discredit the party and its infamous political heritage.
Mr. Yakovlev alluded to this yesterday.
"After destroying 40,000 churches, half of the country's Muslim places of worship and more than half of the Jewish synagogues, after shooting thousands of church followers to fall in love with the church without repentance shows the very extreme of moral decline," he said.
Many were ignorant
But at the same time, Mr. Yakovlev seemed to assert that people in high places in the former Soviet system would not have known the details of the orchestrated repression.
"Even while serving in high positions, I did not suspect how much in our history seems impossible, unheard of or hard to believe," said Mr. Yakovlev, a former Soviet Politburo member and a Yeltsin administrator of democratic reform since 1991.
"I was horribly impressed by the facts: Clergymen and monks were crucified on the royal doors [gates to church altars] in churches, were shot dead, strangled and had water poured on them in the winter until they turned into frozen pillars," he said.
"Not enough repentance has been heard about that part of our history," he added.
He said the commission's report, to be published in book form, will describe the "discussions at the very top as to who would lead repressions of the clergymen," how the KGB and its predecessor agency had a policy of promoting church division and siding with the "least dangerous side" to promote the Russian Orthodox Church's own "self-annihilation."
The report says that the 48,000 Russian Orthodox churches operating in 1918 had been reduced to just 7,000 by 1969. Though the report has less information on Jews, Muslims and Roman Catholics, said Mr. Yakovlev, it is believed the scale of decline in their houses of worship was similar.
Further, the book will describe the details of a 1922 state campaign to expropriate church property worth 2.5 billion gold rubles under the pretext of helping feed the population of the famine-struck Volga region.
Only a "fraction" of the money was used for the purpose, said Mr. Yakovlev. The rest went to party bosses or to finance world revolution, he said.
"No statistics are necessary for Russians. It's enough to walk around Moscow and see how church buildings are used still used," observed Dmitri Shusharin, religion correspondent of the daily newspaper Sevodnia.
He referred to the numbers of onion-domed churches tucked around every corner of this city -- many abandoned to the elements, many occupied by government or military offices -- that stand as testament to the religious life that once proliferated here.
"The statistics [of the report] are interesting, but they are released so long after they were generally known, that neither the state nor the commission can claim the honor of being pioneers in exposing anything," Mr. Shusharin said.
"And the decree [of rehabilitation] is juridical nonsense. These people were repressed by a state that ceased to exist in 1991. The clergymen don't need rehabilitation from a state created on the ruins of that former state.
"What would be logical is the return of property and land," he said.