Unlike Stalin, who suffered a mental collapse when the reality of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union penetrated his state of denial, on the very day of the attack metropolitan Sergei sent a message to every Orthodox parish. It reminded the Russian faithful of the heroic deeds of their ancestors, and of the saints Alexander Nevsky and Dimitri Donskoi, who had rescued Holy Russia in past crises: ‘Our Orthodox Church has always shared the fate of the people. It has always borne their trials and cherished their successes. It will not desert the people now … The Church of Christ blesses all the Orthodox defending the sacred frontiers of our Motherland. The Lord will grant us victory.’ … When Stalin did finally address the nation on 3 July, he spoke in the uncharacteristic tones of ‘Brothers and sisters! My dear friends!’ whose religious accents were unmistakable. He may have mentioned Lenin, but the radio address was much more like a simple priest sounding the village tocsin. In October, patriarch Sergei wrote a further address, as the Germans came within sixty miles of the capital. He condemned clergy who had defected to the enemy, notably metropolitan Voskresensky who had been despatched to the Baltic States before the war as part of a wider attempt to exploit Orthodoxy to integrate the newly acquired states into the Red Empire. On 11 November, Stalin harangued troops on Red Square as German troops battled their way towards suburban Moscow, invoking Nevsky, Donskoi, Suvarov and Kutusov, realising that common or garden patriotism and religion had greater mobilising potential than Marxist-Leninism. Typically, patriarch Sergei had been dragged from his sickbed a few days before and deported to Ulyanovsk.
Of the other two remaining Orthodox hierarchs, metropolitan Nikolai was brought back from the Ukraine to Moscow, where he became the regime’s main clerical foreign policy propagandist, while metropolitan Alexei rallied the faithful during the terrible siege of Leningrad. The regime made a few cautious and parsimonious concessions to a Church that played a major role in maintaining wartime morale. It tolerated rather than encouraged religion. Overt anti-religious propaganda may have ceased for the duration, perhaps in rueful recognition of Pius XII’s leading role in persuading sceptical US Catholic bishops of the legitimacy of their government’s Lend-Lease aid to the Russian people despite his predecessor’s comprehensive damnation of Communism, a stance that militates against the notion that anti-Communism was the overriding obsession of his pontificate. Sunday was restored as a day of rest, and artists were allowed to repair damaged icons. In 1942 the presses of the almost defunct League of the Militant Godless were used to produce a tome called The Truth about Religion in Russia, in which the weary remnants of a Church the Soviets had tried to destroy were displayed for foreign consumption. Beyond this there were no concessions. At Easter 1942 churches in Moscow were allowed to hold candlelit processions as the curfew was raised for a night. This was a meagre gesture given the enormous role that the Churches had played in the war effort. Starting with Alexei in Leningrad, sermons became appeals to donate money to the war effort. By January 1943, over three million rubles had been raised in Leningrad alone. Another five hundred thousand rubles funded a tank column named after Dimitri Donskoi. By the end of the war, the Church had contributed 150 million rubles.
In November 1942 metropolitan Nikolai became the first cleric since 1917 to have an official function, when he joined a government commission to investigate Nazi war crimes on Soviet territory. That included putting his name to accusations that the Germans had carried out massacres at Katyn for which the NKVD had been responsible. In January 1943, patriarch Sergei sent a telegram to Stalin requesting permission to open a central bank account where the Church could deposit such monies. When Stalin assented, relaying the gratitude of the Red Army, the Church effectively received corporate legal recognition for the first time. It was a sign of the times that in the same month a senior party official in distant Krasnoyarsk formally received a bishop, who was also a brilliant surgeon, the man still being a prisoner at the time. In September, the exiled Sergei was surprised to find himself brought back to Moscow and installed in the former residence of the German ambassador. At 9 p.m. the following night, he and metropolitans Alexei and Nikolai, were driven to the Kremlin for a session with Molotov and Stalin. The former improbably asked what the Church might need. Recovering from the shock of this request, Sergei said the reopening of churches and seminaries, a Church council and the election of a patriarch. As if it had nothing to do with him, Stalin gently inquired: ‘And why don’t you have cadres? Where have they disappeared to?’ Rather than pointing out that most of these ‘cadres’ had died in camps, Sergei quickly joked: ‘One of the reasons is that we train a person for the priesthood, and he becomes the Marshal of the Soviet Union.’ This set Stalin off on a monologue about his days as a seminarian which went on until 3 a.m. Stalin helped the elderly Sergei down the stairs, saying, ‘Your Grace, this is all I can do for you at the present time,’ although he also appointed Georgi Karpov as the regime’s liaison with the Orthodox Church. Karpov was the NKVD official who had arrested and shot most of the clergy, though Stalin added, ‘I know Karpov, he is an obliging subordinate.’ At some point in the course of that night there was oral agreement regarding the future status of the Orthodox Church. Within four days nineteen bishops were found who elected Sergei patriarch, successor to patriarch Tikhon who had died in 1925. They issued a joint exhortation to Christians around the world to unite against Hitler.