Religion and Atheism in Soviet Russia: The Search for a Cultural Narrative (Aaron Buzek)

Soviet religious policy is highly representative of the reactionary and contradictory spirit of Russian history. The search for a cohesive Russian cultural identity has been plagued by the struggle between east and west, past and future, and what is considered truly Russian (or in this case Soviet) and what is a seen as a threat to their nation. In order to understand the place of religion in Soviet Russia one must examine the respective cultural value both before and after the October Revolution of 1917. In investigating this dichotomy, one can begin to understand the difficulty surrounding the search for a cohesive cultural identity: a search that has been raging throughout the history of Russia.

Before the revolution and Bolshevik rule, religion was of paramount importance in Russia; the morality and everyday actions of people were highly influenced by religious belief. This private spiritual and moral sway of religion was not the only influence on Russian life, though. Orthodox Christianity’s influence on society as a whole must also be noted to fully understand the impact of Soviet religious policy.

A cursory glance at the skyline of Saint Petersburg is all that is needed to impart the feeling that religion is a major facet of Russian society. Saint Isaac’s and the spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral rise above the rest of the low-lying city and frequent walks down Nevsky Prospect presents the magnificent structures of Kazan Cathedral and The Church on Spilled Blood. Each and every church was extraordinary in its own way, both inside and out. A phenomenal amount of money, in addition to artistic and architectural innovation, was poured into the construction of Russia’s many churches. Churches were one of the status symbols of the Tsars, a way to show their might and wealth, as well as a way to contribute to the cultural development of their society.

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Kazan Cathedral: Later used to house the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad (Source: Joe North, Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0)

Despite the omnipresence of religion, the Bolsheviks, and their ideological forefathers, believed that religion was inherently incompatible with their version of socialism. To Marx, religion was an ‘opiate’ that kept the masses blind to their suffering and enslavement under the capitalist yoke (Marx 1). They believed that it undermined their core values of science and technological progress and hindered their movement away from the backward tendencies of Tsarist Russia. Essentially religion was in direct contradiction to the cultural narrative that the Soviets were working to introduce. From its onset, the Soviet government mandated the complete separation of church and state. Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet government began what would become a long, drawn-out, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to suppress religion and promote atheism, a key component of the new Soviet identity.

In the beginning, the efforts of the state to suppress religion were masked under the guise of societal healing, not so much in a purely anti-religious manner. In 1923, the government looted a great number of churches, taking with them uncountable, irreplaceable religious artifacts. This was done under the pretense of helping the starving—this was an effective and intelligent strategy, as protest by the churches or followers would appear to be greedy and unwilling to help the needy (Lebina 43). The actual role that these artifacts played in feeding the poor, however, is not entirely clear. Regardless, this action sent a clear message to the religious community: the wellbeing of society trumps that of religion. In addition to these actions, the government secularized marriage and death, and no religious holidays were officially recognized or supported by the state, although they were replaced by days of rest throughout the country(41). The secularization of these prominent cultural events was a powerful first step in replacing the religious aspect of society with the new Soviet narrative.

The strength bestowed to the community by religious holidays spurred the government to develop a campaign which targeted these traditions. The state sponsored “Komsomol” Christmas and Easter, which responded to local religious celebrations with atheist propaganda and a mocking view of the celebrations that threatened the centralization desired by the state (Lebina 44). The Komsomol push was unsuccessful, though, because much of the importance of these celebrations for the religious lay in the tradition and actions of the people. The state revamped its attempts at secularization by hosting celebrations completely separate from the holidays at clubs. This was an attempt to entice believers away from celebrating religious holidays. In addition to these parties, marches and parades were organized to promote atheism among the youth (45-47).

At the end of the 1920s there was a noticeable shift in the state’s attitude toward religion. It began to remove religious holidays and replace them with Soviet holidays. Eventually this culminated in the abolition of Christmas and even New Year’s celebrations (though the latter was revoked in 1947). Christmas and New Year’s trees were made illegal and random raids were conducted to ensure obedience to the new law (Lebina 59). These actions against the two biggest Russian holidays were a huge step in the Soviet’s attempt to rewrite the Russian cultural narrative. These sweeping reforms greatly decreased the active and open religious participation of a large quantity of the population.

Collectivization of public life also furthered the suppression of religion. No religious symbology, i.e. icons, were allowed in common areas of collective housing, and people were frequently mocked for publically performing religious rituals. Food rations had a similar effect. The limited food supply available to the majority of the population prevented them from preparing special holiday foods (Lebina 57). Finally, the introduction of an uninterrupted work week limited workers’ free time (55). Having Sunday as the only day off discouraged people from attending church and made celebrating holidays much more cumbersome and challenging.

There was a revival of religion throughout the USSR despite the introduction of these measures meant to suppress religious activity and belief (although it is important to note that tens of thousands of believers and clergymen were sent to the gulags during this time period). This restoration was due to the outbreak of World War II. Stalin used religion to unite the Soviet people and instill a sense of hope during a dark time. This relative lull in persecution lasted for the rest of Stalin’s rule, until 1953. However, during Khrushchev’s time in power and the period of de-Stalinization, there was a significant and intense revival of antireligious activity (Stone 297). By 1964, the number of operating churches, monasteries, and clergymen was roughly halved by the government(Lebina 81). Monasteries were the first target of the antireligious campaign, because they had no legal representation and were relatively removed from the public eye.  The state closed down numerous monasteries across the Soviet Union and prevented anyone younger than 30 joining a monastery (Shkarovskii 74). The latter measure is exemplary of many antireligious actions by the government because of its focus on preventing young people from becoming religious.

After the attack on the monasteries, the government turned its attention to the churches. The government initiated widespread tax hikes on churches and candle-making studios (a significant monetary supply for churches), as well as drastically cutting priest’s pay: this was an attempt to run churches into the ground economically (Shakrovskii 75). Additionally, churches had to register with the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). The CRA was intended as a mediator between the church and state, as an enforcer of legislation regarding religious activity. This neutrality was a complete façade, as the CRA supported atheism and allowed regional authorities under their command to operate relatively independent of the law, with few checks on their activities. Although the main mission of the CRA was to provide administration to religious bodies, they also exercised control over atheist propaganda and had a substantial influence in developing legislation (Anderson 1).

In the final days of 1958, the government raided church libraries and fenced off and appropriated holy sites throughout the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1959, the government responded to outcry from the Church and allowed religious authorities to host an international convention of Orthodox Churches. However, due to prior weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rest of the Orthodox community decided that these leaders were unfit for their duties (Shkarovskii 72-73).

This failed experiment substantially weakened the Orthodox Church’s position in Russian society and allowed the government to make further inroads against them. The government prohibited a good deal of churches from opening and increased KGB presence among the faithful. The government’s attempts to limit religious influence would prove to be futile as early as 1960, when a substantially higher proportion of Russians attended Easter service. One Muscovite noted that churches in Moscow were overflowing, forcing some attendees to stand outside the physical church (Shkarovskii 78). The state responded by introducing a much more vicious head of the CRA and closing more churches. Local police were encouraged to ignore acts of vandalism against churches and violence against church-goers.

Closure and limitation of theological schools, as well as additional tax hikes, took place in 1961. Now the Russian people were truly beginning to stir against these measures and took matters into their own hands by gathering data on persecution to use as a bargaining chip and founding underground churches, collectively known as the True Orthodox Church. The state made a final push in 1964, beginning intense atheistic schooling and increased the propaganda present in school. These measures were concentrated mostly in rural Russia, which was viewed as backward and primitive, the antithesis to the highly industrialized and technologically advanced picture that Soviet leaders had for their society (Stone 300-301). Science was emphasized over the belief in the supernatural and it became illegal to expose children and adolescents to religion or any religious thought (Stone 302).

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League of Militant Atheists Membership Card (Source: Anonymous Author, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

These measures were based on several factors including economic socialization and general control, both of which were seen to be undermined by religious belief. The international climate and pressure from abroad was also an important factor, and at the end of 1964, this pressure became enough to force the government to lay off significantly in their antireligious campaign. This shift between the 60s-70s and the late stage of Soviet rule can be seen in the presentation of the antireligious message in the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad. As late as 1974, the museum focused on the darkest side of religion, such as religious suppression and backwardness. A significant portion of the museum was dedicated to displaying numerous torture instruments used in religious persecutions such as the Spanish Inquisition. In 1981 a western visitor noticed that these exhibits were completely gone, and the general tone of the museum was much more subtle (Elliot 128). This exemplifies the shift from the Khrushchev era to the later stage of the Soviet Union. The state’s blatant and intense attacks against religion were unsuccessful and invited significant negative attention from abroad, resulting in a significantly toned down message. As the Soviet Union’s push to change the cultural identity began to falter (most seen in perestroika and glasnost) it was deemed necessary to begin cutting losses in an effort to recover ground the state had lost in the second half of the 20th century. This notably manifested itself in greater religious freedom and less influence from the government in this sphere of life.

Beginning in the mid-1960s there was a substantial movement toward protecting churches and old religious sites in the name of conserving history. This movement was also urged on by a desire for more tourism, positive international attention, and a more subtle presentation of atheism. This movement of religious persecution, from beginning to end, was eventually unsuccessful. Though there was a substantial decrease in churches and overt religious practice, the devout simply responded by practicing religion in a more private way. Now, in the post-Soviet era, there is a general trend toward increased religiousness, and there is also a general reluctance to identify oneself as an atheist (Kublitskaia 51).

In their search for a cultural identity and narrative, the Russian people have followed a winding, convoluted path. From the westernization effort of Peter the Great to the revival of the ‘true’ Russian spirit of rural peasant culture, to the battle between the intelligentsia and the church and government, Russia has never been able to maintain a true identity. In their great experiment, the Soviets tried to manifest their own identity, but it ultimately proved weak and groundless. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the modern nation of Russia is still struggling to define itself. The church has made a huge comeback, finding great support from the government and a significant portion of the population. It is seen as a part of that evasive concept of something that is ‘truly Russian’. The Russian people are again attending church in large numbers. While I was in Russia, I got a lot of support for wearing my baptismal crucifix; I felt that many of the Russians who reacted to this were pleased to see an American supporting the Orthodox Church.

Although widespread support for the church is returning, it is certainly presenting itself in a contradictory manner. Russia wishes to present itself as a progressive, modern democracy, yet it steadfastly suppresses the gay community and carries out clearly partisan attacks on Putin’s challengers (most notably the recent actions against Alexei Navalny). It is worth noting that the church is one of the main proponents of the anti-gay stance that has been taken by the government. Clearly, Russia has not yet discovered its own cultural identity, and it is hard to see that happening any time in the near future. Russia’s cultural narrative may very well be a perpetual search for one.

Works Cited