Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Again Once more


(Getty/Corbis/VCG/Peter Turnley) The view from Crimson Sq. at twilight: St. Basil’s Cathedral (proper) and Savior’s Tower on the Kremlin partitions.

A Sacred House is By no means Empty: A Historical past of Soviet Atheism
By Victoria Smolkin
Princeton College Press, 2018

In Russia, there’s a non secular revival occurring. Orthodox Christianity is flourishing after enduring a 70-year interval of atheistic Soviet rule. In 1991, simply after the collapse of the us, about two-thirds of Russians claimed no non secular affiliation. As we speak, 71 % of Russians establish as Orthodox. One can now see clergymen giving sermons on tv, encounter non secular processions in St. Petersburg, and watch residents lining up for holy water in Moscow. Even Moscow’s Darwin museum incorporates a Christmas tree through the holidays. President Vladimir Putin has inspired this revival and he has additionally benefited from it, each at house and overseas. Final 12 months, he defined that Russia’s intervention within the Syrian civil struggle was designed to guard Christians from the Islamic State. Not solely has the Orthodox Church supported this “holy struggle” however so have some American evangelicals, who’re likewise involved about Christians within the Center East and reward Putin’s socially conservative insurance policies.

Russia was remodeled from a bastion of conservative Orthodoxy within the nineteenth century into the world’s main promoter of atheism within the twentieth. This historic backdrop of Russia’s exceptional journey from Orthodoxy to atheism, and again once more, is chronicled in Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred House is By no means Empty: A Historical past of Soviet Atheism. It’s the first full account of Soviet atheism, from the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to the dissolution of the us in 1991. This participating guide is filled with placing evaluation and counterintuitive insights. And Smolkin, affiliate professor of Russian and Soviet historical past at Wesleyan College, has two huge arguments to make. The primary is that the which means of Soviet atheism has modified drastically over time. The second argument is much more shocking: As we speak’s non secular revival in Russia started earlier than 1991, she argues, and was promoted by the very organs that had been meant to rid the us of faith.

When Vladimir Lenin got here to energy in Russia in 1917, he held to the Marxist view that after capitalism was abolished, faith would likewise wither away. It was a slight twist on basic secularization principle, which held that as societies modernize, folks lose religion. For Lenin, and for his successor Josef Stalin, atheism was not one thing that required a lot thought. It was merely the absence of faith and would come naturally in due time because the Soviet Union developed into a contemporary society. Extra urgent for Soviet leaders was the political energy of the Orthodox Church. One after the other, rival political events had been outlawed, and ideologies had been banned however personal piety remained authorized in the us. So did church buildings, mosques, and synagogues. As one Soviet official identified, “non secular organizations are the one legally current counterrevolutionary organizations” within the Soviet Union.

Below Lenin and Stalin, new atheist organizations just like the League of the Militant Godless waged struggle on non secular establishments. Though church buildings and monasteries had been technically authorized, officers discovered methods of shutting them down, they usually remodeled a few of them into cathedrals of atheism. The Donskoi Monastery turned the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (right this moment, St. Petersburg) turned the Museum of the Historical past of Faith. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public show for all of the world to see. “On the finish of the Thirties, the social gathering got here as shut because it ever would to eradicating faith,” Smolkin observes.

Regardless of the general public spectacle and the very actual repression of the Orthodox Church, nevertheless, non secular perception and observe remained part of on a regular basis life and officers typically tolerated non secular practices, particularly within the countryside. As Smolkin exhibits, even rank-and-file communists struggled with managing non secular questions in household life. “What ought to a Leninist do if his household continues to be non secular, doesn’t allow taking down the icons, takes kids to church, and so forth,” a celebration member requested a Soviet newspaper’s recommendation column. The response “recommended a softer and extra gradual method to household disagreements over faith,” Smolkin writes. “Fairly than break together with his household, a Leninist ought to attempt to enlighten.” It was widespread for male social gathering members to marry non secular ladies, the columnist famous, and they need to be affected person with their households.

By the eve of World Struggle II, non secular organizations had ceased to be a political menace to the Soviet state. In 1927, the Orthodox Church had pledged assist for the communist authorities, and by 1941—when Germany invaded the Soviet Union—the overwhelming majority of church buildings had been closed down and hundreds of clergymen had been arrested or executed. In 1917, there had been greater than 50,000 church buildings within the Russian empire, however lower than 1,000 remained in 1939. It was due to his success in neutralizing the political problem of the Orthodox Church that Stalin welcomed it again into public life throughout World Struggle II, seeing it as a device to advertise patriotism at house and to earn good will of allies overseas. As Orthodoxy turned politically helpful for Stalin, he now not needed atheist organizations round. “With the beginning of the struggle, atheist periodicals and publishing homes had been shut down, most antireligious museums had been closed, and many of the establishments charged with atheist work had been dissolved,” Smolkin writes.

Stalin felt that he had management of the Orthodox Church, which he used to bolster his home authority and international coverage. However non secular beliefs and practices exterior the church, in on a regular basis life, weren’t as straightforward to regulate, they usually caught the eye of Soviet officers after Stalin’s loss of life in 1953. Feast days and pilgrimages to holy websites couldn’t all the time be managed by the Orthodox Church or the Soviet state. Nor might miracles. Smolkin relays a extensively reported story from 1956 of a younger woman who was turned to stone for blasphemy after shouting, “If there’s a God, then let him punish me!” The situation of the alleged incident within the industrial city of Kuibyshev (right this moment, Samara) drew lots of of curious onlookers and have become a vacation spot for pilgrims. By 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev got here to energy, unofficial, extra-ecclesiastical non secular practices turned suspect and had been focused. So had been personal beliefs. The persistence of faith in on a regular basis life—56 % recognized themselves as believers within the final census to ask about faith in 1937—inspired Khrushchev’s officers to revive the atheist equipment that Stalin had shut down and to concentrate on eradicating faith within the personal lives of Soviet residents.

Khrushchev was the final true believer in communism. And when he was ousted in 1964, his speedy successors ushered in an period of stagnation, when fewer and fewer believed that socialism was fulfilling its guarantees. It dawned on Soviet officers that eliminating faith, in each private and non-private life, was not sufficient to create atheists who believed within the communist trigger. Eliminating one religion didn’t imply it will get replaced by one other, as Lenin had predicted. Occasion leaders acknowledged that “it was additionally essential to fill Soviet Communism’s sacred area with constructive which means,” Smolkin argues.

In its remaining part, the which means of Soviet atheism was remodeled from a mere absence of faith—and a dedication to science and rationalism—into one thing religious that will fulfill the souls of Soviet residents from cradle to grave. This shift took some experimentation. Leningrad’s try to switch baptisms with new child registration rituals that awarded medals to the kids proved well-liked. Youngsters turning 16 had been eligible for passports and went by means of a passport ceremony at establishments just like the Moscow Home of Scientific Atheism. As Smolkin describes them, marriages had beforehand been easy bureaucratic affairs however starting within the Nineteen Sixties, they more and more happened in marriage ceremony palaces, the place grooms and brides would don formal garments, and the officiant spoke solemnly in ceremonial costume. Afterwards, many {couples} celebrated by collaborating in photographic excursions of town’s parks and Soviet monuments.

Nevertheless it turned clear to the atheist institution that it was failing to create true believers in communism. “Which is extra helpful to the social gathering,” a Soviet official requested rhetorically within the twilight years of the us, “somebody who believes in God, somebody who believes in nothing in any respect, or somebody who believes in each God and Communism?” He was signaling that apathy and indifference, not faith, had turn out to be the primary enemy of atheism. “Soviet atheism was not secularization or secularism however as a substitute conversion,” Smolkin writes. “Soviet atheism was not secular as a result of secularism can tolerate indifference.”

Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed again the Orthodox Church into public life in 1988, in a belated recognition that atheists and the clergy had a mutual enemy: indifference. Simply earlier than the autumn of the Soviet Union, Orthodoxy as soon as once more turned state-sanctioned and atheist establishments had been inspired to search out widespread floor with the Orthodox Church. Mockingly, atheist organizations started popularizing non secular concepts. The Home of Scientific Atheism turned the Home of Religious Heritage. An atheist journal modified its title to Science and Faith and have become “the primary Soviet periodical to provide voice to faith,” in line with Smolkin.

Studying Smolkin’s guide, I understood why she targeted on Orthodox Christianity, by far the most important non secular group within the Soviet Union. However the absence of a substantive dialogue of how Islam and Judaism had been managed in that numerous nation, and what nuance it will add to our understanding of Soviet atheism, implies that different historians can have work to do. One might additionally take situation with Smolkin’s argument that secularism can—certainly, should—tolerate indifference. In any case, secular international locations have histories of selling non secular concepts in addition to encouraging animosity amongst their residents in opposition to particular non secular teams.

I additionally questioned whether or not Smolkin is true to recommend that atheism couldn’t compete with Orthodoxy’s skill to legitimize the Soviet and Russian state. Judged by the requirements Soviet atheism set for itself on the finish of its 70 years as the us’s official perception system, it had failed as a result of it didn’t successfully occupy the sacred areas of Russian life. However this argument appears to underplay the continued affect of atheism in Russia right this moment. Many Soviet rituals invented by atheists stay extensively well-liked. Stamps and medals, a lot of them instituted to counter non secular affect, are nonetheless in broad use. One can hardly go to a statue or monument in Russia with out encountering a marriage social gathering, and the civil registration workplace, ZAGS, continues to be the popular selection for weddings.

In post-Soviet Russia, Orthodox Christianity provides the nation a legitimacy that it was “an historic polity with a millennial pedigree that gave it ethical legitimacy,” in line with Smolkin. Putin can tout Orthodoxy because the state faith however the actuality is simply as damning for Orthodoxy’s official standing because it had been for Soviet atheism. Most Russians establish as Orthodox however solely 6 % of them attend church weekly and solely 17 % pray every day. Russians are largely unchurched and infrequently don’t conform to the doctrines of the Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union had been the primary nation to legalize abortion in 1920, and the speed of abortions in Russia is greater than double in comparison with the U.S. and enjoys widespread assist regardless of robust objections from the Orthodox Church. And opposite to Orthodox educating, attitudes towards divorce and pre-marital intercourse stay lax.

Governments typically promote perception programs that designate life’s which means, and rituals that remind us of it, as a result of it lends them legitimacy. However these quests appear to all the time stay incomplete. That’s actually true of Soviet atheism, and it is usually true of Russian Orthodoxy. Smolkin’s guide helps us recognize that in Russia right this moment, as within the Soviet Union years in the past, official state faiths masks a extra difficult actuality.


Gene Zubovich is a visiting fellow on the College of Toronto. He writes on the historical past of faith and politics. Observe him on Twitter: @genezubovich  


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