There seems to be an attempt by atheist polemicists to deny or play down the extent to which atheism informed and provided the ideological basis for the persecution of Christianity and other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the indigenous shamanic religions of Siberia and the Soviet Far East by the Communist regime in the USSR. According to some atheist commentators, the Soviet persecution of people of faith was motivated not by atheist ideology, but by political expediency. The Russian Orthodox Church was attacked and persecuted because of its support for the Tsarist autocracy. The supporters of this view point to the reconciliation between the religions and the state that emerged in the 1940s when Stalin lifted some of the restrictions on organised religion, which resulted in the reopening of churches, seminaries, theological academies and monasteries. This tolerant attitude towards religion by the officially atheist Communist states continues today, according to this view, in China, where Christianity has been tolerated by the Communist authorities, and Buddhist and Taoist temples and monasteries re-opened after the savage persecution of Mao’s cultural revolution.
Religious Toleration by and Opposition to the Soviet Regime
Now initially the Soviet authorities did indeed consider that the individual had the right to freedom of belief. Lenin himself hated religion, but felt that the individual should be free to seek comfort in the religion of his choice and that this freedom should be guaranteed. 1 He also does not seem to have considered religious belief to have necessarily been an obstacle to membership of the Communist party. In the 1920s it was not unknown for Communist delegates in Central Asia to take prayer mats to party meetings. 2 There was indeed a political dimension to the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lenin probably launched his attack on the Church because he was afraid that the Orthodox Church, which had been a central pillar of Tsarist autocracy, would provide inspiration and a centre for anticommunist activities. In a Civil War the Church, through its influence with the rural peasantry, could lead to the Bolsheviks’ defeat. 3 The Soviet attack on the Russian Orthodox Church began after Patriarch Tikhon condemned the bloodshed of the revolutionaries. In a speech in January 1918 Tikhon had commanded the Bolshevkis to ‘Come to your senses, ye madmen, and cease your bloody doings!’ 4 Many Orthodox priests did indeed speak out in opposition to the Soviet Regime, and it was partly as a consequence of this clerical opposition that the supporters of the Soviet system denounced the Orthodox Church, declaring that every priest personified the ‘cursed past’ and was ‘for the Tsar’. 5
Stalin also became far more tolerant towards the Russian Orthodox Church during the Second World War, largely as a result of the need to enlist its aid as an inspirational, patriotic force, as in some areas the clergy were encouraging collaboration with the Nazis and attacks on the Soviets during the Nazi invasion. From 1942 there was a tacit understanding between the Church and the Soviet authorities that they should unite against the invader, an alliance which appeared to be cemented by Patriarch Sergius’ letter in Pravda hailing Stalin as the ‘God-chosen leader of our military and cultural forces’. The Mufti of the Soviet Muslims prayed that Allah would make Stalin victorious in his ‘work of freeing the oppressed peoples’ while the Jewish community in Moscow declared that ‘the Almighty has prepared for the Fascist horde the inglorious and shameful destruction suffered by all the Pharoahs, Amalekites and Ammonites’. 6 As a result of this active encouragement, many of the restrictions on religious worship were lifted. The Soviet government reopened 22,000 Orthodox churches that had been closed, two theological academies, eight seminaries and some monasteries. 7
Atheist Nature of Marxism
However, the view that political expediency, rather than an ideological commitment to atheism, was responsible for the persecution of people of faith in the Soviet Union ignores the essentially atheistic nature of Marxism and the continuation of the persecution of religious believers long after the Stalin era, from Khruschev’s presidency until Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Some of the early ’utopian’ socialist ideologies before Marx had either included a place for religion in their grand schemes to reform society, or else made use of arguments from Scripture even when the founders were religious sceptics. In England, Thomas Spence, the founder of the Spenceian Philanthropists who advocated the nationalisation of the country’s land, came from a Glassite family. These were a small sect who preached and practised to a limit extent community of property. 8 Spence was also strongly influenced by the Rev. James Murray, a Presbyterian clergyman who led an independent, democratic congregation and who taught that the Gospels provided humanity with the best charter for human rights and liberties. Murray attacked what he saw as the government’s oppression of the poor, and demanded civil and religious liberty. He was a strong opponent of the War with the American colonies, and believed that the Americans had been cruelly oppressed by Britain. 9 Although Spence later denounced religion as a delusion, he nevertheless tried to justify his arguments using Scripture. 10
Similarly, the French Utopian Socialist Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, although initially a follower of Auguste Comte, also appealed to religion in his campaign to establish a perfect, Socialist political and social order. In his Nouveau Christianisme of 1825, Saint-Simon declared that the most important of the sciences was morality. Morality was far more important than either physics or mathematics as it formed the basis of society. However, while the sciences of mathematics, physics, chemistry and physiology had made enormous progress since the 15th century, the fundamental principles of morality had been laid 1,800 years previously by Christ, and despite research by the greatest geniuses had not been superseded. 11 Saint-Simon considered that the essence of the divine revelation in Christianity was the command that all men should treat each other like brothers, and so urged the creation of a New Christianity in opposition to the existing sects and denomination to put this article of faith into practice. 12 Saint-Simon believed that with the establishment of such a form of Christianity, in which the form of worship and dogma wuold be merely an accessory to the teaching of morality, would lead to Christianity becoming the sole, universal religion, converting the peoples of Africa and Asia. 13 While Saint-Simon’s highly politicised version of Christianity to many Christians departs very far from the historic conception of the Church, nevertheless it is remarkable that Saint-Simon saw a place for Christianity in his radical reconstruction of society, and felt that it was needed in order to put this reform into practice.
Marx, however, was strongly influenced in the development of his philosophical and political system by the Humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach. In his 1841The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had argued from a Hegelian perspective that religion was merely the alienation of humanity’s own powers by substituting the human species for Hegel’s ‘subject’ in his Philosophy of Mind. 14 Marx thus became extremely critical of religion. His doctrinal thesis, ‘On the Difference between the Democritian and Epicurian Philosophies of Nature’, was produced as an anti-religious work, while Marx used Feuerbach’s concept of the ‘species-being’ or Gattungswesen, which denoted the sum of humanity’s collective abilities, to analyse the political state and capitalist economy in his Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State of 1843 and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. 15 Marx eventually rejected Feuerbach’s Humanism because it assumed an ideal human nature to which social institutions could be remoulded after Marx developed his own idea of historical materialism in which ideas, religion and ideologies were all the product of the material conditions of specific points in history. 16 In place of the ideal society imagined by philosophers, Marx and Engels recommended scientific investigation of the real world and revolutionary action to change society. 17 Thus from its very beginning an atheist critique of society was an intrinsic part of Marxist philosophy, and the philosophical materialism supporting Marxist atheism informed Communist attitudes to other philosophies, including those of science. When Alexander A. Bogdanov, a physician, economist, socilogist, philosopher and Lenin’s leading lieutenant in the early years of the Bolshevik party attempt to synthesise Marxism with a empirio-criticism of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach and the German philosopher Richard Avenius it provoked an angry reaction and party purge by Lenin. Mach was an empiricist and one of the founders of Logical Positivism. He believed that as the mind could not know anything apart from its own sensations, so scientific theories were not the discovery of true, objective facts about the world that exist apart from human sensations, but merely a device for predicting the course of the world and its constituent objects. 18 Thus Bogdanov in his 1905 Empiriomonism stated that ‘laws do not belong at all to the sphere of immediate experience; laws are the result of conscious reworking of experience; they are not facts in themselves, but are created by thought, as a means of organising experience, of harmoniously bringing it into argreement as an ordered unity. Laws are abstract cognition, and physical laws possess physical qualities just as little as psychological laws possess psychic qualities.’ 19 Lenin’s response to Bogdanov, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, asserted the primacy of matter and that thought, consciousness and mind were secondary, and denounced the empirio-criticism as idealism and agnosticism, which left the way open for fideism, and declared that it was a kind of professorial scholasticism ‘unable and frequently unwilling, to separate objective truth from belief in sprites and hobgoblins’. 20 With this, Lenin established an oversimplified 19th century materialism as official Communist philosophy. Thus Lenin’s specifically materialist conception of atheism bitterly attacked other philosophies, even those based squarely on empiricism, as insufficiently scientific and leading to idealism and the primacy of mind and non-physical objects in the shaping of the cosmos.
Atheism and Soviet Persecution of the Church
This intensely atheist, materialist philosophy lead to conflict and persecution of the Church. While Lenin believed that individual religious liberty should be protected, he also strongly believed that the Bolshevik party should engage in a propaganda campaign to promote atheism and convince the Russian people that religion truly was an opium. 21 Stalin stated that the party could not be neutral towards religion, and that it was engaged in struggle against any and all religions. 22 The Soviet Constitution of 1918 allowed freedom of ‘religious and anti-religious propaganda. This, however, was changed in 1929 to ‘freedom of religious belief and of anti-religious propaganda’. 23 The 1977 constitution permitted freedom of worship and of antireligious propaganda’. 24 The Soviet authorities guaranteed a limited freedom of worship, but prohibited religious evangelisation. Although Khruschev signed a resolution in Novemeber 1954, ‘On Mistakes in the Conduct of Scientific-Atheistic Propaganda among the Population’ condemning violent persecution and offensive attacks on religious belief, the resolution also required that the campaign against religion be continued at a higher ideological struggle. 25
Excommunication of Bolsheviks by Tikhon because of their Atheism and Violence, rather than Political Programme
The Russian Orthodox patriarch Tikhon had excommunicated the Bolsheviks not for political reasons, but because of their atheism and violence, particularly their attacks on the Church. He made no comment about their political and economic programme, but criticised them for their violence and suppression of freedom. In his letter on the first anniversary of the Revolution, Tikhon stated
‘It is not for us to judge earthly powers … However, to you who use your power for the persecution ooand destruction of the innocent, we issue our world of warning: celebrate the anniversay of your rise to power by relaseing the imprisoned, by ceasing from bloodshed, violence, and havoc, and by removing restrictions upon the fiath; devote yourselves not to destruction but to the building up of order and law; give to the people the respite from civil warfare which they have both desired and deserved. For otherwise the righteous blood which you have shed will cry ot against you.’ 26
In 1923 Tikhon stated:
‘The Russian Orthodox Church is non-political, and henceforward does not want to be either a Red or a White Church; it should and wil be the One Catholic Apostolic Church, and all attempts coming from any side to embroil the Church in the political struggel should be rejected and condemned.’ This statement did, however, come following his imprisonment by the Bolsheviks between 1922-3, and it is possible that it was the result of Soviet coercion. 27
Attack on Russian Orthodox Church
Following Khruschev’s condemnation of the violent persecution of religious believers, the Soviet authorities turned instead to severely restricting church activities in an attempt destroy religious belief. In 1961 the Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church adopted changes in parish regulations that subordinated parish priests to parish councils of 20 lay people, selected by the authorities and the Council on Affairs of Religious Cults. 28 The 1961 parish regulations were very similar to the provisions of the early Soviet legislation on the Church and other religions of 1917 and 1918. This organised religious believers into local religious associations, which had to have at least twenty members in order to lease a church from the government and hire clergy as ‘servants of the cult’. The Religious instruction of children was banned, and clergy could only attend conferences with express permission of the authorities. 29 Under the 1961 parish regulations, Orthodox priests were also reduced to employees. Unless they had the express permission of the local authorities or government agencies, they could not visit their parishioners at home or in hospital, perform the last rites at home or allow children into the church, give them eucharist or hear their confessions. The priests were also required to demand identification from parents bringing their children to be baptised and couples wishing to be married. The priest was also supposed to inform on his congregation, supplying Communist officials with the names of those who had been baptised, married or had the last rites performed, and on their other parishioners, who could be persecuted in their jobs or at their schools and universities. 30 Thus, although parish clergy could preach sermons, they could not give religious instruction, organise study groups for children or adults, organise catechism classes or Sunday schools. The only books that the parish church may own are service books, and the printing of the Bible was deliberately restricted. 31
As well as placing restrictions on evangelisation and the abilities of priests to perform their traditional duties to their parishioners, the Communists attacked the Church as an institution. The Decree on the Separation of Church and State of 5 February 1918 deprived the Church of its status as a juridical person. 32 It could not hold property, and the decree provided for the nationalisation of Church land, funds, and buildings, which believers were required to lease back from the state. 33 Churches could be closed down by the local authorities without the consent of the worshippers if the workers requested this. This resulted in the systematic closure of Orthodox churches. Of 54,457 churches in 1914, only 4, 255 remained in 1941. The number of active priests fell from 57,105 in 1914 to 5, 665 in 1941. Of the 1,498 monasteries and convents that existed in 1914, there were 38 left in 1941. None of the 4 theological academies, 57 seminaries and 40,150 other religious schools that existed in 1914 survived into 1941. 34 The unofficial Concordat between Stalin and the Church did allow many churches and other religious institions to be reopened. In 1947 for there 22-25,000 churches, 33,000 active priests, 80 monasteries and convents, 2 theological academies and 8 theological seminaries. The other religious schools supported by the Church before the Communists seized power remained closed, however. 35 However, from 1959 the Church was again attacked and ecclesiastical institutions closed by the Soviet authorities. By the late 1970s less than 7,000 Orthodox churches were open in Russia. Five of the eight seminaries opened in 1945 had been closed down by 1966, and of the 80 monasteries only 16 still survived by the 1970s. During the closure of the Monastery of Saint Job of Pochaev one monk was beaten to death in prison, several others taken to hospital for injections, despite their good health and others placed in psychiatric hospitals. 36 In 1918 and 1919 28 bishops were killed by the Communists. A further fifty were killed between 1923 and 1926 and from 1917 to 1926, 2,700 priests, 2,000 monks, and 3,400 nuns were killed by the Communists. Emigre Russians estimated that from 1917 to 1983 at least 12,000 priests were killed. 37 The Metropolitan of Petrograd was executed for anti-Soviet activities and the Patriarch Tikhon jailed in 1922. The Communists also attempted to destroy the Church by encouraging a group of clergy sympathetic to the Communist regime, calling themselves the Living Church to take over its leadership, and arresting their ecclesiastical opponents. Tikhon was deposed by the Living Church, and his trial set for 1923, but he signed a confession and publicly repented of his past opposition to the Communists. He was thus released, and reinstated as the head of the Church. Nevertheless, the Living Church continued to exist and the Communists attempted at times to play it and the Orthodox Church off against each other. 38 The Living Church split into a number of increasingly smaller factions and lost its significance in 1926.
Other Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostalists and the Seventh Day Adventists were also subject to terrible persecution.
Persecution of Soviet Baptists
Although the Bapists were able to hold their meetings and publish their religious literature from 1918 to 1929 without restriction, from 1929 until the Second World War they were subjected to an increasing campaign of persecution. Approximately 50,000 Baptists, including most of the clergy, were arrested for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and sentenced to 25 years each in the gulags, where 22,000 died. Of the numerous Baptist churches, only four in Moscow and other large cities survived as the Soviet authorities closed them. 39
During the War, however, the Soviet authorities turned from outright persecution to the authoritarian system of control and repression used against the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1942-3 the regime established the Council on the Affairs of Religious Cults under the control of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. 40 Baptist ministers who were prepared to collaborate with the government in the control of their churches were released from the camps and internal exile to form the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. 41 At the end of the war, 5,000 Baptist communities were revived. However, as with the churches, these communities were required to register with the authorities. Unregistered Baptist churches were closed. As a result, 1/3 – 1,696 of the revived Baptist churches were registered, and staffed with ministers from the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. Hand-picked members of the ministery were used by the Soviet authorities in 1947 to give the impression that there was no religious persecution in the Soviet Union by travelling abroad to meet their co-religionists and deny that such persecution was occurring. 42 This is similar to the way the Russian Orthodox Church was required to support Soviet propaganda. 43 In 1960 further restrictions were placed on the Baptist Church through the publication of the New Regulations of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists and the secret Instructive Letter to Senior Church Officials. These two documents demanded that Baptists cease from evangelism and placed increased restrictions on worship. Baptists were prohibited from using some musical instruments, such as guitars, in their services. They could not invite choirs from neighbouring communities to sing in their churches, and church attendance by children under 18 years of age was also prohibited. Those over 18 years old could only be baptised after a probationary period of two to three years. Preaching was restricted to the area of each individual Baptist community and was to be held entirely within the church building. No part of the service could be held outside the church. Baptist communities were prohibited from visiting and assisting each other. Children’s meetings, Sunday school outings attended by members of different Baptist churches and private religious services at home were banned. 44 The Instructive Letter was a secret document intended to be read only by the Baptist Church leadership. However, ordinary Baptists learned of it, read it, and in outrage led a campaign against it. This resulted in the establishment of an independent Baptist Church, with its own governing body, the Council of Churches of the Evangelical Christian Baptists in 1965. 45 The leaders of the independent Council of Churches, G. Kryuchkov, Nikolay Baturin and G. Vins, were arrested in May 1966, after which all the leaders of the Council of Churches lived in hiding to avoid arrest. By 1981 all of the members of the Council of Churches were in prison, charged with violating the statutes in the USSR separating church and state, ‘performance of rites injurious to church members’ and occasionally with slandering the Soviet system. 46 Although private services in the home were prohibited under the regulations of the All-Union Council, there was no official Soviet secular legislation against them. Despite this, however, private prayer meetings were broken up by the police, both regular and volunteer, and with those attending them frequently beaten. Ministers and community leaders who organised such domestic services, and often the person in whose home the service was held, were arrested. For the person whose home was used, the charges were often that of ‘hooliganism’ or ‘resisting’ the police’. Russian Baptist weddings are traditionally large, as the entire local religious community is often invited. Because the guests often filled the house into the yard or garden, the Soviet authorities frequently broke them up as ‘ritual assemblies’ that were illegally being held in the open air. Ordinary, unregistered Baptists were fined for attending services at an unregistered church, the amount fined often exceeding their monthly salary. 47 Moreover, Baptists, like other religious believers, were excluded from higher education. 48 The Civil Rights group formed to support the independent Baptists in February 1964, the Council of Relatives of Evangelical Christian Baptist Prisoners, amongst its other activities collected examples of the official persecution of the Baptist community. In addition to the arrest and imprisonment of Baptists, persecution by the Soviet authorities also included removing Baptist children from their families for being brought up in the faith, the persecution of school children for their religious beliefs, the confiscation of the homes in which religious services had been held, and the sacking of Baptists from their jobs because of their religious beliefs. The first president of the Council of Relatives was Lidiya Vins, the widow of a Baptist minister, Pyotr Vins, who had died in one of Stalin’s gulags, and who herself was imprisoned in a forced labour camp from 1970-3. 49
Persecution of Soviet Pentecostal Christians
The Pentecostalists were also savagely persecuted by the Soviet regime after 1929, using the same methods the authorities used against the Baptists. The Soviet authorities viewed them as the same church as the Baptists, and they were forced to submit to the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists. 50 Pentecostalists were particularly subject to severe persecution by the Soviet authorities because of their absolute refusal to compromise their religious beliefs. Pentecostalist children refused to join the Soviet youth organisation, the Octobrists, Pioneers and the Komsomol. As a result, their grades were lowered, they often suffered criticism at school meetings were beaten up by other schoolchildren, often at the command of the school teacher. Soviet teachers also questioned Pentecostalist children in order to get them to admit that their parents forced them to take part in religious ceremonies and prayer meetings. If the child admitted that this occurred, their parents would be prosecuted or the child taken away from them. 51 The Pentecostalists also suffered for their pacifism. Church doctrine prohibits Pentecostalists from joining the military, being arms or killing. This led to persecution in the Soviet Union, which still had compulsory National Service. Refusal to take the enlistment oath was punished by five years in a labour camp. Additionally, Pentecostalist servicemen were also subjected to vicious beatings, which left some of them permanently handicapped. As religious believers, they were also excluded from higher education, and were frequently sacked from their jobs on the command of the local Communist party. Like other religious believers, Pentecostalist services at home were broken up by the police and the homes destroyed. Weddings and funerals were similarly broken up by the authorities, and leaders and elders arrested under the regulations against religious evangelism, and also slandering the Soviet system and engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda. 52 Pentecostalist clergy were also accused of performing savage religious rites which traumatised their fellow believers, and even human sacrifice. In 1960 the Pentecostalist elder, Ivan Fedotov, was sentenced to ten years in prison on the charge of attempting to influence one of his congregation so that she murdered her daughter. 53
Persecution of Seventh-Day Adventists in Soviet Union
The Seventh Day Adventists were also subjected to persecution, particularly because of their pacifism, in which the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is taken so literally that they are vegetarians, and their refusal to work on Saturday, which they observe as the Sabbath. In 1928 the Congress of Seventh Day Adventists, under pressure from the Soviet authorities, passed a resolution that forced members to violate these tenets of their faith, and to perform all the duties expected of other Soviet citizens. As a result, the Church split, and a separate Church emerged which refused to conform to these restrictions, the All-Union Church of True and Free Seventh-Day Adventists. From its very beginning this church was not recognised by the Soviet authorities, and was savagely persecuted. Its first leader, Gregory ostvald, died in a gulag in 1937, and his successor, Pyotr Manzhura, also died in a camp twelve years later in 1949. The third leader of the church, Vladimir Shelkov, was arrested several times in his career before his death in a gulag in 1980. 54 During the 1980s the Soviet authorities imprisoned and tortured a number of Seventh-Day Adventists in an attempt to find their underground publishing house, True Witness. 55
Attacks on Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches
The Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches also suffered terrible persecution. In Lithuania, for example, persecution of the Roman Catholic Church began on 2nd July 1940, when Soviet troops entered the country. The Concordat with the Vatican was annulled. This was followed by the prohibition of all Catholic organisations, the nationalisation of Catholic schools and the closure of the Catholic press. The monasteries were looted, and the four Catholic seminaries in Lithuania were closed, with the exception of the one at Kaunas, and this had its buildings confiscated. All the Roman Catholic bishops except one were arrested and imprisoned in 1946-7. In the 1940s and 1950s, 600 priests, more than a third of all Roman Catholic priests in Lithuania, were imprisoned, and many died. Mecislovas Reinys, the bishop of Vilnius, died in Vladimir Prison in 1953. 56 The evangelism of children was strictly prohibited. In September 1970 a Catholic priest, Antanas Seskevicius was sentenced to a year in prison camp for teaching the catechism to schoolchildren, despite the fact that this was done at the request of their parents and so perfectly legal under the existing regulations. 57 In Estonia the Lutheran Church also suffered persecution like the other Churches, though it was particularly attacked as a ‘German’ Church after the Second World War. 58
Promotion of Atheism by Soviet Regime
In addition to the persecution of the churches and their members, the Soviet state also embarked on a campaign to promote atheism through the educational system, and in officially sponsored lectures, demonstrations and atheist publications. Atheism was explicitly taught in schools. In 1949 the former Secretary of the League of the Militant Godless, the official Soviet anti-religious organisation, writing in the teacher’s newspaper Uchitelskaya Gazeta, stated ‘A Soviet teacher must be guided by the principle of the Party spirit of science; he is obliged not only to be an unbeliever himself, but also to be an active propagandist of Godlessness among others, to be the bearer of the ideas of militant proletarian atheism.’ 59 The official campaign against religion began soon after the Revolution when the reliquaries of the Orthodox saints were opened by the revolutionaries in the presence of the Church, press, party and ordinary members of the Church. Some of the relics on display were found to be fakes, made from wax or plaster. These disinternments were filmed and shown in propaganda films throughout the Soviet Union. 60 Some of the closed churches were converted into ‘museums of religion and atheism’, including the former Kazan cathedral in Leningrad. 61
Soviet propaganda posters regularly attacked religion. A 1918 propaganda poster, for example, shows an Orthodox priest, flanked by a pair of rich peasants – kulaks – supporting the fist of the Tsarist general Denikin. 62 A 1930 poster by the Soviet propagandist Yuri Pimenov urging Soviets to fulfill the five year plan in four shows an express train hurtling down the rails towards a group of the regime’s opponents, one of whom is an Orthodox priest. One of the poster’s slogans is ‘No Religion’. 63 The regime also attempted to promote atheism through television and pop music. In the 1980s Soviet television screened a pop song denouncing belief in Christ at Christmas.
The League of the Militant Godless
The League of the Militant Godless was founded in 1925 as part of the Soviet authorities’ attack on religion. 64 At its height in 1932 it had about five million members, before it was eventually disbanded in 1942. 65 Originally its activities included vandalism and the destruction of church property, like smashing church windows and desecrating cemeteries, done more out of its members’ hatred for religion rather than any attempt to spread atheism. Over time it became more sophisticated in its approach, organising meetings in the villages to promote its atheist message. It also organised anti-religious lectures, and published anti-religious books, magazines and journals. These included works of popular science written to show how science had disproved religion. These included quizzes, which presented the approved answers to criticism of Communism as well as attacking religion. Thus a 1930 handbook for the League, Dosug Bezbozhnika, by S. Glyazer and N. Kopievskii, included questions such as:
‘Q. How do reply to a priest who says ‘your communism is just another religion’?
A. All religions involve belief in the supernatural. Communism does not.
Q. How did Karl Marx describe Christianity?
A. As the Executive Committee of the bourgeoisie.’
The League also organised plane trips above the clouds in Tupolevs in order to show that there was no God or heaven up there. 66 Before the Second World War, the League also organised blasphemous processions and demonstrations against religion, especially on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
Continuation of Government Ideological Campaign against Religion
Although the League was abolished in 1942, its propaganda functions were taken over by the All-Union Society for the Diseemination of Scientific and Political Knowledge, which was established in 1947, and the regime’s campaign to promote atheism continued. 120,679 anti-religious lectures were given in the Soviet Union in 1954, while four years later, in 1958, the number of anti-religious lectures increased to 300,000. 67 The atheist popular science magazine, Science and Life, which was originally founded by the League of Militant Godless, continued publication into the 1970s. 68
These publications and lectures, like the propaganda posters, strongly attempted to present the clergy as agents of political reaction and exploitation. The priests were presented as enjoying the spectacle of the peasants getting drunk, and opposed science and collectivisation because these threatened their hold on them. 69 The attacks on the clergy in the press continued after the League was disbanded. In 1959 the Soviet press carried a number of stories supposedly exposing the corrupt activities and ideas of individual bishops and monasteries. Monks were denounced, amongst other accusations, as ‘money grabbers’, ‘idlers’, ‘libertines’, ‘sexual perverts’. The theological seminaries were particularly attacked, with their students described as ‘any sort of rabble … lovers of an easy life … criminals who should be remoulded by work’, with the papers asking rhetorically ‘Does an honest man go to a theological school, in our century of science and technology?’ 70
Pentecostalist Christians were similarly accused in the press of collaborating with the opponents of Communism, in their case the Americans. They were regularly accused of being Western agents, being paid in dollars for services such as hiding American spies. Film depictions of Pentecostalists often showed them praying along on a beach, where it was explained that they were waiting for an ark filled American money. The newspapers also accused them of isolating their children from life by stopping them from going to movies, dances and other gatherings. In fact, Pentecostalist children tended to avoid such social activities not out of religious reasons, but to avoid abuse and violence from others. It’s also true that many Pentecostalists are more prosperous than their fellow citizens, but this was not from receiving any secret funds from the CIA or any other Western intelligence agency. Rather it was because the Pentecostalists had an ethic of hard work, sobriety and mutual aid. 71
Conclusion: Religious Persecution result of Atheist Ideology in Marxism, and New Atheists Similarly Authoritarian in Attitude to Religion
Thus the persecution of religious believers in the Soviet Union was not the result of political concerns, but from the intrinsically atheist nature of Communism itself. Unlike other forms of Socialism, which were not hostile to religious belief or which made Christianity a part of their programme for reform, Marx had developed his ideology under the influence of Feuerbach’s Humanism. This had view God as an alienate projection of humanity, and demanded the abolition of religion as part of the creation of a system that would allow the fullest exercise of humanity’s powers. Marxism’s essentially atheist nature resulted in the persecution of religion. The fact that it continued after Stalin under Khruschev and successive administrations suggests that it was the brief periods of toleration that were due to political expediency, not the persecutions. Indeed, historians have noted that while the Soviet regime did not make the destruction of Christianity, rather than just the Orthodox Church, a priority after the Revolution, it was also impossible for the regime to attempt it in the short term. 72 Furthermore, while China has become more tolerant of religion, churches are still required to be registered with the authorities and are under strict government control. Ministers and ordinary believers who are considered to violate these restrictions are persecuted.
Away from Communist politics, the persecution of religious believers in Communist states is similar to some of the policies and attitudes towards religion recommended by the New Atheists. While the New Atheists aren’t Communists, they do seem to share the Communist assumption taken from 19th century Positivism that atheism and science are identical, and that the educational and legal systems should be used to combat religion. Nicholas Humphreys, in an address to Amnesty International, demanded that the British government should pass legislation against parents giving their children a religious upbringing, while Daniel C. Dennett in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, supported the idea of using the teaching of Darwinism in schools to destroy religious faith in children. This coercive attitude towards the indoctrination of children in schools with atheism contrasts strongly with the attitudes of some of the Soviet people of faith, such as the Seventh Day Adventist leader, Vladimir Shelkov. Shelkov believed that questions of belief were for the individual conscience, and so should not be imposed on the school system by the government:
‘The materialism of atheism is also a kind of belief or religion. For this reason, it should not be a state religion that imposes its materialistic world view through schools and other government agencies. It should be considered a personal ideology among other ideologies. The principle of separation of church, state, and school also applies to teh separation of government atheism from the state and the education system.’ 73 Thus for some Soviet people of faith, a truly neutral educational system regarding issues of faith meant removing atheism as well as religion from the classroom to allow genuine freedom of conscience. As for the Soviet governments attempt to destroy the Orthodox Church, despite the vicious persecution many Russians still see it as their most trustworthy institution. In 1991 an opinion poll asked Russians in which political force or social movement they had the most confidence? 60 per cent considered it was the Church. 74
1. J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-1986 (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1987), p. 325.
2. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.
3. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.
4. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.
5. Ludmilla Alexeyeva, translated by Carol Pearce and John Gad, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Wesleyan University Press 1985), p. 246.
6. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 346.
7. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.
8. H.T. Dickinson, The Political Works of Thomas Spence (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Avero (18th Century) Publications Ltd 1982), p. VII.
9. Dickinson, Thomas Spence, p. VIII.
10. Dickinson, Thomas Spence, p. VII.
11. Ghita Ionescu, ed., The Political Thought of Saint-Simon (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1976), p. 216.
12. Ionescu, Political Thought of Saint-Simon, pp. 206, 209.
13. Ionescu, Political Thought of Saint-Simon, pp 208, 209-10.
14. David Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in David Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1973), p. 11.
15. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, pp. 11, 14.
16. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, pp. 19, 21.
17. Fernbach, ‘Introduction’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 21.
18. ‘Mach, Ernst’, in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 217.
19. A.A. Bogdanov, Empiriomonism, in Robert V. Daniels, ed., A Documentary History of Communism: Volume 1 – Communism in Russia (London, I.B. Tauris 1987), pp. 34-5.
20. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism – Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, in Daniels, Documentary History of Communism, pp. 39-41.
21. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.
22. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 152.
23. Ware, Orthodox Church, pp. 152-3.
24. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 153.
25. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 172.
26. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 159.
27. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 160.
28. Alexeya, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.
29. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.
30. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 248.
31. Ware, Orthodox Church, pp. 153-4.
32. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.
33. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 155; Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 324.
34. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 167.
35. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 167.
36. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 173.
37. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 156.
38. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.
39. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 160.
40. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 201.
41. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 201.
42. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 201-2.
43. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 202.
44. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 168.
45. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 203.
46. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 205-6.
47. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 207.
48. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 208.
49. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 209.
48. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 210.
50. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 215.
51. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 216.
52. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 217-8.
53. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 218.
54. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 233.
55. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 237-243.
56. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 72.
57. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 73.
58. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 96.
59. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 153.
60. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 325.
61. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.
62. Nina Baburina, ed., translated by Boris Rubalsky, The Soviet Political Poster 1917-1980 (London, Penguin Books 1985), p. 5.
63. Baburina, ed., and Rubalsky, trans., Soviet Political Poster, p. 56.
64. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, pp. 325-6.
65. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 327; Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.
66. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.
67. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 154.
68. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.
69. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 326.
70. Ware, Orthodox Church, p. 172.
71. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, pp. 218-9.
72. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, p. 323.
73. Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent, p. 234.
74. ‘Orthodox Church’ in Andrew Wilson and NinBachkatov, Russia Revised: An Alphabetical Key to the Soviet Collapse and the New Republics (London, Andre Deutsch 1992), p. 164.