Back in the USSR: Atheism and Pop Music in Soviet Propaganda

In the last article, I criticised David Bowie for including blasphemous imagery in his latest pop video. In the West there’s an attitude that somehow atheist or anti-christian popular music is politically, intellectually and spiritually liberating, that somehow you’re a free, independent, person if you listen to or participate in it. This isn’t necessarily the case. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was aggressively atheist. Christians and members of other faiths were persecuted, their churches and places of worship demolished and turned into museums of atheism. In the Soviet Union, atheism was explicitly taught as part of the science curriculum. And pop music was used to try and indoctrinate young people with approved atheist, Communist values. Way back in the 1980s the BBC broadcast a series of programmes on the USSR as it was then, including a programme on Soviet television. This latter was fascinating, as it opened a feature of Soviet society that was unknown to most people in the West. And besides, everyone likes to know what’s on TV, and what the other guy is watching. Soviet television was very mixed. Amongst the shows covered were historical dramas, comedy, a Russian version of Sherlock Holmes in which St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then, stood in for Victorian London, and a spy drama in which the heroic forces of the KGB did battle with the CIA. It also showed a pop video attacking Christianity deliberately broadcast at the time of the Russian Orthodox Christmas Service. The song opened with the statement, addressed to the Lord, that the singer didn’t believe in Him, before attacking Christianity further.

Now atheism is not Communism, although atheism did form part of Communist ideology. And obviously, being an atheist certainly does not automatically mean that one supports tyranny. Needless to say, many atheists genuinely believe and actively support freedom, free speech and conscience. My point here is only that the obvious – that just as atheism does not necessarily stand for tyranny, it also doesn’t necessarily represent or support freedom and independence either. Ironically, pop music in the Soviet Union, like other forms of youth culture, was very heavily monitored and controlled. Much of the music that formed the backdrop to adolescent life in the West was banned, even such apparently innocuous songs as Boney M’s Rasputin. I can remember reading an interview with one Russian lady in which she remenisced how, when she and a group of other teenagers were on a Young Pioneers’ camp in Siberia, they sneaked away into the forest with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder to play a bootleg recording of the above record, and felt very rebellious. Pop music is simply a musical form, or rather, a series of musical forms. Like other art forms, there’s nothing wrong in itself. It just depends on the use to which it is put. It’s status as the music of youthful rebellion, however, means that it frequently is used to spread a particular message, which may be held up as the authentic voice of youth. In the USSR this meant that when it was permitted, it could be used to promote atheism as a deliberate and explicit form of ideological indoctrination. This is in stark contrast to the way anti-Christian pop music is viewed in the West, as somehow anti-establishment, anti-official indoctrination. Paradoxically, this means that in certain part of pop culture, anti-Christianity is pretty much part of the musical and artistic establishment. Music is very much a matter of personal taste, and in free societies people should have the right to listen to the kind of music they want without ideological restrictions. But it also means that people also have the responsibility of listening to the ideological messages in their music, and questioning and criticising them. Even when it includes commonplace attitudes like aggressive atheism and a violent rejection of Christianity.


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