Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again

By Gene Zubovich | October 16, 2018

(Getty/Corbis/VCG/Peter Turnley) The view from Red Square at twilight: St. Basil’s Cathedral (right) and Savior’s Tower on the Kremlin walls.

A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism
By Victoria Smolkin
Princeton University Press, 2018

In Russia, there is a religious revival happening. Orthodox Christianity is thriving after enduring a 70-year period of atheistic Soviet rule. In 1991, just after the collapse of the USSR, about two-thirds of Russians claimed no religious affiliation. Today, 71 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox. One can now see priests giving sermons on television, encounter religious processions in St. Petersburg, and watch citizens lining up for holy water in Moscow. Even Moscow’s Darwin museum features a Christmas tree during the holidays. President Vladimir Putin has encouraged this revival and he has also benefited from it, both at home and abroad. Last year, he explained that Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war was designed to protect Christians from the Islamic State. Not only has the Orthodox Church supported this “holy war” but so have some American evangelicals, who are likewise concerned about Christians in the Middle East and praise Putin’s socially conservative policies.

Russia was transformed from a bastion of conservative Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century into the world’s leading promoter of atheism in the twentieth. This historical backdrop of Russia’s remarkable journey from Orthodoxy to atheism, and back again, is chronicled in Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism. It is the first full account of Soviet atheism, from the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. This engaging book is full of striking analysis and counterintuitive insights. And Smolkin, associate professor of Russian and Soviet history at Wesleyan University, has two big arguments to make. The first is that the meaning of Soviet atheism has changed drastically over time. The second argument is even more surprising: Today’s religious revival in Russia began before 1991, she argues, and was promoted by the very organs that were meant to rid the USSR of religion.

When Vladimir Lenin came to power in Russia in 1917, he held to the Marxist view that once capitalism was abolished, religion would likewise wither away. It was a slight twist on classic secularization theory, which held that as societies modernize, people lose faith. For Lenin, and for his successor Josef Stalin, atheism was not something that required much thought. It was simply the absence of religion and would come naturally in due time as the Soviet Union developed into a modern society. More pressing for Soviet leaders was the political power of the Orthodox Church. One by one, rival political parties were outlawed, and ideologies were banned but private piety remained legal in the USSR. So did churches, mosques, and synagogues. As one Soviet official pointed out, “religious organizations are the only legally existing counterrevolutionary organizations” in the Soviet Union.

Under Lenin and Stalin, new atheist organizations like the League of the Militant Godless waged war on religious institutions. Although churches and monasteries were technically legal, officials found ways of shutting them down, and they transformed some of them into cathedrals of atheism. The Donskoi Monastery became the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) became the Museum of the History of Religion. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public display for all the world to see. “At the end of the 1930s, the party came as close as it ever would to eradicating religion,” Smolkin observes.

Despite the public spectacle and the very real repression of the Orthodox Church, however, religious belief and practice remained a part of everyday life and officials often tolerated religious practices, especially in the countryside. As Smolkin shows, even rank-and-file communists struggled with managing religious questions in family life. “What should a Leninist do if his family is still religious, does not permit taking down the icons, takes children to church, and so on,” a party member asked a Soviet newspaper’s advice column. The response “suggested a softer and more gradual approach to family disagreements over religion,” Smolkin writes. “Rather than break with his family, a Leninist should strive to enlighten.” It was common for male party members to marry religious women, the columnist noted, and they should be patient with their families.

By the eve of World War II, religious organizations had ceased to be a political threat to the Soviet state. In 1927, the Orthodox Church had pledged support for the communist government, and by 1941—when Germany invaded the Soviet Union—the vast majority of churches had been closed down and thousands of priests had been arrested or executed. In 1917, there had been more than 50,000 churches in the Russian empire, but less than 1,000 remained in 1939. It was because of his success in neutralizing the political challenge of the Orthodox Church that Stalin welcomed it back into public life during World War II, seeing it as a tool to promote patriotism at home and to earn good will of allies abroad. As Orthodoxy became politically useful for Stalin, he no longer wanted atheist organizations around. “With the start of the war, atheist periodicals and publishing houses were shut down, most antireligious museums were closed, and most of the institutions charged with atheist work were dissolved,” Smolkin writes.

Stalin felt that he had control of the Orthodox Church, which he used to bolster his domestic authority and foreign policy. But religious beliefs and practices outside the church, in everyday life, were not as easy to control, and they caught the attention of Soviet officials after Stalin’s death in 1953. Feast days and pilgrimages to holy sites could not always be managed by the Orthodox Church or the Soviet state. Nor could miracles. Smolkin relays a widely reported story from 1956 of a young girl who was turned to stone for blasphemy after shouting, “If there is a God, then let him punish me!” The location of the alleged incident in the industrial town of Kuibyshev (today, Samara) drew hundreds of curious onlookers and became a destination for pilgrims. By 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power, unofficial, extra-ecclesiastical religious practices became suspect and were targeted. So were private beliefs. The persistence of religion in everyday life—56 percent identified themselves as believers in the last census to ask about religion in 1937—encouraged Khrushchev’s officials to revive the atheist apparatus that Stalin had shut down and to focus on eradicating religion in the private lives of Soviet citizens.

Khrushchev was the last true believer in communism. And when he was ousted in 1964, his immediate successors ushered in an era of stagnation, when fewer and fewer believed that socialism was fulfilling its promises. It dawned on Soviet officials that getting rid of religion, in both public and private life, was not enough to create atheists who believed in the communist cause. Getting rid of one faith did not mean it would be replaced by another, as Lenin had predicted. Party leaders recognized that “it was also necessary to fill Soviet Communism’s sacred space with positive meaning,” Smolkin argues.

In its final phase, the meaning of Soviet atheism was transformed from a mere absence of religion—and a commitment to science and rationalism—into something spiritual that would satisfy the souls of Soviet citizens from cradle to grave. This shift took some experimentation. Leningrad’s attempt to replace baptisms with newborn registration rituals that awarded medals to the children proved popular. Teenagers turning 16 were eligible for passports and went through a passport ceremony at institutions like the Moscow House of Scientific Atheism. As Smolkin describes them, marriages had previously been simple bureaucratic affairs but beginning in the 1960s, they increasingly took place in wedding palaces, where grooms and brides would don formal clothes, and the officiant spoke solemnly in ceremonial dress. Afterwards, many couples celebrated by taking part in photographic tours of the city’s parks and Soviet monuments.

But it became clear to the atheist establishment that it was failing to create true believers in communism. “Which is more useful to the party,” a Soviet official asked rhetorically in the twilight years of the USSR, “someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism?” He was signaling that apathy and indifference, not religion, had become the main enemy of atheism. “Soviet atheism was not secularization or secularism but instead conversion,” Smolkin writes. “Soviet atheism was not secular because secularism can tolerate indifference.”

Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed back the Orthodox Church into public life in 1988, in a belated recognition that atheists and the clergy had a mutual enemy: indifference. Just before the fall of the Soviet Union, Orthodoxy once again became state-sanctioned and atheist institutions were encouraged to find common ground with the Orthodox Church. Ironically, atheist organizations began popularizing religious ideas. The House of Scientific Atheism became the House of Spiritual Heritage. An atheist journal changed its name to Science and Religion and became “the first Soviet periodical to give voice to religion,” according to Smolkin.

Reading Smolkin’s book, I understood why she focused on Orthodox Christianity, by far the largest religious group in the Soviet Union. But the absence of a substantive discussion of how Islam and Judaism were managed in that diverse country, and what nuance it would add to our understanding of Soviet atheism, means that other historians will have work to do. One could also take issue with Smolkin’s argument that secularism can—indeed, must—tolerate indifference. After all, secular countries have histories of promoting religious ideas as well as encouraging animosity among their citizens against specific religious groups.

I also wondered whether Smolkin is right to suggest that atheism could not compete with Orthodoxy’s ability to legitimize the Soviet and Russian state. Judged by the standards Soviet atheism set for itself at the end of its 70 years as the USSR’s official belief system, it had failed because it did not effectively occupy the sacred spaces of Russian life. But this argument seems to underplay the continued influence of atheism in Russia today. Many Soviet rituals invented by atheists remain widely popular. Stamps and medals, many of them instituted to counter religious influence, are still in wide use. One can hardly visit a statue or monument in Russia without encountering a wedding party, and the civil registration office, ZAGS, is still the preferred choice for weddings.

In post-Soviet Russia, Orthodox Christianity gives the country a legitimacy that it was “an ancient polity with a millennial pedigree that gave it moral legitimacy,” according to Smolkin. Putin can tout Orthodoxy as the state religion but the reality is just as damning for Orthodoxy’s official status as it had been for Soviet atheism. Most Russians identify as Orthodox but only 6 percent of them attend church weekly and only 17 percent pray daily. Russians are largely unchurched and often don’t conform to the doctrines of the Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union had been the first country to legalize abortion in 1920, and the rate of abortions in Russia is more than double compared to the U.S. and enjoys widespread support despite strong objections from the Orthodox Church. And contrary to Orthodox teaching, attitudes toward divorce and pre-marital sex remain lax.

Governments sometimes promote belief systems that explain life’s meaning, and rituals that remind us of it, because it lends them legitimacy. But these quests seem to always remain incomplete. That is certainly true of Soviet atheism, and it is also true of Russian Orthodoxy. Smolkin’s book helps us appreciate that in Russia today, as in the Soviet Union years ago, official state faiths mask a more complicated reality.


Gene Zubovich is a visiting fellow at the University of Toronto. He writes on the history of religion and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @genezubovich  

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