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Why the Soviet Union couldn’t replace Christianity

The ruins of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, dynamited in 1931

The Soviets’ effort to forge an atheistic state was an abject failure, argues Jack Carrigan

A Sacred Space is Never Empty
By Victoria Smolkin
Princeton, 360pp, £35/$40

This book’s title comes from a Russian proverb – as such it provides an aptly ironic leitmotif to its theme and subtitle: A History of Soviet Atheism. Whatever the later, fraught history of Russia after the Communist Party was dissolved in 1991, we know that 70-odd years of official atheism in the former USSR came to an end that year. Victoria Smolkin, a history professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, has done an excellent job of describing its tragi-comic trajectory.

Smolkin writes that despite all its efforts, Soviet communism “never managed to overcome religion or produce an atheist society”. There were many reasons for this failure, none of them evident to the officials charged with this dreary mission until very late in the day.

Probably the deepest reason was that in order to defeat the profoundly religious temper of Russian society after the Revolution of 1917, the communists had to fill the sacred space left empty with a different yet positive meaning. This, despite sometimes ludicrous efforts, could not be done. Atheistic communism was a political ideology, indeed a fanatical “anti-religion”.

When Soviet officials attempted to create the oxymoron of “spiritual atheism”, they discovered that the Orthodox Church had already cornered the market in moral certainties, emotional consolation, aesthetic cravings and sacred rituals. When the state realised that marking the most significant events in people’s lives, such as birth, marriage and death, could not be satisfied with mere bureaucratic registration, they invented their own heavy-handed secular rituals such as those that took place at the Moscow Palace of Weddings. They were bemused to discover that the good Soviet citizens often accommodated both state and religious ceremonies without seeing any contradiction between the two.

Smolkin relates the story of the problem of filling the “sacred space” from the time of the Bolsheviks, with their sustained campaign of militant atheism and violent suppression of the Church. From there she examines Stalin’s relaxation of the persecution of the Orthodox faith in 1943, realising the need to enlist the support of the Church in harnessing the patriotism of the Russian people during the war. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev attempted to impose “scientific atheism” with a cult of science and cosmology.

One of its more absurd campaigns was the attempt to demonstrate that, viewed from space, God and heaven did not exist. Soviet citizens were not taken in, even by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who had announced: “The fact that a human being had flown to the cosmos was a bitter blow to the church public.” The Church responded that “God exists, but he is invisible and not in man’s likeness.”

The building of planetariums was popular but astronomy had to be emphatically linked to atheism; otherwise, as Lenin’s formidable widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, observed after hearing an astronomy lecture, “Every believer will cross himself and in his soul say that God’s world is great and beautiful.”

Religious belief refused to “wither away” as had been predicted, writes Smolkin, and continued to haunt the Communist Party during the Khrushchev era with the question: why was religion still a part of Soviet life? Under Brezhnev (1964-82), officials were confronted by a new phenomenon: as life became materially easier, they discovered among the younger generation a growing indifference to both religion and atheism. This again changed at the end of the 1970s with the election of the Polish pope, John Paul II: religion again assumed great importance in public life.

Finally, with the election of Gorbachev in March 1985, atheist zealotry was entering its last forlorn phase, conceding, Smolkin says, that most ordinary Soviet people “never managed to internalise atheist conviction”.

Gorbachev made the momentous decisions three years later both to lift restrictions on religious worship and to make Russia’s 1,000-year celebration of Christianity (988-1988) a national event. Celebration of the Orthodox millennium in Moscow caused a seismic shock to the government: if Russia’s identity lay within its Christian origins, what, if any, was the role of atheistic communism in the national psyche? It was found to be an empty space rather than a meaningful category, incapable of bringing about spiritual renewal alongside economic changes.

Despite the activities of the League of Militant Godless, founded in 1925, Stalin’s Great Terror, when 8,000 churches were closed and 35,000 priests and religious were arrested and imprisoned, the satirical cartoons of the magazine Krokodil depicting cosmonauts in a god-free space and inept attempts to solemnise significant rites of passage, Soviet atheism failed to find the answer to man’s search for personal meaning or “the need for solace in the face of suffering”. Christ, the Lord of history, had ultimately proved stronger than Marxist-Leninism and its barren “logic of history”.