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Godless Utopia: how the Soviet Union launched its war against religion

In this extract from Fuel Publishing’s Godless Utopia, Roland Elliott Brown explains how Lenin set the groundwork to overthrow the Soviet Union’s religious institutions — and how a raft of brightly coloured propaganda posters became the leader's weapon of choice.

7 October 2019

The Bolsheviks delivered their first doses of religious policy by decree in the months after they seized power, nationalising church lands and secularising the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. Then, on 23 January 1918—just days after the sailors’ assault on the Nevsky Monastery — they issued their defining decree, On the Separation of Church from State and School from Church. Its main effects were to remove the church’s status as a legal entity, forbid it from owning property, and to ban formal religious education.

It was in places a progressive, secular document that put believers of all denominations and none on equal footing, but elsewhere, as in article 5, it bore a dictatorial edge: Religious performances may be carried on freely in so far as they do not disturb the public order or encroach upon the rights of citizens of the Russian Republic. Local authorities have the right to take the necessary measures to preserve order and safeguard the rights of citizens. An early draft included the provision, “Religion is the private affair of every citizen of the Russian Republic” — but Lenin removed it.

[But] if the Separation Decree he signed carried a threat, it was mild compared to the hatred that poured from his own pen. In his essay, How to Organise the Competition? — an invocation to break pre-revolutionary habits and get workers and peasants contributing to the revolution — he explicitly dehumanised those he deemed enemies of his vision. He wrote of purging the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects. An “insect” could be a rich man or a slow worker, but, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn later put it in The Gulag Archipelago, the church parish councils were made up almost exclusively of insects, and it was insects, of course, who sang in the church choirs. All priests were insects — and monks and nuns even more so.

And yet if the Bolsheviks expected trouble from the clergy, they were not mistaken. In the days before the revolutionaries had shot up the Kremlin cathedrals, leading clerics had gathered within the Kremlin walls to restore the very patriarchate Peter the Great had abolished. The new Patriarch Tikhon, who took office just in time to witness the bloody atheist revolution, met the Separation Decree with an anathema against the new regime.

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“The open and concealed enemies of Christ,” he wrote, were “sowing seeds of malice, envy, and fratricidal war” and killing innocent people with impunity. He addressed the men and women he called “monsters of the human race” and “godless rulers of darkness”: “Think of what you are doing, you madmen! Stop your bloody reprisals. Your acts are not merely cruel, they are the works of Satan for which you will burn in hellfire in the life hereafter and be cursed by future generations in this life … By the authority given me by God I forbid you to partake of the Christian Mysteries. I anathematise you if you still bear a Christian name and belong by birth to the Orthodox Church.”

But the Bolsheviks, encouraged by their sudden rise to power, signalled their confidence with their new constitution of July 1918, which promised that the right of religious — and anti-religious propaganda — accorded to every citizen.

What the Bolsheviks may not have fully recognised was that “propagandists” like Tikhon enjoyed a rhetorical advantage: they could draw upon the familiarity of scripture. When the regime unleashed “Red Terror” in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt against Lenin that summer, Tikhon quoted the gospels of Luke and Matthew. If the Bolsheviks refused to release political prisoners and establish the rule of law, he said, “all the righteous blood you shed will cry out against you and with the sword will perish you who have taken up the sword.”

Revolutionaries were now guided by the conviction that only conscious and deliberate planning of all the social and economic activities of the masses will cause religious prejudices to die out

Even if Marx provided a rival scripture, the Bolsheviks lacked such ready interpretations. The young Marx who had coined “the opium of the people” had also written of the “abolition of religion” as a precondition of revolutionary action. But the middle-aged Marx of Capital had written that humanity’s “religious reflex” would vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.

In 1919, the Bolsheviks hammered out their own approach to the problem, which split the difference between younger Marx and contemporary Lenin. According to the programme they set out at their party conference in Moscow that March, the revolutionaries were now guided by the conviction that only conscious and deliberate planning of all the social and economic activities of the masses will cause religious prejudices to die out. The Party strives for the complete dissolution of the ties between the exploiting classes and the organisations of religious propaganda, facilitates the real emancipation of the working masses from religious prejudices and organises the widest possible scientific, educational, and anti-religious propaganda. At the same time, it is necessary carefully to avoid giving offence to the religious sentiments of believers, which only leads to the strengthening of religious fanaticism.

Two leading Bolsheviks, Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky — both of whom were later expelled from the Party and executed under Stalin — set out a lasting vision of the Party’s anti-religious mission for a wider audience in their 1920 book, The ABC of Communism: “‘Religion is the opium of the people,’ said Karl Marx. It is the task of the Communist Party to make this comprehensible to the widest possible circles of the labouring masses.”

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Communists would fight religion on two main fronts: “On the one hand, we have the struggle with the church, as a special organisation existing for religious propaganda, materially interested in the maintenance of popular ignorance and religious enslavement. On the other hand we have the struggle with the widely diffused and deeply ingrained prejudices of the majority of the working population.”

The turning of children against religious families was also an urgent matter: “One of the most important tasks of the proletarian state is to liberate children from the reactionary influence of their parents … we must see to it that the school assumes the offensive against religious propaganda in the home, so that from the very outset the children’s minds shall be rendered immune to all those religious fairy tales which many grown-ups continue to regard as truth.”

Another, peculiarly Russian strategy the Soviet government ordered that year came to symbolise the anti-religious struggle of the early 1920s: the forcible exposure of mummies and dummies in the tombs of Orthodox saints, where human ‘relics’ were believed never to decay. This, according to The ABC of Communism, was “an excellent weapon in the fight with the church … This served to prove to the wide masses of the people, and precisely to those in whom religious faith was strongest, the base trickery upon which religion in general, and the creed of the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, are grounded.”

But while these exposures appealed to the atheistic imagination, it is not clear that Russian peasants understood the “incorruptibility” of their saints as a falsifiable claim. One old peasant who witnessed such an exposure told an American visitor: “Our holy saints disappeared to heaven and substituted rags and straw for their relics when they found that their tombs were to be desecrated by nonbelievers. It was a great miracle.”

The country, meanwhile, was in a desperate state. Beyond the cities, poor Russian peasants felt the grip of all four proverbial horsemen of the apocalypse: War — the civil war; Famine — caused in part by Bolshevik grain requisitioning; Pestilence—typhus; and Death — of thousands of sick and hungry peasants fleeing the state-forsaken villages.

Soviet power, too, was in danger. In March 1921, sailors at the Kronstadt naval base — revolutionaries who had helped seize the Nevsky Monastery — rose up against the regime and accused it of betraying the revolution, before being crushed by the Red Army. Spooked by Kronstadt and the fear of ‘losing’ the countryside during the civil war, the Bolsheviks introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) which loosened economic controls. But, as if to compensate for ideological backsliding, they cracked down politically.

The Soviet press prepared the public mood with headlines like: “The starving are dragging corpses from the graveyards to eat them.”

As famine crippled the Volga region that summer, a civic organisation called Pomgol — an abbreviation of the Russian for “help to the starving” — stepped in to solicit help from the recently-established American Relief Association. Tikhon, too, offered up some of the church’s non-consecrated valuables and appealed to foreign organisations for help. But in January 1922, Red Army Commissar Lev Trotsky sent Lenin a private memo proposing a dishonest scheme to seize church valuables on the pretext of helping the starving (the more pressing matter for the Bolsheviks being the settling of foreign debts at the impending Genoa Conference). The Central Committee of the Communist Party duly ordered local Soviets to seize objects made of gold, silver, and precious stones — thus provoking clashes all over Russia. The Soviet press prepared the public mood with headlines like: “The starving are dragging corpses from the graveyards to eat them.”

Now, the religious class enemy could be exposed before the nation: in Petrograd, 10,000 Orthodox Christians turned out to stop the seizure of treasures from the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. There were outbursts of anti-Semitism — Orthodox nationalists had a habit of painting the Bolsheviks as “Jewish-Masonic slave masters” — and Lenin was quick to link religious resistance to the “Black Hundreds”, anti-Semitic nationalists once favoured by Tsar Nicholas II. In Smolensk, believers filled the cathedral to obstruct seizures. In the town of Shuya, angry villagers drove the Bolsheviks away, but the communists returned with a machine gun and shot to death at least four resisters.

For Lenin, Shuya was a propaganda opportunity. He called for mass arrests, show trials, and the shooting of “a very large number of the most influential and dangerous Black Hundreds of Shuya.” In Shuya, three people were ultimately sentenced to death; in Moscow, 11; in Petrograd, the Metropolitan Veniamin and three other resisters were executed in secret. In May, Tikhon was put under house arrest. By 1923, Russia had seen over a thousand clashes over church valuables. Nearly 80,000 priests, monks, and nuns were killed. The confiscated wealth was never used for food aid, and the American Relief Association reported that there was more food backed up in Russian ports than the Russian transportation system could handle.

Running in parallel with the church valuables campaign was a Trotsky-backed scheme to foment a schism in the church hierarchy. In May, a group of religious reformers and opportunists called the Living Church visited Tikhon while he was under house arrest and pressured him to give up his authority. Against his wishes, they replaced the new patriarchate with a “Higher Church Administration” under the supervision of the GPU, a precursor to the KGB. The Living Church said the Soviet government was trying to create “the ideal Kingdom of God.” Tikhon anathematised the new entity as ‘the work of the Antichrist”. The authorities used the schism to damage the church, then abandoned it.

In April 1923, the GPU ordered Tikhon to be transferred to one of its prisons in Moscow’s Donskoi Monastery. Prosecutors prepared a show trial for the “counter-revolutionary pope”, which would end in “the highest measure of punishment” — death. But Tikhon’s persecution attracted foreign condemnation — notably from British Foreign Secretary George Curzon — and he found a saviour in the anti-religious agitator Emelian Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky convinced the Politburo that a public confession from the patriarch would better undermine international agitators and White émigrés. No one knows what happened inside that GPU prison, but Tikhon emerged to publicly denounce his record of “hostility” towards the Soviet authorities to vow loyalty to the Soviet state.

Shortly before his stroke, and as the church valuables campaign was reaching its height, Lenin wrote an article called On the Significance of Militant Materialism, which would amount to his last will and testament on atheist propaganda. He confessed that the failures of atheist propaganda since the revolution showed that it is much easier to seize power in a revolutionary epoch than to know how to use this power properly.

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Part of the problem was working out how to reach the widest possible audience without boring them: “It would be the biggest and most grievous mistake a Marxist could make to think that the millions of the people (especially the peasants and artisans), who have been condemned by all modern society to darkness, ignorance, and superstitions, can extricate themselves from this darkness only along the straight line of a purely Marxist education. These masses should be supplied with the most varied atheist propaganda material, they should be made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them from the most varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth.”

To this end, he recommended the European philosophers of old: “The keen, vivacious, and talented writings of the old 18th-century atheists wittily and openly attacked the prevailing clericalism and will very often prove a thousand times more suitable for arousing people from their religious torpor than the dull and dry paraphrases of Marxism”.

Emelian Yaroslavsky took up the project at the end of 1922 as editor of the new Anti-Religious Propaganda Commission’s black and white illustrated newspaper, Godless. Moscow Party activist Maria Kostelovskaya upstaged him in January 1923 with a magnificently illustrated colour magazine, also called Godless, which she was forced to rename Godless at the Machine after Yaroslavsky tried to have her publication merged into his. Her first issue bore a striking print by the illustrator Dmitri Moor, which showed a hammer-wielding worker climbing a ladder into heaven to smash the gods. It carried the slogan: “We’ve finished the earthly tsars and we’re coming for the heavenly ones!”

When Lenin died on 21 January 1924, he was in immediate danger of being sainted. His widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, made a solid Marxist case against the “outward veneration of his person”, but the Politburo had already, throughout the later stages of his illness, begun planning special rites of veneration. At one meeting, Stalin is said to have observed that, “certain comrades believe that contemporary science offers the possibility, by means of embalming, of preserving the body of the deceased for a long time.”

Stalin co-chaired Lenin’s Funeral Commission and Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the GPU, assembled a state-of-the-art team of modern mummifiers called the Immortalisation Commission. Lenin’s successors, as if guided by some infernal sense of humour, turned the founder into one more un-decaying Russian saint for the masses to revere.

Extract from Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda by Roland Elliott Brown, published by FUEL and is available here.

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