Why Stalin tried to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union
When the era of communist rule began in Russia in 1917, religion was seen as an obstacle to a flourishing socialist society. Like Karl Marx, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, said: “Communism begins where atheism begins.”
Joseph Stalin, as the second leader of the Soviet Union, attempted to impose militant atheism on the republic. The new “socialist man”, Stalin argued, was an atheist, freed from the religious shackles which had helped to link him to class oppression. From 1928 until World War II, when some restrictions were relaxed, the totalitarian dictator closed churches, synagogues and mosques and ordered the murder and imprisonment of thousands of religious leaders in a bid to eliminate even the concept of God.
“He saw this as a way to get rid of a past that held people back and walk towards the future of science and progress,” says historian Steven Merritt Miner, author of Stalin’s holy war: religion, nationalism and alliance politics. “Like most of what Stalin did, he accelerated the violence of the Leninist period.”
Joseph Stalin grew up with religion
On a personal level, Stalin knew the church well. As a young man in his native Georgia, he was first expelled from one seminary and then forced to leave another, after being arrested for illegal possession of literature. As the young seminarian grew increasingly disillusioned with religion, “the global nature of Marxism, almost religious in its universality, was extremely appealing,” writes Oleg V. Khlevniuk, in his 2015 work. biography of the dictator.
That the whole of human history had led to the “upper stages” of socialism was an attractive prospect, and one which “endowed the revolutionary struggle with special significance”, he writes. From this point of view, the end has more than justified even the most extreme means.
By the time Stalin reached the height of his power in the 1920s, the Russian Orthodox Church remained a powerful force, despite more than a decade of anti-religious measures under Vladimir Lenin. Russian peasants were more loyal than ever, writes Richard Madsen in the Oxford Manual on the History of Communism, with “the liturgy of the church” always “deeply rooted in [their] way of life ”and“ indispensable for their sense of meaning and community ”. A powerful church was a risky prospect, and one which could threaten the success of the revolution.
The “five-year plan without God”
The “unholy five-year plan” launched in 1928, gave local cells of the anti-religious organization, League of Militant Atheists, new tools to disrupt religion. The churches were closed and stripped of their property, as well as all educational or social activities that went beyond the simple liturgy.
Church leaders were jailed and sometimes executed, on the grounds that they were anti-revolutionary. The few clergy who remained were replaced by members deemed sympathetic to the regime, making the church even more toothless as a possible hotbed of dissent or counterrevolution.
There was a relatively simple idea at the heart of this plan, explains Madsen: it was possible and desirable to eradicate “traditional national consciousness” in order to “create a society based on the universal principles of socialism.” More than that, the steps were reproducible: the plan was eventually exported to other communist countries which had chosen to ally with the USSR.
On the ground, social reforms and pro-atheist publications have sought to completely eliminate religion from everyday life. Launched in 1929, the new Soviet calendar initially featured a continuous five-day week, designed to do away with weekends and thus revolutionize the concept of work. But it had a secondary function: by eliminating Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, days of worship for Muslims, Jews and Christians, the new calendar was supposed to make observance more difficult than it was worth.
READ MORE: For 11 years the Soviet Union had no weekends
Churches, synagogues, mosques transformed into “museums of atheism”
At the same time, the sacked churches, synagogues and mosques have turned into anti-religious ”atheism museums», Where dioramas of clerical cruelty rubbed shoulders with crisp explanations of scientific phenomena. Icons and relics, on the other hand, have been stripped of their mystique and treated like ordinary objects. The general public does not seem to have been particularly influenced by these exhibits, although they enjoyed the attractions themselves. The most popular of these museums remained open until the 1980s, the New York Times reported..
Meanwhile, the nominally independent League of Atheist Militants disseminated anti-religious publications, organized conferences and demonstrations, and helped atheist propaganda find its way into almost every element of socialist life. The popularity of these publications did not always indicate that atheism was winning, says Miner: “Some believers bought atheist publications because that’s when they found out what was going on.
Churches reopen during WWII
In 1939, barely 200 churches remained open, out of about 46,000 before the Russian Revolution. Members of the clergy and laity had been executed or placed in labor camps, while only four bishops remained “at liberty”.
The Orthodox Church was all but defeated, says Madsen, until World War II. After the Nazi invaders reopened churches in Ukraine to encourage sympathy from the locals, Stalin followed suit across the country, in a naked attempt to gain national support for the homeland.
READ MORE: How Stalin starved millions during the Ukrainian famine
Stalin seemed to have had absolute conviction in his anti-religious war. “I have no doubt that he was an absolute atheist,” says Miner. “He just thought [religion] It was tricks and nonsense, and a way to throw dust in people’s eyes so that you could control them – really, it was childish to believe anything else. ”
Upon meeting Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stalin seems to have been genuinely surprised to learn that the president was attending religious services, asks diplomat W. Averell Harriman “If the president, being such an intelligent man, was really as religious as he appeared, or if his professions were for political ends”.
Campaigns fail to convert majority to atheism
Even though Stalin’s measures succeeded in sucking the center of the Russian Orthodox Church, they had minimal impact on the real faith of the people. As recently as 1937, a survey of the Soviet population revealed that 57% self-identified as a “believer”. Stalin’s central belief – that any rational person, as Miner puts it, “would naturally reject religious superstitions just as a baby grows too big for his rattle” – has been proven wrong.
Even after World War II, the anti-religious campaign raged for decades, with Bibles banned and little or no religious education. However, in 1987, the new York Time reported, “Soviet officials began to admit that they might lose the battle against religion.”
Culturally speaking, the urban Bolsheviks had little in common with the rural peasants who made up a large part of the general population. For the peasants, militant atheism was never captivating enough to replace centuries of religious practice, especially as the memory of the 1917 revolution and Stalin’s reign faded more and more.