The rigid theology of scientific, rational atheism as an antidote to the problems of religion was not found in Marx and Engels. Marx did see religion as fostering apathy to class divisions and as kind of a 'sop' to appropriate anger and revolutionary solidarity, but he believed that it would disappear of its own accord once the populace was made sufficiently aware of the cruelties of the class system. Lenin vehemently disagreed and believed that religion must be eradicated. A review of Dimitry V. Pospielovsky's A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice and the Believer noted: "The bloody persecution of the Orthodox church was well under way…on January 19, 1918…Sympathies toward the Whites during the Civil War (e.g. As shown by reciting a Te Deum) merited execution. However, even completely apolitical and even left-leaning clerics like Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd were tried and condemned. Veniamin's crime was to resist the campaign of confiscation of church valuables by insisting that the Church be allowed to ransom those used for sacramental purposes at their value in currency and that the rest be taken as voluntary contributions rather than pure confiscations" (Studies in Soviet Thought, 1998, p.148). Thus it did not matter if a cleric was liberal: what mattered is that all sources of authority that could compete for human loyalty were eradicated. The state took the wealth of the churches for itself in the name of the people, despite popular resistance to this policy and its potentially alienating effects upon apolitical Russians.
Husband suggests that this only increased the popular and populist elements of religious ideology -- without much access to institutional church controls, people did not abandon the church but reconfigured their personal religious traditions to suit the times. In response to atheistic imposition, populist observation of religion was more feasible than institutional resistance. At first, factories were one common site of teaching: "Priests had full access to workers' barracks, and despite a directive by the factory party cell several old iconostasis continued to be displayed. Senior skilled workers conducted religious instruction among the unskilled and collected donations for the support of the priest and the construction of a new church. The Party began publishing a factory newspaper, Without God and Boss, irregularly in 1923, but only in 1925 was the factory committee able to close one of three local churches and launch a campaign to remove icons" (Husband, 1998, p. 83).
Despite official repression, priests gained support, not just from religious Russians, but also because the communists had abolished all religious holidays and thus all days of leisure -- eventually, however, they were forced to replace them with other 'official' holidays in support of the regime. "During the early Soviet period, even factory administrators sympathetic to the revolution continued the prerevolutionary practice of closing textile mills for two weeks at Easter, sometimes citing very real shortages of raw materials and fuel in order to put the best possible face on the situation" (Hubbard, 1998, p. 95). Loss of productivity due to drunkenness and fasts was also a real concern: by creating new holidays, the communists created a social release valve that was contained and structured leisure upon the regime's terms. The symbolism was unintentional but obvious -- new state 'religious' holidays were officially celebrating the atheistic state, but they often coincided with old, Church holidays to reduce resistance.
As priests also strove to lead efforts to oppose collectivization of agriculture, this strengthened the determination of the communists to quash the influence of the Church. While the communists consolidated their power, institutional controls were placed upon priests. The mechanisms of the state were also made manifest when priests were forced to suffer official sanctions that effectively denied them a livelihood: "By 1929, priests were considered not to be workers and therefore subject to a much higher rate of taxation similar to that imposed on entrepreneurs. Although as less than full citizens, priests were ineligible for military service (as well as to vote), they had to pay a special military non-service tax…combined with the...
As 'non-toiling elements', priests were also ineligible to join collective farms. Likewise, they were deprived of all social security rights for health care or pensions" (Studies in Soviet Thought, 1998, p.149). Priests were defined occupationally out of the new system as virtually non-existent workers.
Thus communist leadership, despite parroting Marx's contention that religion was the opiate of the masses, felt free to use reconfigured religious holidays ceremonies to inspire loyalty even while they opposed the priesthood and created new classes of non-persons (like the priests and bourgeois). The communists created a new religious dogma, a more inflexible one, to replace the old. Perhaps the most obvious symbol of the Soviet religion of atheism was how, upon his death, Lenin was displayed with more fanfare than a medieval saint. "His body was not cremated in the revolutionary faction but embalmed, displayed for forty days...and ultimately housed in a mausoleum" (Hubbard 2000, p. 96). The comparison is comparable with how Christian leaders had difficulty abolishing the syncretism of faiths, pagan and Christian, that arose during the period of transition to Christianity over the course of the middle ages. The Church eventually incorporated many pagan rituals into Christian ones (such as the feast of the Winter Solstice, which became Christmas). Now, communist Russia became an state of atheistic faith -- and in response to the people's needs had to adopt old festival days and holidays and transformed them into religious ones, to secure popular loyalty.
Hubbard's title of 'Godless Communism' is deliberately put in quotes: contrary to the anti-communist rhetoric of the Cold War in the west, in lived practice, communism was anything but 'godless.' The state created a religion of communism, and the people preserved their religious traditions in modified form. They often used religion as a means of resistance to communism, while the state transformed religious rituals into secular ones. This notion of communism as a kind of religion is not a new one: Theorist and Russian emigre Nikolai Berdyaev believed that state religious fervor was ingrained within the Russian soul and even wrote in 1944 that Christianity and communism were not inherently incompatible. "The Russian messianic conception…always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity and would accept a place in the service of humanity…recent changes in Russia, the changed attitude to religion and to the country's traditions, make it not only possible but right for Christian Russians to rally to the Soviet government" (Latter 2006). In 1927, Metropolitan Sergii, the patriarch locum tenens of the Russian Orthodox Church, even "called on his followers to accept and obey Soviet power as divinely ordained" (Miner 2002)
Religion was also not completely illegal during the Soviet regime: the 1926 and 1977 Constitution only permitted the existence of organizations which contributed to the building of communism but technically granted citizens the freedom to profess a religion. It did forbid religious propaganda while allowing atheist anti-religious propaganda. In practice, believers were persecuted, however. Perhaps the most notable alteration of the regime's hostile stance towards religion came with the Soviets' adoption of a more "conciliatory stance toward the Russian Orthodox Church, generally dating the change from the outbreak of the Soviet-German war in June 1941. The explanations offered for the Kremlin's change of course have varied over time. During the war, many Western observers believed that Stalin eased legal strictures against the Orthodox Church as a 'reward' of sorts" for its lessening of expressed opposition to communism (Miner 2002). Critics of that theory, however, note that Stalin seldom had difficulty or compunction stifling dissent. Others suggest that it was a canny policy to mobilize the Russian people to fight in the name of the Church, as they had done against Napoleon, against seemingly impossible odds: "Stalin biographer Dmitrii Volkogonov argues that both the demands of the war effort and of international realities convinced the dictator to act. 'The [Soviet] High Command,' he writes, 'valued the patriotic role of the church and wanted to widen its activity'" (Miner 2002).
However, this does not entirely explain why so many of the reopened churches were in the Ukraine, and why Stalin's liberalism occurred relatively late in the war effort. "Not until September 1943 did the Soviets allow the Russian Orthodox Church to select a new patriarch; only in that year did the state permit the restricted publication of church literature within the U.S.S.R., the restoration of churches, and the publication of statements by Orthodox clergy in the Russian-language Soviet press" (Miner 2002). A more compelling explanation may lay in Stalin's desire to superficially placate the West, even while he was strengthening his control over Eastern Europe, and his desire to use the Russian Church's presence counteract the influence of Roman Catholicism in the Eastern block nations he was intending to occupy. The dogma of atheism could thus be…
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