The Bolsheviks viewed religion as Marx did, as the “opiate of the masses.” When they rose to power in 1917, they wanted to free all citizens from this “drug.” Under the previous regime, Church and state were closely tied, and because the Bolsheviks wanted to wipe the slate clean, they decided to go to rather extreme measures, starting with an anti-religious propaganda campaign.
On January 18, 1918, a decree was issued that made all clergy (of any religion) second-class citizens and renounced the longstanding Orthodox Church. Furthermore, it established formal separation of Church and State and nationalized church land. This decree also set into motion years of conflict between the Bolsheviks and churches, including the confiscation of church valuables, particularly gold.The caption reads: “What could the church gold give us? Russia could be fed for this year and the next!”
The Bolsheviks created an entire campaign centered on blaming the church for essentially hoarding their gold and wealth instead of giving it to the poor who were starving due to the famine of 1921-1922. While the Bolsheviks might have actually shouldered more blame for the famine and all-around lack of food than the church did, their anti-religious campaign was still very effective. They believed it was cynical for the church to collect and keep money from its believers when many of them were starving and could have used that money elsewhere. Some clergy complied with their demands, giving the people money and valuables, but others did not. This only infuriated the Bolsheviks more, and the ransacking continued, along with executions of priests and bishops. According to Freeze, the Bolsheviks closed “thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques” and sometimes “converted [them] into meeting-halls, cinemas, cowsheds, and the like” (350-351). Certainly the Bolsheviks wanted to rid the Russian people of what they saw was their “opium,” but perhaps their measures were too extreme.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
Von Geldern, James. “Antireligious Propaganda.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1924antireligion&Year=1924&navi=byYear
Von Geldern, James. “Confiscating Church Gold.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1921church&Year=1921&navi=byYear