Marxism famously claims that “religion is the opiate of the people”. Communism was to have no religion. But while bringing Marxist theory into practice in Russia, Soviet leaders knew that the thin ice they walked on could break if they forced Soviet citizens to give up religion. Prior to the Soviet Union, Orthodox Christianity was an important part of Russian life. But by 1957, Khrushchev felt that the USSR was stable enough to take another step toward true communism.
The new policy, approved by Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii, attempted to merge existing monasteries together to bring the total number down, limiting their affect on surrounding regions. By 1959, 33 monasteries had been eliminated through mergers and another 29 were to be merged into other monasteries. During the second push of mergers, five Moldavian monasteries were to be eliminated. The first four were successfully closed, but when people in Rechulskii heard that the nuns were being forced out of the local monastery they revolted and prevented Soviet officials from transferring the nuns and closing the church for 11 days by surrounding the church armed with pitchforks. Eventually the monastery was closed and Soviet officials cited miscommunication for the holdup. But it showed that Khrushchev’s policy was not easy to enforce (Council for the Affairs)
Fears of increasing faith led to the 1961 law that took control of churches from priests and gave them to councils. The council were packed with communists who were able to force about 10,000 of the churches to close, about half of all existing Orthodox churches in the USSR. The campaign against religion heated up with the Party forcing priests to renounce their faith and made churches into museums and schools without warning. They also tried to replace the traditions and rituals of religion with “Soviet ritualism” and science. They replaced religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter with a celebration of Russian winter and Spring Day, respectfully. They also had picked certain personal milestones–such as first day of school, being drafted by the army, returning from the army, marriage, birthdays, funerals–to be celebrated in a Soviet way. Policy makers knew that these new traditions would not be accepted overnight, but by using new technology such as phonographs and TV, they could make these holidays and rites tradition for Soviet citizens in a few years.
Seventeen Moments: Fight Against Superstition. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1961antireligion&Year=1961&navi=byYear
Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, Report of mistakes committed in conducting measures to close monasteries. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1961monastery1&SubjectID=1961antireligion&Year=1961
Executive Committee of the Kostroma Regional Soviet, Secret. To all Chairmen of Town District Executive Committees. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1961kostroma1&SubjectID=1961antireligion&Year=1961
Aleksandr Osipov, Letter to the Editor: A Rejection of Religion Is the Only True Path. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1961osipov2&SubjectID=1961antireligion&Year=1961
I. Kryvelev, An Important Side of Everyday Life. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1961ritual1&SubjectID=1961antireligion&Year=1961