No More Opium for the People


The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow


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.

Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, Report of mistakes committed in conducting measures to close monasteries.

Executive Committee of the Kostroma Regional Soviet, Secret. To all Chairmen of Town District Executive Committees.

Aleksandr Osipov, Letter to the Editor: A Rejection of Religion Is the Only True Path.

I. Kryvelev, An Important Side of Everyday Life.

9 thoughts on “No More Opium for the People

  1. What is interesting is that the Soviets took religion and turned what existed into a means to sway the people in favor of the government during rough times. During WWII Stalin had the church preach about how great the government was and how the people should stand by it. The Soviets were great at turning everything into a propaganda machine.

  2. I’m surprised that there weren’t more revolts like the one that was mentioned, especially now that people felt a bit more free after the death of Stalin and the thaw that followed. I feel like more people should have tried to stop it considering how important Orthodoxy has been in Russian history.

  3. Interesting post, The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was destroyed by Stalin in 1931 as part of anti-religious movements. This factor was clearly an issue for many decades.

  4. Reading this I have to agree with the comment above about the fact that there were not more revolts than the one mentioned. It seemed like religion was so heavily invested into Russian culture that not force, not even Stalinism, Leninism, or Communism would have such a major sway in the changing of an entire society.

  5. I had no idea that the war against the church continued after Stalin. It is interesting to see that farmers tried to defend nuns with pitchforks, and successfully did this for eleven days. It’s also interesting to see how they took away holidays from the church and replaced those holidays with equivalent Soviet ones.

  6. I really liked learning the continuation of the war on the Church after the death of Stalin. I thought it had stopped once he died. Reading that the nuns were defended by farmers with pitchforks was so interesting.

  7. The manner in which religion was attacked by the state and the lack of large scale resistance to such a movement by the people is surprising. It is interesting, that the only reason this might have succeeded is because of the totalitarian system of government in Russia.

  8. It’s interesting to me that the government chose to “merge” the monasteries in Russia rather than to flat out say they were closing them down. Ultimately it seems like that’s what they were actually doing (closing them down) but I’m still a little puzzled as to why they felt the need to hide that fact as I don’t think many people were fooled by intentions of the anti-religion campaign. Good post I really liked the title.

  9. Its amazing that even though Khrushchev introduced a “thaw”, where censorship was decreases, yet at the same time, he called for the reduction of the Orthodox Church, which as you said, played a huge role in Russian lives. It seems that he uncensored things that wouldn’t rival or affect his power, such as freeing Gulag prisoners, and instead, limited religion which could wield threatening power to his legitimacy if it were to see differently then him.

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