Religion in the Soviet State

This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.

By Anonymous – http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&show=essay&SubjectID=1924antireligion&Year=1924&navi=byYear, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7695788

Translation of Poster: Ban religious holidays!

With the formation of the Soviet State, religion was involved a lot. The Soviets wanted to have complete authority over the people and wanted people to look to them, not religion, as saviors. The Soviet state took property and valuables from the churches, killed followers of religions, and promoted atheism in the state. Clearly, the Soviet state did not tolerate religion.

The Soviets wanted to eliminate religion. The Library of Congress talks about how “The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools” (Anti-religious Campaigns, par. 1). In the 1920s, the Russian Orthodox Church was the main target of the Soviet anti-religious movement. Most of the clergy and believers were either shot or sent to labor camps (Anti-religious Campaigns, par. 2). The Soviets did not want any authority to conflict with their interests. Another example is the Soviets not wanting the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. The Soviets campaigned against religions that had a foreign religious authority such as the Catholic Church with the Pope. According to the Library of Congress, “By 1926, the Roman Catholic Church had no bishops left in the Soviet Union” (Anti-religious Campaigns, par. 4).

The Soviets did not believe that religion would benefit the Soviet State but only hinder progress. Gregory Freeze writes about how “if religion had been ‘the opiate of the masses’ under the old order, religious belief in the new world constituted superstition and, as such, an impediment to creating progressive, scientific society” (pg. 335). The Soviets wanted to advance in industry, technology, and power, not in religion. To the Soviets, religion focused on the spiritual world while the Soviets were focused on the material world.

The Soviets also wanted to take the Orthodox Church’s wealth. One method that the Soviets did was to confiscate the Church’s gold. Due to the famine of 1921-1922, there was a need to purchase grain from other countries. Lenin suggested the idea of confiscating the gems and precious metals owned by the Church. If the Church refused, the blame of people starving would be placed on them (Seventeen Moments in Soviet History). Another example is how the Soviet State took Church Property. Freeze writes about how “The Soviet state decreed a separation of Church and state that nationalized church land and property without compensation” (pg. 335). Finally, “local soviets utilized existing laws to confiscate places of worship for use as workers’ clubs, cinemas, and libraries” (Freeze, 336). The Soviet state was clearly taking advantage of and hurting organized religions in the Soviet Union.

From a translated letter that Lenin wrote, one can see the hostility between the state and Church. The letter is written by Lenin to members of the Politburo and outlines a brutal plan against the Black Hundreds clergy and its followers. The clergy and followers refused to follow the government decree of giving up church valuables (Anti-religious Campaigns, par. 6). Lenin’s letter says “the announcement that the Black Hundreds in Petrograd were preparing to defy the decree on the removal of property of value from the churches… it becomes perfectly clear that the Black Hundreds clergy, headed by its leader, with full deliberation is carrying out a plan at this very moment to destroy us decisively” (Letter from Lenin, par. 2). The letter continues saying “I think that here our opponent is making a huge strategic error… when we can in 99 out of 100 chances utterly defeat our enemy with complete success” (Letter from Lenin, par. 4). This is very extreme and seems very unnecessary. Lenin sounds like he is preparing for war or dealing with an enemy at war. This shows how much the state and Church were in conflict with each other.

To the Soviet Union, the only way to progress was to advance in industry and technology. Religion could not help the Soviet’s goal so the Soviet state sought ways to make the Church help, even if the methods were cruel and malicious. The Soviet state took property from the churches, stole church valuables, and killed clergy and followers if they resisted. Soviet leaders such as Lenin viewed the church as a hostile enemy based off of a letter he wrote. The Soviet Union did not care for religion but only cared for what the state could take from the church physically. The Soviet Union promoted atheism and did not want people to have a conflict of interests between the state and Church. Overall, with the rise of the Soviet Union, the Church fell.

Sources:

“Confiscating Church Gold.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 4 Jan. 2016,        soviethistory.msu.edu/1921-2/confiscating-church-gold/.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

Anti-Religious Campaigns, 16 Aug. 2016, www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/anti.html.

Letter from Lenin, www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ae2bkhun.html.

19 Replies to “Religion in the Soviet State”

  1. I really enjoyed your post. I had no idea that religious persecution happened on such a large scale. I guess it makes sense that they wanted the people to believe in them instead of God considering the Communistic government that they had put in place. Im not sure if you came across this in your research, but as the catholic church was being driven out of Russia, were there any attempts at evangelism or missionary missions coming from the Catholic church? I assume it would be quite difficult and dangerous but I was curious.

    1. I did not read or see anything about the Catholic Church’s response to the Soviet Union’s actions. I will definitely look into it. I assume that the Catholic Church would criticize and ask for help with the displacement of Catholics in the Soviet Union. The Soviets did not like the Catholic Church being in their territory since they view Catholicism as being a Western idea.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post! I think it’s interesting, although sad, how the Soviet Union felt they needed to eliminate religion in the country to take power over its citizens. I wonder if they did that partly out of fear. One of my professors grew up in Bulgaria and he mentioned how Soviet rule later on dismantled religion in the country and is one reason why that country is largely atheistic today.

    1. I am sorry to hear that from your professor. I think the Soviet Union felt they needed to eliminate religion in order to eliminate any other authority in the state. With Catholicism, they did not want a religious authority figure in the Soviet Union and they viewed Catholicism as a Western idea. Overall, I think the Soviet Union wanted to eliminate religion in order to make people think the same and view the Soviet Union as the people’s protector.

  3. This is an interesting perspective when learning more about the Soviet state and how the Bolsheviks maneuvered to consolidate wealth and power. What I found interesting is how the Bolsheviks openly worked to remove religion and its institutions from the public and replace it with communist ideals. Freeze wrote about how Lenin was effectively worshipped following his death and permanent display in Red Square. Do you think that the Soviets aimed to destroy spiritual religion and replace it with a sort of secular religion based around Bolshevism? Great post!

    1. Yes. The Soviets clearly did not want spiritual religion in the Soviet Union. In the letter I read about Lenin, he ordered the people who refused to give up the Church’s valuables to be shot. Clearly, the interest of the state was more important than the Church. There are also major conflict of interests between communism and Christianity. Communism focuses on the material world, does not believe in a higher power, and views religion as an excuse for holding power. Religion would not serve the Soviet Union’s interests but communism would.

  4. I also talked about religion but mainly focusing on the Catholic Church. On the broader scale, although the Bolsheviks didn’t want the Catholic Church in Russia, they were just as harsh to other religions as they were to Catholics. If you were a believer of any kind you were going to be persecuted. I didn’t catch the part about them trying to promote atheism when doing my own research. That’s very interesting that they tried to push that but makes a lot of sense considering their beliefs on religion as a whole.

    1. I was shocked when i found out they promoted atheism. With all of the grand churches in Russia, I wondered how they would deal with them as being constant reminders of religion. I know that the Soviet Union stole the Church’s valuables and property but I wondered why they did not destroy the Church’s in order to eliminate any reminders of religion. Maybe they feared that the majority of the religious people would fight back against the government if they harmed the churches?

  5. You’ve got some great questions here, which means your post did a wonderful job of raising awareness around this issue! And I agree, the Bolsheviks’ hostility to organized religion, especially Russian Orthodoxy, really is complicated and staggering. Thanks so much for writing about it!
    And what a good find those letters at the LOC are! I just looked at Gorky’s letter to Stalin (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/f2gorky.html) and was struck by two things: 1) how negatively the expropriation of the church and campaign against religion were seen abroad; and 2) how he highlights the fact that “materialism and religion are two different (parallel) planes” that don’t intersect. So he encourages Stalin to support education around the idea that religion is political (vs. spiritual).

  6. Also — What a great image! It says “Down with Church Holidays” – which you’ve got to think was a tough sell, right? How does the poster try to bring people on board with that message?

    1. Hi Professor Nelson,
      I am sorry, I think I messed up on posting the translation. I will try to fix it. With the image, I got the sense that the Soviet Union wanted to convince people that religious holidays did more harm than good. The man on the left has a cross necklace but has a bottle in his left hand. I think the Soviet Union is trying to say that religious holidays are an excuse to get drunk. On the bottom left, it shows two men cutting down trees which I assume are Christmas trees? Maybe the Soviet Union is trying to say that if everybody does this, the forests will face deforestation?

  7. This post makes great connections in the view points of Soviet perspectives of religion. You discuss the communists distinctions between different religions which shows the mass amounts of religious persecution occurring during this time. Providing additional information on the Soviets focusing more on the material world that coincides with their ambitions to further industrialize the Union emphasizes how the spirituality and materialistic modes of thinking can conflict with one another, creating more issues within the goals and mindset of the Soviet Union.

    1. Yes that was fun to look into involving the distinction between the views of communism and religion. I wanted to find out how the people of the Soviet Union felt overall about this attitude expressed by the Soviet Union but I could not find any reliable sources. I would think that the majority of the people would not accept an atheistic culture and that the Soviet Union would have to make some compromises or another revolution would happen.

  8. Yes that was fun to look into involving the distinction between the views of communism and religion. I wanted to find out how the people of the Soviet Union felt overall about this attitude expressed by the Soviet Union but I could not find any reliable sources. I would think that the majority of the people would not accept an atheistic culture and that the Soviet Union would have to make some compromises or another revolution would happen.

  9. I really enjoyed reading about the separation between church and state and how Lenin thoroughly wanted to loot the church for its riches. I wish I mentioned this in my response as it was such an interesting concept.

  10. Hey Matt!

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I find it really interesting how adamant Lenin and the Bolsheviks were about marginalizing religion, particularly Catholicism. I think the Bolsheviks’ view of religion says a lot more about their fear of organized faith than their hatred of it, or how it could damage their work. I think it’s important to note that the hope a religion can provide to people in trying times is much greater than we realize. And it is even more important to realize the power hope can have against people like Lenin (& Stalin), the Bolshevik Party, and the means by which they were willing to achieve their goals. Hope can do a lot of damage to a movement like the one the Bolshevik’s were pushing, and I’m willing to bet that Lenin was not willing to take a chance on the possibility of the Russian people acquiring too much hope.

  11. Great post Matt I will say that I find it so crazy how far the lengths they would go in order to not only get rid of religion but how much they would go to promote atheism. That to me would be a red flag but I imagine as people got older they just went right along with the plan.

  12. Great Post! it is very interesting to see just how ambitious the Bolsheviks were in their goals for transforming the Soviet Union. It would seem that this ambition was mostly unfruitful but still it is kind of terrifying what happens when radical ideas are implemented by government. The amount of pain and suffering likely cause by these policies is probably insane to consider.

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