Icons in the Corner of the Hut: Belief and Unbelief in the USSR

If the Bolsheviks had been mindful of the popular Russian saying that “a sacred space is never empty,” the government they imposed on the Russian people would have avoided many misfortunes. This well-known saying alludes to the days long before the October Revolution of 1917, when places of prayer were considered holy, and to the fact that, if an ancient shrine were destroyed, a new temple would soon rise in its place. Victoria Smolkin, elaborating on the direct reading of the maxim, puts it not only in the title of her new book but at the very center of her narration. Throughout 250 pages of captivating text, the associate professor of history at Wesleyan University skillfully builds a historical study of atheism under Soviet rule, demonstrating the accuracy of folk wisdom too cavalierly ignored by the Bolsheviks.

Campaign to Replace Religion with Scientific Knowledge

Karl Marx promised that “as socialism grows, religion will disappear.” Vladimir Lenin pledged that communism would erase religion from human history. Josef Stalin killed many people of religious background under the credo, “No man, no problem.” (Yet Stalin was under no illusions that religion itself could be eliminated.) A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism takes us on a carrousel of top-rank communists’ views and actions in the realm of religion, claiming that while much has been written about the violent acts in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics against the church, the clergy, and ordinary religious believers, minor attention has been given to the history of atheism as a supposed substitute for religion, especially in the post-Stalin period (1953-1991). Thus, Smolkin ventures to provide an overview of the entire history of Soviet atheism, with a special emphasis on scarcely known aspects of how it was designed and implemented, and what were the desired and unintended results.

The reader will become acquainted with all periods of Soviet atheism: the militant atheism of the Stalin era, which was ended by the forced truce with the Church in the midst of the hardships of the Second World War (1943), followed by the scientific atheism and anti-religious campaigns of Nikita Khrushchev. Convinced that the closure of half of the churches and monasteries only increased the number of religious rites, Khrushchev eventually turned to the peaceful advancement of the scientific worldview and communist morality. With the onset of Leonid Brezhnev’s time as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the emphasis shifted to promoting a socialist version of spirituality. Extensive discussion of rituals and folk customs endorsed a massive launch of new rites and practices throughout the USSR. Big cities saw the rise of “Palaces of Marriage” and “Palaces of Happiness.”

Showing unsuccessful attempts to replace religion with scientific knowledge, rituals, a moral code, and high spirituality, Smolkin thereby invites the reader to understand that religion is not merely ritual, morality, and spirituality. Neither is it an emotion, solidarity or consolation, sought by man in suffering. What is it, then, if its “emptied place” could not be filled by the all-powerful state in seven decades of unlimited state power?

She quotes a letter to the authorities from one B. Roslavlev, a representative of the Christian intelligentsia, that is most illuminating in this regard, and leads to deeper considerations. Roslavlev advocates the benefits of faith in the building of communism. If Logos, the indestructible word-as-meaning, the grammar of existence, stands behind religion, then the proposition of the intellectual becomes clear: Religion can return the lost order to the invisible foundations of Being and social life. Without these foundations, everything moves toward collapse and self-destruction. A revolution that rejects Logos is doomed to bring ruin.

Gradually, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty shows how the atheists themselves became convinced of the ineffectiveness of their propaganda. Attention shifts from  worldviews to emotions and spirituality. “With us, no one sheds tears,” exclaims a propagandist. The atheistic changes of tactic implicitly recognize that religion now rests not only on the old foundations, but also on the people’s massive disappointment in the communist idea.

The People Wanted More Religion, and More Material Objects, than the Commissars Predicted

We read here of debates between atheists about their goals. Are they aiming for the theoretical study of religion, or rather, the conversion of Russians to a scientific materialist view? The atheists become more and more interested in studying religion, while rejecting militant atheism. One leading atheist, in a letter to the Central Committee, warns of the dangerous consequences of militant atheism and calls for cooperation with believers in reuniting society. Another champion of atheism admits that there is a growing interest in religion, but says that Russians’ beliefs have become deformed and diluted. Their colleague avers that religion has become the main tool of “the global war of ideas.” He raises concerns that ideological indifference and consumerism are prevalent among young people in the Soviet Union. If the first Soviet generations were ready to endure material difficulties and sacrifice everything, then the postwar generation was characterized by spiritual emptiness and a penchant for material things.

Conformism, which pierces the whole of socialist reality, struck the religious side of life as well. More and more Russians did not believe deeply, but still practiced rituals. The studies cited by the author yield a profile of a “typical” Soviet believer: icons in the corner of the hut, but life under the icons can contradict faith. Baptism, wedding, wearing a cross, but at the same time disregarding the deeper layers of religiosity. One may notice that in such scenarios, a believer is somewhat of a caricature.

It is true that Smolkin does not provide portraits of the “salt of the earth”—of those who carried and preserved Christian love, hope and faith—perhaps because these people were not taken into consideration in the cited atheist studies. Holy martyrs and true disciples of Christianity, people who shed blood for faith during times of war and persecution, do not appear in the atheist reports and thus are missing from the pages of this book. Atheism places no value on the fact that Christianity rests on the blood of martyrs. It does not speak of those who preached in gulags, nor does it mention those spiritual elders around whom many believers were nourished and countless conversions took place in the Soviet era. As a rule, the book does not take seriously those seemingly invisible women who lived Christian love and humbleness and who, like the myrrh-bearers, kept faith alive in dark times.

When it comes to the conquering of the cosmos, the book masterfully depicts people’s emotions. Man’s flight to outer space was supposed to bring the onset of massive conversions to the scientific worldview. Proclaimed an editorial in an  atheist journal launched in 1959, Science and Religion: There is no God up there, the heavens are empty! “Man made nature submit to his will,” and “became a giant, victorious over the elements, directing the laws of nature and society.” An elderly woman, a convert to atheism, wrote to Izvestia saying, “He [man] himself inhabits the skies, and there is no one in the sky more powerful than him.”

It looked like the days of traditional religious faith were numbered. Planetariums were built all over the big cities as new temples of science. Discourses were given about the godless structure of being. Yet the author makes us smile when she writes that, at the end of a lecture, audience members told the lectures’ organizers that “we liked how gloriously God constructed the universe.”

It is not unexpected that the communists aspired to destroy religion, for it challenges the very basis of the communist credo, revealing that man is not omnipotent and that there are universal laws with which he must reckon. The communists, like mini-Lucifers, one after another challenged not just religion and the clerics, but the order of Being itself. They promised to build a “Heaven on Earth”—by their own capacity and mind, but they fell short. Failure after failure in this respect may be seen as a reflection of other catastrophes of communist construction. By the end of the project, no one believes in it; many are deeply wounded and deprived of the meaning of life. Some are looking for a spiritual foundation, others are “saved” by conformism.

Although the book is devoted to atheism as a product of communism, it can shed light on the reverse scenario: that is, how atheism can alter society, how it may induce material and spiritual consumerism, paternalism, the welfare state; and how it can, deliberately or not, lead to communist ventures, whether hard or soft.

On a lighter note, the book could be read as an amusing collection of colorful facts and extraordinary occurrences. Readers encounter the miraculously petrified “standing Zoya”; women “clickers”; an underground factory of talismans; prayer notes left at the former Blessed Kseniia chapel that was turned into a workshop; and, finally, an understanding of why, in the 1960s, Giovanni Boccaccio, Voltaire, and Anatole France were printed in the USSR in vast quantities—despite the prevalent shortage of paper.

Communism’s Crash

How suddenly the rule of the atheists ended, shocking even the leader of the communists. Smolkin makes clear that religious recovery was not a deliberate component of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. She describes the approaching millennium of the baptism of Russia, which fell in June 1988, and which coincided with the crisis of perestroika and glasnost and the protests of aggrieved hardliners, such as that expressed in a famous letter that the chemist and communist stalwart Nina Andreyeva wrote to Pravda (it was known as “The Manifesto of Anti-Perestroika Forces”). General Secretary Gorbachev rushed into the arms of the Church to make the millennium of baptism a national celebration.

The history of an unyielding and enduring faith can be thought-provoking for social scientists as an addition to the list of indestructible elements of a free society, such as private property, personal accountability, money, exchange, family—all of them communist targets for demolition. It is not surprising that, once the obstacles were removed, people turned to religion with a new fervor. As Smolkin puts it: “Religion returned to public life ‘not through the service entrance, but through the front door’.”

The “emptied” religious life, once recovered, is heavily populated and could hardly avoid exaltation and excess. After years of repression it may be eagerly filled with patriotism and in fact statism, if not of the kind prescribed by Marx and Lenin. Yet the invisible faith, which survived the epoch of atheism, remains solid.

The author closes with a brilliant allegorical anecdote about the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This demolished cathedral in the center of Moscow had to make room for the Palace of Soviets, a symbol of communist victory, but, writes Smolkin, the fact that “the palace never materialized” merely “underscored the empty space that had been left behind. That the space remained empty for decades, only to be filled by a swimming pool—a space of modern leisure, but hardly a monument to the utopia promised by the revolution—speaks to Soviet atheism’s struggle to fill the empty space it had created with its own meaning.”