CLIO FINAL - page 10

It’s a commonly-stated
error that in the USSR, religion was
banned. Marx called religion ‘the
opium of the people’, and general-
ly speaking, opiate abusers don’t
appreciate you taking their opiates
away. As he took power with the
Bolshevik Party in 1917 Lenin faced
a population of around 150 Mil-
lion people, with 54,000 Orthodox
Christian parishes - one for every
2,700 people . To outright ban them
would be not only an incredible
investment of time and money, but
almost certainly ignored. There-
fore, Lenin’s response - and in turn
the response of each leader after
him - was to begrudgingly accept
the existence of Religion in the
USSR, whilst hoping to gradually
instil more atheist thought in each
successive generation of the Sovi-
et population through Gosateizm
(“state-atheism”). Religion was an
enemy the Soviet state would spend
its life locking antlers with.
The first step, as with any
adoption process, was to naturalise.
The 1918 Civil War was a decisive
‘Red Bolsheviks versusWhiteTsarist
Enemies’ conflict, and the fact that
the Russian Orthodox Church sup-
ported theWhite army gave Lenin
a perfect excuse to label them as
the ‘enemy’, a label which was not
removed after the Bolsheviks won
the 2-year war. Given its old place
in the tsarist regime, removing
priests and bishops as part of the
‘pre-revolutionary remainders’ was
also an easy enough job: between
1922 and 1926, 28 Russian Orthodox
bishops and more than 1,200 priests
were killed. Whilst these numbers
are alarming, they did nothing to
dampen the spirited battle for the
minds of the people that Orthodoxy
refused to concede. Priests would
roam farmers’ fields, handing out
pamphlets and warning peasants
of the ‘Antichrist’ of the Soviet
Regime, come to place the mark
of the devil upon all they did. If
this rhetoric sounds out of place
today, it certainly did not to a
farmer who had lived for 5 years
under shaky socialism, but many
more before that in a strictly
religious state with no sense of
doubt whatsoever. The founda-
tions of the Soviet Union were
still to be cemented, whereas
the Orthodox Church, repressed
as it may have been, had been a
backbone to the Russian people
since the 9th century. In times
of bad harvest Lenin’s solution
was to work together, while the
church preached hope and salva-
tion for honest belief. It’s easy to
see why the leader saw religion
as an enemy.
Not that he was alone
in this. To say Lenin’s anti-reli-
gious efforts were in vain would
be to ignore the great swathes
of anti-Orthodox sentiment
that sprung forth from his cam-
paigns. The state-run League of
Militant Atheists (or to translate
literally, Militant Godless) came
into being in 1929, 5 years after
Lenin’s death and a couple of
years into the rule of Josef Stalin,
the new Soviet leader. Stalin’s
religious policy came from a sim-
ilar need to remove the threat
posed in the minds of the peo-
ple, but was dictated more by
circumstance than his predeces-
sor. For a start, there was a less
urgent need to inspire atheist
thought; it had developed to the
point where the ‘Godless’ could
move to factories, universities
and newly-created collective
farms to spread their ideas, as
opposed to the overt attacking
of religious figures and buildings
that had defined Lenin’s reli-
How the USSR
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