|Author: Olga Homolova|
DREAM OF A GODLESS COUNTRY. ANTI-RELIGIOUS AND ATHEISTIC PROPAGANDA IN SOVIET RUSSIA IN THE 1920s
Bells are ringing now in vain
Empty chairs in church remain
Prayer - that is out-moded thing
There is a time to start reading.
(Godless chastushka from the early 1920s) 2
The new society which the young Soviet republic is building will not only be classless but also godless; the old outdated religion will be entirely superseded by a scientific world-view. This might briefly sum up the basic tenets of an intellectual and social trend which struggled to assert itself in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Russian Godless, who are the subject of this study, did not merely intend to passively await this atheistic future, but to actively fight for it. The actual physical persecution of the churches and their representatives, which reduced the religious institutions in the Soviet Union to a wretched state, was left by the Godless to the state authorities. The Godless had a different, "higher" goal: to lead the country by means of organized propaganda to a fully conscious and total Godlessness.
Anti-religious and Godless propaganda took on various forms in the 1920s and 1930s. First to be organized was the pomp of the anti-religious processions, the so-called Komsomol Christmases and Easters or the ceremonial opening of the tombs of Orthodox saints. Then came the more moderate forms of propaganda involving lectures, Godless soir?es and Godless newspapers, magazines, posters, books and plays. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet Union was gripped by campaign fever within the Godless movement, with its collections for "Godless" tanks and aeroplanes, the foundation of Godless villages and the declaration of Godless five-year plans.
From the mid-1920s, the Godless question was handled by a special purpose-made organization: the League of the Godless, which changed its name in 1929 to the League of the Militant Godless (dissolved 1941). Komsomol and Bolshevik Party members were also often involved in anti-religious and Godless propaganda.
None of these efforts to bring society any closer to its glorious Godless future by means of organized propaganda ultimately had much revolutionary impact. However, they did leave behind some interesting and often surprising documents testifying to perceptions of Soviet society at the time and the instruments for its manipulation, direction and transformation.
"Various idols are carried on wide sleighs – Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Buddhist Mothers of Deities with their new-born Marduk, Osiris and Buddha. The Christian Mother of God is depicted in this pagan light. The sleighs accompanied by dozens, scores, hundreds of people...go through Tverska Street and Red Square...at first it might be a little tense and nervous but then youthful merriment returns and fills the streets...on this day, all of us – Bucharin, Krasikov, Loginov, Sarabyanov and so on turn into Magi...and this is just the start. Something similar can be arranged at Easter. And then concentrate on the villages...summer festivals associated with farming...." This was written in 1923 by one of the leading Godless members, I. I. Skvorcov-Styepanov, in an article which came to be used as an instruction manual for the Komsomol leadership at the time. 3 Anti-religious carnivals, which drew their inspiration from the traditions of the French Revolution, did take place in the country in two waves: from 1923 to 1924 and then from 1929 to 1930. These so-called Komsomol Christmases and Easters, in which the Communist Youth arrogantly jeered at religion during their street processions, very soon met with a negative reaction from the majority of churchgoers.
It was again the Communist Youth, who figured among the "pioneers" in another form of anti-religious propaganda – the opening of the tombs of Orthodox saints. Public exposures of these rotting remains were to serve as direct proof of the absurdity of religion, refuting the traditional belief amongst some churchgoers that the bodies of the saints remained intact after their death. The bodies of saints were thus literally thrown out of their tombs at some sixty locations throughout the country. 4
A change in state policy put an end to these spiteful campaigns for several years, as such provocations, which insulted many religious peasants, did not enter into the spirit of the developing NEP, in which the village played a decisive role. Hence propaganda gradually shifted to other, more moderate and "scientific" forms, which were to be supervised by a new organization – the League of the Godless.
Contemporary sources5 say that the League of the Godless formed spontaneously in 1925 and that its establishment was initiated from below. Of course, this is highly questionable: the League actually arose out of the Friends of the "Bezbozhnik" newspaper (established 1923) brought out by the Anti-Religion Commission of the Bolshevik Party. The Chairman of this Commission and the Editor-in-Chief of Bezbozhnik, Jemelyan Jaroslavsky, was also directly elected Chairman of the League.
At its founding meeting, the League of the Godless set themselves a formidable task: to lead Soviet society into the Godless future! The most suitable means and methods for achieving this had already been practically decided in 1925. Party Resolution XII of 1923 clearly spoke of moderate propaganda methods consisting primarily of lectures, the distribution of literature and the Godless press and the broadening of education in rural areas.
Propaganda work was to start at the level of League of the Godless "cells", which were to exist in each district, each factory and later each collective and state farm. The main work of each cell consisted of organizing lectures on anti-religious and atheistic subjects and persuading the citizens to subscribe to Godless publications and books, to arrange cultural, anti-religious performances and so forth. 6 The rural cells of the League were also to focus on issues involving agriculture as well as prejudices and "traditional" religion. 7 The main task for the League of the Godless headquarters was to assess and direct cell activity, to send out propaganda material, atheistic literature and publications and to see to the education of the cadres.
However, this theoretically well-managed plan came up against considerable difficulties, particularly the fact that until the end of the 1920s, the League of the Godless headquarters did not have an overall view of just how many cells there actually were in the field, if they were working at all and if they were adhering to instructions from headquarters. When, for example, in 1928 the League headquarters announced a "best village cell" competition, out of 3,000 officially registered cells only 20 actually responded. 8
Another insuperable problem was that of collecting membership dues, of which Moscow only managed to see a small proportion each year. For example, the report of proceedings at the 2nd Congress of the League of the Godless9 mentions that total contributions received by headquarters in 1927 did not quite amount to two roubles and in the following year they came to a little over 500 roubles, whereas with good payment discipline, headquarters should have received some several tens of thousands of roubles each year. In 1931, the League leadership still only received 13% of all dues. 10 As funds acquired from its own members were so sparse, the League had to keep importuning the Party, Komsomol or Trade Union apparatuses at various levels for contributions.
In any case, it is a very difficult task to determine the true membership of the League of the Godless during the 1920s. The numbers of the Godless given in speeches and congress reports may just as easily be true as entirely misleading; nor do they say anything about whether or not the people included in the statistics were actively involved.
An assessment report of the League of the Godless from 1932 says that the number of members of the League of the Godless rose from some 140,000 in 1927 to almost 500,000 in 1929, to an unbelievable 3.5 million in 1931. 11 Archive materials indicate that in April 1929, on the eve of the 2nd Congress, the League had 315,000 members. 12 The congress report for that year speaks of a membership base of half a million. However, the Chairman of the League, J. Jaroslavsky, suddenly let it be known that there were a full million Godless in the country. 13 Six months later, the Chairman of the League of the Godless declared that the organization now had two million members and another six months after that he spoke of three million. As part of his fulfilment of the tasks of the first Godless five-year plan, Jaroslavsky wanted to bring the League up to a six-million membership base and when declaring the second Godless five-year plan, he even mentioned a figure of ten million members. 14 Reality was clearly far more modest: in the early 1930s, the League of the Godless came under the sway of the increasing "shock-worker" mood in society whereby figures lost all sense of proportion, but either way, some 160 million people were living in the Soviet Union at that time so it can be said with some certainty that after several years of their activities, the Godless were represented by at most several percent of the population.
The aforementioned 2nd Godless Congress in 1929 adopted a credo which determined the subsequent direction of the League: "The struggle against religion is a struggle for socialism". The promotion of collectivization and industrialization had no ideological connection with anti-religious or Godless propaganda but official Bolshevik regime propaganda slogans started filling the pages of the Godless press and League cadres were suddenly exhorted to campaign for collective farms. Identification with the regime and its propaganda is also demonstrated by the announcement of the Godless five-year plan and the organization of Godless work brigades at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s (see below).
The press and literature were considered to be the most powerful weapons of the Godless movement. Three of the most important Godless publications in Soviet Russia, the newspaper Bezbozhnik ("Godless Person") and the magazines Bezbozhnik and Bezbozhnik u stanka ("Godless Person at the Lathe") offered their readers these same basic contents:
The Orthodox priesthood and representatives of other religions were presented by the Godless press in the worst possible light – as deceivers, obscurantists and traitors who were motivated by greed. Reports on the trials of Orthodox priests, which mostly took place in the first half of the 1920s, were primarily published in the weekly Bezbozhnik. No few articles were also published in which priests admitted to their own ideological "error" and renounced their calling.
The priests were mostly represented as deceivers because they advocated a false ideology, even though they allegedly knew it was false. Their greed consisted not only in the fact that the church had until recently owned considerable property but above all in the fact that they collected money for performing rites. With total regularity the authors of the articles in question added that the modern ceremonies (so-called oktjabriny and red weddings – see below) were arranged by the Party and the state for free. Representatives of the church and other religious movements in Russia were attacked in words, drawings and illustrations.
In order to create an impression of "internationalizing" the Godless movement, these periodicals published information on events in religious circles abroad, to which they did not hesitate to add their own ironic comments. Reactions to current political events abroad are worth noting – for example, from the mid-1920s the swastika appears regularly among the symbols of the enemies of the Soviet system.
The real heart of the propaganda in the Godless press, however, was the campaign for a scientific approach to the world, which the agitators believed would result in the ultimate inevitable demise of the religious world view. "God will fall under the weight of science," as the illustration announces in the first edition of Bezbozhnik u stanka in 1926. Contributions on this subject are in various forms but they all carry one basic message: all religion stems from ignorance and merely keeps Man in shackles; the only correct and scientific approach is to be a disbeliever.
Articles on agriculture published by the Godless press in an effort to address the concerns of the Russian village are meant to play an educational and consciousness-raising role. These contributions regularly contrast modern technology brought to the village by the Bolsheviks "in the name of progress" with the backwardness of the Russian village, caused, allegedly, by religion. The antagonism between science and religion is repeatedly demonstrated with cases where prayer for the crops has been ineffective contrasted with cases of electrification provided by the Soviet system and not by God. Thus religion is presented as an institution that stands in the way of scientific and technological progress.
Religions themselves are also analysed and evaluated from "scientific" standpoints. The greatest space is devoted to dead religions (pre-Christian pagan cults, Egyptian deities and so forth). In the case of Orthodoxy (or Buddhism and Islam), the articles aim primarily to refute prejudices and superstitions in order to prove the senselessness of a belief in God.
The Soviet system had not only liberated the people from capitalism, but also from the shackles of religion. This belief is put forward most forcefully in those articles which deal with the status of women, who make up the largest group of believers because (according to the Godless propagandists) they did not have the same access to education and employment as men. The worst of this bondage caused by belief in God was the fact that women had to remain in unhappy marriages. Thus the pages of the Godless press are full of "life stories", the heroines of which resist the old traditions. The older ones usually escape into the town from their husband and start work in a factory, they get to know the warm-hearted worker’s collective and find a new meaning to life in working for the motherland. The tales of the younger ones are similar, with this difference: they consciously reject a marriage arranged by their parents, they get to know a young Komsomol member whom they marry at the Town Hall, and they bring up a new generation, happily and godlessly.
These three Godless periodicals are practically the only place where readers could regularly bring themselves up to date with the current state of the Godless movement in Russia and with latest anti-church measures taken by the state authorities. Information on the latest church closures, Komsomol campaigns during church holidays and their response, openings of anti-religious museums and so forth sometimes filled several pages of any one issue. The rising number of correspondents – and later members of the League of the Godless – meant there was a significant proportion of reports from the field. In late 1925 alone, the League had some 1,300 registered correspondents. 15 The Godless periodicals set great store by contacts with readers and the publication of their articles.
The Godless press changed as the first five-year plan got under way and collectivization and industrialization gathered pace. Efforts at presenting varied content gave way to shock-worker style slogans and "class-enemy" style vocabulary, swarming with capitalists, kulaks and betrayers of the revolution. The contents of the Godless press thus gradually lost their special character and were increasingly replaced by general Party and state propaganda.
A large question mark still hangs over the true popularity of these publications. The highest cited print-runs for these Godless titles at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s come to several hundreds of thousands of copies. 16 Distribution was provided by the post office, which at that time did not work too reliably, so that it is difficult to say to what extent the Godless press reached the more remote corners of the country.
Nor was it any different with anti-religious and Godless literature. Overall output in 1922-1932 is estimated in the League of the Godless Congress Report of 1932 to be 40 million copies and 1,700 titles, a large part of which was published in the 1928-1932 period. 17
In terms of content, there were three types of books brought out by Godless publishers: methodology manuals on how to run anti-religious campaigns and the work at Godless cells, anti-religious textbooks and collections and works on the history of religion and religious thought. The authors of these works were the very leading lights of the League of the Godless and the Bolshevik Party. V. I. Lenin alone added sixty titles to anti-religious literature (a large part of which naturally consisted of collections of his quotes and writings). Print-runs for individual books were mostly in the tens of thousands.
For a scientific line on anti-religious and Godless propaganda, the key question was that of education – or rather the lack of it, which was considered to be the main cause behind religious world-views. Hence the Godless movement endeavoured to concentrate all its energies on adult education and continually urged its cells to organize various lectures and debates. These lectures were an integral part of anti-religious radio broadcasts, which the Godless movement attempted to promote in transmissions from 1925. Public debates (called "disputes"), in which the representatives and defenders of religion had an opportunity to speak, were not among the preferred forms of propaganda as the Godless did not always "win" or manage to persuade the public of the absurdity of religion.
The League of the Godless considered the main reason for the patchy results of these "disputes" and the paucity of lectures to be the weak membership base and the lack of qualified cadres. Thus seminars were arranged for the education of anti-religious personnel and several anti-religious universities were even established. As for general education, a debate started in 1927-28 at the instigation of the League of the Godless on whether or not the school curriculum should be planned as "non-religious" or "anti-religious". Anti-religious museums, which were first established in the mid-1920s, were also meant to play an academic and educational role.
Lectures on anti-religious subjects became an integral part of "Anti-Christmas" and "Anti-Easter" campaigns, which took place in the mid-1920s in committee-rooms and lecture halls. Their scope was by no means large and so they did not foment as much ill-will on the part of churchgoers as the public processions, which were abandoned in the mid-1920s upon the order of the state apparatus.
The aforementioned anti-religious gatherings basically consisted of series of lectures, anti-religious sketches, plays and competitions, interpretations of anti-religious poems, songs and chastushky, film presentations and so forth. This was all to take place in a club-room decorated with anti-religious slogans, and not without its Godless corner or Godless noticeboard with the latest embellishments. In the largest cities, the theatres and cinemas could adapt their schedules for the "anti-holidays" and in some places street carnivals took place all the time. "Anti-Christmas" and "Anti-Easter" propaganda was later complemented by special work brigades, socialist competitions and abstinence campaigns.
As for the lectures, the names of subjects put forward by the press at the time are truely inspirational: "Christmas and the October Revolution Festival", "Christmas in the Service of the Kulak", "The Sun-God and the Sun-Worker"18 , "The Origins of Christianity and its Social Roots", "Did Jesus really Exist?", "Religion and the Struggle for a New Style of Life", "Religion – a Useless Burden on the National Economy", "The Five-Year Plan and Religion", "Religion and the Collectivization of Agriculture"19 and so forth.
The fight against church festivals had another dimension in the form of modern revolutionary festivals. These included the Day of Mourning (for the death of Lenin), the Day of the Overthrow of the Old Regime, Paris Commune Day, International Day and all sorts of collectivization days that were meant to replace traditional village Mardi Gras festivals. One marginal, but extremely interesting experiment was the introduction of the "non-stop working week" in 1929. Although this plan was very quickly abandoned, proposals were drawn up for the new names of the days of the five-day week, four of which were to be for work and one for rest. 20 Sporadic discussions within the League of the Godless and the Bolshevik Party also led to the introduction of a new method for counting the years, which was to start from 1917 (this idea was again inspired by the French Revolution) but again this proposal did not ultimately take root.
It was different, however, for the new civil ceremonies which the Soviet regime introduced to replace baptisms, church weddings and funerals. "Oktjabriny" (in which babies were given names21 ), "red weddings" and civil funerals were frequently promoted in the Godless press, mostly with emphasis on the fact that these ceremonies were free (as opposed to those held in church). In the Russian cities, as contemporary documents indicate, interest did wane in church ceremonies, particularly weddings.
In 1927, as "all the enemies of the workers had armed themselves to the teeth in order to attack the first Soviet state in the world at the first opportune moment"22 , the leadership of the League of the Godless decided to organize the first collection for a fighter aircraft, which was to bear the name Bezbozhnik ("Godless"). They managed to raise the necessary amount (55,000 roubles) within two years so the fighter Bezbozhnik first saw the light of day in Spring 1929.
In autumn of the same year, the League leadership announced a new collection, this time for a tank called Voinstvuju??ij bezbozhnik ("Militant Godless"). This collection also dragged on for almost two years and the tank was ceremonially presented to the army in June 1931. At practically the same time, the Leningrad headquarters of the League of the Militant Godless came up with the idea of announcing a collection for the submarine Voinstvuju??ij bezbozhnik. In contrast to the previous campaigns, this one was better organized: for example, League branches were set specific sums which they had to raise. Individual cells then often competed with each other to meet this obligation in the shortest possible time. Thus funds for the submarine Voinstvuju??ij bezbozhnik had already been raised by the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Contemporary literature indicates that similar collections were organized by Republic and Regional branches of the League of the Militant Godless.
Internal Godless campaigns included "socialist competitions" to create "Godless villages" or "Godless tractor stations", though contemporary sources only refer to a few specific examples where villages actually declared themselves to be Godless. This always involved situations where all the inhabitants of a village were atheists, when they had made the church into a club-house and had begun using modern agricultural methods.
Any list of campaigns that took place within the League of the Militant Godless must include the first Godless five-year plan, which the League headquarters approved in November 1929. Its primary task was to predetermine the increase in the membership base, which was meant to reach tens of millions. In spite of the failure to achieve this plan, the League leadership hastened to announce a second five-year plan. This launched a further final attack on an anti-religious front, which was meant to result in a classless and religion-less society. 23 However, the continuing lack of success and the rise of Stalinism put paid to these plans for a second (and final) Godless five-year plan.
On 9th June, 1929, Pravda announced that some ten million Godless people lived in the Soviet Union, of whom only several hundreds of thousands were in the League of the Godless. The writer of the article said that a tenfold higher number of people, i.e. a hundred million, were "active or passive members of religious organizations".24
The results of the 1937 census only confirmed this grim fact for the Godless. In the prevailing atmosphere of rigid Stalinism and omnipresent fear, almost one third of the population of the Soviet Union refused to respond to the question on professed religion and of the remaining two thirds, 56% of people stated that they were believers. In contrast, only 42 million of the 170 million strong population professed atheism. 25
At first sight, the approximately one quarter of the population which did not profess a religion is not a bad result for these ideological activities. It should not be forgotten, however, that the revolutionary social changes which the ordinary Russian peasant had had to cope with since the turn of the century had a lot more to do with the atheism of the Soviet people than this Godless propaganda.
The attempt to make the Soviet Union the first atheist country in the world by means of organized propaganda was thus ultimately just an unsuccessful social experiment, a very ambitious experiment but also a rather naive one.
As for the radical transformation of society from a religious one to an atheistic one, the Russians were not the first to come up with such ideas. They were very much inspired by the French Revolution, during which the "gods were burnt" in the squares, a revolutionary calendar was introduced and religion was considered to be a reactionary world-view. Russian Godlessness wished, as it were, to symbolically assume this mission, which had not been successfully completed in France. This involves strong messianic elements and even if it is not immediately evident, it is imbued with the quiet conviction that Russia is again the "Third Rome" and "the chosen country" from which a progressive world order will emerge. In this respect the Russian Godless are the true "children" of the Bolshevik regime, which also felt a calling to show the entire world the road to Communism as the culmination of human history.
The Russian Godless explained the failure of the "scientific" propaganda plan primarily in terms of the lack of qualified cadres. This argument soon came to be used as a kind of magic incantation: behind each individual failure it was always possible to find either a lack of people or a low standard of qualification.
One indisputable strength of the promoters of a Godless society was the considerable illiteracy of the population, which was typical of village life in particular. Along with improvements in basic education, progress could also in theory be anticipated in the form of the adoption of a new world-view, particularly as people at that time placed more faith in the written word than they do today. The Russian Godless were certainly aware of this, to judge by their efforts to distribute the Godless press as widely as possible. The League of the Godless itself had been created by correspondents of the Bezbozhnik newspaper, i.e. from the relatively well-educated classes who were experienced with written propaganda.
Interwar statistics (see above) indicate that even these "opportunities" were eventually wasted: partly because of the inertia and "torpidity" of the Russian peasant, partly because of his negative experience with aggressive propaganda and partly, of course, because believers continued to teach because there was a general lack of teachers in the country. Moreover, Russian villages continued to work on the "grand old man" principle, i.e. people could read the newspapers, listen to a several-hour long lecture and nod their approval to everything, but ultimately they did everything the same way as old Palych or old Ivanovich, the man the whole village trusted. The Godless rarely managed to address these key "individuals" in each village and when reports on the altogether negative experience of Godless propagandists in the rural areas are examined, comparisons can be drawn with the Russian Narodniks, who fervently strove for a "peasant" revolution but who in reality knew little about the Russian village.
Doubtless, the geographical size of Soviet Russia also also played a considerable role in the failure of the Godless. The remoteness and poor accessibility of many locations practically placed them out of reach of systematic control. During the 1920s, the Bolshevik apparatus itself frequently did not know what was going on in the more remote corners of the country, never mind the more poorly organized League of the Godless.
When promoting their scientific stance, the Russian Godless also did not realize that faith and a religious world-view are to a large extent irrational matters. Materialistic and scientific arguments, however "reasonable" and capable of refuting the many prejudices that arise out of ignorance, could not in the eyes of the traditionally devout Russian population be of any crucial importance. This is even more the case with Russian Orthodoxy, as it is so much more steeped in irrational symbols and rituals than is Western Christianity. This obtuseness on the part of the League of the Godless is even more striking when we take into account the fact that their leading lights included some former Orthodox priests, their children and former seminary students. 26
From its very beginnings the Russian Godless movement was in practice under the sway of the political and economic situation in the country. Its greatest representative, the League of the Godless, might have declared itself to be a spontaneously formed civic organization but it was actually nothing more than an instrument of Bolshevik power. The League came into being at the instigation of the Party and its highest representatives were often members of the Party apparatus, not to mention the fact that it depended on Party funds for its activities and its very existence.
Bolshevik notions of "correct" forms of agitation changed over the 1920s. First the Party had given free rein to crude, aggressive propaganda, evidently because they considered this to be an expedient accompaniment to anti-religious repression. However, when the Bolsheviks needed to ease tensions in society (particularly in the rural areas) in order to implement their New Economic Policy, they started advocating a more moderate and considered approach. The end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s saw the NEP on the trapdoor of history and the dawn of the new period of construction, with its notions of the threat to the young Soviet Republic from both internal and external enemies. The League of the Godless also quickly adapted to these new circumstances.
The dependence of the League of the Godless on the Bolshevik Party can ultimately be shown by the parallel "development" of both organizations. When the Party went through periods of self-criticism, so did the League of the Godless. When the Party started accusing some of its members of "rightist deviationism", similar charges were made in League publications. When the first five-year plan was announced, the League announced its own first Godless five-year plan.
This parallelism is undoubtedly one of the reasons the League of the Godless was eventually swamped and ultimately drowned in socialist slogans. The Bolsheviks led by Stalin clearly realized that they did not need another organization to copy the Party. The League of the Godless and the entire Russian Godless movement thus remained a small, if interesting, episode in the interwar history of the Soviet Union.
ГАРФ (Государственный архив Российской федерации) - ф.5407
АПРФ (Aрхив президента Российской федерации) - ф.60, оп.60, д.12 (published in Политбюро и церков 1922-1925, Архивы Кремля, Москва, 1997)
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