Volume > Issue > The Soviets’ Doomed Battle with Byt

The Soviets’ Doomed Battle with Byt

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism

By Victoria Smolkin

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 360

Price: $32.95

Review Author: Jason M. Morgan

Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. He is the author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan: Suehiro Izutarō and the Search for Equity (Cambria Press, 2020).

The history of communism is also a history of militant atheism. The earliest communist theorists — Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Engels, and others — were contemptuous of the spirit. The closest early communism got to a metaphysics was the labor theory of value, and even this effervescence of dialectical materialism was so heady that it threw theorists into a stupor. It is common knowledge that Marx and his confrères derided religion as the opiate of the masses. It is less well known that communism requires a Parmenidean view of the universe, one with no beginning and no end. Because there was no creation, the eschaton must be immanentized. Religion, which tends to have other ideas about these big questions, must be neutralized in order for communism to gain believers of its own. Communists one-upped previous generations of atheists by declaring socialist atheism to be “scientific.” It could not not be true, and the followers of Marx rode through the world swinging a wrecking ball against anything associated with the metaphysics their hero claimed to have disproven once and for all.

And yet, for all of the outsized confidence in scientific Marxism and the factual truth of atheism, the actual practice of atheizing a population turned out to be much more complicated than merely murdering churchgoers and writing on a chalkboard for everyone else the mathematical proofs for the non-existence of God. God, it turns out, is everywhere. Burn down churches, stomp on icons, throw believers into an early grave, and God is still there. God is in culture, too. God is in history. God moves the hearts of men in the medium of time. A sacred space might be desecrated by atheists, but it is never emptied of the sense that there is something, someone, more than the eye can see. Scientific atheism can claim to have killed God, and it certainly killed hundreds of millions of His children, but the killing is never complete.

This unrelieved tension between atheism and the unshakeable sense of God’s presence is the subdued leitmotif of Victoria Smolkin’s superb history of Soviet atheism, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty. Working mainly with original Russian-language sources, Smolkin — associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University — looks at how militant atheists, flushed with confidence in the early days of the Soviet Union, gradually grew bewildered, then discouraged, and finally frustrated and bitter as the atheism they took for granted was treated by the vast majority of Russians as superfluous to life in a scientific-atheistic state. The pogroms against religion stand out starkly in Soviet history, and Christians, Jews, and other faithful suffered terribly. But atheism never completely took the place of any of the forbidden creeds. As Smolkin argues, once the state gave up on atheism, the Soviet Union quickly collapsed. Unable to fill the sacred spaces of the Russian past, the Soviet behemoth lost credibility and fell apart. Atheism’s failure was coterminous with the downfall of the Evil Empire.

Smolkin’s book begins at the almost-end of Soviet communism, with an account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s meeting with religious leaders in 1988. Smolkin emphasizes that the meeting between the then-general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the fathers of the Russian Orthodox Church was political. The millennial anniversary of “Grand Prince Vladimir’s adoption of Christianity in 988 as the official religion of the Kievan Rus’, which gathered his diverse lands and peoples into a unified state,” Smolkin writes, presented Gorbachev with the opportunity to present himself as a moral counterpart to the decadent West while shoring up domestic support for his perestroika campaign, unpopular with communist hardliners. The Soviet Union was losing ideological coherence, and, like Stalin meeting with Orthodox leaders in the darkest days of the “Great Patriotic War” (a.k.a. World War II), Gorbachev turned to religion, in a sense, to help regain the political edge and keep the Soviet Union in the game with their rivals, the deracinated Puritan Americans.

However, in engaging with religion, Gorbachev was unwittingly flirting with ideological suicide. The Soviets thought religion was antithetical to communism and needed to be exorcized from Soviet life, but they could never quite finish the job. Gorbachev’s meeting with the Orthodox establishment might have been a political maneuver in his own eyes, but to the average Russian, and to people around the world, the obvious conclusion was that politics and religion really couldn’t be separated. Even the Soviet premier had to make peace with the Church. If that was the case, then scientific atheism was a hollow ideology, and the Bolshevik enterprise was sunk. First Stalin had backtracked on worldwide revolution. Then Gorbachev had thrown the party’s weight behind a commemoration of the baptism of the Russian founding father himself. Seemingly without realizing it, the Soviet political elite had undermined the very reason for their existence.

This had not prevented the communists from waging war on religion in fits and starts across the seven-odd decades of Soviet history. Smolkin argues that the Soviets battled religion on three fronts — the political, the ideological, and the spiritual — finding in all three cases that compromises were necessary to make Soviet life function at the level of lived reality. This “life,” or byt, was the meat of the communists’ problem. Byt is the Russian word, which Smolkin allows is untranslatable, connoting the entirety of how people go about their days. Religion in Russia had become virtually synonymous with byt after the dramatic conversion of Rus’, and this byt-level religiosity confounded many of the Bolsheviks’ communizing schemes. “The Russian creative intelligentsia had been engaged,” Smolkin writes, borrowing a phrase from writer Andrei Bely, “in a ‘battle with byt.’” The Bolsheviks needed to skirt and hem on the question of atheism to get communism to work at all. But how could a “scientific” communism soft on theism expect to be taken seriously? And even if it were, what could the atheist state offer the people to fill the void left by the liquidation of their clergy? Who would perform baptisms, officiate at weddings, or solemnize the dead? What would byt look like once drained of the religious sensibilities that had shaped virtually every aspect of Russian life for nearly a thousand years?

The fact that much of this had to be made up on the fly stems from Marx’s, and later Lenin’s, failure to think much about what would happen once the dictatorship of the proletariat ascended and the state had “withered away.” Pre-Soviet communist agitators had expended all their energy explaining why the bourgeoisie was intolerable and needed to be destroyed. They didn’t think much about what to build in its place. And even though Marxists and Bolsheviks took it for granted that the proletarian dictatorship would be atheist, they had hardly anything to say about what atheism really is. Marx the feuilletonist was very good at stirring up anger but very poor at describing what should be done with the broken shards of the society he aimed to destroy. He and his disciples simply theorized that religion would evaporate.

The reason the Bolsheviks could afford to be vague about religion may have been because they assumed it was a function of imperialism. Smolkin describes the previous “Russian imperial autocracy” as “an Orthodox Christian state mapped onto a multiconfessional empire” covering “a sixth of the world’s landmass [and] more than 130 million subjects,” including “Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, and various Protestant confessions as well as followers of numerous indigenous traditions.” The Romanovs had used this “multiconfessional establishment” to do the work of governing beyond the traditional bounds of a weak, pre-nation-state central authority. The militantly atheistic Bolsheviks, from the moment they took over the old Romanov state, were, therefore, in a bind: How to govern through institutions, such as the Orthodox Church, which communism had rejected? “The thread that runs through Russian history,” Smolkin writes, “is that Russia’s salvation rests in power, and, more specifically, in the state’s capacity to contain two perennial threats to its territorial and cultural sovereignty: domestic disunity and foreign occupation. A strong state — or, perhaps more importantly, the image of a strong state — was considered essential to this enterprise.” By rejecting the Orthodox Church, the early Bolsheviks hamstrung themselves and weakened the centripetal power of the central state.

But by reaching out to religion in a later, reality-inspired démarche from ideology, the Bolsheviks tacitly admitted that communism’s militant atheism was a sham. In the midst of the Second World War, when “foreign occupation” was not just a threat but a reality at the hands of the Wehrmacht, Stalin made peace, such as it was, with the Orthodox patriarchs. Metropolitan Sergii (Sergius) had already declared his and the Orthodox Church’s devotion to the Soviet Union in 1927 in exchange for a promise — a Soviet one, to be sure — of a modicum of freedom from the persecution the communists had inflicted on believers and clergy during the first convulsions of socialist revolution. Smolkin argues that by 1943 Stalin saw the religious network in Russia as sufficiently defeated and, therefore, judged it safe to make a formal pact with the Church’s shadow. This might have been how it appeared to Stalin, and it is true that he was duplicitous in his outreach to religious authority. However, empty posturing or not, communism appeared to be reconciling with the Church.

In the same year that Stalin made the Orthodox Church the improbable semi-state church of the Soviet Union, the central government abandoned its programmatic missionary work in militant atheism. Emelian Iaroslavskii, a leader of Soviet atheistic ideologizing and proselytizing, died in 1943 — a capstone to the dissolution of the first attempted atheization of Russia. After Stalin’s wartime gesture and Iaroslavskii’s death, there were to be no more “antireligious museums,” no more “atheist periodicals and publishing houses,” and no more Bolshevist haranguing of believers. A cautious hope arose.

In one of the 20th century’s great ironies, however, after Stalin died, religion was again imperiled. His death in March 1953 “destabilized the precarious calm in postwar religious life,” Smolkin writes. “After the war, Soviet religious policy had privileged governance over ideology.” With Stalin gone, the religiously atheist intellectual Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich (who had served as Lenin’s personal secretary) saw a chance to reanimate Soviet atheism. Lenin, the remaining Bolshevik atheists cried, would never have compromised with religion as Stalin had. Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet premier, anxious to distance himself from his predecessor in every way possible, even in his style of hypocrisy, took up the atheist banner. From 1958 to 1964, a “campaign” against religious belief was conducted across the entire Soviet Union.

But the ghost of Stalin was hard to lay. To their horror, the militant atheists in the 1950s and 1960s discovered that regular people — and even members of the Communist Party — retained the trappings of religion, and many actually believed in God, or in something other than dialectical materialism. Four decades after the massacre of the Romanovs, men and women were still getting married by priests. Mothers and fathers were still baptizing their babies. People were still going to confession and religious funerals. Seminaries were still active. Icons were still up on walls. Stalin legitimized what had been an ongoing phenomenon: the elites aimed to eradicate “groundless superstition,” while the provincials thought the elites were wrong about liturgy, theology, and metaphysics, among many other things.

The Soviets chose to counter this stubborn recrudescence of religion in a very modern way. The rise of rocketry after the end of the Great Patriotic War provided a new means to demonstrate that God was not up there in the sky. At the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, Smolkin recalls, “Soviet cosmonaut German Titov — the second person to go to space after cosmonaut number one, Yuri Gagarin — made international headlines by stating that he had not seen ‘God or angels’ during his seventeen orbits of Earth.” Further, Titov announced, “The rocket was made by our people. I do not believe in god. I believe in man, his strength, his possibilities and his reason.” The space race between the Soviets and the Americans thus took on an important subtext. “Heaven,” the central government’s news organ Izvestiia declared, “is empty!”

The new atheism of the Soviet space age also saw a revival of cartoons mocking religion. Priests, and God Himself, were portrayed in highbrow journals and party newspapers as bumbling fools, obstreperous obstacles to the progress of scientific, Soviet man. As if to provide a concrete companion to the cartoonish insults, the state and other institutions sponsored a building spree of planetariums, where Soviet atheists could disabuse believers of any faith in God. “The cosmos is mechanical,” the planetarium orrery whirred sermonically. “The only heavenly bodies are the moon, the sun, the planets, the stars.” Atheist study groups were formed, and professors of all stripes were mobilized to find out why people kept believing in things that obviously weren’t true, and how to counter such worldviews. In sociological surveys of belief and canvassings of the countryside, academics sought the root of religion, so as to destroy it. Atheism had finally, it seemed, been wedded to real science, and the Soviets again began predicting the imminent end of clerical claptrap.

But the second wave of atheism faced the same problem as the first. Atheism is a drag. Creations such as the “Soviet Wedding Palace” aimed to make the state a kind of bureaucratic church, a city hall retrofitted to serve the wispier necessities of the soul. But it didn’t take. The government conducted “solemn registrations of newborns” as a way to get people to stop baptizing children. There were ceremonies for obtaining passports. “Socialist ritual councils” thought of ways to incorporate “folk customs” into the Soviet way of life. The Communist Party had a country to run and, faced with limited resources, found it more expedient to humor the people in their requests for something more fulfilling than an application form in triplicate.

This proved to be a fateful accommodation. By the 1970s it was clear that the Soviet Union could not exist without religion, at least in a denatured form. The Leonid Brezhnev era saw the central government acknowledge a growing spiritual restlessness that had begun after Khrushchev’s campaigns had signally failed to make a dent in human nature. An element of historical and cultural nostalgia and curiosity bloomed as younger Russians tried to rediscover the roots of their grandparents’ faith. Smolkin cites scholar of Russian culture Catriona Kelly’s view that the central state attempted to “recode” religion “into a language acceptable for Soviet propaganda.” But this “unmilitant atheism” was a subtlety lost on the common man, especially with Pope St. John Paul II’s support for the Polish Solidarity movement “paralyzing” the Polish Communist Party in 1980-1981. Religious believers were pariahs — many of them languished and died in Siberian camps — and were armed with nothing but the sacraments and prayer. But it was the state that seemed to be on the defensive. “Once religion had returned to politics and public life on the world stage, the party had no choice but to take it seriously,” Smolkin writes. “A sacred space,” as the Russian proverb goes, “is never empty.”

This was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. John Paul II’s 1985 encyclical on SS Cyril and Methodius, Slavorum Apostoli, was a celebration of Europe’s — and Russia’s — Christian roots. There was no corresponding celebration of Soviet atheism. Given the choice, people chose to believe in God over nothing. “Atheism was an empty space rather than a meaningful category,” Smolkin concludes. Not even the putatively atheist Soviet man could content himself with the glib punchline that Yuri Gagarin had not had to dodge God while orbiting Earth. Scientific atheism failed at both tests of Russian statecraft: It had failed to unify the Russian people (and everyone else behind the Iron Curtain), and it had failed to prevent invasion from abroad. The Germans had been stopped at Stalingrad, but there was nothing the Soviets could do about John Paul II. “The party lost confidence that Marxist-Leninist ideology could bridge the gulf between the Communist Party and Soviet society,” Smolkin writes. Her book powerfully demonstrates that very few people in the Soviet Union had shared that confidence in the first place.

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty does contain some curious lacunae. There is no mention of Boris Pasternak, for example, whose complex and beautiful poems and novels — especially his 1957 classic Doctor Zhivago — helped the voice of religious belief to be heard again in communist Russia. Pasternak suffered much at the hands of atheist authorities, as did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, Anna Akhmatova, and numberless others. Smolkin’s book would have been better had she featured these real-life examples of resistance, and had she brought into the narrative the imprisonment of József Cardinal Mindszenty, for example, and the mendacities of the KGB-controlled World Council of Churches. To be fair, Smolkin’s book was published by an academic press, and secularist Americans are willing to go only so far in religious-historical truth-telling.

It is partly for this reason — the fact that anti-religious prejudices did not die with the Bolsheviks — that Smolkin’s volume must be read. A Sacred Space Is Never Empty is an important book, especially for those who want to know how states go about trying to destroy religious belief. Hatred of religion as a hindrance to godless governments was hardly sui generis to Moscow. Washington, D.C.; Brussels; London; Brasilia; and a hundred other capitals have shared more than a few pages from the Marxist-Leninist anti-religion playbook. Smolkin’s volume exhibits meticulous scholarship with no discernible political or religious bias. And yet, between every line is written the story of our own day, our own hour, over 30 years after the death of the atheistic Soviet behemoth.


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