How atheistic was the Soviet Union

The fact that the Soviet Union was an atheist state that propagated atheism is well known and present in the general consciousness. All the more astonishing are the introductory sentences of the reviewed book, which, a decade after the epochal upheavals in Eastern and Central Europe, shed light on the relationship between politics and religion in the first quarter of a century of the Soviet Union: The present anthology, according to the editors, "is the product of a lack - the lack of a number of good accounts of religious policy in the early Soviet Union, but no clear information about how the Bol'ševiki religious policy worked within the individual religious communities on the soil of the Soviet Union. " (7)

The aim of the two authors is to remedy this deficiency. Using the example of nine important religious communities, they want to present the current state of research, draw attention to gaps in research and initiate a communication process between scientists. On the other hand, they intend to make an "interaction scheme between (organized) religion and state visible", "with the help of which statements about the role of religion in Soviet society can be made more clearly than before." (8th)

The spectrum of denominations examined for this purpose ranges from the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations such as the Russian Old Believers, the Georgian Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Lutheran Church and Protestant Free Churches through Judaism and Islam to shamanism. If one understands the article about shamanistic communities as representative of so-called "pagan" religions in Russia to this day, then especially Roman Catholicism, the autochthonous "sects" like the Duchoborcen and others and Buddhism are missing. In the case of Buddhism, the aforementioned lack of research becomes noticeable - the editors say that they were simply not aware of any researcher who could have written an amount in one of the more common languages.

The individual chapters of the book are similar in structure: After an overview of the state of research and, in part, the archive situation, a historical overview introduces the situation of the respective religious community in the year of the October Revolution in 1917. This is followed by the presentation of the period of interest since 1917. The end of the period examined is the year 1941, when Stalin and the Soviet government are forced to change course in religious policy by the attack of Hitler. In order to guarantee the country's defense capability, concessions are made to the largest churches and religious communities. At the same time, however, peoples (and their religious organizations) such as Germans, Finns, Chechens and others who are considered politically unreliable are becoming victims of intensified repression and deportations. Each chapter ends with an English-language summary, which significantly increases the clarity of the book, and the obligatory list of sources and references. The essay on the Russian Orthodox Church also has an appendix with some statistical tables and overviews of the high Orthodox dignitaries of the time, the legal basis of religious policy and atheistic newspapers and magazines.

The years 1917 to 1941 can be divided into different phases of their relationship to state power, depending on the denomination examined. In the first few years, the Russian Orthodox Church, as the former state church and ideological pillar of the tsarist empire, was the focus of atheist politics. Their land was expropriated, their schools nationalized, and their influence in matrimonial and family law ended. Atheist propaganda work, on the other hand, found state support. The church initially reacted confrontationally in the form of an anathema that Patriarch Tikhon imposed on the party and the state. From 1923 the Patriarch changed course. Now he was trying to save the church by taking a more loyal stance to the state. This policy was continued and outbid by his successor Sergij after Tikhon's death in 1925. Wolfgang Heller, the author of the corresponding article, goes so far as to claim that with Sergij's declaration of loyalty "the Russian Orthodox Church has become a state church again" (20). However, this seems very questionable, since the patriarch's declaration at best reflects the self-image of the church. At least the state power had no hesitation in drastically tightening the repression, the legal framework and the practical religious policy in the following years, after some relief for the church in 1928. For example, the number of monasteries fell from over 1,000 in 1917 to nine by 1930. Wolfgang Heller tells us about the bishops who died between 1918 and 1943 that only 106 died of natural causes, 80 were murdered and 292 are considered missing.

As becomes clear in the other articles in the book, the religious policy of the Bolsheviks differs considerably in terms of the various denominations. Protestant sects, for example, were even able to benefit from the new policy in the years after the revolution: The pressure that weighed on them in the tsarist empire was removed, and the separation of church and state was entirely in keeping with the Free Churches' own ideas. In some cases they even received support from the Soviet government. Lenin and a faction within the Communist Party understood it as a "link between traditional forms of religion and socialism" (141). However, the further fate of the Protestant free churches was determined not least by the disputes within this party. On the one hand, there was a wing in it that urged to achieve the goal of "liberating" people from religion as quickly as possible. This was opposed by another wing around the "sect researcher" Vladimir Bonč-Bruevič, who "between 1921 and 1927 never tired of praising the Free Churches as exemplary workers who would quickly advance socialism and collectivism" (142). With all the support from free church agricultural cooperatives until 1927, however, it should not be overlooked that a cooperative or simply non-repressive policy was always considered to be temporary and, tactically motivated, remained subordinate to the goals of the party. The new objective in the 1930s - the smashing of the free churches and the other religious communities - was not preceded by a fundamental change in attitude; it was at most a change of political course.

The reader encounters astonishing information in the reviewed work such as the number of 576 cooperatives of "sectarians" and Free Churches - not counting the Tolstoyan and Temperenzer communities! - May 1924 (151). Other data, even if they are not new to the experts, call for a more nuanced view of Soviet history than corresponds to the widespread image of a thoroughly atheist USSR. For example, we learn that the Protestant youth organizations of Christomol (Gospel Christians), Bapsomol (Baptists) and Mensomol (Mennonites) are said to have had more members in the 1920s than the Communist Komsomol (153). In the Ukraine in 1928 the number of religious publications with a total annual circulation of over four million copies is said to have exceeded the total circulation of atheist writings in the same period (174,000 copies) by far (32). By also mentioning these aspects of religion in the early Soviet Union, a balanced, nuanced picture of the early USSR emerges. In general, all the essays are written in a refreshing way "sine ira et studio", which was not always the case with the topic discussed - not only during the Cold War!

It should be noted critically that the book is sometimes tiring due to numerous repetitions. For example, the basic legislative measures after the October Revolution and the wicked movement ("Covenant of the (militant) wicked") are presented anew in each chapter. However, it must be admitted that this increases the readability of the chapters significantly. For other topics, such recurring topics are even quite exciting. This is the case, for example, if one first reads about the attempts of the Communists to weaken the Orthodox Church through the support of a schismatic Orthodox "Living Church" loyal to the regime, and then similar "Living Churches" and a "Living Synagogue" in the representation meet the other denominations again.

Other points of criticism, however, concern individual articles. One wonders, for example, why the World Economic Conference in Genoa 1921 (69) suddenly becomes a World Oecumenical (!) Conference (84) in the English summary. Further weaknesses, errors and inaccuracies can be found above all in the chapter on the Lutheran Church, which seems to be written together quickly. To name just a few examples: A fundamental work on the subject such as Olga Litzenberger's "The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Soviet State" is not mentioned at all [1]. Page numbers are missing in several footnotes (120, 121, 123, 128, 131). A section 2. appears (125), without there having been a 1. beforehand, and the first subchapter of 2. informs about the "Administrative Basics" - after the "Administrative Measures" in the previous subsection. (121) were treated. Objectively, for example, the description of the legal situation of the non-Orthodox religious communities as "lawlessness" (111) is surprising. After all, after the "Law for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia" which came into force in 1832, the Lutheran Church was integrated into the Russian state church system, and its bishops were paid from the state budget. Linguistically, at least, it is imprecise to place Mennonites "next to" Protestants (109), as if they were not part of Protestantism. It is annoying when the Lutheran seminary in Leningrad becomes a "seminary" (121) - an utterly non-Lutheran expression! - and from the so-called Evangelical-Lutheran Church in English a "Protestant-Lutheran Church" (136).

This criticism, however, mainly concerns the mentioned chapter. By and large, "Politics and Religion in the Soviet Union 1917-1941" is a very good overview of the subject. The book does not allow any surprising new discoveries, but it puts individual aspects of religious policy in a new light by classifying them in a broad field - developments in society as a whole, social upheavals, nationality-political measures. In doing so, it actually helps to remedy a deficiency and thus achieves the goal it has set for itself. Also because of the above-mentioned clear structure of the articles, the representations of the state of research and the current bibliographies, the reviewed work - despite the missing index at the end of the book - is well suited as an introduction to the topic, as a practical reference work and as an incentive for further research.


[1] Ol'ga A. Licenberger: Evangeličesko-Ljuteranskaja Cerkov 'i sovetskoe gosudarstvo (1917-1938), Moscow: Gotika 1999

Joachim Willems