God and Man in the Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union there is an old joke about two communists who are eager to eradicate religion. They hide in a church while an old babushka kneels at the altar and asks god to protect Brezhnev. Emerging from his hiding place, one communist says: “There is no God, babushka. Sixty years ago you prayed for the Czar.” The old lady replies: “I did. And look what happened to him.”

Until about 15 years ago, it was commonplace for Western observers to assume that in the Soviet Union I only babushkas believed in God. Moreover, many Soviet citizens probably agreed with this assessment. In Andrei Sinyaysky’s powerful novel, The Makepiece Experiment, the narrator regards such babushkas as mysterious survivors of an earlier culture. “The mothers were there, spread all over the floor of the church like old mushrooms, so old and humped and tottering it was a wonder they were still alive. Where did they find the strength to keep alive, let alone drag themselves to church?” The narrator is moved by the sight of these women, but mostly he is puzzled by them:

Things have changed. In recent years many Western observers have come to realize that not only babushkas are found in Soviet churches. According to Gail Lapidus, an American scholar, “there is heightened interest among younger people, evident in increased church attendance, growing use of religious symbolism, and the affirmation of moral and spiritual values…”

Some Western observers, most notably a group of American church officials who visited the Soviet Union this past June, want to give credit to Soviet leaders for allowing Soviet citizens to worship as they please. Religious freedom, these gullible souls often point out, is guaranteed by the Soviet constitution. But most observers disagree with such a benign assessment of the regime’s attitude towards religion. Soviet media, they point out, continually spew out anti-religious and pro-atheist propaganda.

The Western observer who knows most about the situation of believers in Soviet-bloc countries is the Reverend Michael Bourdeaux, the founder and director of Keston College—an independent, British-based research center that monitors religious life in Eastern Europe and publishes a journal, Religion in Communist Lands. In a recent interview with Radio Liberty, based in Munich, Bourdeaux said that the situation has gotten significantly worse during the last five years. “The policy of the Soviet regime … is to squeeze all believers into one mold, to make sure they all conform to the present policies of the Soviet government and to the view of official church leaders that religion is getting along very well.”

According to Bourdeaux, the religious revival is taking place despite attempts on the part of the regime to make life very difficult for those who want to proselytize in behalf of religion. The revival began in the 1960s, perhaps as a response to Khrushchev’s strong anti-religious policies. At that time hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of churches were destroyed or closed down because Khrushchev argued that “Communist education presupposes emancipation from religious prejudices and superstitions.” Nowadays churches are no longer being destroyed, but many are being converted into places “for social and cultural purposes”—that is, into places where atheist rites are held and atheist sermons delivered. The regime wants to persuade the world that it allows believers to worship as they please, but it also desperately wants to contain the religious revival. As a Party theorist put it in 1981: “No communist can afford to… adopt a passive attitude towards religious ideology, which is hostile to Marxism-Leninism.”

Soviet policy towards believers, however, is not uniform. The regime takes a dim view of religious groups that seem to have a nationalist tinge, especially those that look to non-Soviet religious leaders for spiritual guidance. All specifically Ukrainian religious institutions are suppressed, Bourdeaux says, and Ukrainian Catholics—members of a church that is not recognized under Soviet law—have come in for particularly harsh treatment. losyf Terelya, the head of an “Action Group for the Defense of the Rights of Believers and the Church” in the Ukraine, has spent 18 years in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals because he wants to get the Ukrainian Catholic church registered—that is, recognized as legal under Soviet law. Released in 1981, he continued to file petitions, and as a result was rearrested in 1982.

Lithuanian Catholics have also been treated harshly, but the church is registered and the regime has made some concessions to church leaders, allowing four Lithuanian bishops to visit the Vatican in 1983.

Treated most harshly are the members of unregistered Protestant sects. In the early Sixties these sects broke away from the official “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” because they regarded that group as simply a docile tool of the regime. According to Oxana Antic, who monitors religious dissidence for Radio Liberty Research, there has been no let-up in the persecution of members of these sects. Many are serving long sentences in labor camps, and several leading members of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, their umbrella organization, have been given a second term before having finished serving their first term.

A Soviet citizen is much less likely to end up in a psychiatric hospital or labor camp if he is a Moslem or a member of the Russian Orthodox church, but even these believers must refrain from being “active” believers. They cannot speak up for religious freedom in general nor can they proselytize in behalf of religion. Distribution of religious literature is strictly forbidden. In 1983, 13 Moslems in Tashkent were sentenced to prison terms for reproducing and selling a pamphlet entitled “On Muslim Faith” as well as cassettes with recordings of religious prayers from the Koran. In the same year, a group of young Russian Orthodox believers who reproduced and disseminated prayer books and other religious literature met the same fate.

Jews are a special case. Officially categorized as a nationality, not a religious group, Jews are regarded with suspicion as disloyal Soviet citizens who want to leave the Soviet Union. They are not persecuted the way the members of unregistered protestant sects are, but they are certainly subject to various forms of discrimination. Though the regime sponsors a number of Yiddish cultural activities—in fact it has increased its support for these activities in recent months—it exerts the same pressures on Jewish believers as it does on other believers.

How extensive is the religious revival? It would be a mistake to offer exact figures, since religious affiliation is not taken note of in any official documents concerning Soviet citizens. A survey taken by Radio Liberty of almost 4,000 Soviet travelers to the West indicates that almost 47% of the adult urban population of the Soviet Union has some kind of religious affiliation. Bourdeaux and others point out that Protestant sects are growing much faster than any other group, though they remain very much in the minority. According to some estimates, there are about 500,000 members of Protestant sects, 200,000 of them members of unregistered sects. The religious revival is taking place throughout the Soviet Union, but Bourdeaux and others say that religious ferment is the strongest in the Baltic states and the Ukraine.

What worries Soviet leaders is not the persistence of belief among babushkas but the strong interest in religion on the part of many young people. Articles in the Soviet press have spoken of the current fad among the young for various religious objects such as crosses and icons. And in 1983 a Soviet journal contained two articles that dealt with children leaving their parents because of the children’s religious convictions.

Clearly the regime can’t arrest everyone who reveals an interest in religion. What the regime has done, aside from arresting those who proselytize, is increase the number of pro-atheist organizations as well as make it very difficult to obtain religious literature. In the Western Ukraine, for example, there are 587 commissions for the inculcation of Soviet festivals and rites whose task it is to substitute Marxist-Leninist rites for religious ones. There are also 1,600 atheist clubs for young people. Throughout the Soviet Union, religious literature is hard to come by. It cannot be brought in bookstores, and even most parishes lack religious literature to distribute to their members.

There are also hidden pressures to contend with. Young people fear that their careers will be hurt if they are seen going to church. More frightening is the possibility of losing one’s children to the state, since a 1968 law says that every child is to be brought up “in the spirit of the moral code of the builder of communism.” Practicing religion, then, is in Soviet eyes a kind of child abuse, and some members of unregistered sects have had their children taken away from them, to be “re-educated” by the state.

No doubt, the regime’s policies have made many Soviet citizens think twice about openly professing religious beliefs. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Soviet citizens are going to church and an increasing number are proselytizing. In recent months Soviet newspapers have carried reports of young people carrying crosses, singing religious songs, or selling religious scenes on buses and trains.

Those who wonder why such a religious revival is taking place, it is tempting to reply: Why not? After all, the atheist propaganda ground out by the regime is boring and mindless, so there was bound to be a reaction to it. But one shouldn’t underestimate the influence of particular individuals—above all, Pope John Paul II, who has stirred up an interest in religion as well as given moral support to believers throughout the Soviet bloc. Bourdeaux recounts that Keston College recently received a letter from a Pentecostal group in Siberia that was addressed to “the Polish Pope.” Another major influence has been Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writings are widely circulated in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn continually argues that one of the chief reasons for totalitarianism is the decline in religious belief.

Finally, religion has become intellectually respectable, so that many artists, writers, and intellectuals are more inclined to take religion seriously if not become believers themselves. If in the past, religious thought was considered obscurantist and reactionary, now the tables are turned; it is Marxist-Leninist thought that is considered obscurantist and reactionary.

The religious revival has a long way to go before it poses a real threat to the Soviet regime, but it does erode the Party’s basis for legitimacy, since one of the central tenets of Marxism-Leninism is atheism. The Soviet leaders are worried, especially about religious ferment in areas where nationalism remains strong, and so they have recently begun to resort to their old rhetorical standby: blaming the West. In 1983, a Moscow journal published a series of articles that insinuated all believers are potential spies and that many receive money from Western intelligence agencies.

And in 1983 a Soviet theoretician said that “religious centers” in the West “are trying to urge the church on to an active offensive against Marxist-Leninist ideology.” Thus the religious revival is nothing but a bourgeois-fascist plot to overthrow the Soviet Union.

Of course, Soviet leaders don’t really think that the religious revival is totally manipulated by the West, but they do worry—and rightly so—that the explosive mixture of nationalism and religion to be found in Poland may infect—indeed has already infected—such areas of the Soviet Union as the Ukraine and the Baltic states. But much of the religious revival is home grown and would have happened even if there were no Pope John Paul II.

It is impossible to know whether the communists or the babushka will have the last laugh. We cannot say what long-range effect the religious revival will have, but we can say one thing with certainty: Orwell was wrong. In the long run, despite Big Brother’s endless propaganda, people will think their own thoughts, and it is inevitable that some of them will be religious in nature. The regime has about as much chance of wiping out religious belief as it has of convincing Soviet citizens that the State will wither away.


  • Stephen Miller

    Stephen Miller is the author of Excellence and Equity: the National Endowment for the Humanities. When he wrote this article, he was working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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