For the atheist pilgrim there are no shrines, no temples, and no holy relics. He might glimpse a godless Genesis in the suburbs of Geneva, where particles race and clash in the tunnels of the Hadron Collider. The Great Rift Valley might feel like coming home, if he knew where to look. Perhaps he could visit the shores of Libya, where Theodorus the Atheist first challenged Zeus—or the German town of Naumburg, where Nietzsche took the pulse of God and found it stopped.
Through its troubled history, atheism has been a negation of faith, a corollary of scientific theory, a blank slate on which new cults could be authored. But when will atheists boast their own agenda, their own persuasive champions, their own influential institutions, rites, sacred acts and deeds? The dream of a living, breathing atheism has been dreamed many times—but just once was it plausibly enacted: a brief experiment in the astonishing utopian laboratory of the early Soviet Union.
For nearly two decades, in the first half of the 20th century, an unprecedented mass movement, promoting and enforcing “godlessness,” spread everywhere from Kiev to Vladivostok. By 1932, the movement’s high-water mark, over five million Soviet citizens had joined the “League of the Militant Godless.” Dozens of “museums of religion” occupied former churches, preaching the atheist gospel. Aviators took Siberian peasants on flights high above the taiga, demonstrating that neither god nor angels lived in the sky. An “agit-train” called “The Godless Express” crisscrossed the USSR, its passengers distributing thousands of atheist tracts, desecrating the remains of saints, publicly celebrating a derisive “anti-Christmas.” Atheism became an academic discipline, complete with respected institutes, peer-reviewed journals, and tedious conferences. Filmmakers, illustrators, and painters produced an outpouring of work, blasting belief and superstition. For one season in Moscow, a theater called The Atheist mocked God from the stage.
The vast, earnest pageantry of Soviet atheism—today almost forgotten—is both an inspiration and a warning. Millions of activists built a movement of unprecedented scope, but struggled to stake out atheist positions and define atheist mores, deferring instead to science and socialism. Some perpetrated tragedies as brutal as the age-old crimes of organized religion. Too soon, the frenetic drive to build an atheist culture was appropriated, and finally overwhelmed, by the new Soviet religion, which swept in with a readymade orthodoxy and a pantheon of glowing communist saints.
In Moscow several years ago, I stumbled upon a covert guide to this lost world—an old man in a cloth cap, reeking of cigarettes, probably drunk. We were standing on the steps of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, originally conceived as the largest church in the world, a sumptuous tribute to the Son of God, who saved Russia from Napoleon’s armies. The stranger leered at me, pointing to the church and shouting: “This was all—swimming.”
Later I came across a fading color photograph of the immense Moskva Pool: an open-air, steamheated swimming pool which occupied the cathedral site from 1960 to 1993. The Moskva was once the largest swimming pool in Europe—a tremendous circle one hundred meters in diameter, where Muscovites frolicked and splashed even in the depths of the Russian winter. Yet this public luxury stood on hallowed and bitter ground—it was here, on the frozen morning of December 5, 1931, that the Soviet authorities dynamited the original Christ the Savior, as captured by cameraman Vladislav Mikosha in a few somber minutes of film, difficult to watch even today.
But after the fall of Communism, the cathedral was rebuilt from scratch, a painstaking replica of the nineteenth century original. There were inevitable additions: a well-appointed gift shop, a spacious parking garage. Not a trace remained of the Moskva Pool—yet, beneath all the politics and fanfare, after all the proclamations of Orthodoxy restored, many Muscovites still missed their decadent winter swims. In its heyday, the Moskva Pool welcomed five million swimmers each year, at a time when church attendance in all of Moscow was only 500,000.
Famous episodes of cultural destruction are sometimes erroneously portrayed as acts of spontaneous barbarism, but there are usually matters of engineering, logistics, politics, and money to be handled. The Taliban temporized for years and dallied at long negotiations before destroying the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan. After the destruction of Christ the Savior, it took nearly a year for wreckage crews to clear away the debris. At the Kremlin a few blocks away, monumental plans for the site were taking shape.
The proposed Palace of the Soviets was to be the headquarters of world revolution and the world’s tallest structure (“Go for it,” wrote Stalin in a memorandum). An international competition drew in every well-known avant-garde architect of the day, including LeCorbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The winning entry called for a neoclassical behemoth stretching 415 meters into the air, crowned by a larger-than-life statue of Lenin—suggesting, one unbuilt wonder to another, the Tower of Babel as painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the end, the Palace became one of the great Soviet might-have-beens, a handful of sketches and ghostly foundations—conspiring against it were the swampy soil of Moscow, the glacial movement of apparatchiks, and finally the German invasion. Under Khrushchev, the Moskva Pool was born.
The destruction of Christ the Savior, for its Soviet instigators, was just one battle in the most extensive and protracted campaign ever waged against God. The leering drunk, loitering and lost on the cathedral steps, was one of its partisans. Movements against particular religions, cults, and deities are well-known to history—the French Revolution briefly installed a Cult of Reason to replace the Catholic Church—but the USSR was the first state to pursue a frankly atheist agenda, seeking to extirpate the very idea of God.
Teach Yourself to Be Godless
For nine centuries, the Orthodox Church animated every aspect of Russian life. But in the nineteenth century, Russian reformers and revolutionaries of all stripes began to blame the church—and the god it claimed to represent—for the country’s feudal backwardness. Decades before the Bolsheviks, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin summed up the radical dream: “It is now the freethinkers’ turn to pillage heaven by their audacious impiety and scientific analysis.”
In the months following the October Revolution of 1917, Bolshevik leaders announced a separation of church and state, unprecedented in Russian history. Leading clerics were put to the sword or fled. Pressured by famine and civil war, the new regime menaced the Orthodox Church: manufacturing a schism among believers, seizing church properties to feed the starving, banning clergy from education. In 1922, Russia’s most outrageous and creative religious thinkers were forced to sail on “the philosophers’ ships”, which bore dissident intellectuals away from the USSR.
Nevertheless, the first Bolshevik constitution guaranteed the freedom of both religion and anti-religious agitation. If belief in God was an opiate, the masses would be weaned from it gradually—by popular institutions proclaiming fresh slogans, through education and persuasion, and with the enticements of a polished new atheist culture. Lenin signaled this direction in 1922, in a letter to the official Bolshevik journal, Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism). The Party should not just attack the villainous counter-revolutionaries in charge of organized religion, he urged. Just as important was a systematic campaign in support of scientific atheism. Among other measures, Lenin recommended the translation and wide dissemination of classic atheist writings, including those of Voltaire, Diderot, and Darwin. Works by all of these writers would soon stream in huge numbers from Soviet printing presses.
Atheist journals flourished from the early 1920s: The Godless at the Workbench, The Anti-Religious, and Militant Atheism. The Bolshevik faith in print persuasion was boundless: both describing and directing anti-religious work, these publications were by turns incisive and thoughtful, graphically stunning, malicious and hectoring. From the most prominent of them—The Godless, a weekly newspaper established in 1922—would emerge the organization The League of the Militant Godless.
The League was established in 1925, with the stated aim of transforming “Holy Russia” into “an atheistic Soviet Union." Party members, activist youth, intellectuals, and workers were among the members. Possibly the largest atheist organization in history, the League soon had its hand in almost everything: journalism, book publishing, education, supervision of the new atheist museums, policymaking, and more. Special emphasis was placed on opening cells in the countryside, beachheads for the spread of atheist teaching. The League even boasted a few branches outside the Soviet Union.
Ceaseless publishing activity undertaken by the League—massive even by Soviet standards—supplied these local activists: by one estimate, the State Publishing House, working closely with the League, issued 140,000,000 copies of over 1,800 atheist titles between 1928 and 1940, and perhaps as many as 44,000,000 pieces of anti-religious literature in 1930 alone. One of the classics was entitled How Gods and Goddesses are Born, Live, and Die (1923) a didactic work by the league’s tireless founder, Emelyan Yaroslavsky, who was reported to enjoy the confidence of Dictator Stalin himself.
League members vowed to create a new atheist culture, adapted to the needs of building socialism. Atheist study groups, reading circles, and correspondence courses proliferated; self-help guides, such as Teach Yourself to Be Godless, were widely distributed. Soviet schools and workplaces had “godless corners”, informative collections of posters, brochures, newspapers, and photographs which echoed the “icon corners," of Orthodox tradition. (They stood along side the “red corners” and “Lenin corners” of the time.)
How did one learn to be godless? Acquaintance with the perfidies of religion and the boons of science and technology was certainly a start. A good atheist took seriously the materialism espoused by Marx and Engels. A good atheist focused on the here and now: the make-believe afterlife might be just a foolish distraction, but the idea of divine omnipotence was something sinister, a real obstruction to progress and social transformation. According to Yaroslavsky, the religious worldview reduced man to “a worm, a slave [who] can never finally get the know the secrets of nature, the secrets of life and death.” Only atheistic communism proclaimed that “[m]an can not only learn to know the world, but can change it and does change it in the interests of those who labor.”
God on Exhibit
In practice, it was easier to attack god than to consolidate this new atheist culture. Godless zealots led the way in closing and converting houses of worship, melting down church bells, and harassing the remaining clergy. Activists explained to peasants that the relics of Orthodox saints had been preserved by mummification techniques, not miracles just as Lenin would one day be embalmed according to the latest scientific principles. Icons thought to weep tears or exude a holy fragrance were unmasked as pure mechanism. By 1929, with Stalin in full control, new legislation reversed the earlier, grudging tolerance: now religious expression was severely restricted and the right to promote religion withdrawn—an all-out atheist attack was licensed.
At a massive Congress of the Godless, held in Moscow that year, delegates suggested, unsuccessfully, that anti-religious milestones be incorporated into the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), Stalin’s economic scheme for breakneck, state-directed industrialization. A two-hundred percent uptick in the number of atheists, for the Godless, would have been comparable to a two-hundred percent increase in steel production. Unrealistic quotas set by leaders in Moscow, and false reports produced at the local level, plagued the promotion of atheism and steel production alike.
An interventionist, “priest-eating” (popoedstvo) faction advocated nothing less than the immediate abolition of religion. These radicals—many of whom clustered around the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) and The Godless at the Workbench—spoke of imposing an “anti-religious proletarian dictatorship of the atheist city over the countryside.” They countenanced the immediate closure of all churches and the aid of the political police in enforcing godlessness. Direct provocation and intimidation were their favored tactics—believers were to be isolated from society, humiliated, compared to the mentally ill. A favorite trick was to send atheist aviators buzzing over church steeples during Sunday services, frightening the congregants within.
Some godless cells went further. In one notorious instance, zealots deemed the famous spire of Kolpana’s Lutheran church—a holy symbol to many ethnic Finns—“dangerous to Soviet military aviation.” Accompanied by a contingent of Red Army soldiers, they tied a rope from the spire to a massive tractor. As the towering spire fell, the entire church caved in, and the cheering Godless rushed inside the ruin to claim brass and copper fixtures for the production of Soviet airplanes.
The tens of thousands of churches shuttered across the USSR were turned to diverse uses, reflecting the atheist program. Workingmen’s clubs extended the community of the factory floor, promoting new types of sociability and the secularization of celebrations. New movie houses and lecture halls became hubs of propaganda work. Converting churches to cow-barns and storage sheds was justified as being simply pragmatic. More than 40 former religious buildings became “museums of atheism,” overseen by the League of the Godless. Here the baubles of the former faith languished a little longer, debunked in front of youth groups and peasants. Here priests were de-frocked and believers de-baptized in front of laughing crowds—but the history of these museums only points up the limitation of the new atheism, and how quickly it succumbed to lurid spectacles.
The state-of-the-art Central Anti-Religious Museum, which opened in 1929 in the abandoned Strasnoy Monastery in Moscow, welcomed visitors with a large banner draped over the facade: “Religion has always been the instrument of the exploitation of workers.” A typical exhibit traced the struggle of religion and science with dioramas and explanatory panels, as well as a painting of Giordano Bruno’s execution and a dramatic statue of Galileo in chains. The former chambers of monks were taken over by a jumble of Babylonian idols, native Siberian talismans, and totems from the South Pacific, provocatively juxtaposed with Orthodox symbols to emphasize the primitive character of religious faith. Walter Benjamin, visiting one of these museums in 1926 noted that the few remaining icons, tapestries, and Bibles were gathered haphazardly in a small room, where a museum employee, “a fat woman with peasant looks,” offered malicious explanations to “a number of proletarians” on tour.
More entertaining were gruesome displays on the radical Christian sects of czarist Russia: the Khlysti flagellants and the Skopsti castrati. As recently as 1987, when few anti-religious museums were still thriving, The New York Times reported that the Leningrad museum housed a popular room of torture implements, of the type favored by the Inquisition—an attraction that remained popular even at the height of glasnost and perestroika. Those anti-religious museums that subsisted until the end of the Soviet period were macabre but hardly persuasive attractions—inexorably, almost all the museums have returned to religious uses today.
God Is Dead, Long Live God
Many of the Godless movement’s most talented foot soldiers were former priests with a talent for dogma. Early on, the League’s leadership recognized that few of its most ardent members were familiar enough with religion to combat it. Former Orthodox clergy, recruited to fill this gap, became some of the League’s most effective and best-known advocates. Some needed work of any kind—Soviet newspapers in this period brimmed with the self-criticisms of priests, who promised to practice “honest labor” going forward. Others were fueled by their earlier critiques of, or grudges against, official Orthodoxy. Ex-priest Mikhail Gorev even rose to the exalted position of Deputy Chairman in the League, before the former priests fell from favor. Gorev lived out his days in obscurity, first as an anti-religious propagandist for the Union of Miners, and later as a teacher in the bleak coal-mining towns of Soviet Ukraine.
The replacement of religious holidays with materialist alternatives was energetically undertaken: “Electric Day” substituted for “Elijah Day," “Harvest Day” for “The Feast of the Intercession," and “The Day of Industry” for “The Feast of the Transfiguration.” The official Soviet calendar soon formalized this approach in a more clearly dogmatic direction: May Day overshadowed Easter; the Day of the Tractor replaced older autumn festivals; and the Soviet New Year—which came to include decorated trees and gift-giving, interestingly enough—trumped Orthodox Christmas.
Instigated by the Communist Youth League in 1922, the first anti-Christmas “carnivals” took over the streets in more than 400 cities across the USSR. In Moscow, blasphemous parades lasted until nightfall, when images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, and Osiris were dramatically consigned to a bonfire, and activists went from house to house singing atheist carols. Anti-Easter rites the following year involved a more somber week of anti-religious speeches, charades, and dramas. Young communists sang atheist hymns and displayed slogans such as “The Smoke of the Factory is better than the Smoke of Incense."
For a time, new Ford tractors, festooned with red flags, served as wedding carriages for newlyweds fresh from a secular “red wedding." The Soviet passion for industry and technology similarly elevated factories, trains and airplanes to iconic status. New saints drove these tractors, labored in these factories, piloted these aircraft. With man now the measure of all things, it was not long before Soviet propagandists were extolling the supernatural capacities of proletarian heroes. The most famous was Alexei Stakhanov, the coal miner who extracted a record 102 tons of coal in a six-hour shift—for this feat, which may have been orchestrated, he was made an overnight celebrity and heaped with official honors. Another Stalinist saint, Pyotr Krivonos, was a locomotive engineer who reportedly increased the speed of his train beyond what had been thought possible. Pasha Angelina, a peasant from eastern Ukraine, became one of the USSR’s first female tractor operators—“the socialist Cinderella supreme,” in the words of one historian, and an instantly recognizable icon on posters, in newspapers, and on the silver screen.
Presiding over this pantheon were Lenin and Stalin, whose cults grew by the year, whose faces appeared in home after home and office after office, whose names were splashed liberally over streets, parks, and factories in every Soviet town. Although directed from the top, the cults had complex, popular roots as well—half-conscious attempts to fill the vacant throne of heaven. As Lenin lay dying in the years 1922 and 1923, peasants whispered that all churches would become movie theaters upon his death (film was Lenin’s favorite art form). Instead, a new shrine was built: the elegant cube-shaped mausoleum on Red Square, in which Lenin’s body has remained permanently embalmed, mute witness to the birth of its own cult. For a long time now, babushkas in headscarves have made the sign of cross as they pass the body of the frozen, goateed Soviet saint. The famous Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, perhaps already missing the old ways, once proposed the manufacture of tens of millions of miniature models of the mausoleum—objects of veneration to be placed in every Soviet home.
But by the mid-1930s, as the outlines of the new Soviet religion became clear, atheist activism ground to a halt. Its failures were becoming obvious. The new saints were having a hard time replacing the old ones. The new worker saints and their hallowed tractors had only begun, in the smallest way, to install themselves in Soviet hearts--but hardly to replace the divine and invisible mysteries. In 1937, Yaroslavsky admitted in Pravda that the League’s work had “for unintelligible reasons sunk down to insignificant proportions.” According to that’s year suppressed census, as much as half of the population was brave enough to admit a continued religious affiliation. Party members were still rumored to keep icons in their homes, marry in churches, and baptize their children. Countless small acts of rebellion, both secret and overt, continued to meet anti-religious work. Peasants wept and pleaded for their village bells being carried off to the smelter, or risked the Gulag to hang an icon.
The final blow came when Stalin—the seminary drop-out—enlisted religion against the Nazi invasion. Stalin realizing that religion could serve him in calling people to war, reopened thousands of churches, and republished formally banned religious books from the Bible to Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, even with its strong religious undertones, served to remind Russians that if they could expel Napoleon they could expel the Nazis. War raged, Yaroslavsky disappeared and the godless movement with him.
Thus, the sustained assault against God, by turns persuasive and coercive, itself came up against the limits of credence. Our history textbooks bulge with tales of mass conversion, paroxysms of religion fervor, entire nations embracing new gods. Revival movements, Great Awakenings, and thousand-fold baptisms have had lasting impact, when reinforced and passed on. The prospects for mass atheism are more dubious, though it is impossible to guess where a millennium of Soviet atheism might have led: it peaked so soon and petered out so rapidly.
Yet the early years of the partial, flawed Soviet experience still hint at the possibility of a full-blooded atheism. Godlessness as a rallying cry, a set of institutions, a way of life has lain dormant since. If there is still widespread doubt that some numinous specter really bestrides the universe, it disdains the spotlight, spreading quietly, insidiously, as an adjunct to the doubts sown by cities and science. Today, the godless make due without community, confessing their creed on the rarest occasions, barely recognizing co-anti-religionists. Wherever they are, let them know this at least: there once was a league of millions, an outpouring of books and newspapers, a network of museums, a swimming pool where atheists splashed together in the depths of winter.February 13, 2010