Religious Policy in the Soviet Union

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She then related how religious leaders had preyed on her during her time of grief. Elderly believers or those who grew up in the western borderlands outside of Soviet rule blamed the legacy of tsarist or bourgeois educational institutions for their low levels of schooling. At the same time, a large portion of young believers had grown up in religious households. These individuals tended instead to shift responsibility onto their parents, who they claimed had essentially brainwashed them as children, using fear of eternal punishment to inculcate religious belief.

Religious Policy in the Soviet Union, ed. by S. P. Ramet - Persée

In general, they described their time in the organization as a slow journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to understanding, and from scorn for Soviet society to a desire to rejoin it. These motifs appear in nearly every story. These bonds had to be broken so that believers could liberate themselves. It justified why otherwise loyal Soviet citizens, having found themselves in antisocial organizations, often took several years, even decades, to leave.

Believers also highlighted how religion isolated them from the surrounding community. Almost all stories noted how, during the time when the authors belonged to a religion, they did not read newspapers, watch TV, or listen to the radio. Religious leaders told them that the outside world was evil and must be avoided, instilling fear of eternal damnation for failure to adhere to these strict rules. Former believers recalled how the threat of eternal damnation paralyzed them, making them unwilling to listen to reason.

They recalled a hunger for the truth that led them to reexamine their beliefs and question their membership in religious organizations. Having begun this soul-searching process, members found themselves disillusioned by the unethical and sometimes criminal activities of their religious leaders. In most versions, the individual eagerly reentered society, finding fulfillment both in labor and in the broader task of building communism. A Witness who had considered work pointless in the face of Armageddon now had his portrait on the honor board at his job.

Also, while narratives portrayed believers as lacking a strong work ethic, many agitators privately acknowledged the opposite. At a Komsomol plenum in Moldavia, for example, one attendee noted his own difficulties in working with Baptists at the factories, as they did not smoke, did not drink, and were good workers.

He complained that the Komsomol lacked compelling examples from within their ranks to counteract this upstanding image of young Baptists.

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Almost all began or ended their stories with a message to current members to follow their example. I want them to see how Soviet people are transforming nature, building hydroelectric stations, farming the virgin lands, how they are selflessly working to build a bright, perfect life for everyone, for all peoples. In fact, most people reading these stories in the local newspapers belonged to neither category. The state intended these stories to have a prophylactic effect on this wider audience by teaching citizens the dangers of involvement with religious organizations.

This had particular relevance in regard to Protestant religions, whose adherents actively proselytized in the Soviet Union to convert new members, and with some success. Atheist narratives offered a potential rebuttal to such efforts. Together with intensified atheist agitation and individual work with believers, these strategies meant to beat Protestant religions at their own game. To begin with, many former believers joined and left several religious organizations prior to renouncing faith altogether.

Their life history could not be simply divided into two halves. One man recounted having joined the Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Seventh-Day Adventists before abandoning religion. Many of them noted how after publicly denouncing Protestantism, they continued to receive visits from their former religious leaders asking them to reconsider. Indeed, atheist propaganda sometimes included complaints that once a believer had been convinced to leave his faith, atheist agitators lost interest in him, viewing the case as resolved.

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Religious preachers, on the other hand, were often much more persistent in winning back lost sheep and did successfully convince some to return to the organization. In one incident, a young Pentecostal man left the religion in , but returned years later, wanting to reunite with his family and regain his former life. While he was an atheist, his old congregation still helped him build a new home, whereas the local Communist Party youth organization Komsomol had been less forthcoming with such assistance.

Many stories dwell on moments where schools and work collectives failed to reach out to believers, or even mocked them for their religious beliefs. Had someone from the community intervened to help them, the former believers suggested, they might have left religion much sooner, or never joined in the first place. Overall, atheist agitation often failed to compete with religious proselytism.

One atheist agitator gave an example to illustrate the problem. In the past eight years, activists had held four conversations with a local believer, Semen. During that same time, Semen had spent at least eighty hours a month engaged in religious services and activities.

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They maintained that evil does exist in this world and must be defeated, but that it comes out of economic injustice and not from Satan or original sin. One man related how, after praying to God for help but hearing no response, he read the popular atheist work, The Bible for Believers and Non-Believers , followed by the works of Marx, Lenin, and Herzen, and got the information he needed.

Former believers promised that communism would build this perfect world on earth. Former Pentecostals more frequently discussed the damage to mental and physical health caused by speaking in tongues, faith healings, and other rituals, which they described as frightening. In some instances, believers died or became gravely ill as a result of baptisms in cold water. As a result, Moldavian district papers abounded with tales of former Witnesses, despite their relatively small membership. Thus, while Moldavian and western Ukrainian papers, printed in areas with high concentrations of Witnesses, included hundreds of stories from this religious community, citizens in central Russia may have never heard of the Witnesses at all.

The image of a spider web enjoyed popularity as a means of illustrating how cunning, predatory leaders trapped unwitting individuals. Ultimately, if former believers wanted to frame themselves as victims, they needed perpetrators and found them in their preachers, ministers, and church elders. They portrayed these individuals as extortionists, former Nazis or collaborators, thieves, hooligans, rapists, child abusers, adulterers, wreckers, speculators, drunkards, deserters from the Soviet Army, and deadbeats.

One Adventist claimed he almost went blind because his religion forced him to avoid daylight at all costs. Having left the religion, he burned his Bible and put up white curtains in his home. They generally preached abstention from alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and sexual activity outside of marriage.


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One woman noted that she joined the Baptists in large part because of the refuge it provided from her alcoholic husband, who was not a member of the faith. She expressed gratitude that atheist agitators not only convinced her to abandon her faith, but also managed to transform her husband into an upstanding, sober citizen.

They pointed out that the vaunted principle of unconditional love meant that Christians loved Nazis and saw them as brothers and equals. This same person claimed that the concept of forgiveness for sins was tantamount to an endorsement of murder and violence. The Soviet press acknowledged complaints from abroad while attempting to justify the need to prosecute certain fanatical and dangerous believers.


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Official rhetoric maintained that the state prosecuted these individuals not for their religious convictions, but for their illegal, subversive political actions. The authors denounced western media coverage as falsely labeling such incidents as examples of religious persecution. In this, the testimonials aided the goals of the Soviet state. Yet they also undermined efforts to encourage understanding and patience when dealing with sects, particularly when combined with other negative press coverage of Protestant religions.

Readers were expected to believe that a reasonable citizen could have joined an antisocial, if not anti-Soviet, organization full of seedy characters, and not realized this for several years. Overall, the distinction between ordinary believers and fanatics or leaders remained murky at best in these accounts. In some instances, the only difference between a fanatic and an ordinary member was that the former still belonged to the religion while the latter no longer did. In almost all cases, former believers had family members who were also involved in the religion. Photo Credit: Artur Kamalin.

Photo circa In elementary schools, children were taught to denounce parents who held onto their Faith. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, several antireligious campaigns were carried out in order to eliminate religion from the public square. One of the worst of these was the antireligious campaign carried out under Nikita Khrushchev, who revoked the parental right to instruct children in the Faith.

Religion in the soviet union

In the encyclical Orientales omnes Ecclesias , Pope Pius XII praised them for bearing the persecution inflicted on them by the atheistic communist government. A blasphemous cover of the Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik Atheist depicting Our Lord being dumped by industrial workers. An organization called the League of Militant Atheists , which boasted a membership of 5.

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Atheistic literature numbering a total of million pages was distributed throughout the USSR. To those who did not warmly receive its message, the League of Militant Atheists resorted to implementing a bloody approach on these innocent believers, by imprisoning clergy and laity or placing them before firing squads.