Storming the Heavens: the Soviet League of the Militant Godless, by Daniel Peris
This book is a detailed examination of the Bolshevik “League of the Militant Godless,” or Союз Войнствующих Безбожников, launched in 1925 during the New Economic Policy (NEP), the atheistic Bolsheviks’ retreat from the War Communism of the Civil War era. During the Civil War of 1917-1920, the Bolsheviks had attempted to suppress the visible signs of Russian Orthodox Christianity, the State Church of the former Tsars. Religious education was banned outside the home, priests executed, churches destroyed, the famous Ilya Proroch Church on Red Square barely escaping destruction. The attempt to physically eliminate religion abated during NEP, but was marred by harsh interventions, including the notorious incident in the town of Shuia in 1922 where Lenin personally ordered priests executed.
These attempts were part of the Bolsheviks’ ideological agenda to create a godless New Soviet Man in backward Russia, focusing on semi-literate peasants, whom they believed would be more receptive to the new Soviet proletarian values than middle-class bourgeoisie, whom the Bolsheviks regarded as irredeemable class enemies. Exchanging persuasion for force during NEP, the Bolsheviks, in the wake of their stinging retreat from War Communism, which had resulted in mass famine, departed from their Prime Directive of Centralization in all things and set up sixteen “voluntary mass societies,” one of which was the League of the Godless. In 1929 “Militant” was added to the name. For a short time, the League had more members than the Russian Communist Party, though, as Peris explains, most of these “memberships” were little more than mandatory signatures joining illusory and ephemeral local clubs, Potemkin facades erected to satisfy peremptory orders from the Party in Moscow, part of the incessant internecine struggles among Soviet burocracies to secure a greater share of scarce resources and literate personnel. Anti-religion was largely a dispensable by-product of the League’s burocratic struggle to justify its existence, which was, according to Peris, highly characteristic of “Bolshevik political culture.” In the 1930’s, the League ceased operation due to paper shortages, having achieved decidedly mixed results, and was officially shut down in 1941 when Stalin ordered the rehabilitation of Orthodox Christianity in a frantic effort to secure the support of religious believers to repel Hitler’s German invasion.
In Peris’ view, Bolshevik political culture was more significant in the League’s existence than the ephemeral and highly publicized anti-religion campaigns. For example, the League’s primary publication, Bezbozhnik (“The Godless” or “The Atheist”), was administered by Yaroslavski, a supporter of Stalin. The League’s secondary publication, Bezbozhnik y Stanka (loosely translated: “The Proletarian Atheist”), was administered by a fierce rival, Kostelnovskaya, a woman who leaned toward Trotsky, then Bukharin, rivals of Stalin. While their harsh debate in their competing publications during the 1920’s was styled in terms of “soft-power” culturalists versus repressive interventionists, respectively, the more authentic conflict was over who would dominate the scarce economic resources tossed to the League by more powerful figures higher-up in the Party, presumably meaning use of facilities, paper and ink, food allotments, printers, machinists to maintain the printers, and most of all literate and reliable personnel who were always in critically short supply in what was still a predominantly agrarian and peasant society. All of these resources were controlled and rationed by the Soviet state, which in turn was controlled by the Party, private employment and markets barely existing, having been officially proscribed. Yaroslavski eventually prevailed, his support of Stalin in the 1930’s securing him the coveted position of head of the Party Control Commission, the Party’s “internal watchdog,” Yaroslavski cementing his position by helping send his long-time assistant and second-in-charge of Bezbozhnik to the Gulag during the Great Purge of 1937-9.
But what is atheism? And what was the significance of actual godlessness in Russia? Despite the term “atheist”, atheists in general and Soviet atheists in particular, were not merely anti-God. God, after all, comes in different flavors, depending on which religion one is analyzing, and each flavor is ultimately difficult to define. If one cannot define God, how can one define anti-God? Much less pro-anti-God? So at first blush, atheism is a logical conundrum. The solution lies in the fact that Soviet atheism, and in this reviewer’s view all atheists, are not anti-God at all or anti-religion, but by sleight-of-phrase merely substituting new gods and new religions in place of the old, without closely examining what the new order will bring, necessarily and always given the fundamental truth that Man by definition is a myth-making creature, and can never push out one myth without bringing in another, advertently or inadvertently, through the back door so to speak, perhaps unacknowledged but real just the same.
The Soviets’ “atheism” is a classic case in point. While it lasted, Soviet Russia was the Church of the new Religion of World Communism. The Kremlin was its Vatican. Marx was its Moses. Lenin was its Jesus. And Stalin was its militant crusade-launching Pope, having excommunicated his rivals from the Movement. Party members in Russia, even after condemned to the Gulag often refused to renounce their faith in the Party, still asserting that the secrets of History and Salvation resided with Stalin and his entourage, whatever their own fate may be. The religion of Soviet Communism had a catechism: “After the Revolution, the workers of the world will unite and establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat over any non-proletarians who may survive.” And it had a priesthood, which was the current membership of the Russian Communist Party, native speakers of Russian being most authentic “priests”. And a Bible, being Marx’s Das Kapital, supplemented by Lenin’s many “New Testament” writings, and Stalin’s feebler “Augustinian” writings. Heaven was the utopian Communist state destined to follow the Revolution when the Socialist Paradise would finally come to Humanity. It had a Hell, which was the “satanic mills” of industrial capitalists with their masses of exploited workers. And an Army of Christian soldiers, which of course was the Red Army. Even a Satan, who was at first Trotsky, then, after Stalin succeeded in having Trotsky assassinated, Hitler, followed by every American President. (Recall Hugo Chavez remarking on the smell of sulfur left by Bush 43.) Communism even had its “Jews” condemned to a Diaspora from “orthodox” Communism for their religious heresy—the unrepentant followers of Trotsky.
And perhaps most important, Communism had a clear distinction between the “saved” and the “damned”, the saved being members in good standing of the single correct and infallible World Communist Party—but only those branches which recognized the exclusive and infallible authority of Stalin and his Kremlin successors. The path to salvation for the masses meant (I) faith in Stalin, meaning unquestioning devotion and obedience to the Kremlin, and (ii) good works and saintliness, i.e., unending physical labor in the cause of Socialism. No one who did not labor physically could be saved, and certainly not the “damned” who survived off trade, or even worse, money interest. Collecting money interest or profiting from stock markets were the ultimate sins of the evil capitalists, both activities being permanently banned in Soviet Russia.
As Peris explains, in the Soviet Union, labor substituted for prayer. Socialist factories—where the masses labored for the future Socialist Paradise—became the new churches. Bezbozhnik y Stanka glowingly printed color photos of giant factories with narrow vertical glass panes, comparing them to the old discredited cathedrals, and Bezbozhnik recommended using factories for faith and community. In place of Russian Orthodox icons during Tsarist times, processions of Soviet workers would display Bolshevik Revolutionary placards with gigantic pictures of Stalin in place of pictures of the former Tsar. In their homes, “Lenin corners” replaced “icon corners.” While the government dug up Orthodox saints to discredit them by proving their bodies had decomposed, it preserved Lenin’s body so it would be preserved like the former saints and allowed the public to view it, his non-decomposition proof of his saintliness in the new religion of Communism, displayed for all to see. Traditional religious holidays were ridiculed and renamed with Revolutionary labels: the “Feast of the Protection” became “Harvest & Collectivization Day,” “Feast of the Transfiguration” became “Industrialization Day,” other holidays became “October Revolution Day” and “Red Army Day.” Easter was changed to “Day of the First Furrowing,” with peasants solemnly following a tractor plow in a field instead of a priest holding icons. Bezbozhnik even proposed 1917 be declared a new Year One, with May 1, International Workers’ Day, as the beginning of each year, though the Kremlin decided against these proposals.
Yet all this failed. The League, always composed like the Party itself of primarily of urban males, had originally targeted female peasants, who were considered the primary repository of Orthodox Christianity. But the chronic shortage of educated “cadres” forced the League to recruit locals, who were typically even less literate than the semi-literate Party members sent to organize Godlessness in agrarian areas. Lacking the education, training, or resources to peacefully convert tens of millions of illiterate peasant women scattered over millions of square miles of undeveloped countryside to Godlessness, these cadres would often simply focus their efforts on closing local churches, locking out local priests or imposing fines to drive the priests to penury, and banning religious icons or priests from performing marriages and funerals. However, the shortage of educated personnel to fulfill these directives from Moscow was so severe that priests themselves were often recruited to perform these tasks, being the only literate persons in many rural areas, and even Party members and assigned cadres often ignored the Godless campaigns and resumed their usual Orthodox holidays and religious functions as soon as the “Godless campaign” had moved on to the next town. Moscow itself did not necessarily view this outcome as failure—the main goal of the League, as Peris explains, was ultimately not to convert the population to Atheism which was merely its ostensible raison d’etre, but to create and maintain a stable literate burocracy which Yaroslavski and his superiors could use for their own purposes, chiefly to out-compete in the perpetual struggle for economic resources those burocracies that were controlled by other bosses in the Party, like the Komsomol or the Ministry of Education. These rival organizations, in turn, were reluctant to cooperate or assist the League in any way, and often actively worked to undermine it, this rivalry being intrinsic to the perpetual internecine burocratic struggle that characterized Soviet political culture. This was discernible to the initiated in the esoteric phraseology printed in the League’s publications, in its calls for ever more centralization, guidance from above, more resources and cadres, and pronouncements of the League’s superior fealty to authentic Leninism.
The only point I found lacking was the total preoccupation with Russian Orthodox Christianity in Peris’ work. It would have benefited from a discussion of Judaism and Islam. Still, a fine job by Professor Peris, well worth reading. —Glenn Lazar Roberts for SiriusReviews.com