Antireligious Propaganda

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Among the most important tasks that the Bolsheviks set themselves upon coming to power in 1917 was to emancipate Soviet citizens from the scourge (or as Karl Marx put it, the “opiate”) of religion. Along with the literacy campaign with which it was intimately connected, antireligious propaganda was a key component of the “cultural front” during the 1920s. A protracted affair, the struggle against religion was complicated by the difficulty of defining goals as much as working out how to achieve them.

The decree of January 20, 1918 that disestablished the Orthodox Church and consigned the clergy of all faiths to second-class citizenship (along with capitalists, merchants, former members of the police, criminals, and “imbeciles”) set the stage for years of bitter and often violent struggle that included the closing of many churches, the confiscation of church valuables, the arrest of the Patriarch Tikhon, and the execution of priests suspected of aiding the counter-revolutionary Whites. With the end of the civil war, the party and state shifted gears, launching a broad, systematic propaganda campaign that targeted popular religious belief. The Komsomol Christmas of January 6, 1923, replete with carnival-like processions of students and working-class youth dressing as clowns, singing the “Internationale,” and burning effigies of religious “cult” figures, was an early indication of the shift. But its mischief sufficiently outraged the sensibilities of believers and non-believers alike to provoke the party’s Central Committee to “recommend” that the forthcoming Komsomol Easter restrict itself to lectures, movies and plays. This less confrontational approach was endorsed by the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) which called for the training of anti-religious propagandists, the publication of scientific and popular literature on the origins and class nature of religion, and the improvement of political educational methods in rural-based reading rooms.

Bolshevik policies targeted at the Russian Orthodox Church were applied to non-Russian populations with mixed results. Jews and Catholics of the Ukrainian and Belorussian regions often saw little difference between Communists and tsarist authorities, who had been hostile to their churches for very different reasons. Bolshevik propaganda proved particularly inappropriate for the many communities of Islam located throughout the RSFSR and Central Asia. There were attempts to accommodate the special needs of that community, but they were few, and were overwhelmed by the forces of radicalization. By 1924 an Antireligious Commission had been set up by the Central Committee, and a newspaper, Bezbozhnik (The Godless) had begun to appear. In August 1924 the call by Emelian Iaroslavskii, a prominent Bolshevik, for a national organization of atheists was realized with the formation of a Society of Friends of the Newspaper Bezbozhnik. Less than a year later, in April 1925, a congress of Bezbozhnik correspondents and Society members met in Moscow to establish the All-Union League of the Godless under the leadership of Iaroslavskii. Aside from publishing newspapers and journals, the League sponsored museums of atheism, anti-religious exhibitions and lectures. The notion that exposure to rationalist explanations of natural phenomena, the wonders of applied science, and ethical, clean-living atheists would demystify religion guided the efforts of the League — at least until 1929 when it added “Militant” to its name in accordance with a more direct assault on religion reminiscent of the civil war years.

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