Fight Against Superstition

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

An ironic chapter in de-Stalinization was that the Great Leader’s tolerance of the Orthodox Church was renounced along with his more vicious policies. Khrushchev himself was the instigator of the anti-religious campaign that began in 1957, but reached its apogee in August 1961 with passage of new legislation on parish life. Rescinding a wartime agreement that made priests the legal administrators of their parishes, a hastily-convened Synods of Bishops transferred power to newly constituted parish councils. Accusations were made subsequently that local communist activists packed many village councils; the indisputable consequence was that over the next three to four years, over half of existing Orthodox parishes were disbanded by their councils, and approximately ten thousand churches were closed. The spiritual legacy of the church was attacked: four out of eight seminaries shut their doors, and many monasteries were closed and converted to secular institutions. This included the Kiev Crypt Monastery, birthplace of Orthodox spirituality.

An unattractive feature of the campaign was the thuggish physical harassment used at the local level. Churches were converted to schools, clubs and museums by night and under police guard; young worshippers were restrained from entering churches, and deprived of educational opportunities when they persisted. Priests were attacked physically or by reputation, as when the local press leveled accusations of drunkenness and debauchery.

Crude attacks were inspired above all by frustration. Faith still had a hold on many Soviet citizens, and in the case of the Baptists and other groups, state campaigns only strengthened their resolve. Communist authorities recognized the need to replace religion in young minds. The Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge was revitalized, and stepped up its program of aggressively atheistic popular lectures for the general public. In 1963 the organization was renamed Znanie, or Knowledge. A semi-popular journal with a similar agenda began publication in September 1959 under the title Science and Religion (Nauka i religiia). Its first issue turned readers’ attention to recent successes in space flight. There can be no god, it asserted, since the moon rocket had made no contact with the heavenly firmament on its way into space. Such arguments seemed to have little impact on readers, many of whom maintained their faith. In the early 1960s the state tried a tack that had been proposed by Lev Trotsky in the 1920s. It created new socialist life cycle rituals, building grand Wedding Palaces to accommodate them.

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