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Churches Closed

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

State policy toward the church was subject to a number of contradictory impulses in the late 1920s. The Kremlin leadership fluctuated between antagonistic and conciliatory attitudes towards its perceived foes, and there were tensions as well between central authorities and the periphery, young and old, radical and cautious. One result of the shifting directions was a window of approximately two years when the state pursued its most radical policies. The bloody conflict of collectivization was one result, and another was renewed hostility toward the church. The state stiffened the restrictions it had placed on the church in 1918 with a new law on religious organizations issued in 1929, giving the church little room to act, and reinforcing the restrictions by stiff penalties.

These measures were little stricter than the already harsh Criminal Code of 1923. In fact most of the legal and documentary basis for the war on the church was already in place by 1923. What changed was the vigor with which several clauses were prosecuted; the willingness of authorities to use violence to achieve their aims; and perhaps, the autonomy enjoyed by local authorities. The animus towards the church that had been focused on the hierarchy during 1922-1923 was focused on local clergy during the Cultural Revolution. Activists pursued variety of campaigns, mobilizing the population (whether willing or unwilling) to purge the poison of faith. Particularly ferocious was the attack on church property, which saw ancient churches converted into warehouses, and sacred objects melted down for their metals. Church bells were the object of special attention, since the state claimed the metal for the great industrialization project. Local police authorities were usually responsible for church closings, and their heavy handed methods could arouse the fury and resistance of villagers.

Coupled with attacks on the church was the new uninterrupted work week (nepreryvnaia nedelia, often abbreviated to nepreryvka). Introduced in 1929, the nepreryvka was meant to increase productivity by keeping machines in operation throughout the year, and to wean workers away from Sundays and religious holidays as days of rest. In the most widely practiced variant, the so-called five-day week, employees worked for four days and were off for one, following a staggered schedule. The only exception was to be the five days per year consisting of revolutionary holiday celebrations. Introduction of the nepreryvka required cultural organizations, educational institutions, shops, baths, laundries, and other facilities to adjust to the staggered schedule. Moreover, it was one thing to have the factory in continuous operation, but another to have machines operating continuously. Breakdowns and shortages of raw material supplies made this a virtual impossibility. For awhile, such problems could be disguised, but by 1931 Stalin himself conceded that it was better to adopt the interrupted six-day week than to perpetuate a nominal uninterrupted schedule, thereby giving his imprimatur for the abandonment of the continuous work-week system.

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.

The New Woman

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Immediately upon assuming power the Bolsheviks passed legislation that made Soviet Russia the most progressive nation in the world on issues of gender. The great socialist tradition based on such fundamental texts as Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), had prepared them for this achievement. Though conscious of gender and issues of social power, revolutionaries considered issues of gender secondary to class issues, and in practice often ignored them. As an unfortunate consequence, revolutionary circles were often hostile to women, whom they considered culturally backward; even though many women-revolutionaries were deeply respected, including the westerners Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin. The Bolsheviks deemed the Russian populist Ekaterina Breshkovskaia the “grandmother of the Revolution.”

Aleksandra Kollontai, a long-time revolutionary and early Bolshevik who became Commissar of Social Welfare in the new government, was one of the few Bolsheviks who understood the deeper connections between revolution and gender. She was a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, and an activist in the newly-formed Women’s Section of the Communist Party (the zhenskii otdel, or “Zhenotdel” for short), which she, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaia played major roles in founding. Her great contribution was to argue for special forms of party work for women before the revolution, and for Zhenotdel after. Her Woman and the Family in the Communist State (1918) outlined how changing family relations under communism would transform the place of women in the home and workplace.

Women’s activists enjoyed significant legislative victories in the first years of the revolution. Laws were passed to enact the radical vision of women unencumbered by the familial chains that made them unequal citizens. The December 29, 1917 decree on divorce gave women the right to divorce their husbands without obtaining his or any other permission, and ensured a proper alimony (though not that it was paid). Church control of marriage was abolished in December 18, 1917 by the Decree on Marriage, Children, and Registration of Civil Status, which made give sole legal status to civil ceremonies conducted by the so-called ZAGS (Zapiska aktov grazhdanskogo sostoianiia, or Civil Registration Bureau). Scorned for their bare surroundings and ceremonies stripped of beauty, ZAGS would eventually become home to new rituals in conformance with the socialist family, such as the “Octobrina,” which replaced the Christian baptism.

The centrality of women and their agendas to the socialist state was symbolized by a new official holiday, International Women’s Day. It was celebrated on March 8 for the day (February 23 in the old calendar) in 1917 that Petrograd women had marched against tsarist authorities, leading to the collapse of the old regime. The holiday had a spotty history, evolving eventually into a celebration of gender difference. A analogous fate awaiting the Zhenotdel. Established in 1919 with the active participation of Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaia, and headed by Inessa Armand, zhenotdel had branches through Soviet Russia and the Union responsible for issues of women’s welfare. Never assigned the power or resources appropriate to its mission, women’s sections were closed down throughout the USSR in 1930, ostensibly because the consolidation of the revolution had already solved the women’s question.

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