Friday, April 8, 2011

Militant Bolshevik Atheists

As mentioned previously, Alexander Yakovlev's diatribe against Bolshevism, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, breaks down the Soviet Union's crimes against humanity in the following categories: the assault on childhood, Jews, intellectuals, fellow travelers, peasants, and the clergy. With respect to the clergy, Yakovlev succinctly outlines his case against the Bolsheviks, a case which is more systematically investigated in another book, The Plot to Kill God.

The attack against the Church was brutal and opened as early as 1918 when forty-seven clergymen in the Yekaterinburg diocese were shot, axed to death, or drowned. As the Civil War raged, scores of Church leaders were murdered, and often in unspeakable ways. Some clergymen were frozen in ice water, others castrated. In some cases, the churchmen were placed into boiling water, burned, strangled, scalped, tied to paddle-wheels, or even crucified, with the naked corpses sometimes being strung up on trees as a gruesome message to other would-be religious leaders. According to Yakovlev, 3,000 priests were killed in 1918 alone, and a great many of these murders occurred with deliberate religious sacrilege. The murders were sometimes spontaneously conceived by local communists, but Lenin directly encouraged the bloodshed, on one occasion asking that a religious holiday celebration be suppressed by violence.

In 1919, the Bolsheviks toyed with the idea of establishing a Red Church, a version of the traditional church that would be loyal to the Communist Party and the goals of the Revolution. But the effort failed, largely because Soviet ideology was so vehemently anti-religious. The assault on religion also took the form of a large-scale confiscation of church property in 1922, which had predictably disastrous consequences for Russia's cultural and historical heritage. In the end, 2.5 billion was stolen from the Church, but the money never went to famine relief as promised. That same year, the Church's patriarch was arrested, allegedly for fomenting rebellion. 32 archbishops and metropolitans were executed in that year. Patriarch Tikhon ultimately died in the purges of 1937.

The Communist Party's war on religion was formalized with the creation of the Union of Militant Atheists as well as the Degliryal society, which presided over actual five-year plans for atheism. The Soviet government also attacked religious bodies--including Islamic and pagan ones--by implementing draconian taxes on religious bodies, and policies related to collectivization, purges, urban planning and building, and ethnic displacement. Famously, the war against religion was relaxed during World War II, although Stalin's end came in the midst of anti-Semitic paranoia. In the 1960s, anti-religious persecution resumed, unaffected by the so-called Thaw.


  1. Interesting. So could the five year plan for atheism be described as something similar to a the cultural revolution in china?

    I've never understood why atheism was considered a vital part of socialist/communist belief. I myself am Atheist, but I don't find it threatening for others to believe.

    Then again, I've never grown up in a fundamentalist, dogmatic nation.

  2. With my rather rudimentary knowledge of Chinese history, I hesitate to make the comparison. But I do hope to be able to make more of these types of comparisons after reviewing a few of the better global communism history books that have recently come out, Robert Service's in particular. As for atheism, I think communists really thought religion was an essential component of ideological oppression and backwardness.