10 Ways Religious Intolerance Changed USSR

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On Oct. 7, 1941, the socialist dictator of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, lifted a ban on religion in the empire in order to help boost morale both in the military (which was getting slaughtered by the German war machine) and the general populace (which was starving and getting slaughtered). The lifting of the ban on religion reversed just over two decades of state-sponsored oppression against religious believers and clergymen.

The reasons for the Soviet Union’s oppression of religious believers are many and varied, but the main one that stands out is that Lenin and other Bolsheviks, once they wrested power away from their political opponents, set out to remake a society that would be totally atheistic and secular. Without competition from gods, the socialist republics of the Soviet Union could then step in and replace the human need for something higher. Instead of a God, or gods, reverence would be directed towards the state, and the state would be responsible for providing its citizens with meaningful work and a standard of living that was not driven by crass consumerism.

The socialist effort to stamp out religion was helped, of course, by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church was deeply embedded in the previous autocratic monarchy of the Czars, and that the church sided with the interim liberal government during the brief civil war that catapulted the Bolsheviks to power. So not only was the Russian Orthodox Church a relic of a barbaric past, but it was an enemy of the Bolsheviks in real time. The violence and starvation that accompanies socialist governments is by now well-known (though not well-acknowledged, thanks in large part to sympathies held by the Western intelligentsia for socialist programs), but the attacks on religious beliefs and organizations often slips by even the most astute enemies of socialism. Here are 10 murderous facts about religion in the Soviet Union:

10. In 1937 alone, 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot dead, according to Russian democratic reformer and former Communist apparatchik Alexander Yakovlev. A high point of Stalinist purging was in 1937, and the regime took liberties to not only purge the Party but also eliminate non-socialist enemies. It is estimated that more than 1 million people died in the Great Purge.

9. The socialists took about 10 years to assert control over the Soviet Union. During this first decade of socialist rule, the Party focused on seizing valuables considered to be private property of the Russian Orthodox Church, and this policy was mostly popular with the general public due to the church’s long-standing reputation as a corrupt instrument of the Russian monarchy.

8. The Soviets created an alternative to Israel called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Anti-Semitism was a problem long before the Bolsheviks seized power, and while Lenin publicly condemned anti-Semitism, persecution of Jews continued and even intensified under the socialists. However, due to the prominence of Jews in socialist thought, Soviet anti-Semitism was always nuanced. For instance, a “Jewish section of the (Communist) Party” was established by Lenin to both honor the contributions of socialist Jews and provide a secular counterweight to the Jewish clergy in the USSR. Stalin created the “Soviet Zion” not out of respect for Jews (he viciously persecuted them) but because Zionism was a powerful rival of Marxism among left-wing Jews in both the USSR and abroad. The Soviet Zion was established in the far eastern part of the country along the extensive, lightly-populated border with China. Due to the harsh ecology there, Moscow devised an incentive scheme that included private property rights. During the Great Purge and World War II, Jews were persecuted harshly by the socialist state and living in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast made them easy targets of state violence. After World War II, the oblast briefly rivaled Israel as a legitimate destination for Jews seeking a homeland, but Stalin’s brutality discouraged immigration to the area and Israel became the official homeland of Jews worldwide.

7. Islam was given more breathing room than Judaism or Christianity, at least until Stalin came to power. Islam had been a part of the Russian Empire for centuries prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war. Like other parts of the empire, Muslims had divided loyalties when it came to ideology; some were liberals, some were supporters of the status quo; and some were socialists. Lenin gave Soviet Muslims a great deal of leniency when compared to the Christians and Jews of the USSR, mostly because Muslims under the czars had been severely persecuted and Lenin was trying to solidify the Communist Party’s hold on power throughout the former empire. When Stalin became dictator, repression began anew, though this time it was done in the name of atheism rather than Russian Orthodoxy. Islam’s problem with Russia today stems less from Stalinist repression, though, and more from issues described in No. 2 on this list.

6. A “Renovationist Schism” took place in the Russian Orthodox Church between conservatives who would rather die than work with the Bolsheviks and reformers who wanted to blend Orthodoxy with Marxist teachings. Early on in the Bolshevik regime, when its grasp on power was still tenuous, Lenin tried to topple the power of the Church by placing Renovationists in positions of power (the line between church and state was still not clearly drawn in the early days of the USSR). For years, the Church and the Bolsheviks engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse using trials, public displays of ostentatious morality, executions, and martyrdom. The socialists, after a decade or so, gave up trying to take over the Church from within, and instead resorted to the blunt use of force, gambling that their “socialist reforms” had by then wrangled the loyalty of the people away from the Church and its clergymen.

5. Jehovah’s Witnesses were completely banned from practicing their religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses even had an entire operation dedicated to their deportation to Siberia. In 1951, Operation North began and over 8,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, almost entirely from territories the Soviets had annexed after World War II, were deported to Siberia and forced to work in Moscow’s gulag system. In 1955, Jehovah’s Witnesses were given the option of signing a declaration of loyalty to the state, but no record of any signings has ever been found. Jehovah’s Witnesses spent most of their lives incarcerated. When their prison sentences were up, they were promptly re-arrested and re-incarcerated. Moscow labelled Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist cult members who practiced mind control, a tactic, we must remember, that is used today by proponents of secular atheism.

4. Buddhism was also outlawed and persecuted to the fullest extent of the Soviet law. Buddhism was practiced by a few different non-Russian ethnic groups in central Asia, and these small ethnic groups were given more leniency than most, but Buddhism came to be viewed by the Soviet intelligentsia as extremely dangerous, due to the fact that many left-leaning scholars abandoned socialism for Buddhist principles. The work of Andrei Znamenski, a historian of religion and ideology at the University of Memphis, is particularly useful for finding out why this happened.

3. The number of Orthodox churches oscillated with the amount of repression applied by the Soviet state. Unsurprisingly, the number of churches rose and fell according to how hard the Soviet state squeezed its iron fist. From 1917-41, the number of Russian Orthodox Churches fell from 30,000 to 500, a horrifying decline when you consider how the Soviets seized property and persecuted the religious. By the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power, 22,000 Orthodox churches were in operation, but a new wave of repression (a response to greater church attendance, which was sparked by Moscow’s de-Stalinization efforts) under Khrushchev and Brezhnev pushed the number of operable churches back down to 7,000 by 1982.

2. Soviet elites wanted to replace nationality with Soviet citizenship, and nationality was closely identified with religion. This led to a number of problems, many of them bloody, for non-Russian groups in the USSR. While Catholics in the Baltic states, Muslim Uzbeks, Crimeans, Azerbaijanis, and Chechens, Jews, and Georgian Orthodox Christians fared badly, thanks to vibrant, underground national liberation movements, the worst of Soviet repression was directed toward Ukrainians of all stripes. Ukraine had large populations of Jews, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptists all of whom suffered immensely under socialist rule, but by far the worst treatment was saved for the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).

1. Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was liquidated after World War II, and replaced by the Moscow Patriarchate. The UAOC separated from the Russian Orthodox Church after the Bolsheviks seized power in Moscow, and had many liberties due to its usefulness to the Bolsheviks in combating the power of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the UAOC was formed when Ukraine was independent and a separatist element within the UAOC began to alienate the Soviets. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Ukraine during World War II, the UAOC embraced the Nazi occupation, which was seen as a far better alternative than Soviet rule. When Stalin’s armies retook Ukraine from Germany, the UAOC’s alliance with Berlin was fresh on the brutal dictator’s mind, and even though Ukraine lay in ruins from the war, what was left of the population suffered retribution until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Further thoughts
History is often a useful guide for finding social trends that end up being poisonous to societies. The Soviet experience shows that freedom of religion is far more important than freedom from religion, and that the latter interpretation of freedom can actually lead to bloodshed and oppression.

There also seems to be a role for religion in making citizens happier than they otherwise would be. Stalin’s lift of the USSR’s ban on religion, in order to boost morale during World War II, is all the more remarkable given that socialist intellectuals continued to repress religious activity after the war. It was almost as if socialist atheism itself was a type of especially dogmatic religion.

Last but not least, while it may seem like American society is fraying, due in large part to a perceived repression of Christian elements, the history of religious repression during the Russian experiment with socialism suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. Cake bakers and WNBA fans alike should take comfort in the fact that theirs is a cultural battle to be settled by property rights and individual freedom rather than violence and repression. For those of us who are but observers of this important cultural fight, awe at the machinery of our fine republic.

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