By Paul Goble
Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye has just published a Russian translation of Weslyan University scholar Victoria Smolkin’s 2018 book, A Sacred Space is Never Empty, in which she argues, in the words of a review by Andrey Melnikov in the current issue of NG-Religii that “indifference saved the Church in Soviet times.”
The editor of NG-Religii says that it is no surprise that “the first complex investigation of the history of Soviet atheism appeared in the West” rather than in Russia and that Smolkin’s work is especially valuable because it highlights the way in which communist anti-religious policies evolved and how they have affected post-Soviet Russia (ng.ru/ng_religii/2021-02-02/11_501_ussr.html).
The American scholar writes that “atheist work as such always took second place relative to political tasks which played a decisive role in the fate of religion and atheism” in the USSR, Melnikov says. Until Gorbachev’s time, the state viewed religion as something that should be extirpated but it devoted varying amounts of effort to achieving that end.
“We know” and Smolkin documents the fact that “after Stalin, the next outburst of anti-religious propaganda occurred at the end of the 1950s. She explains the reasons for this: it was ineluctably connected with the de-Stalinization campaign. Khrushchev demanded the overthrow not only the authority of a reborn church but also of the Stalin cult.”
With that event, Smolkin shows, there was “a new change” in which religion out of a political problem was converted into an ideological one.” Party propagandists used space exploration against religion, but they noted “with surprise that the believers easily came to terms with the contradictions between doctrines and church practice and more than that didn’t notice their inconsistency.”
Many in the USSR were enthusiastic about scientific achievements which formed the core of the history of appeals to atheism” but did not demand a rational approach to the world. Instead, they found it easy to combine “scientific and magical elements” and religion thrived as a result.
“The Brezhnev era demanded the formation of a positive content for atheism and its humanitarian dimension,” Melnikov continues. “Contemporaries then noticed the growing lack of spirituality of people.” But something else was happening that helped save religion and also set the stage for much that has happened more recently.
“Instead off positioning themselves as believers or non-believers” as they had for most of Soviet history, “Soviet people became indifferent both to religion and to atheism, indeed, to ideological issues in a broader sense,” Smolkin argues. Melnikov completely agrees. Instead, the state offered and the people accepted ceremonies they could give content to on their own.
By the end of Soviet times, Melnikov writes, “the chief heritage of ‘developed atheism was a uniquely elevated ‘new spirituality’ which fed the feeling among residents of Russia a feeling of their own superiority.” That sense of superiority without evidence or content informs much of what Putin now offers Russians.
The editor of NG-Religii concludes his review with the following observation: “A conviction of one’s own superiority is the only thing which turned out to be stronger than the indifference which infected the Soviet people during the years of the slow agony of the socialist utopia.”