t’s tedious to encounter a “new atheist” intoning arguments against faith that were shopworn in Voltaire’s day. Sooner or later, he will bring up the Spanish Inquisition. To a Russian specialist like me, that example of undeniable religious cruelty is not especially impressive. In its 300-year history in Spain, Portugal, and the New World, the Spanish Inquisition killed a few thousand, perhaps even a few tens of thousands, while in the atheist Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, that was the average toll every week or two. To this objection, the atheist has a ready reply: Atheism had nothing to do with Bolshevik carnage. As Richard Dawkins explains in The God Delusion: “What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” This comment displays an ignorance so astonishing that, as the Russian expression goes, one can only stare and spit.

In her new study, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, Victoria Smolkin demonstrates painstakingly that atheism was central to the Bolshevik project. Statements by Bolshevik leaders, Soviet instructions for youth, and the testimony of memoirs all affirm that atheism is essential to Communism. The Bolsheviks intended to create a whole new type of human being, and the first criterion for “the new Soviet person” was that he or she would be an atheist and a materialist. Communism could not be achieved otherwise, any more than one could create a prosperous capitalist society populated by dedicated Franciscan friars.  

Bolshevik ethics began and ended with atheism. Only someone who rejected all religious or quasi-religious morals could be a Bolshevik because, as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and countless other Bolshevik leaders insisted, success for the Party was the only standard of right and wrong. The bourgeoisie falsely claim that Bolsheviks have no ethics, Lenin explained in a 1920 speech. No, he said; what Bolsheviks rejected was an ethical framework based on God’s commandments or anything resembling them, such as abstract principles, timeless values, universal human rights, or any tenet of philosophical idealism. For a true materialist, he maintained, there could be no Kantian categorical imperative to treat others only as ends, not as means. By the same token, the materialist does not acknowledge the impermissibility of lying or the supposed sanctity of human life. All such notions, Lenin declared, are “based on extra human and extra class concepts” and so are simply religion in disguise. “That is why we say that to us there is no such thing as a morality that stands outside human society,” he said. “That is a fraud. To us morality is subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle.” That meant the Communist Party.  Aron Solts, who was known as “the conscience of the Party,” explained: “We…can say openly and frankly: yes, we hold in prison those who interfere with the establishment of our order, and we do not stop before other such actions because we do not believe in the existence of abstractly unethical actions.”

Peter Kropotkin, the anti-Bolshevik anarchist, argued in 1899 that revolutionaries were permitted to practice violence, but no more than necessary. His way of thinking suggests that revolutionaries must meet a burden of proof to overcome the moral law against killing. If two policies are equally effective, they should choose the less violent. For the Bolsheviks, there was no such moral law. The only moral criterion was the interests of the Party, and so they trained followers to overcome their instinctive compassion, which might lead to hesitation before killing a class enemy. Reluctance to kill reflected an essentially religious belief in the sanctity of human life. To them, Kropotkin was a sentimentalist.

 For a true atheist, to acknowledge any moral standard “outside human society”—which means outside the Party—was anathema. As the Bolshevist Nikolai Bukharin explained: “From the point of view of ideal absolutes and empty phraseology one can attack Soviet ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘hierarchy’ as much as one wishes. But such a point of view is itself empty, abstract, and meaningless. The only possible approach in this regard is the historical one which bases the criteria of rationality on the specific historical circumstances”—that is, on what the Party wants to do at any given moment.

The result was the opposite of Kropotkinism: Violent means were to be preferred.  Everyone knew that to hesitate, even for a moment, was to reveal quasi-theological morality. The way to prove one’s atheism, then, was to be as ruthless as possible. Mercy, kindness, compassion: These were all anti-Bolshevik emotions. The older heroes of Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle grow wary of young Ruska because Ruska’s whole generation had been trained to think of ‘pity’ as a degrading sentiment, of ‘kindness’ as comic, and of ‘conscience’ as priest’s talk. On the other hand, it had been drilled into them that informing was…a patriotic duty.” As the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev saw right from the start, “to these men pity for suffering became proof of weakness.” 

Ethics were reduced to what a character in Vasily Grossman’s novel Forever Flowing identified as a reverse categorical imperative, “a categorical imperative counterposed to Kant”: Always use people as objects. Do unto class enemies what you would not want them to do unto you. That is why, starting in mid-1937, torture was used in all interrogations, not just to extract information. What objection could be raised?  Ruthlessness without prompting showed that the torturer harbored no abstract moral standard, even unconsciously.  It was a positive good to arrest the innocent. There were special camps for the wives of enemies of the people, campaigns to arrest members of a profession (engineers), and mass arrests by quota. As good Bolsheviks, local NKVD branches asked to arrest even more. “The concept of personal innocence,” a character in Grossman’s greatest novel, Life and Fate, avers, “is a hangover from the Middle Ages.” 

Those who came to reject Bolshevik morality have described what it felt like to accept it.  “With the rest of my generation, I firmly believed that the ends justified the means,” Lev Kopelev explained.Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people…. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism,’ the attributes of people who ‘could not see the forest for the trees.’” Kopelev avidly participated in the collectivization of agriculture, which involved the deliberate starvation of several million peasants.  Even when he saw “women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes,” it did not strike him as immoral to seize all the peasants’ grain. 

Kopelev got into trouble when, as the Russian army entered German territory, he objected to officially encouraging soldiers to rape, kill, and torture civilians. “You engaged in propaganda of bourgeois humanism, of pity for the enemy,” the charge against him went. “You engaged in agitation against vengeance and hatred—sacred hatred for the enemy.” At home, too, vengeance and hatred were “sacred.”

Bolshevik vocabulary reflects the reverse categorical imperative. Formerly good words became bad. In her memoir Hope Against Hope (1970), Nadezhda Mandelstam mentions how “the word ‘conscience’…had gone out of ordinary use—it was not current in newspapers, books or in the schools, since its function had been taken over… by ‘class feeling.’” By the same token, “kindness” became something to be ashamed of, and its “exponents were as extinct as the mammoth.”  Positive words now included “merciless” and “ruthless,” as well as “total” (as in “total extermination”), “immediate” (as in “immediate execution”), and mass (as in “mass resettlement” or “mass terror”), along with “without exception, without compromise,” and “no halfway measures.” It was good to string these terms together. In 1919, a secret directive insisted that “the only correct strategy is a merciless struggle against the whole Cossack elite by means of their total extermination. No compromises, no halfway measures are permissible.” Even in private correspondence, people with evident sincerity used the same rhetoric: “I am, as usual, merciless toward the enemy, hacking them right and left, annihilating them along with their villainous acts.” 

Prominent prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko offered a true Bolshevik apology: “In the period of dictatorship, surrounded on all sides by enemies, we sometimes manifested unnecessary leniency and unnecessary softheartedness.” It was “unnecessary leniency” that required forgiveness, not unnecessary cruelty. One speaker at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925 reminisced: “Lenin used to teach us that every Party member should be a Cheka [secret police] agent—that is, he should watch and inform. If we suffer from one thing, it is that we do not do enough informing.”  When Nikolai Yezhov replaced Genrikh Yagoda as head of the Soviet Secret Police in 1936, he promised to correct errors in running the forced labor camps. They would no longer be run as “health resorts.” Mandelstam recalled how “the press unleashed a flood of abuse against Yagoda, accusing him of being soft on all the scum in the camps. Who would have thought, we have been in the hands of humanists!” 


s it any wonder that many Russians began to seek absolute standards of right and wrong?  They discovered what Solzhenitsyn called “conscience,” by which he meant a strong sense that good was one thing and effectiveness in getting what one wants quite another. Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn, and others described the key event of their lives as the discovery that just as the universe contains causal laws, it also contains moral laws. Bolshevik horror, they recognize, derived from the opposite view:  that there is nothing inexplicable in materialist terms and that the only moral standard is political success.

In her celebrated 1967 memoir Into the Whirlwind, Lydia Ginzburg describes how her NKVD interrogator tempted her to implicate another person who, he said, had already denounced her. “That’s between him and his conscience,” she demurred, thereby appealing to a moral standard independent of consequences.

“What are you, a gospel Christian or something?” the interrogator replied.

“Just honest,” she said, an answer that provoked him to give her “a lecture on the Marxist-Leninist view of ethics. ‘Honest’ meant useful to the proletariat and to the state.”  As a good Leninist herself, she recognized that he was right. She had invoked standards that a Christian, but not a committed atheist, would accept.

“An objective moral order is built into the universe,” declares Gleb Nerzhin, the autobiographical hero of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. His friend Kondrashov concurs: “We ought to spell Good and Evil not just with capitals but with letters five stories high!” In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes how he realized that, Bolshevism notwithstanding, the result is not the only standard of right and wrong. “It is not the result—but the spirit! 

In his fiction and in Gulag, Solzhenitsyn recounts again and again how complacent atheism is tested by extreme suffering. The atheist worldview proves hopelessly inadequate to the pressure. It cannot even pretend to address the ultimate questions that imminent death, constantly facing one in the Gulag, poses so urgently.

At some point, Solzhenitsyn explains, every prisoner faces a choice. If he adheres to the view that there is only this world and that only the result counts, he will steal food from starving fellow prisoners, become an informant, and do anything, no matter how repulsive, “to survive at any price.

“This is the great fork of camp life,” Solzhenitsyn concludes. “From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. . . . If you go to the right—you lose your life; and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.” In Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales—in my view they make up perhaps the greatest short stories of the 20th century—there is a moment when the narrator must choose whether to defend another prisoner at great cost to himself.  “All at once I felt a burning sensation in my chest and I realized that the meaning of my whole life was about to be decided.  If I didn’t do anything—what exactly, I did not know—it would mean that my arrival with this group of convicts was in vain, that twenty years of my life had been pointless.” 

Would it not be possible to acknowledge an objective moral order and yet not believe in God? To be sure, Bolsheviks identified the two positions, but did those who discovered conscience discover God as well, and, if so, for what reason?  In part, it was the example of believers. Memoirist after memoirist, including the atheist Ginzburg, testify that in the camps the only people who consistently chose conscience, even at the cost of their lives, were the believers. It did not seem to matter whether they were Jews, Orthodox Christians, Russian sectarians, or Baptists. Well-educated atheists succumbed readily under pressure, but believers, and believers alone, did not. Ginzburg describes how a group of semiliterate believers refused to go out to work on Easter Sunday. In the Siberian cold, they were made to stand barefoot on an ice-covered pond, where they continued to chant their prayers. Later that night, Ginzburg reports, the rest argued about their behavior:  “Was this fanaticism, or fortitude in defense of the rights of conscience?  Were we to admire or regard them as mad? And, most troubling of all, should we have had the courage to act as they did?” The recognition that they would not often transformed people of conscience into believers.


olshevik ideology demanded that religion be wiped out.  Perhaps even more than constructing dams and factories, creating a population of atheists became the regime’s most important criterion of success.  “Atheism [was] the new civilization’s calling card,” as S.A. Kuchinsky, director of the Leningrad State Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, explained.

Communist society could be built only by a new kind of human being, one who would at every moment be guided by partiinost (party-mindedness), a singular devotion to the Party’s purposes.  Partiinost demanded militant atheism (mere unbelief was not enough), and atheism became, as Smolkin observes, “the battleground on which Soviet Communism engaged with the existential concerns at the heart of human existence: the meaning of life and death.” 

As Smolkin tells the story, the Party alternated between active persecution and passive discouragement based on the assumption that religion was bound to die out by itself.  In Marxist ideology, “being determines consciousness.” Religion exists only because capitalism needs workers to postpone their reward to the other world. Abolish capitalism, and religion will necessarily be abolished along with it. In the West, Smolkin points out, social scientists have embraced “secularization theory,” which, without the Marxist framework, also assumes that as society becomes more advanced, the backward mindset of religion will die of its own accord. In Russia, that didn’t happen.

Nothing worked. Lenin turned the fury of the state on the church. In a letter to the Politburo, he called for a “ruthless battle,” and in this case the adjective “ruthless” was not mere rhetoric. “The greater number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we manage to shoot on this basis, the better,” he explained.  Over the next decade, churches were closed and desecrated. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was arrested and the patriarchate abolished. The League of the Militant Godless harassed believers and conducted propaganda, while the term “godless” became a constantly repeated word of praise. A Bolshevik invention, the anti-religious museum, usually took up residence in former churches and monasteries. I can say from experience that nothing could be more tasteless than the Museum of the History of Religion that occupied the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad.

Stalin’s first five-year economic plan was accompanied by a “godless five-year plan.” A Party circular of 1929, “On Intensification of Anti-Religious Work,” described religious organizations as “the only legally existing counter-revolutionary organizations” and called for a “merciless war” against them.  A 1929 statute outlawed the religious education of children and religious charity work. In 1931, the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was blown up, its materials used for various construction projects.  In 1937, the year of the Great Purge, the Party called the 1929 law too permissive because it allowed for the continued existence of religion. That year, 8,000 churches were closed and 35,000 “servants of religious cults” were arrested. Much of the Orthodox Church hierarchy was exiled or murdered.  Of the 50,000 churches in Russia in 1917, fewer than 100 remained by 1939.  By the end of the 1930s, one historian concludes, the Orthodox Church was on the whole destroyed.

Nevertheless, folk religion continued. A question added to a 1937 survey census showed that, of people surveyed, 56 percent identified as believers, and such a survey was of course bound to underestimate the number. 

During World War II, Stalin completely reversed course. Needing to mobilize the population for the war effort, he enlisted religion. After the German invasion, Metropolitan Sergii, the highest-ranking Church official during the period that the Patriarchate was abolished,  addressed the people before Stalin did.  My Russian history teacher, the late Firuz Kazemzadeh, described his amazement when Stalin had himself blessed as the God-anointed leader. Atheist periodicals and publishing houses were shut down. Despite the return of cultural repression after the War, Stalin allowed the church to flourish. How deep must the roots of belief have been for the Soviet Union to experience a postwar religious revival, with growing church attendance, baptisms, even pilgrimages.  

We usually think of Nikita Khrushchev, who took over as Soviet dictator a year after Stalin’s death, as a liberal because he exposed Stalin’s crimes. But Khrushchev was actually trying to return Communism to its early days of ideological purity under Lenin. He announced that the true Communist society was on the horizon, and that the youth of his day would live to see it, so long as they became the right sort of atheist people. He therefore launched a new anti-religious campaign. Two statements were widely attributed to him:  that soon religion would exist only in museums and that he would be able to show the people the last priest on television.  

Though horrifying, Khrushchev’s campaign had its comic side.  A new discipline, “denunciatory ethnography,” was created to study folk religion. Holy wells were filled with concrete because they supposedly spread venereal disease. When Soviet cosmonauts orbited the earth without encountering God or angels, the Party believed they had dealt a death blow to religion. Planetariums were set up to spread astronomical atheism. Countless lectures were given by people whose smug condescension was matched by their ignorance about religion. They had never even seen a Bible and eventually suggested that to argue effectively they needed instruction about religion; and so, for the first time in Soviet history, a Russian Bible was published in 1956.  How crude must the understanding of religion have been if top Party officials were surprised that Yuri Gagarin’s failure to meet God in orbit did not move people who had always assumed God was invisible?

The more churches were closed, the more baptisms took place. The Party determined that between 1960 and 1962, 40 percent of children in Ukraine and 47 percent in Moldova were baptized. Laroslavl had a baptism rate of 118 percent, meaning that infants were being brought from elsewhere and children not baptized at birth were undergoing the ceremony.  Indeed, the Party could not even discourage its own members from engaging in religious practices.  One atheist lecturer could hardly believe his ears when asked:  During Easter, by tradition, we eat Easter cakes and paint eggs in our home. But we do not believe in God. I am a Communist, my brother is in the Komsomol, and my father is a Party candidate. Is it really so very bad?  

Research institutions were set up to determine why the war against religion was being lost.  They concluded that atheism was purely negative and offered no real answers to the problems of life.  As one researcher asked, “what kind of solace is there when you say that you are mortal, but matter is eternal?”  The Party responded by ordering the creation of new Socialist rituals. Instead of just recording a marriage, the registration bureau would conduct a memorable ceremony. The State Planning Commission was instructed to issue 55.9 tons of paper for ceremonial marriage-registry books. To be sure, it took some time to realize that funerals and marriages should not be celebrated next to each other. Then Wedding Palaces and Palaces of Happiness were created. The satirists Ilf and Petrov parodied a birth ceremony by describing how the chair of the local Soviet presented a newborn with a red satin blanket and “standing over the crib of the infant, read a two-hour report on the international situation.” Even those who went through a red ritual often held a religious ceremony, too.

Bolsheviks recognized that they needed to fill atheism with some positive content, but even Party hacks understood that one cannot fabricate a convincing philosophy of life by committee.  

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he, like Khrushchev, sought a purified Communism and so revived atheism.  But in 1988, to everyone’s surprise, he reversed himself.  That year the Church was celebrating the millennium of the Christianization of Russia, and Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen and gave state sponsorship to the celebration. In the first Soviet multiparty elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, 300 clergymen, including Patriarch Pimen and Metropolitan Aleksei, were elected.

The writer Vladimir Tendriakov (1923–1984), a committed atheist, quoted the Russian proverb: “A sacred space is never empty.”  Dostoevsky had warned that a hideous ideology would fill the gap left by unbelief. He could not have been more right. We might do well to remember G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: The problem with atheists is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything.

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