Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

Synopsis

Sonja Luehrmann explores the Soviet atheist effort to build a society without gods or spirits and its afterlife in post-Soviet religious revival. Combining archival research on atheist propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s with ethnographic fieldwork in the autonomous republic of Marij El in Russia's Volga region, Luehrmann examines how secularist culture-building reshaped religious practice and interreligious relations. One of the most palpable legacies of atheist propaganda is a widespread didactic orientation among the population and a faith in standardized programs of personal transformation as solutions to wider social problems. This didactic trend has parallels in globalized forms of Protestantism and Islam but differs from older uses of religious knowledge in rural Russia. At a time when the secularist modernization projects of the 20th century are widely perceived to have failed, Secularism Soviet Style emphasizes the affinities and shared histories of religious and atheist mobilizations.

Excerpt

On the evening of January 18, 2006, over tea between vespers and the midnight mass in honor of the feast of the Baptism of Christ, the Russian Orthodox priest of one of Marij El’s district centers questioned the German-born anthropologist about her views on intellectual influence. “You have probably read all three volumes of Capital, in the original?” Some of it, I cautiously admitted. “Do you think Marx wrote it himself?” I supposed so. “And I tell you, it was Satan who wrote it through his hand.” I made a feeble defense in the name of secular interpretation, saying that it seemed safer to assume that human authors were capable of their own errors, but could not always foresee the full consequences of their ideas. The priest remained unimpressed, but was otherwise kind enough to sound almost apologetic when he reminded me that, as a non-Orthodox Christian, I had to leave the church after the prayers for the catechumens, at the beginning of the liturgy of communion. Most priests in larger cities were quick to relegate that rule to ancient liturgical custom, but the rarer that actual appearances of heterodox visitors were in a church, the more literally clergy seemed to take it. During this particular mass, the dismissal of the uninitiated would come around 2 a.m., and since it was thirty below outside, the priest gave me permission to sit on a bench at the back of the church instead of actually leaving the building, and told me to be sure to stay for tea and breakfast after the service.

Among the many debts I incurred while writing this book, I am most thankful to the hosts who were honest about the suspicions that my eclectic interests raised in them but almost invariably willing to go a little further in their hospitality than their understanding of duty allowed. In a no less welcome contrast, archivists in Joshkar-Ola, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg provided professional help and respite from the opinionated worlds of religious and anti-religious activism. My special thanks go to Valentina Pavlovna Shomina and Valentina Ivanovna Orekhovskaja at the State Archives of the Republic of Marij El, Dina Nikolaevna Nokhotovich and Ljudmila Gennad’evna Kiseleva at the State Archives of the Russian Federation, and Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Terjukova, Petr Fedotov, and Elena Denisova of the State Museum of the History of Religion. In two of Marij El’s district muse-

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