The questions I am concerned with are both historical and futuristic. First, what happened to mainstream religions in the USSR after the 1930s when, under Stalin, they were the object of targeted attack? Second, what happens when restrictions are relaxed in the perestroika period, and what are the prospects for religion in post-communist society? In seeking to answer these questions I shall be concerned with 'scientific Marxism' as a mode of thought as well as the religious ideologies of Islam and Christianity as found within the territories of what was, until very recently, the Soviet Union. Because there is such ethnographic diversity within this region (for example, Humphrey 1983; Dragadze 1988), I shall restrict the focus to ritual practices accompanying life crises and illness. In exploring this field I draw principally upon Emile Durkheim's classic opposition between 'sacred' and 'profane', and show how it can be applied in contemporary communist and post-communist societies. An important subsidiary theme is the notion of 'rationality', as it used to underlie official militant atheism in the Soviet Union.
For reasons of space it is impossible here to give a full account of communist policies towards religion in the USSR, which undoubtedly shared many features with communist religious policies elsewhere. 1 Among the tasks facing the Bolshevik regime after 1917 was to reconstitute the previous colonies of the tsarist Russian Empire into the Soviet Union. Another task, however, was to mobilize populations into serving a centralized command system whose legitimacy rested on the acceptance of a particular ideology. In my view this ideology was always a botched-up concoction of ad hoc measures, with constraints set only by the need to appear to adhere to some kind of Leninist version of a selection of pronouncements by Karl Marx. 2
Land and property reform ensured that the economic power base of official religious institutions was destroyed quite soon after the Revolution. A further aim was to destroy religious beliefs that could potentially compete with the ideology of the new state, and a great deal of attention was