"Godless Communists": Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932

By Manchester, Laurie | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

"Godless Communists": Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932


Manchester, Laurie, The Catholic Historical Review


"Godless Communists" Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932. By William B. Husband, (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2000. Pp. xvii, 241. $36.00.)

One of the major paradoxes concerning the history of religion in the modem world is how Russia, the most religious country in early twentieth-century Europe, became an officially atheistic state after 1917. In his new book William Husband, associate professor of history in Oregon State University, provides an institutional history of the early Soviet atheism campaigns against Russian orthodoxy, the faith to which the majority of Russians belonged. Rather than framing his study in a comparative context, he accepts the premise that Russians' collective behavior is distinctive, and he begins his book by asking: "why do Russians act the way they do?" (p. xi). Rejecting the traditional narrative of oppression versus resistance, he broadens his discussion to include the population's on-going reception of antireligious policies. His thesis is that the fate of the antireligious campaigns was decided by the majority of Russians who neither resisted nor participated in antireligious policies. Given the Bolshevik party's commitment to official atheism, the 1917 revolution was an event which forced this "silent majority" to publicly choose their religious position, a choice which they no longer had after the complete consolidation of the Stalinist dictatorship in 1932. In the end this majority chose accommodation, integrating religion into non-spiritual concerns. Husband concludes that therefore both the Communist state and the Orthodox Church failed, since neither atheism nor traditional piety prevailed. They failed because the Bolsheviks did not understand how deeply rooted Orthodoxy was in daily life, and the Orthodox Church compromised itself morally, in part by inciting violence as a means of resistance.

Husband's book is extremely well researched. On the basis of recently released documents from central Russian archives he uncovered numerous acts both against and in the defense of religion. In discussing these acts, the author thoughtfully examines motivating factors and in the process elucidates the many meanings Soviet citizens attached to religion. The best sections of the book are those that are based on the voices of rank and file individuals, revealed in a variety of sources, such as petitions, ethnographic surveys, and questionnaires. His analysis of accommodation in the language, form, and content of respondents' answers to the latter is particularly well nuanced. His discussion of how some party members privately accommodated religion, particularly concerning religious holidays and the piety of their family members, demonstrates how porous the boundaries can be between belief and atheism, terms that he illustrates were constantly being defined and redefined by both communists and parishioners.

Although Husband does not place his study within the context of broad historiographical debates, his study sheds light on several, including the interplay between the Soviet state and society, whether the use of force was primarily initiated from above or below, and the extent to which Soviet citizens internalized communism. …

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