The Triumph of Atheism in Russia


THE Marxian text, on which the Soviets base their programme of aggressive atheism, brands religion as ‘the opiate of the people.’ To the end that ‘the drug’ may be stamped out, Russia has been generously placarded with that declaration. It is posted conspicuously, near the shrines and churches. It is blazoned on the wall of a building across a narrow street before the Shrine of the Iberian Virgin near the Kremlin. Yet through the day this Holy Place is thronged with worshipers. Beggars clutter its little square. Passers-by, pausing before it, cross themselves devoutly. For six years atheism has been officially enthroned in the Kremlin. But the people of Moscow still go, as they have always gone, to the city’s shrines, and neither heed nor care how Karl Marx regarded their faith.

And the Soviets, themselves, now that the frenzied period of the revolution is past, tolerate the faithful. They even take some pride in insisting that the guaranty of ‘ full freedom for religious and antireligious propaganda,’ contained in the Soviet Constitution, is upheld. This tolerance obviously is dictated, not by a friendliness toward religion, but by a recognition of the fact that the vast majority of the Russian people — the non-Communists — are deeply religious, and that religious persecution in Russia throws serious obstacles in the path of the advances of Chicherin and the Soviet Foreign Office to the Christian nations of the West. But passive tolerance, however much it may characterize the attitude of the Soviets toward Russia’s religious elder generation, cannot be said to describe their policy toward the youth of the nation. If the youth can be won to atheism, it is of no importance that their elders die in the faith. Religion in Russia, it is confidently predicted, will pass with the passing of its elder devotees. And the Government, certainly, is sparing no effort to make sure that a new generation of believers does not arise to perpetuate it.

That the Communists are master propagandists is indicated by the fact that the methods of this attack on religion are not merely negative and destructive. The destructive methods, of course, are the more spectacular, and in consequence have served to furnish most of the material for those who have sought to describe the antireligious activities of the Soviets. The fact that the direction of this phase of the campaign is in the hands, largely, of turncoat priests accounts for the unusual degree of plausible familiarity with the history and sacred rites of the Church that it reveals, and the extraordinary blasphemy that characterizes it.

The Russian Clergy has been divided into two classes: the ‘Whites’ and the ‘Blacks.’ From the Black Order — composed entirely of monks — the higher clergy, the bishops and officials of the Church, were chosen. The White Order was composed of the village priests, the pastors. Between the two Orders there have been frequent and most bitter feuds. It is from the White Order, largely, that the Communists have recruited their clerical support. For the ‘village popes,’ as they have been called, were almost always very poor; their work was confined to the routine of prescribed services; their education, frequently, was little better than that of their illiterate congregations. Many of them lost all touch with the world beyond the village, and fell into ways of ignorance and sloth. They were often in secret sympathy with the advocates of revolution and in touch with the underground organization that fostered it. They were of immediate value to the Communists when the Revolution toppled the throne of the Tsars.

These priests edit Without God — the slander sheet of antireligion. They furnish the material for many of the pamphlets that are spread among the youth of the nation. Cartoons and songs and antireligious slogans are, frequently, of their inspiring. Without them the Soviet campaign against religion would be carried forward with much less show of success.

I have seen the handiwork of these elder atheists in many places. For instance, every clubroom of the League of Communist Youth — the organization through which the atheistic regeneration of the youth of Russia is to be carried out—has an ‘Antireligious Corner.’ Displayed in that corner are pictorial representations of religion as it appears to the young Communist — representations obviously inspired elsewhere. Many of the posters are as ingenious as they are blasphemous. One in particular — a Crucifixion cartoon — is very popular. In it Christ is represented ascending Calvary. He walks alone, and behind Him the cross is borne by the toiling masses. Astride the cross, grinning triumphantly, sits the Capitalist, weighted down with moneybags.

In these clubrooms, too, the members of the League of Communist Youth gather for their religious ‘sings.’ The music of the ancient hymns and chants of the Church is adapted for use with new and mocking words. I have seen groups of youths, under the leadership of a designated ‘priest,’ go through a mock church-service, every part of which was a carefully calculated caricature of religion.


This, as I have indicated, represents the destructive aspect of the antireligious programme of the Soviets. Ridicule and slander are used to popularize atheism. Although there has been no apparent modification of the Communist’s determination to uproot every vestige of religion in Russia, there has been a rather widespread revulsion against the employment of these methods toward that end. A greater emphasis is being laid at the present moment, therefore, upon what might be termed constructive atheism. Religion, we are told, may still persist indefinitely, even though it is ridiculed and its adherents persecuted. It is necessary, therefore, that religion be supplanted, since, apparently, it cannot be crushed. The Soviets, in consequence, have set about it to provide substitutes for religious faith.

Consequently, instead of decrying the Christian Holy Days, the Soviets have organized substitute celebrations of their own. Sunday, for example, is observed by the Communists, particularly by the Communist Youth and Young Pioneers, — the Communist Boy Scouts, — with hikes and concerts, with classes in nature study and great festivals of sport. The value of Sunday is readily admitted, but every effort is made to organize the day in such a way as to ensure a decreasing interest in the prescribed Church observances of it. Thus too, at Christmas, the effigy celebrations that were very popular find less favor, and the holiday among Communists is observed to commemorate the achievements of their own leaders. Easter, explained as the Christian myth of Spring, is likewise celebrated, not only with broadcast denials of the resurrection of Christ, but with popularized accounts of the scientific laws of life and growth that Spring typifies.

A pamphlet entitled Christ Did Not Rise was given to me by a member of the League of Communist Youth. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is our Easter message to the youth of Russia.’

The cover, in striking colors, shows a youthful Russian, dressed in the hiking outfit of the young Communists. ‘We’ve done with devils and gods!’ he shouts, as he kicks high into the air an Easter egg, the sacred symbol of Russia’s Easter celebrations.

Chapter one of this pamphlet describes Easter as ‘A Holiday of Suppression and Deception,’ and chapter two outlines the ‘Origin of the Tale of the Resurrection of the Son of God.’

‘The tale of Easter,’ so the Communist story goes, ‘runs back two thousand years, but its origin is much earlier. It had its beginning when men first began to realize the significance of spring — with new life appearing after the long death of the winter. To the world, living then in superstition, this new life seemed like the revelation of a great God who was giving humanity its chance to live. To-day, of course, we know better. Now our young people have learned of astronomy, of the influence of t he sun, and of the laws of growth. Science has taken the place of the God of Easter.’

Chapter three recounts how ‘Jews and Slaves Created the Tale of the Resurrection of Christ.’ The hope that Easter represents was born of the despair of oppressed peoples, we are told. ‘Mysterious tales about the miracles of Christ were circulated and finally believed. But Christ never existed. No one of the ancient scientists or historians saw him. Few old books mention him. The information upon which religious people base their proof of his life was created by priests who saw, in the story, the hope of profit. Christ, therefore, is only an imaginary being.’

And Easter, the pamphlet points out, ‘has been, since then, at the service of the landlords and the capitalists. At Easter the priests walked about among the people, saying that Christ had suffered and that, in consequence, they should be willing to suffer. “All power,”said the priests, “comes from God. Therefore do not turn against the landlord. If he smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other. Love your enemies. Forgive your landlords!" Thus the representatives of the landlord’s Easter went about, in white robes, to quiet the people with superstitions.’

But now, the concluding chapter declares, there is ‘The Resurrection of Suppressed Humanity.’ ‘When the Revolution took away the treasures from some of the churches, the old priests began to yell. They attempted to ring the church bells. “Christ is risen!" they said. But the people answered, “Enough of this, my gentlemen. You’ve had a fine time doing that, but we are through with your myths.”

‘And there is a new Easter. It is a very sad Easter for the priests and those who oppose the Revolution. It is seven years now since the capitalists have gone. Soon the revolutionary thunder will be rolling into the West. Religion, the snake that suppressed the people, is dying in anger. The proletariat hears the church-bells ringing the funeral of the dying old world. The springtime now has become the humanity holiday. Oppressed peoples are fighting for the future. Looking back on the burning remains of the slave world that has been damned, they are asking: “Is the suppressed world risen?” And the answer, already, has come: “Yes, it is really risen. This is Easter.” ‘

‘There is no God but science,’ a prominent Communist declared to me, and science-worship, clearly, is the cult with which the Soviets propose to supplant Christianity. Darwin shares with Marx the homage of the devotees of this new faith; the Origin of Species and Kapital jointly provide their Bible. In pamphlets without number the Soviets have sought to make scientific refutation of every important Christian doctrine. They have done more than pamphleteer. The destruction of the straw-stuffed ‘bodies of the Saints’ in some of the peasant churches was carried on, not so much as an act of ruthlessness, but as a scientific experiment to prove that, regardless of the incantations of the priests, the bodies of the Saints did not and could not possess the magic they were declared to have. From Genesis to Revelation, the antireligionists are seeking to demonstrate their ability as destructive higher critics. When they set out to destroy the religious worth of the Bible they make a clean sweep of it. Their attack is based, almost exclusively, upon the extrareligious element in the Bible literature. But their conclusions are in conformity with those Fundamentalists who assert that, if one jot or tittle is questioned, the significance of the whole is destroyed.

That there can be any reconciliation between science and religion is, of course, bitterly denied by the Communists. Such a proposal, in fact, would be viewed with the utmost suspicion and hostility. Exactly as the efforts of capitalistic nations for improving the condition of the working classes are regarded, by the Soviets, as means for the further enslavement of the masses, so the reconciliation between science and religion would be regarded, inevitably, as a fine cloak beneath which all of the old and ragged superstitions were hidden.


The religious situation in Soviet Russia cannot be understood unless it is made clear that this antireligious wrath, however blasphemous, was stored up by the Church itself against this day of reckoning. It is not necessary to go into a long account of the extent to which religion in Russia was the instrument of political oppression. The period just prior to the Revolution is typical. For nearly twenty-five years the procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church was Pobiedonostsev, a layman and a worthy exponent of tyranny. His hatred of democracy and his scorn of the cherished hopes of the proletariat were unbounded. His religious policy was that of the mailed fist and his persecutions were relentless against all sects. His aim was to drive from Russia all faiths save that which he represented. The record of Constantine Pobiedonostsev furnishes unlimited material for those in Russia who seek to prove religion the tool of autocracy.

Pobiedonostsev was succeeded by a German who took the name of Deviatkovsky. The policies by which the faith was protected did not change with procurators. The masses of the Russian people, however pious personally, began to look upon the representatives of religion with mistrust. Many thousands grew to hate the Church with a bitter hatred, as they hated the police and Cossack emissaries sent out to do their bidding. The ranks of revolution were thus increased, and the fate of the Church in Russia became linked inseparably with the fate of the Tsarist Government.

And while the people were kept in line by force, the doctrines preached were those of Christian humility, submission, patient suffering here that one might merit reward in the hereafter. Such preaching, strengthened by superstition, was a powerful antidote for whatever poisons of unrest threatened to infect the people.

But now the Soviets, so they declare, have stamped out the last vestiges of priestly tyranny. They have thrown open the windows and doors of Russia so that the old darkness may be dispelled before a flood of light. Religion is to be exposed as a colossal fraud, and not a shadow of it allowed to remain in any corner of the land.

But religion in Russia is neither dead nor dying. Nor is the Church greatly weakened, though it has endured, through six years, the most bitter attacks without resisting. The Soviets have followed the same policy of hostility toward religion that the Powers have followed toward the Soviets. The results, in both cases, have been the same. The authority of Communism has been prolonged because it has become a martyr cause; and for the same reason the hold of the Church upon many thousands of the people has been strengthened.

‘Not less than 95 per cent of the whole population in our country believe in God, in various ways,’ declared a Communist at a party meeting recently. And that, I suppose, is not an exaggerated statement. During the recent ‘cleansing’ of the universities, when from 30,000 to 50,000 students, for one cause or another, were dismissed from their studies, considerable concern was expressed among Communist officials that so large a number of the most intelligent students examined confessed to and defended their religious faith.

The support of religion, of course, varies greatly between the cities and the country. Practically the sole remaining strength of the Church in the cities comes from the old bourgeois class — the remaining remnants of it. Persecution only served to increase the loyalty of these people to all that the Church stands for. The churches and the ancient ceremonies of worship constitute the strongest remaining link between the impoverished bourgeois of the present and the golden prerevolutionary period. The workers, however, were never so loyal to the Church, and their support of it now is negligible.

In the rural districts the peasants were held to the Church, to a very large degree, by superstition. That superstitious hold continues even under the Soviets. There have been efforts to discredit the religious significance of the Church ceremonies, and to disprove the efficaciousness of certain of the practices of the Church. But these efforts have had no very widespread influence. The Soviets assert that the complete rout of religion in the rural districts of Russia will come when education has raised the intelligence of the peasants to the point where skepticism is possible. Until then, despite the furious assaults upon religion, the peasant, doubtless, will maintain his loyalty to the Church.

And both in the city and in the country many priests with whom I talked declared that their churches, since active religious persecutions had ceased, were more crowded than in prerevolutionary days. Certainly the reverence of the masses of the people for religion and their religious leaders is very little diminished.

There is hardly any possible denial of the fact, however, that some of the leaders of the Church were, in the early days of the Soviet rule, actively engaged in counter-revolutionary propaganda. Since the Church was the sole remaining rallying-point for the antiCommunistic, bourgeois element in Russia, it was to be expected that whatever counter-revolutionary activity was carried on would find its leadership, to a certain extent at least, among the churchmen.

Among those most bitterly accused by the Soviets was Tikhon, the Patriarch of the Russian Church. Tikhon, who was born in 1865 and educated in the theological schools of St. Petersburg, was consecrated Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in 1898. He spent several years in the United States, returning to Russia in 1907 as Archbishop of Jaroslau, later becoming Archbishop of Vilna and in 1917 Metropolitan of Moscow. In November 1917 he was chosen for the Patriarchate, Russia’s highest ecclesiastical office.

Tikhon first encountered the hostility of the Russian Government when he refused to permit Soviet officials to confiscate certain of the ‘superfluous’ treasures of the Church for famine relief. A certain number of these treasures were taken, despite this opposition, but it is noteworthy that impartial investigators have declared that the ‘despoilers’ of the churches, in almost every instance, left untouched the icons, crosses, banners, and other symbols of worship, and confiscated only the gold and precious stones that served as embellishments.

Later developments, however, seem to connect Tikhon more directly with the counter-revolutionists. Certain documents, captured by the Soviets, appeared to indicate his connection with a council of Russian Church leaders at Karlowitz where plans were definitely discussed for the overthrow of the Communist régime and the reestablishment of the Tsarist Government. On the basis of this evidence the Patriarch was arrested and the date of his trial was set for April 23, 1923. The summary execution of Monsignor Butkevich of the Roman Catholic Church, early in 1923, despite the united protests of the Christian world, appeared to indicate the fate that awaited Tikhon.

But unexpected developments intervened. The Patriarch was held in detention at the Donskoi Monastery on the outskirts of Moscow. A few days before the date set for his trial he was taken violently ill. His friends believed that he had been poisoned, and the Soviet Government, unwilling to risk the fate of so distinguished a prisoner, removed him to a Moscow prison. What took place there can only be surmised. Tikhon had already been unfrocked by the All-Russian Church Congress — the Congress of the Living or ‘Red’ Church movement. His influence with the people, so far as the government officials could estimate it, was on the wane. Pressure was brought to bear upon him, doubtless, to recant and agree to live at peace with the Soviets. This he did in a confession published in Moscow on June 27, 1923. His release followed immediately.


The imprisonment and subsequent confession and release of Patriarch Tikhon aroused the believers of the Russian Church as did no other event during the Revolution. His confession, to be sure, aroused widespread bewilderment among those who had remained loyal to the Church. The Church, it appeared, was succumbing to the influence of the Soviets. But this bewilderment was of short duration. It was quickly recognized that the Church, if it survived at all, must maintain a wholly extrapolitical position. And at whatever price Tikhon purchased his freedom he was soon acclaimed, again, as the rightful head of the Church.

To-day Tikhon occupies two low vaulted rooms on the wall of the Donskoi Monastery. To reach his audience chamber one follows a guide up a narrow stone staircase into a ramshackle room that was evidently built as a storehouse. This room, on every audience day, — and each day save Sunday is audience day, — is always crowded. A motley crowd it is, too: peasants from the Caucasus; down-at-the-heel intelligentsia from Kiev; a delegation of Siberian priests; a landed proprietor, who no longer has any land, from a city in the Volga Valley. Day after day religious pilgrims wait in that room to bring their messages of loyalty and to receive the blessing of the Patriarch. When the Patriarch, as he rarely does, goes into the city to conduct a service, he is acclaimed on the way by reverent throngs, and the church where he speaks and the streets before it are crowded long before his arrival.

This loyalty to Tikhon and the Church was strikingly revealed in the so-called Living Church movement. Two years ago, the Living Church movement held out the promise of a genuine religious reformation. Its origin dates from the great famine of 1922, when Bishop Evdokim declared that, contrary to the proclamation of the Patriarch, the church treasures should be surrendered for famine relief. Immediately many of the more liberal priests rallied to his support, while the old and, in some instances, counter-revolutionary leadership of the Church bitterly opposed him.

As the Living Church movement grew it came to represent an earnest effort within the Church to liberalize religion and bridge over, without compromising the faith, the gulf between the Church and the Revolution, that is, between religion and the new Russia. In the winter of 1923 an All-Russian Church Congress was convened. At this meeting Tikhon was unfrocked on the ground that he did not represent the religious demands of present-day Russia; and the machinery of the Church passed into the control of those who led the Living Church movement.

Up to this time there is no question that many of the leaders of the Living Church movement were earnest priests, devoutly seeking to revitalize the Church with a message for the new Russia. But at the Congress of 1923 many observers saw the hand of the Government. The Living Church, from the Soviet point of view, was an instrument for dividing the Greek Orthodox Church and, thereby, weakening the hold of religion upon the people. It deserved official support for that reason. And many of the leaders in the new group proved susceptible to political influence. When the All-Russian Congress finally convened it was charged that the Government, by refusing passports to supporters of Tikhon, packed the meeting so as to ensure a Living Church victory.

However that may be, the movement, thereafter, was widely discredited among Russian believers. It became known as the ‘Red’ Church. Many of its priests found themselves without congregations. There was a great flocking to the churches of those who had remained loyal to the old leadership. As a result the priests who had deserted, many of them, began to seek a return to the fold. Upon the release of Tikhon the members of the Living Church, more or less en masse, sought reconciliation with him. The Patriarch’s influence has been enormously strengthened by this surrender of the reformists, and by the demonstration of intense loyalty on the part of the people. Officially, at any rate, the division within the Church has been closed. The Living Church leaders themselves, such as Krasnitsky, agree upon the undesirability of developing further Church factions.

Meanwhile there has been a remarkable increase in the size and influence of the various Protestant groups in Russia — known as Sectarians. There are over 5,000,000 of these various Protestant organizations and their numbers have increased enormously since the Revolution. The Sectarians commend themselves to Soviet toleration for several reasons. In the first place, they represent no centralized organization, no hierarchy that can become threatening. The organization is very loose and informal and differs in different sections of the country. Then too the mode of life of many of the sectarian groups has been organized, through the three hundred years of their history in Russia, along Communal lines. In more recent history the Sectarians — since they are, very largely, pacifists — led in the movement, just prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, against a continuance of the war. But it is safe to say that they will not, in all probability, provide Russia with a new religious leadership of sufficient virility to meet the atheistic advances of the Soviets.


The more closely one studies the religious situation in Russia, the more apparent it becomes that the Greek Orthodox Church, regardless of the fact that its present leadership is said to be inadequate, affords the only available channel through which the stream of Russian religious life may continue to flow. As at present constituted and led, however, there is little enough of promise that the Greek Orthodox Church will soon awaken to its responsibility in the present religious situation.

I asked Tikhon whether or not, in consideration of the present Russia, the Church was called upon to bring a new interpretation of Christianity.

‘How can there be any change,’ he replied, ‘in that which is already wholly true, and all truth?’

When I asked Metropolitan Peter of Siberia the same question, he said: ‘Neither the people nor the priests want reformation. What all of us want and need is a return to the purer orthodoxy of the Middle Ages.'

But that the future of religion in Russia depends, very largely, upon a widespread reformation in the approach of the Church to the people is apparent. The faith of the present generation of Russians is too deeply planted to be destroyed. The faith of the next generation, unless religion finds new prophets in Russia, will be planted less deeply and wither more easily. The Church can hardly continue to speak as it has spoken in the past and reach the youth of Russia. A new religious message, however, will require new religious leaders to declare it, for the present leadership of the Church, with rare exceptions, is unalterably opposed to reform.

To a small but, I believe, significant extent, that new leadership is developing. The Living Church movement, however far short it fell, released certain forces that are still at work, particularly among the younger priests. Two theological schools — the only two open at the present time in Russia — were organized through the Living Church and supported in large part from American sources. They retain, at the present, the vital elements represented in the Living Church and are not compromised by political commitments.

The students from these schools, several of whom I met, are preparing themselves to preach and are preaching an intellectually respectable social gospel. Their message takes account of the facts of science upon which is based the Soviet programme of constructive atheism; and of the further facts of community welfare, so largely ignored by many of the priests and so insistent ly advocated by the representatives of the present Government.

I have visited their church services. Many of the routine ceremonies are discarded. An evangelical preaching is introduced. There is congregational singing — a revolutionary innovation. One of these young priests has organized and made extraordinarily successful a week-night course in Bible study. And this man explained to me that he has abandoned the dress of his office, save for Sabbath worship, because, as he expressed it, ‘I am needed as a man with the people, more than as a priest apart from them.’

Needless to say, no other gospel than that represented by these young men can make much headway against the Soviets. If their ministry is not suppressed by the vigilant agents of atheism, they have the courage and, I believe, the ability to bring before the Russian people a religion that can prove to be a strong support for every constructive achievement for which the present régime is vigilantly striving.

Meanwhile the increase of friendly contacts between Soviet Russia and the nations of the West is certain to bring a modification of the programme of aggressive atheism as it will bring a modification of aggressive Communism. Isolation, more than any other factor in the last five years, has served to strengthen the extremists of the Communist Party. Isolated, the Soviets are martyrs to the concerted hostility of the world. In isolation, moreover, it is not difficult for the government propagandists to maintain the integrity of the illusions concerning capitalistic nations upon which the Communistic programme is based. Every friendly negotiation with a Western Power and every creditable business transaction, however, makes it more difficult to uphold, among the workers and the peasants of Russia, the conviction that capital and the so-called bourgeois Governments are the enemies of the people and that proletarian justice can be won only through world revolution and Communism. Every negotiation with Russia’s Government aids the evolution away from Communism. When, in the course of that evolution, a less ruthless period is reached, there will be, I believe, a religious as well as a political open-mindedness; the day of Communism and of atheism will be done, and a new Russia will emerge, fitted to assume, with honor, its place at the council tables of the world.