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Father Hilarion Alfeyev
Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay,
5-7 May 2001
In this talk I
propose to outline the history of atheism in Russia during the last hundred
years. I will start by considering the kind of atheism present in Russia
before the Revolution. Then I will say something about the development
of atheism during the Soviet period. And finally I will conclude with some
observations concerning the nature of Russian post-Soviet atheism.
I should like
to begin with the following questions. How did it happen that the country
known as 'Holy Russia', with such a long history of Orthodox Christianity,
was in a very short period of time turned by the Bolsheviks into 'the first
atheist state in the world'? How was it possible that the very same people
who were taught religion in secondary schools in the 1910s with their own
hands destroyed churches and burned holy icons in the 1920s? What is the
explanation of the fact that the Orthodox Church, which was so powerful
in the Russian Empire, was almost reduced to zero by its former members?
I should say
at once that I cannot interpret what happened in Russia, in 1917 as an
accident, the seizure of power by a small group of villains. Rather I perceive
in the Russian revolution the ultimate outcome of the
which were going on within the pre-revolutionary society and so, to a considerable
extent, within the Russian Church (as there was no separation between Church
and society). I would claim that the Russian
was the offspring of both the Russian monarchy and the Church. The roots
of the post-revolutionary atheism should be looked for in pre-revolutionary
Russian society and in the Church.
It has been
said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the
19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often
in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their
traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely
religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky
and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families,
both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people
like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after
having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand,
came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox
Church. It is clear, when one
looks at the
pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church
and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this
gap was constantly growing.
But on the
eve of the revolution it became more and more clear that atheism had also
invaded the mass of ordinary people. Berdyaev wrote at that time that the
simple Russian baba, who was supposed to be religious, was no longer a
reality but a myth: she had become a nihilist and an atheist. I would like
to quote some more from what this great Russian philosopher wrote in 1917,
several months before the October revolution:
nation always considered itself to be Christian. Many Russian thinkers
and artists were even inclined to regard it as a nation which is Christian
par excellence. The Slavophils thought that Russian people live by the
Orthodox faith, which is the only true faith containing the entire truth...
Dostoevsky preached that. the Russian nation is a bearer of God... But,
it was here that revolution broke out, and it...revealed a spiritual emptiness
in Russian people. This emptiness is a result of a slavery that lasted
too long of a process of egeneration of the old regime that went
too far, of a paralysis of the Russian Church and moral degradation of
the ecclesiastical authorities that lasted too long. Since long ago the
sacred has been exterminated from the people's soul both from the left
side and the right, which prepared this cynical attitude towards the sacred
that is now being revealed in all its disgust."
the Tsarist regime and the Orthodox Church for what happened in 1917. Leaving
aside the former, let us look at the role of the Church in the pre-revolutionary
period. On the one hand, it was still the
extremely powerful and influential, penetrating all levels of the life
of society. There were still living saints within it, like John of Kronstadt,
and spiritual life still flourished in at least some monasteries. On the
other hand, the Church was governed by the civil authorities, or even by
such odd figures as Rasputin, and it is true that it was paralyzed to a
reading a book by Father Georgy Shavelsky, the Protopresbyter of the Russian
Army and Navy under Nicholas II. Himself one of the senior members of the
Holy Synod, he testified that the Synod was in fact very far from the life
of people, that it did very little (if anything) to prevent atheist propaganda
from spreading among ordinary people. To show how little remained of the
people's traditional devotion to God, Shavelsky cites the following example:
when attendance at the Liturgy became, by a special imperial decree, no
longer obligatory for Russian soldiers, only ten per cent of them continued
to go to church.
of the same kind is that of Metropolitan Veniamin (Fedchenkov), who became
the Bishop of the White Army after the revolution. He writes that none
of the students of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, where he had
studied, ever went to see Father John of Kronstadt, and that some of the
students were atheists. He describes the atmosphere of spiritual coolness
inside the Orthodox Church, the lack of prophetic spirit. He claims that
it was not by mere chance that there arose people like Rasputin:
common background of indifference towards religion he appeared as a charismatic
figure and was at first accepted as such by the ecclesiastical authorities,
who then directed his steps to the imperial palace.
The third testimony
which I would like to draw on here is of a more personal kind: it is that
of Father Sergei Bulgakov. Himself the son of an Orthodox priest, after
studying at a theological seminary, he became an atheist, following the
steps of Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. In his autobiographical notes he
asks himself how this happened, and answers: "It happened, somehow, almost
at once and in an imperceptible manner, as something taken for granted,
when the poetry of my childhood was replaced by the prose of the theological
seminary... When I began to doubt, my critical thoughts were not satisfied
with traditional apologetics, but rather found them scandalous... My revolt
was strengthened by the compulsory devotion: these long services with akathists
(and ritual devotion in general) did not give me satisfaction." Fr Bulgakov
gave up his religion easily, without a fight, and neither his clerical
origins nor his theological education helped him to resist the temptation,
of atheism and nihilism.
which one gains when reading the memoirs of those living during the pre-revolutionary
period is that of a deep decline in religious belief. Though Orthodox Christianity
was still maintained as the official religion of the Russian, monarchy,
both society and the Church were fatally contaminated by unbelief, nihilism
and atheism. Even the seminarists, future priests, balanced on the edge
between religion and atheism. Many ordinary Christians, if not the majority,
had no faith at all, and it was they who turned against the Church as soon
in it stopped being encouraged. The Church at once lost the great majority
of its members and remained a small flock of those prepared to die for
We know what
happened with those faithful to the Church: they were either executed or
severely persecuted, and only very few of them survived.
There was a
certain improvement in the situation of the Church during and after the
Second World War, but the Church never regained the position within the
Russian society which it occupied before the Revolution.
What sort of
atheism was imposed on the Russian people by the Soviet regime? It was
not in tact unbelief: it was, rather, a very strong belief in the non-existence
of God, in a happy future in this life, in the infallibility of the
party and its materialist ideology. The god-like figure of Lenin (for many
years together with Stalin, then alone) was dominant everywhere, in all
places, in every room of every official building, whether
or university, shop or hospital. Lenin as god, the only Party as the only
church, its leaders (the Politbureau) as an assembly of saints, the works
of Lenin as the Bible, etc. The Soviet people were not given atheism, but
a pseudo-religion, a religion of the Antichrist. Thus Berdyayev was quite
right speaking of the religious character of Russian socialism and atheism.
To what extent was this atheist ideology accepted by people, or rather,
how many people accepted the ideology and what percentage were able to
resist? In the 20s and 30s Russian atheism lived through its most militant
stage: it was very active, aggressive and involved the 'masses' of the
people. By the late 60s, however, it had certainly lost much of its earlier
enthusiasm: it was just taken for granted by the majority, but no longer
followed with fanaticism and zeal. So, in terms of the quality of Russian
atheism, it is the 30s that should be regarded as its climax. But in terms
of the quantity of atheists, I think many more would have been found in
the 60s and 70s. During the 30s there were still the babushki, who secretly
kept the faith which they inherited from Tsarist times. But by the end
of the 70s the pre-revolutionary babushki had mostly died out (I mean those
educated before the Revolution) and were replaced by those who had grown
up under the atheist regime.
I can illustrate
what I have said about the quality of Russian atheism by examples from
my own family. All my grandparents were born before the Revolution, but
were educated after it: none of them was a believer. Even. in
the 80s, when
almost all the younger members of my family, one after another, came to
the Church and were baptised, my grandparents remained outside this process.
One of my grandmothers told me at that time: 'I feel
Crusoe on his uninhabited island: everybody around me goes to church, and
I don't..' She was a member of the Communist Party for more than fifty
years and, I presume, in the 20s she might well have been a
But in the early 80s, when I remember her, she felt nothing against religion,
though nothing for it either. Her atheism had become absolutely passive:
it was taken for granted and not thought about.
grew up in the atheist society of the 40s and 50s and never were militant
atheists. Already in their youth they rejected Soviet ideology and searched
for truth outside of it. But there was still tremendous pressure on them
from the society in which they had to survive, and they were always afraid
that their unbelief in ideology would be uncovered and they would be punished.
My mother came to Christianity in the mid-70s,
not practise her religion openly. To become openly religious then still
meant to be expelled from atheist society and perhaps to lose one's job.
It was in some secret house, not in church, that I was baptised.
I myself grew
up in the late 70s and 80s, which was certainly a period of decline for
Russian atheism. Yet it was still dangerous to practice religion openly:
for example, I would have been expelled from my school, an elite
if they had known that I went to church. During the eleven years of my
studies in the school I did not see any pupils who were openly religious.
It was taken for granted that everyone was an atheist. At the
many of my classmates did not share the official ideology and had very
liberal views: they were far from the Church, but many of them did notbelieve
in Communist ideas either. It was still difficult openly to believe in
God, but it was at least quite possible openly not to believe in the ideology.
The atmosphere in my school was quite tolerant, even though on the official
level the Communist ideology was maintained.
I grew up under the atheist regime, I never felt enough pressure not to
be able to resist: I rather remember a total absence of fear and a wonderful
feeling of freedom. I am therefore not surprised that it was
of my generation who went on the streets of Moscow in August 1991 to say
goodbye to the Communist regime. They were not afraid because they grew
up during the period of decline and decomposition
One of the
main reasons for the bankruptcy of Soviet atheist ideology was simply that
people did not believe in it any longer. When atheism lost its religious
character, it became empty and it lost its power long before it was
abandoned. Now what, in brief, is the situation with atheism and religion
in Russia now, after the collapse of the Soviet system?
It seems to
me that, though the numbers of believers has immensely increased during
the last years, Russia is still far from being a Christian country. To
be baptised, to be Orthodox has become a fashion. I would not be surprised
if the majority of people, when asked whether they are Orthodox, would
now give a positive answer. This does not mean, though, that they all go
to church. It only means that most of them have assumed a new outward identity
to keep up with the ongoing 'religious revival'. I remember asking
one teenager who came, together with her mother, to be baptised: 'Do you
believe in God?' 'No,' was her answer. 'Why then do you
want to be
baptised?' I asked. 'Well, everybody gets baptised nowadays,' she said.
This case, one of many, illustrates that many people take religion in a
very superficial manner, sometimes without even believing in God.
inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.
public opinion polls in Russia show that while there is a relatively small
number of convinced atheists, practicing Christians are far from being
a majority. Most people will say 'we believe in something'.
that there exists something supernatural', but then admit that religious
belief does not play an important role in their life. There is another
paradox: not all people who claim to be Orthodox do believe in God.
Some even take part in Orthodox organisations and movements without practising
To speak of
a religious revival in contemporary Russia has become a commonplace. But
people vary in their understanding of what this revival entails. Certainly
there is an external revival: many churches, monasteries
schools are being reopened, the buildings are being restored. But
it is too early to speak of the restoration of the Russian soul. There
is no improvement in morality in contemporary Russia. On the contrary,
one mustadmit that moral standards have become much lower than they used
to be under the Soviets. Is this not an indication that there is no inward
revival of Christian life, that people do not assume Christianity as a
norm of living? Is it not striking evidence of the fact that the long-waited
repentance, metanoia, as a change in mentality for the better, has not
yet taken place in Russia?
this sudden, lowering of moral standards to Western influence: it is from
the degenerate West that pornography, prostitution and all sorts of immorality
come. This is our way out: to blame everybody except ourselves. But the
reality is that, as Berdyaev put it in 1918, 'however bitter it is... the
Russian people is now less religious than many peoples of the West... the
religious culture of the soul in it is weaker.' This is true if
culture is understood not as membership in some right-wing Orthodox organisation,
but as first of all living according to the norms of Christian morality.
started, the Church was challenged by the very high expectations on the
part of the society. Many believed the Church would be able to assume the
leading role in the spiritual revival of the nation. One
has to admit
that this did not happen. The Church started to revive itself by rebuilding
monastery walls (which is indeed an important and difficult task) but it
did not respond adequately to the need for religious and moral
of the people. The Church's leaders gained access to the civil authorities,
but thus far they have been unable (with some exceptions) to gain direct
access to ordinary people, especially to those outside the Church. The
Orthodox Church is still closed in upon itself; it is still more occupied
with its own internal problems than with spiritual demands of modern society.
It turned out that the Western Protestant sects took up the
of enlightenment of former atheists, and it is not surprising that, with
their direct and somewhat insistent behavior, they are gaining the sympathy
of more and more ordinary people.
may well one day die, but this will happen when the country has not only
been baptized, but has been enlightened and born again.
Church should play a key role in this spiritual rebirth. But this can happen
only after it has become a truly national Church: not the Church of the
State (whatever the State is), but the Church,
of the nation,
of the people. To become such, the Church must come out of its shell, must
learn to speak the language that the people speak, must face the demands
of society and answer them adequately.
At the present
time our Church is struggling to find its new identity in post-Communist
and post-atheist Russia. There are, it seems to me, two main dangers. The
first is that of a return to the pre-revolutionary situation,when there
was a State Church which became less and less the Church of the nation.
If, at some stage in the development of society, such a role would be offered
to the Church by the State, it would be a huge mistake to accept, it. In
this case the Church will be again rejected by the majority of the nation,
as it was rejected in 1917. The seventy years of Soviet persecution were
an experience of fiery purgatory for the Russian Church, from which it
should have come out entirely renewed. The most dangerous error would be
not to learn from what happened and to return to the pre-revolutionary
situation, as some members of the clergy wish to do nowadays.
danger is that. of militant Orthodoxy, which would be a post-atheist counterpart
of militant atheism. I mean an Orthodoxy that fights against Jews, against
masons, against democracy, against Western culture,
This type of Orthodoxy is being preached even by some key members of the
hierarchy, and it has many supporters within the Church. This kind of Orthodoxy,
especially if it gains the support of the
force Russian atheism to withdraw temporarily to the catacombs. But Russian
atheism, will not. he vanquished until the transfiguration of the soul
and the need to live according to the Gospel have become the
of the Russian Orthodox Church.
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