Victoria Smolkin. A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. $32.95, 360 pp.

It is perhaps too easily forgotten that Soviet Communism began as a vibrant ideology, full of optimism for the human future. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, enthusiastic Communist Party members embraced an eschatological vision of a new, liberated world. They were not content with mere economic equality. They dreamed of “new men,” turning ordinary people into “conscious agents for changing the world.” (33) The heart of the new order was a passionate atheism, a robust belief system that would end religious oppression and preach godless “scientific materialism.” Proselytizers of atheism, such as Anatolii Lunacharskii, Commissar of Education, longed for the day that Communists could take the “fresh, small hearts and bright, open, little minds” of children and create “a true miracle…a real human being.” (33)

Long before the Russian Revolution, Marxism promoted a radical version of what social scientists of the 1960s termed the “secularization thesis.” Religion was the “opiate” of the oppressed and ignorant, and progressive societies would slowly relinquish primitive religious beliefs. Soviet Marxists were thus confident that they were merely hastening the end of religion. Forty years later, in Victoria Smolkin’s compelling account, this exuberant optimism had faded. After World War II, Communists were left with a puzzle that they would spend decades trying to solve – why did religion persist?

Smolkin’s A Sacred Space is Never Empty is a remarkable, abundantly documented portrait of a Soviet state determined, to the end, to transform the worldviews of its citizens. From 1917 until World War II, Communists waged a multifront campaign against religion; especially against the Russian Orthodox Church. First Lenin and then Stalin demolished churches, closed monasteries, and arrested, exiled, and executed priests, monks, and nuns. In 1925, the “League of the Militant Godless” began working to root out religious belief throughout Russia. Though this era of the Soviet atheist crusade is reasonably well-documented, Smolkin analyzes the political aims and ideological underpinnings of these infamous anti-religious campaigns, providing vivid images, such as political cartoons, to capture the flavor of the propaganda of the day.

Smolkin’s most original and insightful discoveries emerge in the extraordinary story of the intense effort, in the 1960s and 1970s, to discover why Soviet citizens had proven resistant to atheist evangelism. The Orthodox Church, as an institution, proved relatively easy to subdue — it had relied too heavily on the support of the pre-revolutionary autocracy, and it had taken traditional — especially peasant — belief for granted in the years before 1917. Orthodox Christianity itself, however, was remarkably resilient. By the 1960s, one atheist scholar declared it was time “to figure out where we lost people.” (151)

Under the umbrella of the Institute of Scientific Atheism, resources were poured into ethnographic, psychological, and sociological research to determine what had gone wrong. The breadth and depth of the effort was extraordinary: atheist investigators conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with people from all walks of life, published detailed reports, and made extensive suggestions on how to implement change.

The findings produced by this research were often counterintuitive — Christianity’s strength did not necessarily lie in widespread religious fervor. Instead, people simply practiced religion. Agnostics and unbelievers continued to baptize their children, attend Easter services, and celebrate Christmas. Icons hung on the walls of well-to-do Party members. Soviet students wore crosses. When asked about these religious remnants, survey respondents verbally shrugged — it was part of tradition, or family, or custom, and why not?

Indeed, atheist researchers were most troubled by the fastest growing new category of belief: “indifference,” especially among members of the younger generation (160). Distant from the early revolutionary struggle, younger Soviet citizens cared only for consumer goods, careers, and personal pleasures. In 1974, after an extensive two-year investigation, the Institute of Soviet Atheism concluded that younger Soviets could be characterized by “an indifference to worldview questions as a whole — with a peculiar kind of spiritual and ideological emptiness…” (209) The verdict was clear: the Communist Party had to do “atheist work” to ensure the proper “upbringing of irreligious youth.” (214)

How did religion itself survive indifference? Nikolai Gordienko, atheist author and expert on religion, drew conclusions from research into Christian prayer based on a treasure trove of notes left in a disused chapel once dedicated to the very popular (though then uncanonized) eighteenth century Saint Ksenia of St. Petersburg. The prayers to St. Ksenia concerned “purely everyday affairs” (209): passing an exam, getting a job, applying to university, helping an alcoholic son, saving a daughter’s marriage.

Prayers to St. Ksenia vividly illustrated what many Soviet Marxists had been saying all along: the battle against religion had to consider a particularly Russian concept, byt — the culture of ordinary, everyday life. Few people had the time or inclination to deeply delve into philosophical questions of the non-existence of God, and many were content to remain uncommitted on theological questions. They tolerated lectures on atheism, much as their pre-revolutionary predecessors might have yawned through their mandatory catechism classes. They craved religion not as some fully developed doctrine, but in the rhythms of their daily routines.

Soviet citizens longed for ritual. Ritual was originally dismissed by Marxism as a superstitious relic of the past, but researchers found that rituals were difficult to eradicate. Rituals were concrete and multisensory; they brought together families and communities in shared celebration and mourning. Rituals entered ordinary lives and struggles, while always pointing to the higher purpose toward which lives should be lived. Christianity continued to provide this sense of ordered time and human telos.

Surprisingly, the Communist Party overcame their hostility to ritual and tried to reclaim byt. In the 1960s and 1970s, various Soviet ministries came together in a comprehensive effort to create Soviet rituals. Wedding and “Little Baby” “palaces” were built to house marriage ceremonies and birth celebrations. Officiants wore decorative uniforms and bestowed newlyweds and parents with medals and certificates to commemorate each special occasion. Soon, other rites were added: for the first day of school, for graduation, for induction into Communist organizations. Communist artists, architects, and musicians contributed their talents in a grand effort to enhance and modernize the Soviet ritual experience. The experiment was modestly successful, but short-lived. In the end, as one Communist wrote, man-made rituals could not compete with the rituals of religion, which had been “worked out over the course of years.” (188)

Smolkin’s book is thus a must-read for those who wish to understand the long history behind the remarkable resurgence of Orthodoxy and other religions in Russia after the fall of Communism. Indeed, it was this “resurgence of religion” that led many to declare that the secularization thesis was proven spectacularly wrong.

Or was it? In a Pew survey conducted on faith in the United States in 2019, some 26% of those surveyed declared they did not have a religion. These “nones” are the most rapidly growing category of religious belief — encompassing some 40% of millennials. Articles and books have broken down the statistics and analyzed the causes of this phenomenon, and some observers now speculate that secularization is back.

Religious groups in the United States have conducted few in-depth investigations of the Soviet type, to figure out where they might have “lost people.” One exception is Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites, which combines statistical analysis and close investigation to illuminate the beliefs of the nones. Burton discovers that, much like their earlier Soviet counterparts, the younger “indifferent” generation of the West clings to ritual. Whether in the occult, in Harry Potter, in online chat groups, or in SoulCycle, the nones crave “a sense of meaning in the world and personal purpose within that meaning, a community to share that experience with, and rituals to bring the power of that experience into achievable, everyday life.”[1]

Burton’s book, and its reviewers, offer a multitude of reasons for the abandonment of organized religion: distrust of traditional institutions, the internet-given ability to treat religion as a spiritual buffet, the modern focus on “self-care” bolstered by a capitalism willing to cater to every selfish whim. Still, the central question remains: how did churches find themselves unable to give the nones “a sense of meaning” and “personal purpose”?

One possibility is that late-modern religions share with Marxism (and with modernity generally) a particular anthropology of the self, in which a person is an independent, self-determined, rational individual who chooses a belief system from a multitude of competing worldviews. Armed with this anthropology, churches enter a marketplace of belief systems — persuading discerning spiritual consumers to buy into a package of beliefs. Ritual, if at all a part of this packaging, is seen as secondary: at worst, an embarrassing atavism and at best, a carefully circumscribed “experience” to be had for a few hours on a Sunday. As Matthew Thiessen has written, daily rituals, such as the purity rituals that defined the lives of the Jews of the New Testament, seem “alien at best and irrational at worst.”[2]

In this modern environment, churches struggle to capture the vibrancy of pre-modern religious practice, in which ritual was the vital center of belief. Frank Gorman has uncovered the essence of ritual (in this case, Old Testament priestly ritual) as a God-bestowed practice that elaborated the human place “in the cosmos.” Through ritual, a person does not simply “experience” faith, but “participates in, realizes, and enacts the world order.”[3] And not just once a week, for a few hours, but in the daily, ordinary, and sometimes even mundane events of life. Marriage, birth, prayer, worship, bathing, and eating were not discrete events, but integrated into an eternal truth about each person and their purpose. Ritual revealed the world as not merely immanent, but also enchanted, symbolic, full of transcendent meaning. Thiessen and Gorman remind us that in the Jewish world of the Bible, faith was not chosen among an infinite combination of truth-propositions. Faith was entered, and lived — and rational, doctrinal elaborations of theology flowed from this wellspring.

The resurgence of religion in Russia after 1990 can be attributed to many things: the underground church in Russia, the tireless efforts of persecuted clergy and missionaries, and even the episodic Soviet willingness to use the church as a patriotic, moral bulwark. But perhaps the Communists were right to fear the persistence of ages-old ritual practice, no matter how desultory. Perhaps “empty rituals,” like sacred spaces, never remain empty.

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  1. Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Public Affairs, 2020), p. 10.
  2. Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), p. 3.
  3. Frank H. Gorman, Jr., Ideology of Ritual: Space, Time and Status in the Priestly Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), p. 17.
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Posted by Ana Siljak

Ana Siljak is a professor of Russian history at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research and publications focus on the intellectual and cultural history of nineteenth century Russia. She is currently writing a book on the personalism of Nikolai Berdiaev.

One Comment

  1. Despite the resource and credentials, the writer doesn’t accurately describe what Soviet Communism was about, neither does she understand the relationship between Marxism and religion.

    We should note that what we call Communism is not as much a reference to Marxism as it is to a reference to Bolshevism. We should note that several other socialist groups, like the Mensheviks, split with or objected to the Bolsheviks’ actions. Socialists like the Kronstadt sailors eventually objected to the Bolsheviks’ centralization of power sacrificed their lives in trying to wrestle that power away from the Bolsheviks.

    Lenin, who led the Bolsheviks, ruled with his central committee in charge which,, according to a socialist contemporary of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, resembled a bourgeoisie dictatorship rather than the proletariat dictatorship that Marx prescribed.

    Something else we should note. While Lenin was dismissive of religion because of the behavior he saw in the Russian Christians of his time, Luxemburg asked Christians to join the cause of the socialists because she believed that they had more in common with the socialists than with the bourgeoisie.

    If Marx called religion the opiate of the people for the same reason that Lenin did, then he did so because the Christians of his time both enabled the bourgeoisie to exploit workers and taught workers to passively accept that exploitation. Also, what we should realize with Marxism is that it has neither an ideological opposition to nor a monolithic view of religion. Its opposition to religion was due to what it observed in the actions of many Christians and the dominant branch of the Church in Russia back then. Some kinds of Liberation Theology point to the fact that a belief in God is not necessarily antithetical to Marxism.


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