Doing Away With Religion


Workers demolishing a church reading The Godless

Communism and religion have always been at odds with one another. This antagonistic relationship started with Karl Marx when he famously wrote, “It [Religion] is the opium of the people” (Marx 1844). Religion was seen as a tool with which the ruling class used to suppress and control the working class. However, with the seizure of the state apparatus by the Communist Party, the working class was emancipated from religion. Decrees against religion soon followed, such as in 1918 when church property was nationalized by the state without compensation (Freeze, pg. 335). By 1923, the criminal code of the RSFSR included penalties against such things as “Imparting religious instruction in state or private educational institutions to children or minors” and “Fraudulent actions performed for the purpose of rousing superstition among the masses…” (From the Criminal Code). While religion was being accosted on the legal front, anti-religious propaganda was used to push religion from the cultural side.


An example of anti-religious propaganda. The title says, Religion is the Opiate of the People

Anti-religious propaganda, which was included in the New Soviet Man campaigns, was spouted from many sources, including government organizations and the media. As Freeze writes, “Even in national publications such as Bebozhnik (The Godless), anti-religious tracts and caricatures of priests shared space with articles on popular science, public health, the eradication of illiteracy, the evils of anti-Semitism, and even the improvement of personal hygiene” (pg. 336). News articles praised stories of citizens voting to convert churches into clubs for the Communist Youth, as with the case of a church in Petropavlovsk (End of a Church). One notable article, published in Moskovskaia Pravda, excitingly tells the story of “Baptists” being driven out by a local man, who in a fiery speech says, “Drive them away, rather; they prevent us from living sensibly. Let them work, these preachers, these popes and all that sort of people. Close up the chapels, the churches, the synagogues! It was time long ago.” (Religious Foolishness).

Despite the Bolsheviks’ best attempts, religion was not completely erased from the lives of Soviet citizens. However, religiosity declined sharply with urban dwellers and the youth. As Freeze summarizes, “In sum, formal religion loosened its hold on Soviet society during NEP, especially among the younger and urban segments. Since thing drop was both incomplete and not accompanied by the eradication of Russian belief in supernatural intervention in human affairs…the most important anti-religious work still lay ahead” (p. 337).

Comrades Corner.png This post was featured on Comrade’s Corner


“End of a Church”, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Accessed on 12 February, 2017.

Freeze, Gregory L. “Russia A History”. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2009.

“From the Criminal Code of the RSFSR”, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Accessed on 12 February, 2017.

Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Cambridge University Press. 1970. Accessed on 12 February, 2017.

“Religious Foolishness”, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Accessed on 12 February, 2017.


8 thoughts on “Doing Away With Religion

  1. I think you have some great examples here of anti-religious practices at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Did you find anything in your research about the underground Church or anything of that sort?


  2. I think it’s interesting that they specifically prohibited preaching to minors. It really shows how much they valued the youth that they viewed them as such a threat/asset. Do you know if there were any laws about the private practice of religion or what happened to the clergy in Russia?


  3. One thing that has interested me most about the Bolsheviks’ attempts to stamp out Christianity in the Soviet Union has been the resurgences of Russian orthodoxy following the collapse of the USSR. Despite living under an oppressive regime, which you clearly showed to be vehemently anti-religious, the Russian Orthodox Church has recovered remarkably considering the duration and intensity of the anti-religious nature of the USSR. The Russian Orthodox Church plays an important role in modern Russia with at least 45% of Russians identifying as adherents to Russian Orthodoxy. It would be interesting to know more about the efforts of underground movements to preserve their faith in spite of persecution.


  4. Lots of good insight in this post, Spencer! Tracing the Bolsheviks’ antipathy toward the church back to Marx’s critique of organized religion sets this up nicely. You are right, I think, to focus on a decline of religious observance in cities and among young people. Kevin asks a good question and I hope you two can find some answers!


  5. I really liked your use of visuals in this post. It is interesting to see that in their propaganda the Soviets portrayed Jesus as a much more noticeably foreign figure. The Soviet suppression of religion makes sense since the clergy had a lot of influence in the Tsarist government.


  6. I always found the attempts by the Soviets to abolish religion very interesting, especially considering the strong hold religion had on society for so many years. Orthodoxy defined Russia and cemented their view of themselves as the “third Rome.” Despite the Marxist ideology and government attempts to reduce the influence of religion, it was really rooted in society and they couldn’t fully get rid of it.


  7. I also noted that last quote you highlighted from Freeze. The separation of church and state was a HUGE progressive step for the new government, and there were difficulties implementing that in society. I can imagine it would be hard for the Russian population to essentially drop their once-public belief system and pick up a new way of thinking. Since the population wasn’t very well educated, it only made the communist advertising and propaganda against religion in civil society even more important. The ‘average joe’ had to be able to relate to the new socialist/communist ideals through this propaganda.


  8. I talked about religion and the Soviets as well but I found your post very interesting! I talked mostly about how the Bolsheviks used the famine to undermine the church’s authority so I didn’t really come across some of the stuff you did. I didn’t see much about the Criminal Codes in my research and I thought those were very interesting. I also loved the poster you included and the section you talked about anti-religious propaganda!


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