What Happened to Religion During the Communist Rule of Russia?

Communism tried to replace religion in Russians' daily lives.
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After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks found themselves in control of all of Russia. With political power in their hands, they expanded their ambitions to include restructuring the Russian economy, abolishing private property and instilling Communist values throughout Russian society. The cultural element of the Communist movement focused on dealing with the longstanding hold of religion over the lives and beliefs of the Russian people.

1 Eliminating Religious Beliefs

The Communists made atheism compulsory for party members, and developed Communist alternatives to important religious occasions in people’s lives. They intended the Soviet versions of weddings, funerals, festivals and holidays to replace the observances and ceremonies in daily life customarily led by religion. In addition, from 1925, the League of the Militant Godless conducted a campaign against religious observance, by making a joke of religious holidays and publishing anti-religious pamphlets.

2 Nationalizing Church Property

The Bolsheviks used their policy of nationalization to target the Russian Orthodox church. They seized church property in the name of the Russian people, and by turning churches and other religious buildings over to mundane functions like warehouse storage, they attempted to remove religious worship from daily life. Seminaries were closed, removing the means to train more Orthodox priests, and between 1922 and 1926, 28 bishops and more than 1,400 priests were executed. By 1941, only 4,225 Orthodox churches survived of the 46,457 which had existed in Russia in 1917.

3 Other Religions

Orthodox Christianity was not the only faith to attract Communist ire. Buddhist and shamanic priests were arrested and places of worship destroyed in the Baikal region in the 1920s, while schools run by Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic faiths were closed. Jewish religious life was also targeted: An estimated 650 synagogues closed in the 1920s and by the end of the decade the official outlawing of the Hebrew language made traditional Jewish education impossible.

4 Exceptions

Not all religions were treated equally by Communist leaders. The USSR needed the support of the Middle East in its larger battle against Western capitalism, and feared alienating Muslim nations by being too heavy-handed in its treatment of its own Muslim population in southern Russia. As a result, although the practice of Islam was controlled, Muslims could become members of the Communist Party while their Orthodox counterparts could not. The USSR also made a point of returning Islamic religious artifacts looted from central Asian mosques during the previous Tsarist regime, and later allowed Friday to be observed as a day of rest and restored the administration of some aspects of Islamic “sharia” law on a local level.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.