Lenin vs. God

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Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Society has an interesting article up based on And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs Religion In Russia, 1917-1929, which chronicles the futile attempt by the Communists to exterminate religion. One must make a distinction here between religion and a specific religious system and organization.

In The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown I was struck by two simultaneous processes as the Roman Empire withdrew from portions of Germany and Britain and the barbarians rushed in. First, there is the archaeological record of the persistence of folk Christianity for centuries (e.g., amongst the presumably post-Roman peasant subjects of the Avars, or the British remnant under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule). But second, there is the almost invariable creeping advance of doctrinal deviation and religious syncretism once the institutional “police” disappear from the scene. This was in clear evidence in portions of Germany which came under Carlognian direct rule after a long period of Merovingian neglect. St. Boniface records nominally Christian priests regularly taking part in pagan cults and garbling the most basic professions of their faith. A more recent example are the Kakure Kirishitan, Japanese “Hidden Christians” who reemerged after the opening of their nation to the West during the 19th century. In the early 17th century hundreds of thousands of Japanese on Kyushu were at least nominal Roman Catholic Christians (Nagasaki was a Catholic city). The victorious Tokugawa Shogunate persecuted and suppressed Catholicism because of its perception as a “foreign” religion and made every Japanese family register with a Buddhist temple. Though the vast majority of Christians seem to have left the religion (many of these were only notional in any case), a small minority kept their religious identity as Catholics under a mask of crypto-Buddhism. Over the centuries they absorbed outward Buddhist motifs and passed on their Christianity orally. By recontact many of these “Christians” needed to be reoriented toward orthodoxy, so deviated had their religion become from its original character without institutional support. Note that though the surface layer of ritual and belief became distorted rather quickly, the basal psychological attachments with the ancestral faith along with the religious impulse still drove these believers forward to put their lives at risk (one can see this clearly among “Hidden Jews” as well).

Earlier, I have pointed to the fact that Russia seems to have gone through religious “awakening” in the last 15 years. This, despite 70 years of state supported atheism. Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin were both baptized into the Orthodox Church & professed believers, a signal as to the direction of the wind. But, I will not reject the assertion that many of these “conversions” are superficial. A few years back I read a piece which pointed out that a disproportionate number of devout Christians during the Soviet period were of Jewish ethnic origin, a group already under suspicion during the later phases of the Communist state which looked toward Russian Orthodoxy as a source of solace. With the reconversion of much of the non-Jewish Russian elite after the fall of Communism many of these Jewish Christians were shocked to observe that those who had once persecuted them on account of their religious convictions were now attempting to marginalize them within the Russian Orthodox Church itself, presumably driven by anti-Semitic convictions. In Evolution for Everyone David S. Wilson holds out the hope that a non-theistic “religion” may serve some of the same group cohesive functional roles (the “horizontal” aspect) without any nod to a supernatural element (the “vertical” dimension). To some extent I think the reassertion of religious identification in places like Russia and Serbia fits this mold in that many people who affiliate with the Orthodox religion are likely only minimally interested in, or believers in, the supernatural. Slobodan Milosevic never disavowed his atheism, but during the late 1980s he built up his power within what was then Yugoslavia by aligning himself with the Eastern Orthodox religion, even attending ceremonies presided over by clerics. Of course, what one generation might do out of expedience another might accept with sincerity. The conversion of the pagan aristocracy of Rome to Christianity in the early 5th century was a forgone conclusion, their own religious traditions to which they had stubbornly clung to in the face of a century of Christian Roman Emperors was simply no longer a viable option in a polity which now proscribed their rituals and persecuted their beliefs. But by the 6th century no doubt the descendants of once proudly pagan families were now sincere and devout Christians (as attested by their patronage of the Church).

The point here is that religious systems and beliefs are embedded within functionally relevant institutional structures. Even if the former are altered or eliminated, the latter are often needful. Observe the cults of personality, mass rallies and cultivation of youth within the Party structure within Communist states which ostensibly have banished religious feeling. Similarly, even with the collapse of the latter as scaffolding the basal religious impulse will seek outlet in the psychology of a great many human beings. The synergy of both have often been powerful and historically significant forces, as attested by the relationship between Christianity and the rise of monarchy in northern Europe or the spread of Islam during the 7th century.



  1. The pre-1917 faith of the Russian masses was a weird concoction of various influences, as so many priests were uneducated and illiterate. You talk a lot about how similar religions are at the peasant level and Russia’s a good example, almost pagan, many believed that heaven was an actual location somewhere in Siberia, the ‘Land of Chud’ where the ‘White Czar’ ruled with eternal justice.  
    Of course even Stalin famously used the faith when needed in WWII for the defense of ‘Mother’ Russia, itself a nationalized outgrowth of the Marian worship within Orthodoxy, which in turn was a Christianization of the pagan cult of motherhood. Stalin had trained to be a priest and knew its power, which is why he both crushed it and used it. 
    Orlando Figes argued that the odd initial popularity of the Russian revolution among peasants, who had of course never heard of Marx, was because of their religous faith, especially their disdain for surplus wealth and the Christian meme of the ‘virtue’ of poverty. Figes brilliantly explained that ‘the war on private wealth was a bloody purgatory on the way to a heaven on earth.’ There certainly was a quasi-religious overtone to the whole Bolshevist enterprise.

  2. Cuchulkhan, 
    I was wondering, where have you read the things that you wrote about and if it is your private opinion?  
    And by the way Orthodox priests have never been uneducated or illiterate.

  3. And by the way Orthodox priests have never been uneducated or illiterate. 
    bosnia: a short history by noel malcolm the author reports that observers from the period remarked on the widespread illiteracy and venality on the part of the orthodox clergy. in the rise of western christendom peter brown attests to the problem with low educational qualifications (if any) amongst the mass of priests in much of western europe during the pre-modern period. in the reformation by diarmaid macculloch reports the similar problem with the clergy during the renaissance and reformation period. in the next christendom philip jenkins reports on the popularity of colloquial christianities in the third world, and the reality that in societies with marginal literacy many of the clergy will reflect this. now, with your assertion of never you are basically saying that eastern orthodox civilization is somehow special and exempt from the problems of mass christianity staffed by a non-elite clergy where literacy was not common. this is simply implausible on the face of it. your question is worth asking as far as the details, but your second following assertion makes me wonder if you think we’re retarded. to have a valid discussion people need to inhabit the same universe. if yours consists of a cosmos where the orthodox clergy were always literate and christ-like in their actions then you should perhaps never comment on this weblog again so as to allow us to not waste our time. follow up stupid comments will of course precipitate deletion & banning.

  4. I was wondering, where have you read the things that you wrote about and if it is your private opinion?  
    I’ve read a lot of Russian history – Hosking, Pipes & Figes would be the heavies. Sheila Fitzpatrick has the best single analysis of the Revolution in my opinion, free of political bias (ie not Richard Pipes). Figes is good, but his book is really long, although Natasha’s Dance is a classic. 
    A curious comment in relation to Orthodox priests. Most village priests were the sons of other priests, and only received miniscule education in a local seminary, if any. They were also incredibly poor, had to charge for many services, tended towards drunkenness, and readily went along with the pagan memeplex (casting out demons/ghosts, ensuring fertile harvest/women etc)

  5. They were also incredibly poor, had to charge for many services, tended towards drunkenness, and readily went along with the pagan memeplex (casting out demons/ghosts, ensuring fertile harvest/women etc) 
    this sort of thing is still common in african christianity (e.g., exorcism is alive and well). rather than label it ‘pagan,’ i think it is simply more informative to class it under ‘mass religious sensibility.’ a ‘naturalistic’ mode of interacting with the world is so pervasive in the western world that this sort of magical christianity is a sideshow, but it is a central part of modern christianity in much of the third world.

  6. Priests were not very respected because of their corruption (and the fact that they were arms of the state), and the people were easily lead along by wandering mystics. In the nineteenth century they became enamoured with the revitalized orthodox monasticism, exemplified by the Elder at Optina Pustyn in The Brothers Karamazov. Of course the Russian penchant for curious blends of religious passion and quasi-pagan mysticism wasn’t confined to the peasantry.

  7. Slobodan Milosevic never disavowed his atheism, but during the late 1980s he built up his power within what was then Yugoslavia by aligning himself with the Eastern Orthodox religion, even attending ceremonies presided over by clerics. 
    I was not aware that Slobodan Milosevic avowed himself an atheist in the first place.

    I was not aware that Slobodan Milosevic avowed himself an atheist in the first place.
    well, you could do two things 
    a) consider that he was a communist, which is generally known to be an atheistic movement. though not all communists were atheists (the italian communist party i believe lobbied to have this requirement removed from rank & file members), leaders of communist parties (milosevic was that for serbia) tended to be 
    b) 2 seconds of google can bring this up
    There were no clergy at the ceremony because Milosevic was an avowed atheist.
    trust me, i didn’t interject the word ‘avowed.’

  9. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, was led first by the metropolitan of Kiev, under Constantinople. The see was moved to Moscow, and in 1589 a new patriarchate was set up under the czar. The language of the ritual is Church Slavonic. In 1721, Peter the Great (Peter I) abolished the patriarchate and established a synod, which he controlled through its lay procurator. 
    In 1917 the patriarchate was revived, just before the Bolshevik Revolution began the weakening of the whole church structure. In the disturbances of the revolution many priests and bishops were killed or exiled. Churches were plundered of their sacred vessels, and seminaries were closed. In the early 1920s bishops residing outside the Soviet Union formed the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, leading to a split in Russian Orthodoxy that continues to this day, although relations between the two groups have improved since the late 1980s. 
    In World War II, the Soviet government consented (1943) to the reopening of churches and to the election of a patriarch (the first since 1925). The new patriarch and his successors were loyal to the Communist government. As the Soviet Union annexed lands after 1939, the local Orthodox churches disappeared; the same was true of Catholic churches of the Eastern rites, and thus it was announced that the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine and Ruthenia had united with the Russian Orthodox. Marx, however, had a far more complex understanding of religion than was surmised by his reputed supporters. As a political theorist Marx was greatly interested in the social function religions played and their relation to certain political and economic systems. He attempted to examine religion from an objective and scientific perspective, giving him a semblance of a non-supporter of religion. Although, a careful examination of Marx?s writings on the subject reveals that while he certainly criticized religion, he was equally scathing about liberals who elevated criticism of religion over other political concerns. The rationale behind dissembled communism denying religion may have heedlessly been influenced by Marx’s philosophical logic which inspired assertions such as, “man makes religion, religion does not make man”. Marx felt social ills causing suffering persisted because religions such as Christianity taught such abstractions as, patient endurance of suffering was a virtue. He perceived such teaching as being used to oppress the populace while manipulating them to feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. Marx?s contention that religion is the ?opium of the people,? was in rebuttal to the virtuous suffering belief, he held that the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. 
    Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was received (1988) at the Kremlin, the first such reception since World War II. Gorbachev oversaw a period of improved relations with the Orthodox Church, granting it legal status, returning relics seized by the state in 1920, and lifting other restrictions on worship. Since the end of the Soviet Union the church has seen enormous growth in Russia, and in 1997 it (along with other religions recognized under Soviet rule) was given special rights and legal exemptions. Legislation in 2004 gave the church the right to regain full ownership of its churches and other lands. 
    The self-governing Church of Greece dates from the Greek War of Independence. It is the state church and legally much favored. The patriarch at Belgrade heads the Church of Serbia, which suffered restrictions under the Communist government of Yugoslavia and developed a strong nationalist bent in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Church of Bulgaria was severed from communion by the ancient patriarchates in the 19th cent., but the Russian church recognized it. Its ruler is an exarch. The Romanian Orthodox Church has a patriarch at Bucharest; it was probably the most carefully organized of the Orthodox churches. After 1945 the government announced that the Roman Catholic dioceses of the Romanian rite had been annexed by the Orthodox church; the status of these dioceses and their property has become a source of tension in the post-Communist era. 
    With the collapse of Communist rule in the countries of E Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, their Orthodox churches revived and gained new members. Following the establishment in 1991 of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Russian patriarch, a breakaway church emerged and demanded independence from Moscow, but Constantinople refrained from endorsing the break. Constantinople’s recognition in 1996 of Estonia’s church as under its, instead of Russian, oversight led to strain between it and the Russian church. 
    I would suggest you to check this site with online history books: http://www.alexanderpalace.org/  
    It is always good for one to know the history as it is. Priests in E Europe have never been illiterate, uneducated or POOR.

  10. Priests in E Europe have never been illiterate, uneducated or POOR. 
    Nice history summation, but still no sources provided to back up this assertion. 
    I defer to the experts. 
    Geoffrey Hosking in Russia: People and Empire
    [After Peter III and Catherine II's reforms]‘The clergy became a segregated and relatively impoverished estate… although the clergy was a service estate, its members held no chin or official rank, and so possessed neither the career openings nor the social status conferred by it.’ 
    “By the nineteenth century the Russian Orthodox Church had become a kind of welfare office for its underpaid and insecure clerics…” 
    “clergymen not infrequently had to haggle with members of their flock before solemnizing a marriage or performing a burial – a process many of them found humiliating.’ 
    Orlando Figes
    ‘During the eighteenth century a large proportion of its lands had been taken from it by the state, so the Church was dependent on the states’s finances to support the parish clergy and their families. Impoverished and venal, badly educated and proverbially fat, the parish priest was no advertisement for the estabilished Church. As its spiritual life declined, people broke away from the official Church to join the Old Believers or the diverse sects which flourished from the eighteenth century by offering a more religious way of life.’

  11. the only reason i left the comment from “Supernova” up was because of the response. please, no one else should respond to it. i would find the assertion that orthodox priests were never illiterate or poor plausible if i had heard of any other situation where general clergy were not characterized by the same social maladies as was the norm in the general population. not having read of such a case (i.e., venality and poor qualifications amongst religious “professionals” seem very common in all pre-modern cultures i’ve read about) there are a priori reasons to be skeptical. of course, it doesn’t help that there is plenty of extant literature on the issues confronting orthodoxy under ottoman rule, or the run down nature of the russian state and population before and after peter the great. the problem with historical posts is that people simply make shit up, and expect not to be called on it. homey don’t play that game, this isn’t special education class.

  12. Just a couple notes on Japan. Nagasaki was the most Catholic city of Japan during Sengoku Jidai, but other than the elites, wasn’t truly “Catholic” for the majority of the population. Also, the Kakure Kirishitan absorbed much more elements of Shinto in their syncretization and hidden faith. Buddhist trappings were pretty minimal, mostly in disguising iconography. The places that were Kakure strongholds tended to be far from the eyes of the terauke (temple registration) system centers. Mostly remote villages and isolated offshore islands.