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Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia

Bishop Hilarion

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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 processes 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 revolution 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:

The Russian 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 regeneration 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.

Berdyaev blames 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 State Church, 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 considerable extent.

I remember 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.

Another testimony 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: against the 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.

The picture 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 as membership 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 Christ.

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 Communist 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 kindergarten 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 like Robinson 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 militant atheist. 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.

My parents 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, but could 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 music school, 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 same time 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 not believe 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.

Thus, though 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 mostly people 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 of Communist ideology.

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 officially 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. Remaining inwardly atheists, they become outwardly Orthodox.

The latest 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'. We recognise 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 their religion.

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 and theological 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?

Some ascribe 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 religious 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.

When 'perestroika' 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 enlightenment 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 initiative 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.

Russian atheism may well one day die, but this will happen when the country has not only been baptized, but has been enlightened and born again.

The Orthodox 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.

The second 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, against enlightenment. 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 State, may 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 only message of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Hilarion is the author of more than 300 publications, including numerous books in Russian, English, French, Italian, German and Finnish.Apart from his doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford, he also holds a doctorate in theology from St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.

Read the entire article on the Bishop Hilarion website (new window will open).

Posted: 13-Feb-08



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