A Sacred Space Is Never Empty

A History of Soviet Atheism

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Victoria Smolkin
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As I was reading A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, Victoria Smolkin’s well-documented and timely history of Soviet atheism, I recalled two images—more precisely icons—from my initial visit to what was the Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1985-86. I found the first on the mini-bus that conveyed me from the Tbilisi train station to the university dormitory: on the dashboard was an image of the Virgin Mary, and next to her one of Joseph—Stalin, that is. The other icon was one that I had received as a gift from Ilia II, Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In the spring of 1986, the administrator of the dormitory and his assistant came to inspect my room. While counting bed-sheets and pillowcases, and basically snooping around, the assistant spotted the icon on my desk. Spontaneously, and without any apparent indication of conscious awareness, he crossed himself three times. 

How did it come to pass that religion had such a hold over people, including employees of state institutions, nearly 70 years after the October Revolution? In a 2012 Gallup poll, 55% of respondents in the Russian Federation considered themselves religious. Only 6% identified themselves as atheist, fewer than any West European country surveyed. Armenia (92%), Georgia (84%), and Moldova (83%) ranked among the most religious countries in the world. What went wrong? Drawing upon archival materials, publications, and interviews with over a dozen individuals involved in the Soviet anti-religious campaign, Smolkin traces the evolution of atheism in the USSR from its roots in Marxist-Leninist theory to its final gasps as the Soviet Union itself came to an end in 1991. She identifies three fronts on which Soviet atheism waged combat against religion (5), roughly corresponding to three periods in the history of the USSR.

The first front was Political. In the initial years of Soviet power, the state succeeded in effectively eliminating the capacity of organized religion to oppose the policies of the USSR. But when confronted with the threat of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin recognized the usefulness of religious organizations for promoting patriotism and self-sacrifice, leading to the concordats of 1943-44 establishing the state-administered Councils for Religious Affairs and the Islamic spiritual directorates. 

The second was Ideological. After Stalin’s death and the emergence of Khrushchev as Soviet leader in the mid-1950s, antireligious agitation increased once again. Smolkin calls attention to the role played by Soviet cosmonauts in emphasizing the contrasts between scientific progress and religious backwardness (84-105). She also mentions the recruitment of social scientists to document the persistence of “harmful” traditions among the Soviet population, and organize educational activities intended to eradicate them (109, 151-52). The Georgian ethnographers, folklorists, and historians whom I have met and collaborated with over the years—including the former director of the Cabinet of Religious History and Scientific Atheism at the Georgian State Museum—have described the complex and contradictory relationships between representatives of Soviet academic and governmental bodies and the populations whose religious practices they were supposed to describe and denounce. Entanglements between the observers and the observed were especially common in peripheral areas of the USSR, such as the Caucasus, where academic experts were recruited from the very communities where they subsequently conducted fieldwork.

The third and final front was Spiritual. The most difficult battle—the one that Soviet atheism ultimately failed to win—was against indifference and widespread sentiments of spiritual emptiness, especially during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years. In the course of their long struggle, Soviet atheists realized that there was more to religion than dogma. Life-cycle ceremonies, rituals, and feast-days were also integral components of the religious experience. Smolkin argues, “the [Soviet Communist] party discovered that it had to become a church” (19). Yet even Soviet rituals for registering births and marriages (168-88), and those grandiose festivals on Soviet holidays featuring parades with large icon-like portraits of Marx, Lenin, and various Politburo members, proved to be insufficient. Atheists, bureaucrats, and academics never found effective means to help citizens confront loneliness, tragedy, and the finality of death (133-38). Even the most secularized among my Soviet friends would occasionally light candles in commemoration of deceased family members, or, as the dormitory official mentioned at the beginning of this review, spontaneously make the sign of the cross upon seeing an icon or a church. It was this embodied, reflex-like vestige of traditional religious practice—inculcated in childhood—that lectures on scientific atheism and caricatures of corrupt clergymen were incapable of uprooting. Perhaps the ultimate irony in the saga of Soviet atheism is the insistence of some believers that Stalin himself never abandoned his faith, and even merits depiction on icons (Kabachnik et. al., 2016; Moscow Times, 2015).

As the author states, the focus of A Sacred Space Is Never Empty is on ethnic Russians and the Russian Orthodox Church; there is little mention of the non-Russian nationalities of the USSR, nor of other religious communities (17). Readers seeking a broader account of anti-religious activities in the Soviet Union will have to supplement Smolkin’s monograph with information from other sources on Soviet minorities—such as the Armenians and Georgians, whose national churches are intimately bound to their sense of identity, and the Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus. (On the Armenian Apostolic Church see, for example, the documents in Corley 1996; on Soviet Islam, the important 1986 book by Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay, as well as the extensive responses and reactions that it provoked). Although this reviewer’s fieldwork has primarily been in Georgia, I learned a great deal from Smolkin’s book. What particularly impressed me was the rich documentation of what occurred behind the façade of Militant Godless campaigns and antireligious museums: the discussions, criticism, and debates among government officials, academics, and agitators; and the shifts of policy and strategy. There is much in this book to inform and inspire those investigating religion and (de)secularization in the post-socialist world, and elsewhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Tuite is Professor of Anthropology at the Univesité de Montréal.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Victoria Smolkin is Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan University.


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