To understand why the Communist Party abandoned atheism, we must go back to the beginning of the Soviet project, charting the ways in which the meaning of religion and atheism changed over time.
On April 29, 1988, at the height of perestroika, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev made the unanticipated decision to meet with Patriarch Pimen and the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. This was the first official meeting between the leader of the Soviet Communist Party and the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church since 1943 when Joseph Stalin summoned three Orthodox metropolitans to the Kremlin in the middle of the night to inform them that after more than two decades of repression, the Orthodox Church could return to Soviet life with the benediction of the state.
The direct impetus for Gorbachev’s meeting with the patriarch was the approaching millennium of the Christianization of Rus’— an event commemorating Grand Prince Vladimir’s adoption of Christianity in 988 as the official religion of Kyivan Rus’, which gathered his diverse lands and peoples into a unified state.
Gorbachev’s motives for meeting with the patriarch were not unlike Stalin’s—which is to say, they were political. Just as Stalin had broken with two decades of antireligious policy in order to mobilize patriotism at home and appeal to allies abroad in the midst of a catastrophic war, Gorbachev was attempting to harness Orthodoxy’s moral capital at home and court political favor abroad in order to regain control over perestroika—which by early 1988 was not only losing popular support but also being challenged from within the Soviet political establishment by Communist Party conservatives as well as nationalists across the Soviet Union’s titular republics, including Russia itself.
During the meeting with the Patriarch, Gorbachev noted that, whereas before it had been relegated to a strictly religious event, the Millennium would now be commemorated “not only in a religious but also a sociopolitical tone, since it was a significant milestone in the centuries-long path of the development of the fatherland’s history, culture, and Russian statehood.” Gorbachev also called on the church to play a role in the moral regeneration of Soviet society, “where universal norms and customs can help our common cause.”
Gorbachev acknowledged the deep “worldview differences” between the Soviet Communist Party and the Russian Orthodox Church, but emphasized that religious believers were nevertheless “Soviet people, working people, patriots,” and, as such, entitled to all the rights of Soviet citizenship “without restrictions”—including “the full right to express their convictions with dignity.”
Finally, Gorbachev offered the church unprecedented concessions: to return religious property that had been nationalized by the Bolsheviks following the Revolution; to allow religious instruction and charity work; to eliminate restrictions on the publication of religious literature, including the Bible; and to revise the draconian laws that had governed religious life in the USSR for decades.
Yet what turned out to be the most consequential concession was the new prohibition on the Soviet state’s political and material support of atheist work—a provision that effectively ended the relationship between Communism and atheism in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s meeting with the Orthodox patriarch transformed the Russian Orthodox millennium from a narrowly religious event—an event that had been deliberately portrayed by the media as marginal to Soviet life—into a national celebration sanctioned by the Communist establishment.
So why did the Communist Party abandon atheism?
To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning of the Soviet project to look at the meaning of religion and atheism to Soviet Communism, and—more importantly—to the way in which this meaning changed over time.
A world without religion
The Bolsheviks imagined Communism as a world without religion. The Soviet experiment was the first attempt to turn this vision into reality. When they seized power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks promised to liberate people from the old world— to overcome exploitation with justice, conflict with harmony, superstition with reason, and religion with atheism. They rejected all previous sources of authority, replacing the autocratic state with Soviet power, religious morality with class morality, and backwardness and superstition with progress and enlightenment. They renounced traditional religious institutions, theologies, and ways of life, offering in their place the Communist Party and Marxism-Leninism—a party that claimed a monopoly on power and truth, and an ideology that promised to give new meaning to collective and individual life.
Atheism, at its core, rejects the idea that transcendent or supernatural power can act upon and shape the material world. In the Soviet context, atheism underpinned Communism’s most radical and utopian premise: the promise that humanity could master the world, and that injustice and evil could be overcome in this life rather than the next. But Soviet atheism was also about power, a tool for undermining competing sources of political, ideological, and spiritual authority— political institutions that were not the Communist Party, ideologies that were not Marxism- Leninism, communities that were not the Soviet people, and ways of life that were not the Soviet way of life. In contesting competing claims to truth and authority, Soviet Communism assumed the burden of providing its own answers to life’s questions and solutions to life’s problems. In this way, atheism became the battleground on which Soviet Communism engaged with the existential concerns at the heart of human existence: the meaning of life and death.
As faithful Marxists-Leninists, the Bolsheviks did not anticipate religion to be a serious obstacle to their project of revolutionary transformation. They understood, of course, that seizing political power would not immediately transform society, but they had faith in the Marxist model of historical development according to which religion would inevitably wither away. What became clear after the October Revolution was that religion was not going to die a natural death. The unfolding of history would require the active involvement of the Bolshevik Party. To understand how the party approached this contest over sacred authority, we can look at three sets of oppositions: the political opposition between the party’s commitment to ideological purity and the state’s pursuit of effective governance; the ideological opposition between religion, superstition, and backwardness and science, reason, and progress; and the spiritual opposition between indifference and conviction.
For the Bolsheviks, religion consisted of three elements: the political, grounded in religious institutions; the ideological, embodied in a (false) religious dogma and worldview grounded in the supernatural; and the spiritual, encompassed in the values, practices, and customs that made up everyday life. The party’s engagements with religion reflected this understanding. To address religion as a political problem, the party deployed militant anticlericalism, using administrative regulation and repression to circumscribe the autonomy of religious institutions, marginalize religion in public life, and undermine its political power. To address religion as an ideological problem, the party relied on propaganda, education, and enlightenment to inculcate a scientific materialist worldview. Finally, to address religion as a spiritual problem, the party used cultural tools to transform traditional ways of life into the new Communist way of life. For the Bolsheviks, overcoming religion was a process: religious institutions had to be neutralized before religious beliefs could be eradicated, and worldviews had to be freed from religious beliefs before spiritual life could be transformed.
The first step, then, was to solve religion as a political problem.
Under Lenin and Stalin, from the revolution in 1917 until Stalin’s death in 1953, the Bolsheviks used administrative regulation, extralegal repression and terror, and militant atheist propaganda in their engagements with religion. Even as Bolshevik ideology proclaimed it was building a new world, remaking society, and transforming human nature, in practice the party devoted little attention to atheism. This was because religion remained above all a political problem: a tool that could be used by the enemy to undermine the revolution.
In the first decades of Soviet power, the party’s efforts were focused on breaking religion, and the Orthodox Church in particular, by attacking religious spaces, clergy, and especially fervent believers. For the masses, the party approached religion as a form of backwardness that could be overcome through enlightenment. To this end, churches, synagogues, and mosques were often closed, destroyed, or turned into secular spaces such as museums (including antireligious museums), planetariums, clubhouses, swimming pools, and even storage facilities.
But ultimately, for Lenin and Stalin, religion mattered above all because it constituted a political threat. And by the end of the 1930s—with the political power of the Orthodox Church nearly destroyed—the party believed that threat was neutralized. From this point, the continued existence of religion in the Soviet Union would be on the state’s terms. Ironically, Stalin’s last decade in power (1943 to 1953) was a period of relative stability, even growth, for the Russian Orthodox Church. After radical repression of religion, the state was allowing the opening of religious spaces, so the number of Russian Orthodox churches increased from around 1,000 in 1939 to around 14,000 in 1953. Atheism, on the other hand, lost much of its political support and became practically invisible in public life until the arrival of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev.
Stepping ‘across the ominous shadow’ of religion
So why does atheism return under Khrushchev? And how does atheism transform during the Khrushchev era?
Following Stalin’s death, Khrushchev sought to place the Soviet project on new foundations with his project of “building Communism.” Religion was now transformed from a political enemy into an alien ideology inside Soviet borders, and therefore a stain on Soviet modernity. However, since religion remained a fact of Soviet life, and since Communism and religion were considered fundamentally incompatible, atheism was revived after an almost twenty-year hiatus. In fact, under Khrushchev the party mobilized the most extensive antireligious campaign in Soviet history, closing nearly half the country’s religious spaces, instituting harsh new laws limiting religious autonomy, and investing unprecedented resources in atheist propaganda. When atheism returned under Khrushchev, therefore, it was no longer cast as a political problem, but an ideological one. Believers were not to be cast out of the body politic, as in the early Soviet period, but rescued from their own backwardness through science and enlightenment.
The militant atheism of the early Soviet period was transformed into scientific atheism. The euphoria around the Soviet space program was harnessed to spread the message that the cosmonauts had not seen God on their space journeys, and planetariums became sites of personal transformation where Soviet people could shed their ignorance and, in the words of a propaganda poster from the time, “Step across the ominous shadow [of religion]” and join Soviet society on the other side, “in the joyful bustle of the day!” Rather than go to church, believers were encouraged to head to the planetarium or the local house of culture to listen to lectures meant to facilitate their enlightenment.
Yet when atheists attempted to fight faith with fact, they often encountered people who were untroubled by the contradictions that atheist propaganda so ardently unmasked, and instead reconciled scientific and religious cosmologies in unexpected ways. That science, technology, and enlightenment—and even the miracles of cosmic conquests—failed to convert the masses to atheism forced atheists to recognize that chasing the gods out of the heavens was not enough, and that in order to reach the Soviet soul, scientific atheism had to also fill the empty space with its own positive meaning. Atheists also realized that they would have to engage not just the rational but also the spiritual.
The failure of religion to “die out,” even after the party’s best efforts to hurry the process along with antireligious campaigns, forced atheists to confront the complex reality of lived religiosity, and to fundamentally reconsider both the definition of religion and approaches to atheist work. After failing to “overcome” religion through ideological approaches, the party began to see religion as above all a spiritual problem. More specifically, the party became aware of a spiritual emptiness—a mass sentiment of indifference—spreading in Soviet society. This diagnosis of “indifference” extended to both religious and atheist worldviews, its symptoms manifesting as political apathy, ideological hypocrisy, philistine individualism, and spiritual consumerism. And as the Soviet leadership noted with alarm, “indifference” was spreading through Soviet society, and especially among Soviet youth. Indeed, by the 1970s, indifference seemed more pervasive than any commitments Soviet citizens had to religion or atheism, and as a phenomenon seemed more worrisome than the continued existence of religion.
As the ideological apparatus tried to understand why indifference was becoming a mass phenomenon, the stakes of the inability to produce atheist conviction came into focus: if they failed to fill the sacred space at the center of the Soviet project, it would be filled by alien ideologies and commitments—since, as the proverb goes, “a sacred space is never empty.” And this anxiety about the consequences of Soviet society’s ideological indifference returned religion back into the sphere of politics.
The return of religion
Gorbachev’s dramatic reversal in the Soviet position on religion on the eve of the Orthodox millennium was politically consequential, perhaps even fateful. For Soviet power, it ultimately undermined the ideological foundations of Soviet Communism and the party’s claims to legitimacy. Indeed, the return of religion to politics and public life in 1988 can be seen as the entry of the Soviet Communist project into its final chapter: dissolution.
From the beginning, religion was a destabilizing force within Soviet Communism. As ideologically mobilized party cadres and citizen activists repeatedly reminded the party, religion was the only ideological alternative to Marxism-Leninism legally permitted to exist within the closed world of Soviet Communism. Until the 1970s, however, religion could still be folded into the ideological narrative since it could still be construed as dying out. The return of religion— first to Soviet culture, with the intelligentsia’s “spiritual turn” under Brezhnev; then to the mass media, with the appearance of positive portrayals of religion on television and in the press under Gorbachev; and finally to public life, with the officially sanctioned celebration of the Russian Orthodox Millennium in 1988— disrupted the internal logic of the Soviet Communism.
The Soviet Communist Party’s abandonment of atheism and sanctioning of religion destabilized the coherence of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which in turn undermined the legitimacy of the party, which had always defined itself against the political, ideological, and spiritual claims of religion, and viewed the decline of religion as a measure of progress toward Communism. Soviet atheism therefore did not die; it was abandoned by a political project that came to see it as useless to the broader goal of consolidating political, ideological, and spiritual authority. Soviet atheism was abandoned in the divorce of party and state, becoming utopia’s orphan.