On Soviet Atheism, 1954-1971


A review of “A Sacred Space is Never Empty”: Soviet Atheism, 1954-1971, by Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock.

The history of atheism in the Soviet Union is one of hesitation and setback. Over the course of the 1950s and 60s, the Soviet state endeavored repeatedly to supplant lingering religiosity in the country with a belief system founded in a uniquely Soviet, atheist worldview. In the process, promoters of atheism increasingly turned to the methods of popular recruitment that had been mobilized for centuries by the very church they were attempting to undermine. Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock’s dissertation offers a carefully researched, incisive, and engaging analysis of how the “Soviet state discovered that it had to become a church,” and the vital role that ritual played in the popular inculcation of Soviet political ideology. Drawing on a wealth of materials (including Party speeches, publications, brochures, and various propaganda media), Smolkin-Rothrock shows how the Party struggled to meet the spiritual needs of its constituents through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Concern over religiosity and the need for atheistic ritual re-emerged under Khrushchev after attempts at adopting atheism had largely failed in the immediate post-revolutionary period and been forgotten after the First Five Year Plan and the onset of war. This occurred, she argues, not only in response to the worrisome resurgence of religious practice that had happened during the war, but because atheism represented a vital component in the “reinvention of Soviet ideals” that characterized the post-Stalinist period. In the struggle to convince the population to continue on with the communist project, the religiosity of the old would have to be exchanged for a new moral code that was based on the idea of the “Soviet family,” with its own rituals, guidance, structure, and meanings for life. As Smolkin-Rothrock shows, all of these endeavors would ultimately prove ineffective in eradicating religion or its rituals from Soviet society. A Sacred Space reads as a story of inevitable defeat against an entrenched adversary that could no more be defeated than the Russian winter.

Offering a sophisticated analysis, Smolkin-Rothrock’s dissertation positions itself within the fields of Soviet history, religious studies, and cultural history. As she points out, while historians have long acknowledged the importance of anti-religious rhetoric and ritual in the history of the French Revolution, there is no counterpart in Soviet history. Scholars have explored the constitutive power of Soviet discourse and the many anti-religious campaigns that marked the Soviet period, but none have endeavored to frame the atheist movement within the larger history of Soviet spiritual culture. Moreover, Smolkin-Rothrock’s dissertation is the first to examine how atheists envisioned and revised their project over time and the impact that religious practices had on the methods of the anti-religious movement.

Smolkin-Rothrock begins with a careful study of the promises offered by the Soviet space program in the 1950s. She argues that atheism became a new faith in these years thanks in large part to space travel and the idea that man could now pierce the heavens and see that there was no god there. The rhetoric of the space program and the militant crusade to conquer the new frontier encouraged anti-religious activists to believe that superstition would soon be overcome. Just as the Enlightenment had ostensibly introduced the new faith of rationality to the world, so too did the space program offer a new set of beliefs upon which a populace could find hope and assurance. Yet, as Smolkin-Rothrock points out, such aspirations for the transcendent power of space travel were not so easy to fulfill. The vaulted promises of atheism did not reach much of the population, as atheists and Party members came to acknowledge in the late 1950s. Many Russians failed to make the connection between space travel and the seeming non-existence of a God, instead devising a whole series of hybridized beliefs.

Anti-religious crusaders were not to be defeated, however, as Khrushchev’s Thaw gave rise to new efforts. This period, with its renewed commitment to Enlightenment projects and its willingness to admit to limited errors in the past, led many atheists to focus less on the faults of traditional religious practice and more on the promises and potentialities of atheism as a way of seeing the world. During the anti-religious campaign of 1954, lectures and articles retold the stories of Soviet citizens who had started their lives practicing religion and had found enlightenment and peace in their conversions to atheism and the communist worldview. Ironically, in an age that was marked by liberalization, the eradication of religion became a dogmatic crusade. Yet, as was the case with the space race, the ability to draw distinctions between atheism and communism on one side and religion on the other was mired by a popular failure to see that religious belief might be incompatible with the communist ideals of sacrifice and hard work.

The idea that religion and Soviet ideology could peacefully coexist remained a problem as anti-religious efforts rose up again in the late 1950s. As a part of this campaign, atheist cadres increasingly recognized that in order for atheism to succeed, they would have to find a way to imbue atheism with spiritual meaning as a way to provide a fulfilling and coherent Soviet worldview. Over the next six years, activists gradually turned to new methods that took a more holistic approach to cultural education and anti-religious work. In the process, they slowly turned to the very methods that the church had used for centuries to attract believers.

Smolkin-Rothrock turns her attention throughout this dissertation to the individual actors who played such an important role in shaping the anti-religious narrative. In Chapter Four, she examines the iconic figures of Evgraf Duluman and Alexander Osipov as archetypal characters whose stories came to represent a master narrative of redemption through conversion. Through interviews conducted with Duluman, for instance, Smolkin-Rothroch shows how his path to atheism was fraught with far more turmoil than the official narrative allowed. She reveals how these stories can serve as a case study for the spiritual inadequacies in both the religious and anti-religious belief systems in these years. As she puts it, the Soviet atheist project, “experienced a spiritual crisis” (159) that resulted in the country’s most ambitious attempt to turn Soviet ideology into a religion.

By the mid-1960s, atheist workers had undertaken a wholesale overhaul of their work. The journal Science and Religion, which had previously stood as a vehicle for scientific enlightenment and the critique of religion, now endeavored to provide direction for the questions of life and death that religion seemed to answer so well. Meanwhile, the Institute of Scientific Atheism was formed to help devise concrete methods by which the Soviet worldview and atheism might offer a “typology of belief” (213) to the elderly, the young, and the entire Soviet family. Yet as Smolkin-Rothrock makes clear, this was a losing battle. The efforts of the atheist brigades only met with limited success and were abandoned by the time Gorbachev enacted his reforms in the mid-1980s. Atheism, she argues, could not overcome its own systemic problems.

While the subjects of her study may have failed, Smolkin-Rothrock has nonetheless succeeded at this ambitious project. Her work raises the much larger question of whether the systemic failures of the anti-religious crusade were rooted in their Sovietness or in their atheism. In other words, was it atheism that was doomed to fail or was it the Soviet-atheist worldview that sowed the seeds of its own destruction? Seldom does one read a dissertation that is ready to be published as a book. This is one of them.

Margaret Peacock
Department of History
University of Alabama

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Russian Federation (Gosudarstvennii Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii or GARF) (Moscow)
Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (Rossiiskii gosudarstvenii arkhiv noveishei istorii or RGANI) (Moscow)
Central State Archives of Public Organizations in Ukraine (Tsentral’nii derzhavnii arkhiv gromads’kikh ob’ednan’ Ukraini or TsDAGO) (Kiev)
Extensive work in over fifty contemporary and historical journals, particularly Nauka i religiia
Interviews with prominent figures in the atheism campaigns of these years

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2010. 254 pp. Primary Advisor: Yuri Slezkine.