For Nikolai Semenovich Gordienko (1929–2011), atheism was not just a personal conviction but a professional vocation. Among the most prominent professors of “scientific atheism” in the Soviet Union, Gordienko was also the author of the Foundations of Scientific Atheism textbook and a consultant to the political elite on religious questions.1 Indeed, over the course of his [End Page 597] life, he was connected with every institution that managed Soviet spiritual life in both its religious and atheist variants.2
Gordienko began his teaching career during Nikita Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign (1958–64) and went on to become chair of the Department of Scientific Atheism at the Herzen State Pedagogical Institute in Leningrad, a position he held for 25 years. In this capacity, he helped create “scientific atheism” as an academic discipline, as well as to formulate party policy on religion, in part through his collaboration with Moscow’s Institute of Scientific Atheism.3 As one of the state’s religion experts in Leningrad, he had regular contact with local Orthodox Church officials, the students and faculty of the Leningrad Theological Academy, the Leningrad State Museum of Religion and Atheism, and the local plenipotentiary of the Council on Religious Affairs. Hundreds of students passed through his classroom at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, as well as the institute’s Club of Militant Atheists (Klub voinstvuiushchikh ateistov [KVAT]), and they remember his lectures as the only place where they could learn about religion. Indeed, for most Leningrad youth, scientific atheism lectures and atheist clubs like KVAT (which organized debates with religious youth) were the only politically sanctioned spaces for dialogue on spiritual questions.4 Finally, it is important [End Page 598] to bear in mind that, often, the careers of atheist cadres did not end with the end of the Soviet Union and official atheism. In the post-Soviet period, some continued to work within the state apparatus as advisers on church–state relations; others continued academic careers within the framework of fields like sociology of religion, religious studies (religiovedenie), or cultural studies (kul´turologiia); while still others went on to play central roles in religious revival movements across the country. Atheist cadres, in short, used—and continue to use—the knowledge they acquired in the Soviet period to shape the conditions of post-Soviet spiritual life.
The professionalization of atheism was a logical development in the Soviet system, where atheist commitments were written into the Communist Party Charter. But career atheists like Gordienko were also the product of historical circumstances. Despite the common image of the Soviet Union as an atheist monolith, the reality was that there was no consistent political line on religion and, for most of the Soviet period, no centralized system for managing religion and atheism. Whereas militant atheism was required of party members, the state was founded on the secular separation of religion and politics, and individual citizens had the right to fulfill religious needs and observe religious rites.5 The Party’s influence over state institutions, however, resulted in the oscillation of Soviet religious policy from repressive to permissive and back again.
Without a doubt, the communist project was hostile to religion, and the best-known element of Soviet religious policy is the militant antireligious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s (organized by the press, the Komsomol, and the League of Militant Godless). One of the first political decisions taken by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution was the 20 January 1918 decree separating church from state and education from the church, the primary aims of which were to disenfranchise religious institutions by secularizing church land and property and to diminish religion’s public presence by confining it to sanctioned religious spaces. As scholarship on the prewar period makes evident, however, early Soviet antireligious campaigns succeeded in some goals (severely diminishing the institutional authority of the Russian Orthodox Church and marginalizing religion in Soviet public [End Page 599] life) but contributed little to the secularization of Soviet society.6 If the measure of atheist success was the production of a secular population, then the project almost certainly failed.