- Atheism versus Secularization? Religion in Soviet Russia, 1917–1961
When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917, they sought to transform Russian popular culture and political structures to create a society that was not merely secularized, but atheist. The Bolsheviks believed that this would be a process of confrontation, but that ultimately history was on their side: secularization would be the ineluctable result of the modernization of Soviet society. A wealth of new studies is beginning to unravel the realities of this process – how Russians [End Page 547] experienced the drive for an atheist society, the level of success that drive enjoyed, and the evolving strategies of the state, the Russian Orthodox Church, and of individual believers in dealing with the Bolsheviks' "storming of the heavens." Historians of Russia are now bringing newly opened archival evidence to bear on the traditional questions of the relations between church and state, but also asking new ones about the role of religious culture and activism in shaping the evolution of Soviet anti-religious policy. As this literature paints a clearer picture of the fate of religious institutions and religious practice in the Soviet period, it highlights how unintended processes of secularization operated alongside the official atheism of the regime, challenging us to consider the extent to which the Bolsheviks truly managed to build "atheism" in the Soviet Union.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the combination of the collapse of communist ideology and the opening of the archives led many researchers to topics in religious history. In those heady days, Russians interested in the fate of religion under Communism held conferences and published sensational material from newly opened archives. The few studies by Soviet scholars of religious life during the Soviet period had generally carried a strong anti-religious message and aimed to show the fight of the enlightened Soviet state against allegedly counter-revolutionary, bourgeois religious organizations. Entire episodes in the story of church-state relations had been obscured or ignored. Now scholars rushed to set the record straight. Several broad surveys of church-state relations in the early Soviet period, as well as numerous document collections, chronicled the harsh and often bloody assault on religion.1 A second generation of post-Soviet Russian works is now appearing, based on broad and deep archival research. Like the [End Page 548] books reviewed here, these studies tend to focus on correcting and enriching our knowledge of church-state relations.
In the English-speaking world, older analyses of Soviet religious policy and of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union were based on Soviet publications and sources available through the émigré community. Such works provided a solid groundwork for future studies, but were themselves not always free of partisanship, whether regarding the evaluation of Soviet policy generally or reflecting tensions within the Orthodox community abroad. Because of the limited source base of these studies, it was difficult for their authors to gauge the effectiveness of policies behind communist slogans; conversely, they were often forced to deduce intentions from results...