In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of Cold War Studies 3.2 (2001) 113-116

[Access article in PDF]

Book Review

Storming the Heavens:
The Soviet League of the Militant Godless

Daniel Peris. Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 237 pp. $39.95.

Although Soviet Communism, like its Nazi cousin, raised barbarism to the level of state policy, some of its activities and institutions still strike one as more bizarre than evil. The League of the Militant Godless, an organization employed by Josif Stalin to "storm the heavens," ridicule and humiliate clergymen, and transform "superstitious" citizens into atheists, is one such institution. In chronicling the League's rise and fall, Daniel Peris--formerly a history professor at the University of Wyoming and currently employed by a Western investment firm in Moscow--reminds us that some aspects of Soviet history were at the same time horrifying and comical.

Set up in 1925, the League was, in Peris's words, a "nominally independent organization established by the Communist Party to promote atheism." It published newspapers, journals, and other materials that lampooned religion; it sponsored lectures and films; it organized demonstrations and parades; it set up antireligious museums; and it led a concerted effort to persuade Soviet citizens that religious beliefs and practices were "wrong" and harmful, and that good citizens ought to embrace a scientific, atheistic worldview.

The League arranged competitions between christened and unchristened infants (to demonstrate that there were no differences in their health or growth rates), and it staged contests to show the superiority of "godless fields" (agricultural plots that used modern soil and plant science) over those of religious peasants who employed traditional techniques and asked a priest to bless their land. In addition, the League opened antireligious museums in former monasteries and churches around the country. In 1929, "godless shock brigades," "godless factories," and "godless collective farms" appeared. Groups of industrial workers and farmers promised to fulfill and overfulfill their production plans, while simultaneously deriding religious beliefs.

The League was a classic Soviet "mass organization." Within a decade it claimed to have 5.5 million members, 2 million more than the Communist Party itself. From the beginning, however, it offended more people than it persuaded. One Soviet commentator termed the League's efforts "all bluster" and derided it as an "atheist sect"; another said that the League had "adopted all of its adversary's worst features of intolerance and fanaticism." Membership figures for branches were inflated, and reports of antireligious activities were simply made up to please higher-ranking officials. Entire [End Page 113] factories and schools were enrolled in the League, often without the permission (or even the knowledge) of the workers or students who had "joined." By 1930 Emelyan Yaroslavskii, the head of the organization, observed that whole towns and villages had declared themselves "godless," although in fact there had been no discernible change in the population's views.

Even if some branches had encountered limited success, Yaroslavskii went on, "when entire districts are declared Godless, in a region where there is nothing, no culture, no [antireligious] work--this is a joke." As early as 1928 Anatolii Lunacharskii, the minister of education, said that "religion is like a nail; the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood," but this did not deter Stalin. A decade later another commentator admitted that "it is much more difficult to uproot religion from the minds of the workers than to liberate them from the exploitation of capitalism." Antireligious propaganda, it turned out, was at best an exercise in futility and self-deception and at worst an instrument that stimulated and reinforced the religious convictions it aimed to destroy.

What does Peris have to say about this "peculiar institution"? He draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including the journals Bezbozhnik (The Godless) and Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the Work-Bench) and various collections of documents. In addition, he has made use of archival materials that until recently were inaccessible scholars. What makes this volume particularly...