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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How the Soviets Lost the War on God

In the ongoing post-mortem on post-crisis Russia, commentators, analysts and journalists frequently point to the lack of a "civil society" as the principle hindrance to Russia's moving more quickly along the West-bound path.

Sometimes use of the term "civil society" in this context is just another way to be patronizing, to take a discreet poke at Russia. Sometimes though, what is meant is the dominance of a morality that can best be described as "soviet."

This is a moral code that includes "not saying what you believe and not doing what you say, of being punished for telling the truth and praised for repeating the lies," as one Ukrainian human-rights activist recently described it to me.

The search is on for a new morality, both in a somewhat absurd, public way with President Boris Yeltsin's call for a competition to define Russia's "national idea," and in the lives of people confronted with the mores of a glitzy criminal culture and the dowdy precepts of their long- cowed grandparents.

Against this background, it is fascinating to read Daniel Peris' Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless. Peris, a former history professor at the University of Wyoming, uses once-closed Russian archives to tell the story of Bolshevik efforts to disseminate atheism, to reshape culture, to redefine values and to cast a new morality.

There were two dimensions to early Soviet attempts to destroy religious belief. First came destruction through propaganda, laws and violence. Under the Constitution of 1918, Peris notes, the clergy were lumped with "capitalists, merchants, former members of the police, criminals and imbeciles," as second-class citizens.

The Bolsheviks systematically destroyed the churches, icons , as well as the priests themselves, making traditional worship impossible. This was their way of hiding any embarrassing evidence that socialism had not yet completely won the hearts and souls of the Russian people.

Before the Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church counted over 40,000 working parish churches. By 1940, Soviet Russia had 950 registered religious communities of any faith.

The second, much less documented, aspect of the campaign against religion focused on creating a new set of beliefs and rituals to be substituted for the old. Here entered the League of the Militant Godless, which was founded in 1925 and had a membership of 5.5 million members at its peak in 1932 - more than the Communist Party itself.This task of disseminating atheism was especially overwhelming in rural areas, where Orthodoxy, and the old pagan practices that had been coopted by Orthodoxy, formed the backbone of culture.

The experience of other European countries and the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin offered the league little guidance on how to go about this mammoth enterprise. Indeed, as Peris points out, "Revolutionaries inspired by Marxism were not supposed to have to contend with religion after a proletarian revolution."

With a sense of humor and much affection for his subject, Peris uses the League's publications and records to show how infighting, bureaucratic structure and the lack of talented God-slaying activists lessened the league's impact.

Peris has a keen eye for detail and offers wonderful descriptions of the league's ham-handed stealing of age-old Orthodox traditions. He relates how, instead of the traditional Easter procession, "one model collective farm celebrated the Day of First Furrowing, during which the peasants lined up on both sides of a tractor and followed its progress, thus adapting the format of the traditional religious procession."

Through the newspaper Bezbozhnik (Godless), the league's propagandists urged readers to discard primitive belief in God and embrace science and technology. Articles told how peasants had better results on the collective farm when they stopped looking to the local priest for predictions on when it would rain and started consulting a barometer.

Ultimately, though, "The regime either failed to appreciate or simply was unable to achieve the 'transfer of sacrality' to its rituals...," Peris writes. Nor did the league deal adequately with the fact that faith is not based on reason. Reason, by definition, cannot satisfy humanity's quite unreasonable yearning for a transcendent reality.

As the 1920s progressed, the league increasingly ventured into the realm of moral teaching, offering up a socialist morality designed to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat and defeat capitalism. A factory strike in the West was a righteous act but a similar strike in the Soviet Union was immoral. Highly subjective and self-serving political ideals that were subject to frequent change in the 1920s and 1930s, this moral code was weak tea for millions raised on the Ten Commandments.

However, later generations without the same religious anchor increasingly accepted the principle that morality serves the state, a problematic formula under any circumstances but one that is disastrous when the state itself becomes universally despised and distrusted.

Despite the league's marked failures - as evidenced in the suppressed results of the 1937 Soviet census which, for example, found that only 43 percent of the population were nonbelievers - it was still seen as the principle vehicle for spreading atheism until World War II, when Stalin considerably softened his stance towards religion.

Peris' book, which includes a detailed analysis of the league's work in Pskov and Yaroslavl, may be heavy going at times for the casual reader. But he is a refreshingly muscular writer, who takes pains to draw parallels with Mexico's battle with the Catholic Church in the 1930s, and convincingly presents the league's failures as being indicative of the broader shortcomings of Bolshevik bureaucratic culture.

Ultimately, the value of this book for the nonacademic is likely to be what it tells us about Russia's current search for a moral code.

Peris also leaves us with something broader and more hopeful. As he writes in his conclusion, "... the league's failure cast doubt on the capability of government-sponsored propaganda to transform the beliefs of the majority of society in a thorough, persuasive, and enduring manner."

"Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless" by Daniel Peris. Cornell University Press. 237 pages. $39.95.