Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

Views: 385
Ratings: (0)

Sonja Luehrmann explores the Soviet atheist effort to build a society without gods or spirits and its afterlife in post-Soviet religious revival. Combining archival research on atheist propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s with ethnographic fieldwork in the autonomous republic of Marij El in Russia's Volga region, Luehrmann examines how secularist culture-building reshaped religious practice and interreligious relations. One of the most palpable legacies of atheist propaganda is a widespread didactic orientation among the population and a faith in standardized programs of personal transformation as solutions to wider social problems. This didactic trend has parallels in globalized forms of Protestantism and Islam but differs from older uses of religious knowledge in rural Russia. At a time when the secularist modernization projects of the 20th century are widely perceived to have failed, Secularism Soviet Style emphasizes the affinities and shared histories of religious and atheist mobilizations.

List price: $9.99

Your Price: $7.99

You Save: 20%

 

8 Slices

Format Buy Remix

1. Neighbors and Comrades: Secularizing the Mari Country

ePub

If it seemed that atheist methodicians had no qualms about interfering in the private lives of citizens to eradicate religious attachments, they did so in the name of a particular vision of public social relations. Comparable to secularist critics elsewhere, the builders of Soviet socialism often blamed religion for upholding the distinctions of ethnicity, gender, age, and locality that threatened to hamper a vision of statewide solidarity.1 Like other modernizers, Soviet activists failed to fully grasp the complexity of the social relations they set out to transform. But their critique of religion as a force of strife and division also emerged out of encounters between ideological expectations and this on-the-ground complexity, creating a set of constraints that remain effective in post-Soviet religious policy.

Particularly in multireligious regions such as the Middle Volga, atheist activists confronted religious solidarity and religious fragmentation as part of the forces shaping a tangle of neighborly relations among households and between villages. These relations ranged from cooperation to distrust or indifference, but were always at odds with the universal solidarity that Soviet modernization called for. The assumption that penetrating and transforming this tangle necessarily involved anti-religious struggle owed much of its persistence to the unassailable status of the writings of Marx and Engels, including their critiques of religion’s role in obscuring social relations and preserving patriarchal power.2 But Soviet atheist scholarship also elaborated its own changing answers to the question of where exactly the harm of religion lay, answers which over time came to home in on religion’s potential to strengthen social boundaries and increase individual isolation. These ideas evolved in part out of encounters with historical patterns of neighborliness that ordered the coexistence between social groups at a local level—patterns that, like religion itself, seemed at once too fragmenting and too solid for the Soviet state to tolerate.

 

2. “Go Teach”: Methods of Change

ePub

[M]aterial force must be overthrown by material force; but theory, too, becomes a material force when it takes hold of the masses.

—Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction”

The task of the methodician is to link theory with practice.

—A. V. Fomina, methodician at the Center for Folk Creativity, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Marij El, April 2005

And so go, teach all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

—Matthew 28:19 (Russian Synodal Bible translation)

Political decision makers in Moscow were anxious to have life on the Middle Volga conform to a vision of union-wide social solidarity, but they were not always interested in the intricacies of local religious life as reported by Commissioner Nabatov. In the academic world, the empirical sociologists of the 1960s and ’70s were also often criticized for burrowing too deeply into accidental facts instead of finding ready-made answers in Marxist-Leninist philosophy.1 Both Nabatov and the sociologists found a more responsive audience among a particular group of applied intellectuals: instructors whose task was to assimilate knowledge about religion for the purpose of promoting an atheist society. In 1950, Nabatov was invited to join first the Mari division of the All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge, then its newly founded atheist section. Although the Council for Religious Cult Affairs prohibited its commissioners from openly engaging in atheist propaganda, he prepared the texts of several lectures on Mari religious life for the society and for the lecturers deployed by the regional party committee, materials which were then used by other activists.2 The sociologist Viktor Solov'ev, born in 1934 in a Mari village in a northeastern district, started his public career as a teacher and lecturer for the regional party committee. After obtaining his academic degrees, he served for a long time as the liaison between the party lecturers and the Knowledge Society. Both men thus combined political ambitions with an interest in understanding the social implications of religious traditions, and both found receptive partners among propagandists of atheism.

 

3. Church Closings and Sermon Circuits

ePub

Between August 15 and 18, 1960, 110 enterprises and medical, educational, and cultural institutions across the city of Joshkar-Ola held assemblies of their workforces. On the agenda everywhere was a lecture on the topic “The communist education of the toilers and the overcoming of religious prejudices at the present stage,” followed by discussion and a resolution on the closing of the last functioning Orthodox church of the city, the Church of the Resurrection. The result was not surprising, given the mounting pressure to close houses of worship all over the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1961 (Chumachenko 2002; Shkarovskii 1995): all of the assemblies, representing 17,000 workers and white-collar employees, passed resolutions demanding the church be closed, many of them unanimously.1 At the request of the republic’s Council of Ministers, the USSR Council for Russian Orthodox Church Affairs confirmed the closing of the church on November 19, forcing the congregation to merge with that of the village of Semënovka, approximately five miles outside of town.2 The church building was demolished a few months later.

 

4. Marginal Lessons

ePub

Khrushchev era didacticism owed a great deal of its persuasive power to the palpable social changes that manifested in reconstructed cities, new apartment blocks, promises of more consumer-friendly production targets, and opportunities for participation in volunteer campaigns. While some hopes of impending change proved short-lived, the altered cityscapes brought about through the accelerated construction methods pioneered in the late 1950s remained, and imposed ongoing constraints on post-Soviet developments (Collier 2001). Religious life in Joshkar-Ola also had to adapt. By the end of the Soviet era, legal as well as illegal religious practices were increasingly confined to the outskirts of the city: the Orthodox met in the church of Semënovka, Muslims gathered for prayer in private apartments, and Baptists and Adventists established unregistered houses of prayer in the “private sectors” of single-family wooden houses outside the zones of reconstruction. The center, by contrast, was occupied not only by administrative headquarters, but also by the institutions of secular didacticism—theaters, cinemas, institutions of higher education, the Palace of Young Pioneers, and the planetarium of the Knowledge Society.

 

5. Visual Aid

ePub

Before he died, the dormitory supervisor’s husband saw a sign in a dream. Or rather, a poster. During his terminal illness, he had long resisted his wife’s attempts to get him to declare his faith in Christ. But, as she later recounted in her testimony in the Lutheran church where she was in charge of the dormitory for visitors, he slowly began to learn prayers, laughing when he forgot the words. Then, one day, he told her: “I saw a dream: a colorful poster [krasochnyj plakat], on which was written ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” From this she had concluded that he died a believer, and was waiting for her in heaven.

In Russian, people “see” dreams instead of “having” them, so the visual nature of the divine sign is perhaps predetermined by grammar. But that it took the form of a poster with colorful writing and that the dying man’s wife interpreted it as making manifest the culmination of a complex spiritual process resonate in curious ways with other uses of visual materials in Soviet and post-Soviet pedagogy. The focus on calligraphic rather than pictorial depiction also departs from another visual imaginary that is reasserting its presence in the region: the icons of Russian Orthodoxy.

 

6. The Soul and the Spirit

ePub

Pedagogical traditions differ not only in the methods they espouse, but also in their desired outcomes, in the kinds of persons and communities they hope to create. One way to understand the different goals of secular and religious transformations is to look at the qualities each seeks to develop and promote, both in individuals as they go about their lives and in collectives. In late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, a term that was used across several secular and religious traditions to describe the ideal outcome of transformation was “spirituality” (dukhovnost'). Despite common roots in European theological and philosophical vocabulary, the term meant something different to each group that used it. The relationship between transformative goals and the qualities and behaviors that count as signs of spirituality becomes apparent when comparing the three traditions that elaborate the most on the concept: late Soviet atheism, Orthodox Christianity, and Charismatic Pentecostalism.

 

7. Lifelong Learning

ePub

After the closing and destruction of Resurrection Cathedral in 1961, the village church of Semënovka was the only Russian Orthodox house of worship in the immediate vicinity of Joshkar-Ola. When I asked an aged priest who had served in Semënovka since the mid-1970s why that church remained open, he replied laconically: “If they had closed it, there would have been no place to sing off the deceased.” The phrase “singing off” (otpevat') refers to Orthodox funeral services, and the priest’s assertion was that even Soviet officials would not have wanted, or dared, to deprive the population of the republic’s capital of a place to hold such rites. For a study of the interaction between religious and secular spheres, this matter-of-fact assertion raises a number of questions. While it is tempting to treat the Soviet era as a purely secular background to post-Soviet efforts of religious revival, funeral rites are just one area where religious practice not only persisted under socialism, but did so with a measure of public recognition. Soviet secularity could never quite exclude religion, and post-Soviet religiosity relies on the secular training and skills of former methodicians. We should thus think of the religious and the secular not so much as characteristics of long historical eras that succeed each other, but as sites of engagement that alternate and overlap in the lives of both societies and individuals.

 

Conclusion: Affinity and Discernment

ePub

In the preface, I told the story of an Orthodox priest who was convinced that the devil guided Karl Marx’s hand in writing Capital. When I told a young icon painter in Joshkar-Ola about this encounter, she neither derided the priest nor joined in his condemnation of the father of communism. Instead, she briefly paused to think, then asked if I thought Marx would have known. Another priest had once told her that a “spiritual person” (dukhovnyj chelovek) always knew “where his thoughts come from, which ones are his own, and which ones are induced from outside [vnushajutsja].” By implication, she was asking if I would credit Marx with the gift of spiritual discernment. If the devil had attempted to suggest ideas to him, would he have noticed, or would he have mistaken them for his own?

Few readers of this book are likely to worry about the devil’s capacity to infiltrate their thoughts. But the problem of discernment still stands as a challenge to any analysis that searches for similarities and changes across time periods or cultural domains. Borrowing Weber’s and Goethe’s concept of “elective affinity," I have pursued the spirit of didacticism through secularist and religious quests for transformation. As a way of mobilizing people into social activity through relationships of teaching and learning, didacticism involves a view of human beings as capable of the speedy and unlimited change of attitudes and behavior, and an understanding of objects, words, and practices as tools to induce such changes. Driven by activists who imbibed these principles during their Soviet secular training, religious revival in the post-Soviet era sometimes seeks to emulate and recreate Soviet educational networks, and sometimes keeps a tension-ridden distance. Throughout, it is clear that the religious and secular spheres are not governed by fundamentally different ethics or rationalities, but intersect in the lives of individuals and communities.

 

Details

Print Book
E-Books
Slices

Format name
ePub (DRM)
Encrypted
true
Sku
2370004240008
Isbn
9780253005427
File size
0 Bytes
Printing
20 times / 30 days
Copying
20 times / 30 days
Read aloud
No
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata