Beliefs help us make sense of the world. While science can explain how the world functions, belief tells us why we should care and how we should act within society. Science provides information but belief gives us meaning. In Russian history before the twentieth century belief meant mainly religious conviction. The tsars understood themselves as Christian rulers and their empire as a Christian state - “Holy Russia.” But beliefs do not have to be based on religion or faith in a supreme being. Atheists, after all, often hold very strong beliefs about human society, morality, and behavior. Belief in this chapter will be understood in this broad sense, from religion to worldview, and even overlapping in some cases with ideology.
The connection between belief and ideology can be seen most obviously in the difference between perceptions of political legitimacy in the Russian Empire and the USSR. The tsar derived his political legitimacy from tradition, his position as a Christian ruler and, ultimately, from God directly. Lenin and Stalin based their political legitimacy on the belief that communism was the most progressive, modern, and humane sociopolitical ideology. Without wanting to minimize the enormous differences between the tsar’s Christian faith and the communists’ steadfast belief in their political ideology, both represent different versions of orthodoxy (in the broad, not specifically Christian, sense), and in both cases the government fostered its belief and restricted, forbade, and punished dissident views. For the tsars, “dissident beliefs” ranged from Old Believers to Jews to liberals to Marxists. For the communists, “dissidence” was even broader, including essentially every kind of religious faith and all political credos other than their own brand of socialism.
Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union tolerated many beliefs that they disliked. In both cases, however, there were limits to toleration (generally much
More narrow in the USSR than in tsarist Russia). Thus the Russian Empire tolerated Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and even liberals - but outlawed some sects like the self-mutilating skoptsy (who saw themselves as true Orthodox Christians) and did not allow the tsar’s subjects to be legally without religion (as in the German konfessionslos). The USSR officially recognized freedom of religion and in practice generally tolerated religious belief, though restricting its public practice and penalizing believers in various ways. Some commentators have termed communism a “secular religion,” a label that, I believe, obscures more than it explains. More helpful, to my mind, is to view communist ideology as an “alternative master narrative” to explain why we are here, where we came from, and whither we should go. While traditional religion - especially Christianity and Judaism - answer these questions by reference to God, communists made reference to science, a Marxist view of historical progress, and the party’s role in creating a just and humane society here on earth.
In this chapter we will look into some of the “orthodox” and “dissident” (terms that mean starkly different things, of course, before and after 1917) beliefs held by large numbers of Russians and Soviet citizens. We will restrict ourselves mainly to the Russian context simply for practical reasons: after all, even among Russians (understood here as Russian-speakers) the variety of beliefs was enormous. Before 1917 Russians were overtly considered - in cultural and religious terms at least - the bulwark of tsarist power but even after the revolution Russians continued to dominate in the politics, economy, and culture of the USSR. Thus the beliefs of the Russian-speaking population had a considerable, even dominant, effect on cultural and social developments even to 1945.
Russia accepted Christianity not from Rome but from Byzantium at the end of the tenth century, and this fact has marked Russia’s history. While the Orthodox Church differs little in dogma from the Roman Catholic Church, its practices, customs, and rituals are strikingly distinct.
The Russian Orthodox Church forms part of the Orthodox community that includes, among other people, most Ukrainians, Belarusians, Romanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Georgians. Because the Orthodox Church lacks a pope, there is no one authority figure that has the final say on proper ritual and dogma. In practice such matters tended to be decided by church councils at different levels, making the church less uniform than the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time more flexible in its responses to local needs. One great difference between the western (Roman Catholic) church and Orthodoxy is the far greater autonomy afforded each individual national church (i. e., Russian, Romanian,
Figure 5.1 Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Moscow.
Source: Alexey Samarin/Shutterstock.
Serbian, Georgian) in the Orthodox world. But while specific practices and rituals might differ, all Orthodox believers see themselves as belonging to a single church.1
While Orthodox believers in Russia sometimes called themselves “Greek,” the role of that language in parish churches was far less important than Latin was for Catholics. As a rule, Orthodox services are held in the vernacular, but in Russia a specific church language - Old Church Slavonic - was developed early on and continued to be used in churches in the twentieth century. While this language was not totally different from Russian, it was also not entirely comprehensible, in particular for uneducated peasants. Orthodox churches also permitted - in the Russian case, even required - their parish priests to marry (monks were subject to different rules, including chastity). As in other old regime states, the clergy formed its own legal estate (soslovie). But the fact that Russian Orthodox priests married and had children made this estate, at least to some extent, self-perpetuating in a way quite different from that of Catholic western Europe.
We must remember that throughout the imperial period, religious belief was less a matter of theology than of ritual. However, this strict distinction between ritual and faith is an artificial one. For Orthodox believers, the everyday, Sunday, and holiday rituals they carried out, fasts and feasts, foods and clothing, songs and prayers all formed a vital part of their religion. For this reason even minor changes in ritual - for example, crossing oneself with three fingers instead of two - were of crucial importance for traditional believers. Much more than Roman Catholicism or Protestant denominations of Christianity, Orthodoxy fuses ritual, belief, and dogma into a unified whole. The rationalist traditions of, say, Catholic Thomism or Jansenism are quite alien to Orthodox tradition. In any case, most Orthodox believers were peasant folk, illiterate and traditional in their beliefs and way of life. For them, religious ritual and tradition was their religious faith; the two could not be separated. Orthodox people made up a “sacred community” whose icons, chapels, and feasts helped order life for ordinary Russian people.2
On an everyday level, religious practice more than dogma set Orthodox believers apart from other Christians. For example, Orthodox Russian peasants could have been distinguished from, say, Catholic Poles, by the fact that Orthodox priests wore beards, had wives, and held services in Slavonic rather than in Latin. Russian churches on the countryside were small and generally unadorned - a fact that Russian officials on the western borderlands (present-day Belarus, Lithuania, western Ukraine) constantly bemoaned, in particular when comparing these modest structures with Baroque Catholic churches. Orthodox churches also lacked the musical instruments found in many Catholic or Lutheran churches. Considering the human voice to be God’s instrument, Orthodox Church singing was always unaccompanied and hence lacked the organs so typical of large Catholic and Protestant churches. One could also tell an Orthodox church from Catholic or Protestant churches by the lack of pews: in Orthodox churches everyone stood - even the tsar and his family.
The Orthodox Church year was punctuated with fasts and festivals. The most important fasts were those before Christmas and Easter, the most important holidays. Orthodoxy placed more emphasis on Easter - Christ’s resurrection - than on Christ’s birth. Easter also marked the end of the harsh Russian winter and some of the Orthodox rituals no doubt built on ancient pagan practices. On Easter Orthodox Christians greeted (and greet) each other by saying, “Khristos voskrese!” (“Christ has risen!”), to which the proper response is “Voistinu vokrese!” (“Verily he has risen”). Special foods were eaten for the holiday, including kulich, a sweet bread made with plenty of butter and eggs, and paskha ’ made from sweetened cottage cheese combined with other delicacies. Both kulich and paskha symbolize the miracle of Christ’s resurrection and the joy of the holiday.
Important holidays in the Orthodox calendar are proceeded by fasts. Indeed fasts play a far more important role in Orthodoxy than in other Christian denominations. Normally all Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days, though some weeks dispense with fasts altogether. Orthodox fasts are also stricter than those followed by Roman Catholics; for example, milk products are not allowed on fast days. Christmas is preceded by the long fast of Advent; and the festive meal, with 12 different foods eaten on Christmas Eve, while sumptuous, is without meat and milk products. In the Orthodox Church, as for other Christians, the long fast of Lent comes before Easter. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, Lent is preceded by a week of festivities, maslennitsa, during which pancakes with plenty of butter (maslo) are eaten. Both the fasts and the special foods eaten on holidays remind believers of God’s bounty and dominion, connecting their religious faith with everyday life.
Like other Christian denominations, Orthodoxy has a monastic side. Traditionally the Russian Orthodox Church was divided into “white” clergy (parish priests), who were expected to marry (and their sons would then normally also take up a clerical career), and the “black” clergy or monks from among whom the church hierarchy (bishops, archbishops, metropolitan) would be taken. Monasteries played an important role in Russian history, in particular in bringing Russian culture to the “wild” lands on the fringes of Muscovy. Just as in western Europe in the Middle Ages, monasteries were often established far from the centers of civilization but in time often developed into important economic and cultural settlements. Among the most important monasteries were three bearing the special designation of “lavra”: the Kievo-Pecherskaia lavra, Trinity-St Sergius in Sergiev Posad just north of Moscow, and Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St Petersburg. Thus the three most important Russian cities (Kiev is of course now Ukrainian, but for the Russian Empire and most Orthodox believers before 1917 it was the “cradle of Russian Orthodoxy”) had their own special monasteries. There were Orthodox monasteries for both men and women (segregated, of course), and by the early twentieth century these housed more nuns than male monks. In the second half of the nineteenth century, numbers of monasteries and nunneries rose significantly, suggesting a rise in popular religiosity.3
In the seventeenth century a split had occurred in the Orthodox Church over efforts to correct (i. e., bring back in line with Greek originals) certain practices and rituals. Those who refused the new practices, for example to cross themselves with three fingers instead of two, were subject to ferocious persecution in the seventeenth century and did not receive de jure equal rights with other Christian believers until 1905. These so-called Old Believers were de facto generally tolerated, in particular in the western borderlands after 1863 as a “native Russian” population to counterbalance the Catholic Poles. Among the Moscow merchant community Old Believers were also common.4 The term “Old Belief” included a great variety of different groupings and sects, the most important distinction being between the less radical popovtsy, who retained a clergy, and the more radical bezpopovsty (bez = “without”; pop = “Orthodox priest”), who worshiped on their own. In practice, the difficulty of ordaining priests in what amounted to an underground church meant that many communities lacked a permanent religious leader.
Besides the Old Believers, there were a number of so-called sectarians who considered themselves Orthodox but held views or carried out practices that were not accepted by the official church. Among them were the Molokane (from moloko, “milk,” because they drank milk on certain fast days when this was forbidden to Orthodox believers), Dukhobory (“spirit fighters,”who in some respects, including pacifism, resembled Quakers), Khlysty (“whips,” who rejected any kind of church authority; their name comes from ecstatic ceremonies which including self-scourging), and Skoptsy (“castrators,” who practiced self-mutilation, castration for men and the cutting off of nipples or breasts for women). As one may imagine, the last two sects were extremely small in number and severely persecuted by the Russian government.5 Dukhobory ran into trouble with the authorities because of their refusal to submit to military service; the writer Lev Tolstoy helped them emigrate to Canada in the late 1890s, financing this with royalties from his novel Resurrection. Most sectarians, however, were less extreme (and less noticeable) and by the last third of the nineteenth century the Russian authorities no longer subjected them or Old Believers to persecution. All legal discrimination against sectarians and Old Believers was only abolished with the decree of religious toleration in April 1905.
The idea of a split between church and state, so important for the history of western Europe and North America, was never the tradition for Orthodox believers. While the Orthodox Church had its own hierarchy, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, it never enjoyed the secular political power of the western Papacy. Peter the Great had clashed with the Orthodox Church when pressing to Europeanize Russia in the late seventeenth century, and when the patriarch (head of the Russian church) Adrian had died in 1700, Peter left the position unfilled. In 1721 the apex of the church hierarchy (the patriarch) was abolished. In its place was created the Holy Synod, consisting of 10, later 12, clerics, and headed by a lay official, the Ober-Procurator, who resembled in his bureaucratic tasks the tsar’s other ministers. True, the tsar had no influence over church dogma, and in specifically religious matters the clerical estate consistently defended its own prerogatives. The former historiographical view of significant government influence and interference in the affairs of the Orthodox Church has been shown by recent historiography to be very exaggerated. In fact, while the Orthodox Church was more closely linked with the state in Russia than, say, in France or the USA, the tsarist government rarely interfered in church affairs. 6 Still, liberal and radical Russians criticized the failure of the Orthodox Church to take a more independent stance against government policies; reforming intellectuals in the late nineteenth century often perceived a too-close embrace of the state as exerting a corrupting influence on the main religious task of the church. That this view was not quite fair is shown by the important charity work carried out by Orthodox clergy among needy workers in urban areas.7
This is not to say that the church remained unchanged during the halfcentury between the Great Reforms and revolution. For one thing, the church increased its power in such areas as family law; for example, regarding marriage. One had to be married within the church, which meant that marriages between, say, Catholics and Orthodox were generally not possible. Divorce also remained for the most part the province of the church and was exceedingly difficult to obtain, though as the twentieth century dawned more divorce petitions were granted than a generation or two earlier. The Russian state attempted to affect some aspects of church life during the Great Reforms by expanding the role of the parishioners (including parish councils) and reorganizing parishes for better efficiency. Unfortunately this reform was resisted by the church hierarchy, priests, and even parishioners. As the population grew, priests found themselves with ever larger congregations and without adequate salaries to raise their own families. The numerous small charges demanded by priests for services from baptisms to funeral services did little to endear Orthodox priests to their flock, but without such charges the priests simply could not made ends meet. In order to survive, many Orthodox priests also had to cultivate clerical allotments; that is, working the land like peasants. This was often seen as undignified and degrading.8
The educational level of Orthodox priests certainly rose in this period; by 1880 already 97 percent of priests had seminary degrees. But minor church officials such as deacons and sacristans tended to lag far behind, at times even making errors in basic prayers and catechism. Clerical education was reformed and modernized in the mid-nineteenth century and in many ways came to resemble the classical Gymnasium except, of course, for a stricter discipline and more emphasis on religious subjects. At the same time radical ideas common among Russian educated youths also spread in seminaries, leading in some cases to arrests and even the closing of “infected” seminaries for weeks and months, much to the government’s consternation.9
For ordinary Russians, as we have mentioned, Orthodoxy permeated their everyday life, was an important part of their own perceived community, and ordered the year. As Chris Chulos has shown, peasant piety included beliefs and practices that often went beyond or even contradicted official church dogma. In the past, historians often spoke of “dual faith” (dvoeverie), arguing that “popular Orthodoxy” was derived from earlier pagan practices. Recent research has demonstrated the lack of evidence for such pagan influences and has pointed out that Russian peasants, if not always intellectuals or priests, saw beliefs in spirits at home, in the woods, or in streams and rivers as quite consistent with Orthodox tradition.10 To quote one historian, in peasant life religion was “flexible and subversive.”11 Icons also played a special role in popular religiosity, much like the images of saints did in western Catholicism. Pilgrimages to holy sites and holy men also formed an important part of popular Orthodox piety.12
The Orthodox Church hierarchy tended to adopt very conservative positions and shy away from popular religiosity, but Orthodox faith and parish priests often played an important part in charity and social movements in the late imperial period. Activist priests both among peasants and, even more, among workers used the concepts of Orthodox community and Christian justice to work for social and political change. The most famous activist priest was Father Georgy Gapon who worked among the poor workers of St Petersburg. He became a celebrity for his role in organizing the march of unarmed worker-petitioners in St Petersburg on January 10, 1905, that would be met by tsarist bullets, going down in history as “Bloody Sunday.” There is some irony in the fact that Gapons own workers’ organization was originally aimed to entice workers away from more seditious, socialist groupings. After the fiasco of “Bloody Sunday” the church authorities (the “Holy Synod”) forbade any participation by clergy in any public funerals of those slain.13 The irony of a priest-led, icon-bearing loyalist demonstration being shot down by tsarist police, with the priest himself subsequently denounced by church authorities nicely sums up some of the contradictions of “popular ” and “official” versions of Orthodoxy in early twentieth-century Russia.
Relations between the Orthodox Church and educated Russians were often strained. The figure of the ignorant, drunken priest appears frequently in Russian literature and art. Many of the intelligentsia would have agreed with V. G. Belinskii’s furious denunciation of the church and clergy in his “Letter to Gogol” (1847): “Does not the priest in Russia represent the embodiment of gluttony, avarice, servility, and shamelessness for all Russians?” One did not have to accept Belinskii’s extreme views to perceive severe shortcomings in the Orthodox Church. Believers like the religious philosophers Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov, while criticizing atheist worldviews and western European positivism, were also troubled by inadequacies within the traditional Orthodox Church (though Soloviev never left the church and Bulgakov eventually returned to it). When the Orthodox Church excommunicated the Christian pacifist and writer Tolstoy in 1901, many took this as proof of the church’s narrow and repressive attitude. To be sure, intellectuals throughout Europe during this period challenged religious authority, but in Russia the close connection between church and state made it even more difficult for a member of the intelligentsia to wholeheartedly embrace the Orthodox Church.
As we have seen, the Russian Empire practiced religious toleration, but this did not mean that all religions were considered equal. The Orthodox Church held a special place as the “ruling religion,” as it was officially termed. The tsar had to be Orthodox, was crowned in an Orthodox ceremony, and was the official head of the church. Other Christian denominations and religions were tolerated, but not given equal rights with Orthodoxy. One indication of this is the fact that a subject of the tsar could convert to Orthodoxy from any religion but could not, for example, abandon Orthodoxy for Protestantism or Islam. “Toleration” essentially meant that one was expected to remain in the religion of ones birth. On the other hand there was a definite hierarchy of religions, from paganism on the bottom to Orthodoxy at the top, and one could usually “ascend” this hierarchy (e. g., convert from Islam to Protestantism), but not “descend” it (it was illegal to convert from any Christian denomination to a non-Christian religion, and Orthodox believers could not convert to Catholicism or other Christian denominations). This situation changed only with the ukaz (edict) of religious toleration of April 1905, but even in the Duma period no clear agreement was reached as to whether conversion out of Christianity was to be permitted.
Not all Christians in the Russian Empire were Orthodox; nor were all Orthodox Russians. Ukrainians and Belarusians were mainly Orthodox and of course treated as Russians by the tsarist authorities. A more troublesome group were the Uniates, a religious group existing since the late sixteenth century (Synod of Brest, 1596). Accepting papal authority while retaining Orthodox rituals and practices (such as clerical marriage), Uniates resided mainly on the borderlands of Russia and Poland, today’s Ukraine and Belarus. When the Russian Empire expanded westward during the Partitions of Poland (1772-95), hundreds of thousands of Uniates came under tsarist rule. For St Petersburg, the Uniate Church was little more than the bastard offspring of Catholic scheming and Orthodox weakness: the Russian authorities always regarded the Uniate Church as simply a ploy by the Poles to convert Orthodox people (i. e., Russians) to Catholicism. Following this negative attitude, most Uniates (especially among Belarusians) had been “reconverted” to Orthodoxy in the 1830s; a second mass conversion of Ukrainian Uniates would take place in 1875.14 After that point the Uniate Church officially ceased to exist in Russia, but in fact many thousands continued secretly to follow its traditions, helped (illegally) by Uniate priests from neighboring Austrian Galicia. After 1905 most of these underground Uniates converted to Catholicism, the Uniate Church no longer existing institutionally in the Russian Empire.
The example of the Uniates gives us some indication of the great importance (in a negative sense) of Catholicism for the Russian Empire and its rulers. One may say with only slight exaggeration that while Protestantism was not taken seriously as a form of Christianity (being too rational and lacking mystical warmth), Catholicism was seen as a direct threat. In great part this stemmed from the almost inevitable equating of Catholicism with the Polish nation. Besides their political unreliability (from the Russian point of view), Poles were seen as dangerous purveyors of western ideas, including Catholicism. Russian officials worried constantly about Polish influences over “Russian” (Belarusian and Ukrainian) peasants, almost always describing the Polish priest as both better trained and far more militant than his more easygoing Orthodox counterpart. In many ways, the suspicious (not to say paranoid) attitude of Russian conservatives and the government toward the Catholics resembled the paranoia of this same group (with few exceptions) toward the Jews: for all their differences, both Jews and Poles-Catholics were seen as quintessentially “different,” hostile, and fundamentally non-Russian.
In fact, during the last two or three decades of tsarist rule, increasing numbers of Jews were accepting Russian culture. By 1897 over 300,000 Jews lived outside the Pale, with the largest single community in St Petersburg. By that point thousands of Jewish parents were raising their children in Russian culture - in 1910, 42 percent of Jews in St Petersburg claimed Russian as their native tongue - and many more learned Russian as a second language. To be sure, the Jews in St Petersburg formed an unusual Jewish community, but the figure of the Russianspeaking young (and usually radical) Jew was by the early twentieth century very familiar in Russian journalism and literature. Jews were also prominent in the professions (such as medicine and the law) as well as among bankers and businessmen by the last decades of the nineteenth century. It is characteristic of Russian conservatives and officialdom that they were much more disturbed by modern Russian-speaking Jews than by their Yiddish-speaking, devout, traditional brethren. In part this stemmed from the significant number of young Jews in the revolutionary and liberal movements. But beyond this, modern Russianspeaking Jews were profoundly unsettling to many because their very identity, combining Russian culture and Jewish religion, violated the close connection between religion and nationality cherished by conservatives.15
While officially all subjects of the tsar had to profess a religion, among the intelligentsia - and especially among radicals - various forms of agnosticism and even atheism were not uncommon. Of course, many individuals combined religious faith with progressive political ideology or at least attempted to. For Marxist socialists the matter was simple: Marx had dismissed religion as “the opiate of the people,” distracting them from working for change in the present world through promises of a better world to come. But the urge for a better world, here rather than later, certainly motivated Russian radicals: perhaps this is what Dostoevsky meant when he said that the Russian people’s longing for “their own future universal church” was the basis of “our Russian socialism.” Most liberals did not reject religion or Christianity, but at the same time often considered the Orthodox Church in its present form irrelevant to their spiritual needs or in need of significant reform.
Among radicals, atheism was more or less taken for granted. Not God but humanity was the focus of their worldview. Taking the Enlightenment view that knowledge could and should be used to improve human life in the here and now, the Marxists were typical of Russian radicals. Because knowledge was crucial in improving human conditions, belief in science - the process by which we arrive at knowledge - became almost deified in the radical mindset. Marx based his prediction of revolution on economic and sociological research that he carried out over decades. Lenin similarly spent much of his life in libraries reading and writing. Both were convinced that their politics were firmly grounded in science and scorned other radicals as “utopian”; that is, unrealistic and romantic.
It would be too narrow to identify the worship of science with the Marxists alone. From the 1860s onward, Russians spoke of “nihilism” as a political ideology. The word “nihilist” was coined by novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861), which contrasted the old generation of rather romantic and ineffectual liberals with the new generation that believed in nothing (nihil in Latin) that could not be proven by scientific methods. At first the word was used as an insult to brand radicals godless people without respect for Russia’s past or traditions. But soon radicals like Dmitry Pisarev would proudly accept the title “nihilist” and openly declare that old, worn-out traditions, superstitions, and prejudices (he could not openly mention “religion” or “autocracy” among these, but everyone understood) should be mercilessly pounded and destroyed. The “nihilism” advocated by Pisarev and taken up by many young Russians was the opposite of cynicism or indifference. In fact the radicals believed very strongly in their own ideals of improving society through modern scientific work. Many young Russians of the educated class looked around themselves in the 1860s and after and saw poverty, superstition, repression, and injustice. They fervently believed that society could be reordered in a fairer way through the application of scientific principles to the economy, politics, and everyday life. Obviously such beliefs by their very nature contradicted and challenged the patriarchal, traditional, and religious tsarist regime.16
Life is, however, manifestly more than just rationality and science. Just as the rationalism of the enlightenment was followed by emotional release of the romantics in the late eighteenth century, within Russian radicalism the sober scientism epitomized by the Marxists battled with the more emotional (or at least less library-bound) political beliefs of populists and anarchists. The former group (in Russian narodniki, from the word narod, “the people”) wanted to develop a revolutionary society out of what they saw as communist traditions within the Russian peasant commune. As we have seen, the commune held agricultural land in common and periodically redistributed it among peasants. The populists seized on the idea that communal ownership and redistribution of property according to need was a fundamental part of the Russian national character that could be developed into a modern egalitarian society. But just how this was to happen the populists never quite explained. Like the Marxists, they hated the cruelty and injustice of industrial capitalism, but unlike the Marxists, they thought that Russia could “leap over” the capitalist-industrial phase directly into an egalitarian, postrevolutionary society.17
The term “anarchism” was used in the later nineteenth century to describe (usually negatively) a broad array of sociopolitical radicals. Anarchism did not advocate “anarchy” in the sense of chaos, but it did oppose most forms of central government, advocating collectives and local decision-making in both economic and political matters. Here we need to distinguish two strands of “anarchism”: the more ecstatic and violent brand exemplified by Mikhail Bakunin and the more organized, evolutionary version promoted by Petr Kropotkin. Bakunins anarchism is perhaps best characterized by his own statement “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.” Radicals took this to mean that much dross of the past had to be destroyed and cleared away before a new society could be built. Bakunin’s writings are vitally concerned with this process of destruction, far more than the admittedly less stimulating process of figuring out what to build.18
Kropotkin, on the other hand, had more to say about that process. Kropotkin’s approach is nicely summed up in one of his books’ titles: Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). While not rejecting violence out of hand (but also not mythologizing it like Bakunin who tended to glorify the violent act), Kropotkin argued that a better world would arise out of the cooperative spirit inherent in human nature. Rather than a world of “the survival of the fittest” (like nearly all social thinkers of the late nineteenth century, Kropotkin was influenced by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer ’s “social Darwinism”), human beings had natural tendencies toward sharing, helping one another, and cooperation: nurturing these natural human impulses would bring forth a higher level of human society. Both Bakunin and Kropotkin were born into important and well-to-do Russian noble families and both were forced to spend most of their lives abroad because of their radical views. Kropotkin lived to see the 1917 revolutions, returned to Russia, and was buried there in 1921, his funeral being one of the last mass non-Bolshevik political gatherings.19
Marxism and anarchism were not the only ideologies that attempted to base sociopolitical reform on a scientific worldview. For most educated middle-class people, both of these ideologies were too extreme, demanding an almost total rejection of the existing world and the creation of a new one. At the same time any thinking person in the Russian Empire could see very obvious flaws in the existing political and economic system. In western and central Europe these people might have joined reformist parties like the British Liberals or French Radicals. In Russia, without a parliament and where all political parties were illegal, no such possibility existed. Thus Russian liberals were forced either to support the radicals or simply bide their time, perhaps participate in local zemstvo activities, and put their energies into professional work. But here, too, science was seen as a guide for creating a better society.
In western Europe the middle-class worship of science had been codified, so to speak, into a philosophy of deed and belief known as positivism. The French thinker Auguste Comte is usually credited with the working out of this philosophy, based not on God but on the scientific method. Bazarov, with his constant scientific experiments and observations, could be seen as a radical Russian positivist. Generally, though, the positivists’ political conclusions were not so radical, seeing slow and incremental change as the best way forward. In the Russian Empire positivism had its greatest impact among educated Poles, in the so-called Warsaw positivist school that developed after the repression of the 1863 Polish Insurrection. Recognizing that overt political or patriotic activity would be impossible under tsarist rule, the Warsaw positivists advocated educational and economic measures over political or armed struggle. Men like the novelist Boleslaw Prus and journalist Aleksander! swie;tochowski called on the Polish nation - consisting at the time mainly of educated people of noble birth - to dedicate their lives to the education and economic betterment of all Poles, to integrating the large Jewish population living among them into the Polish nation, and to eliminating superstition and backwardness among the Polish peasantry. The Warsaw positivists were not atheists but they did apply their critical irony to certain aspects of the Polish Catholic Church and popular religious practices. Their fundamental outlook was nonreligious and enlightened, wanting to use reason, tolerance, and science to improve society.20
While many radicals and liberals either rejected religious belief or relegated it to the private, personal sphere, others glorified the irrational and the religious. The quintessential radical-turned-mystic was the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. As a young man in the late 1840s Dostoevsky had participated in radical circles, was arrested and exiled to Siberia. Here he underwent a spiritual crisis during which he found comfort and meaning in a return to Russian Orthodox religiosity. When Dostoevsky returned to St Petersburg in the late 1850s skeptical about western rationalism and convinced that only by returning to Christian religiosity could Russia (and Russians) find their way. More than any other great Russian novelist of the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky scorned western science and indeed the west in general. He insisted that human freedom was based not on cold mathematical laws but indeed on the opposite: on emotion, suffering, love, and redemption. In Notes from the Underground (1864) Dostoevsky mocked the facile scientism of Russian radicals, rejecting with horror their utopian visions of a revolutionary future as a form of slavery. Dostoevsky’s most thoroughgoing attack on Russian radicalism, Demons (initially translated as The Possessed, 1872) is at turns terrifying and hilarious, portraying Russian radicals as fools, schemers, deluded dreamers, careerists, or simply evil and inhuman. Without God, the radicals inevitably become destructive of society, others, and themselves: one of the most sympathetic figures in the novel, Aleksei Kirillov, comes to the logical (for Dostoevsky) conclusion that without God, the highest form of human freedom is suicide - and acts consistently in line with this belief. Dostoevsky felt that Russia, spanning Europe and Asia, had a peculiar mission in world history, showing the west true Christian humility while spreading European-Christian enlightenment in Asia. Dostoevsky was, of course, a creative writer, not a systematic philosopher or politician. The contradictions and simple incoherence of certain of his beliefs reflect the complexity of the socioreligious problems faced by the Russian intelligentsia in the later nineteenth century.21
Dostoevsky’s return to religion may be seen as the harbinger of a larger trend. Around the turn of the century an increasing interest in religion may be observed among Russian intellectuals. One example would be the already-mentioned philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev. In a sense Soloviev tried to reconcile reason and mysticism in his image of the beautiful “Sofia,” or sacred knowledge. Soloviev was vitally concerned with breaking down barriers - between Russian and western Christianity, between scientific and religious worldviews, among human beings in general. In his “Short Story of the Anti-Christ” Soloviev wrote of the twentieth century (which he never experienced, dying in 1900) as “the epoch of the last great wars and revolutions.”22 In the midst of these, the “great man” (or “superman”) publishes The Open Way to Universal Peace and Prosperity, which is rapidly adopted as the solution to all world problems - except, peculiarly, the name of Christ never appears in the work. Its author is, of course, the Anti-Christ, a fact recognized by Pope Peter II at story’s end as the western and eastern churches merge, Christianity becomes one, and history comes to an end. Not through human arrogance and earthly plans but by accepting God’s grace is the world saved.
Unlike Soloviev, who had never rejected Christianity, Sergei Bulgakov’s life went full circle from being born the son of a small-town priest to rejecting religious belief in favor of Marxism, and then, at the time of revolution, returning to Christianity. At Moscow University in the 1890s young Sergei embraced Marxism as the best solution to Russia’s social and economic problems. By the first years of the new century, however, he had become disillusioned with the idea that Marxian science held the key to Russia’s troubles. While not forsaking his burning interest in social reform, Bulgakov sensed that part of the problem was precisely in the narrowness of Marxist positivism. Moral behavior simply could not be reduced to economic categories and class conflict. For these reasons, Bulgakov abandoned Marxism and returned to Christianity in 1902. During the 1905 revolution Bulgakov supported the liberals, and then passed over to his own version of Christian Socialism, hoping through liberal reform to reconcile social justice, Christian truth, and Russian national traditions. Ultimately the strain between practical politics and mystical religion became too much and Bulgakov concentrated more and more on his religious and moral writings, finally being ordained an Orthodox priest in 1918.23
Bulgakov’s most famous single work was his contribution to a collection of essays entitled Vekhi (Signposts) that appeared in 1909. Vekhi was itself a significant signpost in Russian cultural and intellectual history, marking a turn away from Marxism and positivist approaches and calling for a reexamination of (indeed, return to) Russian religious traditions. In articles with titles like “Philosophical Truth [istina] and the Intelligentsia’s Truth [pravda]” (Nikolai Berdiaev), “Heroism and Askesis [podvizhnichestvo]” (Bulgakov), “Creative SelfIdentity” (Mikhail Gershenzon), “Intelligentsia and Revolution” (Petr Struve), and “The Ethics of Nihilism” (Semyon Frank) the authors both embraced and severely criticized the Russian intelligentsia tradition. The moral indignation that had long characterized the intelligentsia, the authors argued, had to be mitigated by humility, a willingness to compromise (even with the tsarist government), and an acknowledgment (or even acceptance) of Russia’s national and religious traditions. Atheist radicalism, which so often characterized the Russian intelligentsia, easily degenerated into dogmatic formulas that had nothing to do with the immediate problems of real Russian people. Vekhi urged progressive, educated Russians not to give up their passion for social reform but to rid themselves of their arrogance and feelings of superiority often based on an inadequate understanding of Russian realities, and learn from simple Russians. The individual essays differed greatly in their approach and solutions but were one - to quote the volume ’s preface, in “the recognition of the theoretical and practical primacy of spiritual life over the external forms of community.”24 In other words, not science but the spirit would save Russia.
The Orthodox Church should not be seen as utterly conservative or static. On the contrary, many clergymen were deeply troubled by the often bureaucratic and “official” nature of the church and saw the solution (or one solution) in the severing of the close link between Orthodox Church and Russian state. In August 1917, between the middle-class February and the Bolshevik October revolutions, the All-Russian Church Council opened in Moscow. This was the first such council to be held for over two centuries, since Peter the Great’s creation of the Holy
Synod. The council was accompanied by large religious processions and other mass ceremonies involving tens of thousands of believers. One of the central goals of this council, as seen by its organizers, was to reestablish sobornost’ - a concept that crops up in the Slavophiles, Soloviev, Bulgakov, and other Russian religious philosophers, indicating a mystical union of Russian people, tsar, and the Orthodox Church. As one step toward this, the council reestablished the office of patriarch (electing Bishop Tikhon to this office), which had been abolished by Peter. While the revolution swept away or made irrelevant many of the council’s discussions, its convening did show that the Orthodox Church was in the midst of serious reform on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.
It goes without saying that Lenin did not agree with the views expressed either in the Church Council of August 1917 or in Vekhi. Just a few years before the collection’s publication, Lenin had written in “Socialism and Religion” (1905), “Religion is a kind of spiritual moonshine in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life worthy of human beings.” Lenin never softened in his disdain for religion or wavered in his complete devotion to the Marxist-scientific worldview. He also recognized that religious believers in general and the authors of essays collected in Vekhi would be among his strongest opponents (all Vekhi authors would die in exile).
Lenin and the communists were practical enough to recognize that most inhabitants of the Russian Empire in 1917 retained such “outdated beliefs” as religious faith, and in any case he believed that with education such “survivals” of the old order were doomed to extinction. While freedom of religion was officially guaranteed, religious leaders were extremely suspect in the eyes of the communists. In the Civil War many priests and bishops were arrested, exiled, or worse. The communists openly advocated and carried out “class justice”; that is, frequently more important than exact proof of an offense were the social origins of the accused. Priests (along with nobles, middle-class entrepreneurs, former tsarist officers, and capitalists, to name a few of the so-called former people) were specifically singled out as enemies of the revolution and actual or potential supporters of the Whites. In fact it is hardly surprising that many priests and bishops denounced the communists and allied with their enemies, given the verbal and physical attacks on churches, believers, and clergy by communists and Red Army soldiers.
Lenin’s unrelenting contempt for spiritual life and religion was not, however, shared by all communists. In particular the first People’s Commissar (i. e., minister) of Culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, had published a two-volume work, Religion and Socialism (1908-11), in which he attempted essentially to espouse mysticism without actual belief in God. Lunacharsky’s embrace of “myth” and “enthusiasm” were an attempt to tap into the fundamental psychological need of most humans for beliefs that go beyond materialism and scientific proof. It should be noted, however, that for all his ecstatic language, Lunacharsky rejected the idea of a transcendent God and of course was very far indeed from being an Orthodox Christian. Thus his ideas, while they exasperated Lenin, could not be accepted by Christian believers.
Another Bolshevik who attempted to bridge the gap between spirituality and Marxism was Aleksander Bogdanov, author of the scifi-utopian novel Red Star (1908). Bogdanov, by training a physicist, knew Lunacharsky well (they were brothers-in-law) and cooperated with him in establishing a school for Bolshevik workers on the Italian island of Capri (funded by the writer Maxim Gorky) after the revolution of 1905. Bogdanov and Lunacharsky advocated revolutionary “Godbuilding,” essentially replacing God with the people and the quest for human perfection. Once again, such a heretical belief could hardly be accepted by any traditional religious believer (whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim), but Bogdanov and Lunacharsky had touched on a very important psychological issue: if the communists were to be successful in “driving God out” of popular consciousness, God would have to be replaced by something. Marxist socioeconomic doctrine was simply too complex and arid (from a psychological point of view) to play this role. But Lenin, as ever, felt that Bogdanov and Lunacharsky’s attempts to build a bridge between scientific Marxism and religious enthusiasm were useless and dangerous, merely confusing the issue and encouraging retrograde mental attitudes that would be better rooted out completely.
Still, the problem of popular belief remained. Ten years after the revolution, it has been estimated, 60 to 70 million Russians remained regular churchgoers and continued to be married in churches, baptize their children, and be buried with Christian rituals.25 We must add to these millions more who attended mosques and synagogues. Even Communist Party members, it was complained, not infrequently were spotted attending religious services (they often blamed their wives for dragging them along). Despite festivals, antireligious education, and penalties for believers (ranging from losing one’s job to being sent to the Gulag), religion persisted, often in a less public form but nonetheless resilient against all attacks. Even some forms of monasticism continued to exist, often in masked forms, in the 1920s and 1930s.26
In communist rhetoric on religion in the first years after the revolution, the attachment of women to old beliefs was often mentioned and deplored. Women, it was argued, remained more under the influence of the clergy (whether priests, imams, or rabbis), continued to follow religious rituals more than men, and were the key propagators of religious ideas to the younger generation. Thus if the party could weaken the hold that religion had on women, it would both open up a large portion of the population to communist ideals and would prevent the youth from being “poisoned” with religious ideas. It was hoped that by targeting women, the Communist Party could both weaken religion and spread their ideas among two of the most closed segments of the Soviet populace: the peasantry and Muslims.
The communists’ antagonism to spirituality and religion in general was intensified in their hatred for the Russian Orthodox Church as not only a purveyor of outdated beliefs, but a crucial element of the tsarist system that the communists wished to destroy. A month after taking power, on December 4, 1917, the decree nationalizing all land swept away the church’s landed property, including that belonging to individual priests. This decree was followed by others that made it illegal for the church to own property and ended all state subsidies to any religious organization. In January 1918 the teaching of religion in any school was made illegal and the provision that religion could be taught “privately” was understood to concern adults only. It thus became technically speaking illegal for parents to teach their children prayers or to instruct them in basic doctrines of faith. The nationalization of church property meant that church buildings could be seized by the state for use as clubs, warehouses, or for other functions. While many churches were let be and the prohibition against religious teaching of children in private was not frequently enforced, once the communists felt strong enough to move against these practices, they had the legal means to do so.27
The communists’ overtly antireligious measures called forth an openly critical reaction from Patriarch Tikhon on February 1, 1918 (n. s.). In this public statement, the head of the Orthodox Church condemned the Bolsheviks for “sowing the seeds of hatred”; the immense prestige and popularity of the religious leader made the communists hold back from arresting him. While criticizing some communist laws, Patriarch Tikhon also called on the clergy to stay out of politics and to remain loyal to the secular government, refusing to cooperate with or bless the enemies of the communists (the Whites) for fear of encouraging fratricidal violence. Once the Civil War was over, the communists felt strong enough to move against the Patriarch. The famine in southern Russia in 1921-2 gave the regime an excuse to attack churches, ostensibly to force recalcitrant priests to give up valuables that would be sold to assist famine victims.
Patriarch Tikhon was arrested on May 6, 1922, on the pretext that he had opposed such confiscations. The communists furthermore encouraged a split within the church, promoting the so-called renovationists (“Living Church”)