By Kristin Nord
CLINTON, MASS. – President Vladimir Putin has been feeding his people a steady diet of misinformation on the Ukraine war. What he has portrayed as a righteous attempt to reclaim the borders of Russia’s historic past belies the virulent attacks on Ukraine civilians and their cherished cultural institutions. And this recent wave of Russian aggression is eerily reminiscent of the assault on the religious faithful that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.
“Images of Atheism: The Soviet Assault on Religion” at the Museum of Russian Icons returns us to that pivotal time for an overview of the visual propaganda that was intrinsic to the Communist Party’s seven-decade war against religion (circa 1920-1990). In this exhibition, which will be on view through October 2, visitors encounter the propaganda that was plastered as posters on the walls of clubs, schools, army barracks and factories and disseminated in journals throughout much of the Twentieth Century.
Soviet leaders believed that the Russian religiosity needed to be eradicated if they were to fulfill their radical and utopian promises – that humanity could master the world, and that injustice and evil could be overcome in this life rather than in the next. But declaring atheism as the state religion was very much about power as well – and propagandists were called upon to play crucial roles. Soviet leaders embarked upon a full-blown assault on religion, and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, “with a vehemence not seen since the days of the Roman Empire,” historian Richard Pipes writes, in Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime.
Curator Dr Wendy Salmond, an art history professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., draws upon rare collections of posters and other print materials from rare collections housed at St Louis University and Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. It is deeply disturbing, she added recently, to see so many of the same tactics in full force in 2022 as the war on Ukraine unfolds.
Bolsheviks realized quickly that newspapers and pamphlets could carry their message only so far. And so, they established a propaganda machine with its own visual iconography to attack all religions and the faithful and to trumpet the arrival of a prosperous new order. In blasphemous and often racist and antisemitic narratives, the state’s graphic artists attacked the faithful, and portrayed all religions as bastions of ignorance and superstition.
A cadre of Soviet graphic artists led the charge in the leading journal, Atheist at the Workbench, with Dmitrii Moor, the prominent Soviet caricaturist, (1923-1941) producing some of the publication’s most memorable works. Moor employed familiar religious motifs and subverted the visual vocabulary of traditional icon painting to create critical images that were accessible to a semi-literate readership. At the height of its popularity, the journal had an annual circulation of 70,000 in the Soviet Union and was distributed with translated text abroad.
During the first five years of Soviet power, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests were executed; by the late 1920s, the anti-religious struggle was as important as the class struggle, and the mass demolition of churches was underway.
According to Russia Beyond, a contemporary publication that noted at press time that its website and social media accounts “are under threat of being restricted or banned, due to the current circumstances”:
“Ancient churches were demolished without hesitation if they interfered with the construction of hydroelectric power plants, driveways or road extensions. Many churches were simply closed and used for the needs of the new Soviet regime: anything from grain storage to a factory could be in a church, while monasteries were often turned into prisons. As if to mock Christianity, the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism was opened in the Kazansky Cathedral in St Petersburg.” By the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, only 7,000 of the 54,000 pre-revolutionary churches remained.
Amy Consalvo, the museum’s director of Interpretation, said visitors even today may be taken aback by the content of these posters, which can be comical on a superficial level, but biting and disturbing the more one deconstructs the imagery and translates the Russian text. In one propagandist’s narrative, emaciated peasants are delivering their harvested goods to a corpulent Russian Orthodox priest as locusts ravage their fields. In “Christ is Risen,” Christianity looms as the ultimate vehicle of oppression, with Christ ascending into heaven while a Daddy Warbucks-like capitalist stomps on oppressed workers. There are sneering capitalists in top hats and monocles, one of whom is depicted as he sprays fermented alcohol (i.e., the opiate of the people) from a canister labeled “religion.” And there is a rare copy of The Anti-religious Alphabet, with its depictions of apple cheeked children liberated from shackles of traditional faiths. Yet despite the purge of clergy and the seizure and destruction or conversion of church properties, these relentless assaults had little success in eradicating observance and daily practice. Religion remained a powerful force in Russia both during the Imperial regime and in the Soviet Union.
“For them, culture meant religion – religious belief, but especially religious rituals and festivals: baptism, circumcision, confirmation, confession, burial, Christmas and Easter, Passover and Yom Kippur and Ramadan,” Pipes writes, in Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime.
“Their lives revolved around the ceremonies of the religious calendar, because these not only glorified their hard and humdrum existences but gave the humblest of them a sense of dignity in the eyes of God, for whom all people are equal,” he adds.
With sung liturgy, a distinctive use of octavist singers in its choral music, incense, candles and gilded icons, Russian Orthodox Church services were powerful and multisensory. Families were also unwilling to relinquish their cherished icon corners for godless ones.
And as the late journalist Christopher Hitchens noted in his book God is Not Great, “Anti-religious propaganda in the Soviet Union was of the most banal materialist sort; a shrine to Lenin often had stained glass, while in the official museum of atheism there was testimony offered by a Russian astronaut, who had seen no god in space. This idiocy expressed at least as much contempt for the gullible yokels as any wonder-working icon. “Soviet absolutists did not so much negate religion,” he adds, ”as seek to replace it.”
Over time, Roland Elliott Brown notes in Godless Utopia, Bolshevism became a new form of Tsarism, imbued with its own secular practices and rituals. Fascinatingly, it would be Stalin, who had once studied to become a Russian Orthodox priest, who understood that Russians would respond more positively if communist values were draped in religious garb – whether it was the elevation of Lenin as a Christ figure, or the state parades in Red Square with the elements of feast day processions.
As early as 2000, Putin also had begun to cloak his regime in a type of Orthodox nationalism, employing symbols from both the Imperial and Soviet eras to legitimize his position as absolute ruler in the eyes of the people. In photographs he is often shirtless and wearing a cross around his neck; he is always careful to document the Russian Orthodox Church patriarch’s blessing when he wins an election. Much as Stalin used language and rituals to create the communist religion around Lenin, Putin has presented himself as a devout Christian, appealing to Russia’s growing spiritual population by attending Christmas and Easter services. State parades on Red Square trumpet Soviet power and authority, much as they appeal to the culture’s desire for worship, for community and for visual experiences.
Two days before he launched a bloody invasion of Ukraine, Putin justified the “special military action” in Ukraine – in religious terms. Ukraine was “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said, reclaiming Ukraine for the restoration of a greater “Russkiy mir,” or Russian world.
“With the war in Ukraine a daily presence in our lives, the exhibition has become timely in a way we could never have imagined when we first planned it,” Salmond said. “The atheist posters on display document a piece of Russian history we’re in danger of forgetting, but they also provide an opportunity to think about the workings of state-sponsored propaganda more broadly. The sheer scale of the Soviet campaign to eliminate religion will be explored in the conference on ‘The Visual Culture of Iconoclasm and Atheism in June,’” she added.
The Museum of Russian Icons is at 203 Union Street. For information, www.museumofrussianicons.org or 978-598-5000.
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