Vienna, March 18 – With the opening of some archives at the end of the Soviet period, Russian specialists on religious life in the USSR focused on what some call “the history of decrees,” the specific orders that Communist officials gave concerning religious life, and the responses to those orders by leaders of the country’s various religious communities.
But now that approach is giving way to a broader social history of religion in the Soviet period, one that focuses not so much on Communist directives than on the consequences of modernization and societal transformation on religious life, an approach that helps explain how the Soviet system created “believers of a new type” with whom Russians still have to deal. At a seminar at Moscow’s St. Tikhon Humanitarian University last fall, the stenographic record of which has just been published, Aleksey Beglov, a senior researcher at the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a pioneer of the new social history, described some of his findings (www.bogoslov.ru/text/390148.html).
A key question specialists on religious life under the Soviets must answer, Beglov said, is why Nikita Khrushchev was so much more successful in his attacks on the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 1950s and early 1960s than was Joseph Stalin, who certainly employed far more coercive means, thirty years earlier.
According to the Moscow scholar, the answer to this must be “sought not in the policy of the powers that be which adopted definite strategies in anti-religious propaganda, in the closure of churches and so on but rather against whom these strategies were directed and to whom they were designed to appeal.”
Before World War II, he pointed out, “Soviet power had to deal basically with a peasant population and rural believers.” The strength of tradition in these communities meant that “even after the closure of churches, religious life [in many cases] continued in much the same way within this community even within the collective farms.
At the time, the Soviet government blamed local officials for keeping religion alive, accusing them of “sabotaging the party line. But in fact, here were being reproduced old mechanisms for the support of religious life which existed in the peasant community before that time.”
But by the 1950s, the situation in the country had fundamentally changed, Beglov argued. First, the government’s campaign to increase the size of collective farms, an effort that affected “almost 80 percent” of peasant households meant that the traditional links were largely destroyed.
The new economic units unlike the earlier kolkhozes “no longer corresponded with the village community.” There were “much larger,” and consequently, “the mechanisms which had been important for those communities in the past now in fact ceased to operate.” Among the social phenomena most affected was religion.
Second, Khrushchev’s campaign to develop the Virgin Lands in Kazakhstan and in the Altai split up many peasant families and further undermined the traditional transmission mechanisms. Moreover, when those who took part in this campaign arrived in their new homes, they did not have the chance to recreate religious communities.
And third – and this factor is far and away the most important – the country’s urban population grew at the expense of the rural one. In the Russian Republic, the number of urban residents surpassed the number of rural ones in 1959, and in the USSR as a whole, this happened only two years later, precisely the time of Khrushchev’s infamous anti-religious push.
Because most remaining believers now lived in cities, Beglov continued, “the Russian Church now had to deal not with traditional peasant believers, religiosity and religious practice of which the peasant community supported and which survived collectivization, but with the peasant’s son or grandson who did not maintain social ties with it.”
And urban life “presupposed greater individualization of relations,” relations which gave their bearer “a new mentality especially because as a rule he already had secondary or higher education” and had grown up with “the cult of science, under whose sign passed all the Soviet 1960s.”
This new urban believer “did not have a large but a small family where he was the head … and if his mother or other relative from the village lived with him, her role and position was completely different.” And his position too was different in that he could not act like “the head or the patriarch of a large family.”
“In this situation,” Beglov said, “the actions of the powers that be which had not worked before gave a completely different result,” with anti-religious propaganda “based on appeals to the authority of science having a completely different response from the urban residence that it could and did have from a believing peasant.”
And as a result, “a new type of believer arose, an urban resident with whom the Russian Church ought to have dealt, formulating for him certain new forms of church life, giving instruction in a language accessible to him and attempting to draw him into the life of the church” as a community.
“One should not say that this did not happen,” Beglov argued, but it did not happen often enough either because Church leaders did not understand the challenge or because the heroic efforts of some believers – and he noted that “50 percent of samizdat in the 1970s was religious samizdat (and not only Orthodox)” – fell short of the task.
Seen from this perspective, Beglov concluded, “the cause of the obvious success of Khrushchev’s persecution seems not to be that the oppressors correctly directed their strikes but because they were able to make use of the result of social processes which having reached a culmination in the life of the country at that time struck the Church as well.”
Beglov’s implied message – and it is one that several members of his audience picked up on – is that many in the Church still do not understand that they face a very different audience and that the doing away with the anti-religious efforts of the Soviet past will not by itself be enough for them to reach out to “the believers of a new type.”