Antireligious propaganda

Antireligious propaganda. An integral part of and one of the main means of carrying out Soviet religious policy in Ukraine, which was aimed at the complete eradication of religion in society as a prerequisite for ‘constructing communism’ in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While derived from Marxist philosophical materialism, antireligious propaganda was elevated by Vladimir Lenin to one of the primary tasks of the Party's ideological work. The ‘right to antireligious propaganda’ has been entrenched in all Soviet constitutions (see Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) since 1918 (till 1929, together with the ‘right to religious propaganda’). Having outlawed any religious instruction of minors outside the family, the Soviet regime has mobilized, especially since 1929, its entire Communist Party and governmental apparatus, educational system, public organizations, and mass media for the purposes of antireligious propaganda.

The direction, intensity, and methods of such propaganda varied during different periods of Soviet rule in Ukraine, depending on the larger political objectives of the regime. During the first year sporadic antireligious propaganda focused mainly on the largest religious organization, the Russian Orthodox church (ROC), and featured the ‘unmasking of clerical counterrevolution’ and desecration of holy relics. Soviet confiscation of church valuables in the wake of the famine of 1921–3 was accompanied by the first large-scale antireligious propaganda campaign, with the Komsomol staging antireligious ‘festivals’ on the main religious feast days, during which they ridiculed the beliefs and rites of all religions. Increasingly the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church (UAOC) came to be attacked in Soviet antireligious propaganda. During the New Economic Policy period the Party found it expedient to lower the intensity of its propaganda, while seeking to give it a more systematic and organized character. In 1925 it launched the antireligious, semimonthly Bezvirnyk, which, by 1930, had attained a circulation of 37,000. Two years later a mass atheist organization—the Association of Atheists of Ukraine—was established; it held its first congress in 1928, electing D. Ihnatiuk as its head.

The first stage of forcible collectivization in Ukraine (1929–30) was accompanied by a massive antireligious campaign directed against all religious groups, including the hitherto favored Renovationist church (see also Living church). It was spearheaded by the Association of Militant Atheists of Ukraine (former Association of Atheists of Ukraine, which now added voiovnychykh [Militant] to its name), its nominal membership increasing from 215,000 in 1929 to over 1.5 million by 1931. Apart from an upsurge in the number of antireligious publications, including a weekly, Voiovnychyi bezvirnyk, with a circulation of 100,000 by 1930, this campaign involved large-scale expropriation of church bells (‘for industrialization’), the burning of icons and religious books, the terrorization of members of the clergy in order to force them to renounce the priesthood and even religion, the liquidation of all the remaining monasteries and convents, and the mass closing of churches, most of which were turned to secular uses. Some churches were transformed into antireligious museums (Saint Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv was made into an ‘all-Ukrainian atheist museum’ of the Association of Militant Atheists of Ukraine). In the course of the 1929–30 campaign the secret police arrested numerous bishops, priests, and leading laymen in Ukraine, the main blow being directed against the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church, which was forced into ‘self-dissolution’ in January 1930. In the second, even more violent, wave of compulsory collectivization, which brought about the catastrophic Famine-Genocide of 1932–3, antireligious propaganda accused ‘churchmen and sectarians’ of all faiths of collusion with the ‘kulaks’, anticollectivization agitation, and various ‘counterrevolutionary’ crimes, and most bishops and clergymen of all faiths were arrested or exiled by the secret police. In the mid-1930s a number of ancient Ukrainian churches, including the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv, were demolished by the authorities. At the height of the Yezhov terror (1937–8), all but a handful of churches belonging to the Russian Orthodox church and the Renovationist church were closed in Ukraine. The Association of Militant Atheists of Ukraine, its membership rapidly declining after 1931 and its two periodicals closing by 1935, also fell victim to the great purges, which decimated its leadership (D. Ihnatiuk was executed as a ‘fascist spy’ in 1937).

Though the Association of Militant Atheists of Ukraine (its membership reduced to less than 250,000) resumed its activities, including the publication of the weekly Bezbozhnyk from 1938, and rapidly expanded its largely token membership, it was ordered to cease all antireligious propaganda following the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and soon afterward was quietly dissolved. Eager to mobilize the support of alienated believers for the Soviet World War II effort, Joseph Stalin proceeded to offer tactical concessions to the Russian Orthodox church and some other religious groups that had called on their followers to oppose the invading Nazis. By September 1943 a new modus vivendi between the Kremlin and the Moscow patriarchate crystallized in far-reaching legal, administrative, and economic concessions to the Russian Orthodox church. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, as in other German-occupied territories, a spontaneous revival of church life brought about the reopening of several thousand churches and a number of monasteries and convents, as well as the re-establishment of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church. The latter attracted hostile propaganda from both the Soviet side and the Moscow patriarchate, and when the Red Army recaptured Ukraine, all Autocephalist parishes were forced into the Russian Orthodox church. By 1945 Soviet propaganda turned against the Catholic church, especially the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Western Ukraine. Accused of ‘Ukrainian nationalism’ and ‘collaboration’ with the enemy, all Ukrainian Catholic bishops and several hundred members of the clergy were arrested during 1945–6, and the entire church was outlawed after the so-called reunion sobor in Lviv (see Lviv Sobor of 1946) ‘voted’ to merge it with the Russian Orthodox church in March 1946 (in Transcarpathia the Uniate church was outlawed in August 1949). Although the Party adopted a resolution ordering the resumption of antireligious propaganda under the guise of ‘scientific-educational propaganda’ as early as September 1944, it was not until 1947 that the propaganda assumed an organized character, when the main responsibility for it was vested in the Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge (subsequently renamed the Znannia Society of the Ukrainian SSR). Until the end of Joseph Stalin's rule, however, antireligious propaganda focused primarily on Catholicism—especially on the underground—the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, Judaism, and sectarianism, studiously avoiding any attacks on the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church. It was only after Nikita Khrushchev assumed Party leadership that comprehensive antireligious propaganda was resumed in 1954, escalating, by 1959, into a massive attack on all religious groups, especially in Ukraine, where the majority of Orthodox and sectarian congregations in the USSR are located. All party and state agencies, including the governmental council for the affairs of the Russian Orthodox church and that for other religious ‘cults,’ were pressed into this campaign. ‘Loyal’ ecclesiastical leaders were required by the authorities not only to abandon ‘voluntarily’ some concessions they had received during the 1940s, to restrict their activities, and to close most of their monastic and theological institutions as well as parishes, but also to make public denials of any governmental interference with freedom of conscience in the USSR. Guided by unpublished Party and state directives and co-ordinated by the ideological commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Khrushchev's antireligious campaign reduced the number of Orthodox churches in Ukraine from the postwar total of 8,000 to 4,500 by 1966 and closed 29 of the 38 monasteries and convents and two of the three theological seminaries; the number of Evangelical Baptist congregations in the Ukrainian SSR was cut by half, to 1,100. The only Russian Orthodox periodical in Ukrainian, Pravoslavnyi visnyk, published since 1946, was discontinued in 1963 (it resumed publication only in mid-1968). The Znannia Society played an important, but secondary role in this campaign; in 1960 it launched an antireligious monthly, Voiovnychyi ateïst, renamed, in 1965, Liudyna i svit, as well as a series of monthly antireligious brochures, and organized large numbers of antireligious lectures, exhibits, courses, and conferences.

Nikita Khrushchev's removal brought about a significant abatement in the intensity of the antireligious campaign, though the long-range program of ‘scientific-atheist’ work developed by the Party's ideological commission in November 1963 has not been abandoned. Since 1965, while continuing slowly to reduce the number of working churches, the regime has been emphasizing a ‘complex,’ ‘scientific-atheist’ education, as well as ‘individual work with believers’ and the fostering of ritual substitutes for religion. To train specialists in antireligious propaganda, chairs for ‘scientific atheism’ were established at a number of Soviet Ukrainian institutions of higher learning, beginning with Kyiv University (1959). Since 1964 a course, Fundamentals of Scientific Atheism (which was later offered at all institutions of higher learning), was made compulsory for students attending universities as well as pedagogical institutes, medical institutes, and agricultural institutes. A department of atheism was established within the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, and, in 1967, a branch of the Party's Institute of Scientific Atheism in Moscow was opened in Kyiv. From 1965 Kyiv University was publishing an interinstitutional yearbook, Pytannia ateïzmu (Questions of Atheism, in Russian from 1978). Greater attention was being given at the time to survey research to examine the strengths and weaknesses of religious ideology, identify the distribution of believers in different regions of Ukraine, and monitor the effectiveness of antireligious propaganda.

At the popular level, a number of agencies were active under the guidance of the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, most notably the Znannia Society of the Ukrainian SSR (690,000 members in December 1979); oblast and raion ‘houses of atheism’; atheist museums (nearly 100 in 1978); evening schools and universities ‘of atheism’; secondary school and postsecondary ‘atheist circles’; antireligious television and radio programs, films, newspaper columns, atheist wall newspapers, etc. Special emphasis was placed on the promotion of ‘Soviet traditions, holidays, and rites,’ under the auspices of special councils established at different government levels and presided over by a commission attached to the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR. Simultaneously, unofficial registration of and sanctions against young people resorting to baptism and religious wedding ceremonies have been instituted, while at the local government level commissions were established to monitor ‘observance of the legislation on cults,’ that is, to police more effectively individual religious congregations and to combat the growing number of ‘deregistered’ or ‘illegal’ congregations. The struggle against religious dissent in Ukraine—in particular, against the banned Ukrainian Catholic church, the Council of Churches of the Evangelical Christians-Baptists, unregistered Pentecostal and Adventist communities, and Jehovah's Witnesses—extended beyond the confines of antireligious propaganda, involving administrative harassment, trials and sentences, and selective police terror.

Soviet antireligious propaganda in Ukraine failed to infuse the masses with militant atheism despite the huge investment of material and human resources by the state, as could be seen from a succession of published and classified Party and government resolutions, including the resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR ‘On the Strengthening of Control over the Observance of Legislation on Cults’ (1 April 1969), the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s resolution ‘On the Intensification of the Atheist Upbringing of the Population’ (16 July 1971), and the Central Committee’s resolution, ‘On the Further Improvement of Ideological and Political-Educational Work’ (26 April 1979). While drastic restrictions on the religious upbringing of youth and on proselytizing, discrimination against known believers, and, especially, modernization processes contributed to widespread secularization, according to Soviet population surveys believers constituted at least 15 percent of the urban population and 30 percent of the rural population in central and eastern Ukraine, while in western Ukraine at least twice as many retained their religious beliefs. In fact, the failure of the Soviet regime to fill the spiritual and moral vacuum created by the large-scale suppression of institutional religion and the widespread cynicism about official ideology generated, from the 1960s, growing interest in Ukrainian national religious traditions, especially among the young Ukrainian intelligentsia. This caused the continuous outpouring of antireligious books and articles in the Ukrainian SSR directed against the ‘non-existent’ Ukrainian Catholic church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church. These increasingly stressed the interdependence between religious and national consciousness and urged all public socialization agencies to combine atheist and internationalist indoctrination as a means of integrating Ukrainians into a ‘new historical community’ of RussifiedSoviet people.’

Bohdan R. Bociurkiw

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]




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