Stalin the Divine Savior

Via Making My Way (a great atheist blog, although its author doesn’t update often enough!), this amazing historical fact.

I wrote in “Red Crimes” about how communism, demonized by religious apologists as an atheistic ideology, was more in the nature of a political system: willing to work with anyone who supported its goals and to persecute anyone who opposed its goals, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. As evidence of this, I cited the story of Andrei Sakharov, an atheist and a brilliant physicist who helped the Soviet Union develop nuclear weapons, but was exiled and placed under house arrest when he spoke out against the Soviet regime and in favor of human rights. On the other side of the equation, there’s evidence that dozens of clergy members, including the one-time Archbishop of Warsaw, were Soviet collaborators who assisted the regime in spying on its enemies.

Now we can add another piece of evidence to this cumulative case. From the website Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:

The enmity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state came to an official end in September 1943 with the election of Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergii Stragorodskii, de facto leader of the church for seventeen years, as Patriarch. The election had been preceded by a momentous September 4 meeting in the Kremlin between Joseph Stalin and three leading Metropolitans: Sergei, Aleksei Simanskii of Leningrad and Nikolai Iarushevich of Kiev. Stalin granted them the right to open a limited number of churches and religious schools, and to convene a national synod on September 8, which duly elected Sergei patriarch. Upon his elevation, Sergei immediately declared Stalin the divinely anointed ruler, initiating an uneasy collaboration between church and state that survived the Soviet system.

From Google Books, this excerpt from Robert W. Thurston and Bernd Bonwetsch’s The People’s War confirms this story and adds more detail:

Stalin abolished the League of the Godless (founded in the 1920s) and arranged a temporary truce with the Orthodox Church; in return, the Metropolitan of Moscow publicly announced in 1942 that Stalin was “the divinely anointed leader of our armed and cultural forces leading us to victory over the barbarian invasion.” Church reopenings were attended by multitudes of devout believers. The regime proudly communicated news about fund-raising efforts by churchmen and congregations to purchase tanks for the army; Ehrenburg openly described people praying, and Simonov wrote poetically and movingly of “the simple crosses on Russian graves.”

The official allegiance between Stalin and the Russian Orthodox Church shows that communism’s relationship with religion was nowhere near as black-and-white as modern Christian apologists portray it. While communists did persecute some churches, they happily made alliances with others – and those churches were more than happy to reciprocate.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    On that note, as I’ve observed elsewhere in noting that Communism is as much a religion as most forms of Buddhism, I found the following:

    O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples,
    Thou who broughtest man to birth.
    Thou who fructifies the earth,
    Thou who restorest to centuries,
    Thou who makest bloom the spring,
    Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords…
    Thou, splendour of my spring, O thou,
    Sun reflected by millions of hearts.

    -Yevgeny Yevtushenko

    I think this speaks for itself. >.>

  • Alex Weaver

    …bleh, misread the credits. It’s from A. O. Avdienko.

    The rest is here, incidentally.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    So much for the ‘godless communists’

    … According to the Peoples’ Weekly World, the party argues that the association of communism and atheism is a misconception, notwithstanding the original Bolsheviks’ official atheist position arising from its conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church for its alliance with the tsarist state. Going a step further, the party announces that it has formed a new “Religion Commission” to “welcome people of faith into the party.”

  • HP

    And let’s not forget the great Black gospel tribute to Uncle Joe by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet:

    Stalin wasn’t stallin’ when he fought the Beast of Berlin
    That they’d never rest contented ’til they had driven him from the land.
    So he called the Yanks and English and proceeded to extinguish
    The Fuehrer and his vermin. This is how it all began. . .

  • HP

    s/fought/b/told

  • Justin

    I’ve read somewhere that Stalin was a paranoiac; could any other neuroses of his explain his apparently contradictory attitudes towards state-religious relations?

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    I’ve read Daylight Atheism for probably longer than any other atheist site, so what a surprise and delight to see my humble blog highlighted here today.

    The article you linked to is far and away my most popular. When I first published it, it got a very good reception among the skeptical community. Most particularly enjoyed the last section, where I examine the similarities between religion and communism (as practiced). These similarities partially explain why the rapprochement between Stalin and the Orthodox Church occurred so swiftly.

    Thanks for the shout-out!

  • Yahzi

    Justin – what contradictory attitudes? Stalin was for any state-religion relations that increased his power, and against any that didn’t.

  • M.

    I grew up in communist Yugoslavia – far cry from Stalinist Russia, granted, but I do have a feel for what went on there.

    Communism should be classified as a religion, beyond any doubt in my mind. From the promise of brighter future (the government of the proleteriat) in exchange for current toil, over unconditional worship of the inerrant Messiah (Marx) and his prophets (the Central Committee of the Communist Party), down to faith classes in elementary schools (my first grade teacher was an expert in manipulating minds).

    However, to more important points. Ebon, I have to warn you against what you wrote in this post, as most people who lived through it will feel it is entirely incorrect.

    What happened in practically all originally-Christian communist countries is that believing members of the church were eliminated or pushed out into rural monasteries. Everyone who really believed in the religion was sidelined, and even superficial allegiance to old customs was viewed with extreme suspicion.

    A few priests struck deals with communists, seeing that as a lesser evil compared with complete destruction of the church.

    Much stronger phenomenon, however, was false priesthood. There were many people who just wanted the cushy job of the priest, and didn’t really care about the religion per se. I remember several “priests” who openly laughed at the church doctrine, and declared themselves as good communists – but they wanted the nice house and the cushy job (don’t forget that Ortodox priests are allowed to marry and have kids), and the Church didn’t dare to deny them the positions.

    So, while the Church was outwardly “friendly” towards the regime, this was only a veneer. It’s a really stretched argument – the communists destroy the leadership of the church, replace it with communist-friendly leaders, and then the church suddenly becomes pro-communist. Of course.

    I think this kind of historically shallow argumentation should be avoided.

    There are other issues that should be target of criticism, however.

    It is true that the mores of the Ortodox church helped a lot in the spread of Communism. People were used to pronunciations from “up on high”, and were trained to believe them. This attitude permeated society, along with strong training not to make too much noise about potential problems. Additionally, Ortodox countries carry a strong conspiracy theory/”everyone is against us” attitude: the Catholic and Protestant West “hate us”, and they wish to destroy our faith! To the bunkers! Don’t trust those damn foreigners. It didn’t take much effort for communists to turn this around.

    But even more pertinent is the current phenomenon in post-communist Ortodox countries. When communism collapsed, it was a collapse of a religion. The faithful were left bereft of all meaning in their lives. Some, especially the very old, refused to believe it. They saw it as a temporary setback orchestrated by the evil (demonic) forces of the West.

    But for majority, this precipitated a sudden crisis of belief, and an immediate switch back to the “old faith” – orthodox Christianity.

    The greatest communists became the strongest, most zealous believers. New churches started popping up all over the place. Creationism surged from non-existent to a belief shared by a significant portion of population. Ken Ham, Hovind, Harun Yahya became household names, as “documentaries” started to air all over the place. In some places (such as my home country, Serbia) faith classes were introduced into elementary school curriculum (and include strong creationist motif).

    This wave crested a few years ago, and is now on a slow downslope. But, as far as the cause of atheism in the previously-communist-now-Orthodox countries goes, this post-communist faith resurgence is by far the most important phenomenon to consider.

  • Alex Weaver

    Communism should be classified as a religion, beyond any doubt in my mind. From the promise of brighter future (the government of the proleteriat) in exchange for current toil, over unconditional worship of the inerrant Messiah (Marx) and his prophets (the Central Committee of the Communist Party), down to faith classes in elementary schools (my first grade teacher was an expert in manipulating minds).

    To say nothing of belief in magic (see their economic theories for details), the division of those prophets and followers into multiple, opposed camps each convinced they have the “true” interpretation of Marx’s theories….

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Bertrand Russell considered Soviet communism to be a religion.

  • Justin

    Justin – what contradictory attitudes? Stalin was for any state-religion relations that increased his power, and against any that didn’t.

    I guess none, then. I just didn’t get why Stalin would repress some religions and uphold others. If I had thought about it from the position of a power-hungry dictator, it would have made sense in a Machiavellian way.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    There are photos of Russian Orthodox priests blessing new tanks (though, interestingly, not the actual units or troops) before they were sent into battle against the Germans. Stalin was a bit of a pragmatist (though, perhaps, not enough of one) at least during WWII and particularly during the most critical part of the war, when he deliberately turned to religion to help shore up Soviet patriotism and morale. He didn’t believe in it, but he used it well; and very much as an “opiate of the masses.” Sort of an unintended lesson to be drawn from Communist writings; if the Imperialists could use it, why couldn’t the Communists?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Solzhenitsyn’s first volume of Gulag Archipelago has an excellent stretch on the relationship of the Leninists and the Orthodox Church.

    Another funny thing — Stalin was a seminary student in his youth.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Thank you for that wonderful comment, M. Historians are one thing, but you can’t surpass the personal recollections of someone who actually lived through a regime like this.

    Just in case I wasn’t clear enough, I want to clarify that my point in writing this wasn’t to criticize the church for forming allegiances with Stalin. As you say, it’s always possible for a tyrant to find willing collaborators in situations like this, and I don’t think that proves very much. I was more interested in the flow of causality in the opposite direction: the fact that Stalin willingly formed and sought out alliances with the church.

    If he was a hard-core, bloodthirsty atheist as so many Christian apologists have depicted them, then you’d expect that Stalin would want to stamp out religion, no ifs, ands or buts. Instead, it appears he was open to the idea of forming allegiances with the church, so long as he could trust it to support his political goals. This doesn’t prove anything about his personal beliefs, but it does prove that the relationship of communism to religion was not nearly as black-and-white as it’s usually portrayed.

  • prase

    M., isn’t the situation in Serbia a bit specific because of the Kosovo war and trade embargo, and precedent war in Bosnia, where the West almost unanimously supported anybody who was against Serbia? You Serbs have quite a lot of reasons to believe that “everyone is against us” besides the traditional Orthodox attitude (btw. nothing special for Orthodox Christians – look at the Catholic Poles and their national sentiment). In Bulgaria, at least according to these statistics, religion isn’t too pervasive. On the other hand, Romania is probably the most devout Orthodox country in the world while their sentiments are directed against Hungarians and Russians, not against the West in general. So I think it’s not much precise to speak about post-communist Orthodox countries as a homogeneous group.

    And it’s also interesting that, given their distrust to Protestants and evil demonic forces of the West, names of western Protestants like Hovind are popular among Serbian creationists.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Instead, it appears he was open to the idea of forming allegiances with the church, so long as he could trust it to support his political goals.

    Well, he was a devoted practitioner of realpolitik; witness his pact with Hitler that opened the way for war.

  • M.

    @Ebonmuse

    Instead, it appears he was open to the idea of forming allegiances with the church, so long as he could trust it to support his political goals.

    Now, that is a good point, but needs to be put forward more directly. I completely missed it in the post.

    @prase

    So I think it’s not much precise to speak about post-communist Orthodox countries as a homogeneous group.

    Several good points as well. Yes, the Serbs do have reasons to feel particularly persecuted after the last two decades, and yes, that has added to the overall state of mind in Serbia.

    However, the phenomena I spoke about appear to be universal, if varying in intensity and direction. Even the furthermost outlier, Romania, still entertains the conspiracy theory motif (although the target is different); and in all aforementioned countries, ex-communists (and their children) are among the most vocal and most reactionary believers.

    I’m not putting this forward as some kind of absolute rule, but it is an interesting thing to note – especially since no such phenomenon can be seen in non-Orthodox post-communist countries. There is something about the combination of Orthodox belief and communism that appears to have left a particularly destructive legacy.

  • prase

    M.,

    …especially since no such phenomenon can be seen in non-Orthodox post-communist countries

    I would contest that. I have already mentioned Catholic Poland, where (for historically understandable reasons) theories about conspiration between Russia (Orthodox) and Germany (Protestant in parts bordering Poland) are popular – and that’s partly why Kaczyński brothers were elected to their offices.

    Conspiracy theories are not special for post-communist states. This blog has many posts about conspiracy theories held by Americans (from belief that various European Union leaders are incarnation of Antichrist to the belief that the United Nations plot to destroy US independence and freedom).

    And it is not a religious speciality either. My country (Czech Republic) is largely atheistic and still we have a president, who thinks that climatic changes are a false rumour spread by conspired environmentalists, journalists, EU officials and leftists of all sorts in their crusade against liberty. He even writes books about that, and is fairly popular, although fortunately supporters of his ideas are still in minority. One of his advisors is a creationist, but the president himself probably doesn’t hold any religious belief.

    If you asked me what country is permeated by conspiracy theories or religious dogmatism, I would certainly not name Serbia. I have registered that Serbian education minister did once propose teaching of Creationism, but generally, viewed from the outside you do fairly well.

  • M.

    I would contest that.

    Well, we can argue about it, although I think we agree on the vector, but disagree on its length.

    Conspiracy theories are everywhere, I’ll agree with that; denialism is also practiced everywhere, with varying levels of success. All countries hate their neighbours, and dream about the plots hatched by their powerful enemies. History has left its mark.

    But in my personal experience (so, yes, that is a weak argument, I’ll grant that) the level of pervasiveness is drastically different. For example, out of dozens of my friends and family members not a single one – not one – believes that WTC towers were brought down by plane impacts. They all have differing views, but “it had to be some kind of explosive inside the buildings”. Other then the professional scientists, at least half of the population thinks that evolution is utter nonsense, and another third seriously doubts it but doesn’t care too much. Massive numbers of people believe that theory of relativity is some kind of plot to undermine civilization (and since Nikola Tesla was a Serb, every insane thing he ever said is seen as a golden truth). Articles in major papers, commentaries on TV, random talk among people – it is all embroidered with conspiracies and crank theories.

    I’ve had the same experience in Russia and Bulgaria; not so much in Romania, true. But I didn’t encounter anything nearly as intense in Czech or Poland or Estonia.

    But, this could just be my perception. I kind of hope it’s not. If we are indeed, as you say, “doing fairly well”, then the rest of the eastern Europe is doing far, far worse then I ever imagined.

  • prase

    OK, maybe I shall readjust my opinions about Serbia, after all I have no personal experience with the country. Still, I hope that you are too pessimistic. Or you can underestimate the pervasiveness of crackpot theories elsewhere. My experience is that most people tend to believe at least one crank idea, but usually don’t initiate discussion about it, seemingly assuming disagreement. My defense is to avoid any potentially problematic debate. But I expect that if I asked about WTC my experiences would be similar to yours.

    I can’t only figure out how to use theory of relativity to destroy the civilisation.

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  • Mark W.

    If anyone hasn’t seen it, there is a ridiculously awesome rebuttal by Christopher Hitchens to the Stalin-atheist argument during the Q&A after a debate on YouTube!
    A reality check of epic proportions that only Chris could deliver. I believe it was from the debate against his brother.


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