In the arc of Soviet history, few government programs were as tenacious as the anti-religious campaign, which systematically set out to debunk organized religion as "the opium of the people." This political storm of heaven lasted from the earliest days of Bolshevik power up until the early eighties, when it simply ran out of steam, as did the Soviet State. But while it lasted, the anti-religious campaign was a sustained and virulent attack on the centuries-old bedrock of Russian culture and left a wave of violence and destruction in its wake.
Faced with an almost feudal society and a population of predominantly illiterate peasants, the State cannily deployed one of its most potent propaganda weapons: the vibrant graphic art illustration in posters and atheist magazines that were distributed throughout the USSR. For a superstitious peasant, the images of an idealized Soviet worker smashing the idols of Orthodox Christianity must have been as horrific as they were ultimately compelling.
The iconography of the anti-religious campaign is front and center of Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda
, a fascinating new book by Roland Elliott Brown
, published by FUEL Media. In it, Brown examines the anti-religious campaign through a unique collection of illustrations, posters, and the cover art of two prominent atheist magazines gathered for the first time in an English-language publication with full translations of the illustrations, as well as a very cogent overview of the history of the anti-religious campaign.
Brown begins with the violent beginning of Christianity in Russia, when Grand Prince Vladimir baptized Russia at the point of a sword, then ordered the pagan idols to be burnt in Kyiv. He traces the rise in significance of the Church during the crucial 250-year Tatar Mongol Yoke and its subsequent relegation by Tsar Peter the Great to the status of the Government Department until 1917.
The decades just after the Russian Revolution were the most violent and active of the anti-religious campaign when the Government sanctioned the widespread destruction of church property, the imprisonment of priests and nuns, and the closure of all religious-affiliated schools and charities. World War II offers the Church a brief respite and the opportunity to show its loyalty to the Soviet State during the critical years 1941-1945.
Many of the later illustrations highlight Soviet success in space exploration to underscore the tenants of atheism, but all too soon, the Soviet Union and the anti-religious campaign limp towards their own demise in the 1980s.
Brown is a London-based journalist and arts writer. He has written articles for The Guardian, The Spectator, Foreign Policy
and The Moscow Times
. He has also worked as a regular contributor and editor for the London-based news site IranWire, where he wrote about politics and human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Follow Roland on Twitter (@rolandebrown
) or visit the book’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/godlessutopia/
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate food, travel, and culture writer and photographer currently based in Riga, Latvia, and Massachusetts. Jennifer is the award-winning author of
Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and
Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Concise History. She contributes regular feature articles and photos to The Moscow Times, Fodor’s, Russian Life, and Reuters and is the in-house travel blogger for Alexander + Roberts, a leading American tour operator. Follow Jennifer on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook or visit jennifereremeeva.com for more information.