The period of “de-Stalinization” led by the Soviet Union’s new leader, Nikita Khrushchev was marked by a rolling back of many of Stalin’s most oppressive and brutal policies. However, one place in which Khrushchev strongly contradicted this trend was in his treatment of the Orthodox Church and religion in general. After a period of toleration and expansion started by Stalin in 1941 at the outset of World War II, Khrushchev, driven by the traditional Marxist-Leninist belief that communism demanded in atheistic society, desired to once again cut the power and influence of the Orthodox Church and limit the spread of religious belief.
Khrushchev’s all-out assault on religion began in earnest in 1959. His most straightforward attack was to simply shut down many of the church’s institutions. According to Freeze, “the regime closed 59 of its 69 monasteries, 5 of its 8 seminaries, and 13,500 of its 22,000 parish churches”(429). Khrushchev also instituted draconian regulations on the practice and propagation of religion. Examples of these include a ban on services held outside of church walls, outlawing pilgrimages, and disallowing the ringing of church bells in some jurisdictions. Other laws were aimed at the teaching of religion to children, such as a restriction of parental rights to teach religion and an outright ban on allowing children at church services. Clearly, the regime was attempting to prevent the spread of religion to younger people in order to create a new generation of atheists. This effort was also seen in changes to the Soviet education system. Khrushchev ensured that all believers were barred from entering the teaching profession and stressed the formulation of a curriculum that supported an atheistic teaching of history and the natural sciences. The regime also sought to replace old religious cultural institutions like marriage with new secular “socialist life-cycle rituals.” Instead of marrying in a church, young couples would make it official in new “Wedding Palaces.”
However, propaganda was the primary weapon of choice in Khrushchev’s campaign. The regime produced books, films, and other media all with the purpose of asserting scientific atheism and painting believers in a negative light. A notably popular publication was a journal called Science and Religion published by the Znanie (Knowledge) Association. It and other propaganda used contemporary scientific progress such as space travel to assert to argue against the existence of God. Znanie also organized popular atheistic lectures that were available to the general public. The campaign would also utilize former clergymen who had realized the err of their ways and renounced their faith as powerful tools to sway believers. The new Anti-Parasite Laws instituted by the regime worked in tandem with anti-religious propaganda, as clergymen were identified as prime examples of people who lead “an anti-social and parasitic way of life.”
Despite being an uncharacteristically anti-liberal policy, Khrushchev’s campaign qualifies as part of the process of de-Stalinization in that it rejected Stalin’s policy of tolerance and reverted back to ideas rooted in the Marxist-Leninist tradition that ruled before Stalin instituted his personal brand of socialism. Although the campaign was largely unsuccessful in creating a religion-free communist society, it showed that even under Khrushchev’s leadership, the government was not afraid to resort to systems of repression and misinformation to shape the lives and thoughts of its citizens to reach a desired outcome.
(1964, March 25). From the Ideological Commission of the C.P.S.U. Central Committee:
ON MEASURES FOR INTENSIFYING THE ATHEISTIC INDOCTRINATION OF
THE POPULATION. Current Digest of the Russian Press, The . Retrieved from https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13767385
Anderson, C. (2016, April 15). How Effective Was Khrushchev’s Religious Policy? – Cat Anderson – Medium. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://medium.com/@Cat_grl/how-effective-was-khrushchev-s-religious-policy-b937a40170d7
Geldern, J. V. (2017, June 18). Fight Against Superstition. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1961-2/fight-against-superstition
Khruschev’s anti-religious campaign. (n.d.). Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://fondsp.org/en/read/khruschev-s-anti-religious-campaign
USSR anti-religious campaign (1958–1964). (2018, April 08). Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSR_anti-religious_campaign_(1958–1964)
[Soviet anti-religious propaganda poster]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 08, 2018, from http://russiatrek.org/blog/art/soviet-anti-religious-propaganda-posters/
Krivonosov, I. (n.d.). Valentina Tereshkova Marries Nikolaev. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1961-2/fight-against-superstition/fight-against-superstition-images/#bwg155/834 (Originally photographed 1963)