We cover thee not with a cross, nor with water and prayer the inheritance of slavery and darkness, but with our red banner of struggle and labour, pierced by bullets and torn by bayonets..we bid the parents of the newborn child, bring up thy child to be a devoted fighter for the liberation of the toilers of the entire world, an advocate of science and labour, an enemy of darkness and ignorance.
A Bolshevik baptism from the 1920s. (the picture on the right is a cartoon of Orthodox priests plotting counter-revolution)
There comes a time when the annual assault of irritating sleigh bells, laughing Santas, tacky decorations and lackluster carols sung in shopping malls by disinterested children become all too much for even the hardiest of souls. In my weaker moments I find myself losing all enthusiasm for the Christmas spirit and wishing the whole ghastly carnival would be swept away in some kind of unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome catastrophe.
Casting an eye over the pages of Michael Burleigh’s ‘Sacred Causes’ it appears that the Bolsheviks thought along similar lines. In 1922, at the suggestion of Skvortsov-Stepanov a Komsomol anti-Christmas was celebrated in Moscow and over 400 other cities in order to cure the Russian people of their ‘superstitious’ customs. On Orthodox Christmas day, January the 6th 1923, processions formed up at noon and paraded until dark. The marchers included students, members of women’s organisations and working class youth, with horsemen following behind holding anti-religious banners. These were followed by trucks bearing clowns mocking God, a figure of God embracing a naked woman, and mock priests and rabbis chanting indecent versions of religious liturgies and standing in ridiculous poses. This parade culminated in images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris being burned on the bonfire. To liven up the proceedings Komsomol carol singers went from house to house singing an adapted version of the Christmas Troparian of the Orthodox Church:
'Thy Komsomol Christmas
Restoring to the world the light of reason
Serving the workers revolution
Blooming under the five pointed star
We greet thee, sun of the Commune
We see thee on the heights of the future Russian
Komsomol, glory to thee!'
In Odessa a similar parade culminated in the burning of Moses and Jehovah on the main square while the adjacent church was packed with Christian worshippers at mass. Other processions accompanied the showing of anti-religious plays with titles such as ‘The Liberation of Truth’.
The anti-religious carnival was not a success, eliciting offence from believers and unbelievers alike. Because of this it came to be recognized that a much broader cultural approach was needed which created new rituals in place of the old. The idea of anti-religious festivals was not abandoned altogether however. In 1923 a Komsomol Easter was organized; a kind of unholy week of anti-religious celebration with speeches, charades and plays such as ‘The Political Trial of the Bible’. In Leningrad, pioneers sang ‘materialist’ songs and displayed slogans such as ‘The Smoke of the Factory is better than the Smoke of Incense’. More parallel anti-festivals followed, including ‘Electric day’ to replace ‘Elijah day’, ‘Forest day’ to replace ‘Trinity Sunday’, ‘Harvest day’ to replace ‘The Feast of the Intercession’ and ‘The day of Industry’ to replace ‘The Feast of the Transfiguration’.
A surge in anti-religious activity occurred when the ‘League of the Militant Godless’ was founded in 1925 under the leadership of the veteran atheist Emelyan Yaroslavsky; the founder editor since 1922 of a weekly called ‘The Godless’.The League of the Godless proclaimed that all religion was harmful to workers, that science was sufficient to explain all phenomena and that religiosity was a sign of disloyalty. The league consisted of party members, hooligans from the Komsomol youth movement, immature workers and army veterans. Its members fanned out in cell like groups, although their propaganda was occasionally more dramatically enforced by aircraft buzzing churches still in use and the arrival of a specially commissioned train called 'The Godless Express' which brought ‘the light of reason’ through puffs of smoke to the Russian countryside.
Peasants were taken up in planes to show them there were no angels or Gods in the heavens. Seminars, study groups and evening courses were started alongside home guides like ‘Teach yourself to be godless’. Irreligious enthusiasts puffed up with scientific certitudes appeared in village streets to challenge God to punish their blasphemies with lightning bolts. One unimaginative atheist sailor attempted to keep the faithful out of church by grabbing them as they went in and reading to them about isosceles triangles from an encyclopedia. Debates were organized between activists and priests whose outcome sometimes included the latter ripping off their costumes and admitting their 'deception'. These ran into trouble, as sometimes the crowd took the side of the priests and often the clergymen won the debates against their poorly educated Bolshevik counterparts. In one reported example a crowd burst into laughter when, in answer to a priest’s question ‘who made nature?’, the Bolshevik answered ‘nature made itself’. As a consequence of this and similar debacles these debates were soon replaced by lectures.
Churches were vandalized, the biggest were blown up and many church bells like the one shown in the picture on the right were taken away and smelted. 44 anti religious museums were opened, the biggest being 'The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism' in Leningrad’s Kazan cathedral. This contained exhibits such as waxworks of the Spanish Inquisition, an alchemist laboratory, a Foucault pendulum and a diagram depicting the evolutionary process juxtaposed with a picture of the Garden of Eden. Displays also included photos of priests who had been arrested for insanity or crimes against the people. Spectators came away feeling the inevitable superiority of Soviet Leninist communism over the superstitions of Christianity and Judaism and the triumph of science over religion.
In the 1930s extreme publications such as ‘The Godless of the Bench’ edited by M Kostelovkaya, a Moscow party leader, S Polidoroc, a journalist and Dimitry Moor, the famous poster artist, advocated an ‘antireligious proletarian dictatorship of the atheist city over the countryside’. Illustrations from this journal showed such delightful images as peasants feeding off the innards of an eviscerated Christ and a plump peasant woman combing vermin - priests, chalices, angels, crosses and icons - out of her infested hair. In one of the more bizarre incidents, a pamphlet appeared in the 1920s called ‘Prayers on a Tractor’, this depicted an atheist tractor waging a war against the cross and crushing it beneath its wheels.
History was not on the side of the Bolsheviks. By the end of the 1980s the Soviet empire lay in ruins, the ‘Museum of Religion and Atheism’ reverted back to being a Cathedral and the scientific certainties of communism and its ‘laws of history’ were shown to be complete twaddle, despite much paper and ink having been spilt in praise of them on college campuses over the course of the 20th century. Christmas has turned out to be remarkably resilient, and in view of that, it can perhaps be forgiven its excesses.
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.