OPINION: The Soviet Union’s war against religion
By Father Douglas Grandon
Photo by Roxanne King/DCR
In 1914, the Russian Orthodox Church had 117 million members, 67 dioceses, 48,000 parish churches, 130 bishops and 50,000 clergy. The church ran 35,000 primary schools and 58 seminaries.
In November 1917, the communists nationalized Orthodox churches, schools, seminaries, monasteries, charitable institutions and bank accounts. Between 1918 and 1920, the Soviets murdered 28 bishops, imprisoned or killed thousands of priests and slaughtered 12,000 Orthodox laymen.
In 1923, the communists initiated a frontal attack on the Catholic Church. By the end of the decade, the Catholic Church in the USSR, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.
In 1999, eight years after the demise of Soviet communism, I was asked to teach a two-week preaching course in Moscow. With trepidation, I agreed—and departed, in January 2000, for three weeks in Russia. My students were wonderful—and the 20-below-zero temperatures and deep snow a tremendous shock to my system!
On Saturday, after the first week of classes, the school arranged an outing to Izmalovsky Park, the location of a huge flea market, several miles outside of Moscow. It was amazing to see Russians buying and selling—and just milling about—in the subzero temperatures. At Izmalovsky Park, I discovered my first Soviet anti-religion propaganda posters.
In 1917, the critical issue facing the Bolsheviks was not simply the seizure of power, but, more importantly, the redefinition of all social values in order to create a new, atheistic “Soviet man.” The Soviets quickly fashioned compelling new symbols, such as the hammer and sickle, the red star and the image of the heroic worker. They used political posters, monuments, print media and film to convey these images to a broad audience.
Bolshevik leaders found visual propaganda the best means of indoctrination due to the Russian people’s familiarity with religious icons—and their low level of literacy. (Twenty years before the 1917 Revolution, 83 percent of Russia’s majority rural population and about 55 percent of the urban population were illiterate!)
One of the first posters I purchased was called “The Priest’s Folk Dance.” It was printed in 1919 and represents a parody of an Orthodox icon. In the center (where a saint’s picture would normally be found) is a fat priest lying on an altar. Into receptacles in front of the altar, poor peasants place their alms, which drop down to a room below, where several fat priests enjoy a sumptuous dinner. Six smaller pictures surround the larger one: four depict the sinful deeds of the fat priest; one, the fat priest preaching to an empty chapel; the last, a handsome and svelte communist speaking to a full hall. The message: Priests are hypocrites and not to be trusted.
Another poster is called “Shepherd My Sheep.” It represents a side view of a religious gathering, where an Orthodox priest is preaching to sheep dressed in human clothes. Hanging from the ambo are sheep sheers. The message: Christians are like naíve sheep, destined to be fleeced by their shepherds.
The Soviet War on Religion
What: An exhibit of 40 posters produced and distributed by the Soviet government from 1917-1983 to eradicate Christianity. From the collection of Father Douglas Grandon.
Where: basement, Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, 1530 Logan St., Denver
When: 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, 9 a.m.-noon, Saturday, Oct. 20
Another early poster depicts Lenin standing on top of the world, broom in hand, sweeping away two kings—a capitalist and (you guessed it!) a fat priest. At the bottom of the poster are the words, “Comrade Lenin Cleans the World of Filth.”
I’ve returned to Russia several times since that first visit in 2000, either to teach or to visit missionary priest friends in Vladivostok—and each time I’ve purchased more posters. They’re interesting as historical items—and are becoming rarer every year.
But there’s another reason I find them so fascinating. You see, for 73 years the USSR applied its vast police powers and material resources to the utter destruction of the Christian church. The communists came close to succeeding, but, in the end, they failed. They failed because the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church.
When I ponder the present situation in our country—where radical secularism is on the rise, where prominent politicians attack free enterprise and denigrate the wealthy, and where our religious freedom is under attack—I hear echoes of life in Russia just prior to the revolution. The message of the Soviet anti-religion posters is this: We must be very careful; freedom can quite easily be lost. As Pearl S. Buck wrote after witnessing China’s loss of freedom, “When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail.”
Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church in Centennial and serves on the board of Mary Mother of God Mission to the Russian Far East.