Where is your God now?

What role did nationality and religion play in the formation of the Soviet State?

The concept of religion in the Soviet Union is interesting, primarily because it wasn’t just the idea of a God that the Bolsheviks disagreed with, but also the concept of any power or authority above themselves. The challenge for them was that religion was deeply ingrained in the culture of almost everyone in the Soviet Union and in many ways it dictated the sympathies of the masses, making it a key target for the Bolsheviks. From the onset in 1918 Lenin and the Bolsheviks took an aggressive stance against the church with the New Economic Policy consisting of splitting the church by introducing “new-thinking young clergy” and the targeting of religious minorities such as Jews and Muslims.

The mass arrest and execution of priests and the clergy including the arrest of Patriarch Tikhon, head of the Russian church, through the decree of January 20 in 1918 led to violent demonstrations through the 1920s portraying religious figures as part of a cult. Additionally the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923 established the creation of Anti-Religious Propagandists. These initiatives were not as successful in countries such as Belarus and Ukraine who viewed the Soviets in a similar light to the previous Tsar regime.

Thuggish bolshevik behavior in the church

The Soviet approach to dealing with nationality and religion in the east in what is commonly referred to as the “Pacification of Soviet Central Asia” was a completely different affair. Prior to the 1917 revolution a massive amount of ethnic Slavs migrated to Central Asia and introduced cash crops to the region which in turn led to “radically-inclined social reform” among the pan-Islam community. Additionally Soviet propaganda was quickly found to be inappropriate as very few efforts were made to adapt to the needs of the cultures in that region. As a result a series of heavily armed groups collectively known as the Basmachi rose up against the Bolsheviks and fought the Red Army through 1922 and were defeated in July, symbolizing the end of major Islamic resistance in the region although tensions and violent guerrilla warfare continued.

Basmachis in Eastern Tajikistan, State Archive of Film and Photograph Documents of the Republic of Tajikistan

What makes the Soviet initiative in Central Asia so interesting is it demonstrated a complete lack of desire on the part of the Bolsheviks to learn and adapt based on local customs, something they got away with in Ukraine, Belarus and later Poland through brute strength, but also something that will come to bite them throughout Soviet history.

10 thoughts on “Where is your God now?

  1. Tim, your post does a great job making sense of Soviet policy towards religion. It’s great that you noticed the differences between how Russian Orthodoxy was dealt with versus how less familiar religions, like Islam and Judaism, were treated. Noting these contradictions gives your post significant depth – good job!

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  2. Covert, your post was well thought out and organized. The central asian countries are notably difficult to pacify and the soviet efforts seem to have at least succeeded briefly in a sense. Do you think working to find local solutions would have solved these issues sooner?

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    1. Thanks Stephen! I think the situation is very dependent on a region-by-region basis. Central Asia has so many subdivisions and anyone who really tries to unify the leadership and government in the region is asking for trouble. Although I am sure that the situation would have been improved had the Soviets attempted to take local customs more seriously and integrate their policies a little slower.

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  3. Thanks for this provocative and compelling post (which has a great title!)
    I have a couple more for you to check out. First of all, Ethan’s on Central Asia gives us a sense of what the Bolsheviks’ goals were: https://ethanrussiablog.wordpress.com/2019/03/25/the-interesting-case-of-soviet-central-asia/comment-page-1/#comment-8
    and then Gina on Patriarch Tikhon: https://snippetssoviethistory.home.blog/2019/03/23/the-life-and-times-of-patriarch-tikhon/
    Do your research! Tikhon was not executed in 1920 or when he did die, after an extended illness, in Moscow in 1925. His career as Patriarch was complicated and led to divisions in the Orthodox community that persisted for a long time.
    Also, using a “stock photo” is not legit. Find an image you can legally use on your post.

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    1. Thank you professor Nelson for bringing my attention to that, it’s a typo, I had started the thought “The mass arrest and execution of [priests and the clergy, including the arrest of] Patriarch Tikhon” but my mind must have drifted to another point and I never finished the sentence. I will try to find the original version of the stock photo, this one framed my argument really well.

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  4. I just posted a comment that has two URL’s in it and I think it’s being held for moderation. Can you please approve it? (and then maybe adjust your settings – up to two URLs should be ok until the end of the semester, and then you can lock it down as much as you like).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I think the role religion played in Soviet nation-building is often overlooked. The contradictions you note with how different sects of Christianity are dealt with, as opposed to Judaism, Islam, or Eastern religions, is also compelling. It’s extraordinary to me that (though it was ultimately unsuccessful) the Soviet government managed to hold the disparate religious and ethnic groups of central Asia together as long as they did.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post! I think it is so interesting to see how different religions were treated during this time when atheism was primarily being promoted to ensure equality because they felt religion was a facet of bourgeois society, however the way religions were treated and phased out were not equal at all.

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  7. Great post! It was interesting to see the progression of religion in Russia, and the Russians loyalty to their Church leaders.

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  8. Hello Tim,

    Your post emphasizes some key points. Because many Americans hold religion so closely, it can be hard to imagine the intricate ways in which leaders can expel these ideas. It is one thing to say you will ban religion; it is another matter to follow through on your threat with extreme violence.

    I also am unsurprised that the leadership treated Pan Asia differently. With a nation as far reaching as Russia, it can be difficult to control the far reaches. I never considered, however, how the propaganda could be so poorly tailored to its target.

    Thank you for sharing. I thought your post was very informative.

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