The Plot to Kill God: Findings From the Soviet Experiment in Secularization
Paul Froese. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008. 248 pages.
Communist Party leaders in the twentieth-century Soviet Union, who held sway over millions with the elimination of the czarist regime, set out to sweep away any vestige of old thinking that impeded the manufacture of the Soviet Man. Imperial Russia’s symbiotic relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church ended with the Revolution, and Soviet officials responded to persistent interest in religious faith by implementing the Soviet Experiment in Secularization, the purpose of which was to eradicate any notion of the existence of a Supreme Being greater than their own Soviet state. In The Plot to Kill God, Paul Froese, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, offers a compelling study that marries social science and history to determine to what extent faith was affected by the large-scale structural changes brought on by an organized program to establish systemic atheism within a nation. In the end, he concludes that the plot failed—God could not be killed.
Soviet leaders assumed that without state support adherence to Russian Orthodoxy in time would simply fade away, and Lithuanian Roman Catholics and Central Asian Muslims would eventually be suppressed by state regulation. Readers whose family history includes post-Revolution experiences can attest to the brutality unleashed by Bolsheviks on faith communities. However, limiting the supply of formal religious experiences did not fully extinguish theological expression since many citizens continued to quietly celebrate religious holidays. The Experiment responded by substituting secular holidays. December 25 and 26 became “Days of Industrialization” that were celebrated with compulsory work. Within texts used in Soviet wedding, funeral and confirmation services, the word “the Proletariat” replaced “God.” Local parishes were replaced with “cells” aimed at preaching the new truth of scientific atheism, ironically by employing neo-evangelical tactics to secure converts.
By the 1970s churches and mosques were either shut down or ostensibly empty. Leadership often was informal and training minimal. Liturgical practices varied dramatically. Muslims claimed their religious identity, yet had lost their religious traditions and possessed limited knowledge of the critical pillars of their faith. However, Froese notes that while Soviet officials were capable of scaring people from church and mosque, it was not so easy to turn them against religion. Despite social disincentives, embers of faith still glowed, with particular persistence among evangelical Christian groups who had adapted to restriction in Imperial Russia and remained adept at operating underground in Soviet Russia. Ultimately, what Soviet officials misjudged was the strength of a personally reassuring religious belief in a caring God.
Froese asserts that if Soviet rule had co-opted religious movements to develop a passive attitude to economic and political issues, latent opposition to the Soviet project would have been limited. However, this and other effective strategies collided with committed ideologues within the Soviet regime. The futility of the Secularization Experiment became evident with Glasnost, where Soviet policy ironically tilled the fields of potential religious growth by leaving millions of religiously unattached souls accessible to aggressive religious movements, and where no one group enjoyed political favor. The political landscape now features officials proudly claiming their Orthodox heritage.
Froese acknowledges that he offers no new information about Soviet religious history but rather has applied sociological reasoning in light of this history to determine Soviet policy’s impact on religion and ideology. This sociological reasoning provides singular “on the ground” evidence of the expression of faith under duress. Charts and graphs support his work, and while the book’s structure lends itself to redundancy, extensive use of vivid examples of the resilience of faith sustains interest. Ultimately, it is important to include Froese’s findings among the body of works essential to understanding Soviet society.