League of The Militant Godless

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One of the early Soviet regime's most ambitious attempts at social engineering, the League of the Militant Godless (Soyuz voinstvuyushchikh bezbozhnikov ) was also one of its most dismal failures. Founded in 1925 as the League of the Godless, it was one of numerous volunteer groups created in the 1920s to help extend the regime's reach into Russian society. These organizations hoped to attract nonparty members who might be sympathetic to individual elements of the Bolshevik program. The word "militant" was added in 1929 as Stalin's Cultural Revolution gathered speed, and at its peak in the early 1930s, the League claimed 5.5 million dues-paying bezbozhniki (godless).

Organized like the Communist Party, the League consisted of cells of individual members at factories, schools, offices, and living complexes. These cells were managed by local councils subordinated to regional and provincial bodies. A League Central Council presided in Moscow. Despite the League's nominal independence, it was directed at each level by the corresponding Communist Party organization.

The League's mandate was to disseminate atheism, and, to achieve this goal, it orchestrated public campaigns for the closure of churches and the prohibition of church bell pealing. It staged demonstrations against the observance of religious holidays and the multitude of daily Orthodox practices. The League also arranged lectures on themes such as the existence of God, Biblical miracles, astronomy, and so forth. The League's Central Council published a raft of antireligious publications in Russian and in the languages of national minorities. Larger provincial councils issued their own antireligious periodicals.

The League's rapid organizational rise seemed to embody the Bolshevik success in transforming Holy Russia into the atheistic Soviet Union. But appearances were misleading. In ironic obeisance to Marxist dialectics, the League reached its organizational peak in the early 1930s before collapsing utterly a few years later when, consolidation taking priority over Cultural Revolution, the Party withdrew the material support that had sustained the League's rise. The League's disintegration cast its earlier successes as a "Potemkin village" in the Russian tradition. In the League's case, the deception was nearly complete: Only a fraction of the League's nominal members actually paid dues. Many joined the League without their knowledge, as a name on a list submitted by a local party official. Overworked local party officials often viewed League activities as a last priority. The population largely ignored the League's numerous publications. Local antireligious officials often succeeded in drawing the ire of the local community in their ham-handed efforts to counter Orthodoxy. Indeed, the local versions of debates in the early and mid-1920s between leading regime propagandists and clergymen went so poorly that they were prohibited by the late 1920s.

The final irony was that whatever secularization occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, little of it can be attributed to the League. Orthodoxy's retreat in this period was due to the raw exercise of state power that resulted in the closure of tens of thousand of churches and the arrest of many priests. Urbanization and industrialization played their part, as did the flood of new spaces, images, and associations that accompanied the creation of Soviet culture. Only in this final element did the League play a role, and it was a very minor one. The League may have been a symbol of secularization but was hardly an agent of it.

After a brief revival in the late 1930s, the League faded once again into the background as World War II brought an accommodation with religion. It was formally disbanded in 1947, four years after the death of its founder and leader, Emilian Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky, an Old Bolshevik, had been a leading propagandist in the 1920s and 1930s. An ideological chameleon, he survived two decades of ideological twists and turns and died a natural death in 1943 at the age of sixty-five.

Despite its ultimate failure, the League put into clear relief the regime's fundamental approach to the task of social transformation. Highlighting Bolshevism's faith in the power of organization and building on the tradition of Russian bureaucracy, the regime emphasized the organizational manifestation of a desired sentiment to such an extent that it eventually superseded the actual sentiment. The state of atheism in Soviet Russia was essentially the same as the state of the League, as far as the regime was concerned. As long as the League was visible, the regime assumed that it had achieved one of its ideological goals. Moreover, the atheism promoted by the League looked a great deal like a secular religion. Here the regime appeared to be taking the path of least resistance, by which fundamental culture was not changed but simply given a new gloss. This approach boded ill for the long-term success of the Soviet experiment with culture and for the Soviet Union itself.

See also: bolshevism; russian orthodox church


Husband, William. (1998). "Soviet Atheism and Russian Orthodox Strategies of Resistance, 19171932." Journal of Modern History 70(1):74107.

Husband, William. (2000). Godless Communists: Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 19171932. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Peris, Daniel. (1995). "Commissars in Red Cassocks: Former Priests in the League of the Militant Godless." Slavic Review 54(2):340364.

Peris, Daniel. (1998). Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Daniel Peris

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