By Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
In this talk I propose to outline the history of atheism in Russia during the last hundred years. I will start by considering the kind of atheism present in Russia before the Revolution. Then I will say something about the development of atheism during the Soviet period. And finally I will conclude with some observations concerning the nature of Russian post-Soviet atheism.
I should like to begin with the following questions. How did it happen that the country known as ‘Holy Russia’, with such a long history of Orthodox Christianity, was in a very short period of time turned by the Bolsheviks into ‘the first atheist state in the world’? How was it possible that the very same people who were taught religion in secondary schools in the 1910s with their own hands destroyed churches and burned holy icons in the 1920s? What is the explanation of the fact that the Orthodox Church, which was so powerful in the Russian Empire, was almost reduced to zero by its former members?
I should say at once that I cannot interpret what happened in Russia, in 1917 as an accident, the seizure of power by a small group of villains. Rather I perceive in the Russian revolution the ultimate outcome of the processes which were going on within the pre-revolutionary society and so, to a considerable extent, within the Russian Church (as there was no separation between Church and society). I would claim that the Russian revolution was the offspring of both the Russian monarchy and the Church. The roots of the post-revolutionary atheism should be looked for in pre-revolutionary Russian society and in the Church.
It has been said that Russia was baptised but not enlightened. Indeed, as far as the 19th century is concerned, it is clear that enlightenment was very often in conflict with religion: the masses of illiterate peasants kept their traditional beliefs, but more and more educated people, even from a purely religious background, rejected faith and became atheists. Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov are classic examples: both came from clerical families, both became atheists after studying in theological seminaries. For people like Dostoyevsky religion was something that had to be rediscovered, after having been lost as a result of his education. Tolstoy, on the other hand, came to a certain type of faith in God but remained alien to the Orthodox Church. It is clear, when one looks at the pre-revolutionary period, that there was a huge gap between the Church and the world of educated people, the so-called intelligentsia, and this gap was constantly growing.