Crises of Belief and Survival of the Sacred in Postwar Soviet Society

AHA Session 51
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Elizabeth A. Wood, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Abbott Gleason, Brown University

Session Abstract

During the Cold War and its aftermath, people in the West—including scholars—often saw the Soviet regime and its “sphere of influence” as monolithic and atheistic. These papers each explore an aspect of the sacred in the postwar Soviet period, arguing that the situation was actually far more complex.

Rogacheva examines the gradual transformation of the political, ideological, and cultural beliefs of Soviet scientists, living in a small academic town forty miles away from Moscow, from 1956 to 1985. She argues that there was a peculiar “crisis of belief” among the late Soviet intelligentsia, in which scientists definitely took part. This reevaluation of the specific Soviet “sacred” started as a result of Khrushchev’s partial liberalization of Soviet society in the late 1950s and continued to develop even after the crackdown in the 1960s and 1970s. The “crisis of belief” was a complex, multi-stage secular process, which referred mostly to the political and ideological beliefs of the Soviet intelligentsia. Rogacheva investigates this topic by focusing on the scientists’ ambiguous position between the strong centralized state, which supported scientific research financially and institutionally, and the Soviet dissidents, who appealed to scientists’ human dignity.

Brennan describes the struggle by mid-level Soviet leaders to counter religious influences in occupied Austria, the one territory that avoided “Stalinization” after the war. Religious belief, Brennan finds, persisted among much of the Austrian population, and the Catholic Church emerged as one of the most important institutions in the immediate postwar era. Soviet authorities developed a crisis of belief in the atheistic Soviet ideology, especially regarding the USSR’s ability to import it to the heart of Europe. Brennan examines how this disillusionment occurred over the ten year-occupation, especially after the Communist Party’s most ambitious bid for political power, the Great Industrial Strike of 1950.  He also examines how this disillusionment may have contributed to the decision by the Soviet government to give up the dream of Communist Austria in 1955.

Westrate explores how multi-generational practices, especially in the countryside, continued the traditions and beliefs of Christianity even in the “heart” of the USSR. The official projection of Soviet society was atheistic, but the claims did not match reality. Even educated, urban professionals were still connected to the villages, where faith remained strong. Children from the “big city” who spent holidays and summers with their grandparents often learned a love of God and a veneration of traditions at the same time that they learned how to cut hay. Back in the cities the rest of the year, they did not display their beliefs; but then again, they did not display their agricultural skills, either. Westrate argues that the explosion of Christian identities after 1991 was not so much a return as a resurfacing.

In each case, these papers highlight the sacred in society; they also point out the sacredness of society in the Soviet Union. The panel will appeal to all those interested in the relationships between religion, ideology, and the state—both in Eastern Europe and beyond.

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