From a Society Free of Religion to Freedom of Conscience: How Toleration Emerged from within Totalitarianism

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:50 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, Wesleyan University
This paper examines the origins of liberalization in Soviet religious affairs, and argues that it came not just from the pressures of internal dissidence and international pressure, but from within the Soviet party-state . To show how toleration emerged from within the Soviet establishment, the paper examines the shifting relationship with religion and atheism in the Soviet Union’s final years. The story is bookended by two turning points. It opens with the publication of Toward a Society Free of Religion: Secularization in Socialist Society, the results of a sociological project carried out by the Institute of Scientific Atheism in 1967-1969, which was the first comprehensive study of religiosity in the postwar Soviet Union. The narrative traces how over the course of the last two Soviet decades, Soviet atheists made troubling discoveries in their efforts to promote official atheism. Religiosity was not declining, and indeed, in some areas, increasing;  there was a growing number of men in religious communities, which were thought to be composed of elderly women; and believers were younger and more educated than before. What atheist cadres realized was that Soviet people were largely indifferent to both religion and atheist work, and that this indifference extended to the political elite, which increasingly saw state atheism as a political liability. Eventually, doubt about the secularization mission emerged within the atheist establishment itself. In the 1980s, many atheists lost their conviction in the superiority of the “positive” atheism they offered believers in exchange for religion and whether the battle against religion was worth waging. The story concludes with On the Way to Freedom of Conscience, a collection of essays from a round-table held in 1988 that brought together religious figures, scholars, and Institute cadres to discuss the role of religion in Soviet society in light of the ideological "pluralism" advocated during perestroika.