How Effective Was Khrushchev’s Religious Policy?
When Khrushchev came to power in 1955, he immediately focused his attentions on re-establishing the traditional elements of Soviet ideology he felt had been lost during the reign of his predecessor, Stalin. His “Secret Speech” in 1956 condemned Stalin’s regime and promised a better standard of living for all Soviet citizens. However, many of the changes in domestic policy he made were unsuccessful. Although domestically, he focused primarily on changing agricultural policies, one further area Khrushchev tried to change was that of religion. As leader of the “Party Renewal” faction, Khrushchev instigated a renewed ideological assault on religious institutions. There were several intense periods of anti-religious activity in 1954 and 1959, but his policies were most powerfully followed from 1961–1962. This essay will explore how Khrushchev exercised his religious policies and also examine how successful they were.
Although in many respects, Stalin’s regime was extremely strict, he was surprisingly tolerant with the Church towards the end of his reign. Indeed, “the postwar Stalin years [are often seen as] ones of detente between church and state” 1 . However, Khrushchev was determined to follow a more traditional Soviet ideology, far removed from version followed under Stalin.
The Stalinist political system was heavily focused on the personality of Stalin, rather than a traditional ideology. Khrushchev was foremost in the campaign of de-Stalinization, and fought to return to a traditional communist position. This campaign would see Khrushchev removing Stalin’s name from cities, and also the removal of Stalin’s body from its burial place in Red Square. With regards to religion, the official Soviet position was derived from Marxism-Leninism, which saw churches and religion as a tool of the bourgeois to suppress the masses. Nonetheless, whilst atheism was the official doctrine of the Communist Party, generally the Soviet constitution had granted a certain freedom of belief.
However, despite the continued cooperation of the church with the state, Khrushchev endeavoured to pursue policies aimed at the ultimate degradation of religion. This renewed commitment to the atheistic tenets of communist ideology was wide and varied in its fervour. Aside from the methodical closing and destruction of churches, catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all illegal or banned. On January 10th, 1960, the Central Committee called for more anti-religious propaganda. 2 Unsurprisingly, the state had a large and extremely organised capability for propaganda, and quickly utilised it in the campaign.
In April 1962, the chief anti-religious journal, “Nauka i religiia”, was published, outlining in further steps to be taken. The removal of religious instruction from the education system was accompanied with “scientific atheism” becoming a required subject in every class in every school. 3 This meant that besides actual courses teaching atheism, every single subject was ideally to be taught from an atheist point of view. There were increased publications of anti-religious literature and even a few attempts were made to produce anti-religious films, although “the consensus seemed to be that sufficient utilization of this medium was still lacking.” 4
Khrushchev also chose to attack actual religious rites and practices in various ways. Despite Marxist upbringings, it seemed that many young people still preferred to get married in churches, rather than the local marriage bureaus. Although this was allegedly due less to religion and more to the stately and beautiful ceremonies of the Orthodox Churches being more impressive, it still caused concern at higher levels. “Palaces of Marriage” were consequently set up in order to try and lure young couples away from churches, although with little success.
Another religious rite attacked by Khrushchev’s policy was that of baptism. Propaganda and awkward bureaucratic procedures were implemented to make people think that baptism was not only dirty and unhygienic, but also much too complicated a measure to take. A non-Christian baptismal substitute was also introduced. At these “name giving ceremonies”, the children would be given medals with their names on one side, and a picture of Lenin on the reverse. Celebrating religious holidays was also discouraged, although once again with questionable success. It seemed that even in the face of such intensive propaganda and discouragement, the people had a persistent attachment to the Church. By 1963, “aware that not only his own popularity but also the prestige of the Party was diminishing, Khrushchev incredibly stepped up anti-religious propaganda.” 5 By establishing a new Criminal Code, it became illegal to give children any religious instruction, even at home. Also, Khrushchev abolished the “theological students’ right to exemption from military service.” 6
Through Khrushchev’s policies, huge numbers of churches were closed. Although this fact does not necessarily indicate a decrease in functioning religious communities or the importance of religion to the people, it is undeniable that Khrushchev had successfully inhibited the growth of institutional churches within the Soviet Union. However, through this and other domestic policies, of varying success, Khrushchev’s popularity was irrevocably damaged. By March 1964, Leonid Brezhnev was planning the removal of Khrushchev with his peers. By 12th October 1964, Khrushchev was faced by Brezhnev and his peers accusing him of being a poor leader with unsuccessful policies. By this stage, Khrushchev had accepted his fate, and a mere two days later, the Presidium and Central Committee voted to accept his “voluntary” retirement from office.
Although his departure from the political arena did not have as big an impact as Stalin’s, it is certainly indicative of his success to note that all of his domestic and foreign policies were immediately re-examined and evaluated. Religious persecution was lessened considerably, with the realisation that the Church was a powerful ally, if handled correctly. The Kremlin realised that “under strict state control [the Church], rather than condone opposition, would promote conformity.” 7 Khrushchev’s unsuccessful policies had served at the very least to highlight the reluctance and difficulty of removing religion from a Soviet citizen’s life. By doing so, Khrushchev had simply pushed people further away from the Party. Consequently, it was arranged that many of the churches Khrushchev shut down were re-opened, and restoration began on many of the churches and monasteries of cultural importance.
- Donald A. Lowrie and William C. Fletcher, “Khrushchev’s Religious Policy 1959–1964”, taken from “Aspects of Religion In The Soviet Union 1917–1967” edited by Richard H. Marshall, Jnr., The University of Chicago Press, (1971) pg. 131
- A. Hakimoglu, “Forty Years of Anti-Religious Propaganda”, East Turkic Review, no. 2 (December 1960), pg. 69
- K. Kindrat and S. Martseniuk, “The Sacred Cause of Educators”, Journal “Nauka i religiia”, (September 1961),translated in JPRS 10899, no. 5. pg. 40
- Donald A. Lowrie and William C. Fletcher, “Khrushchev’s Religious Policy 1959–1964”, taken from “Aspects of Religion In The Soviet Union 1917–1967” edited by Richard H. Marshall, Jnr. Chicago University Press (1971) pg. 137
- Roy A. Medvedev and Zhores A. Medvedev, “Khrushchev- The Years In Power” translated by Andrew R. Durkin, Oxford University Press, (1977) pg. 150
- Bohdan R. Bociurkiw, “Church-State Relations in the USSR”, taken from “Religion and the Soviet State: A Dilemma of Power”, edited by Max Hayward and William C. Fletcher, Pall Mall Press, (1969), pg. 97
- Roy A. Medvedev and Zhores A. Medvedev, “Khrushchev- The Years In Power” translated by Andrew R. Durkin, Oxford University Press, (1977), pg. 181