Here we go again! “Militant Atheism” and Communism

Another day, another documentary purporting to educate us all on “hidden truths” about the USSR when in reality, the “hidden truths” have been known about since even before the collapse of the USSR. This time however to the interests of all of us secularists and atheists, the entire emphasis on the film being “Militant Atheism, in the Former Soviet Union”. (Watch the trailer)


So naturally this documentary when it comes out will be a perfect tool for fundamentalist Christian types to bash all atheists; which they have been doing since, well, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. As you may suspect it’s a cliche! I’ve heard this all before (as anybody who knows me on these forums will testify)! “The Former Soviet Union was evil, it was atheist! And the two of these go together just like bread and butter!”

According to the film’s website:

“In total, the number of Christians who were martyred under the militant state atheism of the USSR is around 12 million.”

Although this “12 million” figure does not include the “millions of Muslims and Buddhists” who “also sacrificed their lives for practicing their faith in the Soviet Union,” (ibid) the loose weaving of that sentence evidently means we can add a few more millions into the total of persons targeted by the leaders of the USSR for their religious practices. Just how many I am not clear of as of yet, but let’s make it say, 20 million for the sake of convenience for now. Of course I am more than happy to accept a higher number if necessary, but I think this figure is enough to make the following observation:

To posit 20 million as a total figure for all the dead in the history of the USSR would be an extraordinarily low figure in light of other academics who have posited their own death tolls. Norman Davies for example in his “Europe: A History” posits a death toll of approximately 50 million during the Stalin years alone. What this alone tells us is that the film gives us an incomplete picture of all the victims of the former Soviet Union. And, although the film may not say so itself, seeing as it attributes 12 million+ (or possibly 20 million for the sake of my conveniences) to the USSR’s “Militant Atheism” when the total death toll of the Soviet Union is much higher, this alone can only mean that not all of the crimes of the Soviet Union can be attributed directly to it’s “atheism” or “Militant Atheism”!

Let’s take one of the most notorious of all the crimes in the former USSR, the Holodomor (or murder by Famine) for example. I have talked about this genocide of the Ukrainian people before but seeing as the link is dead I feel like I have to repeat myself (apologies to those who may have read it before). This then is my explanation of the rationale behind that genocide:

First, a brief backdrop of economic history of the USSR in the 1920’s is needed. In 1921, Russia’s economy was in a state of heavy ruin due to the nation’s involvement in WW1, then there was the Russian Civil War in which the new govt of Lenin put in place a system of so-called “War Communist” economics which he at the time justified on the grounds it was helping to beat the White Army (though arguably as a result of ideology as well). In practice it meant the nationalization of factories and food being taken from countryside peasants in order to feed townsfolk, city dwellers and ultimately supplying of the Red Army (what came to be known as “Prodrazvyorstka”).

Unsurprisingly you might say these policies didn’t exactly go down too well with the populace at large. Indeed a direct result of “War Communism” was a growing discontent, especially among the peasantry. Some rural peasants even went to the task of burning their crops and destroying their livestock rather than handing them over to the state. There were a multitude of left wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks at this time and perhaps the “Kronstadt Rebellion” being the most famous example. (I guess we also must mention that a major famine in 1921-22 caused by Prodrazvyorstka plus drought, in which an estimated 5 million died of hunger, did not help Lenin-peasant relations either).

Is it a surprise Lenin as a result distanced himself from these war communist policies? In an article on food tax dated to 21st April 1921 titled ‘O prodovol’stvennom naloge’, (Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, Vol 43, pp-218-20), he said that “War Communism” was forced upon the Bolsheviks “by war and ruin”, he continued that it “was not, nor could it be, a policy that corresponded to the economic tasks of the proletariat. It was a temporary measure.”

He stuck to this line in the 10th congress, stating:

“it is an unquestionable fact that we went further than was theoretically and politically necessary, and this should not be concealed in our agitation and propaganda.”

And in a speech as reported by Izvestia on 19th october 1921 Lenin said that the war communist policies were “a mistake,” and “in complete contradiction to all we wrote concerning the transition from capitalism to socialism.” To attempt to remedy the economic and political situation, Lenin instituted a little something called the NEP (which was promulgated by decree on 21st March 1921), a sort of quasi-capitalist compromise. In Lenin’s words:

The real nature of the New Economic Policy is this—firstly, the proletarian state has given small producers freedom to trade ; and secondly, in respect of the means of production in large-scale industry, the proletarian state is applying a number of the principles of what in capitalist economics is called “state capitalism ”.

Although the banks, and large industries were still owned by the state, limited private enterprise, especially in the agricultural sector, was allowed. A farmer’s surplus produce could be kept and/or sold after taxation (the Soviet govt taking a small amount of the surplus [“Procurement”]) whose effect being the creation of a sort of profit incentive which in turn created the incentive to produce more foodstuffs, which the farmers duly did. As a result agricultural production rose to pre-war levels. And this quite simply is the reason why there is no major famine during the NEP years.

In spite of any relative success Lenin’s NEP might have had, it did not pursue any real policy of industrialization. This, plus isolationism, meant economic growth, compared to the growth of the capitalist west, was comparatively sluggish. Although the NEP did produce a moderate growth (and had it remained in place it would perhaps have most likely continued to do so) the gap between the USSR and the most advanced capitalist nations was growing wider, worse for the leaders so was the gap in technology (something which was felt to be a major vehicle for socialist progress).

“Stalin and his associates were concerned about the Soviet regime’s persistent failure” – Robert Service, “Stalin: A Biography”, p256.

The profit incentive generated was also responsible for something else too which also deeply annoyed Stalin in the Mid 1920’s (Aside from the “NEP men” who profited much but produced little for example). As the keeping of grain surplus materialised itself more in the farmer’s mindset, so they kept more and more of the grain surplus they were producing to the point where grain supplies to the state actually fell, this became “critical” to the state by the end of 1927. On 6 January 1928 the Secretariat sent out a secret directive threatening to sack local party leaders who failed to apply ‘tough punishments’ for those who were now said to be “hoarding grain” (see “Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii, f. 17, op. 3, d. 667, p10-12.”)

Stalin let his feelings show about this in a letter to Sergei Syrtsov and the Siberian Party leadership:

“We hold that this is a road to panic, to the raising of prices– the worst form of barter when it is clearly impossible to meet the needs of a countryside full of peasants with marketable grain stocks: it strengthens the capacity of the powerful stratum of the countryside to rest … The peasant will not hand over his tax on the basis of a pravda editorial – compulsory schedules are crucial for him” – Quoted in Robert Service, “ibid”, p253. Also see J. Hughes, “Stalin, Siberia and the Crisis of the NEP”, p129.

What were these “compulsory schedules”? well it was what Stalin was to do of course, the collectivisation of agriculture – but that’s one part of what he did. Stalin also favoured a policy of rapid industrialisation in the name of ‘modernity’ which he outlined in a speech delivered at the First All-Union Conference of Leading Personnel of Socialist Industry on February 4, 1931. Stating:

“[we must] develop a genuine Bolshevik tempo in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way. […] We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced [capitalist] countries. We must make good this distance in 10 years. Either we do it, or we shall go under.”

Here’s where it all ties in, as I have already said there was not much in the way of a major famine during the NEP years. Indeed it was after the beginning of the implementation of Stalin’s first five year plans, specificaly the implementation of rapid industrialisation, and especially following the initial wave of collectivization: as formation of kolkhozes expanded, do we see the food crisis in the USSR, as this document pack from the Russian archives (pdf) bears out to an extent. Here are just a handful of the documents contained within:

Excerpt from the summary number 1 of the Information department of the OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate]of letters of peasants received by the editors of Krestyanskaya Gazeta [The Peasant’s Gazette] in the beginning of 1929 regarding shortage of bread in villages. Verified copy of the original document. March 26th, 1929. Provided by the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

Fond 2, Record Series 7, File 543, Pages 85 – 100.

“Between January 1st and March 15, 1929 the editors of Krestyanskaya Gazeta [The Peasant’s Gazette] have received 276 letters that described shortages of food in villages, mainly complaints about shortage of bread and high prices of bread.


Novgorod territory of the Russian Federation, city of Staraya Russa.

In Staraya Russa, Volotovsk, Belebelkovsk, and other districts famine is setting in. 40% of peasants have no bread and by July 1st the number will reach 80%. Currently, the market price of flour is 11 roubles 50 copecks per pood [16 kilograms], fodder oats – 4 roubles. Peasants have slaughtered all smaller farm animals, and now are selling their last remaining cows, selling them to obtain bread. Peasants of the Volotovsk district are abandoning their homesteads and migrating, just to avoid death by starvation.


Pskov territory, village of Zales’e.

This year we had such terrible famine and 100% of the crops have been destroyed. We are left without any bread. At the moment, we have sold everything of value and now are selling our last farm animals, so we can buy bread from speculators at 9-10 roubles per pood [‘¦] as our children are crying at home, left there without a slice of bread. If this continues, by spring we will finish everything and then will die of famine.


Kaluga Territory, Pyatovsk

district, village of Nikolaevka.

We have fought for freedom and now have to travel to Moscow to buy baked bread as if we don’t know how bake bread locally. Our grain crops have failed 100%, potatoes are also all rotten, and we can’t earn anything. We are now given food assistance of 5 pounds of bread [2.2 kilograms] per month for every dependent. They feed criminals in prisons better, and what crime have we committed? [‘¦] You say [in the newspaper] that we have exceeded the pre-war [the 1918-1922 Civil war] quality of life, but when we go to the cooperative shop to buy some chintz [cheap cotton fabric], there is none, only buttons and needles, and even that is [rationed and sold only] by point-books [governmentissued coupons].

December 20th, 1929. Statement of the refugees from the Leninsk village of the Podkolino area to the Buzluk district Executive committee of Middle Volga Region [of the Russian Federation] regarding famine among the villagers. Provided by the Russian State Archive of the Economy.

Fond 8043, Record Series 11, File 16, Page 37 (v.)

“To the Buzluk District Executive Committee.

From the migrant citizens of the Leninsk settlement of the Podkolino village Petition.

We, the above mentioned citizens are asking you not to allow us to die of starvation, since we don’t have any bread at this time, as well as other provisions, nor do we have any animals – can’t slaughter [any]. Our famine happened because we provided to the State seed grain of high quality, which, as you know, shouldn’t be used for daily consumption, and so we turned it all to the State, but we were not compensated in kind, as we had contractual obligations and our seed grain was counted against our debt [of regular grain]. Please, do not let us die – and so we sign:

Baranov, Danilov, Birinov, Petrov, Kulichenko, Smorodin.

December 20th, 1929. This copy from a copy has been verified:

Head of the Secret Department of the Regional Executive Committee – Mavlutov

[Signed and Stamped]”

Memorandum of the territorial representative of the OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] for Lower Volga Region regarding food shortage in Stalingrad Region. Original document. January 28th, 1930. Provided by the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

Fond 2, Record Series 8, File 778, Pages 394-398.

“According to very much fractional data collected by the Information department of the territorial agency of the OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] in a number of districts of Stalingrad region there is a worsening of food shortage, which now affect wider and wider circles of poor villagers, hired labourers and the village intelligentsia. This increase of food shortages is mainly due to failure of grain crops, noted in certain districts, as well as the 50% reduction of this year’s harvest [‘¦] Cases of whole families subsiding entirely on bread surrogates are noted, cases of famine-related hydropsy [oedema] are observed in children and adults. […] The local authorities are not taking sufficiently drastic measures to reduce the gravity of this food crisis. [Currently,] food shortages have a tendency of growing.”

Excerpt from the secret summary number 27 prepared based on data collected by April 2nd, 1930 by the Information department of the territorial representative of OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] of the USSR in Middle Volga Region of the Russian Federation regarding preparatory work for the spring sowing campaign. Verified copy of the original document. April 3rd, 1930. Provided by the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

Fond 2, Record Series 8, File 824, Pages 60, 69 – 71, 74.

“Due to poor organization of the issue of accumulation of local food reserves, food shortages in certain communities of Syzran’ and Buguruslan areas are becoming more grave at the moment. In certain districts the number of households experiencing severe shortages of bread is significantly higher (up to 236 households). To an extent, similar situation is observed in the kolkhozes. All of this leads to panicky disposition developing among poor peasants and some of the village middle class, who are noted as saying: “they took from us all bread, and all seed grain, and now don’t offer any assistance, we’ll all have to die of starvation”.


At some constituencies, the village poor, predominantly women, in person and in groups come to the local Soviets [local authorities] and demand bread: “give us bread or we will ransack barns with the seed grain”; “haven’t had a crumb of brain in a week, already swelling [due to starvation],if you don’t give us bread, we’ll grab you by the throat, we are going to die anyway”

Excerpt from the secret summary number 1 of the Aktyubinsk district department of the OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] regarding appearance of signs of famine in villages, based on data collected by April 10th, 1930. Verified copy of the original document, April 11th, 1930. Provided by the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

Fond 2, Record Series 8, File 747, Pages 379 – 383.

“On April 7th, 1930 [OGPU reported that] in the beginning of April [1930] in kolkhoz “Gigant” named in honour of comrade Stalin took place a meeting of the bureau of local communist activists. On the agenda there was one question regarding the mass exodus of members from the kolkhoz, especially due to shortage of food. Collective farmers, who attended the meeting, explained their walkouts by the fear of starvation, saying “the [Communist] party activists know very well that this kolkhoz was organized mostly from poor peasants. Last year’s harvest was less than expected, yet we’ve met the [State] quota for grain procurement by 120% and [because of that] we have [only] 50% of the necessary seed grain and don’t have a single grain of wheat to consume as food. All farm animals are now kolkhoz’ property and nobody has the right to slaughter for personal use even a single ram.” That meeting of the local [Communist] party activists passed a resolution to emphatically request the district committee [of the Communist party] to initiate food distribution for the acutely malnourished members of the kolkhoz at once.”

Memorandum of the territorial representative of OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] of the USSR in the Middle Asia regarding the extent of starvation in Turkmenistan [Turkmen SSR]. Original document. April 6th, 1930. Provided by the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

Fond 2, Record Series 8, File 810, Pages 307 – 307(v.).

“Memorandum of the deputy representative of OGPU [Joint Main Political Directorate] for the Middle Asia to the Asian Bureau of the Central committee of the All-Union Communist party (Bolsheviks), comrade Shubrikov.


Several districts of Turkmenistan reported recently that poor villagers are suffering from famine. In some of the auls [villages] there are cases of deaths of typhus due to famine, also hydropsy [oedema] due to starvation.


Karakilinsk district

25 cases of famine-caused epidemic typhus with deadly outcomes have been recorded in Yartmaryk community. The outbreak of typhus is spreading [‘¦] Scurvy caused by famine has appeared in Cherkassk community.


Tegen district

A crowd of 150 inhabitants of auls [villages] of Mesna and Chaacha came to the USSR Border Guards base and demanded food.


Serah district

In the Yalovich First aul [village] collective farmers stopped field work and came to the district Executive committee to demand that bread be handed out.

As we can see Food problems were reported as far back as 1929, and it was in 1932-33 do we see the crisis reaching peak. Also interestingly, if you read the document pack, Ukraine wasn’t even the first place to report food problems. In the year of 1932-33 famine affected not only Ukraine, but also multiple provinces of Russia: the Upper, Middle and Lower Volga regions, North Caucuses, Central Chernozem region, the Urals, Western Siberia, as well as the Republic of Kazakhstan and other regions of the USSR. Both the rural and the urban populations ended up starving. All of which due to Stalin’s economic policies. But what that document pack does not tell you is the way Ukraine was marked out for a special and much more cruel treatment than the rest of the USSR courtesy of Stalin and his govt. Even the exiled Trotsky spoke of it in 1939 when he said:

“Nowhere did the purges and repressions assume such a savage and mass character as they did in the Ukraine.”

So for this, im going to turn to an excellent book written by Timothy Snyder titled “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” which lists “Seven crucial policies [which] were applied only, or mainly, in soviet Ukraine in late 1932 or early 1933. Each of them may seem like an anodyne administrative measure, and each of them was certainly presented as such at the time, and yet each had to kill” (p42)

“1. On 18 November 1932, peasants in Ukraine were required to return grain advances that they had previously earned by meeting grain requisition targets. This meant that the few localities where peasants had had good yields were deprived of what little surplus they earned. The party brigades and the state police were unleashed on these regions, in a feverish hunt for whatever food could be found. Because peasants were not given receipts for the grain that they did hand over, they were subject to endless searches and abuse. The Ukrainian party leadership tried to protect the seed grain, but without success.

2. Two days later on 20th November, a meat penalty was introduced. Peasants who were unable to make grain quotas were now required to to pay a special tax in meat. Peasants who still had livestock were now forced to surrender it to the state. Cattle and swine had been a last reserve against starvation. As a peasant girl remembered, “whoever had a cow didn’t starve.” A cow gives milk. and as a last resort it can be slaughtered. Another peasant girl remembered that the familys one pig was seized, and then the family’s one cow. She held it’s horns as it was led away. This was, perhaps, the attachment that teenaged girls on farms feel for their animals. But it was also desperation. Even after the meat penalty was paid, peasants still had to fulfill the original grain quota. lf they could not do this under the threat of losing their animals. they certainly could not do so afterward. They starved.

3. Eight days later on 28th november 1932 Eight days later, on 28 November 193 2, Soviet authorities introduced the ” blacklist.” According to this new regulation, collective farms that failed to meet grain targets were required, immediately, to surrender fifteen times the amount of grain that was normally due in a whole month. ln practice this meant, again, the arrival of hordes of party activists and police, with the mission and the legal right to take everything. No village could meet the multiplied quota, and so whole communities lost all of the food that they had. Communities on the black list had no right to trade, or to receive deliveries of any kind from the rest of the country. They were cut off from food or indeed any other sort of supply from anywhere else. The black-listed communities in Soviet Ukraine, sometimes selected from as far away as Moscow, became zones of death

4. On 5 december 1932, Stalin’s handpicked security chief for Ukraine presented the justification for terrorizing Ukrainian party officials to collect the grain. Vsevolod Balytskyi had spoken with Stalin personally in Moscow on 15 and 24 november. The Famine in Ukraine was to be understood, according to Balytskyi, as the result of a plot of Ukrainian nationalists – in particular, of exiles with connections to Poland. Thus anyone who failed to do his part in requisitions was a traitor to the state.

Yet this policy line had still deeper implications. The connection of Ukrainian nationalism to Ukrainian famine authorized the punishment of those who had taken part in earlier Soviet policies to support the development of the Ukrainian nation. Stalin believed that the national question was in essence a peasant question. and as he undid Lenin’s compromise with the peasants he also found himself undoing Lenin’s compromise with the nations. On 14 December Moscow authorized the deportation of local Ukrainian communists to concentration camps, on the logic that they had abused Soviet policies in order to spread Ukrainian nationalism, thus allowing nationalists to sabotage the grain collection. Balytskyithen claimed to have unmasked a “Ukrainian Military Organization” as as well as Polish rebel groups. He would report, in January 1933, the discovery of more than a thousand illegal organizations and. in February, the plans of Polish and Ukrainian nationalists to overthrow Soviet rule in Ukraine.

The justifications were fabricated, but the policy had consequences. Poland had withdrawn its agents from Ukraine, and had given up any hope of exploiting the disaster of collectivization. The Polish government, attempting to be loyal to the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact signed in July 1932, declined even to draw international attention to the worsening Soviet famine. Yet Balytsky’s policy, though it rode the coattails of phantoms, generated local obedience to Moscow’s policy. The mass arrests and mass deportations he ordered sent a very clear message: anyone who defended the peasants would be condemned as an enemy. In these crucial weeks of late December, as the death toll in Soviet Ukraine rose into the hundreds of thousands, Ukrainian activists and administrators knew better than to resist the party line. If they did not carry out requisitions, they would find themselves (in the best case) in the Gulag.

5. On 21 december 1932, Stalin (through Kaganovich) affirmed the annual grain requisition quota for Soviet Ukraine, to be reached by January 1933. On 27 November the Soviet politburo had assigned Ukraine a full third of the remaining collections for the entire Soviet Union, now hundreds of thousands of deaths later, Stalin sent Kaganovich to hold the whip hand over the Ukrainian party leadership in Kharkiv. Right after Kaganovich arrived on the evening of 20 December, the Ukrainian politburo was ordered to convene. Sitting until four o’ clock the next morning, it resolved that requisition targets were to be met. This was a death sentence for about three million people . As everyone in that room knew in those early morning hours, grain could not be collected from an already starving population without the most horrific of consequences. A simple respite from requisitions for three months would not have harmed the soviet economy, and would have saved most of those three million lives. Yet Stalin and Kaganovich insisted on exactly the contrary. The state would fight “ferociously,” as Kaganovich put it, to fulfill the plan.

Having achieved his misson in Kharkiv, Kaganovich then traveled through Soviet Ukraine, demanding “100 percent” fulfillment of the plan and sentencing local officials and ordering deportations of families as he went. He returned to Kharkiv on 29 december 1932 to remind Ukrainian party leaders that the seed grain was also to be collected.

6. As starvation raged throughout Ukraine in the first weeks of 1933. Stalin sealed the borders of the republic so that peasants could not flee, and closed the cities so that peasants could not beg. As of 14 January 1933 Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports in order to reside in cities legally. Peasants were not to receive them. On 22 January 1933 Balytskyi warned Moscow that Ukrainian peasants were fleeing the republic, and Stalin and Molotov ordered the state police to prevent their flight. The next day the sale of long-distance rail tickets to peasants was banned. Stalin’s justification was that the peasant refugees were not in fact begging bread but, rather, engaging in a “counterrevolutionary plot,” by serving as living propaganda for Poland and other capitalist states that wished to discredit the collective farm. By the end of Feburary 1933 some 190,000 peasants had been caught and sent back to their home villages to starve.

Stalin had his “fortress” in Ukraine, but it was a stronghold that resembled a giant starvation camp. with watchtowers, sealed borders, pointless and painful labor, and endless and predictable death.

7. Even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933, collection of grain continued. Requisitions went forward in February and March, as party members sought grain for the spring sowing. At the end of December 1932, Stalin had approved Kaganovichs proposal that the seed grain for the spring be seized to make the annual target. This left the collective farms with nothing to plant for the coming fall, Seed grain for the spring sowing might have been drawn from the trainloads bound at that very moment for export, or taken from the three million tons that the Soviet Union had stored as a reserve. Instead it was seized from what little the peasants in Soviet Ukraine still had. This was very often the last bit of food that peasants needed to survive until the spring harvest. Some 37,392 people were arrested in Soviet Ukrainian villages that month, of them presumably trying to save their families from starvation. This final collection was murder, even if those who executed it very often believed that they were doing the right thing. As one activist remembered, that spring he “saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes.” Yet he “saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide.” He had faith: “As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.” Other activists, no doubt, were less faithful and more fearful. Every level of the Ukrainian party had been purged in the previous year; in January 1953, Stalin sent in his own men to control it’s heights. Those communists who no longer expressed their faith formed a “wall of silence” that doomed those it surrounded. They had learned to resist was to be purged, and to be purged was to share the fate of those whose deaths they were now bringing about.” – Snyder, “ibid”, p42-46.

All together, it is widely assumed that about 6-8 Million died as a result of famine in 1933 with disproportionately high number of that total coming from Ukraine as a result of Stalin’s genocide, most estimates being in the range of about 3.5 – 5 million famine victims in the Ukraine (Although Soviet officials who in “private conversations” at the time most often suggested a figure of “5.5 million dead from hunger” (Snyder, “ibid”, p53.) More recently, a demographic calculation carried out by the authorities of the now independent Ukraine government provided a figure of “3.89 million” in the Ukraine alone (“ibid”, p53.) The truth concerning the number of victims in the Ukraine according to Snyder is somewhere between that 3.89 million estimate and a 2.5 million estimate which was deemed “too close to the recorded figure of excess deaths, which is about 2.4 million”, a “substantially low” figure “since many deaths were not recorded” (ibid, “p53”.) Snyder gives us his own estimate of “3.3 million” Ukrainians (ibid, “p53”) This document heightens up what could be deemed a reasonable estimate, up to 4-5 million dead.)

Here then is a rational explanation of one of history’s most monumental crimes without the invocation of Stalin’s “atheism” or “Militant Atheism”. It can easily be done for other crimes too but I believe I have already made my point!

So why was the USSR an atheist country in the first place?

The founder and first leader of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” was Lenin, his branch of “Socialism” stemmed from the writings of Karl Marx, although with his own touches, to form the complete ideology of “Marxism-Lenninism”. This observation being so basic and clear that it almost does not need emphasising. Marx’s most famous quotation on religion is most probably thus:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics. – Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” ,Introduction.

To put this quote in more contemporary language: Life, to paraphrase Hobbes, was “nasty, brutish and short” but it’s all OK because your loving creator loves you and will reward you for all of your hard work and suffering with a luxurious afterlife. Actually Marx says this “love” is a false love and all it really is, is as a painkiller, which allows the suffering proletarian to get through his working week. This belief in this false love (because the creator doesn’t exist) fails to address the real cause of suffering which Marx believed was down to the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. So on this basis religion needs to be critiqued so that the false love can be exposed and dispelled from amongst the proletariat, and once this happens the path towards the inevitable socialist revolution (or socialist society) can then take place. Very different to most conventional atheist societal-critiques of religion which more often than not are leveled towards critiquing individual negative aspects of religion such as it’s restriction of liberties to women or to other adherents of other religions or to atheists etc. And this is very different to atheist critiques that simply attack the existence of all gods directly. The overwhelming majority of atheists after-all tend to have liberal political inclinations, certainly compared to Communism and most atheists that I am aware of do not believe that a Communist or socialist state is an inevitability. In short, atheism by itself is not going to automatically lead towards a Communist state! Even Karl Marx recognised this to be true:

“Communism begins from the outset (Owen) with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction. The philanthropy of atheism is therefore at first only philosophical, abstract philanthropy, and that of communism is at once real and directly bent on action. […] But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis. Since the real existence of man and nature has become evident in practice, through sense experience, because man has thus become evident for man as the being of nature, and nature for man as the being of man, the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man – a question which implies the admission of the unreality of nature and of man – has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion, just as real life is man’s positive reality, no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism. Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.” – Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: Private Property and Communism.”

But nonetheless Lenin had other ideas to the rest of us “bourgeois democrats” with regards to atheism, so in the context of Marxist ideas, discussions on atheism and how to promote Marxist ideology are intertwined with their conceptions of class problems, eg:

Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists. It is a slave society, since the “free” workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are “entitled” only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery. […] Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze,   in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.” – Lenin, “Socialism and Religion

“It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else, vigorously to counteract the division of the workers in this struggle into atheists and Christians, vigorously to oppose any such division. Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be both unnecessary and harmful—not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle, which in the conditions of modern capitalist society will convert Christian workers to Social-Democracy and to atheism a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda. […] Why does religion retain its hold on the backward sections of the town proletariat, on broad sections of the semi-proletariat, and on the mass of the peasantry? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters.” – Lenin, “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion“. Also Cited here.

And finally let us dispatch of the whole “Militant Atheist” argument so used as a tool for demonising the rest of us secularists with a simple observation made by one of the finest minds to study Stalin as of late:

“‘A revolution without firing squads,’ Lenin is meant to have said, ‘is meaningless.’ He spent his career praising the terror of the french revolution because his bolshevism was a unique creed, ‘a social system based on blood-letting’. The bolsheviks were atheists but they were hardly secular politicians in the conventional sense: they stooped to kill from the smugness of the highest moral eminence. Bolshevism may not have been a religion, but it was close enough. Stalin told Beria the bolsheviks were a ‘sort of military-religious order’. When Dzerzhinsky, Founder of the Cheka died, Stalin called him ‘a devout knight of the proletariat’. Stalin’s ‘order of sword-bearers’ resembled … the theocracy of the Iranian Ayatollahs, more than any traditional secular movement. They would die and kill for their faith in the inevitable progress towards human betterment, making sacrifices of their own families with a fervour only seen in the religious slaughters and martyrdoms of the Middle Ages – and the Middle East.

They regarded themselves as special ‘noble-blooded’ people. When Stalin asked General Zhukov if the capital might fall in 1941, he said ‘Can we hold Moscow, Tell me as a bolshevik?’ as an 18th century Englishman might say, ‘Tell me as a Gentleman!’

The ‘Sword-bearers’ had to believe with messianic faith, to act with the correct ruthlessness, and to convince others that they were right to do so. Stalin’s ‘Quasi-islamic’ fanaticism was typical of the Bolshevik magnates: Mikoyan’s son called his father ‘a Bolshevik Fanatic’. Most came from devoutly religious Backgrounds. They hated Judeo-Christianity – but the orthodoxy of their parents was replaced by something even more rigid, a systematic amorality: ‘This religion – or science, as it was modestly called by it’s adepts – invests man with a godlike authority … in the 20’s, a good many people drew a parallel to the victory of christianity and thought this new religion would last a thousand years,’ wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam. ‘All were agreed on the superiority of the new creed that promised heaven on earth instead of other worldly rewards.’

The party justified it’s ‘dictatorship’ through purity of faith. Their Scriptures were the teachings of Marxism-Lenninism, regarded as a ‘scientific’ Truth. Since ideology was so important, every leader had to be – or seem to be – an expert on Marxism-Lenninism, so that these ruffians spent their weary nights studying, to improve their esoteric credentials, dreary articles on dialectical materialism. It was so important that Molotov and Polina even discussed Marxism in their love letters: ‘Polichka my darling … reading Marxist Classics is very necessary … You must read some more of Lenin’s Works coming out soon and then a number of Stalin’s … I so want to see you.’

‘Partymindedness’ was ‘an almost mystical concept’ explained Kopelev. ‘The indispensable prequisites were iron discipline and faithful observance of all the rituals of Party Life.’ As one veteran Communist put it, a Bolshevik was not someone who believed merely in marxism but ‘someone who had absolute faith in his party no matter what … A person with the ability to adapt his morality and conscience in such a way that he can unreservedly accept the dogma that the party is never wrong – even though it’s wrong all the time.’ Stalin did not exaggerate when he boasted: ‘We Bolsheviks are people of a special cut.'” – Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar”, p88-89.


So to conclude: Marxist-Leninist atheism (Or the Marxist-Leninist variant of secularism if you must insist) is different to conventional atheist or secularist thinking. When it is put into practice it has the ability to function like a as religion or like a quasi-religion. As exemplified in Stalin’s quote that his Bolshevism represented a “sort of military-religious order” (I’ll add Robert Service has made this observation too). And last but not least: You cannot blame atheism for all of the crimes committed in the former Soviet Union. Sure there is a stronger argument with regards to the suppression of religious people. But this does not account for 100% of the deaths we find.

Let this post be the last word with regards to this absurd argument against secularism.

13 thoughts on “Here we go again! “Militant Atheism” and Communism”

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