It is one thing for religion to die on the vine, and it is another thing for it to be forcibly uprooted
by Phil Hall
One of the things that was obvious to anyone visiting Soviet Russia in 1984 was its emptiness. They pretended to have the answers initially, and, after Stalin’s mass murder and mass incarceration and mass starvation and mass collectivisation, the words turned to ash in their mouths.
In all the universities and schools, the students studied the history of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the children of the children of revolutionaries who murdered their fellow revolutionary comrades under Stalin’s orders edged the system in order to get better flats, better dachas, more access to the best consumer produce. They stayed in hotels built for communist party members. They jumped queues. They got first dibs on everything.
But the ravaged humanism of the first revolutionaries did bear some fruit. Jobs were available. Everyone was fed. Everything was affordable. The old and the young were looked after. Most vulnerable people had somewhere to go to. Students were given holidays and support.
In a socially conservative society, many people fell through the cracks and ended up being labeled as malcontents. They were institutionalised or imprisoned. Rarely ignored.
The USSR was vast and empty. You could spend half your monthly salary and travel to Sakhalin or Kamchatka. You couldn’t visit Italy or France or Spain, but you could cross many time zones travelling east. The Russians speak of ‘Tosca‘, an incredible feeling of longing for their empty landscape, empty of people. The greatest forest in the world is not the Amazon but the Taiga. If Alaskans and Canadians complain of impassable coniferous forests, multiply that by ten.
And yes, in the Soviet character, without the Darwinian ideology of capitalism, social solidarity strengthened into something very different, so that people from abroad would fall in love with the USSR (or Cuba) and not understand why.
But the emptiness was not only in the land, it was in the soul. After orthodoxy was replaced with communism, the taste that left in people’s mouths was rancid. The spirituality of the USSR was foul and rancid. Where before there was a mystique and bearded voices singing in unison, now it was the high screech of some alienated poet. It was a red and grey poster. It was sunlit fields and muscles. Breasts slapped on Stakhanovites.
And the post-traumatic memory of war became the spiritual touchstone. A corpse as a touchstone. The relics of the sieges. The diaries of the dead.
‘Yesterday daddy died, the day before mummy died, the week before that Ivan and Sonia died.’ The next entry closes the diary. ‘Natasha died.’
And the churches were turned into toilets. The last capitalist was strangled with the guts of the last priest and the result was not paradise, but The Castle, The Trial. And a museum of atheism and religion where cathedrals became warrens for Soviet bureau-rats.
Who wants to read the books of the Soviet dissidents about this period of Soviet history? I don’t. A lot of the people writing were disgusting people themselves, working for the CIA or MI6; full of reaction and snobbery. These dissidents were ‘tuneyadstvo, padonki‘. Who would want to read what they wrote. But Zoshchenko and Bulgakov wrote about it well. Bulgakov, falling back into Christ. Tarkovsky falling back into Christianity, and both of them blasphemers and desecrators because they were not Christians, but re-inventors of their own brands of Christianity. Christian revisionists.
And so, the hole that was spirituality in the USSR became filled with tradition and nonsense. Russian Orthodoxy died and was not reborn. The longing of Russians for their lost religion will never die, but they have not and will never recover it. What they have now is ersatz rubbish. It is mere nationalism complemented by a rubbishy form of New Age spiritual elitism.
Do you think Putin and his cohorts and the current nomenklatura are religious in any meaningful way? They are not. They are merely great Russian nationalists.