Friday, January 16, 2009

Godless Russians: A Cold War Myth

I am not sure that my generation fully internalized the Cold War concept of Russia as a Godless country full of heathen, Communists, though I have heard smatterings of comments concerning this rhetoric from previous generations of Americans. It seems that from the 20s to the 80s generations of Americans were saturated with this rhetoric concerning Godless Russians. The bulk of the propaganda hit the American populous during the 1950s via Hollywood. While I understand that this American propaganda rested on some truth about the Communist doctrine and the official, governmental rejection of religion, the thought of Russians as Godless really contradicts the hundreds of years of history deeply saturated with Russian Orthodox Catholicism. Most stereotypical images of Russia involve onion domes which top every Orthodox church -- and there are tons of them -- the buildings and monasteries survive all around Moscow, in surrounding cities, and throughout Siberia. The reverence people show emphasizes the fallacy of the idea that Russia is a Godless country – in monasteries photographs are highly discouraged, as they are holy places, the Russian icons are magnificent, and the religious are extremely pious.

Additionally, I have found that my students are very sensitive about religion and do not appreciate humor related to religion or breaking any sort of religious tradition. One week, the unit was on religion, so I picked a few BBC news articles for my students to discuss. Out of the five, they randomly chose two of them. One article was about a comedy/documentary made about religion that was meant to challenge people’s perceptions of religion or atheism – it was supposed to be humorous, but my students did not think that religion was something that should or could be challenged, questioned, or made light of. They thought the film was inappropriate, and they maintained a fairly conservative stance – not something one would expect from “Godless Russians.” The other group grabbed an article about a woman leading Muslim prayer, once and for a special occasion. Again, my students did not think this was ok and saw it as a challenge to and a diversion from tradition. They saw the woman as completely stepping out of line and didn’t care that it was a onetime occurrence. Out of my ignorance, I hadn't realized that my students would be this sensitive about religion and challenges to traditions. Overall, the lesson provided me with a huge learning experience – it’s better to give students specific articles rather than randomly picking two of five because even if you have a balance of viewpoints in the five, extremes could show up in the two chosen. Also, Russians are in no way, shape or form truly “Godless” and I doubt they ever could have been because of deeply rooted traditions and beliefs.

My flatmate’s father, of the Baby Boom generation, talked about how blown away he was when he attended a Russian Orthodox service while visiting Moscow. He mentioned the Cold War rhetoric and how he had thought of Russians as Godless, but after attending a service, he no longer holds this belief. I have not yet been to a Russian Orthodox service, but just in my few months of experience here, it is difficult to believe that Americans could ever have believed that Russians were Godless. I guess it just shows that no matter what comes from the top down in government, it’s really the people who make up a country, its culture and beliefs.


  1. While growing up,I don't believe that I had ever heard that the Russians were a Godless people. Rather, I understood that the Church was forced to go "underground" because of the government's intolerance of religion. Is there any truth to that?

  2. That's exactly what happened as far as I understand, and in the last 20 years there has been a revival of the church under the leadership of Patriarch Alexy II (who died in early December). He was much revered by people here (both Russian Orthodox and not), and his funeral was huge -- they closed down some of the main roads through Moscow for his funeral procession!

  3. I have heard different then debbie. My uncles who served in the wars and attended church services all around the world in 40"s an 50's said the goverment was against their people being religious. You had to be quiet of your faith or you'd be in trouble. I dont recall what they said about what kind of trouble. I remember seeing a goverment person buring bibles in a magazine in the 50's. I say he is not a follower of Christ. This photo I saw sadden heart and never leaves my thoughts.
    i would be interested to hear from you Kim when you attend a church and what you think. dont cheat yourself out of this experience. I know your faith is not strong enough to take in it all but go and pray and God will help you. thank you for being brave and writing about this. What is the onion shape dome meaning on the churches?