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.