The phantom of liberty is in heaven

Distinction of race, religion and class has disappeared […] Oh Muhammedans! Listen to this divine cry. Respond to this call of liberty, equality and brothership which brother Lenin and the Soviet government of Russia are offering you.

In 1919, Abdul Hafiz Mohamed Barakatullah, an Indian-born professor, published a pamphlet titled ‘Bolshevism and the Islamic Body Politic’, from which the above quote is taken. Barakatullah was a revolutionary who devoted his political life to travelling across the world, from England to the United States to Japan, championing the cause of Indian independence from British imperialism. At the time, he was working in Afghanistan, advising his friend, the Afghan Emir, and the pamphlet was circulated widely.

At the time, Central Asia was home to most of the Russian Empire’s sixteen million Muslims, some 10 per cent of the Empire’s population. Just as the Western colonial powers such as Britain and France had brutalised the indigenous populations of the nations they invaded, so too did Tsarist Russia impose a cruel dominion over the Muslims of Central Asia: a regime of violent repression, suppression of culture and language and exclusion from government and decision-making.

So it should be unsurprising that when the Tsar was overthrown with Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, the news was welcomed by Central Asian Muslims living under Russian rule. Many were radicalised by the political freedom ushered in by the fall of tsarism, which paved the way for them to organise and put forth their own demands. Muslim congresses were held in Moscow and Kazan, and attended by hundreds of delegates from both within and outside the Russian Empire. There were debates between different Muslim currents: some favoured a more traditional interpretation of the Qur’an; others, like the Jadids, arguing for a modernisation of Islamic practices in education.

Muslim women attended and debated at both conferences, and even organised their own All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress to address women’s rights within Islamic law, debating questions such as polygyny, women’s attendance at mosque and the wearing of the hijab. One of the delegates, a Muslim woman and reformer named Hadicha Tanacheva, laid out an agenda for the conference in her opening speech:

It is time for women to claim their equal rights with men […] We Muslim women are not equal to European women yet in the struggle for equal rights […] The old government did not grant freedom in response to what we said about our lack of rights and our wishes […] The revolution gave us freedom […] We want to discuss the most important issues to bring to the all-Russia Muslim congress in June. Here are the primary issues:

1) Muslim women’s rights according to Sharia

2) The position woman has held and will hold in the family

3) Women’s political rights

4) Women’s position in social life

5) The regular scheduling of women’s gatherings and the actions from them

6) Issues specific to women

There is a common perception that the Russ­ian Revolution ushered in an era of draconian, merciless state atheism that was utterly hostile to all forms of religion. Even among those who might be sympathetic to the aims of the Revolution, it is taken for granted that the destruction of the Orthodox Church and the ‘withering away’ of religion was a key ideological plank for the Bolsheviks. It is true that not all radicalised Muslims thought as highly of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as Barakatullah; but the policies of religious freedom and national self-determination pursued by the Bolsheviks and the fledgling Soviet government in its early days helped wind back the oppression that Central Asian Muslims had experienced under the Tsar’s rule, and encouraged Muslims to take more active political roles.

From 1917 on, a series of measures was instituted in the name of religious freedom, including the declaration of Friday as a day of rest across Central Asia, the establishment of madrassas or Islamic religious schools, the right to use the local language and the establishment of a system of Sharia courts alongside the state judicial system. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the question of religious freedom was not just an abstract one: in the case of the oppressed Muslim nations of Central Asia, the religious question was bound to the national question. In December 1917, immediately after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks published the manifesto ‘An Appeal to the Toiling Muslims of the East’, in which Lenin called on Muslims in Russia and elsewhere to ‘Throw off these ravishers and enslavers of your country’, arguing that the liberation of oppressed nations was bound with the liberation of the revolutionary working class.


Joshua Hatala, a New York-based educator writing for The Hampton Institute – a self-described ‘working-class think tank’ – argues that rather than present an alternative to the monarchist Russian Orthodox Church, the Bolsheviks’ goal was to ‘divide and destroy the Church in its entirety’.

‘Perhaps it was this firm conviction (one might say dogmatism),’ writes Hatala, ‘that led them to opportunistically divide and conquer not just the reactionary elements in the Orthodox Church, but to attack all expression of religious faith and feeling, as if the two were one and the same.’ According to Hatala, the Soviet state under both Lenin and Stalin drove religion underground and only sought rapprochement with particular institutions when it was politically advantageous to the state; for example, the propping up of a loyal and tightly controlled Orthodox patriarchate. This in turn led to Acting Patriarch Sergus’s comment, during the time of Stalin’s rule, that ‘there never has been, nor is there any persecution of religion in the USSR’.

Trying to understand the Russian Revolution while navigating the legacy of Stalinism is like trying to study your reflection in a broken mirror: it is cracked, distorted and incomplete. One of the greatest lies told by those on the left who are apologists for Stalin’s brutal regime as well as those on the right who would seek to destroy the memory of the Russian Revolution – arguably the single most emancipatory moment in human history – is that there exists a continuity between Lenin and Stalin: for instance, that the Stalinist persecution of religious sects and their faithful was directly inherited from Lenin’s own atheism. But in this centenary year of the Revolution, with decades having passed since the fall of the last Stalinist dictatorships – and with the shadow of Stalin no longer hanging over 1917 – we are presented with a unique opportunity to explore the attitudes that Lenin and the Bolsheviks held towards religion in greater depth.

Unfortunately, depth is something lacking in many analyses of that time. Take Paul Kengor’s article ‘The War on Religion’, which the professor of political science penned for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VCMF), a non-profit human-rights organisation established by a unanimous act of Congress in 1993 and signed by then-president Bill Clinton. Its stated mission is to ‘educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of communism’.

According to Kengor, the Soviet state’s militant atheism and persecution of religious believers and leaders had its roots in the ‘essence of communist ideology: Marx dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses,” and opined that, “Communism begins where atheism begins”.’ As Kengor would undoubtedly be aware, the opiate metaphor is perhaps the most abused and misinterpreted Marx quote in political discourse. Kengor would also be aware that the quote does not exist in isolation, but rather belongs to a paragraph from a work titled ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’. In full, it reads (including Marx’s original emphasis):

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.

As Kengor describes it, Marx’s seven-word metaphor portrays religion as a soporific drug that lulls the addicted masses into passivity. But context is illuminating: when the metaphor is presented as part of the original passage, one can see that Marx recognised the dual nature of religion under capitalism. The material conditions in our society, of exploitation and oppression, give rise to religion, not only as a way to understand that oppression but also as an avenue through which to address it. So religion as opium is not simply a recreational drug; in a world where we are alienated from all that makes us human, it is pain relief. And by recognising that religion is also a ‘protest’ against suffering, the masses are no longer passive: Marx’s quote points to the many social and political movements – from the US Civil Rights Movement to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – that have interpreted religious language and customs in the service of radical challenges to the status quo.

Of course, Marx was an avowed atheist who saw religion and a materialist understanding of the world as incompatible. Lenin inherited this atheism and, writing in a 1905 pamphlet titled ‘Socialism and Religion’, repeated and expanded upon Marx’s famous metaphor: ‘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.’

For Lenin, the toxicity of religion lay in its encouragement of the masses to accept their lot here on earth in anticipation of the paradise that awaited them in the afterlife. For him, however, the question of religion was never abstract, but always related to struggle. As such, while he advocated for the complete separation of church and state and promoted the idea that religion be a private affair, he was opposed to including atheism as part of the Bolshevik party program. Religion could not be overcome by propaganda alone; rather, religious workers through the course of their struggle could come to learn that it was they who held the power to improve their lot in life, not a higher power to whom they needed to defer. Lenin recognised that religious workers would be an important part of the struggle, writing: ‘Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.’

Nevertheless, under the Tsar’s rule, the Orthodox Church had been a reactionary force in Russian society. While Lenin advocated reaching out to ‘sincere’ members of the clergy who had ‘been awakened by the thunder of the downfall of the old, medieval order in Russia’, the Church itself continued to be a loyal ally to the Tsar – most likely because, as an institution, the Church was one of Russia’s largest landowners, accruing 7.5 million acres over the years and receiving an annual income of 150 million rubles. It also played no small role in spying on revolutionaries and reporting to the secret police; one of the most famous police informants was Father Georgy Gapon, who led the workers procession to petition the Tsar, which eventually became the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre that triggered the 1905 Revolution.

After the October Revolution, the Church’s property was confiscated, all government subsidies to the Church were cut and all ties to the state severed. Those services administered by the Church, such as education, were brought into public hands. And yet, believers were still free to congregate and use the confiscated places of worship to perform mass, while the Church itself still retained freedom of association and propaganda. Indeed, the stripping back of the privileges previously afforded to the Orthodox Church under the Tsar allowed other Christian denominations, such as Evangelical Protestantism, to flourish under the Bolsheviks’ proclamation of religious freedom. The Evangelical movement grew from about 100,000 participants to over a million in the first decade of Soviet rule.

If the tsarist regime favoured the Orthodox Church, it opposed and oppressed the Russian Empire’s Jewish population in equal measure. In 1903, Jews numbered six million out of the total Russian population of about 136 million, yet made up the membership of political organisations, especially revolutionary organisations, in disproportionate numbers. Calculations by professor of history Oleg Budnitsky show that Jews made up 10 per cent of the so-called political elite – those actively engaged in politics from the far left of the political spectrum in the Bolsheviks to the more right-wing liberal Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets.

The reasons for greater Jewish involvement in politics included a concentration of Jewish communities in urban life, as well as many young Jews joining Russian émigré circles during their studies in Western Europe. Moreover, the tsarist regime’s severe oppression of Russia’s Jewish population – including the Pale of Settlement, which demarcated the area wherein permanent residency for Jews was allowed and beyond which Jews could only travel with a permit, and the regular, state-sanctioned pogroms (such as in Odessa in 1905, when hundreds of Jews were executed with the aid of local police and authorities) – was likely one of the main driving factors. The February Revolution saw an end to the Pale of Settlement, meaning Jewish citizens could reside where they wanted, and that Russia’s Jewish population was granted the same freedoms accorded to all other Russian citizens, including full voting rights, the right to own property and the right to access education.

As with Russia’s Muslim population, support for the October Revolution, and the Bolsheviks more generally, was not uniform across the Jewish population. Many Jewish activists, like Leon Trotsky, were in the Bolshevik Party; but for many political Jews – like those organised in the Jewish Labour Bund, a socialist party – October was a bridge too far. Their grievances with the Bolsheviks, however, were political, not religious. With the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution, and the advance of the counter-revolutionary White Army – whose aim was to re-establish the Russian Empire and undo the gains of the revolution, and who brought with them a revival of antisemitic pogroms – many Bundists joined the Red Army.

It is true that among Bolsheviks, the approach outlined by Lenin – of keeping religion out of state affairs while atheism was kept out of the Bolshevik party program – was not unanimous. Many on the left saw not only atheism but also opposition to religion as a question of principle, non-negotiable and a key pillar to their political worldview. As such, there were various anti-religious actions that took place in the years following the revolution. One such incident was called ‘Red Christmas’, a march held by the Young Communist League in which members dressed as clowns and sang ‘The Internationale’ as they burned religious effigies. But this was opposed by the Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin. ‘We must be extremely careful in fighting religious prejudices; some people cause a lot of harm in this struggle by offending religious feelings,’ he wrote in 1918. ‘We must use propaganda and education. By lending too sharp an edge to the struggle we may only arouse popular resentment.’

The appeal did not stop attacks on religious figures, particularly those associated with the Orthodox Church. The Church had deep ties to the old monarchy, and any move made by the Church against the revolution was immediately viewed with suspicion. This was the context in which forty-five priests were executed in 1921 – the head of the Church, the Patriarch Tikhon, had ordered his priests to refuse to hand over the Church’s valuables that the Bolsheviks claimed could be sold off to feed the hungry during a famine. Of course, there also was a political motivation here: the Bolsheviks wanted to confiscate the Church’s vast swathes of land and wealth – as they did with all of the large landholders – and undermine whatever political power they still held among sections of the peasantry, and the famine provided cover for this.

Later, in 1925, an organisation called the League of the Godless was established. They published a newspaper, Bezbozhnik (Atheist), but failed to gain much traction. It was only from 1929 on, when it changed its name to League of the Militant Godless and after Stalin had outlawed all religion that the organisation really started to grow; by 1931, it had an estimated five million members.

The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy during this period represented a definitive break with the emancipatory politics and spirit of 1917. Workers’ control was replaced by bureaucratic control; instead of political and social freedom being championed, dissent was silenced. Similarly, the Stalinist attitude to religion did not stem from a desire to advance the class struggle in favour of workers’ self-emancipation. Instead, religion was subjected to the zig-zagging typical of Stalinist programs in other areas, such as foreign policy or attitudes to other political forces.

In 1929, churches were shut down and priests arrested or forced into exile, while religious icons were destroyed. Lenin had argued that religion could not be eliminated simply by decreeing it so, but Stalin disagreed. In 1932, he issued the ‘Five Year Plan of Atheism’, which decreed that, by 1937, ‘not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses.’

Strangely, just four years later, he sought rapprochement with the Church, and allowed exiled priests not only the chance to return to Russia but to even participate in voting in Soviet elections, a right that had not been afforded to them after the Revolution. Ultimately, the Church was given the same privileges it enjoyed under the Tsar.

The undoing of the Bolsheviks’ policies of religious freedom and the re-emergence of oppression within the Soviet state should not be seen as part of some fundamental failing on the part of Marxism to handle the question of religion; rather, it is but one act in the tragedy of Stalin’s rise, in which not only oppression and brutality but also exploitation of labour returned tenfold. What we should remember is that, in those precious few years during and immediately after the revolution of 1917, there was no limit to what the people of Russia sought to demand. Workers, peasants and the oppressed gained an inspiring audacity to demand of the world things they had previously only dreamed of. The granting of religious freedom was not just a lofty principle: the policies instituted by the Bolsheviks were based on real demands by peoples who had suffered under the yoke of the Tsarist Empire for centuries.




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Chris di Pasquale

Chris di Pasquale is a Master of Translation student at Monash University and a member of Socialist Alternative.

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