Friday, August 26, 2011

Surviving the Coup – Twenty Years Later

Boris Yeltsin on a tank in front
of the Russian White House
From all indications, the trip to the USSR was going to be a great experience.  Our delegation of fourteen faculty from various member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) was headed to Moscow to work cooperatively with Russian professors to develop a values-based MBA curriculum.  The Soviet Ministry of Education had signed a “protocol of intentions” with the CCCU that laid the basis for this cooperative project.  Ministry officials told us that Russian educational institutions needed course materials to train their students in economics and business, but that a moral vacuum currently existed in the USSR and they wanted the help of competent Christian scholars to fill this vacuum.
As Vice President of the CCCU, I had the challenge of leading this delegation, together with Professor Lin Geiger from Eastern College (St. Davids, PA).  The delegation was excited about this opportunity – it was something none of us could even have imagined a year earlier.

When the wall came down in Berlin in December 1989, dramatic changes were occurring all across Eastern Europe and the USSR.  These were historic times and now we were going to have a part in this unfolding story.  The adrenaline was flowing.

The Three Days of the Coup

We arrived in Moscow on Sunday morning, August 18, 1991.  Our hosts from one of the state universities in Moscow met us at the airport and we headed downtown for a driving tour through the city and a walk around Red Square where we enjoyed the impressive Kremlin and the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Late afternoon we arrived at a conference facility about an hour’s drive from downtown Moscow, the location for our faculty seminars.  By 9 p.m. most of us were tired from the overnight flight with little sleep, so we headed for bed in the newly-renovated dormitory rooms.

On Monday morning, August 19, I took a shower and was shaving with the radio on in the background.  Suddenly I was wide awake: What had I just heard?  The BBC reporters announced that Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, had been removed “for health reasons” and that a new government had been installed.  I rushed down the hallway, banging on the doors of my American colleagues to share the news, but most did not believe me.  They were convinced I was teasing them.  When they came into my room and listened to the developing news stories, they too were shocked.  It occurred to all of us that we were just outside the walls of the Kremlin on the previous day when the coup arrangements were being finalized.

After much confusion on the part of our Russian hosts about whether or not to proceed with our seminars, we headed downtown to meet with various Soviet educators, but a number of them did not show up “in light of the situation.”  Our seminar began several hours late, but we all tried to conduct the meeting as if everything were normal.  At 4:30 p.m. our hosts drove us to the U.S. Embassy to register our presence in Russia, as we had been instructed to do.  As we drove through the city, traffic was heavy and slow with tanks and personnel carriers scattered throughout the central sections of downtown Moscow.  Crowds had converged in front of the Embassy and our hosts had to make a path through the crowd so we could enter the building.  We registered and were told that there were no new developments to report -- and we would not be able to make any calls from there to the States.  We did not get back to the conference facility outside Moscow until after dark.

For the next two days, there were many animated discussions with my faculty colleagues about our plight and what options were available to us.  Some of our delegation wanted to head for the airport, but we knew that this was not a viable choice.  Lin and I talked about the crisis and agreed that we were probably safer at the conference center than if we were in downtown Moscow.  Frankly I was very excited to be a witness to these events – what more could a guy trained to be an historian ask for!

When Lin and I told our hosts that our delegation was in this for the long haul and that we were not going to cancel our program, they were thrilled.  We told them we would stay in Moscow until they felt it was no longer safe.  My journal records the comments of one of the professors who said: “Don’t worry!  We will protect you from harm with our own bodies!”

Meal times and evenings were spent gathered around the television and radio, with both Russians and Americans, talking nervously about the threat of violence and the possibility of an attack by the armed forces against the Russian White House.  This was the headquarters for Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Republic, and his government that was courageously opposing the hard-line coup leaders who wanted to remove Gorbachev from power and stop his reform efforts.  News reports indicated that an attack was scheduled for Tuesday night, August 20.  Most of us had difficulty sleeping, but when we woke up on Wednesday, we were excited that an attack on the Russian White House had not taken place.  We were so impressed with the courage of Boris Yeltsin and I recorded one of his quotes that especially memorable: “You can create thrones of violence, but you can not sit on them for long.”

The American Delegation
Climbs on the Barricades
On Wednesday afternoon, August 21, as the news of the collapsing coup was broadcast, our conference center became the site of a joyous celebration.  People who hardly knew each other were hugging, yelling, and crying.  A spontaneous party began in the parking lot and I vividly remember Russians and Americans grabbing each other’s hands, forming a large circle, and singing “We Shall Overcome” – in English!
The next day we talked our hosts into taking us to downtown Moscow, where we would host a “celebration dinner” at Pizza Hut, drive to the Russian White House so we could climb around the barricades, and then, of course, try to call our families.

Looking Back

It is striking to me how dramatically things have changed in Russia since the failed coup in August 1991.  Within four months, the USSR became the UFFR (Union of Fewer and Fewer Republics) as fifteen different countries were created out of the former Soviet Union.  The Communist regime that General Secretary Gorbachev tried to reform imploded with surprisingly little violence – an implosion no one saw coming!  Gorbachev resigned his leadership position in December 1991 and the flag of the USSR was lowered from the Kremlin to be replaced by the tri-colored flag of the Russian Federation.

The joy and excitement that permeated Moscow during August 1991 was exhilarating.  This was a new day in Russia.  Expectations were very high, but the radical changes required to rebuild Russian society after seventy years of Communism were greater -- and more painful -- than most people anticipated.  It is much easier to tear down a building, especially one that is poorly designed, than to build a replacement.

I feel sad looking back on this experience.  The joy, the excitement, the hugs, the mutual concern for each other – all these dimensions of the time with our Russian colleagues seem long gone. As one commentator noted, “Discarding the Soviet past required courage, enthusiasm and hope.  Building a better Russia demanded realism, patience and stamina and still does.” 

Cynicism and hopelessness is now the default position for many Russians.  Without spiritual renewal and the rebuilding of the moral foundations of Russian society, this cynicism and lack of hope will not go away.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Plot to Kill God – Unintended Consequences

President Boris Yeltsin &
Patriarch Aleksi II
My last two “Reflections on Russia” discussed the insights in Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), focusing first on the revolutionary basis upon which Communist Party leaders attempted to eradicate religion and then, secondly, the human costs associated with this radical policy of aggressive secularization.  As often happens in life, decisions can have unintended consequences and this is clearly the case when Communism imploded and the Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991.

The Failed Atheist Crusade

During the seventy years of the USSR, the Communist Party sought to both shut off the religious supply and reduce the demand for religion – it was a two-prong strategy designed to deal with both supply and demand.  While they failed to complete the total secularization of Soviet society, they did diminish the power of traditional religious institutions, cut church attendance dramatically, significantly reduce the activities of religious groups, and decrease the number of individuals affiliated with religious institutions.

When forced to choose between religious commitment and acceptance by Soviet officials, most Russians openly discarded their religious identities out of fear of ridicule or loss of employment, but many secretly retained their religious beliefs.  “Scientific atheism” failed to gain many committed followers and decades of Communist propaganda and atheist education had little lasting effect on the belief systems of most people in the USSR.  In 1970, polling data indicated that twenty-three percent of the Russian population declared themselves to be atheists; twenty years later, the number was six percent and, in 2000, only five percent.  It was a failed crusade!

It is important to note that what is true in Russia is also true worldwide.  As Froese points out, less than one percent of the world is atheist.  Secular humanism has simply failed to satisfy humanity and this is “surely part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and 16,000,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention” (p. 128).

The Communist Party’s violent campaign against religion damaged its image as a friend of the ordinary Soviet citizen – the Party was not a “liberating force,” but a force that used coercion against its own people.  Marxism-Leninism simply failed to engage the hearts and minds of Russians and offered nothing worthy of their faith.

The Aftermath

When Mikhail Gorbachev officially severed the link between Marxism-Leninism and atheism and introduced freedom of religion in the USSR in 1988, it is fascinating to see how Communist Party policies resulted in consequences they never anticipated. Froese summarized the unintended consequences of “the plot to kill God” in this way: “The end of Soviet Communism provided two basic circumstances theoretically ideal for religious growth: millions of religiously unaffiliated individuals and a free religious environment where no one religious group enjoys political favoritism” (p. 147).  By intentionally increasing religious ignorance of Christian theology and traditions by persecuting the churches and severely limiting their religious activities, the Party provided local and foreign religious activists with millions of eager converts!

In the early 1990s, Russians flocked to churches and the interest in religion was extraordinary.  Religion, the “forbidden fruit,” was now an object of great interest to many Russians.  I remember attending an Orthodox Easter service in Nizhni Novgorod in 1992 with students and faculty from the state university where Marge and I were teaching on sabbatical.  The church was filled to capacity with hundreds of people outside trying to push their way in.  Many had never been inside a church before and now they were anxious to find out what religion was all about. 

By 1995, over 3,200 Western missionaries were in Russia and more than 80 missionary organizations had formed a network called CoMission to take advantage of this opportunity to spread the Gospel to a “godless Russia.”  Sadly, many Western missionaries did little to familiarize themselves with Russian history and culture and few attempted to reach out to the Orthodox community.  This created great tensions between Protestants and Orthodox, who were fearful of this “foreign invasion” that threatened their efforts to rebuild their own church after decades of persecution.

The “window of opportunity” that opened up in Russia with the 1988 law on religious freedom did not stay open very long.  The fascination with religion lasted for only a brief period of time and then a preoccupation with materialism swept the country.  The freedom for new religious organizations to operate in Russia also was significantly reduced within ten years as well.

It is not surprising that Orthodox leaders opposed this massive influx of foreign missionaries and pressured government leaders to restrict their activities. Boris Yeltsin, for example, developed close ties with Orthodox leaders to help distance his government from its Soviet past and atheist legacy.  Affiliation with Russian Orthodox Church leaders gave his government the legitimacy that Yeltsin desired.  His advisers were eager to grant the church special status and privileges and Orthodox leaders gladly accepted these offers.


As Russia struggles with the difficult question of how the state and church should be related, those of us in the West need to remember that it took the United States over 150 years and many Supreme Court decisions to settle these issues and come to agreement on the separation of church and state – a decision few other nations have followed.  I hope Russians will resist the choice of going back to a state-sponsored religion.  Research data makes it clear:  state-supported religions produce populations that rarely go to church or express strong religious beliefs.  The result could be more destructive of religion’s role in Russia than the Communist Party’s folly of trying to “kill God.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Plot to Kill God – The Human Consequences

My last “Reflections on Russia” discussed the insights in Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), and focused on the revolutionary basis upon which Communist Party attempted to eradicate religion in the newly created Soviet Union.  As one of the ideological leaders of the Communist Party, George Plekhanov, made clear: “We are obliged to do all that depends on us in order to destroy that faith . . . of a man who is infected with religious belief.”

The leaders of the Communist Party were steeped in 19th and 20th century Marxism that fervently advocated a world without religion.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian Marxists saw the Russian Orthodox Church as an important supporter of the oppressive Romanov dynasty and a defender of a morally unjustified war effort.

When they came to power, after an astonishing series of events, the Bolsheviks excitedly debated how they would eliminate private property, totally restructure the economy, and produce a Soviet culture with a new set of values and beliefs.  To them, religion was a “castle made of sand” and it needed to be quickly swept away.  It was their conviction that if Prince Vladimir could Christianize Russia overnight in 988, they could secularize it in similar fashion.

The Persecution

Soviets' demolition of Cathedral of
Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931
As Froese carefully documents, religious groups were the victims of extreme violence immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Bolshevik leaders targeted Orthodox churches, monasteries, and clerics, accusing them of antirevolutionary activity.  Church properties were seized and religious leaders, monks and nuns were often killed.  In 1922, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon, wrote a letter to Lenin in which he protested that thousands of clergy were being killed and over a hundred thousand religious believers had been shot.  His protest was ignored and he was placed in exile.  A decade later Patriarch Tikhon was executed.

The persecution of religious leaders was accelerated in the 1930s and periodically reemerged according to the whims of Communist Party leadership.  The ongoing violence was the direct result of the fact that Russians refused to give up their faith in God and the Party leadership felt that more “reactionary zealots of religion” had to be exterminated.

Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many people were murdered during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, the most recent figures, according to Froese, indicate that more than 100,000 religious leaders were executed between 1937 and 1941. Former Soviet official Alexander Yakovlev, a close adviser of Mikhail Gorbachev, had privileged access to private Communist Party records before his death in 2005 and he maintained that 85,300 clergy were executed in 1937, 21,000 in 1938, and 3,900 between 1939 and 1941.  In addition, hundreds of thousands were sent to prison camps for “religious crimes.”  Although the initial attacks were targeted against Orthodox leaders, the antireligious campaign soon spread to Protestants, Muslims and groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Froese summarizes his discussion of the persecution of religious leaders with this observation: “The brutality and inhumanity of the Secularization Experiment in the 1930s cannot be overstated.” 

The Consequences of This Plot

This radical experiment by the Communist Party resulted in enormous consequences for subsequent generations of Russians.  The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, had 54,000 functioning churches in 1914; by 1941, only 4,200 remained open – less than 8 percent.  By 1964, only ten Orthodox monasteries and convents were in existence from the hundreds that were active before 1914.  While there were 50,000 Orthodox priests before the Russian Revolution of 1917, by mid-1939, there were no more than 3-400 clergy left.  Similar data can be cited for Protestant and Muslim communities.

Unfortunately many of Russia’s citizens have little knowledge of the persecution conducted by Communist Party leaders.  I have witnessed this lack of knowledge in students who attended our Institute, many of whom were surprised when faced with this information.  In fact, Russian students share this characteristic with American students who are often also ignorant of the history of their country and the role religion played in shaping it. 

While some national leaders decry the lack of ethics and moral values in Russian society, they rarely recognize the importance of rebuilding the religious foundations of Russia.  Religion was not eliminated in the Soviet Union despite the “plot to kill God,” but active church attendance in Russia is very low, even lower than that of Western Europe.  As Froese noted, the end of Soviet Communism in 1991 resulted in two basic realities: millions of religiously unaffiliated individuals and a free religious environment.  We will analyze what these two realities meant during the last twenty years in Russia in my next “Reflections on Russia.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Plot to Kill God – Its Revolutionary Basis

Paul Froese’s book, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization (University of California Press, 2008), is an insightful exploration of the most massive atheism campaign in human history. Froese, a professor of sociology at Baylor University (Waco, Texas), has done careful research on this topic and his writing style makes this study a “good read.” I was struck by one of the endorsements on the back cover of the book, an endorsement by the well-known Catholic sociologist and novelist Andrew Greeley. He pointed out: “The story of the survival of religion in the Soviet Union is one of the great surprises of the end of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is so surprising that many social scientists wrote it off, attributed it to cultural nationalism, or ignored it. They assumed that religion simply was a temporary reprieve and would shortly succumb to ‘secularization.’ Professor Froese demolishes this assumption.”

1929 magazine cover from
Russia's Society of Militant Atheists
The first paragraph of the book clearly articulates the focus of this study and it deserves to be quoted here: “It is easier to invoke God than to get rid of him. This is one simple yet important conclusion that we can draw from the prolonged and often vicious experiment to eradicate religion from Soviet society. Communist leaders in the Soviet Union attempted something never considered by earlier rulers, be they emancipators or tyrants. For the first time in history, rulers of a modern state hoped to expunge not only the existence of religious institutions but also daily expressions of spirituality and, most dauntingly, belief in a supernatural realm” (p. 1).

Froese sets the context for his study by highlighting the fact that the best international data on religion reveals that atheism is quite rare in even the most modern societies and that religious faith is currently thriving in many different forms around the world. It would seem evident, from his perspective, that the idea of God is a fundamental cultural element common to all modern societies, despite the angry counterclaims of small numbers of atheists. The Communist leaders attempted to ignore this basic fact by developing a plot to kill God.

This radical experiment that began in Russia in 1917, an experiment that required the abandonment of religiosity and spirituality, was nothing less than an effort to reshape the inner lives of millions of people. The failure of Marxist-Leninists to truly understand human nature and human need – in other words, their false anthropology, lead to an enormous and devastating social experiment unlike any other in human history.

The Soviet Atheist Alternative

Beginning immediately after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, Communist Party leaders implemented a plan to convince the Russian people that they were better off without religion in their lives. Through the creation of educational programs, propaganda campaigns, and newly established atheist ceremonies and rituals modeled after religious practices, Party leaders were confident that Soviet citizens would soon understand that the idea of God was not necessary for living happy and fulfilled lives.

At first, they focused on undermining the traditional religious culture of the past thousand years by blaming religion, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, for the injustices and oppression of the Romanov tsars. But it soon became necessary, as Froese carefully traces, for Party leaders to create an atheist alternative to religion. In hopes of undermining religion, “the Soviet regime made itself into a kind of antichurch with atheist schools and meetinghouses, antireligious proselytizers, and a clearly defined atheist moral worldview called ‘scientific atheism’” (p. 5). For Marxist revolutionaries, the total destruction of religion was ideologically crucial to build a utopian socialist state.

A Temple for the Leader -
The Lenin Mausoleum
Creating the Atheist Soviet Man was much more difficult than the Communists expected. Secularized education by the League of Militant Atheists soon proved to be inadequate, so Party leaders created weddings, baptisms, confirmations, funerals and holidays all cradled in atheist symbolism and language. Soon Soviet texts and ceremonies were developed that depicted Marx, Lenin and Stalin as saint-like figures. Froese notes that “never before in history had an antireligious philosophy come to so closely resemble a religion” (p. 42). The Communist Party created an antireligious faith in which the faithful were atheists and the religiously devout, blasphemers. In fact, the Party created and imposed upon its people a very different kind of “state church.”

To the Marxist revolutionaries who established authoritarian top-down rule in the Soviet Union, a pattern well established in Russia’s painful history, religious beliefs were patently false. They believed that human behavior, earthy rewards and history were controlled by economic relations, not by God – and in this they had absolute faith. Professor Froese argues – and I agree -- they were, in fact, religious fanatics!