We are used to hear that the twentieth century was the most secular period in human history. This claim is not completely true. In fact, this was perhaps the most religious century of all time. Only 25 years ago, every child that lived in a communist country, from the moment of entering the school system to the day of graduation, was taught that there is an omnipotent, infallible Party and leader, who were saviors of humanity and emanation of goodness.
The communist and the nationalist regimes in the last century created truly religious state systems molded by powerful ideologies and cults of personality. Yet, despite the titanic efforts of the ruling elites and the modern techniques of propaganda, the Bolshevik communism and German Nazism were the least effective and short-lived religious systems that have ever existed. In this sense, it is true—they were temporal, secular movements.
One of the forgotten now gods of this era was Vladimir Ilich Lenin, whose embalmed body is still on display (if not for worship, at least as a tourist attraction) in a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. It is interesting to know how Lenin, the founder of the first communist state, perceived religion. Roland Boer, a Research Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia, published recently a book with the title "Lenin, Religion, and Theology" that reveals what the Bolshevik leader thought about religion and how, after his death, he was made an object of worship and veneration.
For Lenin, writes Boer, religion was simply ideology that reflected the economic and political conditions of society. His understanding of faith was not very different from the classical Marxist perception of religion as "opium" for the people. Religion, Lenin believed, was both a medicine for the oppressed against the suffering of exploitation, and a mean for spiritual oppression in the hands of the oppressors. It had a Janus face—neither completely good, nor absolutely evil.
The ambiguity of religion, in his dialectical framework of thinking, was a source of trouble, so, in his writings, he never ventured to go beyond the opinion that the Church and the clergy were part of the ruling classes, an extension of the Tsarist regime that killed his brother Sasha. For this reason, in Lenin's revolutionary program the destruction of religion was an important element and prerequisite for the success of revolution.
Lenin was a pragmatic man and a skilled polemist, and Boer explains that despite his generally negative opinion about religious faith, he often used religious language to win an argument, to condemn an enemy, or to inspire an audience. Moreover, Lenin's character was not as cold as the historical materialism he preached. Boer writes that his optimism was irrepressible, similar to the optimism of a man of faith. "There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation," he used to say.
Lenin was a political revolutionary, yet he was not a militant atheist. In fact, he accepted Christians as members of the Party, used parables in his writings and speeches, and was interested in the practices of marginal Christian groups such as the Old Believers, Dukhobors, Molokans, and Mennonites. His friend, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, who spent a year in the Canadian wilderness with a group of Russian Dukhobors, said that reading the papers of these "sectarians," Lenin once exclaimed, "How interesting! This was created by simple folk...whereas our private docents have authored a huge amount of talentless papers on all kinds of philosophical bullshit...These manuscripts are hundred times more important than all their scribble." And not only this, in Lenin's close circle of political associates, the outright political idealists and Christian socialists were not a marginal group. The so-called "God-Builders," a group of passionate revolutionary intellectuals, who believed that communism would materialize the religious ideal for a just society, had influence within the party. The most prominent among them were the writer Maxim Gorky and the poet, intellectual, and after the revolution "First Commissar of Enlightenment" Anatoly Lunacharsky.
Boer notes that in Lenin's most influential text, "What Is to Be Done?," we discover the key organizing principle of the Bolshevik politics—the resolute action—clothed in the symbolic language of Scripture. In this essay, Lenin used in a twisted way the parable of "the wheat and the tares" from the Gospel of Matthew to explain the uniqueness of Bolshevik calling. "Our task is to fight the tares," he wrote, "By pulling up the tares, we clear the soil for the wheat." In contrast to the Biblical story, where God spares the weeds in order to save every single grain, the revolutionary vanguard was advised to act despite the loss of innocent lives. In Lenin's dialectical materialism, even delivered with the help of Biblical metaphors, patience and peaceful coexistence of opposites were unthinkable.
The membership in the Bolshevik party was open for religious people, says Boer, but their religious convictions had to stay private. The primacy of the "materialist" collective conscience of proletariat had to be respected. This was so, because Lenin was convinced that Christian meekness does not contribute for the success of revolution. He believed, for example, that people like Tolstoy asked the right questions, but offered the wrong answers. For him, Tolstoy's Christianity was simple spirituality, his pacifism—inadequate. According to Boer, Lenin saw in the writer's ideas and way of life "nostalgia rather hope, retreat rather than advance, communal life rather than revolution."
Known as a man of action, Lenin surprisingly intended to destroy Christianity gradually, through education, not through revolutionary force. Himself a man of faith (the faith of the communist revolutionary), he perhaps sensed that pressure does not defeat believers, but radicalize them. So, after the October revolution he approved the appointment of Anatoly Lunacharsky as minister of education. Lunacharsky was an old comrade from Lenin's émigré years in Europe. Before the revolution, he published a book, "Religion and Socialism," in which he argued that the communist spirit had a lot in common with the spirit of early Christianity. Luncharsky sincerely believed that Christianity was a positive force in history, second to Marxism. His treatment of religion was very similar to Ludwig Feuerbach's—God was a creation of human imagination, a necessary ideal for the achievement of man's greatness.
Lenin's political instinct proved correct in choosing Lunacharsky as a chief educator. Lunacharsky had a religious insight and was "drown towards the future," in the words of Lenin, "with his all being." Only a man with religious insight and irrepressible optimism was able to enter the shrine of the Russian soul. After the death of the Bolshevik leader, Lunacharsky, as a member of the Immortalization Commission, was among the key organizers of the embalmment of Lenin's body; he was one of the chief creators of Lenin's cult of personality.
In 1921, Lenin said, "In certain respect, a revolution is a miracle." Ironically, he was the last man to believe in miracles. Lenin, the political opportunist and the shrewd pragmatist, was convinced that everything is a result of objective forces, often unexpected, yet natural. Boer says that Lenin did not trust too much the opinion of his proto-Christian communist associates, after all, he considered them "idealists," but he knew how to use them, even after his death.
At Lenin's funeral, Lunacharsky delivered a speech in which he said that hundred years after the revolution, people "will not have known an era more exalted, more holy, than the days of Russian revolution." In the same speech, Lunacharsky described Lenin as the "Man with a capital letter." Now, we know that he was wrong. Today, a handful of people remember the "Great October Revolution." But Lenin's political logic is still valid: in certain respect, after seventy-four years of existence, the fail of the Soviet communist state and religion was a miracle—unexpected, yet natural.