The Russian revolution had started earlier in February. The tsar had already abdicated. And a provisional bourgeois government had begun to establish itself. But it was the occupation of government buildings in Petrograd, on 25 October 1917, by the Red Guards of the Bolsheviks that marks the beginning of the Communist era proper. And it was from this date that an experiment wholly unprecedented in world history began: the systematic, state-sponsored attempt to eliminate religion. “Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy. It is not a side effect, but the central pivot,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Lenin compared religion to venereal disease.
Within just weeks of the October revolution, the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment was established to remove all references to religion from school curriculums. In the years that followed, churches and monasteries were destroyed or turned into public toilets. Their land and property was appropriated. Thousands of bishops, monks and clergy were systematically murdered by the security services. Specialist propaganda units were formed, like the League of the Godless. Christian intellectuals were rounded up and sent to camps.
The Soviets had originally believed that when the church had been deprived of its power, religion would quickly wither away. When this did not happen, they redoubled their efforts. In Stalin’s purges of 1936 and 1937 tens of thousands of clergy were rounded up and shot. Under Khrushchev it became illegal to teach religion to your own children. From 1917 to the perestroika period of the 1980s, the more religion persisted, the more the Soviets would seek new and inventive ways to eradicate it. Today the Russian Orthodox churches are packed full. Once the grip of oppression had been released, the faithful returned to church in their millions.
The Soviet experiment manifestly failed. If you want to know why it failed, you could do no better than go along to the British Museum in London next week when the Living with Gods exhibition opens. In collaboration with a BBC Radio 4 series, this exhibition describes some of the myriad ways in which faith expresses itself, using religious objects to examine how people believe rather than what they believe. The first sentence of explanation provided by the British Museum is very telling: “The practice and experience of beliefs are natural to all people.” From prayer flags to a Leeds United kippah, from water jugs to processional chariots, this exhibition tells the story of humanity’s innate and passionate desire to make sense of the world beyond the strictly empirical.
Jill Cook, the exhibition’s curator, remembers going into pre-glasnost churches like Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, which had been converted into a museum of atheism. One of the items she has included in the exhibition is a 1989 velvet and silk embroidered image of Christ, for the back of a cope. The person who made this image had no other vestments to work from – they had all been destroyed – other than those she had seen lampooning Christianity in the museum of atheism. What had been a piss-take has been repurposed into a devotional object. Services resumed in Kazan Cathedral in 1992.
The penultimate image of the exhibition is a 1975 poster of a cheeky-looking cosmonaut walking around in space and declaring: “There is no god.” Below him, on Earth, a church is falling over. This was from the period of so-called scientific atheism.
A poster showing a cosmonaut walking in space and saying: ‘There is no god.’ By Vladimir Menshikow, 1975. Photograph: British Museum
But there is one last exhibit to go. Round the corner, a glass case contains small model boats with burnt matchsticks in them representing people huddled together. And two tiny shirts that had been used as shrouds for drowned children. At the side of them is a small cross, made from the wood of a ship that was wrecked off the Italian island of Lampedusa on 11 October 2013. The ship contained Somali and Eritrean Christian refugees, fleeing poverty and persecution. Francesco Tuccio, the local Lampedusa carpenter, desperately wanted to do something for them, in whatever way he could. So he did all he knew and made them a cross. Just like a famous carpenter before him, I suppose. And what this exhibition demonstrates is that nothing – not decades of propaganda nor state-sponsored terror – will be able to quash that instinct from human life.