A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism

In This Review

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism
By Victoria Smolkin
Princeton University Press, 2018
260 pp.

Much has been written about the Soviet Union’s war on religion and its vigorous efforts to set up atheism and the Bolshevik revolutionary project as a new faith. Most such accounts treat religion and atheism as simple opposites. Smolkin describes a more nuanced and variable relationship between them. She lays out three main “oppositions” at the heart of the contest: one political, between communist ideological purity and effective governance; one ideological, between superstition and science; and one spiritual, between “emptiness and indifference and fullness and conviction.” How the regime managed the balance in each case changed radically over time. It began with a wholesale assault on religion as a threat to the communist project, moved toward tolerance during World War II in order to rally national unity, then renewed the assault under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 1960s, and, in the Soviet Union’s later years, reached a kind of coexistence that recognized the need for atheism to create a spirituality that could match that offered by religion.

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