By Paul Kengor
As Mikhail Gorbachev aptly stated, the Soviet communist state carried out a comprehensive “war on religion.” 1 He lamented that the Bolsheviks, his predecessors, even after the civil war ended in the early 1920s, during a time of “peace,” had “continued to tear down churches, arrest clergymen, and destroy them. This was no longer understandable or justifiable. Atheism took rather savage forms in our country at that time.” 2
The Soviet Union, reflective of the communist world as a whole, was openly hostile to religion and officially atheist; it was not irreligious or unreligious, with no stance on religion, but took the position that there was no God. Moreover, that atheism translated into a form of vicious anti-religion that included a systematic, often brutal campaign to eliminate belief. This began from the outset of the Soviet communist state and still continues in various forms in communist countries to this day, from China to North Korea to Cuba.
The roots of this hatred and intolerance of religion lie in the essence of communist ideology. Marx dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses,” and opined that, “Communism begins where atheism begins.” 3 Speaking on behalf of the Bolsheviks in his famous October 2, 1920 speech, Lenin stated matter-of-factly: “We do not believe in God.” Lenin insisted that “all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia.” 4 He wrote in a November 1913 letter that “any religious idea, any idea of any God at all, any flirtation even with a God is the most inexpressible foulness … the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful ‘infection.’” James Thrower of the University of Virginia (a Russia scholar and also a translator) says that in this letter the type of “infection” Lenin was referring to was venereal disease. 5
“There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” wrote Lenin in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January 1913. 6 On December 25, 1919, Christmas Day, Comrade Lenin issued the following order, in his own writing: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid—the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.” 7 Under Lenin, this was not an isolated occurrence.
Along with Trotsky, Lenin became involved in the creation of groups with names like the Society of the Godless, also known as the League of the Militant Godless, which was responsible for the dissemination of anti-religious propaganda in the USSR. 8 This institutionalized bigotry continued to thrive under Lenin’s disciples, most notably Stalin, and even under more benign leaders like Nikita Khrushchev.
This atheism was endemic to the communist experiment. Even those communists unable to secure political power—and thus lacking the ability to persecute believers—still did their best to persecute the teachings of organized religion and ridicule the idea of the existence of God. Even in America, it was no surprise to stroll by a city newsstand and catch bold front-page headlines like this in the Daily Worker, the communist organ published by CPUSA: “THERE IS NO GOD.” 9 Communists were proud of their atheism, and militant about it.
Equal Opportunity Discriminator
This armed assault on religious faith was aimed not just at Christians—Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox—but against Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other faiths. 10 For every Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, there was a Cardinal Wyszynski in Poland, a Richard Wurmbrand in Romania, a Natan Sharansky or Walter Ciszek in Russia, a Vasyl Velychkovsky or Severian Baranyk or Zenobius Kovalyk in the Ukraine, a Moaddedi clan in Afghanistan, a Lutheran or Methodist missionary or follower of the Dalai Lama in China, a jailed nun in Cuba, or a Buddhist monk forced to renounce his vows in Cambodia. Whether the despot was Fidel Castro or Pol Pot or Stalin, the sentiment was the same: “Religion is poison,” as Mao Tse-Tung was said to have stated. Wherever they went, from East to West, from Africa to Asia, from Phnom Penh to St. Petersburg, communists pursued an all-out assault on religion. Communists quibbled over the details of how to implement Marx’s vision, but they were unanimous in one thing: religion was the enemy, a rival to Marxist mind control, and it had to be vanquished regardless of costs and difficulties.
Moscow was the source and summit for much of this effort. Yet, Soviet apparatchiks sought to replicate the campaign through their eager comrades atop leadership posts elsewhere. The repression took place, in varying degrees, throughout Eastern Europe. For example, communist anti-religious indoctrination of school children was especially rigorous in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Czechoslovakia was infamous for this form of atheism.
Among the most religiously repressive nations in the communist empire was Romania. There, the hatred of religion was evident through the extraordinary means employed to try to banish it.
Romania: the Richard Wurmbrand Experience
As part of atheistic education, communist states published and widely disseminated counter-Christian literature. In Romania, the work of perhaps the greatest Romanian writer, Sadoveanu, The Lives of Saints, was re-published as, The Legend of Saints.
Significantly, communists did not merely try to block or halt religious faith but to reverse it. This was particularly true for Romania, even before the Nicolae Ceaușescu era. This meant not just forbidding religious practice and jailing ministers and believers but employing torture to force them to renounce their faith. It was not enough to contain, silence, even punish believers in prison; it was decided they must be tortured in truly unimaginably degrading ways to attempt to undo religious faith.
One of the best sources on how communists went through extraordinary pains to reverse belief is Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who endured 14 years of earthly hell in a Romanian prison. He later detailed some of the cruelty he witnessed in testimony before the U.S. Congress and in his famous Tortured for Christ, first published in 1967. Here are a few passages from Wurmbrand’s gripping book:
Thousands of believers from churches of all denominations were sent to prison at that time. Not only were clergymen put in jail, but also simple peasants, young boys and girls who witnessed for their faith. The prisons were full, and in Romania, as in all communist countries, to be in prison means to be tortured…
A pastor by the name of Florescu was tortured with red-hot iron pokers and with knives. He was beaten very badly. Then starving rats were driven into his cell through a large pipe. He could not sleep because he had to defend himself all the time. If he rested a moment, the rats would attack him.
He was forced to stand for two weeks, day and night…. Eventually, they brought his fourteen-year-old son to the prison and began to whip the boy in front of his father, saying that they would continue to beat him until the pastor said what they wished him to say. The poor man was half mad. He bore it as long as he could, then he cried to his son, “Alexander, I must say what they want! I can’t bear your beating anymore!” The son answered, “Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent. Withstand! If they kill me, I will die with the words, ‘Jesus and my fatherland’.” The communists, enraged, fell upon the child and beat him to death, with blood spattered over the walls of the cell. He died praising God. Our dear brother Florescu was never the same after seeing this. 11
Wurmbrand recalled story after story about the torture he witnessed. He not only saw torture of his fellow believers but also experienced it himself. His captors carved him in a dozen separate parts of his body. They burned 18 holes in him. Among the many forms of torture he endured was the “refrigerator cell”—a large frozen icebox. The believer would be locked inside with little or no clothing. Prison doctors would peer through an opening until they saw symptoms of freezing to death, then they would signal the guards, who would rush in and defrost the victims. They would be thawed and then re-frozen within minutes of death. This process was repeated.
All of this, of course, took considerable effort by the captors. “What the communists have done to Christians surpasses … human understanding,” wrote Wurmbrand. “I have seen communists whose faces while torturing believers shone with rapturous joy. They cried out while torturing the Christians, ‘We are the devil!’” He called communism “a force of evil” that could only be countered by a greater spiritual force, “the Spirit of God.” He added:
The communist torturers often [told me], “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I heard one torturer say, “I thank God in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.”
In his May 1966 testimony before the Internal Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, Wurmbrand described crucifixion at the hands of communists. Christians were tied to crosses for four days and nights. That was bad enough. But the communists were imaginative, and sought to ensure that those crucified would suffer greater humiliation than Christ himself:
The crosses were placed on the floor and hundreds of prisoners had to fulfill their bodily necessities over the faces and bodies of the crucified ones. Then the crosses were erected again and the communists jeered and mocked: “Look at your Christ! How beautiful he is! What fragrance he brings from heaven!”… [A]fter being driven nearly insane with tortures, a priest was forced to consecrate human excrement and urine and give Holy Communion to Christians in this form. This happened in the Romanian prison of Pitesti. I asked the priest afterward why he did not prefer to die rather than participate in this mockery. He answered, “Don’t judge me, please! I have suffered more than Christ!” All the biblical descriptions of hell and the pains of Dante’s Inferno are nothing in comparison with the tortures in communist prisons.
This is only a very small part of what happened on one Sunday and on many other Sundays in the prison of Pitesti. Other things simply cannot be told. My heart would fail if I should tell them again and again. They are too terrible and obscene to put in writing…
If I were to continue to tell all the horrors of communist tortures and all the self-sacrifices of Christians, I would never finish.
We see here an almost unbelievable dedication by communists to reverse and undo belief. This involved not only extraordinary abuse but also state attention. The fact that the communist state devoted so much time and effort shows its remarkable devotion—ironically, an almost religious devotion—to the goal of eliminating religious faith. It also reflected the communist conviction that religion truly was an incompatible threat to Marxism-Leninism.
Ultimately this vicious persecution backfired. For every Richard Wumrbrand, or for every Severian Baranyk that the communists killed with a cross-shaped slash across his chest, or Zenobius Kovalyk, executed in a mock crucifixion, it also produced an Albanian named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa), who prayed for their souls, or a Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), who worked with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel—among others—to seek the peaceful collapse of their atheistic empire.
Why does this information matter today, with the Cold War over and the Soviet communist empire no more? At a human level, it is very important to those who suffered the persecution. Many are still alive; they want this tale to be told; they want the world to know what they endured. They know that history, for history’s sake, needs to be set straight, and not repeated. At another level, the next generation of Cold War scholars has little knowledge and even less recognition of the crucial role of religion in the Cold War experience. Not only are they uninformed regarding the sources and degree of the persecution, they do not appreciate how the institutionalized atheism of the USSR helped fuel the bipartisan American opposition to Moscow in the early Cold War. Democrats like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and Republicans like John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan decried the scourge of “godless Soviet communism,” as did extremely popular religious figures like Francis Cardinal Spellman, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Dr. Fred Schwarz through his Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. 12 Religiously speaking, the eventual effort to undo atheistic communism was a bipartisan effort of American Protestants and Catholics.
Little of this is appreciated today. We cannot ignore this vital component of Cold War history. Tragically, much of this information remains unknown to not only the public at large but also to the scholarly community. To be sure, there are academics who are aware of this material but are generally unconcerned, dismissing it as a paranoid curiosity of the “Christian right” and anti-communists, whom they view as crude and unsophisticated. “Under the [communists], there was this persecution of the church,” notes Richard Pipes, Harvard Professor Emeritus of Russian History. “And it’s quite true that the subject has received little to virtually no attention from scholars.” 13
Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—the communists tortured them all. And members of all faiths have a vested interest that this vicious conspiracy should finally receive the light of truth. No one, least of all a central organization, has told the victims’ stories. Many of them are bitter, and all are frustrated that this vast web of brutal bigotry has never been fully exposed. High-school history texts are rich with accounts of the Crusades, but completely silent on the infinitely more repressive communist war on religion. 14
It remains for groups like the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation to tell this story, to reveal this history, and to honor the victims.
Author Bio: Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life” (HarperCollins, 2004), “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand” (Ignatius Press, 2007), and “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” (HarperPerennial, 2007).
1 Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (NY: Doubleday, 1996), p. 328.
2 Mikhail Gorbachev, On My Country and the World, (NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 20-1.
3 The “opiate of the masses” remark is well-known. The source for the quote, “communism begins where atheism begins,” is Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West (Indianapolis and NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948). Sheen, who spoke and read several languages, translated the quote into English from an un-translated Marx work.
4 Lenin wrote this in a November 13 or 14, 1913 letter to Maxim Gorky. See: James Thrower, God’s Commissar: Marxism-Leninism as the Civil Religion of Soviet Society (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), p. 39.
5 Quoted in Thrower, God’s Commissar, p. 39. Another translation of this quote comes from Robert Conquest, in his “The Historical Failings of CNN,” in Arnold Beichman, ed., CNN’s Cold War Documentary (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000), p. 57.
6 See: J. M. Bochenski, “Marxism-Leninism and Religion,” in B. R. Bociurkiw et al, eds., Religion and Atheism in the USSR and Eastern Europe (London: MacMillan, 1975), p. 11.
7 This item was published in a 2002 book by Yale University Press. See: Alexander N. Yakovlev, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 157.
8 See: Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).
9 See: Bertram D. Wolfe, A Life in Two Centuries (Stein and Day, 1981), pp. 403-4.
10 The repression was pursued in varying degrees among the Soviet bloc nations. Among them, Romania, Albania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were especially repressive.
11 Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1998), pp. 33-8.
12 See: Paul Kengor, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (NY: HarperCollins, 2004).
13 Richard Pipes speaking at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania, September 27, 2005.
14 Paul Kengor compared the treatment of the two in an exhaustive, year-long research project that examined history texts used in Wisconsin public schools, which were the same texts used in all states. See: Paul Kengor, “Searching for Bias: World History Texts in Wisconsin Public Schools,” Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, June 2002. A copy of the study is posted on the website of WPRI.