Atheism in the Soviet Union

Soviet Atheism: the Militant League

Atheists, Militant League of.
An antireligious organization established in the Soviet Union in 1923.The Soviet government was determined to combat religion in Russia from the time that it first assumed power in 1917. Initial efforts to develop antireligious machinery and propaganda were hampered by the preoccupation of the new government with the Civil War and by opposing theorists who can best be described as "leftist" and "rightist" in their orientations. The "leftist" group favored a massive and violent attack upon religion, whereas the "rightist" faction wished to permit religion to die a natural death.

In 1922 Emel'ian Yaroslavskii, who became head of the atheistic programs of the Communist Party during the 1920's and 1930's, began to edit the newspaper Bezbozhnik (Godless). This publication rapidly became a centripetal force for a group of dedicated atheists who, in 1923, evolved into the Soiuz voinstvuiushchikh bezbozhnikov (League of Militant Atheists), an organization destined to remain the leading wedge of the Soviet government's antireligious drives between the World Wars.

In the pages of Bezbozhnik the League soon began to argue for a middle course between the extremes of the "rightists" and "leftists." In 1925 the League began to publish a new monthly journal, Antireligioznik (the Anti-religious Worker), which further espoused the cause of compromise. In 1926 the Central Committee of the Communist Party endorsed the approach of the League and condemned both "rightists" and "leftists." Undoubtedly this circumstance adumbrated the fate of the Trotskyite and Bukharinite factions in the Central Committee. In 1929 the League was assigned the central coordination of all atheistic efforts and undertakings. From then until the early 1940s, when the atheistic policies and programs of the Party threatened to hamper the war effort of the Soviet Union, the League reigned supreme and conducted a vigorous campaign against organized religion. Ironically, once having removed all competition for the leadership of the atheistic program, the League adopted the "leftist" approach in dealing with the religious problem.

By the beginning of World War II, the League had stifled organized religion throughout the Soviet state, although it failed to suppress religious beliefs. The League never disbanded officially but, after the war, was succeeded by the All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge or (as it was known more simply) the Znanie (Knowledge Society).


  • Antireligioznik (the organ of the League of Militant Atheists, published between 1925 and 1941).
  • Bezbozhnik (newspaper published by the League from 1922 to 1941).
  • V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, Izbrannye sochineniia, vol. I: O religii, religioznom sektanstve i tserkvi (Moscow 1959).
  • John S. Curtiss, The Russian Church and the Soviet State 1917-1950 (Boston 1953).
  • Joan Delaney, "The Orgins of Soviet Antireligious Organizations," in Aspects of Religion in the Soviet Union 1917-1967, ed. by Richard H. Marshall, Jr. (Chicago 1971), pp 103-129.
  • M. Enisherlov (ed.), Voinstvuiushchee bezbozhie v SSSR za 15 let, 1917-1932 (Moscow 1932)
  • P.V. Gidulianov (ed.), Otdelenie tserkvi ot gosudarstva; polnyi sbornik dekretov RSFSR i SSSR, instruktsii, tsirkuliarov, i.t.d. (rev. ed.; Moscow 1926)
  • Walter Kolarz, Religion in the Soviet Union (New York 1962)
  • ]N.A. Krylov, "Iz istorii propagandy ateizma v SSSR (1923-1925)," Voprosy istorii religii i ateizma, no. 8 (Moscow 1960).
  • S.N. Savelev, "Em. Yaroslavskii i preodolenie anarkhistskikh vliianii v antireligioznoi rabote v SSSR," Ezhegodnik muzeia istorii religii i ateizma, no. 7 (Moscow-Leningrad 1963), pp 37-49.
  • M.M. Sheinman, "Propagandist ateizma Em. Yaroslavskii," Voprosy istorii religii i ateizma, no. 6 (Moscow 1958) pp 75-104.
  • M.S. Timasheff, Religion in Soviet Russia 1917-1942 (New York 1942).
  • - Dennis J. Dunn, Southwest Texas State University

    see also the entries for Yaroslavskii, Emil'ian Mikhailovich (1878-1943), and the Znanie Society

    - the Modern encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet history, vol. 2, edited by Joseph L. Wieczynski (Academic International Press: Florida 1976) pp 148-9

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    created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info