In the Soviet Union of the sixties, atheist State and vigorous Christianity are battling for the souls of children and youth. Mikhail Petrovich Kashin, deputy minister of education in the Russian Federal Republic, said in a broadcast on October 10, 1963, “Religious influence is a terrible enemy which we often underestimate. Do not think, Comrades, that the Church and the sects only influence the older generation.… The schools—and all of us—must wage a persistent struggle against [religion], and must not be inactive in the hope that the Church will die away by itself.”
From the earliest days of a child’s life the State would like to exert atheist influence. Because christening in church is still frequent among Orthodox (Baptists, of course, do not practice infant baptism) and in Party eyes is “a degrading, barbaric and pernicious ceremony,” Leningrad Soviet decided in August, 1963, to open two “Palaces of the Newly Born,” complete with a “beautiful and solemn ritual” during which the birth certificate would be presented to the parents, together with the congratulations of the City Soviet and a medal portraying Lenin in an armored car with the Neva River for background. By mid-1964 no special “Baby Palace” had yet been built, but similar presentations were already held in Latvia as part of the nation-wide campaign, begun in 1959, to offset religious ceremonies by colorful secular substitutes, while Lvov (formerly a city of Poland) claims great success for its marriage and family “Palace of Happiness.”
But christening can often be dismissed as the initiative of grannies. As a Western correspondent in Moscow said, “In many families you will find an old hag in the background who hurries the baby round to the church, often without consent or knowledge of the parents.” The font is of little relevance to the advance or retreat of religion in Russia.
The vital battleground is the school. Soviet children go to school at seven, and some to a primary school at five. The leaving age has been raised from fourteen to fifteen, 1964 being the year by which every Soviet child is to receive eight years of compulsory education. The most able continue for another three years to reach the eleventh and highest grade and leave at eighteen. Eight years is enough to give a thorough grounding in the Communist, materialist outlook.
Atheism is not in the curriculum as a subject, in the manner that divinity or Scripture generally appears in many Western schools, but it hovers in the background. “Teaching should be organized,” runs an article in Sovetskaya Estoniya of October 23, 1963, “so that every lesson in any subject should help to form the ideology of the schoolchildren.” This policy is often ignored. As the senior lecturer at a pedagogical institute near Bryansk wrote in January, 1964, “Some teachers instead of unmasking religious ravings shy at the very mention of God.”
A teacher who is keen will constantly make atheist points. In history lessons the Orthodox Church’s opposition to the Revolution will be emphasized. In chemistry an experiment to prove the components of bread will evoke a gibe at the doctrine of the Eucharist. In biology and natural science “the churchmen’s myths about the divine creation of man and everything living on earth are exposed.” A lesson on astronomy refers to Galileo’s persecution by the Inquisition. An introduction to the marvels of flight and space exploration will produce the comment, “Religion first forbade any thought that man could fly.” This curious statement is based on a story of the father of the Wright brothers, a Presbyterian minister, who is said to have remarked in 1875 (when they were small boys) that the idea of flying was blasphemous! If the views of such an obscure individual may topple God from his throne, there is no reason why he should not be put back again by reflection that Leonardo da Vinci not only painted the sublime “Last Supper” but designed a flying machine.
The force lies not in such childish points but in the all-pervasive environment of school, the assumption of a materialistic universe and of the absurdity of religious belief. Unless acquainted with a Christian home, Soviet schoolchildren never attend divine service, or read or hear about God except in a negative sense. It is taken for granted and drummed into them that the educated, cultured, progressive person has no religion, which is for the elderly and uncultured.
Toward A Systematic Atheism
That is not enough. In April, 1963, the Minister of Education wrote that “we do not want our boys and girls to grow up merely ignorant of religious questions. We want them to become convinced, militant atheists.” Science and Religion complained in December, 1963, that: “In the overwhelming majority of cases the theoretical store of the seventeen-year-old is confined to the completely just but unsubstantiated statement: ‘God does not exist.’ ” In 1962 a special course in “The Fundamental Bases of Scientific Atheism” was introduced to higher educational institutes. It is optional in the R.S.F.S.R. (Soviet Russia proper), compulsory in the Ukraine and Lithuania. The students regarded it “as a tenth-rate subject and have a poor attendance at lectures.” Yet the course is vital, Komsomolskaya Pravda has urged, because of “the very interesting character of religious preaching in the churches.” Early in 1964 the Party announced that chairs of scientific atheism were to be established in certain universities and pedagogical institutes.
The majority of schoolchildren, from homes where religion has been dead a generation, swallow the atheist attitude, slogans and all, as is shown in a delightful letter from a seventeen-year-old boy received by the Far East Broadcasting Company in June, 1963: “Hello! I am a high school student (11th grade). I openly denounce you on behalf of Soviet Youth. Your hysterical pronouncements about god are useless. Would you not be better off, if you were to stop them? They do not bring the desired results anyway. Your priests are rotten with dishonesty. What can you say, you, the weak descendants of the bourgeoisie? If you have the rebuttal, you can forward it to the following address.…”
A growing minority of Soviet youth, however, come from believing homes, and thus from the day they first hear anti-religious fairy tales at primary school are subjected to tension: at home taught to pray at mother’s knee, at school taught no God exists; at home learning that all things bright and beautiful are given by a loving Creator, at school laughingly told Christ is mythical and religion an evil deception. Parents have the legal right to instruct their children in religion at home, and a large number of teachers are genuinely careful neither to interfere with this parental freedom nor to “insult the feelings of believers,” especially in families of priests and pastors.
The Moral Cripples
But the official attitude deplores such sensitivity. “Imagine what happens,” said a Moscow broadcaster in July, 1963, “in those cases where the school and family act on the child from different ideological and spiritual points of view.” Broadcasts and articles continually attack the “harm done to young children by religious instruction at home.” The Party line knows nothing of a little child’s wondering trust in a heavenly Father, a child’s instinct of adoration; to a Communist, a small boy or girl will be religious only by parental pressure or brute force. A religious child must by definition be unhappy, repressed, retarded, “a moral cripple”—the phrase comes again and again. “It is incumbent on the school to fight so that the children of religious parents shall not grow up into moral cripples but into real builders of Communism and fully developed people.”
A Western reader may be confused by this talk of “moral cripples” and “outraged human dignity.” He can understand a Soviet schoolmaster’s dismissing religious parents as unenlightened, backward, or deceived, but why immoral?
To Communists this is the crux of the matter. They maintain that a child is a moral cripple unless he is growing up to be a “new Communist man,” self-sufficient, proud, scornful of meekness, head held high in the manner of W. E. Henley’s “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” and Swinburne’s “Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things.” Because the Christian kneels he must be a miserable creature; because he owns a Master he must be a cringing slave: “A pickpocket takes a man’s money or his watch, a bandit inflicts a mortal wound, a burglar steals all the valuables in a house. But the ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ distort a man’s very mind, steal everything from him, deflect him from happiness in life to dreams of bliss after death and kill his pride and his confidence in his own powers.” The Communist is a stranger to the spiritual secret learned by Paul and countless Christians since, “When 1 am weak, then am I strong,” to the truth expressed in the old hymn:
Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall he free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conq’ror be.
The Communist tries to stifle the deep-rooted human instinct that Augustine expressed: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” and bends his energies to produce “Communist man.”
In this the Party youth organizations play the primary role, from the day the child becomes, at the age of eight, a Little Octobrist and goes on to be a Pioneer wearing the red three-pointed scarf. Membership is not, in theory, compulsory, though there are increasing instances where a child has been enrolled against the parents’ wish or its own. A child who is not a Pioneer will miss much of the fun of camps, games, and social activities, and be damaged in school career. Membership of the Komsomol (for youths aged fourteen to twenty-six) is, on the other hand, more selective.
Many evangelical parents permit their children to become Little Octobrists and Pioneers, conscious that isolation may be more hurtful than indoctrination. There must be cases of children forbidden the Pioneers who grow up to be Party members and atheists, just as there are many Pioneers who reach manhood or womanhood strong Christians.
Wherever school and Party organizations take their task seriously, the small child is pressed into the accepted mold. “Twenty children in sectarian bondage—that was a blot on the school. A fight for each one began,” tells a village headmaster from the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic. Each of the different teachers concentrated on two, “and thus every little ‘pray-baby’ got his good guide—a teacher whose task it was to drag him out of the sectarian bog into which the children, thanks to their parents, had already put a foot.”
Where a Christian couple are determined to prevent atheist indoctrination, and teachers or Party equally determined the other way, stronger measures are used: the parents can be deprived of parental rights and the children sent to be brought up in a State home or in an “Internat,” one of the new experimental boarding schools. Deprivation of parental rights is becoming lamentably frequent. Or custody can be given to another member of the family.
Christians And The Komsomol
Open advocacy of Christ is extraordinarily hard for a Soviet adolescent. Membership in the Komsomol (Young Communist League) is an almost essential requirement for the making of a successful career, even in sport: few if any of the Soviet athletes at the Olympic Games of 1964 would not be members. And atheism is built into its constitutions. Plenty of Komsomols are violent atheists; the majority will at least be careful to parade the appropriate sentiments and slogans.
The whole dilemma of Christian and Komsomol was mirrored in a peculiarly painful way by a letter that Komsomolskaya Pravda printed on December 20, 1963, because the writer seemed to be a possible convert to atheism.
He was a twenty-two-year-old Moldavian, who wrote that his parents were evangelical Christians. “From my earliest years they taught me to pray to God and to love my neighbor as myself. When I went to school, nobody hindered me from learning. On the contrary, my father helped me and punished me for carelessness.” When a senior, the boy read books and went to the cinema. “My father did not forbid me to do this either and always only warned me that I should conduct myself decently. At school I was very interested in astronomy and chemistry.”
He did not join the Komsomol, “because I knew that there was no place for me there; you see I believe in God and go to meetings of believers and everyone in our village knew this very well.” When he was called up he did excellently in the army because he did not smoke, drink, or swear (“I am not boasting, but I am telling the truth”). Officers and fellow soldiers respected him.
In the army he naturally had joined the Komsomol, and it had since meant much to him. What was he then to do? “I have still got a grain of faith in God.” He could not bear to leave the Komsomol; yet to deny God and turn atheist would be to betray his mother’s deathbed wish and “my conscience will torture me all my life.”
He asked the newspaper for advice. But he did not give his name, because if his Komsomol comrades heard of his doubts “every type of explanatory work will begin.” He knew what “individual work with believers” could be like.
Expelled For ‘No Offense’
There is no reasonable doubt from evidence which trickles out that Christian youth are discriminated against in the allotment of coveted places in institutes and universities, although an outstanding brain would almost certainly be accepted; his political education would be intensified. Science and Religion also admits cases, claiming them isolated, “when on various pretexts but essentially for the same reason, students in senior classes who have committed no offense and have been making entirely satisfactory progress, have been expelled from their higher educational establishments.”
In the summer of 1963 a girl at the Moscow Engineering and Economics Institute was ostracized and later expelled because she was a believer. And the “twenty-three-year-old son of the regent of the Baptist community” of Frunze in Central Asia, a footwear worker, had a rough time at the technical evening institute when students and teachers decided to help him out of his darkness. They bombarded him with questions, made him see an anti-God film, told him to read atheist Bible commentaries and parodies. He had been an able, regular student until this persecution, which not unnaturally induced a reluctance to attend classes and an increase of time spent teaching the Baptist youth group, which met in private houses. After an evening at the institute at which he suffered particularly unwelcome attentions he resigned. And was miserable. He wanted technical education, wanted to do well. Swallowing his pride, he sought to withdraw his resignation. The director told him it was for his works collective to decide. A meeting was called which “became a real atheistic tribune.” They grilled him for five hours, but Aleksandr would not apostatize. Like Luther his attitude was, “Here stand. I can do no other.” The collective refused to recommend his reacceptance.
More young men and women are dismissed from institutes because they are believers, or find entry closed, than Science and Religion cares to admit. Among Soviet youth, as in other sectors of the nation, the Christian faith not only refuses to die; it is virile.
J. C. Pollock, an Anglican clergyman, is a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge University (M.A.), and of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and is known for his writing. Among his books are “A Cambridge Movement” (a history of Inter-Varsity Fellowship) and biographies of Hudson Taylor and Dwight L. Moody. This essay is a condensation of Chapters XV and XVI of his forthcoming book, “Russian Evangelicals,” to be published by McGraw-Hill (copyright © 1964 by J. C. Pollock).
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