IWP student discusses Soviet anti-religious activism and propaganda

by Ashley Catania and Liam Rae  |  October 4, 2018  |  PAST EVENTS

Helen Lamm is a current graduate student of The Institute of World Politics with an academic focus on the politics of post-Communism. On September 27th, 2018, she delivered a presentation entitled "The League of the Militant Godless" to her fellow students and other guests at the Institute. Her lecture covered the Soviet anti-religious activism and propaganda present during the Cold War era.

During her lecture, Ms. Lamm provided the audience with a background of Marxism and Marx's sources of inspiration. She defined the Hegelian dialect and how Marx modified the term to fit into his conception of the ideal society. She spoke of how Marx underscored the importance of scientific materialism versus religion and family. He was a fierce opponent of religion and wanted to abolish its existence.

Helen then discussed the origin of the League of the Militant Godless. After the violent and bloody civil war on the Russian Orthodox Church, the League's founders believed that they needed to create an organization with the purpose of maintaining the feeling of emptiness people held following the civil war and the waning power of religion.

Ms. Lamm then examined the League itself, a Soviet-era atheistic and antireligious organization comprised of workers and intellectuals who believed that religion served as a mere source of comfort to its adherents. Lamm argued that the word "militant" in the League's title is misleading because most of its activities, such as spreading propaganda that disfavored religion, performed a bureaucratic function. The League's founder understood that religion is very complex. The best way to combat it was not by violence, but by subversion and re-education, even though violence had already been committed. The new tactic was to gain followers and create propaganda in favor of the League whilst mocking various religions.

Yet the League of the Militant Godless was rather ineffective in its quest of gaining support. Any accounts of the League's success in its mission are misinformative. The League created administrative positions throughout the Soviet Union; however, Ms. Lamm noted that these positions ultimately composed an "ornamental bureaucratic organ of the Party." They served mainly as a reminder of the Communist Party's sprawling influence throughout the Soviet Union.

Lamm showed images created by the League which she categorized under three different themes: humor, gore, and imitation. These images all follow a similar formula that involves mocking a prominent religious figure, such as Mohammed or Jesus, while showing that Soviet ideology is capable of replacing the religions that these leaders represent. Lamm also examined Russian art, which did not serve explicitly as propaganda; however, artists depicted historical events through a lens of pseudo-objectivity: the artistic product was informed by a pro-Soviet understanding of history that the artists thought was true.

In conclusion, Helen argued that the destruction of culture leads to depravity upon which, in turn, the League of the Militant Godless relied to spread its message. According to Helen, if people in today's world fail to understand the hidden meanings in art, propaganda or not, they could become subject to its subtle implications.