Religion in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was established by the Bolsheviks in 1922, in place of the Russian Empire. At the time of the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church was deeply integrated into the autocratic state, enjoying official status. This was a significant factor that contributed to the Bolshevik attitude to religion and the steps they took to control it.[1] Thus the USSR became the first state to have as one objective of its official ideology the elimination of existing religion, and the prevention of future implanting of religious belief, with the goal of establishing state atheism (gosateizm).[2][3][4][5]

Under the doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union, there was a "government-sponsored program of conversion to atheism" conducted by Communists.[6][7][8] The Communist government targeted religions based on State interests, and while most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools.[2] In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution.[9] Accordingly, personal expressions of religious faith were not in any way privately banned, but a strong sense of social stigma was imposed on them by the official government structures and secular mass media, and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain government professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious and anti-secular.

The vast majority of people in the Russian Empire were, at the time of the revolution, religious believers, whereas the communists aimed to break the power of all religious institutions and eventually replace religious belief with atheism. "Science" was counterposed to "religious superstition" in the media and in academic writing. The main religions of pre-revolutionary Russia persisted throughout the entire Soviet period, but they were only tolerated within certain limits. Generally, this meant that believers were free to worship in private and in their respective religious buildings (churches, mosques, synagogues etc.), but public displays of religion outside of such designations were prohibited. In addition, religious institutions were not allowed to express their views in any type of mass media, and many religious buildings were demolished or used for other purposes. In the long run, state atheism failed to convert many people. Religion strengthened underground and was revived to help fight the Second World War. It flourished after the fall of Communism. As Paul Froese explains:

Atheists waged a 70-year war on religious belief in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party destroyed churches, mosques, and temples; it executed religious leaders; it flooded the schools and media with anti-religious propaganda; and it introduced a belief system called “scientific atheism,” complete with atheist rituals, proselytizers, and a promise of worldly salvation. But in the end, a majority of older Soviet citizens retained their religious beliefs and a crop of citizens too young to have experienced pre-Soviet times acquired religious beliefs.[10]

Christians belonged to various denominations: Orthodox (which had the largest number of followers), Catholic, Baptist and various other Protestant denominations. The majority of the Muslims in the Soviet Union were Sunni, with the notable exception of Azerbaijan, which was majority Shia. Judaism also had many followers. Other religions, practiced by a small number of believers, included Buddhism and Shamanism.