ghosts of the cold war
Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the myth of communism leading to atheism persists.
The Cold War, like all major geopolitical events, is mired in persistent misconceptions, cultural interpretations and spin from everyone involved. In America, two myths generated during the Red Scares still play critical parts in the nation’s culture. One of them defines the economy and economic policy. The other, drives debates on public religion and the role it plays in American laws, politics and society. Both are caused by major misrepresentations of what was going on with the other global superpower, the USSR.
According to American conservatives, the collapse of the USSR shows that communism and its other incarnations like socialism (which is really not a form of communism but its own animal), simply can’t work. However, in reality, the USSR was a totalitarian state which used people as a pliant workforce to fulfill the lofty ambitions of its leaders. The birth of the Soviet Union under the slogans of workers’ rights and the rise and glory of the proletariat masked what was really happening. A small group of people were taking advantage of an ailing country and stealing all its riches for themselves. It was theft on a scale that was never seen before and is very unlikely to be seen again.
After pillaging the nation for all it was worth, the dictators in power needed to keep it together and for that, they continued to hide behind a seemingly utopian philosophy. Exploited workers who were now property of the government, were indoctrinated that they in fact were liberated and their work was for the greater good, not just their own gain. It was a way to justify robbery and oppression. Aspiring American communists moved by speeches about the plight of many of the industrial world’s workers who decided to move to Soviet Russia to help with the spread of what they thought was a utopian ideology, were met like spies; tortured, enslaved in Siberian death camps, murdered and followed by KGB agents for decades.
But of course, the Soviet empire wouldn’t publicly admit that people were being systematically killed and oppressed. They needed to spread their power and influence around the world and a happy face of progress and utopian ideals had to go hand in hand with the hammer and sickle of the flag. The myth that the USSR actually embraced and practiced communism was born and was reinforced by Soviet diplomats (many of who grew up believing this fairy tale themselves) for some sixty years.
The second great myth was that the Soviet Union and all of communism itself was atheistic at its core, that it denied theism and higher codes of morality, replacing them with humanism in the same style the nascent New World Order conspiracies of the late 1700s warned. This is why references to God on money and in the pledge of allegiance were added in the 1950s thanks to the sermons of a single pastor who preached that America had to demonstrate that it’s totally different from those godless reds and their ilk and declare that God was on their side. Today, his sermons are still alive and well with religious activists that want Christianity declared as the state religion of the United States, even though the Constitution expressly forbids it.
However, when it comes to communism and atheism, the link is an artificially constructed one, having more to do with Soviet policies of oppression and personal interpretations being made on the other side of the world. Few Americans have read The Communist Manifesto, imagining it as a tome tainted with a pure evil, something like the Necronomicon. Much like the infamous book of the mad Arab, The Communist Manifesto has been misrepresented as some expansive volume filled with all sorts of bizarre things. Actually, the whole thing takes about half an hour to read and it says nothing about religion. It’s a rant against robber barons of the 19th century who not only treated their employees like slaves, but ascribed to odd forms of pseudoscience which said that they were biologically superior to the people who worked for them.
The Communist Manifesto is a product of Marx and Engels sitting down in an Amsterdam cafe and hammering out a rant about what they saw as grievous abuses against average people. In their time, it was the norm to make factory workers spend 70 hours a week in conditions that outrage us today and get companies like Nike and Adidas in hot water. For an afternoon, they wondered about a utopian world and how the workers could get more rights and more powers, breaking free from what was really indentured servitude to old money and blue bloods. Isn’t it ironic that Soviet leaders would later use their short rant about peace, harmony and fair pay for long hours at work as a tool for the very things The Manifesto decries?
Of course The Communist Manifesto would never work in our world. Humans are not kind and fair enough to each other for their utopian ideals to become reality. We also need competition and drive to do our best work and show off our talents, something totally ignored by both Marx and Engels. And most importantly, The Manifesto doesn’t care about religion. The decree that religion is the opiate for the masses came from the Soviet leadership which, in a time honored tradition of all dictators, tried to tear down and undermine all alternative sources of authority. The Orthodox Church wielded enormous power in Russia for at least a thousand years. There was no way the Politburo could allow clergymen to have the opportunity to start debates about their rule or provide a power base for competitors. Atheism in Russia and China aren’t signs of communism’s disdain for God. Communism is a socio-economic idea. No, forced atheism is a child of the dictators’ paranoia.
Having lived in the Soviet Union, I can tell you that the people you would meet on the street tend to invoke God almost as often as an average American. The Orthodox Church is as powerful as ever and regained its followers as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. People weren’t raised as atheists. They were given a healthy dose of religion at home and when the Church was open for business again, the faithful flocked to worship. The difference between the “godless commies” and the godly Americans existed only on paper and in the minds of cultural pundits who didn’t bother to look into what was really happening because they grew up believing the spin without question or because they had an agenda.
It’s now been close to eighteen years since the slow implosion of the USSR came to a climax. I still remember trying to figure out how the country in which I was born was suddenly gone. In my kiddy brain, something just didn’t add up. My books, toys and bed were all still here but the whole country was gone. Where was I then? Now that I’m older and hopefully just a little wiser, I sit across the ocean from where I was born and wonder when the misconceptions born of fear, panic and ambitions will finally settle down and the record about the Soviet economic system and the link between the impractical utopian ideals proposed by The Communist Manifesto and religion, will finally be cleared up in American culture.