Soviet Dissidents and Religion: Between Human Rights and National Roots

Stanislav Panin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Moscow State University and is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Rice University.

In the Soviet Union, religious or religiously argued ideas often helped people make sense of current events. When looking through the bulletin Materialy Samizdata, a collection of Soviet dissident texts maintained by Radio Liberty since 1968, one can find multiple examples to illustrate this. These texts tell a story of how people turned to religion to preserve their inner autonomy, find hope, and think about the future. They can also aid understanding of the social changes in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Religion of Stalinism

One example is “There Will Be No Second Coming” (1979), written by an anonymous author, which discusses the legacy of Stalinism in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The author identifies Stalin’s purges as the turning point in Soviet history. Through the repression of opponents, Stalin established a new “monoideology” that combined collectivism with the primacy of the state. In it, individual persons were subordinated to the state, and their lives were entirely dedicated to its goals. Reverence to the state, in the author’s view, constituted the core of Stalinist ideology. Without alternatives, religious or secular, Stalinism assumed the functions of religion:

Monoideology fills the spiritual vacuum of the irreligious mind; under the information terror of propaganda, without a choice between ideological alternatives, [and] paralyzed by the fear of physical terror, people happily accepted faith in the idol of Stalinism. This faith appeared to them as the highest truth, as the panacea for repressions [and] for the need to look for their own creed. It created Homo totalitarius [sic]—a being led by the principles that are implanted in it from the outside. . . .

This ideology saw the ruler as the representation of the state and, in effect, a living deity. This belief was also its main weakness. Stalinist ideology relied on mass terror, but it was cemented by the figure of an authoritarian leader. With the death of Stalin and the inevitable decline of repressions—after all, no society could maintain the same level of terror for a long period—people lost their faith in Stalinism and focused on their private lives. As the author puts it,

[T]he victim who was silent and obedient does not want to live as a victim anymore. She does not want to work at a dirty collective farm, and she is no more satisfied by the minimum wage at a factory; she listens to [Western] radio voices but does not buy the Pravda newspaper; she reads Brezhnev only when she has to, but she is happy to read and even to reprint a Samizdat manuscript. Communism is dead in the mass mind. . . . What kind of idealist motivations could exist in Russia in the 1970s?! Personal comfort and salary are no ideals.

While recognizing the ongoing popularity of Stalin, the author is hopeful about new developments, especially the emergence of “humanistic” and “nonconformist” culture opposed to Soviet reality. For the author, the major symptom of the shift in values is the growing importance of personal autonomy and human rights, concepts that represent direct opposition to the Stalinist omnipotent state. The author believes it is because of this inversion that there will be no second coming of Joseph Stalin.

Late-Soviet Turn to Nationalism

Viktor Vardomtsev, the author of another text from the same Materialy Samizdata collection, agreed that communist ideology had lost its appeal by the 1970s but interpreted the trend differently. Vardomtsev’s article was written in March 1981 and discussed the story of an arrested Orthodox priest, Dmitry Dudko (1922–2004). Several months before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he was arrested by the KGB for sermons and publications critical of the Soviet regime; later the same year, he publicly renounced his anti-Soviet views. As a result, he was freed from prison and eventually reinstated as a priest.

The central question of Vardomtsev’s article was how Christians should interpret Dudko’s change of attitude. To answer the question, Vardomtsev began by recognizing the decrease of popularity of communism in Soviet society. However, unlike the author of “There Will Be No Second Coming,” he did not refer to Stalinism. What lost its appeal was the original communist ideal of the stateless, classless society. In response, the late Soviet ideology adapted by developing new approaches, particularly emphasizing the glory of the state and the nation in a mixture of “etatism” and “chauvinism” that had wider appeal and allowed every member of society imaginary participation in its collective achievements.

Writing from an Orthodox Christian perspective, Vardomtsev was sympathetic to this change. Seeing communism as inherently anti-Christian if not straightforwardly Satanic, Vardomtsev believed that the turn to nationalist ideology was an opportunity for the Russian Orthodox Church to reclaim its rightful place in Russian society.

Communist-socialist ideals by their nature are either entirely unreal or imaginary. National-socialist ideals, on the other hand, are real but hyperbolized values. . . . [Dudko calls us] to oppose chauvinism but understand that the revival of Russia is possible only on the basis of its national distinctiveness—to reject the state as the ultimate value but try to see and support positive historical functions of any government.

Consequently, Vardomtsev saw the future of Russia in the unification of Christians and atheists based on shared national values. The Russian Orthodox Church should, according to Vardomtsev, assume the guiding role in this unification and reimagine Russia as a religious society. From that standpoint, collaboration with the atheist government is necessary for Christians. Even if its benefits are not immediately clear, government’s desire “to rewrite Russian history in a chauvinistic manner” will eventually uncover the Christian nature of Russian culture, allowing the transformation of Russia into a Christian society.

. . . and the Future of Russia

These texts show the diversity of interpretations of the present and future of Russia in Soviet dissident literature. It is easy to see their two distinct narratives. Both relied on Christian imagination and interpreted Soviet reality in a somewhat religious manner, yet they provided radically different visions of the future.

The first saw the ultimate conflict of the Soviet culture as the conflict of individuals with the oppressive state. Consequently, the hope was that state-centered ideology would eventually collapse and individuals would assert their freedom based on the idea of human rights. The second narrative focused on the conflict between religion and atheism. While critical of the Soviet reality, it was not necessarily critical of authoritarian practices per se. Rather, it emphasized the importance of Russia’s national uniqueness, understood as rooted in Orthodox Christianity.

Of these two narratives, the second has prevailed in post-Soviet Russia. Dmitry Dudko, whom Vardomtsev defended as a paragon of true Christianity, eventually became a convinced Stalinist and by the 1990s was associated with nationalist writer Aleksandr Prokhanov. According to his obituary in The New York Times,

Father Dudko said, “The time has come to rehabilitate Stalin,” praised him for his asceticism and forging of a powerful state, and added, “I even pray for the repose of his soul.” He condemned Russia’s democratic reformers as well as Western capitalists for worshiping mammon and driving the Russian people into poverty.

Paradoxically, the same forces that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union became in post-Soviet Russia the fertile ground for ressentiment and dreams of the restoration of the Soviet borders. With nationalism embraced as an alternative to communism, these ideas served as a justification for persecution of religious minorities, anti-LGBT legislation, and political and military interventions in neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Looking at how these narratives emerged helps us make sense of how these seemingly unrelated topics became parts of the same narrative in contemporary Russia.


  1. There Will Be No Second Coming (Vtorogo prishestvija ne budet), Materialy Samizdata 26/81, AC 4359.
  2. Viktor Vardomtsev, Is Repentance and Self-Restraint Possible Without Forgiveness? (Vozmozhno li raskajanije i samoogranichenije bez proshchenija?), Materialy Samizdata 26/81, AC 4362.