Glossy Communism: Polite Propaganda from the Eastern Bloc
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Though the Eyes of a Local Pinsk Priest: A Snapshot of Religion in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s
These are common attributes ascribed to the Soviet Union by the typical American: that it was the land of communism, nuclear sabre rattling, vodka, general poverty, and atheism. Indeed, many people during the Cold War believed that religion did not exist during the Soviet period. As we can see from this Soviet Life article, religion did exist in the Pinsk region, in what is now Belarus. In the article I examine here, Soviet life decided to interview a local priest, Archbishop Vladimir, giving insight to the religious life of the region in 1985. First, let’s explain what Soviet Life was.
Soviet Life Glossy Magazine
Soviet Life was a glossy 64-page illustrated magazine created by the Russian (Soviet) Information Services in 1956 as a form of light propaganda during the Cold War years, highlighting aspects of Russian life, culture, and style curated for the Western reader. In essence, the Soviet Government wanted to paint a happier picture to its western readership, hoping that they come to know the county through a different perspective. The magazine ceased to exist on December 1991 after the recently crumbled Soviet Union ran out of the money to fund it.
Geography of Article
The article in Soviet Life takes place in Pinsk, once the far western border of the Soviet Union. This area has always been historically disputed between other nation-states. In fact, in the interview, Archbishop Vladimir notes that Poland had even seceded the area in 1921 to the USSR! It is now in the southwest region of Belarus, just north of Ukraine and east of Poland.
The Interview- Archbishop Vladimir Kotar and His Flock
The article states that, Vladimir Kotar, in his role an Archbishop, manages 30 Russian Orthodox churches, with St. Barbara’s Church in Pinsk as his seat. He gladly acknowledges that the faithful come to the church, even with the "religion" of the Soviet state ever present in their lives. In the interview, Archbishop Kotar states that despite the technical institute with a large student body near the church, not many young people come to the services. This is most likely because, as products of a Soviet system, they have grown up with very little religious presence in their lives.
Although not as widespread in the west, one of the most popular feast days in Russian Orthodoxy is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This feast takes place in August, which coincidentally coincides with the harvest holidays of the peasantry. During stricter times in the Soviet Union, a former religious holidays usually had a correlating secular name. However, as Soviet Life depicts in the interview, the Archbishop says that he has full attendance on feast days. Thus, the article most likely wants to portray to the Western/American audience that the Soviet people are free to practice religion more openly.
Settling a Dispute- The Role of the USSR Council of Religious Affairs
In the interview, the article describes a quarrel of a religious nature that was brought to the local Soviet of People’s Deputies. A western reader with the preconception of a full ban on religious practices, much less disputes, would think that the situation would escalate towards a church closure. However, the article states that this was not the case. The people in a rural area in the diocese put in a complaint for an unruly priest by the name of Father Nikolai, accusing him of arbitrarily rescheduling mass times for his own benefit. The local Soviet surprisingly proclaimed to the people that they had no authority over the Church and said they had to deal with the USSR Council of Religious Affairs.
Historically, this Council of Religious Affairs was not intended for the mediation of religious quarrels, but rather for the harassment of believers and closure of a place of worship. Surprisingly in the interview, the article insists that the Council had helped mediate the problem and brought the situation to the Archbishop’s attention, rather than just close up the church. As we can see, this article was published during the decline of the Soviet Union, so one can conclude the ideological control of religion had loosened by this time. Although Father Nikolai did not bring this to the attention of his superior, the article relays that the Council was rather eager to work with the quarreling parties to solve the dispute. After some review of the dispute, a decision was made. They came to the conclusion that their fighting was baseless and that it's better to avoid creating friction in the future.
The western reader could see that Soviet Life magazine was a medium for softening preconceived views of Soviet ideals, culture, and institutions. We can only speculate wether this had any real effect on the people at the time. The magazine did try to humanize the Soviet Government and its population through articles of uplifting stories, high achievements, cultural heritage, religion, and any topic they could use to relate to the wester reader. The issue of religious dispute highlights that during its last decade, Soviet Union was more lenient in dealing with religion, thus signifying the "thaw" on state ideological enforcement on the ban of religion.
Savrasova, Svetlana. “Meet Archbishop Vladimir.” Soviet Life , July 1985, pp. 40–41.
Christopher Wren - https://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/01/archives/soviet-subdues-religion-but- zeal-for-atheism-lags.html