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April 24, 2020

When the Soviets (Successfully) Blamed Orthodox Christian Icons for an Epidemic of Syphilis

By Daniel Peris

Icons played a uniquely important and personal role in the lives of the Russian Orthodox; they were present in the home of each believer and occupied a special corner of the peasant hut. Not surprisingly, they were the target of extensive antireligious propaganda. The specific charges made against icons varied over time. In 1924 Bezbozhnik claimed that an epidemic of syphilis in the countryside was being spread through the practice of kissing icons. Five years later, during collectivization, grain caches were claimed to have been found under icons. The resolution of the icon problem was straightforward: icons should be removed and destroyed. Early in the 1920s, the antireligious media reported that the population was turning away from icons. Bezbozhnik u stanka printed a pledge signed by thirty-eight workers at the Krasnaia Zvezda factory in Moscow, vowing that none had an icon and none practiced "icon worship." The consequences of disposing of icons were potentially miraculous. Bezbozhnik reported that after the Novyi Put' (New Path) commune in Nizhnyi Novgorod Province threw out its icons in 1925, the commune began to prosper: "Without God our affairs are much better. We obtained two tractors, a sophisticated thresher, and all the necessary equipment for working the land...." Later in the decade, more pointed activism was deemed necessary. In both Iaroslavl' and Pskov, the local League councils held campaigns to collect icons from apartments and workers' dormitories. The regime's success in removing icons from urban public places seems not to have been repeated in private apartments or in the countryside generally. The League's own propaganda provides indirect evidence of the continuing widespread presence of icons well into the 1930s.

The issue for the atheistic culture builders was not just the removal of icons, but their replacement. Whether reflecting a conscious strategy of substitution or perhaps simply adopting extant spatial associations in Russian culture, the Bolsheviks urged that icon corners be replaced with Godless or Lenin corners. Godless corners featured photos, small exhibits, brochures, and a wall newspaper. The Lenin corner usually included an array of pictures of Lenin at various stages of his life. In overall appearance the Godless corner was not markedly different from the icon corner it replaced, suggesting that the regime was harnessing traditional Russian attitudes rather than fundamentally altering them. The absolute and transcendental qualities attributed to Lenin in Soviet propaganda could easily have applied to a prophet or deity. On the third anniversary of Lenin's death, Bezbozhnik printed the image of a thousand-foot-tall Lenin standing above the Kremlin in an iconesque pose, as lines of workers marched toward him with placards proclaiming revolution - an image that resembled popular religious processions with icons. Lenin's writings became the Holy Scriptures for the new regime. While Lenin was still alive, the regime had sought to undermine belief by "disproving" the popular notion that saint's bodies did not decompose. Ironically, after Lenin's death, his embalmed body became a shrine on Red Square.

From Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, pp. 85-86.