Religion in the Soviet Union: What Culture’s Literature Can Explain about its Society. Part 3 of 3

The Soviet Union was not a nation that cared too much for dissenters of its engineered state philosophy of communism. In fact, when Boris Pasternak attempted to get his book Doctor Zhivago published by Novy Mir they rejected the title claiming that the “author’s point of view was incompatible with the spirit of the revolution and the Marxist ideology that was the theoretical foundation of the state.”[1] Pasternak was not surprised by the rejection and even expected some sort of retaliation from the Soviet authorities; however, in 1957 he was able to get his book published in Italian.[2] The book is filled with many characteristics that would be highly critical of the Soviet way of life; several passages on the subject of religion will be outlined to illustrate why the Soviet authorities would have rejected such a book. 

 The book is filled with religious imagery or insinuations of religion, resurrection, or rebirth. The Soviet philosophy created by the Bolsheviks to progress Russia forward with Prometheanism sought to modernize Russia away from what they saw as superstition and myth, and instead promote scientific empiricism.[3] (Sound familiar?) After the Russian Civil War, as described in A History of Russia,  “The government ordered the seizure of all Church valuables, temporarily imprisoned Patriarch Tikhon.”[4]

The Soviet philosophy would have been threatened by any objection to their approved philosophy of atheism, which is why when Pasternak wrote about Yuri Andreevich relying on intuition rather than empiricism in Part Four chapter five of Dr. Zhivago. in a scene that would be seen as nothing out of the ordinary to most people today in the western world, it would be viewed as a direct assault on Soviet principles. Pasternak writes, “Yuri Andreevich turned his back to the window and yawned from fatigue. He had nothing to think about. Suddenly he remembered. In the surgical section of the Krestovozdvizhensky Hospital, where he worked, a woman patient had died a couple of days ago. Yuri Andreevich had insisted she had Echinococcus of the liver. Everyone disagreed with him…The autopsy would reveal the truth.”[5] The text would appear harmless to any who never had lived in such an environment; however, what it reveals is a dangerous knowledge or truth that exists outside of empirical evidence and the Soviet philosophy. The text is a direct affront to the Soviet way of life. 

Pasternak goes on to criticize the modern secular utopia that the Soviet Union is attempting to create and its failure to do so in Part Six chapter nine writing, “Winter came, precisely as had been predicted. It was not yet as scary as the two that followed it, but was already of their kind, dark, hungry, and cold, all a breaking up of the habitual and a rebuilding of the foundations of existence, all an inhuman effort to hold on to life as it slipped away.”[6] Of course, Pasternak is creating a commentary on the false Soviet principles of creating a temporal utopia because of its fleeting nature. He indicates this later on in Part Six chapter fifteen writing, “Hell, and decay, and decomposition, and death are glad to take up, and yet, together with them, spring, and Mary Magdalene, and life are also glad to take up. And—have to wake up. He has to wake up and rise. He has to resurrect.”[7] The reason why Pasternak focuses on the imagery of Mary Magdalene and resurrection is its critique of the Soviet way of life. Mary Magdalene was the first to witness of the resurrected  Christ, “15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo′ni!”[8]Early in Dr. Zhivago Pasternak creates a scene of Yuri riding a train, as Yuri looks out the window he sees the Cathedral of Christ the Savior appearing in the distance as he is arriving to Moscow. Pasternak’s image of focusing on a building that was destroyed by the Soviets December 5th, 1931 would have disturbed many within the party who wished to promote Soviet philosophy among the citizenry.[9] 

However, it appears that Pasternak, focusing on religion and resurrection as a theme in Dr. Zhivago, had been seeing the foundations of a movement that would occur from the 1960s to 1980s interested in the former Cathedral.[10] It appears that Pasternak hoped that everyone—like Mary Magdalene—would witness the resurrection of faith in Soviet Russia. The Soviets were not interested in the spread of such hope as it could not be tolerated by the state, not even in fiction, to their engineered philosophy

Please Read part 1 and part 2 


[1] Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), viii. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg, A History of Russia, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 614.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Pasternak, 91. 

[6] Ibid, 173. 

[7] Ibid, 184.

[8] John 20:11-16 RSV

[9] Konstantin Akinsha, Sylvia  Hochfield, and Grigorij Kozlov The Holy Place: Architecture, Ideology, and History in Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 124.

[10] Ibid, 145. 

7 thoughts on “Religion in the Soviet Union: What Culture’s Literature Can Explain about its Society. Part 3 of 3

  1. Nicholas

    I have always loved David Lean’s film adaptation of Dr Zhivago, which I saw at an early age. As I grew to understand more about Russian history, notwithstanding my Russian friend’s distaste for the film, it came to be a source of reflection about social justice, etc as I rewatched it in later life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s a rather interesting film from 1984 called something by nature of “Repentance” (that may be wrong). It’s sort of an odd film. I remember much of plot centered around the digging up of a buried body. The body was a man who was totalitiarian and the argument was made that the body did not deserve burial.

      An interesting point that even burial practices are fundamentally religious.

      The last part of the film has an old woman ask if the road she was walking led to the church. She was told there was no Church in the town. The old woman replied, “What good is a road that does not lead to a Church.”

      It’s a shame that the experiences of the religious in Soviet Union is all but avoided in mainstream history in schools, but then again, why would secular nations want to make such things known?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Nicholas

        Indeed – and that is because they want to kill the nation state, which has been enabled by extreme nationalism and extreme anti-nationalism in the Church itself. Killing identity is what is going on everywhere at the moment – and that is what the Soviets tried to do in Russia – to kill the old Russia to bring in the new. It would be interesting to compare the Soviet process with the process of westernisation/modernisation in Meiji-era Japan.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interestingly, from what a friend of mine (British expat happily living in Siberia) tells me that the Russians are far more Christian than even Americans, let alone Europeans, and (small o) orthodox as well. It would seem that Christianity still thrives under adversity, just as it always has.

    Of course, there are signs to that conclusion all over eastern Europe as well.

    Liked by 2 people

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