When the Bolsheviks set out to build a new world in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they expected religion to die off. Soviet power used a variety of tools--from education to propaganda to terror—to turn its vision of a Communist world without religion into reality. Yet even with its monopoly on ideology and power, the Soviet Communist Party never succeeded in overcoming religion and creating an atheist society.

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism presents the first history of Soviet atheism from the 1917 revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Drawing on a wealth of archival material and in-depth interviews with those who were on the front lines of Communist ideological campaigns, Victoria Smolkin argues that to understand the Soviet experiment, we must make sense of Soviet atheism. Smolkin shows how atheism was reimagined as an alternative cosmology with its own set of positive beliefs, practices, and spiritual commitments. Through its engagements with religion, the Soviet leadership realized that removing religion from the "sacred spaces" of Soviet life was not enough. Then, in the final years of the Soviet experiment, Mikhail Gorbachev—in a stunning and unexpected reversal—abandoned atheism and reintroduced religion into Soviet public life.

A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism explores the meaning of atheism for religious life, for Communist ideology, and for Soviet politics.


Chapter One: The Religious Front: Militant Atheism under Lenin and Stalin

Chapter Two: The Specter Haunting Soviet Communism: Antireligious Campaigns under Khrushchev

Chapter Three: Cosmic Enlightenment: Soviet Atheism as Science

Chapter Four: The Ticket to the Soviet Soul: Soviet Atheism as a Worldview

Chapter Five: "We Have to Figure Out Where We Lost People": Soviet Atheism and Social Science

Chapter Six: The Communist Party between State and Church: Soviet Atheism and Social Rituals

Chapter Seven: The Socialist Way of Life: Soviet Atheism and Spiritual Culture

Conclusion: Utopia's Orphan: Soviet Atheism and the Death of the Communist Project


Lively and often entertaining prose.---Catriona Kelly, Times Literary Supplement

"This splendid book skillfully reveals the changing nature of religion in the USSR, the limits of secularization under Communism, and the important place of spirituality in the twentieth century. Smolkin exposes the striking irony of how Soviet authorities found themselves trying to replicate the spiritual and emotional offerings of religion even as they sought to destroy it."―Paul W. Werth, author of The Tsar's Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia

"This is a very important book, highly innovative and superbly researched. Smolkin has written nothing less than a history of the making―and subsequent unmaking―of Soviet atheism. A must-read."―Denis Kozlov, author of The Readers of "Novyi Mir": Coming to Terms with the Stalinist Past

About the Author
Image of Victoria Smolkin
Victoria Smolkin

Victoria Smolkin is Associate Professor of Russian History at Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut). In 2014-2015, Smolkin was a Title VIII Research Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where she worked on this book. Read More