Saturday, July 05, 2008

On Atheism and Stalinism

Ivan the Terrible: Pious Christian and Murderous Tyrant

One of the frequent counter-arguments employed by Christians against atheists who refer to the body counts racked up during the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Medieval pogroms against the Jews, to name a few examples, is to point out the millions of people who were killed by atheistic regimes such as Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Peoples' Republic of China.

To be fair, they do have a valid point. There are far greater forces for destruction in the world than religion, and the Soviet Union under Stalin is a perfect, if tragic, illustration of this fact. The truth is that it is not so much religion that is the problem as it is a matter of a totalitarian ideology that brooks no opposition or dissent, married to an overwhelming monopoly on force to carry out that ideology. That ideology can have either a religious or a secular basis.

But if one wants to hold up Stalin as a poster boy for the atrocities of atheism, one must also consider whether the blame should truly fall on atheism itself, or if instead if Stalin's atrocities were facilitated by a Russian culture that had historically been conditioned to obedience to absolutist dictators. In the case of Joseph Stalin, it is well known that the former seminarian was a great admirer of one of history's most notorious tyrants, Tsar Ivan the Fourth, better known as Ivan the Terrible.

One of my favorite books in my collection of books on history is Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible by Benson Bobrick. It is a well written work and I recommend it for anyone interested in Russian history. The book also is the source of the information about Ivan the Terrible below.

In response to domestic opposition to his policies in the 1560's, Ivan created his own personal force known as the Oprichnina. Bobrick writes that "The Oprichnina became a state-within-a-state. It was an instrument of Ivan's will which paralleled the traditional bureaucracy...with its own ministries, treasury, council and so forth - but which actually existed to implement (not check, balance or modify by legalities or counsel) Ivan's desires."

Here is how the Oprichniki are described on page 198 of the hardcover edition of the book:

To staff his new court and administration and (as was soon apparent) to enforce the expropriation of land, Ivan assembled a sort of Praetorian Guard. Weirdly foreshadowing Hitler's SS, these Oprichniki, as they were called, donned black uniforms, displayed enigmatic or morbid insignia, and regarded themselves as a new form of religious sect with their own rites and customs. Whereas the SS sported a death's-head badge and a runic double-S flash, the Oprichniki rode on black horses and carried at their saddlebow a dog's head and broom as symbols of their determination to guard, day and night, the safety of their master and to sweep away all his enemies. No social contacts between them and the rest of the population were tolerated. Anyone could long as he was willing to pledge himself to complete obedience to the tsar, and to faithfully execute all his orders. Their oath was almost a transcription of Matthew 10:37: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."

This force would be unleashed on Ivan's enemies, real and imagined. Bobrick quotes one eyewitness, who recalls that:

"It was a pitiful and sorrowful spectacle of slaughter and killings. Every day, ten, twenty or more Oprichniki concealing large axes under their cloaks, rode about the streets and alleys. Each detachment had its own list of boyars, dyaki, princes and leading merchants. No one knew what his own guilt or alleged wrongdoing was supposed to be. No one knew the hour of his own death or even the fact that he had been condemned. Everybody went about their affairs as if nothing was the matter. Suddenly a band of killers would descend."

To make matters worse, the courts were prohibited from "convicting Oprichniki of any crime!" As a consequence of this policy, criminal bands would go on rampages garbed as Oprichniki, taking advantage of the fact that no one could "distinguish between bandits and the tsar's own men."

And what was Tsar Ivan doing while all of this was going on? From page 224:

In a profane parody of monastic life, he assumed the role of abbot over a community of Oprichniki brethren...The brethren went about in dark cassock habits and cowls of rough black serge, and divided their time between exhausting church services and atrocities.

The monastic "rule" was strict. Everyone was awakened at three in the morning for matins, which lasted until dawn. During the service, Ivan sang, read, or prayed - sometimes with such fervor that he bruised his brow from beating it on the ground. Occasionally he would confer with his advisers and "often the bloodiest orders were dictated at matin-song or during Mass," which followed at eight. At ten the brethren gathered for their first repast of the day. During the meal, Ivan stood and read occasionally from the lives of the saints or some other edifying work. Leftovers were distributed in the marketplace to the poor. The remainder of the afternoon Ivan spent on affairs of state, or in the company of a favorite, or in hunting forays in the woods. Not infrequently, however (and he was "was never so happy as then in countenance and speech"), he would descend into the dungeons to observe acts of torture. "Blood often splashes his face," goes one eyewitness account, "but he does not mind; indeed he is delighted, and to indicate his joy he shouts 'Hoyda, Hoyda!' - a Turkish word resembling "giddyup" or "let's go," used by Tatar horsemen to urge on their steeds.

While it is clear that Ivan the Terrible considered himself to be a pious Russian Orthodox Christian (indeed, he even fancied himself a theologian and sometimes engaged in debates with Catholic and Protestant representatives), it would be wrong to blame Christianity for his excesses. However, as Ivan was definitely not an atheist, I submit his reign as evidence that it is not atheism that leads to tyranny. In Ivan the Terrible's case, as it was with Joseph Stalin, tyranny and terror was the natural outcome when a ruthless ruler has at his disposal the apparatus of the state and few, if any, checks or balances on his use of power. Sadly, for Russia, this seems to have been a frequent recurrence throughout its history. Peter the Great, though he did not come anywhere near Ivan's savagery, was also able to bend the apparatus of the Russian state to ruthlessly carry out his personal agenda.

Thus, if one wants to argue that atheism is at fault for the atrocities of Stalin's dictatorship, I would argue that one must ponder whether Stalin's murderous regime would have been possible if Russia had not first produced a tsar like Ivan the Terrible.


BEAJ said...

There are over 30 million atheists in Canada and the US alone. Probably only a handful identify themselves as Communists.
Atheism or secularism does not lead to Communism, though Communism is always one of the options.
Cuba is a Communist state, and I doubt that they have any more or less non believers on a percentage basis than the USA.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
It is interesting to note that the Viking communities in Russia had some democratic leanings- but the Mongol invasions seem to eliminated that. It may be too symplisitic an analysis, but the brutal invasion and overlordship seems to me to have contributed to the desire for strong leaders, xenophobia and the willinesses even now to excuse atrocities as "the price of security".

cryptic_philosopher said...

Two observations:

1. Stalin's suppression of religion expression had more to do with eliminating a competing source of authority rather than atheist leanings.
2. The real issue is irrationality: whether Stalin himself believed it or not, the Soviet state was itself built around a religious-like devotion to the principles of Marxims/Leninism, and the same can be said of Mao's China and Kim's North Korea. When inconvenient reality conflicted with dialectical materialism, reality often lost out. Communist tyranny was just that, communist tyranny, more than it was atheist tyranny.

PhillyChief said...

It's always just a grasping at straws for them when they pull the Stalin card. It's silly and embarrassingly shameful on their part, but then they still try to use Pascal's wager, so what are ya gonna do? It speaks to the desperation of the person you're engaged in debate with if they resort to such things.

Thanks for the history lesson on Ivan.

Tommy said...

Thanks all for your comments.

In short, I intended for this post to point out that if a Christian wants to blame Stalin's atrocities on atheism, then they have to answer why Ivan the Terrible, who considered himself to be a defender of the Russian Orthodox faith, committed atrocities too. Stalin was merely Ivan the Terrible with 20th century killing technology.

I think Christopher Hitchens made the same point that I am making, that the atrocities committed by atheistic communist governments in the 20th century were largely perpetrated by governments ruling over a society that had long traditions of absolutist rule.

PhillyChief said...

See, you're making the mistake that they'd have to be rational. They don't have to be, so they can look at Ivan and say, "he wasn't a true christian" but yet any self-proclaimed atheist who does something wrong is indicative of the problem with atheism. It don't have to make sense. What part of their belief system makes sense?