Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion

In a forthcoming work, I propose to investigate Stalin through an unexpected approach: his intimate relation with religion. Hopefully, it will play a small role in the reassessments of Stalin under way by Losurdo, Roberts et al.

Chapter One: At the Spiritual Seminary

Stalin is unique among world communist leaders in at least one respect: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. He did so during a deeply formative time of his life, from the age of 15 to the verge of his 20th birthday (1894-1899). One of the best students, he was known for his intellect and phenomenal memory. And he was notably devout, attending all worship services and even leading the choir. Yet, despite the importance of this theological study in forming Stalin’s mind and life, few if any take the time to analyse what Stalin studied and how he did so. Thus, this chapter investigates closely Stalin’s studies, especially the theological content of his study with an eye on the themes that would emerge later in his thought. The training was thorough. In the earlier years, he studied both secular and theological subjects, such as Russian literature, secular history, mathematics, church singing and biblical studies. By the later years, the focus was more intensely theological, with ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin annotated the religious works in his library, and memorised long passages from the Bible. He also refused to include anti-religious works, calling them ‘antireligious waste-paper’. But I am particularly interested in the continuity (rather than the discontinuity) between his theological knowledge and the activism in which he increasingly engaged. Stalin left the college just before the final examinations in 1899, of his own will. But the experience had formed him deeply. In revolutionary circles he was for many years known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Affirmative Action: Religions and the Church

In the early years of the Second World War, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church. In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, Stalin allowed the reopening of tens of thousands of churches and the re-establishment of the church’s leadership hierarchy. (These developments are far more complex than the common argument that a morally bankrupt government sought to harness the church’s influence to counter the Nazis.) However, one condition applied: the church was to respect the ‘affirmative action’ that already applied to ethnic minorities. Stalin was the architect of the policy of fostering the languages, cultures, education, and self-government of the many ‘nations’ or ethnic groups in the USSR. This policy included religion: the Muslim sharia in the south was permitted, Buddhism in the east was fostered, and anti-Semitism was vigorously opposed, with many Jews in the government apparatus and heavy penalties for anti-Semitism. The old imperialism of the Russian church was to be a thing of past.

It is not for nothing that from this period the religious iconography of Stalin began, fuelled by rumours of a ‘mysterious retreat’ in 1941.

Chapter Three: Writing Like a Poet

This chapter digs deeper into Stalin’s writing, beginning with his habitual pattern of biblical and religious allusions. Above all, I am interested in his poetic style, especially in light of his early publications of widely-appreciated poetry. His later texts reveal subtle variations in the balanced sentences, his rhetorical if not homiletical ability, his evocation of imagery, and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the creation of the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Multiple modulations of dialectics appear in Stalin’s works. These include the staples of subject-object and form-content, but also an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. The two major developments in dialectics are in terms transcendence and immanence, and in a dialectic of crisis. The former refers to the relations between workers and the communist party, between theory and action, and between the party and the multi-ethnic state. The latter – dialectics of crisis – emerges in a complex pattern, particularly in light of the civil war, sustained international opposition, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key to this dialectic is that the closer’s one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. This is at heart a theological dialectics. The more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become.

Chapter Five: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory – profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Above all, the Red Terror is the practical manifestation of this doctrine, in which good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Six: Veneration and Demonisation

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in WWII and in the construction of socialism. This chapter argues that such polarisation has a religious dynamic as well as a political one, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. In order to understand that polarisation, I trace the path from his near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s politically motivated ‘secret report’). I also focus on the dynamics of this polarisation by relating it to theological issues, Lenin’s veneration, the crucial role in extra-economic compulsion in the construction of socialism, the relation with Stalin’s dialectics of intensified crisis, and particularly the central role of Stalin in assessing the continued validity of socialism.


One thought on “Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.