Russian Communists are turning to Christ

What do Vladimir Lenin, founder of the officially atheist Soviet Union, and Jesus Christ have in common? Not much, one would think. Yet according to Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of Russia's modern-day Communist Party, both men sought to "save humanity" with a message of "love, friendship, and brotherhood".

Speaking in Moscow in front of a crowd of red-flag-waving supporters on the 145th anniversary of Lenin's birth late last month, Zyuganov also declared that the Soviet Union was an attempt to establish "God's Kingdom on Earth".

Had he heard that speech, Lenin would likely have turned over in the Red Square mausoleum, where his embalmed corpse has been on public display for the past 91 years. After all, some 200,000 members of the clergy were murdered during the first two decades of the Soviet era, according to a 1995 Kremlin committee report, while millions of other Christians were persecuted for their faith.

"The more representatives of the reactionary clergy we shoot, the better," Lenin once said. Thousands of churches were destroyed under early communist rule, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages, or museums of atheism.

Although a limited Orthodox Christian revival was permitted by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the Second World War, anti-religion propaganda and selected discrimination against believers continued up until the mid-1980s. One Soviet school textbook printed in the 1950s called Christianity a "perverse reflection of the world".

Zyuganov's comments kicked up a storm in Russia, as critics pointed out the apparent contradictions inherent in his mingling of communist and Christian beliefs. The second most powerful political party in Russia today, after Vladimir Putin's United Russia, the communists still boast the hammer and sickle as their symbol, and party members regularly glorify both Lenin and Stalin. While the Communist Party has scrapped restrictions on membership for religious believers, its constitution remains based firmly on Marxism-Leninism. It was, of course, Karl Marx who famously called organised religion "the opium of the people".

"Were you lying back then [in the Soviet era], or is your faith now a lie?" asked a caller to the Echo of Moscow radio station during an interview earlier this month with Zyuganov. In a furious reply, Zyuganov – a former Soviet "agitation and propaganda" official – called the radio station a "disgrace" to Russia.

Other critics suggest Zyuganov's comments are a cynical ploy aimed at attracting Orthodox Christian voters, while also holding onto the party's traditional core of Leftist supporters. While nostalgia for the Soviet Union is common in today's Russia, Orthodox Christianity plays an increasingly important role in political and social affairs.

"There is a craving for something sacred among the Russian people," says Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Lipman also notes, however, that while some 70% of Russians regularly identify themselves as Orthodox Christians in opinion polls, only a tiny percentage of those regularly attend church services or observe religious fasts.

"Zyuganov is a professional politician who is trying to unite the Leftist and conservative electorate," says Ilya Ponamaryov, the co-founder of Russia's Left Front opposition movement.

"In the wake of the split-up of the Soviet Union, he was able to do this, but his party's appeal to such voters has been undermined by Putin in recent years. A true communist is unlikely to believe in God."

Ever since mass protests by mainly middle-class and intellectual Muscovites rocked Russia in 2011-2012, Putin has successfully sought to portray himself as a defender of "Orthodox Christian values" against what he describes as the malign influence of a morally bankrupt West. Most analysts believe that while the Communist Party has no genuine desire to challenge Putin's rule, it requires strong performances at parliamentary polls in order to maintain its privileged status as Russia's official "opposition".

"Zyuganov wants to create the image of a 'Lenin-lite'," says Deacon Andrei Kurayev, a well-known theologian, who is often at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy. "But by doing so, he is ignoring the unlawful and radical anti-Christian actions of the Soviet authorities."

This fusion of Soviet and Christian beliefs works both ways. Online footage of a Russian Orthodox priest singing a popular Soviet-era song at a church service recently went viral in Russia, while religious icons with images of Stalin are a common sight at gatherings of the religious Right. An Orthodox Christian church has also recently been constructed on the territory of Russia's vast memorial complex to the over one million Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Stalingrad, ostensibly in defence of an atheist state.

Russian Orthodox Church officials also display ambiguous attitudes towards the Soviet era. "While there was no place for God in the Soviet system, Christian values were far more apparent under Communist rule than in the West, where material wealth has always been of utmost importance," says Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. Chaplin has also described Stalin as a contradictory figure, with both "positive" and "negative" sides.

Although the Soviet authorities may have been outwardly hostile to religion, early communists adopted and adapted many of Christianity's symbols to mask the new ideology in forms familiar to an ultra-religious nation. In place of the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, communists offered Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

In many cases, images of these "sacred figures" of socialism simply replaced religious icons of the Trinity in Russian Orthodox homes after the Bolshevik Revolution. The decision to embalm Lenin's body after his death in 1924 is also reminiscent of the Christian tradition of preserving the remains of saints, while the compulsory visits by Soviet citizens to his Red Square mausoleum were strikingly similar to medieval pilgrimages. Zyuganov has even described Lenin's corpse as a "holy relic".

But not all Russian Orthodox believers are comfortable with this startling Soviet-Christian symbiosis. "Christianity was once persecuted by Rome, and then assumed Roman forms and won Rome over from within," says Andrei Zolotov, a journalist and Orthodox believer.

"I would like Russian Orthodox Christianity in its present form to transform our Soviet heritage from within. But I'm not sure this can occur. That's why it's important for me to distance myself from Soviet symbolism. For me, communism is a satanic religion."