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  • Ana Villegas

The New Faith: Anti-Religious Museums in the Early Soviet Union

By: Ana Villegas


In the freezing White Sea, located off of Russia's far northern coast, is an archipelago of six small islands called the Solovki (Solovetsky Islands). On the main island, generations of Russian Orthodox monks inhabited a centuries-old monastery.

Religious life was suddenly disrupted during the Russian Civil War which broke out shortly after the end of the First World War. The Red Army forces took over the island and its monastery to prevent the White Army from gaining a geographic strategic advantage in 1920 (Pitzer 123). The Solovetsky Special Purpose Prison Camp (SLON) became the first camp introduced into the GULAG (or Main Administration for Corrective Labour Camps) (Burgess 195, Bogumił et. al. 1422-23). The Solovki camp was founded in November 1923 when, while on his deathbed, Lenin signed off on its installation; he died two months later (Alpert 208, Pitzer 121).

Since the monastery was captured and controlled by the Soviet state, historians, researchers, and archaeologists were given free rein to requisition and catalogue icons and other religious materials to be then displayed in "anti-religious" museums on the mainland, including in one located on the island itself (Pitzer 124, Burgess 195). Yes, there was a museum located within a Gulag camp.

Fig. 1. Picture of the Solovki Gulag. Courtesy of Gulag Online.

Religious buildings that were transformed into anti-religious museums in the early Soviet Union were a popular genre within Soviet museology. The administration of the Five Year Plan during the late 1920s saw the implementation of several anti-religious institutions. In 1929, religious education and proselytization were outlawed and declared treasonous by the 14th Congress of the Soviets (Jolles 445). By 1930 there were 30 of these institutions across the Soviet state (Jolles 432). For instance, there was the Central Anti-Religious Museum in Moscow located in the Cathedral of the Strastnoi Monastery and the Leningrad State Anti-Religious Museum of the Leningrad Branch of the League of the Militant Godless located in St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Shakhnovich 3,7). This genre was meant to "indoctrinat[e] a largely uneducated, proletarian audience on the cultural goals of Stalinist communism" (Jolles 434).

Fig. 2. Inside the Anti-Religious Museum in Leningrad, 1932. Screenshot from Adam Jolles' article, pg. 433. Courtesy of Architectural Association Photo Library, London.

These museums used curatorial techniques which reflected the ideology of the authoritarian state and aimed to discredit the power of the Orthodox Church. Corresponding with the overarching goal to convert Russian Christians into Soviet atheists, the museums took on the narrative of exposé to detail the hypocrisies of the Orthodox Church. For instance, the museum in Moscow displayed dioramas with texts that condemned the Church for accumulating a vast amount of wealth while preaching charity. Essentially, religion was constructed as a tool of oppression: a direct enemy to the working class and scientific progress. Two French scientists recount a museum guide telling them, "we can show you everything that the new Russia has accomplished in the sciences. We don’t need religion to accomplish 'miracles'" (Jolles 447).

Other museums were used to extol the virtues of Soviet power, like the museum in Leningrad which dressed Soviet communism as the new state religion. Using a comparative analytical design, the museum demonized religious practices as harmful and illogically superstitious and presented science as the logical beholder of Truth. There were exhibitions that compared the self-mutilation practices by the Khlisti and Skopsti sects alongside bold and colourful banners highlighting Soviet power and a replica of Foucault’s pendulum standing as a symbol of scientific positivism (Jolles 448). Thus, the museums were a physical manifestation of the Soviet regime’s propaganda campaigns to monopolize social authority.

The museum in Solovki was not a typical occurrence. Due to the Solovki camp’s unique placement both geographically and temporally, most of its first prisoners were political, intelligentsia and clergymen. For the first few years, these men were allowed to establish a community amongst themselves including running a camp newspaper, acting and directing plays, publishing papers, and even running a museum (Burgess 198-99, Pitzer 126). A prisoner recounts the following: "In jail for meeting in an intellectual circle, Dmitrii Likhachev often found himself among some great minds, with days on end to discuss obscure philosophical ideas... scholars created absurd theories... [and] offered up in semiformal 'research papers' culled from memories and conversations" (Robson 218-19). However, in the early days of the camp's history, this duality of intellectual freedom was also paired with the brutal labour conditions. For example, one of the labour details assigned to a prisoner company was to move iron trolleys that weighed several hundred kilograms and the "prisoners did this with no tools, slogging through near-freezing water, with no rest, food, or warm clothing" (Robson 215).

Fig. 3. Photo of Dmitrii Likhachev. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The onsite anti-religious museum in Solovki was full of religious iconography stolen from the monks and was cataloged and inspected by researchers and prisoners alike. According to former prisoner Likhachev, his description of the museum follows the common disparaging narratives of Christianity found in the other anti-religious museums in Moscow and Leningrad. He detailed that the museum highlighted "the stupid deceptive slapstick quality of everything that went on there [the monastery] – the foolishness of the organization and its orders, the fantastic and dreamlike nature of all the island life..." (Pitzer 126-27). Eventually, the camp and the museum closed in 1939 (Takahashi 511).

Fig. 4. Entrance to the Solovki Museum. Courtesy of International Memorial Moscow. Used in Andrea Gullotta's virtual exhibit.

Fig. 5. An exhibition inside the Central Anti-Religious Museum in Moscow labelled "Religious Theatre." November 1930. Screenshot from Adam Jolles' article, pg. 447.

The museum was revived again in January 1967 during a period known as “The Thaw” in which censorship was slightly alleviated and former taboo topics could now be broached (Takahashi 512).

After the fall of the Soviet Union (1991), the Orthodox Church in Russia immediately started to reclaim the island and its monastery as a religious site, using symbolic narratives of Christian martyrdom. The Solovetskii cross was erected at the bottom of the stairs that lead to Sekirnaya Hill which is famous for the legend of Chekist camp guards pushing prisoners down the stairs (Bogumił 1427-28). The Solovetsky Islands were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 (Burgess 197).

Fig. 6. Modern Day Picture of the Monastery/Gulag camp/Museum.

Courtesy of UNESCO.


Bibliography (All can be found in the UofT Library)

Alpert, Erin. “Reinventing Soviet Visual Memory: A Case Study of Marina Goldovskaya’s Documentary Solovki Power.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema Vol. 7 no.2 (2013): 207-26.

Bogumił, Zuzanna, Dominique Moran & Elly Harrowell. “Sacred or Secular? ‘Memorial’, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Contested Commemoration of Soviet Repressions.” Europe-Asia Studies Vol. 67 no. 9 (2015): 1416-44.

Burgess, John P. “Community of Prayer, Historical Museum, or Recreational Playground? Challenges to the Revival of the Monastic Community at Solovki, Russia” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church Vol. 7 no. 3 (August 2007): 194-209.

Jolles, Adam. “Stalin’s Talking Museums.” Oxford Art Journal Vol. 28 no.3 (2005): 429-455.

Pitzer, Andrea. “Gulag Rising.” In One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps 117-160. New York: Little Brown, 2017.

Takahashi, Sanami. “Church or Museum? The Role of State Museums in Conserving Church Buildings, 1965-1985.” Journal of Church and State Vol. 51 no. 3 (December 2009): 502-17.

Robson, Roy R. “Gulag.” In Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands. 202-225. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Shakhnovich, Marianna. “Comparative Religion and Anti-Religious Museums of Soviet Russia in the 1920s.” Religions Vol. 11 no. 55 (2020): 1-10.

Other Resources

Solovki Power: 1988 Soviet documentary which interviewed past prisoners on their experiences in the Solovki camp (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 is no longer available)


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