CENTENNIAL, Colo. — While strolling through a popular flea market outside Moscow in 1999, Father Doug Grandon spied an old Soviet poster that spoke to him because it was about religion.
But it was a rabidly anti-religious broadside he had just found, a remnant from an intense, long-lasting effort by communist ideologues to drum religious devotion out of Russian lives.
Father Grandon’s collection of Soviet posters, produced between 1918 and 1983, grew to over 60, as he kept finding more exemplars on subsequent trips to Russia.
Over the last eight months, he has helped organize several exhibits in Colorado for the public to experience these dramatic examples of a 20th-century war on religion.
“The Soviet War on Religion” exhibit was first sponsored by the Archdiocese of Denver last October at the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Among the boldly colored images, priests are mocked as greedy hypocrites. God is portrayed as a slothful drunkard. Clergy are linked with capitalists as enemies of the Soviet working people. Parents are warned to avoid baptizing children because the sacrament spreads germs.
“The posters are eye-openers,” observed Father Grandon, parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church in Centennial, Colo. He also serves as a board member of the Mary, Mother of God Mission to the Russian Far East, which is reviving the Catholic community in Russia’s easternmost territory, the largest diocese in the world.
“They’re shocking historic documents, vividly harsh, and, I fear, they’re particularly relevant today,” the priest told the Register.
The posters offer “a warning that this could happen again. Where you have a disrespect for the freedom of religion, a rampant kind of secularism, this could happen again,” observed Father Grandon.
He added, “If we forget these horrific historical examples, and if we become lethargic in our political involvement, our prayers, in our practice of religion, our culture could be lost. It could happen even here.”
Some 1,000 people visited the most recent Soviet poster exhibit at St. Thomas More over Pentecost weekend May 18-20, including students brought from the parish school, guests at a lecture given by Father Grandon and parishioners, before and after Mass.
“The impact on visitors was powerful,” said Irene Lindemer, editor of the church bulletin. “You realize that people died as a result of this campaign” of hatred against Christianity.
Viewed together, the posters represent an ominous picture of an intense government effort to divide people from the Church and thus from God.
Among the themes running through the exhibit, especially in the period immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 (when forces led by Vladimir Lenin took power by toppling a provisional government that had displaced the czar earlier that year) is aggressive antagonism toward the clergy.
Priests are depicted as predators who mislead and extract wealth from innocent people. They are shown manipulating people for money — by charging fees for baptism, for example — or being manipulated by their capitalist allies.
Fundamentally, the new communist dictators were trying to undermine any potential challengers to their power, and they saw the leadership of the Church as threatening their hold on society.
Between 1918 and 1920, the regime killed 28 bishops and jailed or killed thousands of priests.
The posters also depict devout grandparents as dangerous influences on youth. In a 1930 poster, an ugly old grandmother tries to corral her granddaughter to a church, above which blackbirds circle. The child, dressed in a Communist Young Pioneer outfit, strains to go to school. The text reads, “Religion is Poison. Protect Children From it.”
These negative images contributed to a public campaign to minimize the authority of Christianity, even as the regime was brutally repressing religion by closing churches, monasteries, charities and religious schools and seminaries.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which had 117 million members in 1914, was crushed over several decades. By 1930, approximately 80% of the village churches in the Soviet Union had been destroyed.
The Roman Catholic Church had 500,000 believers in 150 parishes before 1917.
Many were members of ethnic communities, such as the Polish, Ukrainians, and Germans.
But by late 1930, only two Catholic churches in the entire country were still open: one in Moscow and the other in St. Petersburg, and most believers had been harassed, persecuted, jailed or even killed.
Christianity as an obstacle to progress is another theme seen in the propaganda posters. Lenin is described as “cleaning the world of filth” in a 1920 poster that shows him sweeping away the kings of England and Prussia, a wealthy industrialist and an Orthodox priest.
As pointed out by author Victoria Bonnell in Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin, the graphic designers who made them relied heavily on the visual tradition of Orthodox icons to create memorable compositions.
Red, for example, the dominant color in religious icons, symbolizes the blood of sacrifice and the fire of faith. Poster artists similarly use red as the dominant color signifying communist power and authority, as well as the proletariat’s upward destiny.
Christian worship in Russia was heavily reliant on icons and decorative imagery, because most of the population was illiterate. The communists took this tradition and used it in ideological communication, which was a massive effort: Between 1919 and 1922, one official outlet distributed 7.5 million posters, plastering them on houses, in workplaces and in public buildings.
Top communist leaders were involved in the anti-religion campaign; Leon Trotsky led a special group charged with seizing church valuables. He believed that, ultimately, Christianity would be overcome by new distractions, such as film.
After World War II, propaganda posters portray religion as being opposed to medicine and science. Images that mock the power of prayer to heal or link the sacraments, such as Communion, with spreading disease, were posted in hospitals and clinics.
In a 1965 poster, a monk reads a newspaper report on the Soviet space program as his peers study The Lives of the Saints. The text reads: “Hurry up! We need to find the patron saint of cosmonauts!”
The fact that, in the 1960s, Soviet commissars continued to denigrate Christianity in public imagery suggests that the leadership was never confident that the “New Soviet Man” they aspired to create had forgotten God or his Church on earth.
And, in fact, the Russian people did not forget the Church.
Since the fall of communism in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a remarkable revival.
Between 1991 and 2011, the number of parishes grew from 12,000 to 30,675, and the number of monasteries and convents increased from 117 to 805, according to the Orthodox Church’s information office.
The Catholic Church has also experienced marked progress in recovering communities that were almost extinct.
As of 2005, there were approximately 780,000 Catholics in Russia, which is about .5% of the country’s population.
Father Daniel Maurer arrived in Russia just a month after the Soviet Union collapsed, and he has served in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, since he was ordained there, in 1992, in Most Holy Mother of God Church.
According to Father Maurer, the long, dark period of communist rule, when Christianity was ridiculed and suppressed, continues to create problems for the Church’s health today.
While more people identify as Christians in Russia, the percentage that practices the faith regularly is very small.
Common issues such as alcoholism, divorce and abortion are also indicative of a society that has not been able to deeply live Christian values.
For Father Maurer, the situation in Russia, mainly as a result of the anti-religion campaign, calls on believers to think about how to “re-Christianize” the country.
Catechism is essential, but so is sacred music, according to the dedicated priest.
Art was used in the Soviet Union to get people to reject the Church. Now, art, in the form of music, is being used to encourage people in Russia to return to the Church and to facilitate Christian fellowship.
“The most successful way to create new bonds, to bring people together and to invite people to our church for the first time is through sacred music,” explained Father Maurer.
He continued, “We were given the gift of the first organ. We have run the most successful concert series in the history of the city. We have a professional choir and our own chamber orchestra. Our organist is one of the best organists in Russia, so we have 12-15 organ concerts, all sold out, all religious.”
Explained Father Maurer, “This music is directly related to the faith, so it is a highly functional gateway to the Church.”
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.