AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Eighty-five years ago, Pope Pius XI released his encyclical Divini Redemptoris, warning of the dangers of atheistic communism. Then, as now, Russia’s threatening of Ukrainian independence was a key issue on the geopolitical stage. Though the Russian Bolshevik regime that Pius urged the world to guard against has now faded into memory, Divini still serves as a powerful reminder of the moral imperative to oppose not just Putin’s attempted physical destruction of Ukraine, but against his assault on the cultural and spiritual foundations of the West.
Soon after the onset of the Russian Revolution in October of 1917, the Bolsheviks targeted what they called “Ukrainian separatism,” fearing that Kiev’s ties to the West would threaten the new Communist regime in Moscow. Lenin and his henchmen believed that the root of this threat laid with the Ukrainian church, which they accused of being a propagator of Western culture in the Slavic world.
Ukraine and other states suspected of having pro-Western sympathies like Poland soon became targets for the “League of Militant Atheists,” a Communist Party organization founded by Lenin and Stalin confidante Emelian Yaroslavsky. The explicit mission of the group was to eradicate all religion from the world and replace it with worship of the state, one of the central tenets of Marxism. The League removed religious icons from the homes of believers, tore down churches, destroyed religious artifacts, and even killed members of the clergy.
In tearing down faith, the Soviets hoped that the cultural identity of Eastern European peoples would fall along with it. Nowhere was this more clear than in Kiev, which Soviet leaders showed a particular disdain for.
Unlike Russia’s capital, Kiev has cultural roots in Europe going back thousands of years, a fact that is reflected in everything from the city’s architecture to the religious practice of the Ukrainian people. All the way back in the Eleventh Century, when the land upon which Moscow would be built was still covered in forests, Prince Yaroslav the Wise married off his sons and daughters to the royalty of Europe, linking his kingdom with others in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Norway, and France – some historians even refer to him as “the father-in-law of Europe.” Kiev was the historic birthplace of the Slavic peoples, and the axis around which much of Eastern Europe revolved.
The Bolsheviks became obsessed with erasing this identity through the persecution of Ukrainian churches, the burning of temples and monasteries, and the executions of the clergy and the faithful. In one horrifying incident, Communists hanged hundreds of Ukrainian priests who protested against rules established by Moscow governing the distribution of food.
In 1940, Yaroslavsky offered an ideological rationale for the terror imposed by the League of Militant Atheists and the Soviet regime generally which rings all too true today amid Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As Chief editor of the Kommunist, an important publication of the Communist Party Central Committee, Yaroslavsky suggested that in order to destroy Ukraine’s separatism, one needs “to connect it with an extremism like fascism,” arguing that some radical groups in Kiev committed atrocities against Russians.
Putin used similar reasoning to justify his invasion of Ukraine in February, insisting that the Russian army was undertaking a “special military operation” to rid the country of “Nazis.”
The Russian forces have also reportedly targeted Ukrainian cultural sites in Kiev and Mariupol, including churches and cathedrals, apparently endeavoring once again to destroy evidence of Ukraine’s rich cultural history. Reports are also emerging of Russian soldiers desecrating the bodies of fallen Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike, including the Bucha massacre.
Pope Pius XI warned against all of this in Divini Redemptoris. The encyclical describes how the “satanic logic” which stemmed from “an evil of the spiritual order” suppresses liberties and leads to the inevitable degradation of the soul and indifference to human suffering.
While Putin cloaks himself in the image of religious devotion, his disregard for human life and ruthless ambition reveal that his true character is akin to those godless Soviet leaders which came before him. Putin’s own grandfather was an activist in the League of Militant Atheists in Moscow decades ago – now Putin himself is acting to carry out his mission.
In Divini, Pope Pius XI offers a solution to counter the likes of Putin and Stalin which is still of great value to the West: hold firm to the roots of Christian culture, rebuild what Marxism has torn down, and act as a moral witness of a true expression of religious faith. Though Pius was writing in 1937, his words would echo across the decades and ultimately help bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Through faith and moral witness, Christians can help bring about a similar victory over evil today.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.