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History Russia & The Former Soviet Union

Secularism Soviet Style

Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic

by (author) Sonja Luehrmann

Indiana University Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2011
Russia & the Former Soviet Union, Atheism, Cultural
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2011
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Sonja Luehrmann explores the Soviet atheist effort to build a society without gods or spirits and its afterlife in post-Soviet religious revival. Combining archival research on atheist propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s with ethnographic fieldwork in the autonomous republic of Marij El in Russia's Volga region, Luehrmann examines how secularist culture-building reshaped religious practice and interreligious relations. One of the most palpable legacies of atheist propaganda is a widespread didactic orientation among the population and a faith in standardized programs of personal transformation as solutions to wider social problems. This didactic trend has parallels in globalized forms of Protestantism and Islam but differs from older uses of religious knowledge in rural Russia. At a time when the secularist modernization projects of the 20th century are widely perceived to have failed, Secularism Soviet Style emphasizes the affinities and shared histories of religious and atheist mobilizations.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Sonja Luehrmann is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University and author of Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule.

Editorial Reviews

Luerhmann's ethnography makes an important contribution to studies about the nature of and the relationships between secular and religious movements in Russia. At the same time, its impact will extend beyond studies of religion to shed critical light on processes of knowledge formation and knowledge transmission. In many ways, because Luerhmann does such a good job of attending to and unpacking Russian styles of persuasion, it will be of tremendous value to schlars working on a wide range of topics, from political ideology to forms of aesthetics and representation to institutions and bureaucracies, not just in Russia but across the former Soviet Union.

The Russian Review

[This book] greatly enhances our understanding of the post-Soviet revival of religion.June 2013


Secularism Soviet Style is an attractively written and thought-provoking book that deserves to be read not only by regional specialists but by scholars of religion and secularism more generally.

Slavic Review

Highly recommend[ed].April 2014


[Sony Lûrman's] objective of the study is to compare methods to promote atheist and religious ideas in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, respectively. Although the content of the teaching of religion [is] the opposite of atheistic propaganda, according to the author, there are similarities in terms of audience and methods . . . .1 2014


Each chapter traces a concept, an 'elective affinity,' through rich descriptions of how that concept is instantiated in practice across time and across a multireligious social field. The result is new and productive lens through which to understand the relationship between religion and communism.


Luehrmann's book is a fascinating anthropological inquiry into the every-day lives of post-communist citizens that focuses especially on four religious groups: Orthodox,Protestant-Lutherans, Evangelical (especially Pentecostal and Charismatic) and Traditional Mari Religion (Chimarij) and the way these religious groups appropriate the secular mobilization and didactic techniques that were forged during the Soviet period.

Anthropology of East Europe Review

Drawing upon the material on a particular Russian region, the Republic of Marii El (the former Mariiskaia Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, the author traces the intricate relationship of religion and secularism in Soviet and post-Soviet times.49.1 2015

Canadian-American Slavic Studies

Highly recommend[ed].


Luehrmann's book is well written and excellently researched. It provides much-needed understanding of the late-Soviet atheist endeavors. Importantly, by showing how Soviet secularism diverged from liberal projects, it makes a valuable contribution to conceptualizations of secularism.


This is a fascinating probe into the complex world of a country attempting to remove religion and god from society in order to modernize, but finding that atheism is not synonymous with modernization, and that religion has deep roots and an extraordinary ability to adapt to changing circumstances. . . . Recommended.


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