“Believing is bad for you”: at the Museum of Russian Icons, “Images of Atheism”

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Vladimir Menshchikov, “There is no God”, 1975.Museum of Russian Icons

CLINTON – Titles don’t come any drier – would Grimmer be more specific? — that “Images of Atheism: The Soviet Assault on Religion”. Yet the show, which runs until October 2 at the Museum of Russian Icons, is visually lively, even playful. Cuteness-wise, the smiling cosmonaut waving to viewers in Vladimir Menshchikov’s 1975 propaganda poster “There Is No God” borders on Disney lovable.

Karl Marx said that “religion is the opium of the people”. There you had the theoretical foundations of Bolshevik opposition to religion. They were “godless communists” for a reason. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church had been a pillar of the Tsarist state. Religion posed a political threat both as a belief system and as an institutional force. So it makes sense, confusing as such a name might sound, that there was a five-year plan with no God to go along with the economic plans. The newly installed rulers of the newly installed Soviet Union considered religion twice anathema.

Dmitri Moor, “Feed My Sheep”, 1926.Special Collections of Saint-Louis University Libraries, Soviet Poster Collection

What these leaders did not consider anathema – at least not at first – was artistic innovation. During the 1920s and spilling over somewhat into the 1930s, Soviet visual culture experienced an unparalleled degree of artistic effervescence and innovation in film, photography, painting, and applied design.

A revolution in the arts matched one unfolding in society, and the energy and experimentation of this cultural revolution is very evident in the anti-religious propaganda of those years. “Blacksmith, Beating Bells in Ball Bearings” by Mikhail Mikhailovich Cheremnykh, from his “Anti-Religious Alphabet” (1932), is a textbook of constructivism, with its use of photomontage, solid color, typography creative, of the interplay of angles and curves, and let’s not forget this exhortation title.

Mikhail Cheremnyhk, ‘Blacksmith, Ring the Bells in the Ball Bearings’, from ‘The Anti-Religious Alphabet’, 1932. University of Rochester Memorial Art Gallery.Jessica Martin

“The Anti-Religious Alphabet” is the centerpiece of the show. Designed by Cheremnykh for classroom use, this is a set of 27 letter cards (Cyrillic has more letters than Roman). The cards served the dual purpose of helping young students learn their letters – and despise religion. These are agit-props for children. Headlines make the propaganda aspect clear. “Ford factories are fascist fortresses.” “Sacred stories are so stupid!” “Vile and virulent is the venom of the viper” (the viper in question being Pope Pius XI). The top-hatted capitalist seen in “Believing Is Bad for You, Badder than Booze” bears an alarming resemblance to Mr. Monopoly.

Mikhail Cheremnykh, “Believing Is Bad for you, Badder than Booze”, from “The Anti-Religious Alphabet”, 1932. Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester.Jessica Martin

Most of the items in the series are from the 1920s and 1930s, with only half a dozen from the 1970s and 1980s. The former are much more lively and imaginative. The Brezhnev era was no less sclerotic artistically than socially. An exception is this cosmonaut poster. The work of a collective of artists known as Fighting Pencil, it is inspired by a remark by cosmonaut Gherman Titov. “Sometimes people say God is out there,” he remarked of the space. “I saw neither angels nor God.” Notice how the spiers at the bottom of the poster include a mosque. The Soviets were ecumenical in their atheism.

In addition to posters, the show includes ephemera as fun as playing cards with anti-religious imagery and an ashtray in the shape of an Orthodox priest. The most striking thing about “Images of Atheism” isn’t something in the show, per se. It’s the juxtaposition with the contents of the other galleries, which is exactly what one would expect in a museum dedicated to, yes, Russian icons.

Mikhail Cheremnykh, “Substitute Science for Sorcerer’s Spells”, from “The Anti-Religious Alphabet”, 1932. Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester.Jessica Martin

IMAGES OF ATHEISM: The Soviet Assault on Religion

Museum of Russian Icons, 263 Union St., Clinton, until October 2. 978-598-5000, www.museumofrussianicons.org


Mark Feeney can be contacted at mark.feeney@globe.com.


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