This digital exhibition brings to life the underground spaces and lives of religious communities in the Soviet Union. The secret police produced visual, graphic and textual materials of religious groups in order to present them as dangerous enemies of the state, as terrorists and saboteurs of the communist system. Using secret police sources, we reconstruct these stories from a different perspective.
From the earliest years of the Bolshevik Revolution until the closing years of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, religious groups and activities made illegal by the state were imagined, visualised and projected as a highly organised underground, financed and encouraged by external enemies. In the post-World War Two context, the Cold War imaginary on both sides portrayed religion as part of a struggle between good and evil, between light and dark. But between the official Soviet narrative and image produced in the West, there was a complex lived reality of ordinary believers and communities.
Our fragmented and incomplete understanding of repression of religion in the Soviet Union is gradually becoming clearer as both Ukraine and Moldova release secret police files for historical research. Secret police archives consist mainly of texts but also contain rich visual resources, which despite being collected or created as to incriminate and repress believers show much more than was intended. Images and objects captured to tell one story, now that the archives are opening, can help tell many others.
This exhibit takes you on a journey into the secret police case files and explores lost and invisible aspects of religious heritage. These stories, sights and sounds stand testimony to both the resilience and resistance of religious groups and the determination and brutality of the Soviet regime. For historians, the visual sources offer the potential to examine how the religious enemy was constructed, imagined and pieced together both before and during the Cold War; for the targeted communities they represent the chance to retrieve aspects of their heritage and explore memories of a traumatic past. The religious underground today can mean many things, both tangible and abstract. This exhibition is an exploration, with the use of images, sounds and spaces, of how life in the religious underground may have been experienced, how it was targeted and captured with the intent to destroy, and how this chapter of the history of Soviet repression is still felt today.