Secular and Religious Contradictions during the 'Age of Anxiety' as Found in Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1995
In 1947, the poet W.H. Auden published a book-length poem entitled “The Age of Anxiety,” which later inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein and a ballet by Jerome Robbins. It includes these lines spoken by Rosetta, the Jewish protagonist: “Lies and lethargies police the world/ In its periods of peace.”
This couplet could be a fitting characterization of the Cold War, a time when each superpower tried to bluff and coerce the other into accepting its socioeconomic hegemony and credo—all the while loudly proclaiming its benevolent, apolitical intentions. Were we at war? Not quite. At peace, then? No, something in between.
Whether framed as detente, containment, peaceful coexistence or mutually-assured destruction, the governing ideologies of the Cold War carried the spiritual weight of established religions, sometimes exerted against religious practice itself, or set in opposition to the breathless consumerism attendant upon late-stage capitalism, even as a foil to communism's categorical insistence upon no religion at all.
The reports that follow—all found in Joint Publications Research Service Reports, 1957-1995—span that range. We have communist critiques of mainstream Christianity and mysticism, Islamic pushback against communism in Indonesia, and two secular examples of intractable bourgeois tendencies in the Soviet Union and in America.
What is the Harm of Baptism?
Agitator (Agitator), Moscow, No. 20, November 1960
‘Taking the waters’ is all the rage in the Russian culture of spas and banyas—unless that ritual ablution is accompanied by pious words invoked by some religious authority. The author answers his own rhetorical question thus:
What is the harm of Baptism? It preaches ideas that are alien to the Soviet people, alien morals, spiritual darkness and ignorance. In its teachings and deeds clearly appears a reactionary substance of sectarianism’ departure from life, seclusion, and impassivity. They are afraid of the fresh breath of life, of the truth and force of knowledge. For Baptism, as in general for any kind of religious ideology, poverty of ideas is extremely characteristic.
A key word in the text is almost illegible but is worth notice: afraid. The Soviet state was afraid of subversion and dissent; the believers were afraid of eternal damnation and political persecution; the United States was afraid of the challenges posed by communism. So much fear in the Age of Anxiety that was—and perhaps still is—the Cold War.
Anti-Religious Propaganda in the USSR
Nauka i Religiya (Science and Religion), Moscow, No. 11, November 1960
This topical report includes four individual accounts of communist propaganda asserted against Christianity. They range from a relatively objective criticism of the divine origins of language, to more overt accusations of hypocrisy specifically against the Roman Catholic Church for its tolerance of fascism during World War II.
The Shadow of the Cross over Cuba and the Congo
Kommunist (Communist), Vilnius, No. 10, October 1960
Here’s the Roman Catholic Church once again on the receiving end of communist criticism, this time for its embrace of imperialism in Cuba and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’re a long way from liberation theology in this report.
The Leisure Time of Working People in a Socialist Society
Kommunist (Communist), Moscow, No. 15, October 1960
Could the triumph of the working class actually be furthered by not working? In a sense, the highest proof of the superiority of socialist economics would come when its scale and efficiency put the proletariat itself largely out of business. In theory this would result in growing quantities of leisure time; in practice the impetus to fulfill, say, a seven-year plan in five years, or a five-year plan in three years, was too enticing to resist.
Beyond the Soviet obsession with immediate economic gratification, however, this report explores what it would look like if the Soviet workers could actually lay down their hammers and sickles and exult in the fruits of their labor. What follows is just a hint of what the typical Soviet weekend might entail.
In order to use leisure time rationally on days off, quite a bit of effort must still be exerted. We must see to it that on these days in particular, rest, education, and everything which comprises leisure time does not require a great deal of bustle and unnecessary waste of time and effort. Under conditions where we are already approaching a situation where we [will] be able to rest two days out of every week, measures for the more rational use of days off by the working people will become an important task for trade-union organizations and local agencies.
A View of Modern America
Nasa Stvarnost (Our Reality), No. 5, May 1960
The critical gaze of the United States is often directed outward; one of the strengths of Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports is that they provide a forum wherein that attention is turned back upon itself. This report from Yugoslavia subjects the United States to the level of dispassionate analysis that we usually reserve for others.
Italo-American Seer Says He Travels to the Stars under Hypnosis
La Stampa Sera (Evening Press), Turin, 7-8 July 1955
La Razon (Reason), Buenos Aires, 11 July 1957
Two accounts of adventures in Christian mysticism courtesy of Italian impresario and hypnotist Giovanni Mancuso. Spoiler alert: “...the medium indicated that there are no flying saucers on Mars.”
Moslem Group Demands Dissolution of Indonesian Communist Party
Harian Abadi (Eternal Daily), Djakarta, 7 September 1960
This very brief report is notable for its description of the efforts of the United Muslim Party to abolish the Communist Party of Indonesia on the grounds that communism is antithetical to religious freedom—in a country where Islam is firmly established as the dominant religion.
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