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Three-quarters of a century of official state atheism in the former Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellite nations has all but evaporated in a resurgence of faith since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a new Pew Research Center study shows.

From 1917, when Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks took power in Russia, until 1991, when the USSR crumbled, religious faith — though technically constitutionally protected — was treated with at best ambivalence and often persecution as being incompatible with Marxist rule.

In various ways, the state oppressed faith, Christian and non-Christian alike. Believers often found themselves dismissed from their jobs, clergy imprisoned and sometimes executed or doomed to gulags for perceived disloyalty.

New, officially atheistic generations were born to replace stubborn old believers.

Yet, roughly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Pew researchers say religion has been resurrected in Russia, as well as 17 other countries formerly under its fist.

Overall, 86 percent of 25,000 respondents interviewed between June 2015 and July 2016 said they believe in God; 59 percent believe in a heaven and 54 percent believe in hell. Just 14 percent fall within the "atheists, agnostics or 'nones' category.

Pew found that in many countries formerly under Soviet rule, religion and national identity were inextricably tied. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is heavily favored, while Polish believers are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Overall, 70 percent of poll respondents in those countries where Orthodoxy is predominant said their national identity was tied to their faith; for Roman Catholics, the percentage was 57.

That identification with faith does not necessarily translate to strong church attendance. Pew found that few respondents regularly attend worship services; 25 percent of Roman Catholics said they attend weekly Mass, while 10 percent of Orthodox adherents attend worship at least once a week.

Perhaps ironically, Orthodox Christians today see Russia as playing a role in protecting — rather than persecuting — their faith. And most former East bloc, predominantly Orthodox nations agree that "a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West."

With the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, however, has come increasing resistance to faiths imported from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin — under the official impetus of cracking down on terrorism — approved tight restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism by other non-Orthodox faiths.

Hit particularly hard are Pentecostals and evangelical Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, believers who often have been forced to conduct low-key meetings in homes. Mormon missionaries are now called "volunteers."

In Russia, the poll shows, 85 percent support the idea of their nation being a buffer against the immorality of the West, with that opinion echoed to varying degrees elsewhere in former Iron Curtain countries — from 52 percent in Romania and Georgia to 80 percent and 83 percent in Armenia and Serbia, respectively.

The sole exception, as might be expected given current strained relations with Russia, is Ukraine with just 22 percent support for the concept.

Twitter: @remims

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