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Communism, religion, and unhappiness

While the existing scholarship has explained long-run institutional development across countries with a variety of different factors, the literature remains largely silent on the role of religion. Using survey data, this column shows that deep-rooted theological differences between Orthodoxy, and Catholicism and Protestantism affect life satisfaction and other attitudes and values in large parts of Europe today. Although totalitarian governments suppressed religious activities, they preserved those aspects of Orthodoxy – such as tradition and communitarianism – which were helpful for advancing the communist doctrine.

Following the pioneering work of Weber (1904), scholars have examined the link between religion and happiness, attitudes toward market economy, work ethic and thrift, trust, and women and members of other religions. A broader literature studies the impact of long-run historical factors on cultural preferences. Moreover, recent work has argued that culture is an important determinant of economic and political development. If religion affects preferences, and preferences affect (or even co-evolve with) economic and political institutions, then the question of how exactly religion enters into the broader process of institutional evolution deserves scrutiny.

Religion and culture

In a new paper, we study how deep-rooted theological differences between Orthodoxy, and Catholicism and Protestantism, affect life satisfaction and other attitudes and values in large parts of Europe today (Djankov and Nikolova 2018). Using multiple waves of the World Values Survey (WVS) and the 2010 and 2016 rounds of the EBRD-World Bank Life in Transition Survey (LiTS), we investigate the association of three Christian denominations – Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism – with personal attitudes and behaviour, focusing on satisfaction with life in particular. We also examine the link between religion and social capital, opinions about change and tradition, and views on government. The LiTS includes all transition countries with the exception of Turkmenistan, along with Turkey, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the UK (in 2010), and Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Germany (in 2016). The WVS covers nearly 100 countries and territories around the world, including 26 post-communist countries.

Studying the effect of religious differences in communist regimes is important for two reasons. First, the literature linking religion and culture has focused on differences acrossreligions, rather than within Christianity itself. As we argue below, theological differences within Christianity are associated with striking attitudinal differences. Second, Orthodoxy and Catholicism (from which Protestantism emerged in the 16thcentury) embraced different traditions even before 1054. Catholicism, the Western branch of Christianity, was linked with the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, and emphasised the individualistic, legalistic and rationalistic character of Roman antiquity. Catholics have understood the relationship between man and God as a legal one, in which believers follow rules established by God, and any misbehaviour requires penance (and justice) supervised by the Church. In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy has been influenced by Hellenic traditions which have centred on introspection and a communitarian spirit. Rather than highlighting the reciprocal legal obligations between man and God, Orthodox theology emphasises exchanges based on love and devotion. 

Two inter-related findings emerge from our analysis. First, Catholics and Protestants are happier relative to non-believers (which comprise the omitted category in the regressions). Interestingly, the life satisfaction of those of Eastern Orthodox religion is not different from that of the non-religious group. Consistent with these results, we find that, relative to those belonging to the Catholic or Protestant religion and non-believers, Eastern Orthodox respondents have fewer children, less social capital, and are more risk-averse. They also prefer old, rather than new, ideas and safe jobs. Orthodox believers have more left-leaning political orientations and a stronger opinion that governments (versus people) should take more responsibility.

Moreover, compared to non-believers, Catholics and Protestants are less likely to agree that government ownership is a good thing, and Protestants are less likely to agree that getting rich can only happen at the expense of others. Along both of these dimensions, Orthodox believers are no different than those who do not follow a particular religion.

Communism, religion, and the persistence of attitudes

We then use these data to evaluate among three competing theories linking Orthodoxy and communism. According to Marx, capitalist countries at an advanced stage of development (such as those in Western Europe) were most likely to experience a socialist revolution, which then would lead to the redefinition of social structures and the victory of communism. Lenin, on the other hand, believed that a joint revolution of the proletariat andthe peasantry was necessary to bring social change in Russia. At the same time, Lenin also argued that Orthodox Christianity, which was most prevalent among the peasant population and the exploited working class, must be eradicated completely in order for the class struggle to succeed. In contrast, Berdyaev (1933, 1937) argues that communism succeeded precisely in those countries with a strong Eastern Orthodox tradition. As he explains, “The best type of communist, that is to say, the man who is completely in the grip of the service of an idea and capable of enormous sacrifices and disinterested enthusiasm, is a possibility only as the result of the [Orthodox] Christian training of the human spirit, of the remaking of the natural man by the [Orthodox] Christian spirit” (Berdyaev 1937: 170).

Our argument builds on the idea that deep-rooted theological differences between Orthodoxy and the other two Christian denominations are responsible for differences in attitudes today. Western Christianity (which gave rise to Catholicism and Protestantism) placed emphasis on rationalism, logical exploration, individualism, and the questioning of established authorities. Eastern Christianity (from which Eastern Orthodoxy originated) was associated with mystical and experiential phenomena, was more affectionate and communitarian, and put less emphasis on law, reason and questioning authorities. Remarkably, these long-run attitudinal differences survived after nearly 50 years of communism. Religious activities were suppressed in most former communist countries during the totalitarian period, as political elites believed that religion was incompatible with the advancement of communism. Clergy were persecuted, killed and imprisoned and churches were demolished or closed. Church-going was prohibited, and religious education was removed from the school curricula.

At the same time, communist governments maintained those aspects of Orthodox theology –  including the emphasis on tradition and communitarianism – which were useful for spreading and solidifying communist ideas. In this regard, Orthodoxy provided a useful condition for the growth of communist regimes. Communist policies and institutions – collectivisation of agriculture, youth socialist organisations, a powerful secret service, and control over internal and external mobility – were highly compatible with pre-existing Orthodox norms, including communitarianism, less reliance on legal exchanges, and higher respect for authority. In many respects, communism can be seen as the second coming of Orthodoxy, which we argue is in line with Berdyaev's (1933, 1937) hypothesis.


Our findings have important implications for understanding the determinants of the economic and political transformation in Eastern Europe. A growing literature has argued that the totalitarian legacy has affected profoundly the cultural, economic and political landscape of the post-communist region (Pop-Eleches and Tucker 2017). While influential, such views may be only partially complete. Our paper points out that theological differences among different Christian denominations may have set countries on different development paths long before the arrival of communism and that communist elites may have exploited cultural environments to their own benefit. However, we must also clarify that we do not claim to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ theory of cultural and economic change. There are many forces that shape political and economic development and religion is only one of them.

Authors’ note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institutions with which they are affiliated.


Berdyaev, N (1933), The end of our time, London: Sheed & Ward. 

Berdyaev, N (1937), The origin of Russian communism, Glasgow: University Press Glasgow. 

Djankov, S and E Nikolova (2018), “Communism as the unhappy coming”, World Bank Policy research working paper 8399. 

Pop-Eleches, G and J Tucker (2017), Communism’s shadow: Historical legacies and contemporary political attitudes, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Weber, M (1930), The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, London: G. Allen & Unwin. 

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