For the founding fathers of the Soviet Union, religion was a fable devised by the ruling class to assuage worker and peasant discontent with the consoling dream of recompense in an afterlife. Elements of Orthodox worship may have been grafted into the Stalinist ‘cult of personality’, but the Church itself was beleaguered and arguably emasculated by state repression and infiltration. The most poignant documentary footage of the early days of the Bolshevik revolution shows the onion domes of Orthodox churches crashing to the ground, icons becoming firewood. For the Eisenstein of Battleship Potemkin, the priest’s cunning culminated in his crucifix’s doubling as a dagger. And, although the eventual emergence within this officially atheistic state structure of a handful of films with religious undertones and overtones may be viewed retrospectively as a harbinger of its later collapse, it did not seem so at the time: the tumultuousness of its demise astonished all. Several directors may have ventured to employ religious themes and imagery in the 1970s and 1980s, but only one, Andrei Tarkovsky, had the courage and intransigence consistently to thematize the spiritual – thus inviting equally consistent state harassment. At the same time, the Western renown achieved through Ivan’s Childhood (1962), whose apparently ‘safe’ treatment of the Great Patriotic War is in fact entirely consistent with Tarkovsky’s later work, somewhat blunted the edge of his persecution. (The film actually begins with the boy and tree who close his very last work, The Sacrifice (1986).) The skilful simultaneous development and concealment of religious elements that characterize Larissa Shepitko’s fascinating The Ascent (1976) represented the best option for a director lacking Tarkovsky’s unique talent (and the accompanying partial Western protection in ‘the age of détente’). Thus I will consider Shepitko’s film in some detail before moving on to a more explicitly tinged work of the kind that became possible in the era of glasnost, the 1980s, and finally reverting to Tarkovsky.