Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religious Freedom in Russia Today

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Religious Freedom in Russia Today

Article excerpt

The religious situation in Russia today

Public opinion in Russia today is not as hostile to the idea of religion, the religious quest or religious values as it was ten or fifteen years ago under the dominance of a resolutely atheistic communist ideology. Still, there is evidence of considerable and widespread inertia. Seventy years under a communist regime nurtured in a large portion of the Russian population an atheistic or at least agnostic attitude, as well as acceptance of state control over the freedom of conscience. How stable this atheistic attitude is, is another issue. The majority of Russians remain loyal to the traditional Russian Orthodox Church and cling to a notion of the place of the church in the state which goes back to the times before the 1917 revolution.

In the new Russian society, additional opportunities have opened up for religious associations (churches and communities) which previously had the fight to exist but under severe restrictions on their activities and missionary work. Movements and communities which were not present in Russia before, as well as those which had gone underground, have appeared openly and officially and have been granted rights equal to those of the traditional Russian confessions.

All this is not surprising for a new society committing itself to a democratic model of development. Believers, however, see this situation differently from those who do not consider themselves believers. The majority of believers in Russia are Orthodox. Like representatives of all other religions in the country, they can only rejoice at the removal of restrictions and welcome the freedom to preach, publish religious literature and use the mass media (though this latter freedom remains, for financial reasons, largely theoretical). Nevertheless, some Russian Orthodox people consider the contemporary state regime and socio-political atmosphere very unfavourable to Orthodoxy -- to the extent that romantic notions about the restoration of the monarchy have become popular, based on the pious belief that the monarchy, until it was destroyed in 1917, guaranteed the existence of Holy Russia.

The current revival of Orthodoxy is accompanied by a revival of "heterodoxy", both through the growth of communities which existed before and through the appearance of new denominations, religions, religious movements and groups. While many attribute the numerical growth of the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Baptist communities, as well as Muslims, Buddhists and others, simply to political pluralism and the newly proclaimed democratic values, it is evident that the inner resources of these Christian confessions and religions have played a vital part in their flourishing.

Others interpret the appearance of new religious and quasi-religious groups in terms of "the pernicious influence of the West". In fact, these groups have also come from the opposite geographical direction, and exotic Eastern teachings have definitely gained in popularity. But it should also be remembered (painful as it may be for an Orthodox person) that theosophy, spiritism and different forms of yoga were already well-known in Russia -- and even fashionable in Moscow and St Petersburg -- at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Already in pre-revolutionary Russia, theosophical and occult literature was being published.(1) There were many different sects, and already in pre-revolutionary times a distinct tolerance and openness towards religions such as Islam and Buddhism can be seen. The largest mosque in Europe was built in St Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as a Buddhist temple. In April 1905 a resolution on religious tolerance was passed.

Of course, the fact that the Orthodox Church was at that time the state church meant that it was under state control. This created certain difficulties for it. When the government promised in December 1904 to bring in a law on religious tolerance, Metropolitan Antonio of St Petersburg wrote to Nicholas II that such a law would place the Orthodox Church in an unequal position: "The other religions will enjoy freedom; only the state Orthodox Church will remain squeezed under the petty-minded control of the state. …

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