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Religious intolerance & oppression in Russia


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Overview of religion in Russia:

Prior to 1904, the Russian Orthodox faith was the official religion of Russia and had a predominant role in the Russian culture. Proselytizing by other faith groups was oppressed. Non-orthodox Christian faiths and other religions were either tolerated as ethnic faiths or persecuted as sects. 1

In 1904, the Edict of Toleration was proclaimed. This introduced 13 years of relative religious freedom throughout Russia. This was terminated by the Communist Revolution. 1 For seventy years, the official state "religion" in Russia was Atheism.

"Many aspects of church life, -- charitable work, theological study, political and social comment -- simply disappeared completely and now have to be built up from scratch." 2

Many religious groups in Russia lost the confidence of their membership during the communist era. According to Keston News Service/:

 "Almost all senior leaders of all officially recognized religious faiths - including the Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, Muslims, and Buddhists - were recruited as KGB agents. It was virtually impossible to advance in church hierarchies without affiliation with the government." 3

His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II is the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and all Russia [sic]. The Irish Times reported that was recruited into the KGB, the Soviet Union's spy agency in 1958 at the age of 29. The report is based on data about a KGB operative with the code-name "Drozdov" that the Keston Institute found in Estonia. Personal details of this operative allegedly match only one priest from the Estonian diocese:  Patriarch Alexy II. Also, international trips made by "Drozdov" over the years allegedly match the travels of Alexy. Russian Orthodox Church spokespersons assert that the charges have not been substantiated. 3

Current religious practice in Russia is vaguely similar to that in England: many adults associate themselves with the state church, but few actually attend services.

The Center of Sociological Research of the Lomonosov Moscow State University conducted a public opinion poll among 1,000 adults in Moscow and 3,000 in the rest of Russia during 1996-JUN. 4 They determined:

bullet43.3% of adults consider themselves Russian Orthodox. (This rose to 66.1% among residents of Moscow)
bullet50.6% of adults consider themselves Christian believers
bullet7.1% say that they attend church monthly; (This rose to 20.3% in Moscow)
bullet3.9% say that they attend weekly. (This compares to about 40% for Americans, 20% for Canadians, and less than 10% for most of the other industrialize nations. Surveys that rely on nose counting instead of telephone questioning shows that the actual percentage of attendees in North America is about half the claimed amount.)

On the topic of special privileges for the Russian Orthodox Church, Muscovites were 46% opposed; 32%  in favor; 19% felt it was difficult to say, 3% no opinion.

Protestants in the country are well represented by Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lutherans, Mormons, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and others. Eastern Rite denominations, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, other Orthodox churches, the Old Believers (who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century) are active. The Roman Catholic church is also well established. Other world religions have had a lengthy and significant presence in Russia: particularly Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Native Neopaganism is experiencing a resurgence in some areas.

There are many New Religious Movements (NRMs) in the country, including the Vissarion Community in Siberia (4000 members), Hare Krishnas (2,500 to 3,000 members), Unification Church (500 members and in decline), and The Family (about 70 members). As in other countries, the rate of defection of NRM members is high. One source indicates that " between 1994 and 1997, at least 70% of those who had joined UC [Unification Church] eventually left it." 5

A general consensus among NRM researchers (not including those of the Anti-Cult and Counter-Cult Movements) is that there have always been fewer than 300,000 NRM members and adherents in Russia. Although there  has never been a conviction of any NRM for criminal activities, there is a widespread fear in the country that these groups are dangerous cults of extreme danger to youth and to society generally.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Marat Shterin, "New Religions in the New Russia," Nova Religio, 2001-APR, at: http://caliber.ucpress.net/
  2. "The work of the Keston Institute," at: http://www.keston.org/ 
  3. ReligionToday News Summary, 2000-SEP-28.
  4. "Confessions", Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 1996-NOV-28
  5. Marat S. Shterin, "New Religions, Cults and Sects in Russia: A Critique and Brief Account of the Problems," at http://web.tin.it/

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 Home > Worldwide religious intolerance > Russia > here

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Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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