Are Russians Becoming More Religious?
by Charles Ganske

Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ

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A New York Times survey of Russian newspapers this week picked up a report from Izvestia News revealing changes in religious attitudes inside Russia. Alternatively, the polling data may reveal that Russians are more confident declaring their religious affiliation to pollsters today than they were shortly after the collapse of the officially atheistic Soviet Union.

In late 2006, only 15 years after the collapse of the atheistic Soviet Union, 84% of Russia's citizens believe in God. Sixty-three percent of our fellow-citizens call themselves Russian Orthodox, 6% -- Muslims, 1% each -- Catholics and Buddhists, and followers of other traditional faiths even less; while 16% of the country's population listed themselves as staunch atheists.

These figures, which will appear today on the news agency tapes, are the result of a joint project by Izvestiya and the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). But to us it was not the quantitative indicators that were more important, especially since people by no means always tell sociologists the whole truth; it was the attempt to figure out what role faith in God plays in our society's life today. Is a Russian return to church really occurring and where might it lead us?

The Number of Believers Really Is Growing

"Undoubtedly, a religious revival is underway in our society," Mikhail Tarusin, the head of the sociological studies department at the Institute of Public Planning (INOP), assures us. "In the early 1990s, when I was developing a set of questions on religion at VTsIOM, only 34% of the country's adult population called itself Orthodox, in 1999 already approximately 50% did so, and today it is more than 60%. The number of "churchified" people, that is, those who visit churches at least once a month and regularly take communion, is also rising. During the "perestroyka" (restructuring) years, they comprised about 4%, but now, according to various estimates, they comprise 10-12%. Of course, in the larger picture, they are not Orthodox, they are people to whom the historical-cultural tradition of Russian Orthodoxy is precious; they believe that "this is ours," and represent the potential for the spread of genuine Orthodoxy.

In reality, in responding to the question formulated by Izvestiya "What does religion mean to you personally?" VTsIOM respondents usually answered: "It is a national tradition, the faith of our forefathers." At the same time, almost half of the people who called themselves believers admitted that they did not perform any religious rites. Religious figures usually respond to this rebuke: the condition of the congregation today is indeed such that not everyone follows the canons strictly. But that certainly does not mean that people who come to church only on holidays, baptize their child, are married and buried, and bless their home or car are not believers.

In an interview for Izvestiya, the Most Holy Patriarch Aleksiy commented: "If a man with a pure heart simply lights a candle, that is already a good sign." Consequently, there is no reason to deprive citizens of the right to teach their religion to their children or of the opportunity for a full-fledged church life in the army.

One other indisputable fact that is confirmed both by our poll and by many similar studies is the rejuvenation of the religious part of our society. According to Tarusin, the appearance of the average statistical Orthodox believer has changed dramatically in recent years. Just 15 years ago, churches were mainly filled by people around 60, while today the average age has dropped to 48, which is already much closer to the average age of the population as a whole -- 44 years. Moreover, the VTsIOM poll showed that 58% of the youngest Russian citizens, those who have not yet reached 25, call themselves Orthodox. The very same tendency is noted among followers of Islam too.

Isn't the number the point?

There are no official data on the number of representatives of a particular faith. Relied upon are merely the results of sociological surveys or expert evaluations based on ethnic affiliation. For example, some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church claim that 80% of the people in the country are Russians, and consequently Orthodox. The Council of Muftis of Russia names the figure of 20 million Muslims. However, judging from the results of our poll, the ethnic count method does not coincide with sociological data. The VTsIOM data attest that roughly 91 million people consider themselves Orthodox, while according to the 2002 census, in Russia 116 million of 145.2 million were Russians. The question is, where did that other 25 million go? It turns out that not all Russians are Orthodox. The results of the poll even more clearly do not correspond to the number of Muslims declared by the muftis: 6% is no more than 9 million, but certainly not 20 million.

But we should mention that even sociological surveys must not be called an absolutely accurate means of measurement. For many years sociologists did not record Jews in Russia at all -- according to data of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, there are 2 million of them, and according to the census -- 230,000. In any case they exist. As do Protestants. Aleksandr Asmolov, who is the head of the department of psychology of the personality at MGU (Moscow State University), explains this phenomenon like this: during sociological surveys, a person frequently answers in accordance with socially approved motives, keeps his personality confidential, and does not want to admit his affiliation with an unpopular faith. In Asmolov's opinion, the number of Muslims can be too low in sociological surveys. Tarusin does not agree with him: "According to our data, the figure does not come to more than 8-9% Muslims in Russia."

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the head of the department of foreign church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, recently commented that the state did not include a column on affiliation with a religion in the population census, although it was asked to.

But despite all the shortcomings of the methods of calculation, atheists are a clear minority in our country. Incidentally, Asmolov himself answered the question of religion like this: "There is a force that I want to count on in a difficult moment." Twelve percent of the participants in the VTsIOM study shared the very same position. In other words, the need for a faith is inherent even to those who are not willing to list themselves as supporters of one particular God or another. And this circumstance is much more important than any figures.

The Religious Revolution

But what are the reasons for the rise in religion that is occurring, and not only in Russia, by the way? In his book Islamskaya Alternativa i Islamskiy Proyekt (The Islamic Alternative and the Islamic Project), Aleksey Malashenko, a member of the scientific council of the Moscow Carnegie Center, explains: "The protest against the miserable life that a significant part of the population lives has been transformed into the idea of an Islamic alternative. But there are explanations lying outside the formula of "existence determines consciousness." Azer Aliyev, the secretary of the Interfaith Council of the CIS, (the complete text of his interview on the role of religion in the 21st century has been published on the Izvestiya website) believes: "The activism of believers is the natural answer to the 'taming of religion' in the 19th century." In his opinion, this response is not associated directly either with a larger number of believers or with the presence of a charismatic spiritual leader; the depth of the religious feeling of each particular person is a much more important factor. Aliyev assumes that aggressive attempts to place religious life within strict limits, a kind of reservation, will only lead to more determined responses by believers.

The psychologist Aleksandr Asmolov also sees the roots of today's processes in the anti-religion struggle in the 19th century: "The 19th century said that God had died." Technical progress, in Asmolov's opinion, cannot compete with the chief component of any religion -- an integrated picture of the world. In Russia Communism also collapsed, and immediately complete uncertainty about values appeared, the psychologist recalls. Ideological uncertainty. Who am I? What am I here for? Where am I going? And the search for moral values is inherent in a person. Moreover, from the standpoint of psychologists, religion is a most powerful psychotherapeutic method of reducing neurosis.

In the scientist's opinion, so far philosophers cannot offer any alternative to religion. And certainly politics does not offer one. In Russia they prefer to cooperate with its followers. Although it is difficult to predict how long this "symphony" will last.

Faith and Government

The lead VTsIOM analyst Leontiy Byzov, who headed the work with the responses to Izvestiya's questions, believes that the religious factor in our country is a unifying force. He points out that during the poll most of the Orthodox believers in response to "Who do you consider the enemy of Orthodoxy?" indicated Satanists and cultists, but not Muslims, despite the fear of terrorist acts. Representatives of other faiths traditional to Russia were not mentioned as enemies either. "So we can confidently say that there is an interfaith peace in Russia today," the sociologist commented.

The government says the very same thing. The appearance of the country's top leaders in churches has not surprised anybody for a long time now. During the current year, Vladimir Putin met with the Most Holy Patriarch seven times. Ministers and governors are baptized. And the president, although he is Russian Orthodox, does not forget to congratulate representatives of other faiths on important holidays.

At first glance relations seem idyllic. But the Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church -- a dogma document -- clearly points out the difference between the goals of the Church and the state: "The goal of the Church is the eternal salvation of people, while the goal of the state is their earthly well-being." The Church retains the right to urge the congregation to civil disobedience, "if the government forces Orthodox believers to retreat from Christ and His Church, or to commit sinful acts harmful to the soul."

Peace or the Sword?

"In contemporary Russian society, moral values have not been defined, above all by the state, which is more concerned with economic and social problems," says Tarusin. "But for no good reason. Because true believers move toward God not in those seven-mile steps that Soviet believers moved toward Communism 20 years ago, but through a return to an understanding of the importance of morality to the country's very existence. I am certain that in the next few years, they will raise this question to the government, and to the full extent, moreover. The moral question was always fundamental to Russia, and especially in the years crucial to our great state, which we are still undergoing today."

In the scientist's opinion, when we appear to act very intelligently in organizing the political system and formulating economic programs, fighting corruption, and reducing the birth rate and drunkenness in rural areas today, we forget to ask ourselves the main question --- the internal foundation of all this. The history of our country confirms that without an internal moral core, and without a sense of morality which the majority of the population shares, no large-scale undertakings are viable. And the population watches state television, which the government uses to communicate with them. The only thing is that in looking at the screen, one gets the impression that at this point it has nothing to say about moral principles, although the corresponding demand in society has already almost been formed and at any moment will be made on the government in particular and on all the elite as a whole. If there continues to be no response, it will inevitably lead to greater social tension in the country.

Even now 14% of Russian citizens are willing to defend their faith with weapon in hand at the urging of the spiritual leaders, while 16% are if its holy places are insulted. And what else but insulting can they call all the different kinds of television odes to sorcerers and propaganda for mystical cults on the country's main channels right in prime time, not to mention the extremely sensual advertising that nurtures carnal arrogance.

Nor should we underestimate the significance of interfaith disagreements. Russia's spiritual leaders often appear together, shake hands, and call each other brothers. But periodically a smoldering conflict arises over introducing a course in the fundamentals of Orthodox culture in schools or introducing chaplains in the army. The state would perhaps even be glad to take these steps, but certain Islamic organizations are categorically opposed. Nor do Jewish organizations like the appearance of religious discipline in school curricula. And the demands of the Church to decide the question are being heard more and more insistently. On the other hand, Russia's official Muslim structures are increasingly emphasizing their commonality with coreligionists abroad, and that is reflected in the situation in our country. It is appropriate to recall that during the recent war in Lebanon, a public squabble arose between the Council of Muftis of Russia and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

So the words of Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the president's administration, better reflect the interfaith world that Russia's leaders are so proud of and that they talk about at nternational forums so often: "Today's greatness is not indisputable, and tomorrow's is not obvious."

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in central Moscow was restored in the 1990s. Stalin had the original cathedral destroyed in 1931, and planned to construct a vast Palace of the Soviets on the site. However, these plans were shelved due to World War II.

Source: Discovery Institute
by Andrei Zubov
19 December, 2006