Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 13

By Aleksandr Verkhovsky

The Soviet state pursued a policy of aggressive secularization. Thankfully, that has now ended. But it has proved difficult for the new state to understand and accept the role of religion in a democratic society. Religious organizations themselves have compounded the problem, both by blurring ethnic and religious identity and by claiming a role for themselves as the approved representative of these groupings.

Vladimir Putin’s first period in government, which was accompanied by slogans about building a “vertical of power” and the “equidistancing of the oligarchs,” was also expected to generate a new state policy on religious organizations that would regularize their relationship with the state. Such ideas are not new, of course: The preface to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience affirmed the special relationship between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church and also respect for other “traditional religions.” The rights of organizations that had existed for less than fifteen years were restricted. But in the summer of 2001, two new laws were proposed that would harden the legal distinction between “traditional religious organizations” and the groups that were not thus classified.

It is natural enough for social historians and theologians to discuss the differences between ancient and new religions, and between those long present in a country and other, more recent arrivals. What is more dubious is the effort to codify these distinctions with the force of law. This approach encroaches on the equal rights of individual believers. Also, the distinctions are clear-cut only in extreme cases–the Orthodox Church at one extreme, the followers of Sun Myung Moon at the other. But how do you define Lutherans or Pentecostalists, who may be relatively few in number, but have been present for centuries?

The definition of “traditional” is even more blurred when it comes to specific organizations. Today’s Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is only one of a number of rightful descendants of the pre-revolutionary Church. There are also the no less traditional Old Believers, who are now fragmented into several different organizations. The Muslims and the Pentecostalists, meanwhile, do not have–or even aspire to have–a unified organizational structure.

The leaders of Russia’s largest religious organizations–of Orthodox believers, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews–seem prepared to overlook these difficulties. They think differently from most Western observers, speaking not of the rights of individuals and organizations but of the essential character of the religions and the ethnic communities that they represent. Thus, for example, in the recent international debate over the future constitution of the European Union, the Russian Orthodox Church proposed that the document should give as much weight to the freedom of “cultural-religious communities” as it does to the freedom of the individual. By “communities,” the Church means not organizations, but ethnic communities, having the right to “preserve their integrity, and remain faithful to their traditions, community ethics and religion.”

In Russia, this theory produces a definition of religious adherence that is based on ethnic origin, with the result that the conversion of a Russian to Islam or Catholicism, or that of a Tatar to Orthodoxy or the Baptist faith, is regarded as inadmissible. Even conversion to a different branch of the same religion is often condemned, if that branch is not a traditional one in the region in question. Inter-religious peace means accepting the status quo; consequently, proselytism (soliciting voluntary conversion) is to be condemned. This leads to an incomprehensible situation in which the Patriarch disapproves even of proselytizing among non-believers.

Added to this conception of religious identity is the fact that the Russia Federation is partly structured along ethnic lines, and includes twenty-one ethnically-designated federal subjects. Each of these republics has a “titular” nationality–each with its “titular” religion. In this scheme of things, the Russian Orthodox Church is “titular” for the whole country, which makes it first amongst equals vis-ˆ-vis the Muslim and Buddhist subjects of the Federation. This occasionally results in clashes between the major religious organizations. But they seem on the whole to have settled for a status quo in which the Moslems, Jews and Buddhists accept a role as a tolerated minority–while agreeing on the unacceptability of proselytism. And this implies that the federal and regional powers should help to support this consensus.

The acceptance of this policy by the major religious leaders has been stated often enough. Mufti Talgat Tadjuddin presented Vladimir Putin with proposals for a new concept of state-religious relations in September of 2001. In 2002, state and religious figures gave their almost unanimous support to a campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church opposing the creation of Catholic bishoprics in Russia, this being regarded as a form of proselytizing. In fall of 2002 the same religious leaders, and several senior government officials, agreed that the teaching in state schools of the “The Basics of Religious Culture” should correspond to the “titular religion” of the particular subject of the Federation. And this line is still taken (albeit in a slightly softened form) to this day.

The government as a whole opposes such initiatives more or less consistently, although it is divided on the issue. From the government’s point of view, the regionalization of state support for religion would weaken the federation. As explained by Andrei Sebentsov, the deputy chairman of the Government Commission for Religious Associations, the government objects to enshrining in law the privileges of religious organizations, noting that the constitution makes clear that “religious associations are separate from the state and equal in the eyes of the law.”

As a result, relations between the major religious organizations and the government are far from ideal, and religious leaders prefer to make representations to the State Duma or the president himself. In doing so, they use ideological constructs, rather than strictly religious arguments, that are incomprehensible to most of Russia’s politicians. It is unusual to hear rabbis, lamas, muftis and especially the higher Orthodox clergy say anything about the moral value of religion, and rarer still to hear about how essential it is for the salvation of souls. But they are very often heard discussing religion’s role in the history of the state and in its current strengthening.

There has been no letup in efforts to use the law to enshrine privileges for certain religious organizations and/or to curtail the activities of new and foreign religious preachers. Rather than listing the many new draft laws, let us just say that these attempts have so far not come close to getting serious high level political consideration, or being put to the vote in the State Duma.

In part this is due to the problem of defining “traditional” religious organizations. All formal criteria founder because they carry the risk of putting “undesirable” organizations on the privileged list. Nor is it possible to calculate the numbers of adherents because, since Soviet times, almost none of the legally active religious organizations (including the Orthodox Church, Muslims and others) have had any formal membership. Surveys produce extremely unreliable results, and the 2002 census did not ask about religious affiliation. This leaves only one precise criterion–the number of communities registered. But by this standard Jews and Buddhists are outnumbered even by Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to mention Baptists and Pentecostalists.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church has been overstepping its position as “first among equals.” When defining the Church’s standpoint, Metropolitan Kirill (Gundyaev) now usually maintains that Russia “is not a multi-confessional nation, but an orthodox nation with religious minorities.” The status of the Russian Orthodox Church cannot therefore be the same as that of these minorities. This appears to be accepted by the main Jewish and Buddhist leaders and also by one of the three largest associations of Russian Muslims (that headed by Mufti Tadjuddin). But other Muslim leaders are less loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

The preface to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience mentioned respect for “Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and the other religions that constitute an inalienable part of the historical inheritance of the peoples of Russia.” Now, however, almost every politician says that Russia’s only traditional religions are Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. Moreover, there is a group of organizations that are energetically consolidating themselves and presenting themselves as the “traditional religions.” Seven organizations make up the Inter-Religious Council of Russia (MSR). They are the Russian Orthodox Church, the Buddhist Sangha, and three Muslim and two Jewish coalitions. The MSR is based on mutual recognition of legitimacy and state approval. Tellingly, the President’s Council on Cooperation with Religious Associations, which includes representatives of the Christian minorities, has not met for two years, and only the MSR is participating in any way in policy making.

In early June the MSR proposed working with the presidential administration to push through one of the draft laws on “traditional religious organizations,” specifically, the one proposed by the communist (KPRF) deputy, Sergei Glaziev. The draft defines “traditional” organizations as the Russian Orthodox Church and “Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish religious organizations in places where there is a traditional concentration of adherents of the relevant faith.” Defining “places of traditional concentration” will be the subject of political haggling between religious leaders and the subjects of the Federation, centering on the above mentioned “regional-ethnic” definition of religion.

In the Duma, the main supporters of this law will be the approximately fifty deputies of the cross-party association “In Support of the Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values of Russia,” which was set up late last year. The association brings together Communists and the pro-government Unity, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) and People’s Deputy factions. This may enable the association to overcome the main political shortcoming of Glaziev’s draft law–the fact that it comes from the opposition benches.

It is still not easy to predict the reaction of the presidential administration, the effect of the impending elections, or how the MSR’s internal disagreements will unfold. But it is clear that the combined efforts of the leaders of the major religious organizations and a significant part of the political elite to legitimize and consolidate the existing privileges of these organizations will not be halted, and may well bear fruit in the near future.

Aleksandr Verkhovsky is director of the Sova Center, and head of the “Religion in a secular society” project (