Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 4

By Mikhail Zherebyatev

In early 2002 State Duma deputy Aleksandr Chuev, head of the tiny Christian Democratic Party of Russia, published his own version of the Federal law “On traditional religious organizations in the Russian Federation.” Chuev belongs to the pro-presidential and simultaneously pro-governmental faction–which is currently Edinstvo (Unity)–in the lower house of the Russian parliament. In 2000 he was elected to the Duma from the lists of the electoral party of the same name, hastily thrown together by Kremlin spin-doctors from among the members of various unknown parties, movements, corporate organizations and even mass interest groups, at the core of which are high-earning commercial organizations (one example being the television viewers’ organization My Family, run by Valery Komissarov, who is now a member of the Duma himself).

Presenting his bill, Chuev stated bluntly that, before sitting down to write the draft, he had consulted Putin on the matter and Putin had approved. There has as yet been no response to this claim from the president, his administration or his informal circle. Chuev stresses that his text is designed first and foremost to encourage broad public debate. Only then does he plan to present it to the lower house of the Russian parliament for discussion. The project calls for a fundamental revision of current religious legislation, creating a hierarchy of faiths.

Since 1990, three laws have been adopted in Russia defining the legal position of religious organizations and regulating relations between the state and religion. The first–a Soviet law–appeared in 1990; the second was passed the same year, as a law of the RSFSR, a union republic within the USSR; the third, which replaced the previous one, appeared in 1997. The Soviet law lost its validity on the break-up of the USSR, because the Russian law was already on the books by that time.

The 1990 Russian law “On freedom of conscience” was extremely democratic (though not without its defects). It declared all religious organizations to be equal before the law. It introduced a procedure whereby religious organizations could apply for status as legal entities. It did not place in the path of newly formed religious organizations any obstacles to prevent them from becoming social institutions. Many organizations emerged from the underground, some renewed their activities after a long break (returning from abroad), and entirely new religions also appeared, some of which had existing structures in other countries, and some of which were purely Russian in origin. As an extension to the declaration of nonintervention by the state in religious affairs, the law abolished the state body in Russia (the Council for Religious Affairs under the aegis of the cabinet), which in Soviet times had monitored the activities of religious organizations. In addition to this, the law proclaimed the principle of unimpeded dissemination of religious beliefs and practices.


Georgy Poltavchenko, the president’s envoy in the Central Federal District (who was until recently a member of one of the security structures) has described traditional religious organizations as the “focal point for healthy forces and the bulwark of morality.” Poltavchenko has called for agreements on cooperation to be signed with such organizations. Given the current legal framework, however, such agreements are not capable of changing the legal status of religious organizations and therefore of increasing the rights of some and reducing the rights of others.

Thus, at the top of the hierarchy of faiths, according to Chuev’s draft, should be what he calls the “traditional religious organization of the Russian Federation.” One rung lower would be the “traditional religious organizations of individual peoples of the Russian Federation.” Lower still would be “traditional historic religious organizations.” Completing the list are what he calls “representations of foreign religious organizations.” If we take the parameters laid down in Chuev’s bill (number of followers, length of activity and contribution to the historical and cultural heritage of the peoples of Russia), and project them onto the religious organizations present in Russia, then we obtain the following picture.

The “all-Russian traditional organization” can be none other than, irrefutably, the Russian Orthodox Church. The “religious organizations of individual peoples” are Muslim, Buddhist and perhaps Jewish organizations, which are mainly located in the Russian regions. The “traditional historic religious organizations” may apply to Jewish organizations, and also religious groups of the smaller peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East who apply to shamans for spiritual guidance, and also ethnically based faiths among the larger ethnic groups of Russia, such as Russian Old Believers, the Molokan and Dukhobor sects, Orthodox Tatars (known as “Kryasheny”) and Lutheran Germans. Among Protestants, the only people who may rely on qualifying for this group–and only then hypothetically–are Russia’s Baptists and Adventists. The Roman Catholic Church will obviously be classed among the “representations of traditional foreign religious organizations.”

The bill contains a provision that makes it attractive to Russia’s large religious corporations, as it allows for them to be funded from public budgets at various levels. It even envisages the financing of religious organizations’ educational programs and the appointment of chaplains to military units, which is forbidden under the current Russian Constitution.

In early March the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church published a report of its department for external ecclesiastical relations, giving official approval to the project and the idea contained within it of assigning different rights to different religions. It also spoke out in favor of further restriction of the rights of “representations of traditional foreign religious organizations” (to use the terminology of Chuev’s bill). The Moscow Patriarchy believes that in Chuev’s draft, such organizations have the same number of rights as those of the third category (“traditional historic religious organizations”).

The leaders of Russia’s large Protestant organizations gave their reaction to the bill at almost the same time as the Russian Orthodox Church. These included Petr Konovalchik of the Union of Evangelical Baptist Christians, Sergei Ryakhovsky of the Russian Association of the Evangelic Faith Union (Pentecostalists), Pavel Okar of the Christian Evangelic Union (Pentecostalists) and Vasily Stolyar of the Western Russian Union of Seventh-Day Adventists. They said they were ready to hold talks with the bill’s author, but described the document as a “backward step” and expressed concern that passing the law would carry the risk of intervention in the internal affairs of religious organizations, leading to increased high-handedness on the part of local officials. The signatories also noted that the new bill appeared soon after religious organizations had undergone the complex procedure of re-registration. This had created some element of disorganization in the activities of religious communities in Russia, and had used up a great deal of believers’ strength, nervous energy and time.

In addition to Russia’s Protestant leaders, the board of directors of the Russian branch of the International Association for Religious Freedom also reacted to Chuev’s draft bill. The statement of this human rights organization said that the proposed amendments violated the basic principle of a secular state–the separation of religious organizations from the state–and gave the cultural concept of “tradition” legal status. Human rights activists are convinced that this will lead to a division of believers into different categories with unequal rights, and will contribute to destabilization in interfaith relations.

Mikhail Zherebyatev is a specialist with the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow.