Russian Orthodox Church Redraws Its Map of the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 14

The Russian Orthodox Church has reformed its organizational structures in the North Caucasus twice in the last few years alone. Thus, on March 22, 2011, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia became part of the previously created Vladikavkaz and Makhachkala diocese ( Chechnya and Dagestan were thereby separated from the Baku diocese. Prior to this separation, Dagestan had been part of the Baku and Caspian diocese since 1998. Chechnya and Ingushetia were part of the Stavropol and Vladikavkaz diocese.

These dioceses went through yet another change at the end of 2012. On December 26, the Russian Orthodox Church announced the separation of Vladikavkaz and Makhachkala diocese. The Makhachkala and Grozny diocese was created for Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. The Vladikavkaz and Alanian diocese was created for North Ossetia-Alania ( It is unclear why North Ossetia needed a separate diocese with its tiny territory of 8,000 square kilometers and an Orthodox Christian population of little over half a million. The figures are even lower in the newly created Makhachkala and Grozny diocese, where there are probably less than 100,000 Orthodox Christians.

Although officials tend to portray the ethnic Russian population of the North Caucasus as explicitly part of Russian Orthodoxy, the relationship between the two is much more complex. There were Protestants in the area even at the time of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Protestants intensified their activities in the North Caucasus, proselytizing to members of the Orthodox communities and building numerous Protestant churches (

Various types of Protestants are present today in the North Caucasus. There are Seventh-day Adventists, Evangelical Baptist-Christians, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses ( It can be concluded that Christianity in the region is less clear-cut than the Orthodox clergy likes to portray it.

According to the Dagestani government committee for religious affairs, as of March 1, 2007, there were 41 Christian organizations in Dagestan, of which only 15 were Russian Orthodox and 26 were Protestant. In Ingushetia there is one Orthodox church, while in Chechnya there are six churches and in Dagestan there are 16 churches and one monastery. In Chechnya there are also three Protestant prayer houses, two Baptist prayer houses and one Seventh-Day Adventist prayer house. There is no Protestant community in Ingushetia. Even though the number of Orthodox Christian parishioners exceeds the number of Protestant parishes, the upward trend of the Protestants apparently worries the Orthodox clergy (

One of the specific features of Protestants in the North Caucasus is that unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, they engage in proselytizing activities among the native, non-Christian population of the region. The missionary work of the Protestants in the region is far superior to that of other Christians. For example, the Dagestani association of the Pentecostals is headed by the pastor of the Osanna (Hosanna) church, Suleimanov Artur Magomedovich, an ethnic Avar. Suleimanov managed to involve hundreds of native Dagestanis from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups in Pentecostal activities, including Avars, Laks, Kumyks, Dargins and others ( According to Protestant leaders, Chechens are the hardest to convert and working among them is considered to be a dangerous enterprise. Against the backdrop of Protestant proselytism, the Russian Orthodox Church does not even attempt to engage in similar missionary work.

Why, then, would the Russian Orthodox Church redraw its dioceses’ borders yet again? Is it an attempt to fight against the spread of Protestantism? That is unlikely. One possibility might be that the new Russian Patriarch is simply replacing the old team of the clergy with his own supporters, some of whom are fairly young. When an ethnic Ossetian priest, Sava Gagloev, was dispatched from Moscow to North Ossetia, he said that the new redrawing of dioceses’ borders would strengthen Orthodox Christianity in the North Caucasus ( However, he probably did not actually believe this. It appears that Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan were separated from other regions in order to prevent their deleterious influence on the rest of the region (

It can be assumed that the Orthodox Church works closely with Russian authorities. Essentially, the church in this case is simply the instrument of the government, which is trying to prevent a total exodus of ethnic Russians from the region ( The exodus of Russians from the region has reached the point of no return: while ethnic Russians comprised a quarter of the population of Chechnya and Ingushetia only 20 years ago, these two republics are now practically mono-ethnic entities ( Russia’s presence in the region, today comprising five percent of the population, will soon fall to 1–2 percent. All republics of the North Caucasus without exception are losing their ethnic Russian population. The latest trends show that the proportion of non-Russians is growing even in the Russian-speaking Stavropol region (

Against this backdrop, the Russian government’s plan to return ethnic Russians to the North Caucasian republics looks like a mockery of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have left the region. The authorities are using this issue to show to the world that there are no problems in the region and that those who left are now going back. In reality, however, as Georgiy, the prior of the church of Michael the Archangel in Grozny, said, the program for return of Russians is not working. He said he knows of no Russians, “except for one or two,” who have returned to Chechnya ( The behavior of the ethnic Russians is understandable, given that the North Caucasus is experiencing an armed resistance movement, Islamic radicalism, ethnic conflicts, tense relations between religions, etc.

It is no accident that Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan were singled out to form a separate Orthodox diocese. This might be a tentative step toward the future separation of these three republics from Russia. In any case, the redrawing of the church borders was certainly not only about internal ecclesiastical affairs, given that the Russian government closely cooperates with the church. Such reform could have been undertaken only with the approval of the Kremlin, which closely watches all the political players in the North Caucasus, and which causes so much trouble for the federal authorities. The redrawing of the Orthodox Church is unlikely to stop the exodus of ethnic Russian from the region: it will only help the government retain its presence in the area under the guise of the church. Moscow is finding it increasingly difficult to find its place in the North Caucasus, and the church in this respect is unlikely to be of much help to the government either.