Russian Public Opinion: Increasingly at Odds with Its Protestants
Evgeniy Yur’evich Knyazev
In the beginning of the 1990s, when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed, Evangelical Christians received freedom to do missions. The tremendous growth in the number of churches was overwhelming, and new financial opportunities led to a distorted impression of Evangelical might. Now that more than 15 years have passed, it is time to take a new look at Protestant churches in Russia today.
At the end of 2006, the Institute for European Studies of the Russian Academy of Science published “Religious Situation in Russia in the 1990s of the 20th Century – Beginning of the 21st Century” (Report 173). D.E. Furman and K. Kaariaynen researched the attitudes of the masses toward religion after the collapse of the Communist system. Their work was based upon the results of sociological polls of the attitudes of Russians toward religion, conducted jointly by the Russian Academy of Science and the Academy of Science of Finland from 1991 to 2005.
The results of this research should not be ignored by the Protestant community in Russia. Furman and Kaariaynen come to the conclusion that democratic tendencies in the country have been totally discredited, and that society is moving toward a stable symphony between the state and the Orthodox Church, which serves as its ideological base. The Byzantine model of Christianity can be seen as dominant throughout Russian history. Tsarist Russia was always ideologically connected to the Orthodox Church. But even under Communism the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) still remained a significant element in the conscience of the people. With the democratic reforms following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself in a very interesting situation. The Duma passed democratic legislation for the sake of public opinion (to please Europe and the United States). But in practice, local bureaucrats acted otherwise.
In 2005-2006 Protestant attention was drawn to discussions over the introduction of the course, “Basics of Orthodox Culture,” in public schools. In addition, the Ministry of Justice sought to amend the Federal Law on Freedom of Conscience to limit missionary activity. In the end, to the relief of Protestants, the amendments were not passed, and Russian Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko proposed an alternative course, “History of World Religions,” for public schools.
Growing Negative Attitudes Toward Protestants
Yet if lawmakers were concerned with the will of the people, they would have rewritten the Constitution, and the Law on Freedom of Conscience would have been changed significantly. In this case, Protestants in Russia would have faced greater hardships because Russians’ positive attitude toward the Orthodox Church grows from year to year. Looking at some of the figures from the polls, 88 percent of respondents in 1996 said that they had a “good” or “very good” attitude toward the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). In 2005, that number increased to 95 percent. At the same time the percentage of people with a positive attitude toward Baptists was 23 percent in 1996 and 25 percent in 2005. In contrast, the negative attitude toward Orthodoxy decreased from 4 percent to 1 percent, while more than half of respondents had a negative attitude toward Baptists (45 percent in 1996 and 53 percent in 2005).
In educational matters Russian public opinion also gives preference to Orthodoxy. More than 80 percent of respondents approved the introduction of Orthodox-oriented radio and TV broadcasts. At the same time, 51 percent oppose while only 21 percent would allow, Baptists to produce such broadcasts. Still, Baptists are five points ahead of other Protestants in the issue of trust among Russians. The number of Russians who favor mandatory teaching of the basics of Orthodox faith in public schools is on the increase. In 1996, 11 percent of Russians favored mandatory study of Orthodoxy compared to 24 percent in 2005.
Declining Support for Freedom of Conscience
The attitude toward freedom of conscience is quite alarming. In 1996, 70 percent of respondents believed all religious groups in Russia should have equal rights, but in 2005 this number was down to 53 percent. And we should not forget that support for the idea that the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) should have certain privileges in Russia is on the rise with alarming speed. In 1996, 51 percent of respondents agreed with this idea, but by 2005 this number had grown to 72 percent.
In 2005, 55 percent of Russians thought that new religious groups in Russia should not be allowed to buy or construct buildings for religious purposes, and 66 percent said that they should be banned from preaching in public places. Sixty percent said that they should not publish their own printed materials. And 62 percent said that they should neither be allowed to start religious schools nor run TV broadcasts.
Furman and Kaariaynen concluded the following: “Church and State have joined forces to strengthen each other. Serious religiosity demonstrated by Vladimir Putin, without doubt, boosts his popularity. The Church confers its authority upon Putin. On the other hand, the religiosity of the President helps to strengthen the ‘Orthodox consensus’ and the role of religion as the symbol of unity because the President confers his authority upon the Church.”
This situation is a dead-end for Russian Protestants. At first it seems as if there is no way out, yet there is an assurance that Evangelical Christians should be active citizens of their own country to earn the sympathy of the masses. Here there is no talk about hypocrisy. Quite often Protestant churches are self-centered. They do not want to express their views regarding questions asked by the society. Such an approach hinders the growth of popularity of Evangelical Christians in the country. At the same time, it is evident that the current president of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union, Yuri Kirillovich Sipko, has taken a more active position in the life of Russia. “Theos” Radio Station and Credo.Ru Internet site, initiated the broadcast of his addresses. Obviously, it is not enough, but such good beginnings should be noticed. I hope that we will be able to reach a new level of quality in the communication of our Protestant position.
In conclusion, I would like to note that Jesus did not promise his disciples that they would not face difficulties in spreading the good news. Leaving his disciples on earth, He said that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him. Therefore we can respond with great courage and stand fast to face this new challenge. ♦
Translated from the Russian by Oleg P. Turlac, and published with the author’s permission. Originally posted on the Russian-language website of Kuban Evangelical Christian University: (http://www.kecu.ru/rpint.php?doc=270) and Portal-Credo (www.portal-credo.ru).
Evgeniy Yur’evich Knyazev is director of public relations at Kuban Evangelical Christian University, Krasnodar, Russia.