Summer 2007

Vol. 15, No. 3

The legacy of Boris Yeltsin: Father of Religious Freedom in Russia

Lauren B. Homer

Courageous Opponent of a Communist Resurgence

In August 1991 Soviet tanks poured into Moscow to suppress a small spontaneous protest against an attempted coup by Communist hardliners. Their intent was to oust reformer Mikhail Gorbachev from leadership and reassert Soviet totalitarian authority. It is hard for many today to recall the bold courage and conviction that led Boris Yeltsin to stand against those tanks. Even fainter is the memory of the euphoria that gripped the people of Russia and the world as it became increasingly clear that the authorities were not going to crush the demonstrators. In mere days, we watched and prayed as the feared KGB did nothing.Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev as the national leader; the political, economic, and legal structure of the USSR collapsed; and constituent republics were set free with little bloodshed. Those who had fought long for political, religious, another freedoms were stunned and thrilled by the speed and extent of their liberation. For people of faith, it was clear that these events could be explained only by supernatural intervention inhuman affairs. A brutal regime that had terrorized and repressed believers for over 70 years was eradicated overnight with almost no bloodshed or opposition from heavily armed security forces. The mood in Moscow on 1 January 1992was electric as it became clear that this was genuine change, that people were truly free, and that they faced the exhilarating but daunting task of building a new and democratic state. Almost everyone was open to the ideas of faith, democracy, and creating a “normal” society. In the midst of a cold Russian winter, hope bloomed. Boris Yeltsin and his wife, Naina, personally attended Orthodox Christmas services and other Christian events in Moscow in January 1992.Many who knew them felt that they were truly interested, which was a stunning turn of events for lifelong party members. The process of democratization and conversion to a free market economy was later badly bungled, which has led to the reassertion of the strong arm of the state under Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, Yeltsin’scourage and subsequent actions ushered in the greatest period of economic, political, press, and religious freedoms that Russia has ever known.

Champion of Religious Freedom

One of Boris Yeltsin’s key contributions was in the area of religious freedom. The collapse of the Soviet Union suddenly made a law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations enacted in 1990 the law of the land. In just a few years believers rebuilt ruined houses of worship; the state registered thousands of churches; and religious content reappeared in books, radio broadcasts, television, and other public venues. After decades of scientific atheism and ruthless repression of believers, Russians could decide whether or not to believe in God and how to express their religious beliefs. The Yeltsin administration was solicitous of religious freedom and worked hard to make Russia a tolerant nation at the highest levels. The Constitution President Yeltsin proposed in December 1993 contained notable provisions on religious freedom and other Human rights.

Full religious freedom proved unacceptable to certain reactionary members of the Russian parliament. By 4 July 1993, opponents of religious liberty had introduced legislation to require closure of all but a handful of state controlled, Soviet-era religious organizations.Yeltsin courageously vetoed this legislation, despite strong parliamentary support for the measure. This and other disputes with the Duma eventually led to the October 1993 siege of the Russian “White House.” Amazingly, the only piece of legislation considered and adopted by those holed up in the White House was the same Restrictive amendment to the law, “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” that had been vetoed by Yeltsin earlier that year. The president’s orders to storm the White House, dismiss the Duma, and order new elections invalidated that legislation. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, Yeltsin’s actions had the positive result of sustaining new and fragile religious freedoms in Russia at a critical moment. Again in 1997, the Duma adopted restrictive legislation, but Yeltsin preserved religious

freedoms by ordering his government to interpret the law in a more liberal manner than its written text. Despite some negative subsequent legal developments, the basic religious freedom still enjoyed by Russian citizens today is a lasting and significant legacy of his presidency. Without Yeltsin’s personal intervention and courage, Russia today would have only a handful of state-sanctioned religious associations. People of faith within and outside Russia owe Boris Yeltsin a huge debt of gratitude. ♦

Lauren B. Homer, St. Louis, Missouri, is an international lawyer and religious freedom activist who was deeply involved in the struggle for religious freedom in Russia in the 1990s.