Retrieving the Sacred

Blair A. Ruble

Just a few months after the Soviet Union collapsed, a leading “Sovietologist” was invited by a group of even more distinguished Soviet-hands to imagine the “table of power” in the Kremlin a decade-and-a-half hence. Who would be at that table? The leaders of various democratic political parties? Business leaders who competed with equal deftness with their Western counterparts on the great global markets that would surely rule the world?

The speaker began by observing that how people gathered around the table would be as important as who they were. Would members of this elite be elected? Alternatively, would they find their way to power via personal networks? Would they all be ethnic Russians, or would there be a place at the table for representatives of other nationalities? Would women be in the room? Continuing on, he suggested that while the process was unclear, undoubtedly some of those present would be wearing expensive business suits, others would be wearing the uniforms of various security and military forces, and others still would don clerical garb.

The audience audibly gasped and spent the evening trying to explain to the discussion leader that there would be no clerical garb at the Russian table of power. The Soviet Union had been an atheistic society and state, one that had been thoroughly secularized. In addition, the forces of a burgeoning global economy would propel others to the fore. Despite the role that religion might come to play in the private lives of individual Russian citizens, several in the room argued, there would be no public institutionalized religiosity in the former Soviet Union. Whatever aspects of Russian reality were illuminated that evening nearly 15 years ago, even more light was shed on mainstream Washington, D.C. think-tanks. One simply did not speak of religion in polite company, especially when engaging in political analysis.

Religious Resurgence

How different the world – and Washington – seems today. Since the fall of Communism in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries once part of the Soviet Union, religious affiliations and identities have experienced a rapid resurgence. Religion emerged as an affiliation of growing prominence. An increasing number of people today look through the framework of religion in order to understand the world around them. In fact, it is fair to say that religion touches upon all spheres of social, political, and cultural life, and its resurgence has profoundly affected the definition and shaping of broader social movements as well as individual behaviors.

Within such countries as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, we find vast and varied examples of the wide-ranging influence of religion in its many facets. In some cases, religious practices prove to be part of what could be a new cultural dynamism, one that responds to shifting social reality. For example, over the past couple of years, mullahs in Tatarstan have begun to read their sermons in Russian rather than in Tatar. They have done so in response to the arrival of increasingly large numbers of migrants from the Caucasus region who are seeking religious sustenance in the language they share with local clergy: Russian. Some observers of this phenomenon detect an increasing radicalization of the content of local sermons, so that Russian may in fact become the language of Islamic fundamentalism in the Central Volga. At the same time, because the sermons are in Russian, they offer a new, wider access to the sacred texts of Islam – a process which can serve to demystify Islam for Russians, an important step on the way to growing tolerance.

In another example, the new mayor of Kyiv – Leonid Chernovetsky – was an unexpected candidate and an even more surprising electoral victor, given his religious affiliation. Chernovetsky is a follower of Pastor Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian Pentecostal minister who has built up a congregation in Kyiv’s left-bank neighborhoods that is said to now total 25,000.

Within the thorny question of church/state relations in the region, several interesting configurations have developed. For example, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is lobbying for the introduction of religious training in Russian public schools. At the same time, the Patriarchate praises the separation of church and state in neighboring Ukraine. In Belarus, a new law on religious freedom – first thought of as a counterpoint to the post-Soviet state atheism still in effect in the country – has forced many followers of minority

religions outside of the frame of the law, simply because they meet in private homes. In the Northern Caucasus, one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world, Islam is playing a role that leads both to stability and to radicalization. It is practiced not only by a small but devastating group of rebel warriors and “black widows,” but mostly by men and women hoping to quietly re-familiarize themselves with a religion long closed to them. It is clear that religion, through a variety of institutions and confessions, has become a vital and vibrant force in the region.

Cold War Neglect of the Study of Religion

During the Cold War, Westerners barely thought to study religion in the Soviet Union. It was, after all, an atheistic state and, in any case, the questions that interested students of the region clearly clustered around themes of high politics and international relations. When the Soviet state collapsed, scholars had unprecedented chances to sort through the many sides of life that had been left out of the scholarship examining the Soviet Union. Still, we in the West who try to understand and explain the region often seem much more comfortable talking about oligarchs and parliamentary negotiations than considering the content of Islamic and Pentecostal sermons. Yet, the political may be the least dynamic aspect of post-Soviet life.

When the Kennan Institute was founded 32 years ago, it may have been hard for some of the finest scholars of the Soviet Union to imagine a time such as this, when the region was actively reinventing itself in important ways, especially along cultural and religious lines. Even if conflicts in the region appear to cluster around religious identities, it is crucial to remember in these dynamic and sometimes very troubled times that religion and the fact of religious diversity can play a positive role in individual minds, hearts, and communities. It seems crucial to pay respect to that positive function as we strive to understand this vast, rich, and complex region. F

Blair A. Ruble is director of the Kennan Institute (covering Russia and surrounding states), Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Blair A. Ruble, “Director’s Review,” Kennan Institute, 2005/2006.