Summer 2008

Vol. 16, No. 3


 The Level of Religious Commitment in Russia

Valeria Sorokina

2006-2007 Gallup Poll Data

On 25-26 August and 1-2 September 2007, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (Russian acronym - VTSIOM) conducted two nationwide Gallup Polls, “Religion in Our Life,” reaching 3,200 people (1,600 people in 153 localities in 46 regions, territories, and republics of Russia in each poll).1 According to poll data, 50 percent of Russians identify themselves as believers. Among self-identified believers 10 percent go to church regularly and observe all rites and ceremonies, while 43 percent visit church only on holidays and do not keep all rituals. One-third of respondents (31 percent) believe that God exists, but take little interest in church life. Only six percent of those questioned are convinced atheists, while eight percent have no opinion. Among respondents 75 percent identified themselves as Russian Orthodox, and eight percent identified themselves as Muslims. Only one to two percent of respondents chose other religious affiliations.

Just eight months prior, in December 2006, VTSIOM published data concerning the Russian population’s religious affiliations and understanding of religion.2 Remarkably, most respondents (74 percent) were not eager to physically fight for their faith, even if inspired by their spiritual leaders. Only 14 percent of respondents were likely to participate in a religious war. Two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) did not consider violations of religious sacred places as a sufficient justification for going to war. On the other hand, 16 percent of participants  who were younger than 45 were ready to fight in case their faith were blasphemed.

Russian Orthodox consider their enemies to be “sectarians,” in the first place, (indicated by 26 percent of respondents), followed by occultists, astrologists, and practitioners of magic (nine percent); adherents of non-Christian religions (five percent); non-Orthodox believers (two percent); and atheists (four percent). A quarter of respondents (24 percent) did not identify any enemies of the Russian Orthodox Church.

VTSIOM figures for 2007 show that Russians do not consider the church as the main source of moral values for youth. In the opinion of 67 percent of those surveyed, children and young people must be introduced to morals in their families and at school. Only four percent of respondents identified the church as a source of moral values.3

1999 - 2007 Comparisons

If we compare answers published by Drs. Kimo Kaariainen and Dmitry Furman in 1999 with data for 2007, we see that the number of people who do not go to church has increased from 45 percent to 59 percent; fewer Russians visit church once a year – down from 29 percent in 1999 to 16 percent in 2007. In 1999, 53 percent of respondents never participated in the Divine Liturgy whereas in 2007 the figure was even higher: 83 percent. Ten percent of those surveyed take part in communion once a year or less. Nevertheless, the number of baptized people has increased to 76 percent.4


 A “Cultural Religiosity” Criterion

 In 2005, Sergei Filatov and Roman Lunkin suggested a new criterion of religious self-identification: cultural religiosity, in contrast to personal religious commitment or ethnicity.5 Thus, “a person claims that he/she belongs to a particular religious tradition though he/she might not share its doctrines, does not participate in its ceremonies, and does not belong to a religious community.”6 This phenomenon permits Filatov and Lunkin to explain “the Orthodox religiosity of modern Russians” as “so loose and unstructured in terms of organization, dogmatics, and ideology that any quantitative findings are estimates at best. Thus, it is hard to distinguish whether the majority of Orthodox believers are genuinely committed or not. No matter if one extends or limits applied criteria, practicing Orthodox in Russia total only two to ten percent of the population, that is, 3 to 15 million people.”7

Practicing Believers

 In total, Filatov and Lunkin calculate the following number of practicing believers in Russia:

 • Russian Orthodox – 3 to 15 million

 • Old Believers – 50,000 to 80,000

 • Catholics – 60,000 to 200,000

 • Protestants – no more that 1.5 million

 • Jews – 30,000

 • Muslims – no more than 2.8 million

 • Buddhists – no more that 500,000

 • Structured authoritarian cults – no more than 300,000

 The authors believe that in a secular society where faith has become a mere cultural symbol, the value of a religious factor is quite low. Mainly “ethnic” religious leaders play some role in the social and political life of Russia. Politicians and religious leaders see the number of believers as evidence of the influence of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others. In Russia doctrinal profession and worship attendance are not considered the main characteristics of those who call themselves believers.8

 Between 2002 and 2006 the number of self-identified believers slowly increased, whereas the number of non-believers or believers in some supernatural powers declined.9 In this time frame fewer respondents claimed to be Orthodox if their behavior did not reflect their religious life. Nevertheless, Russian Orthodox believers are susceptible to omens (over one-third of respondents and over 40 percent in the Orthodox “half-churched” group), superstitions, and occult practices. Self-identified Orthodox keep going to sorcerers, fortune tellers, and extrasensory individuals to obtain cures or solve problems in their lives.10

 Social Profile of Russian Believers

 Unlike Sergei Filatov, who is more involved in qualitative research of “true believers,” the Center for Religion in Modern Society focuses on a social portrait of believing Russians.11 Its findings from a December 2000 Gallup Poll of 1,800 people older than 18 include the following:

 1. Women prevail among believers in God. Also, a high percentage of youth and people with higher education believe in God.12

 2. Among Muslim believers one most frequently encounters men, youth, and persons with relatively low levels of education, income, and job skills;

 3. Those who hold to a general belief rather than specific religious confessions are predominantly young people with the highest levels of education and income. A considerable proportion of these upwardly mobile youth work in prestigious and well-paid private and joint-stock companies. Thus, the most socially and professionally active groups in contemporary Russian society are characterized by the highest degree of worldview instability and ambiguity.13

 Overall, Russians demonstrate a relatively low level of trust in religious organizations. Less than 50 percent of believers in God give credence to them. Among non-believers the percentage is five times lower. Women, children, elderly people, less-educated and less well-to-do respondents, followers of Communist and centrist ideologies, and those indifferent to ideological doctrines trust religious organizations. The most socially influential strata of society hold the lowest degrees of trust in religious organizations.14

 Degrees of “Religiosity”

 In May-June 2004, the Center for Religion in Modern Society conducted a Gallup Poll to determine the “nature and depth of religiosity in Russia.”15 As a result, the research team was able to calculate high, middle, and low levels of religious activity.

 “The highest percent of regular church-goers are in the Protestant group, followed by Jews and Catholics – among them over half of respondents participate in public worship services weekly. In contrast, Russian Orthodox and Muslims are reluctant to visit a church or a mosque; they make up only a fifth and sixth part of respondents. Buddhists indicated the lowest level of active participation: under one percent visit temples weekly.”16

 Protestant communities, as a rule, are highly consolidated groups of fellow-believers who are eager to communicate informally. Jews and Catholics also show a high level of community consolidation. Also, the phenomenon of a religious minority existing in a hostile environment is important. Simultaneously, in Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, religious communities are more amorphous and unstable, especially in big cities.17

 Why Religious Participation is Weak

 In the 1990s the expectation of an increase in genuine religious activity did not occur, if it is understood as incorporation of new believers into church activities and their observation of religious ceremonies. Why does a considerable portion of the Russian population who claim to believe avoid an active religious life? What underlies their


motivation? Why did the 1990s, a favorable period for religious confessions in Russia, not lead to a considerable growth in active religious adherents? To find the answers, a Gallup Poll in 2000 surveying 1,184 people identified three factors that influence believers’ low motivation to actively engage in religious life.

 1. Some stated that the church as an organization lacks credibility. It is seen as insincere, putting pressure on people and inappropriately mixing faith and politics.

 2. Some responded that they lacked the time for an active religious life.

 3. Some held to the conviction that a person may remain a believer outside of church life.

 What changes are needed to attract people to church? Among those willing to attend church (56.3 percent), the following judgments were prevalent:

 “The church must be more open and must quit blaming others for its flaws”;

 “The church should not limit freedom of thought but help a person to come to know and find him or herself, instead of creating chaos in people’s heads”;

 • “There must be an atmosphere of sincereity and truth”;

 • “There should be no fanaticism or coercion; the church must not ‘crush’ people”;

 • “The church must not arouse suspicion and must not differ from what is written in the Bible”;

 • “A priest must be a trustworthy man, sincere, honest, interest in people and their needs”;

 • “The church must be merciful and understanding.”18

 Among respondents who no longer attend church, the following reasons were most often given for leaving the fold:

“no time” (36.9 percent)

 “personal spiritual problems” (32.6 percent)

 “unsatisfied with a theological doctrine” (28.3 percent)

 “unethical behavior of other believers” (28.3 percent)

 “interpersonal conflicts” (21.8 percent)

 Most pastors blame believers for leaving the church; only four clergy identified such reasons as “lack of consideration for new converts” and “lack of family atmosphere in the church.” Churches as organizations often find it difficult to adjust to social changes such as democratic reforms, freedom of speech, openness, pluralism, and the tendency towards tolerance. Survey research showed, in particular, that many Protestant churches today have authoritarian structures with a clear hierarchy with little tolerance for dissent or nonobservance of set rules and traditions. Breaking church rules can lead to isolation or excommunication.


It would appear that the overwhelming majority of Russian Christian believers do not go to church regularly because of a deep intrinsic organizational crisis within the church. People need a more open, flexible, and tolerant church. Factors that reinforce the motivation of many believers not to attend church, or to leave it altogether, include interconfessional and inner church conflicts, insincerity and poor education of church leaders, and the desire of church leaders to suppress individuality. One must also consider economic factors since believers often feel they have no time for an active church life.

 More than 50 percent of Russians claim to be believers, but just six percent are actively involved in religious practice. Any increase in the number of committed faithful will be possible only if reforms take place that will rehabilitate the church’s image in the eyes of believers.✦

 Editor’s Note: The author cites both 75 and 56 percent Orthodox and both eight and three percent Muslim. The disparities derive from two separate polling efforts.


 Press Release 789, “Religion in Our Life,” 11 October 2007; The margin of error was 3.4 percent.

 2 Press Release 601, “Religion in Our Life,” 19 December 2006;

 3 In July 2007, the Levada Center conducted a representative poll of 2011 Russians: “The Russians and Religion,” 14 August 2007; The margin of error was three percent.

 4 Kimo Kaariainen and Dmitry Furman, Old Churches, New Believers: Religion in Mass Conscience of Post-Soviet Russia (St. Petersburg, Russia: Letniy Sad, 2000), 21 and 23.

 5 Sergei Filatov and Roman Lunkin, “Statistics of Russian Religiosity: The Magic of Numbers and an Ambiguous Reality,” Journal of Sociological Research No.5 (2005), 45-85.

 6 Ibid., 36.

 7 Ibid., 41.

 8 Ibid., 39.

 9 Dr. Yulya Yurievna Sinelina is senior research officer at the Institute for Socio-Political Research, Russian Academy of Sciences.

 10 Y. Y. Sinelina. “Dynamics of Russian Orthodox Votserkovleniye Process,” Journal of Sociological Research No. 11 (2006), 97.

11 A. G. Shevchenko, “About a Social Portrait of a Modern Believer,” Journal of Sociological Research No. 7 (2002), 68-77. Project Supervisor Dr. Mikhail Petrovich Mchedlov is Director of the Center for Religion in Modern Society, Institute of Complex Social Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Senior research officers included Dr. Y. A. Gavrilov and Dr. E. A. Kofanova.

 12 “Surely, religiosity has not become a must for good career growth yet, but it has been transformed from a ‘stigma’ of a marginal social status into a characteristic of respectability. Putin’s example of an energetic, middle-aged, modern president-believer who takes religious ceremonies seriously, can’t help but impact people who aim at success in society.” See Kimo Kaariainen and Dmitry Furman, “Religiosity in Russia on the Threshold of the XXI Century,” Journal of Social Sciences and Modernity No. 2 (2007), 87.

 13 M. P. Mchedlov, Y. A. Gavrilov, and A. G. Shevchenko, “Concerning a Social Portrait of a Modern Believer,” Journal of Sociological Research No. 7 (2002), 76.

 14 Ibid., 77.

 15 M. P. Mchedlov et al., “Confessional Features of Religious Faith and Notions of Its Social Function,” Journal of Sociological Research No. 6 (2005), 46-56. The Gallup Poll used an individual standard interview based on target sampling. Among 1,500 respondents were 400 Russian Orthodox, 250 Muslims, 150 Protestants, 110 Catholics, 110 Jews, 110 Buddhists, and 370 nonbelievers. The research covered 37 nationalities and 15 social-professional groups in 22 cities. Respondents came from six cities of Central Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. None were younger than 18. Researchers also questioned 64 priests and pastors and 230 nonbelievers.

 16 Ibid.

 17 Ibid., 47-48; Irina G. Kargina, “Self-Identification of Believers: Social Motivation,” Journal of Sociological Research No. 1 (2004), 45-53.

 18 Mchedlov, “Confessional Features,” 45-56.

 Valeria Sorokina is a research associate with the Center for Apologetics Research, St. Petersburg, Russia.