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Russian Orthodox Attitudes on Church-State Issues

Christopher Marsh

The 1997 Russian law on “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” established a two-tier system distinguishing between religious “organizations” (which have operated in Russia for at least 15 years) and religious “associations.” While the former are granted a broad range of privileges, the latter are permitted to worship but face restrictions on their property rights and their educational, publishing, and evangelistic activities.

The situation in Russia has since evolved, with the Constitutional Court and other court decisions interpreting the law somewhat less restrictively than was initially anticipated. Still, regular and severe violations of religious freedom occur in Russia, ranging from the denial of clergy and religious worker visas to the liquidation of religious associations that fail to meet registration requirements. Issues of religious freedom and church-state relations in Russia, therefore, remain some of the most critical issues surrounding the establishment of democracy and liberty in a state with a long authoritarian tradition.

This study seeks to determine the orientation of Russian Orthodox Christians toward issues of church and state. While the Moscow Patriarchate’s political maneuvering and the Kremlin’s homage to religion are at the center of the study of church and state in Russia, the beliefs and values of Russian citizens regarding church-state issues remain seriously understudied. Do Russian Orthodox Christians look to the church to give answers about social problems, and perhaps even to advise them on how to vote? And do they welcome the idea of the church playing a strong role in politics? By exploring such questions I hope to shed light on issues that have thus far remained unexamined with the use of empirical data.

Quantitative Analysis of Russian Religious Values

Sociologists of religion and others have long taken advantage of modern survey methods to explore the religious orientations of people across the globe, and Russia is no exception. Since the onset of political openness to survey research in Russia and other post-Communist societies, a wide array of studies has assessed value orientations, both within individual countries and cross-nationally, on indicators such as religious belief, support for democracy, trust among citizens, and orientations toward civic life.

Little if any attention, however, has been devoted to the critically important issue of how differing degrees of religiosity may be related to attitudes toward civic life, religion and politics, and church-state relations among Orthodox believers.1 One of the primary reasons is that these studies tend to classify respondents by how they answered a single question on religious belief or practice. For example, the major studies of the value orientations of religious believers in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union use the response to a question on religious denomination to code respondents as Orthodox Christians. While self-identification is an accepted means of classifying religious believers in the West, in a post-Communist environment where for decades a policy of forced secularization attempted to mold “scientific atheists” while destroying religious life, such an approach is problematic.2

In the two most thorough analyses of Orthodox religious life in Russia, V.F. Chesnokova has shown that religiosity and church adherence are complex processes that cannot be gauged by any one indicator.3 Her analysis explored Russian Orthodox religiosity using a complex array of indicators, including belief in God, regular church attendance, taking communion, making confession, fasting at prescribed times, praying at home with the use of church prayer books (molitoslov), and knowledge of Old Church Slavonic sufficient to understand the liturgy. Understood this way, it was clear that only a very small number of self-identified Orthodox Christians were “fully churched,” while the majority of respondents exhibited extremely low levels of church adherence. These findings, although perhaps more nuanced, are quite in line with conclusions reached by several other Russian scholars who have argued that the number of “real,” “traditional,” or “church-minded” Orthodox in Russia is no larger than five-to-seven percent of the population, with other Orthodox believers characterized as “nominal,” or as Varzanova has phrased it, Orthodox only in a “cultural sense.”4

While Chesnokova and her team’s work is a major contribution to the field of the scientific study of religion, the fact that their survey does not contain a sufficient number of questions on issues of politics, society, and economics means that it will be difficult to incorporate her achievements into studies that focus on such factors. In order to examine the religious and political value orientations of Russian Orthodox Christians, data from the World Values Survey is used. No other survey has the same range of questions relating to religious belief, practice, and spirituality, along with accompanying questions on social values, civic engagement, and political orientation. This study uses data from the 1999-2001 World Values Survey, released in spring 2004. This dataset provides a reliable look at contemporary Russian society after more than a decade of social, economic, and political upheaval, including significant changes in the role of religion in individual and public life and the laws governing public religiosity.

Religious Beliefs and Behavior

The first set of questions relates to the role religion plays in the lives of Orthodox believers in terms of their belief in God and sin, frequency of prayer, and church attendance. Three percent of self-identified Orthodox Christians said they did not believe in God. As well, 15 percent of Orthodox said they did not believe in sin, while many denied belief in life after death (46 percent) or heaven (42 percent).

Sharp disparities emerge when looking at religious behavior as opposed to religious beliefs. While 86 percent of Orthodox Christians take comfort and find strength in their religion, only 11 percent attend religious services at least once per month, and only slightly more than five percent attend religious services weekly. This phenomenon is in some ways similar to that of “believing without belonging,” which Grace Davie identified as a trend in England after World War II.5 In contrast, Inna Naletova argues that many still take part in a vibrant Orthodox life connected to “external” forms of religiosity.6 Despite low levels of church attendance, evidence does support the latter position: more than one quarter pray at least once per day (27.9 percent), while more than half (56 percent) regularly engage in prayer or meditation. Nevertheless, only 60 percent responded that God played an important part in their lives.

It might be useful to categorize Orthodox respondents as devout if they identified themselves as Orthodox, stated a belief in God, and attended church services at least monthly, all key indicators according to Chesnokova. Using these criteria, 186 Orthodox Christians in the survey are devout. The remaining self-identifying Orthodox (1,001), some of whom do not even believe in God and none of whom attend church services more than a few times per year, may be labeled cultural Orthodox.

The Babushka Factor

In terms of level of education and rural/urban setting, devout and cultural Orthodox differ little. (See Table 1.) When noting gender, however, the contrast is remarkable. It is clear that devout Orthodox are primarily comprised of females 55 and over (half of all devout Orthodox), with a slightly less likely chance to have ever been married. Also, many more women than men are cultural Orthodox.


 These characteristics suggest that the phenomenon of babushkas (grandmas) who stand guard over church services and who ensure adherence to codes of conduct is real (as if empirical confirmation were necessary). More significant, however, is that a relatively large percentage of devout Orthodox are between the ages of 18 and 34 (just below 20 percent), confirming the trend being observed of the younger generation finding its way to church. These two factors combined indicate that church adherence among Russians may be on the rise: 1) a healthy number of women are joining the church in later life (and the large number of cultural Orthodox women are likely to become more devout as they age); and 2) the younger generation appears to be finding its way to church earlier in life as well.

Views of the Church

Using the distinct categories of devout and cultural Orthodox believers in Russia, we can now begin to examine their views of the church itself. (See Table 2.) Surveys regularly find that the church is the most trusted institution in Russian society, with around 60 percent of all Russians expressing confidence in it. Using our distinct categories, however, we can in fact see great variation in levels of trust. Devout Orthodox more often expressed high levels of trust in the church (92.6 percent), than cultural Orthodox (76.5 percent). Interestingly, and something that has remained overlooked, is the fact that very few non-religious Russians have a great deal of trust in the church (5.7 percent), although a modest 30 percent do respond that they have quite a lot of trust.


 In addition to trusting the church, Orthodox Christians in Russia also believe that the church provides answers to people’s spiritual, moral, and family problems. While these numbers are significantly higher for devout Orthodox ( 89.6, 87.4, and 78.5) than for cultural Orthodox (75.6, 71.7, and 57.7), it is significant to note that as we move away from the spiritual realm, the church is seen as having less relevance. Although the church is seen as having a significant role to play in people’s spiritual, moral, and family life, fewer respondents in each group felt that the church could provide answers to social problems, ranging from 41.5 percent and 23.7 percent for devout Orthodox and cultural Orthodox, respectively, to under 10 percent for the non-religious (9.6 percent). Quite interestingly, more than one third of non-religious Russians still felt that the church provides answers to people’s spiritual and moral problems. F


1 Andrew Greeley, “A Religious Revival in Russia?,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (1994): 253-72. While Greeley considered many of the factors I examine here, he compared East Germans with Russians, with no distinction between respondents’ religious preference, religiosity, or beliefs, making it impossible to determine the ways in which religious preference or adherence impact political and civic views. Likewise, in their analysis of religion and political choice in Russia, Hesli et al. grouped together all Orthodox adherents, regardless of their particular beliefs or levels of church attendance. Vicki Hesli, Ebru Erdem, William Reisinger, and Arthur Miller, “The Patriarch and the President: Religion and Political Choice in Russia,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 7 (Winter 1999): 42-72.

2 Paul Froese, “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43 (2004): 1, 35-50.

3 V. F. Chesnokova, Protsess votserkovleniya naseleniya v sovremennoi Rossii (Moscow: Fond “Obshchestvennoe Mnenie,” 1994 and 2000).

4 M. P. Mchedlov, “Religioznoe vozrozhdenie v Rossi: Prichiny, Dharakter, Tendentsii,” Obnovlenie Rossi: Trudnyi poisk reshchenii (Moscow: Toddidkii Nezavisimyi Institut Sotsial’nykh i Natsional’nykh Problem, 1992), 102-12; M. P. Mchedlov, “Novyi tipveruyuschego na poroge tret’ego tysyacheletiya,” Istoricheckii vestnik 9-10 (2000); M.P. Mchedlov, “Ob osobennostyakh mirovzreniya veruyuschikh v post-Sovetskoi Rossii,” Religiya i prava 1 (2002): 15-18; T. Varzanova, “Religioznoe vozrozhdenie i molodyozh,” in V. I. Dobrinina, T. N. Kychtevich, and S. V. Tumanov, eds. Kul’turnie miry molodykh Rossiyan: Tri zhiznennye situatsii (Moscow: Moscow State University, 2000), 167-91; T. Varzanova, “Religioznaya situatsiya v Rossii,” Russkaya mysl’ 4165 (1997).

5 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

6 Inna Naletova, “Orthodoxy Beyond the Church Walls: A Sociological Inquiry into Orthodox Religious Experience in Contemporary Russian Society,” Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 2006.

Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Winter 2010).

Christopher Marsh is director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Christopher Marsh, “Russian Orthodox Christians and Their Orientation toward Church and State” in Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia, ed. by Wallace L. Daniel, Peter L. Berger, and Christopher Marsh (Waco, TX: J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, 2008).