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Protestant Congregations Outnumber Orthodox in Russian Far East

Paul Goble

The Demographics

Protestant congregations now outnumber Russian Orthodox churches in Russia’s Far East. This development both reflects and reinforces the distinctive regional identity and anti-Moscow sentiments of many people living in Siberia and the Russian Far East, according to religion specialists. The Trans-Baikal News Agency reports that “the most ‘Protestant’ regions of the Far East are Primorsky and Khabarovsk.” Primorsky is home to 178 Protestant communities compared to 89 parishes of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church. (zabinfo.ru/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=

71103&mode=thread&orderthold=0)

Leading denominations are Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical, and Seventh-day Adventist, the news service says, but the region includes “dozens of others” as well. Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists also lag far behind Protestants in houses of worship, namely six mosques, seven synagogues, and four pagodas. The situation in the Khabarovsk District is “very similar: of the 163 religious organizations, 96 are Protestant,” twice as many as the Orthodox. Moreover, this Protestant advantage is growing. Not only are ever more Protestant groups organizing and building churches, but the Orthodox Church, lacking funds and followers, has been shutting down parishes. In the past, the Moscow Patriarchate stressed that Protestant congregations were significantly smaller than Orthodox ones in terms of attendance, activity, and contributions. This report suggests, although its authors do not make this point, that this is no longer the case. This pattern of Protestantism on the rise and Orthodoxy in decline holds for other parts of Siberia as well. Krasnoyarsk is home to 111 Protestant groups; Irkutsk, 97; and Sverdlovsk, 94.

Zabinfo.ru notes that Pentecostal and Charismatic churches “are the most widespread.” Pastor Konstantin Bendas, administrator of the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians, says that “this phenomenon has a long history. Orthodoxy came to these territories quite late. Representatives of confessions not tolerated in the Russian Empire were exiled to Siberia and the Far East.” Moreover, he continued, “many fled from oppression—Molokane, Dukhobors, Mennonites, Stundists, and so on. In Soviet times, those religious leaders who were able to escape execution were exiled to the Far East. And in this way, the elite of Russian Protestants were concentrated precisely there.”

In a comment on this report, the editors of Religiopolis.org suggest that this Protestant trend, which they acknowledge has deep historical roots, also reflects certain contemporary realities, including the ethnic diversity of the region, immigration and outmigration, and a tradition of independent action

(www.religiopolis.org/news/1373-dalnij-vostok-rossii-otkazalsja-ot-pravoslavija.html.) “The social openness” of Protestantism and its commitment to public action, Religiopolis.org argues, means that its various denominations are more attractive to the people of Siberia and the Russian Far East than is the more inward-focused Russian Orthodox Church, at least at the present time.

The Politics

The rise of Protestantism in Siberia and the Russian Far East threatens not just the Moscow Patriarchate and its pretensions to speak for all ethnic Russians, who it says are Orthodox by birth. It also represents a challenge to Moscow’s political control of the region, given that Siberian regionalism and Protestant religion can and do reinforce one another. Indeed, one of the major arguments of the Siberian nationalist movement is that Siberia never knew serfdom and has a Protestant work ethic closer to that of the United States than to that found in European Russia. The rise of Protestant communities across the region will only reinforce that disparity, especially if the Moscow Patriarchate remains so hostile to Protestantism.F

Edited excerpts published with permission from Paul Goble, “Protestant Congregations Now Vastly Outnumber Orthodox Ones in Russian Far East,” Window on Eurasia, 8 November 2010.

Paul Goble, editor of Window on Eurasia, is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Previously holding various U.S. government posts, he most recently served as director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.