Religious Intolerance towards Western Churches in Russia

Vyacheslav Karpov and Elena Lisovskaya

Editor’s note: While this previously unpublished report was completed in September 2006, its findings still deserve careful consideration because Russian intolerance of Western churches, if anything, has deepened in the intervening years.

How Is the Term Western Churches Defined?

By Western we mean churches affiliated with Western religious traditions. In post-Soviet Russia, these churches are likely to be perceived as new, foreign, and non-traditional. Many of them are in reality neither new nor particularly foreign to Russia. Most have been long and well established in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Some existed in Soviet Russia clandestinely or under the watchful eye of the atheist state. The suppressed or clandestine status made these churches largely invisible and unknown to most Soviet Russians other than through scary, propaganda-generated rumors about dangerous “sectarians.” Therefore, when the liberal 1990 law on religion allowed these groups to openly re-emerge, or emerge and expand, Russians inevitably saw them as “new,” unusual, and non-native to Russia. These perceptions could only be strengthened by the fact that such groups have often relied on support from their fellow believers and missionaries from the United States and other Western nations.

The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations solidified and institutionalized the status of these churches as foreign to Russia’s traditions. The law officially designated these and many other groups “non-traditional,” thus setting them apart from Russia’s four “traditional” faiths (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism). This status meant legal restrictions on religious freedom. “Non-traditional” groups were allowed to register officially only if they could prove that they had been in Russia for at least 15 years, that is, as early as 1982, when religious freedom was non-existent. This threshold disadvantaged many of those who either existed in the USSR clandestinely or came to Russia after the collapse of the USSR.

Although the 1997 law defines all Western churches in Russia as “non-traditional,” some are unlikely to be perceived as such. For instance, Roman Catholic churches have been in major Russian cities for centuries, and some remained open even under Soviet rule. Moreover, most Russians probably realize that Catholicism is in fact a traditional faith for many in their country, including ethnic Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and other groups. Thus, we do not include Catholics among those whose churches are likely to be perceived as new, foreign, and non-traditional.

How Was the Evidence Collected?

The present study is based primarily on evidence from our international collaborative study, “Religious Intolerance among Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Russia: How Strong Is It and Why?,” funded by The National Council for Eurasian and East European Research in 2004-2006. In June 2005 a representative national survey was conducted in Russia including 2,972 in-person interviews. Trained survey workers from our Moscow-based sub-contractor, the Institute for Comparative Social Research, conducted the interviews, which took on average slightly more than one hour.


1. Western Churches Account for a Small Percent of Russia’s Religious Population.

The number of Western religious organizations increased dramatically since 1990, even despite the restrictions imposed in 1997. Based on the data of Russia’s Ministry of Justice, we estimated that in 2004 Russia was home to 5,266 registered Western religious organizations. Given the difficulty of registration, it is understandable that many other unregistered groups actually exist. In some regions, Protestant groups outnumbered Orthodox and other “traditional” organizations combined (A. A. Kraikov, “Religii v gosudarstve-faktor ukrepleniia ili raspada gosudarstva?,” Sovremenniia Evropa 4 [2003]: 22-34). However, since these groups are relatively small in size, our survey suggests that followers of Western churches account for only one percent, or about 1.4 million of Russia’s population. In contrast, the 2010 U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report estimates more than two million Protestants in Russia.

The Protestant minority exists in an environment dominated by Orthodox Christianity and Islam. According to our surveys, presently over 80 percent of all Russians and over 85 percent of ethnic Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. In our survey, 3.1 percent of Russian citizens identified themselves as Muslims.

While most Russians affiliate themselves with Orthodoxy or Islam, traditional religious beliefs and practices are not very common. Overall, attendance of religious services in post-atheist Russia has been among the lowest in Europe. Even using rather soft criteria of religiosity (including relatively consistent core beliefs and relatively active practice), in our study we estimated that only 10 percent of self-identified Orthodox and 20 percent of Muslims could be considered religious in a traditional sense. When stricter criteria are applied, proportions of traditional believers drop to single digits. Yet this relatively weak religious commitment does not preclude widespread religious intolerance toward Western churches.

2. Religious Intolerance Towards Western Churches Is Overwhelming.

According to our data, intolerance towards Western churches in Russia is overwhelmingly common and strong. Only a minority of Russians, regardless of their religious affiliation, would give Western churches basic religious freedom. Thus, less than one-third of all Russians (29 percent) would allow these religious groups to build churches in their hometowns; even less would allow them to fundraise (28 percent); only about a quarter of Russians would permit these groups religious publishing (25 percent) or the opening of a religious school (22 percent); even fewer would permit them public preaching of their faith (18 percent) or preaching on TV (20 percent); and only a small minority of Russians (eight percent) would not mind Western groups teaching their religion in public schools. There is only one liberty that more than one-third of Russians (41 percent) would grant Western groups: doing charitable work in their hometowns. But this number is still less than half. It is remarkable that most Russians would not permit Western churches to carry out charitable work that is so much needed in Russia today.

The strength of intolerance towards Western churches is evident from a comparison of percentages of those Russians who would fully deny Western churches all religious liberties with those who would give them nearly full religious rights. Astoundingly, only less than one in fourteen Russians (seven percent) would grant Western churches seven to eight liberties from our list, while four out of ten (39 percent) would deny them all eight liberties.

3. Western Churches Are the Least Tolerated Religious Group in Russia.

Intolerance toward “non-traditional” Western churches is substantially stronger than toward Orthodox, Muslims, or even Jews, the least tolerated “traditional” religious minority in Russia. Western churches are the least tolerated among the four religious groups included in our study even when Orthodox Christians in the overwhelmingly Muslim North Caucasus are included. Muslims and Orthodox are more willing to put up with each other and with Jews than with Western churches.

4. Both Orthodox Christians and Muslims Are Strongly Intolerant of Western Churches.

Only tiny fractions of Muslims and Orthodox are ready to allow “non-traditional” churches public preaching of their religion (14 and 17 percent), or preaching on television (15 and 20 percent). For both Orthodox and Muslims, the least acceptable activity is Western churches’ religious instruction in public schools. Only eight percent in both groups would allow it. In comparison to all other activities, charitable work is more acceptable, but only minorities among Orthodox and Muslims would allow it in their hometowns.

5. Religiosity Does Not Make Russia’s Orthodox and Muslims More Intolerant of Western Churches.

Looking at self-identified Orthodox Christians and Muslims separately, we explored the relations between their religiosity and intolerance of Western churches. The aspects of religiosity we looked at included monotheistic and Christian beliefs, church or mosque attendance, frequency of prayer, and the reading of the Bible or Koran.

For both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, we found no link whatsoever between religiosity and intolerance of Western churches. Those who more fully share monotheistic and Christian beliefs are no more and no less tolerant than those who do not. Tolerance levels among those who go to church/mosque often and those who do not are statistically indistinguishable. The same applies to prayer and scripture reading. Thus, with intolerance strong across the board, no reason exists to attribute it to rising Orthodox and Muslim religiosity in Russia.

6. Near-Religious Ideologies Influence the Level of Intolerance Towards Western Churches.

While core religious beliefs do not make Russians more intolerant of Western churches, their ideological beliefs about religion do. Given the relatively small number of Western groups’ adherents in the country, it is clear that most Russians’ opinions about them are not based on personal experience. Furthermore, given the relatively low level of religious attendance, Orthodox churches and mosques do not appear to be the most important source of negativity toward Western churches. Moreover, our data show no connection between attendance (high or low) and negative opinions about Western groups. Thus, we are left with secular media and ideology as the key suspected sources of negative images of Western churches.

Russians hold very contradictory views on the general question of equal rights. On the one hand, about half agree to some extent that all religions should be treated equally. At the same time, 65 percent say that Orthodoxy should be given more rights than others, and more than one-third opine that all “traditional” religions should be given privileged status. Thus, very little ideological support exists for treating all religions equally, as reflected in intolerance toward religious minorities.

Another source of intolerance deals with ideology that rigidly links a group’s ethnic identity to its dominant faith and that regards other religions as alien and harmful for the group. This ideology of religious ethnocentrism is strikingly common in Russia. For instance, 85 percent of ethnic Russians believe that they are Orthodox in their hearts even if they were not baptized and do not go to church. Nearly half believe that only ethnic Russians can be true Orthodox, and more than one-third see converts to non-Orthodox faiths as no longer truly Russian. Similar beliefs about the ethnic nature of Islam are also common among Tatars and other historically Muslim ethnicities. However, among Muslims, acceptance


of these views does not increase their intolerance towards Western churches. At the same time, religious ethnocentrism makes Orthodox Russians more intolerant of Western churches.

7. Secular Ideology Influences Religious Intolerance.

Religious intolerance toward Western churches is further influenced by beliefs and attitudes that have nothing to do with religion. In particular, undemocratic and anti-Western ideological orientations noticeably increase intolerance. The striking popularity of such reactionary orientations helps explain why intolerance of Western churches is so strong among Russians. For instance, in our survey two out of three Russians (67 percent) shared the opinion that Western governments are trying to undermine Russia and cause its collapse. Almost 55 percent said that adopting Western ways can only harm Russia. Less than one-third (32 percent) see Russia as a European nation that will eventually join the Western world. Furthermore, 52 percent of Russians see chaos and lawlessness in their country as the result of democracy, and 77 percent think that elections and competition among parties do Russia more harm than good. In this reactionary ideological atmosphere, the fact that Western religious groups are facing mass hostility and an unwillingness to give them any rights comes as little surprise.

Next, a meaningful link exists between an unwillingness to grant civil liberties to dissidents and non-conformists (for example, to atheists and homosexuals) and religious intolerance toward Western churches in Russia. Here, a more general aversion to diversity manifests itself in the widespread hostility to specific religious out-groups.

Finally, religious intolerance toward groups associated with the U.S. and other Western countries is worsened by anti-American attitudes. While only 14 percent of Russians openly express negative opinions about Americans, such opinions add fuel to religious hostility toward groups perceived to be American.

8. Regional and Social-Demographic Differences Affect Levels of Intolerance.

Religious intolerance toward Western churches is especially strong (markedly above the national average) in the North Caucasus and Central regions of Russia. In contrast, intolerance is weaker than average in the North-Western and Far-Eastern regions. Moscow’s population appears somewhat more tolerant than the rest of Russia, although some actions of city authorities against Protestant groups might suggest otherwise.

Additionally, we detected social-demographic differences that usually surface in research on tolerance. Thus, younger Russians (under 30 years of age), people with at least some college education, and city dwellers are more tolerant of Western churches than people who are older, less educated, and who live in villages or small towns.


In addition to restrictive laws and their arbitrary application by unfriendly authorities, Western churches and other “non-traditional” groups face powerful constraints to their religious freedom “from below,” that is, from ordinary Russians and their prevailing hostile sentiment. International observers’ reports of hostile acts against these groups reveal no more than a tiny part of this hostility to religious freedom in Russia.

A sad fact is that, restrictive as it is, existing law still treats Western and other “non-traditional” groups more liberally than most Russians would. The law allows such groups at least some activities, while most Russians would not allow them any. If the law were to become more accommodating of public opinion, it would simply eliminate the little that remains of religious liberties of “non-traditional” groups. Thus, religious freedom in Russia needs protection from popular hostility no less than from authorities’ arbitrary decisions.

Clearly, even massive international efforts to address prejudice, stereotypes, and ideological clichés that feed intolerance toward Western churches in Russia will have little effect unless they are matched and surpassed by Russians’ own endeavors to combat reactionary ideologies. However, U.S. organizations can make specific contributions to reducing religious intolerance. For instance, ordinary Russians know little if anything about U.S.-based Western churches they quite commonly perceive as “dangerous sects.” Their perception could change drastically if they knew more about the fundamental role some of these “sects” play in U.S. society. Similarly, ordinary Russians’ perceptions could be changed considerably if they were more informed about the religious liberties that minority groups, including Orthodox Christians and Muslims, enjoy in the U.S. This relevant knowledge could be spread more actively by American governmental and nongovernmental organizations working in and with Russia.

A necessary condition for estimating the level of existing threats to religious freedom is systematic monitoring of religious intolerance among ordinary Russians. We consider our study a first step toward such monitoring.F

Vyacheslav Karpov and Elena Lisovskaya are both professors of sociology at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Vyacheslav Karpov and Elena Lisovskaya, “Religious Intolerance towards Western Churches in Russia,” National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, 2006. Research presented in this article was supported in part by the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER). Neither NCEER nor the U.S. government is responsible for interpretations and opinions expressed in this article.