East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Russia's Restrictive Law on Religion: Dead or Delayed?

Anita Deyneka

Hopes Give Way to a New Time of Troubles
Russia's Christians had reason for rejoicing and hope in 1990. Along with Gorbachev's tolerance of ever-increasing freedom of speech came liberal amendments to the communist-era's repressive Law on Religion. The failed coup attempt of August 1991, the fall of the Communist Party, and the rise of Yeltsin all enhanced the climate for religious freedom officially established by the October 1990 law on religion.

Under the new openness, both national believers and Christians from abroad of all confessions could engage in a wide range of religious activities that previous laws prohibited. At the same time, much of the residue of the old communist system remained. And of late even trained analysts could hardly discern who really ruled Russia. Was it Boris Yeltsin, popularly elected, but erratic in performance? Was it the Russian Parliament led by Ruslan Khasbulatov and his ally, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi? Or was power slipping from Moscow's grip and into the hands of the country's ever more assertive regional leaders?

Such political conflicts and the manifold social turmoil Russia faces today recall the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), when Russia endured one of its worst ordeals ever, a decade and a half punctuated by wrenching dynastic upheaval, civil war, foreign invasion, social unrest, banditry, and famine.

Parliament's Summer Blizzard
During the summer, Parliament passed a blizzard of antidemocratic bills which included: 1)canceling Yeltsin's decree accelerating the privatization of property; 2) sanctioning a parliamentary takeover of the Central Bank; 3) sealing KGB archives for an additional twenty years; and 4) amending the law on mass media, providing for greater parliamentary control over communications.

As political struggles raged, the economic picture grew darker. In the spring, inflation and the ruble exchange rate seemed to have stabilized and privatization gained more momentum. Parliament's seizure of the Central Bank quickly led to new regulations requiring all foreign banks to re-register and placing all their licenses in jeopardy. Then at the end of July the Central Bank threw the entire population into a panic as it suddenly declared that all pre-1993 ruble notes would be invalid following an all-too-brief redemption period.

Such developments endangered Russia's economic stability and destroyed the morale of citizens and foreigners alike. When the Parliament invalidated pre-1993 currency, it was pathetic to see pensioners, babushki, clutching their few old rubles--which in three years had lost almost all their value anyway--quickly trying to buy something before their money became completely worthless. Even before the October violence which blackened Russia's White House, Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard economist serving as an advisor to the Russian government, explained, "For Russians the point is whether they will ever rid themselves of the Communist-minded officials and run their country in a normal way."

New Religious Legislation in Russia
For almost a year before Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Parliament on September 21, this body had empowered its Committee on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Belief, Mercy, and Philanthropy to draft revisions to the 1990 law on religion. On July 14, following the recommendations of this committee, Parliament passed an amended version of the 1990 law. They did so with little consultation with religious groups, other than the Russian Orthodox Church, which had ardently supported restrictions on the religious activities of foreigners. In fact, lawmakers received a letter from Patriarch Alexei on July 14 urging them to pass the religious law amendments.

The July 14 version of the law forbade foreign religious organizations and their representatives to "engage in religious-missionary, publishing, or advertising-propaganda activity." Such state control over religion violated human-rights accords signed by Russia and caused an outcry among Russian religious activists, eventually including Russian Protestant leaders. National and foreign media covered the story in detail. In addition, 170 U.S. congressional representatives signed a letter which originated in Senator Richard Lugar's office asking Yeltsin not to sign the legislation.

On August 4 President Yeltsin returned the legislation to Parliament unsigned, pointing out provisions which he considered to be in contradiction to international human rights accords which Russia had signed. His stand against this law placed him in opposition to Russian Orthodox Church leadership which previously had supported him. In late August, Moscow Komsomolets reported that "the patriarch presented President Yeltsin with a straightforward ultimatum: If this law is not signed [by Yeltsin], the Russian Orthodox Church will turn into opposition against Yeltsin."

Technically Parliament did accept some of Yeltsin's recommendations when it passed religion law amendments a second time on August 27. However, troubling restrictions on religious freedom remained. Parliament member Father Gleb Yakunin reported that Russian lawmakers talked as if they were supporting Yeltsin in his cries for democracy and religious freedom while they again passed the restrictive amendments "with shameful enthusiasm."

Yeltsin also returned the second version of the law to Parliament unsigned. The prospects for a legislative override and a court challenge appeared imminent before Yeltsin dismissed the Parliament on September 21. Many Western and Russian Christians were relieved as they concluded that the restrictive law on religion died with the legislature that enacted it. With the final defeat of the Communist-era Parliament, the drive to revise the 1990 law on religion may be at an end, especially if Russia elects a democratic, reformist Parliament. However, the opposition to Western Christian involvement in Russia by Orthodox hierarchs and nationalist hard-liners may not be. While the strength of anti-Western factions remains uncertain, Yeltsin and other democratically elected politicians will almost certainly face a serious challenge from these sectors of society.

With presidential and parliamentary elections pending, Yeltsin's commitment to democracy may face a severe test--by either a Parliament more reform-minded than Yeltsin or by a more progressive rival in the presidential election. President Yeltsin has managed to control the rebellion of his antidemocratic opponents, but no one yet knows how much support he has retained from Russia's citizens or how much support a majority of Russians feels for democracy. His position on religious freedom may be different after he has consolidated power than it was when his situation was precarious and he was especially eager to maintain the sympathies of his Western supporters.

Points to Ponder for Future Ministry
Whatever position the Russian government takes on religion in the future, certain factors undoubtedly will affect its course of action.

  1. Currently, rising nationalism, anti-Western feeling, and the increasing assertiveness of the Russian Orthodox Church influences the mindset of many people. One consequence may be renewed attempts to restrict religious activities, especially for foreigners. Russia has a long history of both rushing to embrace the West and feeling a great revulsion toward the West. In May 1993 a sociological survey published in the Russian newspaper Izvestiya revealed that the chief complaint against Yeltsin was that he listened to foreigners too much. Solzhenitsyn's upcoming move back to Russia may further shape national sentiment in a Slavophile, anti-Western direction.
  2. Even if a democratically inclined president and Parliament govern Russia, as they formulate new laws affecting religion, the current extraordinary freedoms, such as teaching religion in public schools, may diminish. While any retraction of religious freedoms in Russia is regrettable, the degree of openness in Russia has been exceptional, even for democratic nations.
  3. The remarkable degree of religious freedom in Russia since 1990 has opened the door to all groups, including cults and Eastern religions. However, proponents of more restrictive laws on religion, primarily Russian Orthodox leaders, censure Billy Graham's Crusades and the public schools' moral education program of The CoMission as often as they do the Unification Church or the Hare Krishna. If new legislation sets back religious freedoms--which have a precarious foothold in Russia at best--the cults will not be the only groups to face restrictions. Religious freedom is not divisible. Restrictive laws on religion will affect all religious groups.
  4. Finally, the outcome of religious freedom legislation may not be in the hands of foreign believers engaged in Christian outreach in Russia. Nevertheless, the behavior of Western workers definitely will affect authorities, no matter what the law says, or will say. The courteous, culturally sensitive behavior of Western Christian organizations which work in close consultation with nationals will have a positive influence on emerging laws on religion. 
Anita Deyneka is director of research and communications for Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries and is on the advisory committee of Christian Resource Center.

Anita Deyneka, "Russia's Restrictive Law on Religion: Dead or Delayed?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Fall 1993), 1-2.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

East-West Church & Ministry Report | Contents | Search back issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe