The longer my family and I reside in Russia the more we realize the cultural complexities. So it is with a humble spirit that I offer brief observations on religious syncretism observed in the two Russian cities that have been our home the past two years: Volgograd and St. Petersburg. I recognize fully that my impressions are limited by a Westerner's imperfect vision. More and more I affectionately agree with Tyutchev who wrote, "Russia cannot be understood with the mind."
My wife and I found the people of Volgograd to be slightly more superstitious than those of St. Petersburg. They exhibited greater tenderness toward Eastern religions and New-Age beliefs in general. St. Petersburg has its share of Shirley MacLaines (in and out of the church), but it was in Volgograd where we heard more bizarre ideas offered in the name of truth and an odder assortment of religious syncretism. Yet in St. Petersburg I know a man who serves on the council of a church who says he is not against God, nor for God, one example of spiritual confusion that, according to survey research findings, is quite common. I also know women in St. Petersburg who consider themselves both Orthodox and Protestant.1
Russian sociologists Sergei B. Filatov and D.E. Furman recently noted "a new stage in the process of dedogmatization and a growth in general philosophical tolerance, which is beginning to bring about an increase in philosophical eclecticism, and a fundamental incapacity for a definite and structured worldview. The increase in this category of persons, who are nonbelievers and not nonbelievers at one and the same time, and who can combine formal affiliation with some Christian church with shifting passions for Hassidism, Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism, and anything else is characteristic of contemporary Western countries....However, nowhere is this indeterminate category growing on such a scale as in our country."2
In another, more recent sociological study, Filatov and Lyudmila Vorontsova make much the same point: "In the popular consciousness faith in God often goes together quite naturally with faith in magicians, ESP, UFOs, astrology and so on." There is a growing category of Russians who regard themselves as "just Christians," but with "elemental anarchism" and "elemental ecumenism" because "searching for faith is not moving towards greater definition, but rather in the opposite direction."3
Roger Chapman is a Church of Christ missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies