Russian General Alexander Lebed, ex-presidential candidate and Yeltsin's new national security adviser, has unnerved supporters of freedom of conscience with his rhetoric on religion. He has referred to himself as a baptized Russian Orthodox but has conceded, "I am sorry that I cannot call myself a 'churched' person" (Pravoslavnaya Moskva, no. 16, June 1996). "Churched" is a Russian Orthodox term for a genuine believer. Thus, Lebed considers himself Russian Orthodox only in some ethnic or cultural sense.
During the presidential campaign General Lebed, like all other candidates, advocated the return of church property seized by the Communists. He also urged the return to the Russian Orthodox Church of confiscated icons now in museums. In addition, the general has championed "traditional" confessions in Russia which he identifies as Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism. All other confessions he looks upon as totalitarian cults whose activities must be prohibited. In Lebed's thinking not even Catholicism for Poles or Judaism for Jews, often conceded by Orthodox proponents of preferences for "traditional" religions, avoid the taint of "totalitarian cult."
During the presidential race the general's literature claimed: "The victory of Lebed frightens cultists and obscurantists who attempt to plant in Russia their own religious teachings in order to gain money, mutilating the souls of people." Lebed's campaign pronouncements even associated "cultists" with prostitutes and gangsters. Thus, the general's post election attack on foreign missionaries, Jews, and Mormons did not take Russian observers by surprise. As concerns American observers, many of them show a very strange ability not to notice elephants. For example, in mid-June 1996 a delegation headed by Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation visited Russia and noted that it had not observed "any serious threats to the religious freedom on the part of any candidates." Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America said the "problem of personal religious freedom is solved in Russia." For Russians such statements seem incompatible with reality.
On 2 July 1996 Lebed made two quite different speeches. In his inaugural address to the Russian military establishment he attacked "technologies of psycho-semantic programming." Lebed also decried Western secret services' use of brain-washing and hypnosis, which, the general argued, caused the downfall of the U.S.S.R. He did not name the CIA as the organizer of this "special psychological operation," but the anti-Western emphasis was quite obvious. Such comments coincide with Lebed's criticism of the cults' programming techniques. At a press conference the same day Lebed, whose chief campaign adviser on economics was Jewish, reluctantly admitted that Judaism is not a cult, but a world religion. However, he went on to joke about his feigned support for a "landing party of Adventists" in Mormon Utah, not understanding that freedom of conscience prevails in that American state even with its Mormon majority.
The crucial factor in the immediate future will be Yeltsin's attitude to Lebed. In the case of any jealousy, Yeltsin may challenge independent positions the general may take, including support for restrictions of religious freedom. Keep in mind that most attacks on "alien" and "foreign" religions have been launched by nationalist and Communist opponents of Yeltsin, so to date the Russian president has supported freedom of conscience in order to demonstrate his independence from the pressure of his enemies.
James Krotov is a Russian church historian and free-lance journalist residing in Moscow, Russia.
Lebed on Religion: A Summer Squall or a Tornado Warning?
27 June 1996 Lebed declares Western missionaries and religious sects "a direct threat to Russia's security. We have established, traditional religions--Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism. . . . But as for all these other sects--Mormons, Aum Shinrikyo--all this is mold and scum that is artificially brought into this country with the aim of perverting, corrupting, and ultimately breaking up our state. Therefore, the state must rise to the defense of its citizens and outlaw all these foul sects." Following this speech, to a Cossack who prefaces his question with an apology, Lebed replies, "You call yourself a Cossack, but your approach is Jewish."
2 July 1996 Lebed reiterates opposition to foreign sects in Russia, but apologizes for comparing Mormons to the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo implicated in the Tokyo subway bomb attack. Lebed also expands his definition of "traditional religions" to include Judaism and Catholicism, but not Protestantism.
Sources: James P. Gallagher, "Yeltsin's Alliance with Lebed May Not Win Him Enough Votes," Chicago Tribune, 30 June 1996, sect. 1, p. 4; Robin Lodge, "Lebed Slams West, Supports Reform," St. Petersburg Times, nos. 173-74 (2-7 July 1996); Rachel Katz, "Jews Eye Election With Caution," St. Petersburg Times, nos. 175-76 (8-17 July 1996); OMRI Daily Report, 3 July 1996; "Helsinki Commission to President Yeltsin: Rein in Your Attack Dog," Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe News Release, 28 June 1996.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies