General Alexander Lebed's 27 June statement equat[ed] the U.S.-born Mormon faith with the Aum Sinrikyo movement accused of terrorism in Japan. Lebed called both groups "mold and scum." The outspoken former general partly retracted the statement in a 2 July press conference, but continued to insist that foreign religions are "strangers on our territory" and that he is "categorically against anyone teaching us how we should live in our land."
Robert Craig of the Mormons' Moscow office told Keston on 2 July that they have 600 missionaries across the country, plus five husband-and-wife couples concentrating on humanitarian work. There are Mormon centers in St. Petersburg, Samara, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Rostov-on-Don--all registered under Russian law. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Russians have converted to Mormonism, he said.
In his opening salvo on 27 June, Lebed said that the state should favor Russia's so-called "traditional religions" over foreign faiths, echoing a sentiment often voiced by spokesmen for the Moscow Patriarchate. But instead of the usual listing of just two such traditional confessions--Orthodox Christianity and Islam--he added a third, Buddhism. Moscow sociologist of religion Sergei Filatov told Keston on 1 July that the idea of combining "Oriental wisdom" with "Russian soul" has been popular for some time among "Eurasian ideologues who seek to emphasize Russia's distance from Western culture and morality." "The nomenklatura [Communist officials] showed interest in Buddhism during the Brezhnev era," he said.
Ulyanovsk, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow, is widely seen as one of the last strongholds of Lenin's ideas; it only recently abandoned the Soviet institution of ration cards for food. Of all the religious confessions in the Ulyanovsk oblast, including Orthodoxy and Islam, the one that clearly enjoys the best relations with the local secular authorities is Buddhism. Though local Protestants are usually denied access to public buildings, a municipal library serves as a regular meeting place for a range of Oriental religious and cultural groups for discussion and meditation. While Ulyanovsk's Orthodox diocese and Lutheran parish are still struggling to recover properties stolen from them by the Bolsheviks, the eclectic Rerikh Center conducts lectures and seminars on Oriental mysticism in its own building on a prime site in the city center. As one would expect from the demographics of the Ulyanovsk area, virtually all the people involved in these activities are ethnic Russians or Tatars, whose ancestors were Orthodox Christians or Muslims. But the oblast administration's top adviser on religious affairs lists Buddhism as one of the three "traditional religions" which deserve special respect in Ulyanovsk--the other two being Orthodox and Islam. That list, of course, is identical to the one voiced by Lebed on 27 June.
Lawrence A. Uzzell is Moscow correspondent for Keston Institute, Oxford, England. Excerpt reprinted with permission from Keston News Service, no. 6 (5 July 1996). To subscribe to KNS, contact Erika Allen at Keston Institute, 4 Park Town, Oxford OX2 6SH, United Kingdom; tel: 0689-850116; fax: 0689-853662; e-mail: email@example.com. KNS annual subscriptions run 30£/$53 for individuals and 100£/$160 for organizations.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies