Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
What Percentage of Russians Are Practicing Christians?
Anatoly Rudenko, president of the Russian Bible Society, in an interview with the editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report,
6 June 1997, maintained that the number of practicing Christians of all
confessions in Russia today is no more than two percent, and probably
closer to one percent. If this is the case, Russia has far fewer
believers than is generally assumed. In contrast to Rudenko's
estimate of 1.7 to 3.3 million practicing Christians, Russian Orthodoxy alone routinely claims 50 to 60 million faithful (33 to 40 percent of the population).
Mr. Rudenko's argument is based on Russian Bible Society market
research and the following observations. The city of Moscow, by
all accounts, has a more extensive church life than any other region of
Russia. Yet, the Bible Society president calculates that the
portion of the capital's population regularly in church is
approximately one to one-and-one-half percent. He arrives at his
estimate in the following way:
The disparity between Rudenko's estimate and the dramatically larger
figures normally cited may be explained, in large part, by divergent
understandings of what constitutes a believer. For example,
research by Dimitri Furman reported in Izvestiia
revealed that 50 percent of Russians surveyed identified themselves as
believers, but less than two percent of these respondents attended
church regularly, prayed, or believed in God as a personality.
Furthermore, six times more respondents said they attend church
regularly than do in reality.
- The city of Moscow has approximately 240 functioning Russian
Orthodox churches, most with small congregations, with 20 to 50 people
worshiping on a given Sunday. On the other hand, a very few
parishes, such as the Church of Sts. Cosmos and Damian, led by Fr.
Alexander Borisov, have active congregations of several thousand.
To be generous, assuming an average of 400 attendance per parish,
Moscow would have 90,000 active Russian Orthodox believers. The
Ministry of the Interior reported a total of approximately 120,000
worshipers in Orthodox churches in Moscow for 1997 Easter services,
down from some 165,000 in 1996. These figures would be the
maximum for any liturgy in the church calendar.
Moscow now has approximately 120 Protestant congregations, though no
more than a handful own their own property. Their average
attendance is 20 to 50 adults, with a few congregations numbering in
the hundreds being the exceptions. Assuming 120 congregations
with an average of 50 members each would equal 6,000 adults in
attendance weekly. Being especially generous in estimating
children would produce, at most, a total of 20,000 Protestants
regularly in worship in Moscow.
Only a few hundred faithful worship in the handful of Catholic churches in the capital on an average Sunday.
Moscow's official population is 10 million, but Rudenko estimates at
least two to three million additional people reside in the capital
If Moscow, with a population of approximately 12 million, has 110,300
believers in worship in all churches on a given Sunday, and if regular
church attendance is accepted as the measure for practicing Christians,
then the practicing Christian population of the capital is nearly one
If the definition for an active Christian population is expanded so as
to define active Christians as those who attend worship at least 50
percent of the time, then the figure would increase to approximately
two percent of Moscow's population.
Since other regions of Russia are considered to have, on average, a
much less vibrant religious life than Moscow, two percent (3.3 million)
would be a maximum estimate for the total practicing Christian population of the Russian Republic.
More to the Point
"Whereas in Poland, 83 percent of those surveyed claim to attend divine
liturgy or prayer services at least once a month, only 20 percent in
Ukraine, and 7 percent in Russia claim to do so" (Liudyna i Svit, April
1997, quoted in Ukrainian Weekly, 24 August 1997, 5).
A March-April 1996 survey of 1664 Russians by Moscow's Institute of
Social Research revealed that 49 percent of respondents believed in
God, but only 6 to 7 percent attended church at least once a month (Segodnia, 22 May 1996).
A 1996 Russian Academy of Sciences survey conducted with the assistance
of Finnish scholars revealed that positive attitudes towards religion
are widespread among Russians (88 percent of those
questioned). "Many say they believe in God. However, this
faith in God has no contents." Only 20 percent of respondents who
affirmed belief in God "believe in the resurrection of the dead," while
41 percent believe in astrology. "Only 7 percent attend church
regularly (once a month) and even fewer pray regularly--only 4 percent"
(Kimmo Kaariainen and Dmitry Furman, "Believers, Atheists, and Others
(Evolution of Russian Religiosity)," Voprosy filosofii (no. 6, 1997), quoted in Oleg Kuriazev, "Traditional Believers are Becoming Fewer," Nezavisimaia gazeta, 25 September 1997).
A June 1996 Russian pre-election poll indicated that believers (50
percent of respondents) were far more often nonobservant (37.3 percent)
than observant (12.7 percent). And corporate worship was
strikingly erratic even among self-described observant believers: 10
percent answered once a week; 13 percent answered once a month; and 55
percent of self-described observant believers answered on religious
holidays and on family occasions. Of the 50 percent of
respondents who identified themselves as believers, 83 percent
considered themselves to be Orthodox (Susan Goodrich Lehmann,
"Religious Revival in Russia: Significant or Superficial?," paper
presented at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies,
Washington DC, 21 October 1996).
Information derived from the author's recent visit to Volgograd
(September 1997) and a missionary communication from Irkutsk (December
1996) suggest that well under one percent of the population of these
cities is in any Christian church on an average Sunday.
Fr. Mikhail Makeyev, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Free Church,
believes that "Russia has gone through an irreversible process.
It's no longer an Orthodox country, only a small fraction of Russians
are now consciously Orthodox" (Keston News Service, 26 June 1997).
Mark Elliott, "What Percentage of Russians Are Practicing Christians?," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Summer 1997), 5-6.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
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