East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

What Percentage of Russians Are Practicing Christians?

Mark Elliott

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Only a few hundred faithful worship in the handful of Catholic churches in the capital on an average Sunday.
  4. Moscow's official population is 10 million, but Rudenko estimates at least two to three million additional people reside in the capital illegally.
  5. 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 percent.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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. 

More to the Point

  1. "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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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
ISSN 1069-5664

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