East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Russian Religion by the Numbers

Vyacheslav S. Polosin

In Russia today there are no official statistics on the membership of religious organizations.  The law prohibits demanding that citizens declare their religious affiliation, and many denominations do not have a fixed membership.  Under these conditions, a tendency can be observed among politicians and publicists to try to pass off the desirable as the actual.

Passive Faith
In terms of socially passive religiosity, two traditional confessions are more or less noticeable in Russia as a whole:  Orthodoxy and Islam.  Orthodoxy dominates, for the most part, the sphere of religious ritual, sacred seasonal holidays, and also the most important stages and events of human life--birth, marriage, and death.  Not only passive believers without a specific denominational orientation, but also nonbelievers who are inclined toward superstition strive to enlist support from on high.  On the holiday of Epiphany huge lines of people stand to receive holy water.  However, a poll of those standing in line reveals that the majority believe in the magical properties of the water, even in the absence of faith in the Church, and perhaps even with a negative attitude towards it.  Up to 85 percent of people turn to this kind of ritual or observe relatively respected holidays by tradition, without a personal religious faith.  About 50 percent of people are passive believers, that is, those who in one way or another consider themselves believers.

Islam fulfills an analogous function, as a rule, among "ethnic" Muslims (up to 15 percent [of the Russian population]).  Protestants, by virtue of their inherent accent on awareness of faith and their weak development of ritual and implantation of it in society, have almost no passive social base.  New religious formations, having no roots in the sphere of ritual, are forced against their will to display extreme social activity in order to draw attention.  This situation causes them to be labeled extremists.  For people who are not inclined toward active religiosity, and this is the overwhelming majority, the actions of the disciples of such new groups appear irritating and maniacal.

Active Faith
In terms of active believers, it is possible to distinguish three large groups (Russian Orthodox Church, other Christians, and Muslims), as well as religious minorities and new religious unions:  1)  Russian Orthodox Church--more than 8,000 parishes and brotherhoods; 2) Muslims--2,900 communities; 3)  Christians of other confessions or jurisdictions--4,000 registered and no fewer than 1,500 unregistered fellowships.

1.  Russian Orthodox Church
In Russia there are 74 eparchies, more than 300 monasteries, and 40 educational institutions.  There is no fixed membership today, although before 1917 members of  each parish were strictly counted.  According to sociological data, believers who have consciously become involved in the church comprise 2.5 to 3.0 percent of the general population, or four to five million people.  Approximately seven percent, or an additional 10 million people, attend churches relatively consistently (once a month).  Almost 50 percent of the population call themselves Orthodox but do not have faith in the dogma of the church, do not have connections with a particular local church, or do not have personal involvement in the life of the church and its discipline.  Approximately 60 percent trust the Church as a social institution; however, this number began to decline in 1997-98 as a result of published facts about the church's sale of humanitarian aid intended for free distribution to the poor and its trade in tobacco, alcohol, and precious metals.

The sociopolitical orientation of the majority of active [Orthodox] believers can be characterized as a traditional, anti-Western one.  Furthermore, according to 1996 data, organizations with a patriotic Communist tendency led the political preferences of Orthodox--31 percent.  (Arnold Toynbee justly recognized the ease of moving from Orthodox Slavophilism to Communism and back again on the basis of a vision of a common image of the enemy--the West.)  However, radical nationalists and anti-Semites still do not have serious support, although a tendency toward growth can be traced.

2.  Muslims
Muslims do not have a unified structure.  More than 40 spiritual centers and administrations are registered.  By far the most well-known religious unions are the Central Spiritual Government of Muslims in Ufa, under Supreme Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, and the Council of Russian Muftis, under Mufti Ravil' Gaynutdin.  Spiritual governments in the Caucasus conduct their own policies.  Overt and potential Muslims in Russia number about 20 million people, or 15 percent, although the number of actual believers is only about three to four percent of the total population, or four to five million people, according to sociological data.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the transition from passive to active religiosity is much simpler and quicker for a Muslim than for an Orthodox believer.  The increase in the Muslim population far outstrips others.  The sociopolitical orientation is traditionally anti-Western and anti-Semitic.  Among the political preferences of Muslims, the Communist Party is the leader, but Islamic parties, and nationalistic parties among Tatars, are becoming stronger and growing in influence.  The majority of Muslims are Suni, although owing to the residence of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis in Russia, the number of Shiite is also growing.  If in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan the development of Islam goes hand in hand with the growth of national movements, then in the Caucasus, where Shariat [the Muslim religious code] often joins with the laws of the mountains, the situation has been complicated by the appearance of fundamentalists, or Wakhabi, who have support from Saudi Arabia.

3.  Other Christian Denominations and Jurisdictions

3.1  Orthodox of Other Jurisdictions
The Russian Orthodox Free Church headquartered in Suzdal, which separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991, comprises seven eparchies, more than 100 parishes, and four monasteries.  The True Orthodox Church [Istinno-Pravoslavnaya Tserkov], or Catacomb Church, which formed as a result of the destruction of the Church's central structure in 1927, has four centers and more than 60 registered communities.  Unregistered ones possibly number several dozen.

3.2  Old Believers--five centers, over 200 communities.

3.3  Protestant Denominations--more than 2,000 registered and up to 1,500 unregistered communities.
The total number of relatively active Protestants is as many as one million.  In contrast to Orthodoxy, the membership of the communities is conscious and fixed, and it is characterized by a particular social activity.  But accordingly, the number of passive believers (the social reserve) and "sympathizers" is not large.  There are potential new members among youth who are attracted by the comprehensible sermons.  In the area of social service and aid, especially among veterans' organizations, in hospitals, and in prisons, indications are that Protestant activity exceeds that of other confessions.

4.  Religious Minorities
Religious organizations that have historical roots, but do not have a significant number of followers, or in other words, a social base, include:  Jews--three centers and over 80 communities; Buddhists--seven centers and about 140 communities; Tolstoyans--two communities; Dukhobor--two; Molokane--16; Teetotalers [Trezvenniki]--five; Pagans--12; Zoroastrians--two.  Many sects exist without registration, such as Skoptsy and Khlysty.

5.  Religious Unions New to Russia

5.1.  Of Native Origin
The Church of Vissarion--eight communities; Bogorodichniki [those who identify with the Virgin Mary]--nine.  A multitude of new unions exist without registration, such as the cult of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, which formed in the Urals and is distinctively reconstructing national Russian mythology.  Among youth a number of national and nationalistic groups, based on pre-Christian Russian Grand Orthodoxy [Velicheskoye Pravoslaviye], are growing.

5.2  Of Foreign Origin
Since they do not have any national or social roots on Russian soil, these religious unions must depend on missionary activity and factors that are neglected by traditional religions.  The most prominent, rapidly growing, and professionally working, organization that has the most resources and a modern publishing house is Jehovah's Witnesses.  They have one center in St. Petersburg and approximately 200 communities.  The organization is run by an overseas center and involves tens of thousands of members, especially youth and intelligentsia.  The Society of Krishna Consciousness has one center and over 110 communities.  It is run by independent Russian citizens and was legalized in the Soviet Union.  According to the Society's own data, about 9,000 conscious members (devotees [posvyashchennykh]) are involved in the most active charitable activity, including work in "hot spots," where representatives of traditional religions are not visible. The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon has 10 communities (although in practice the number is much greater--according to approximate data, the number of followers is no less than 30,000 people) and highly significant financial, intellectual, and organizational resources.

Parishes based on agricultural locations and small towns are becoming a thing of the past.  Mainline clergy have lost their previous advantages, while those focusing on individual relationships have gained influence.  New forms of conveying religious content by visual mass media, such as occult video clips, should be expected to appear.  The center of religious life will become relationships within small groups with common interests, with personal competence and charisma the definitive factors.

Vyacheslav S. Polosin is a religion consultant for the Russian Duma, Moscow.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Vyacheslav Polosin, "Religiya i sotsialnyy okhvat naseleniya," Religiya i prava, No. 1-2 (1998), 42-43.

Vyacheslav S. Polosin, "Russian Religion by the Numbers" East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Winter 1999), 4-6.

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1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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