After years of tense confrontation, the president's administration, the government, the Federal Assembly, and the Russian Orthodox Church expressed satisfaction with the new  Law on the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations. Some people were honestly mistaken in supporting the law. They believed that the law would protect Russians from pseudo-religious groups (or "totalitarian sects"). They felt the law would guarantee the freedoms of all "normal" religious organizations, preserving equal rights, while at the same time maintaining the Russian Orthodox Church's special status. In fact, none of these assumptions has been confirmed by the facts.
Today a government aspiring to establish the rule of law cannot accomplish what the Soviet totalitarian regime, with its gulag, failed to achieve. The 1997 law surreptitiously introduces different types of rights and opportunities. Only those religious associations that "acted on a legal basis" 50 years ago (in other words, under Stalin and Beria) are considered "all Russian" organizations. The religious organizations most disadvantaged are those that neither have, nor belong to, a centralized structure and cannot document their "existence on the territory for at least 15 years," that is, since the time of Brezhnev and Andropov.
The spirit of the law is even stronger than its letter. Religious associations from all over the country, which had been recognized officially after 1990, have now lost their certification of registration. The authorities have told many groups that, from now on, they should not practice their religions. Those who are "not ours" are permitted neither to build churches nor even to rent space for holding worship services. In several cases, organizations have even been told that they must obtain consent for their religious activities from the local bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia is on the path leading to a return to an official state Orthodoxy, where Orthodox bishops inherit the role of Communist Party secretaries.
In fact, the new law does palpable damage to the Russian Orthodox Church. Rather than engaging in spiritual regeneration, the Church is now a party to the repression of "dissidents." Its rapprochement with secular authorities has led to results that are the opposite of what was expected. For regardless of the intentions of the holy leadership, the Church is being called upon to serve as a spiritual auxiliary guard or policeman of sorts, reinforcing secular authority when that authority ceases to command or otherwise earn the respect and allegiance of the population. This flirtation with the state compromises the Church, just as it did prior to 1917. As the patriarch said, "Our position as a state church brought us much sorrow and suffering." Before the Revolution, a majority of Russians saw the Church as a servant of the tsarist autocracy. At the decisive moment, they turned away from religion and to the demagogy of the Bolsheviks.
Professor Anatoly Krasikov, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Social and Religious Research at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as president of the Russian division of the International Association of Religious Freedom.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from the East European Constitutional Review 7 (Spring 1998): 83-84.
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