The thesis that "the Orthodox population of Russia must constitute, at a minimum, 70-80 million people," usually cited in sociological studies, refers to those who self-identify themselves as Orthodox. This thesis continues to be promoted by ideologues of what I would designate as political Orthodoxy. The issue of the number of Orthodox believers in Russia has a distinctively political tone. Exaggerations of the number of Orthodox believers is beneficial to certain church leaders who aspire to financial support from the government, and to politicians who want to play the "Orthodox" card, and to some scholars who serve one or the other.
The Number of Practicing Orthodox
The Moscow Patriarchate since 1988 has proclaimed an unchanged formula of the type, "Our church is multinational and numbers in the many millions." [However] studies of the past seven years conducted by various independent sociological services have consistently indicated a figure of the order of 4.5 percent of the population of Russia who can be characterized as practicing Orthodox. One can get a certain idea of the real number of regular service attenders by looking at indirect data, in particular at the reports of the agencies of internal affairs regarding the number of persons participating in Easter processions of the cross. Thus around Moscow, with its population of ten million, the number of persons attending the central Orthodox divine service in a year [Easter] varies within the range of 110,000 to 150,000, which constitutes (let's take the maximum) about 1.5 percent of the population.
Equating Faith with Nationality
The "many millions" of the church consists in considering as Orthodox all those who identify (or could identify) themselves as such regardless of religious practice. Simply put, the issue here is the phenomenon well known to students of religion, ethnologists, and political scientists, and typical in a number of countries of post-Christian Europe where identification of confessional affiliation serves as the equivalent of national self-identification. Nevertheless, judging from sociological surveys, it is impossible to rule out that in the conduct of an all-Russian census, approximately half of respondents will include themselves among the Orthodox. This also will include those who view Orthodoxy as an indicator of affiliation with the Russian nation. This expresses itself in Easter and Christmas meals, the baptism of children (without any subsequent religious education), and in funerals with a priest. In Russia the majority of those who call themselves Orthodox show up in church only twice--first when they are carried there as infants for baptism and second when they are carried there for a funeral.
Hegumen Innokenty is a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Paul Steeves, PDS Russia Religion News (www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews), January 2001, translated from Sobornost, 15 January 2001.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report