An Ambitious New Study of Religion in Russia Today. Reviewed by Nathaniel Davis.
Keston Institute of Oxford, England, is in the throes of completing a monumental project of assessing religion in Russia today. Its researchers have traveled throughout the Russian Republic, have published bits and pieces of their findings in Religion, State and Society and other publications, and have now brought forth a book in Russian, edited by Sergei B. Filatov, the project director, entitled Religiya i obshchestvo; ocherki religioznoi zhizni sovremennoi Rossii [Religion and Society; Essays on the Religious Life of Contemporary Russia] Moscow, St. Petersburg: Letni Sad, 2002, 487 pp.). Negotiations are being completed for the publication, so far only in Russian, of an encyclopedia of contemporary religion in Russia, which will be the capstone work of Keston's project.
Essentially, Filatov and his coresearchers and authors have traveled from region to region, producing a chapter or two on each area and each confession. The result is a vast panorama composed of numerous mosaic chips forming a composite picture.
The European North
Filatov is flattering to the Orthodox leadership in Russia's far north--Novgorod, Archangel, Syktyvkar (Komi Republic), Petrozavodsk (Olonets), etc. Here, Orthodox are charitably inclined and tolerant of Protestants and other minority religions. Moreover, the people of the North are historically independent-minded and democratically inclined in questions of church government. During the 70 long years before 1990, the weakness of the Russian Orthodox Church throughout the North was its lack of leadership. Even the historic dioceses of Kareliya and Novgorod had no resident, ruling bishop. There was also a presence of minority religious communities in the North, including Old Believers. The result was that Kareliya had 61 Protestant church societies in 1999 compared to 45 Russian Orthodox parishes; Murmansk had 38 of each; Komi had 45 Protestant church societies and 65 Russian Orthodox parishes; and Kaliningrad, another remote, somewhat northerly province, even now without a resident, ruling bishop, had 74 Protestant church societies and 53 Russian Orthodox parishes. Only Nizhni Novgorod bucked the trend to some degree, with 18 Protestant church societies and 84 Orthodox parishes.
A conservative, authoritarian Orthodox observer might make a case that the very liberality, openness, tolerance, and good will of the hierarchs in the North have contributed to the ability of Protestants to make inroads. Keston's researcher even comes close to implying that virtue may not always have had material rewards in terms of interconfessional advantage. This is a somewhat melancholy thought.
The Volga Region
In the region of the lower Volga, the ascendancy of Russian Orthodoxy has been vitiated by the presence of Lutheran Volga Germans for centuries and the historic presence of a wide variety of other minority religious communities, many of whom were deported during World War II. More than a million Volga Germans have since emigrated to Germany. Orthodox leadership in the region has been varied in quality, with closed-mindedness, anti-Protestantism, and anti-Catholicism visibly prevalent. In Tatarstan Muslims essentially rule and Bashkirs hang on as an Islamic enclave even though they constitute only about 25 percent of the population of Bashkortostan. Kalmykiya has long been a center of Buddhist tradition in European Russia, despite Stalin's deportation of the Kalmyks during World War II. In Asia the centers of Buddhism have been Buryatiya, Tyva, and a few other scattered places.
Muslims in North Caucasus and Pagans
The North Caucacus is mostly Islamic in its religious loyalties. Among the Chechens there is a symbolic union between Islam and the nation. The mountain people further west are historically less strongly Muslim and more influenced by pagan beliefs. In European Russia as a whole paganism is strong in the western parts of the North Caucasus, in the Chuvash Republic, in Mari-El, and in Udmurtiya. In Asian Russia, particularly Siberia, paganism is relatively strong throughout the regions inhabited by indigenous people, including Sakha (Yakutiya), Khakasiya, Tyva, and the Altai. The great unanswered question is whether pagan manifestations are largely national, traditional, and symbolic, or whether paganism is a fully developed family of religions that is competing effectively with Orthodoxy. Filatov, his expert on Shamanism (David Lewis), and his other knowledgeable colleagues seem to straddle the issue.
Protestantism on the March
In the first issue in the year 2000 of the publication Frontier, Philip Walters, chief of research for Keston Institute, wrote: "One thing is becoming clear: Russian Orthodoxy does not predominate outside the European Russian heartland." In his Essays Sergei Filatov is more circumspect--and no doubt more accurate. Filatov writes, "In many cities (particularly in the Far East and Siberia) more believers are now present in Protestant churches at regular Sunday services than in Orthodox churches." Using Russian Ministry of Justice statistics, I did an analysis of the number of Protestant and Orthodox church societies in each diocese east of the Urals. In about half of these dioceses there are more Protestant communities than Orthodox parishes, but these are mostly smaller dioceses that do not include the great jurisdictions of Novosibirsk,
Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, and the historic provinces of Omsk and Tomsk. Whether the average-sized Orthodox parish is larger than a Protestant church society is difficult to answer because the Orthodox parish has a great many more occasional attenders at services and nominal Orthodox people, while Protestants have a higher percentage of deeply engaged and committed members.
In any case, Protestant communities clearly are growing and seem to do better than Orthodox at attracting youth, men, specialists, and businessmen. Pentecostals now outnumber Baptists and have become the most active Protestants in Russia. Evangelical denominations appear to be more successful than traditional Protestants, although Methodists have had extraordinary growth. In general, native-born Russian Protestants appear to have been having greater successes than foreign missionaries, particularly American ones. Part of the problem for Americans has been mediocre or absent Russian language training. Another difficulty seems to have been attitudinal, as some missionaries appear to understand their mission as winning souls for Christ in what they regard as a pagan land without a Christian history extending over a thousand years.
One difficulty Orthodox have encountered in the Russian East is a weakness of episcopal leadership in some places. About a third of the bishops in dioceses east of the Urals have been removed or severely criticized for personal or official transgressions. Such is the importance of the role of the ruling bishop that a weak appointment can become inordinately serious in the fate of his diocese.
Filatov also addresses Buddhism, Rerikhism (a home-grown, syncretistic faith), totalitarian sects, and other minority religions. Filatov's Essays present a deeply informed, penetrating analysis of religion in Russia at the present time. If I find fault with the book, it would be Filatov's fascination with minority religious movements at the cost of a more lengthy and penetrating analysis of the current state of Orthodoxy. Some of the minority religions seem in Filatov's analysis to be more important and perhaps more competitive with Orthodoxy than I feel they really are. I hope that Keston's encyclopedia, when it appears, will give Orthodoxy its full due.
Nathaniel Davis is professor emeritus of humanities at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA, and author of A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy.
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