Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhalin Island
Editor's Note: Readers will not necessarily agree with all interpretations found in this article, but all will be much better informed about a region of Russia where Protestantism is surprisingly strong.
One common trend in post-Soviet Russia, as a result of the liberal legislation passed in 1990, has been an unprecedented burst of religiosity and a rapid growth in the number of religious organizations. These processes have been evident on Sakhalin as well, in part due to the revocation of the island's status as a border zone and the consequent arrival of representatives of a variety of confessions, both from mainland Russia and from abroad. Sakhalin's unique history (tsarist penal colony, 40 years of Japanese rule in the south, and the Soviet period), as well as the ethnic diversity of its population (including native peoples, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Koreans), created a population devoid of religious tradition or confessional loyalties. These circumstances continue to influence the religious life of Sakhalin today.
Opposition to Missionary Activity
As in other regions of Russia, the burst of religiosity and the activity of foreign missions prompted new regional legislation. Already in 1993, social and political organizations had begun to appeal to People's Deputies of the region to limit the activity of foreign religious organizations.. In 1996, the governor passed a decree to regulate "the growing stream of foreign missionaries onto the territory of the Sakhalin region," and their "violations of legal procedures." The decree called upon the Federal Security Service (UFSB), the regional Department of Internal Affairs (UVD), and the Justice Department to increase their vigilance in detecting those missionaries and religious organizations operating in violation of the laws of the Russian Federation. Missionary activity by foreign religious organizations lacking accreditation from the Justice Department was forbidden.
A harsh blow to the interests of believers was a clause requiring missionary activity to take place exclusively in cult buildings; missionary activity was forbidden entirely in state, municipal, and other educational institutions. However, due to protests, on 17 April 1997, the regional procurator amended the clause: now only government buildings, with the exception of institutions of higher education, were forbidden to lease their accommodations for missionary activity. From the point of view of the Russian Orthodox Church, the regional administration's actions were insufficient. In the 1990s, the population awoke to actions of foreign missionaries that from the point of view of Russian spiritual tradition were ambiguous and often unacceptable. "Spiritual security" was placed on the same level as"national security," and a number of organizations were founded to combat the influence of foreign religions and sects. A 1997 issue of Missionerskoe obozrenie [Missionary Review] noted that "local sectarians focus their attention on middle and higher educational institutions and work closely with representatives of regional authorities and customs officials on the island."
Research conducted by the Sociology Laboratory of Sakhalin State University showed a consistent increase in the population's religiosity, although not necessarily Orthodoxy. The percent of respondents referring to themselves as believers, according to surveys conducted in the regional center, are as follows:
The study indicated that the majority of believers were women (77.8 percent in 1997; 71.5 percent in 2003). Of believers surveyed in 1997, 19.8 percent identified themselves as Orthodox, while 28.9 percent belonged to various Protestant denominations. In 2003, respondents were, respectively, 27.1 percent Orthodox and 25.7 percent Protestant (including 15.4 percent belonging to the Christians of Evangelical Faith-Pentecostal). At the same time, survey results indicated that active religious searching among non-traditional religions had decreased and the authority of Orthodoxy had grown. In addition, in 2003, when asked why they chose to belong to a particular confession, only 4.5 percent of Orthodox responded that they were seeking meaning in life, while 35.5 percent chose the Russian Orthodox Church because it was the traditional religion: "To be Russian means to be Orthodox." At the same, the vast majority of Protestants surveyed indicated that their choice was the result of their search for meaning in life (from 33.3 to 100 percent, depending on the denomination). In 1997, 10.9 percent of respondents indicated that they wavered between belief and non-belief, while in 2003, that number had grown to 15.2 percent of respondents. In 1997, 12.7 percent of respondents considered themselves non-believers, while in 2003, 11.1 percent. In 2003, 2.8 percent of respondents (all men) identified themselves as atheists.
Research in 1997-98 and 2003 indicated an increased level of education among believers, an increase in the percentage of men in religious organizations, and a decrease in the average age of religious believers. There was also growth in the number of people for whom religion was not to be equated with Orthodoxy, but was of an amorphous nature, above all among students and members of the intelligentsia. Youth (up to age 20) indicated a higher level of religiosity than did the middle-aged, approaching the level of religiosity of the oldest age group. In 1997, 39.4 percent, and in 2003, 43.7 percent of youth identified themselves as believers. Growth in religious tolerance was also evident in the population: in 1997, 17.7 percent of respondents indicated a positive attitude toward the activity of foreign missionaries, while 22.1 percent viewed it negatively. In 2003, 33.3 percent viewed foreign missionaries positively, while 20.8 percent viewed them negatively.Serious Challenges for Russian Orthodoxy
Currently, the major activities of the Russian Orthodox Church on Sakhalin can be summarized as follows:
Slow Orthodox Growth
If we take as criteria not the ethno-cultural self-description of those who feel that "To be Russian means to be Orthodox," but seldom attend church, but rather consider the theological criteria differentiating between "practicing Christians" and "non-practicing" – namely, participation in confession and communion no less than once per year – Orthodox growth on Sakhalin has been small. According to official data, the number of parishioners who attend church regularly is approximately 2,500 people in the entire region. According to the eparchy's data, the five parishes of the region's capital (population 180,000) consist of only 1,000 parishioners. When the author visited a Sunday service at the Cathedral of the Resurrection, 120 parishioners were present, all Russian or Slavic. For major holidays, huge numbers of locals attend (over 1,000).
Orthodox Struggles in Summary
In the opinion of Sakhalin Orthodox clergy, the difficulties in establishing Orthodox life on Sakhalin can be attributed to the following reasons:
It is worth noting that, despite the difficulties in this stage of Orthodoxy's rebirth, Bishop Daniil regularly participates in official events devoted to state holidays or commemorations. The regional government as well plays a significant role in the commemoration of church holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
Editor's Note: The conclusion of this article, focusing on non-Orthodox groups, will be published in the next issue of the East West Church and Ministry Report.
Adapted, with permission, from N.V. Potapova, "Religioznaia zhizn' naseleniia Sakhalina na sovremennom etape (90-e gody XX – nachalo XXI veka)," Kraevedcheskii biulleten', No 2 (2003), 70-95. Translated by Sharyl Corrado.
Natalia Potapova is an instructor of history at Sakhalin State University, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia.
Natalia Potapova, "Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhalin Island," East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Spring 2005), 5-6.
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