East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 2005, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe


Contemporary Religious Life on Sakhalin Island

Natalia Potapova

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."

Growing Religiosity
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:

Year 1988 1991 1993 1995 1998 2000 2001 2003
Percentage 18.6 38.6 42.1 43.0 44.8 45.2 46.3 49.2

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
The Russian Orthodox Church began its renewal on the island under difficult circumstances caused by the particular historical development of the region. Never noted for its piety, Sakhalin, in prerevolutionary Russia, was settled primarily by criminals, while in the Soviet period, it was settled by devoted Communists, thus lacking a solid Orthodox tradition. For this reason, the 1990s were a period of painful and difficult growth for the Orthodox Church on Sakhalin. In June 1989, the first Orthodox service was held in an apartment in the regional capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. The first Orthodox priest, who arrived from Moscow in 1989, served for only a few months. The first Orthodox House of Prayer, like cult buildings of other confessions, was built in a private home on the edge of the city. One of the first tasks facing the Orthodox Church in the early 1990s was territorial expansion, including the organization of parishes, the legal registration of congregations, and the construction of church buildings. After the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Kuriles Eparchy was founded in 1993, 31 more parishes were opened in the region (creating a total of 41), the majority of which to this day meet in adapted accommodations. Four more parishes were opened after the 1997 federal law on religion was passed. Only five Orthodox Church buildings have been completed in the region.

Orthodox Shortages
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:

  1. The Sakhalin population lacks spiritual roots, Orthodox tradition, and confessional loyalty.
  2. The psychology of impermanence, common among Sakhalin residents (generally people with Communist or Komsomol backgrounds sent to the island to work during the Soviet period), does not allow the formation of a permanent or stable population with its own traditions. Economic difficulties have made the situation even worse. But people devoid of tradition form an easy foundation for the strengthening of non-Orthodox Christian confessions ("sectarians").
  3. Some Orthodox believe legislation is overly favorable toward non-traditional confessions, creating an environment in which a multitude of "sects" can freely and successfully operate on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially those with financial support from abroad. In addition, some Orthodox believe that sectarians threaten the national security of Russia and are involved in espionage.
  4. Insufficient financing (parishioners are poor and donate little) prevents the Russian Orthodox Church from competing with the charitable activities of Protestant confessions founded by missionaries.

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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2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664



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