The State of Religion in Russia

No Gold Medal for Performance on Religious Freedom

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With the Winter Olympics, Russia has attracted attention on a variety of issues, among them religion.

On Feb. 10 Pew Research published a report, “Russians Return to Religion, but Not to Church.” It compared the results from three sets of data (1991, 1998 and 2008) taken from the International Social Survey Programme.

The results showed a dramatic shift, in that between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31% to 72%.

In the same time span the share of Russia’s population that does not identify with any religion dropped from 61% to 18%.

According to the report there was a modest increase in the numbers of those identifying with other religions, such as Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Religious belief has also increased in the period 1991-2008, with the proportion of Russian adults who said they are somewhat religious rising from 11% to 54%. Those who say they believe in God went from 38% to 56%.

This last piece of data reveals the curious situation where while 72% identify as Orthodox Christians only 56% affirm they believe in God.

Church attendance remains very low. All three surveys show that the number of those who attend at least once a month went from 2% in 1991 to only 7% in 2008.

Breaking down the data into demographic groups the Pew report noted that religious belief is significantly higher among women compared to men, although there was not a large difference when it came to going to Church – 9% vs. 5%.

A majority of all age groups identified themselves as Orthodox Christians in 2008, but the percentage was higher in the older age brackets.

When it comes to the level of education the report said that there is no notable difference between those with less formal education and those who have a university degree.


While religious affiliation has undergone a notable change the heavy-handed tactics of the Russian government have not changed. The Kremlin’s increasing intolerance deserves greater attention than that given to the Winter Olympics, declared the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a Feb. 5 press release.

The commission observed that there are overly broad laws that limit the freedom of religion and expression, which “clearly violate international standards.”

“These laws are part of the Putin government’s assault on freedom of religion and expression,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George.

George singled out the anti-blasphemy laws, which he described as vaguely worded and also sweeping; they impose heavy fines and jail sentences for those who “are deemed to offend the feelings of others.”

“People must be free, to express their convictions peacefully without fear of punishment or discrimination, and everyone’s rights must be protected,” he declared.

The lack of religious freedom in Russia has been extensively document by the Forum 18 news service. The Christian inspired group – a Norwegian-Danish initiative – takes its name from article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A Jan. 14 report examined the courses in religion and ethics offered in Russia’s schools, which were re-introduced in 2012, reversing a ban imposed after the Russian Revolution in 1917.


The main textbook, Forum 18 observed, is mostly even-handed. Its implementation is, however, another matter.

On visiting some of the Siberian regions it turned out that in the Khakassia Republic a Lutheran parent complained his daughter was offered only the Orthodox Culture module of the religion course and that the school’s head teacher proclaimed, «We live in an Orthodox country».

Forum 18 previously published a two-part extract from a book by its Russian correspondent, Geraldine Fagan («Believing in Russia – Religious Policy after Communism» Routledge, 2013).

Fagan observed that: “The Russian Orthodox Church asserts itself as the definitive expression of Russian nationhood. Alternative worldviews are marginalised.”

She took a somewhat different view from that expressed by USCIRF, saying that: “The erosion of religious freedom is not due to deliberate federal preference for the Russian Orthodox Church. Rather, it is the symptom of a disinterested Kremlin absenting itself from the religious policy sphere.”

As a result of this indifference at the top, junior officials have been left free “to pursue an Orthodox-centred religious policy in defiance of the federal standard, according to Fagan.

Nevertheless she did note that Russia’s political leaders are using national values, and the identification with the Russian Orthodox Church, as a way to protect political interests.

On Feb. 11 Elliott Abrams of USCIRF gave testimony before the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee on the subject of religious freedom regarding the persecution of Christians.

About Russia he said that religious freedom conditions have deteriorated over the past year and that there are “increasing signs of an official policy that favors the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church over other religious communities.”

It would seem that the level-playing field of a sports competition is far from existing in matters of religion in Russia.

Pew report –

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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