The Paradox of Russian Religiosity

by | June 11, 2014

Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II (left) meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in presence of head of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill. Kremlin photo

A couple of days ago, Lawrence Krauss tweeted that Russian authorities were attempting to shut downLawrence Krauss's Tweet about Unbelievers Movie in Russia his and Richard Dawkins’s movie, The Unbelievers in theatres throughout Russia.

This tweet came at an opportune time for me because lately I’ve been obsessively interested in Russia and Russian politics. Like the US, Russia seems to be a bit of an outlier when it comes to religion. As most of us already know, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union became officially atheist. The state rigorously enforced atheism by imprisoning priests and converting churches for other uses. Russians had no choice but to proclaim themselves atheists if they wanted to go to university or launch a successful career. However, after glasnost in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russians started identifying as religious. According to research:

Source: International Social Survey Programme

Source: International Social Survey Programme

Between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31% to 72%, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of three waves of data (1991, 1998 and 2008) from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) – a collaboration involving social scientists in about 50 countries. During the same period, the share of Russia’s population that does not identify with any religion dropped from 61% to 18%.

So, what does this uptick in religion mean? Does it reflect, as the Christian Monitor reports, that Russians kept their faith hidden during the soviet era, secretly passing it on to the younger generation? Vladimir Putin himself says that his mother had him secretly baptized, without his atheist father knowing. Or is Russian religiosity more closely related to Russian ethnic identity?

I may be a bit mind blind here, but I see this upsurge as a result of Russian nationalism, more than an expression of religious relief after oppression. The Pew survey also shows that Russians rarely go to the church they so closely claim to identify with as only 6% of youth regularly attend church while only 11% of the more religions 70+ crowd attend.

Source: International Social Survey Program

Source: International Social Survey Program

Now, this could just be a reflection of C&E  (Christmas and Easter) church goers. I’ve known many a C&E Catholic who still identify as Catholic. However, the survey results from SREDA lead me to think that Russians aren’t as religious as they claim to be. I’ve had to rely on the Wikipedia reference because I cannot read Russian and therefore cannot review the original. These data show the distribution of various religions among major ethnic groups in Russia with 46% of ethnic Russians identifying as Russian Orthodox (vs. 13% who identify as atheist and 27% who identify as non religious). Sure, these data may just reflect that ethnic Russians are religious but coupled with the response to the question: do you believe in life after death? a strange contrast emerges. Very few Russians, despite their religiosity, actually believe in life after death:

Source: International Social Survey Programme

Source: International Social Survey Programme

This result is in stark contrast to American Pew survey results where 74% of Americans believe in life after death. You’d think that if you believed in God and affiliated with a religion that promotes the belief in God that you’d totally buy into this concept of an afterlife.

Moreover, Russian descriptions of their level of religiosity is low with only 2%-3% seeing themselves as “extremely religious”.

Source: International Social Survey

Source: International Social Survey Programme

On top of all these survey results, there is the superficially paradoxical alliance between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian constitution guarantees separation of church and state and most Russians strongly support this separation. However, Vladimir Putin is so closely affiliated with the Church that Russians worry that the Church has too much influence in Russian politics as evidenced in this RT article that reports on a poll by The Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM):

Three quarters of Russians believe the Russian Orthodox Church should keep away from politics, while half of the citizens think the Church has some influence on the country’s internal affairs.

So, we have what, on the surface, appears to be contrasting data: many Russians identify as Russian Orthodox but rarely go to church, do not believe in life after death, do not think of themselves as “extremely religious” and strongly support separation of church and state to the point that the Church feels obliged to reassure Russians that there is no interference in politics. Could it be that Putin is like the majority of Russians and sees Russian Orthodoxy as an expression of Russian ethnic pride?

If the above is true, why all the fuss about The Unbelievers? I suspect the content of this movie is seen as Western and Vladimir Putin has often positioned Russia as something special (a position many Russians also hold) and distinct from Europe (which it really is). Therefore, it is simple: Europe is atheist therefore Russia is religious.

Let’s hope that Russians succeed in keeping the Church out of politics because the world could do without another theocracy and I suspect the Russian people could do without another bloody revolution.

8 thoughts on “The Paradox of Russian Religiosity

  1. billybob

    Putin has aligned with the church as a strategy to increase his power, I doubt he is really religious. Republicans in the US align with the religious right because they can depend on support from those who control the flocks of sheep, oops maybe I am insulting sheep.

    In either case it has little to do with them caring about religion.

    1. Diana MacPherson Post author

      Yes, whenever Putin is asked directly about his religion he answers very carefully in a way that doesn’t really answer the question.

      I notice that the current PM, Medvedev lists himself as Russian Orthodox but Ivanov, the First Deputy PM and personal friend of Vladimir Putin does not disclose a religion and he tellingly says:

      Russia’s religious organisations have made a big contribution to promoting Russian culture and traditional moral values both at home and abroad. They have considerable influence, including influence among fellow faithful in the migrant communities in Russia. This could help the authorities be more efficient in their efforts to help migrants adapt to Russia’s cultural, values, language and legal space.

      Quote from this article from the Official Website for the President of Russia.

    2. Yelian Garcia

      I have to agree with this post.

      I experienced a similar situation in Cuba. Communism by definition and for historical reasons, subscribes to an atheist model of reality…that’s probably the best communism has to offer any society or geopolitical entity.
      In communist countries however, people tend to look at religion as a way to stand up against communism, they view religion and religious people as “saviors”, they romanticize god and religion as “freedom of thought”…meanwhile, they don’t realize that you do not need to subscribe to religion to conclude that communism is bad and that freedom of thought, speech, and economic freedoms are basic rights not to be “attributed” or “handed” to you by the state, or god or whoever else…they’re yours by virtue of being human, by virtue of being a conscious, willing entity, capable of rational thought, critical thinking, logic, and reason.

  2. Indi

    I may be a bit mind blind here, but I see this upsurge as a result of Russian nationalism, more than an expression of religious relief after oppression.

    Actually, i see it as an object lesson in why repressing religious expression is counterproductive. That is not to say your view is wrong – quite the contrary, I think you’re right, but this adds the missing piece of the puzzle and explains how the religion became part of the Russian nationalist identity. It is in defiance of the former tyranny that the Russian identity explicitly incorporates religion. In other words, Russian nationalism wouldn’t have a religious component (or at least it wouldn’t be as strong) if it weren’t for the past oppression.

    I’ve seen the same thing with Poles, for example. I have had close ties with Polish-Canadians who told me many horror stories of being under the Soviet rule, and a repeating motif there, too, is that – for them – religion became a symbol of freedom, and of defiance against tyranny. When they became independent in 1989, religion came back in a big way. Even today, being religious is part of the Polish identity, and Poland – despite having a modern constitution that enshrines freedom of expression and freedom of belief – scored “severe discrimination” on the 2013 Freedom of Thought report for discrimination against atheists, nonbelievers and secularists.

    In fact, to see the lasting damage of the Soviet religious repression, check this out: Of the 15 former Soviet states only one scores “mostly satisfactory” on the Freedom of Thought report. Of the remaining 14, half have “severe discrimination” against atheists and secularists – Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. (The other half merely have “systemic discrimination”.) Even a generation later, the results of the Soviet religious repression are still reverberating across the region.

    Oh, and the one former Soviet country that managed to be “mostly satisfactory” in its treatment toward atheists and secularists in the 2013 report? It was Ukraine. Yup.

    Repressing… religions… in any way… does… not… work. Worse, the blowback can be terrible, and can last generations. Religions thrive on playing at martyrdom – repression is just an aphrodisiac to them. Even here in Canada, it’s a lesson some atheists and secularists don’t seem to have figured out – like those who backed the absurd and offensive Québec Values charter. If you want to “beat” religion, trying to force it underground is a horribly stupid tactic; the way to “beat” religion is to level the playing field for ideas, and let religions express their beliefs openly and unfettered against rational ideas – the evidence is clear: over time religion will look more and more ridiculous, and it will fade away on its own. Trying to repress it does damage that can take generations to fix.

    1. Bubba Kincaid

      Ironic how the same can be said from the Bolshevik point of view, given that what is called their severe religious oppression, can in fact itself be called a blowback against the preceding severe repression that the Russian church was distinctly part and parcel of. An analysis that lends itself to a bit more of a contextualization.

      I suppose at the end of the day, some way to break these vicious circles becomes the operative goal.

      1. Diana MacPherson

        France ejected The Church during the French Revolution but they didn’t go to as great an extreme as the Bolsheviks and instead helped birth The Enlightenment.

    2. Diana MacPherson

      Yes I agree. I was going to mention the clear fact that oppression just will never work. It is so clear if you have to influence others; if you want the quick result, force it through authority, but don’t be under any illusion that this forcing will give you long term results. The best way to change things is to convince others through a long term investment. It isn’t quick but it lasts.

  3. Ultra

    Putin is an authoritarian. Unlike protestantism, which dominates the US, Russian churches are traditionalist, like the RC church.

    The latter is much more ritual centered rather than doctrinal. Rituals emphasize conformity and stability.

    This sort of religion is a perfect match for Putin as well as a population not overburdened with individualism.


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