Report by Boris Knorre for Portal-Credo.ru

Book Launch

Encyclopaedia of Religious Life in Russia Today

Carnegie Centre, Moscow.

On 9 June 2004 a launch of the first two volumes (out of six) of an encyclopaedia, entitled Religious Life in Russia Today: An Attempt at a Systematic Description, took place at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, chaired by Aleksei Malashenko, Vice-President of the Centre, Doctor of Historical Studies and Professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Sergei Filatov, in charge of the research and writing for the encyclopaedia, gave the background of the project which was conceived in the mid-90s, when he discovered “that little was known about the real life of contemporary religious communities in Russia”. He emphasised the exceptional, even “providential” role of the Keston Institute in helping create the encyclopaedia, commenting that initially his study of religious life in Russia had been rather like “a hobby” which he had not expected would ever be published:

thanks to the Keston Institute we have been able to travel to all corners of Russia, and have already conducted three thousand interviews, which has made it possible to present the current state of religious life in Russia.”

Filatov also emphasised that it was particularly important to study the religious situation in Russia during a period of religious freedom. “Today we are recording the religious situation after it has had time to develop. The present stage is more like ‘evolutionary development’”, he added. He analysed Russian religiosity thus: there is a paradox – a great interest on an intellectual level in everything to do with religion, yet a low level of religious observance and church attendance.

In Filatov’s opinion, a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to the so-called “religious threat” by the government:

in 2000 a section on religion was included in the doctrine of national security, whereas today it is no secret that departments for religious affairs have been revived within the Federal Security Bureau (FSB). The government’s worry that religion is strong and to be feared, is ‘idealistic’, not realistic, on their part”.

Dr Davorin Peterlin, director of the Keston Institute, commented that he had inherited the encyclopaedia project when he took up his post last year and hoped that the work would be completed in the foreseeable future. The encyclopaedia showed how important it was to know the representatives of the faiths “amongst whom we are living”: “Whether we like it or not, we live in a pluralist society; there is pluralism in the religious life of every country.” He hoped that “when the encyclopaedia is completed it will not only be a significant contribution to understanding what constitutes Russia, but will also help foster tolerance among Russians towards different religious beliefs, and promote religious freedom”.

Xenia Dennen, Chairman and founder member of the Keston Institute, commented on the timeliness in the mid ‘90s of field work in Russia on the religious situation: “The chance to do such research could not be missed, since the window of opportunity in Russia could be closed at any moment”. She mentioned one research trip with the encyclopaedia team to the Altai when local Buddhists in the Republic were afraid to talk to the Russian members of the team: “At first the Buddhists didn’t want to talk to us, and it was only after I pretended that Sergei Borisovich was my manager, my humble Sancho-Panza, that they agreed to meet me and Sergei. In this way we conducted many interviews in the Altai and found out what was really going on”.

Comments on the encyclopaedia were then invited from the floor. Vladimir Glagolev, Doctor of Philosophy and Professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, suggested that the unique value of the encyclopaedia was its description of unknown religious groups. Aleksandr Ignatenko, a member of Putin’s Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, praised its multifaceted nature and commented that to see religion as a threat to the State was an attitude inherited from the Communist past. But Ignatenko added:

I would venture to disagree somewhat with Sergei Filatov. The problems of contemporary religious life which you talked about are not only dependent on the Russian situation, but have a global character”.

He proposed that attention be paid to the presence of religious movements which systematically undermine the freedom of others, for example militant Muslim groups:

For us the problem of Wahhabism is of real concern since this element, alien to those Muslim currents which have been historically present in Russia, is now taking root. I do not mean that the FSB should deal with this problem, but it should be the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior.”

Ignatenko referred to Germany and England, where, he said, similar problems were now being dealt with by the Home Office.

Sergei Buryanov, a human-rights activist from the Institute for Freedom of Conscience disagreed:

The threat against religious freedom never comes from religion, but from the State or state-sponsored religious structures. For no religious organisation can limit religious freedom unless it becomes part of a conforming state ideology. Moreover, discussion about religious extremism is needed for the ‘politics of carrot and stick’, to cover up the state’s failure to deal with real social ills.”

Professor Igor Kanterov from Moscow University, who is also a member of the government’s Expert Committee on Religion attached to the Ministry of Justice, particularly praised the encyclopaedia’s “secular evaluation” of religious movements and added:

These two volumes of the encyclopaedia show that the academic community studying religion is alive in Russia! This work is qualitatively different from the articles of many religious publicists who do not know theological terminology and do not use academic language… It is now vital to translate the achievements of the encyclopaedia into the practice of church-state relations.”

Anatolii Krasikov, chairman of the Russian Section of the International Association for Religious Freedom, supported Professor Kanterov’s opinion and hoped that the encyclopaedia would become required reading for civil servants. He stressed the current corruption in the administration of state-church relations:

This is no longer a secret. Moreover, we now have concrete figures, we know how much this or that religious organisation paid ‘in the provinces’ to get state registration”.

Professor Remir Lopatkin from the Russian Academy of State Service expressed another point of view:

Why constantly condemn the existing legislation on religion when it is not even being implemented? We have seriously violated our law. Every bureaucrat at any level can decide the fate of a religious organisation ‘according to his understanding’. Today relations between the administrative apparatus and religious denominations are simply replacing church-state relations.”

Finally, Roman Lunkin, a member of the encyclopaedia team, spoke about Protestantism in Russia. According to him, the disagreement within Protestantism about modernising approaches to evangelism should not be seen as a conflict between traditionalists and reformists. “Rather this is a conflict between the older and younger generation”, he observed, explaining that many young followers of charismatic movements, which have been influenced by western Christians, are “the children of Senior Presbyters who belong to traditional Russian Protestant movements”. During his work on the encyclopaedia he had become convinced that to see Protestants as “terrible American stereotypes”, a widely-held view among Russian citizens, was nothing but a myth. Protestants were absorbing Russian culture and interpreting it in their own way. (END)