Religious Life in Russia Today: the Story of the Keston Encyclopaedia
In the early 1990s I brought back from Moscow some spravki (reports) on certain Russian Orthodox dioceses written by Sergei Filatov, a Moscow scholar from the Oriental Institute, and showed them to Michael Bourdeaux, then director of Keston Institute. These spravki formed the beginning of a major ten-year project to produce what is now called An Encyclopaedia of Religious Life in Russia Today: A Systematic Description.
Michael Bourdeaux found their contents fascinating and felt that here was an opportunity to make a detailed study of the religious situation in Russia which should not be missed, knowing from experience how quickly official attitudes towards religion could change and how open doors could suddenly slam shut. Perestroika, after all, might not last for ever – as now indeed seems to be the case with the advent of Putin’s more authoritarian regime.
The research has been carried out by a Russian team based in Moscow, and so far two out of six volumes as well as an introductory volume of essays have been published in Russian. The six volumes form two parts: Part I (volumes 1-3), covers all the religious denominations which exist in Russia, whereas Part II (volumes 4-6) is a geographical survey covering all 78 adminstrative districts (subekty) in the Russian Federation, giving a cross-section of every religious group in a particular geographical area. So far nearly 800 pages have been published, and another 1,800 pages will eventually appear in print, we hope, if we can raise the required funding. In Part I, each denomination is studied under the following subject headings:
a) organisational structure;
b) a short history;
c) basic doctrines, current theological position;
d) number of members, churches;
e) geographical distribution;
f) national composition;
g) mass media outlets and publications;
h) educational institutions;
i) monasteries (where relevant);
j) social and charitable bodies;
k) economic position;
In addition, wherever possible names, addresses, telephone numbers, websites, and e-mail addresses are given.
To give you an idea of the coverage let me list the denominations studied in volumes 1 and 2.
Orthodoxy (Moscow Patriarchate, Free Orthodox, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Catacomb True Orthodox Church etc.)
Spiritual Christianity: Dukhobors , Molokans
Armenian Apostolic Church
Oriental Orthodox (Syrian)
Baptists and Evangelical Christians
Pentecostals and Charismatics
The Church of Christ (Boston Movement)
Etika Povedeniya (Behaviour Ethics)
Volume 3 will contain information on all non-Christian religions, for example Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, the Rerikh movement, paganism.
At the launch in St Petersburg last September of the first published volume, I was interested to hear this project described, during the discussion, not as a work of sociology but as one of social anthropology. Philip Walters suggested we use the metaphor of entomology or philately to describe this work: ‘Filatov’s philately’ rather appealed to us. For the methods used reminded us of stamp collecting or explorations with butterfly nets. Neither sociological questionnaires nor sampling methods nor opinion polls were used: the text is not full of endless statistics. The members of the Encyclopaedia team have carried out over two thousand interviews, in addition to studying published sources, press articles and secular and confessional reports, and have travelled to every corner of the Russian Federation. During interviews questions which would reveal the kind of information we were looking for would be posed.
This is the first time that such a piece of research has been carried out, at time when Russians know even less about their religious situation than observers in the West, when myths are rife and prejudice is being fed by anti-sectarian propaganda. What is presented is the truth, facts gathered at a grass-root level; what is conveyed is the ‘feel’ of an area, current views, local religious conflicts and alliances as well as local government policies.
My role in this enterprise has been a very small one: I have been a mere drone in the beehive, a small Sancho Panza. I have joined the team or ‘komanda’ on a few of its fieldtrips and have conducted many interviews. The hard work, however, has not been mine: that of producing the texts for all the sections which I listed above, analysing the ideas and concepts of each religious group and describing their structure and geographical distribution.
I will now give you an example of a denominational study from Part I and an example of an area study from Part II.
Example of a Denominational Study: Section on Pentecostals and Charismatics from Part I Volume 2
Out of the many Christian denominations covered in the Encyclopaedia I have chosen the section on the Pentecostals and Charismatics simply because of my own curiosity after picking up tit-bits about them on fieldtrips, particularly from Roman Lunkin, and after, for example, interviewing some Charismatic groups in Kaluga. There seemed to be a myriad different groups active in contemporary Russia and I wanted to create a bit of order in my mind out of what seemed a chaotic mass of small communities springing up in every corner of Russia.
So what did I discover?
Pentecostalism came to Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century through a German Methodist missionary, Wilhelm Ebel, who headed a ‘movement of holiness’, established a group of missionaries in Riga in 1902 and made contact with the Volga Germans, while in Finland (part of course of the Russian Empire before the Revolution) a Norwegian Methodist pastor, T. Barat, preached to Baptists, Adventists and Evangelical Christians the doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
There appear to have been five main strands of home-grown Pentecostalism at the beginning of the Soviet period:
1. The ‘Yedintsvenniki’, or followers of ‘Jesus only’, who did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity and baptised only in the name of the second person, Jesus. Followers of this doctrine were allowed by Lenin to open a prayer house in Petrograd in 1918 and appeared in Moscow the following year.
2. In 1922 a small millennarian group called the ‘Zionists’ or ‘Leontyevtsy’ (followers of Leonti Mel’nik) made its appearance.
3. A group called the ‘Murashkovtsy’, followers of I.P. Murashko from Brest oblast (who became a Baptist in the USA and then a Pentecostal), or ‘Holy Zionists’, founded a church in 1932. Believing that they should all emigrate to Palestine and finding they could not, they developed the idea of creating a ‘Holy Mount Zion’ in their local area while awaiting the imminent Second Coming.
4. In the 1920s a group called the ‘Christian-Sabbatarians’ appeared in the USSR.
5. Perhaps the most interesting strand of Pentecostalism was the ‘Voronyaev-Schmidt’ group. The Voronayevtsy were followers of Ivan Voronayev, an army deserter who became a Baptist after he emigrated to the USA in 1912 and trained in a Baptist seminary, becoming a Pentecostal in 1919. In 1920 he founded the Russian section of the Assembly of God. In 1921 he opened a prayer house in Odessa, where in 1924 the first Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Soyuz khristian very yevangelskoi) was founded. The Baptists and Evangelical Christians there did not like them at all, attacking them with the condemnatory title of ‘shakers’ (‘tryasuny’). One of the distinctive features of their style of worship was that foot-washing took place at every communion service. In 1926 the first Russian Union of Pentecostals formed; thereafter Pentecostalism was spread by the Voronayevtsy. By 1927 they had an organisational centre in Moscow and 350 communities (obshchiny). By 1928 the Party changed its policy towards them (they resisted collectivisation), and with the adoption of the 1929 law on religion these Pentecostals went underground. The Schmidt movement which coalesced with the Voronayev movement was also founded in the 1920s, in western Ukraine, and by the 1930s had 18,000 members. Like the Voronayevtsy, the Shmitovtsy called themselves Christians of the Evangelical Faith, but unlike the Voronayevtsy enacted the foot-washing only on Maundy Thursday.
During the 1930s and 1940s no Pentecostal groups were allowed to exist officially, until the Second World War when in 1944 the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists (AUCECB) was formed with official Soviet blessing. In August 1945 representatives of the Voronayev-Schmidt movement emerged from hiding in Estonia, Latvia and Belorussia and sent representatives to the AUCECB who signed the ‘August Agreement’ whereby speaking in tongues and foot-washing were banned during large prayer meetings and teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit was condemned. The ‘August Agreement’ was soon rejected by the Pentecostal members of the AUCECB: by 1948 it was being criticised by them, and this led eventually to the mass exodus of Pentecostals from the AUCECB in 1955. In the 1970s there was an attempt to reconcile the two sides and to get the Pentecostals to accept once again the ‘August Agreement’, after which 33,000 remained allied to the AUCECB and 20,000 refused any association with this Union. Only with the radical change in Party policy towards religion in 1988 was a Pentecostal Union permitted to exist at last.
In Russia there is a clear division between Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement which appeared in the USSR in the 1970s spreading from the Baltic States, Belorussia and the Ukraine, and attracting a young element within the Pentecostal movement which reacted against the traditional, rigid and highly conservative attitudes and forms of worship which developed in the Soviet period under persecution. This distinction is still clearly visible in the post-perestroika period.
Fifteen organisations of Pentecostals and/or Charismatics which have been formed since perestroika are described in this section of the Encyclopaedia (Part I, Volume 2).
1. Soyuz khristian very yevangelskoi pyatidesyatnikov (SKhVYeP), the Union of Pentecostal Christians of the Evangelical Faith, was set up in 1990 under the leadership of Vladimir Murza, the son of a conservative Pentecostal family who rejected registration under the Soviet regime. Although this Union cooperated mostly with other groups of this type, Murza accepted Charismatic groups as well. In 1999 1300 churches belonged to SKhVYeP with 100,000 members.
2. Obyedinennaya tserkov khristian very yevangelskoi-pyatidesyatnikov (OTsKhVYe), the United Church of Pentecostal Christians of the Evangelical Faith, is headed by Ivan Fedotov, one of the heroes of the Pentecostal movement in Soviet times who was in prison for 18 years and released in 1971. He opposes western influences, with roots in the 1920s Voronayev tradition, and supports traditional, conservative Russian Pentecostalism, rejecting registration on principle. This group is Calvinist, anti-ecumenical and highly authoritarian; it teaches conversion and repentance through the Holy Spirit, but does not encourage speaking in tongues or over-emotional phenomena (for example the Toronto blessing).
3. Rossiisky obyedinenny soyuz khristian very yevangelskoi pyatidesytnikov (ROSKhVYeP), the Russian United Union of Pentecostal Christians of the Evangelical Faith, was founded in 1996 by Sergei Ryakhovsky who had been an associate of Fedotov until he was condemned by the latter for being influenced by the western charismatic movement. His Union attracts less conservative elements, and has acted as an umbrella organisation, since the 1997 law on religion was adopted, for a variety of Protestant denominations as well as Charismatic and Pentecostal groups which do not fulfil the 15-year rule of the new law, that is, which have existed in Russia for less than 15 years. It promotes active missionary work and criticises what it sees as inertness in the old traditional Pentecostal movement. It has 200,000 members in 1200 church congregations.
4. Assotsiatsiya khristianskikh tserkvei ‘Soyuz khristian’, the Association of Christian Churches ‘The Union of Christians’, is headed by Igor Nikitin in St Petersburg and since its registration in 1995 has grown rapidly. Its members include a variety of Protestant denominations as well as Pentecostals and Charismatics. It uses the latest IT technology for communicating with its members, stresses the importance of education, encourages involvement in political life and concern for social problems. Three hundred churches and missions belong to this Association as well as 400 pastors.
5. Khristiansky tsentr ‘Novoye pokoleniye’, the Christian Centre ‘New Generation’, belongs to Murza’s Union and includes moderate Pentecostals as well as Charismatics. Its roots are in Yaroslavl oblast where there were Pentecostals in the 1930s and where a Charismatic revival took place in the 1990s with help from Novoye pokoleniye in Latvia. In 1999 it had 5000 members in Yaroslavl oblast and has attracted young businessmen and those concerned with social problems.
6. Severo-vostochny soyuz yevangelskikh tserkvei, the North-Eastern Union of Evangelical Churches, founded in 1996, comes under Nikitin’s Association. It is headed by Pastor Pavel Timchenko, who was converted originally by the Initsiativniki. He was ordained by Estonian Methodists, became a missionary in Yakutia before perestroika and focuses the work of his Union in the north and far east of Russia. In 1999 it had 15 pastors and 20 congregations.
7. Soyuz tserkvei yevangelskikh khristian v dukhe apostolov (SYeKhDA), the Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians in the Spirit of the Apostles, was founded in St Petersburg in 1908 by Pastor Dimitri Shatrov. This group was very active in the 1910s and 1920s, described by the Baptists as ‘tryasuny’ because of the way they trembled and jumped about during worship. Most of them were repressed during the Purges. They were also known as the ‘yedintsvenniki’ as they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, insisting that Christ alone expressed the Godhead. Today this group has 10,000 members, of which 1000 are in Petersburg.
8. Assosiatsiya tserkvei ‘Vinogradnik’, the Association of Churches ‘Vineyard’, was imported from California, and has developed in Krasnoyarsk where by 1998 two pastors had been trained and young people drawn in through rock concerts. Its charismatic groups are open, in touch with modern culture, democratic, ecumenical, and interested in the writings of the Orthodox priest Fr Aleksandr Men’ and the Church Fathers. It cooperates with other Christian denominations and is committed to social work among drug addicts and children at risk. In 1999 the Krasnoyarsk community had 200 members.
9. Tserkov ‘Proslavleniye’, the ‘Glorification’ Church, is headed by Ruslan Belosevich and based in Khakassia where Swedish missionaries from the ‘Word of Life’ church had worked. In 1989 Belosevich set up a church in Abakan and joined Ryakhovsky’s Union after the adoption of the 1997 law. He has organised a school for missionaries from Mongolia. Some of these are now working in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Mongolia.
10. Assotsiatsiya khristian very yevangelskoi ‘Kharism’, the Association of Christians of the Evangelical Faith ‘Charism’, is headed by Pavel Savelev who was baptised by unregistered Pentecostals in 1971, and thereafter in the 1970s discovered charismatic forms of worship in Tallinn where American, Swedish and Finnish missionaries were active. In 1989 he trained in Sweden and on returning to Moscow set up a house group called ‘Rosa’ in his flat whose members went and preached on the Arbat. Although proud of their roots within the unregistered Pentecostals of Soviet times, the members of Rosa (there are 1000 in Moscow) feel alienated from traditional Russian Pentecostalism. Its members are ‘intelligenty’, include some Russian Orthodox, value the arts, use contemporary styles of music and dance in their services and have organised the Alpha course and Alpha groups with the help of Sandy Miller from Holy Trinity Brompton in London. It now has 62 churches in various parts of Russia.
11. Missiya khristian very yevangelskoi ‘Blagodat’, the Mission of Evangelical Christians ‘Grace’, has a mission centre in Moscow, but is organised from Los Angeles. It forms part of the South Korean Presbyterian mission with 2600 members, 101 missionaries, and churches in 82 countries. Pastor Kim Kwang-Shen rules this mission from LA; it is highly centralised and exclusive. In Russia it began operations on the island of Sakhalin in 1990, and by 1992 had 200 groups mostly in the south and far eastern parts of the country. All its leaders are Korean and Korean culture dominates its forms of worship.
12. Assotsiatsiya KhVYe ‘Tserkvi very’, Association of Evangelical Christians ‘the Church of Faith’, was founded in 1996 and grew out of the work of the ‘Word of Life’ church in Norway which distributed Bibles and set up prayer groups between 1985 and 1989. With the equivalent of four million dollars this church set up a Russian Internal Mission in 1989 which focussed on Siberia and Abakan, only later in 1993 moving to Moscow where a Bible college was set up in 1994. Its leaders and teachers are all Russian, its local groups are autonomous and its courses contain a broad curriculum (church history, patristics, Reformation, the prosperity gospel!). It has 15,000 members and 175 churches.
13. Rossiiskaya assambleya Boga (tserkov KhVYe ‘Emmanuil’), the Russian Assembly of God (Church of Evangelical Christians ‘Emmanuel’) set up its first congregation in Moscow in 1991 and then a missionary centre in 1993. It has attracted many young people; it is not conservative, but moderate in its practises, stressing the need to spread the Gospel rather than the importance of speaking in tongues. Its members are committed to helping the deprived in society. It has 2500 members and 24 churches.
14. Assotsiatsiya KhVYe ‘Calvary International’, the Association of Evangelical Christians ‘Calvary International’, spread to Russia in the 1990s from Latvia where this American-based network of churches had built a Bible college before perestroika. Fifty of its churches have been registered while another 50 have applied. Its main centres are in Kazan, Ufa and Murmansk. Within its ranks are both the descendants of traditional Russian Pentecostalism and newly converted Charismatics.
15. Assotsiatsiya tserkvei KhVYe ‘The Kingdom of God’, The Association of Evangelical Christian Churches ‘The Kingdom of God’, came to Russia in the 1990s from Brazil where it was founded in 1977. Its leader is a Brazilian called Martins Soza Jose Aroldo. It now has over 1000 members in Russia and 10 congregations in Moscow. It has taken shelter under Ryakhovsky’s umbrella Union.
I have personally taken part in only seven fieldtrips or komandirovki of the Encyclopaedia team, to Pskov, Nizhni Novgorod, Kaluga, Perm, Novosibirsk, the Altai and the Komi Republic. In each case the head of the team, Sergei Filatov, and Roman Lunkin would start the ball rolling by visiting the local Justice Department and examining the official list of religious groups and churches in the area with the names and telephone numbers of their leaders. From that point we would all be allocated people to interview during the morning staff meetings in Sergei’s hotel room. These staff meetings, a rather pompous way of describing our morning consultations over cups of tea, would follow a vast breakfast when I learnt to stoke up in readiness for a long day with no food until the evening. Gradually, as we pooled our knowledge each morning and evening, one contact would lead to another, and after perhaps five days we would have constructed a detailed picture of the religious make-up of the area. As an example I will now speak about the komandirovka to the Altai last September.
Example of an Area Study: the Altai krai and Altai Republic
The Altai krai
We spent our first four or five days in Barnaul, the capital of the Altai krai, whose topography is quite flat, and then went on to the Republic which in contrast is mountainous, on the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. My contribution, that of one small cog in the organisational machinery of the Encyclopaedia, involved interviewing the Baptist pastor of the Initsiativniki congregation, the founder of a Russian Orthodox commune Ignati Lapkin, the Catholic priest Fr Caly, Fr Pogiblov (an influential Orthodox priest in the area) and the Old Believer manager on the construction site where a large new Old Believer church is being built in Barnaul. When I eventually received by e-mail the draft report on the krai this contained a vast amount of additional material to my small contribution.
The draft ‘spravka’ starts with a long section on the Russian Orthodox Church, giving some brief background to the Diocese of Barnaul and the Altai: following its total destruction after 1928, it began to be reconstructed after 1943 on the basis of only three churches which were known to have existed by 1945. Most of the information in this section covers 1994 to the present and explores in considerable detail some of the main Orthodox dramatis personae, the bishop, his leading clergy and their relations with the governor of the krai and other bodies within the local government structure. Particularly important is the presentation of local government policy on religion, which is even-handed and tolerant in contrast to the confrontational position of Russian Orthodox leaders and some local journalists who regularly condemn all non-Orthodox Christian denominations and attack what they term proselytism. Detailed information is given on the number of parishes, publications (name of editor, telephone number, address, print-run), educational institutions, monasteries and convents, and charitable organisations, again with addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses whenever possible.
The other main Orthodox group covered is Ignati Lapkin’s community in the village of Poteryayevka which belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. I quote from my diary:
Another aspect of the Russian Orthodox Church in the area was the commune (founded 1991) of Ignatii Lapkin, originally an Old Believer whose openness to other Christian denominations had led to his expulsion. Now he was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA). He had been converted in 1961 (he told me that he knew the exact moment) and had become an indefatigable preacher during Soviet days. He had been arrested more than once, and had organised secret services in his small wooden house which I visited. He had recorded over 200 tapes, which included the whole of the New Testament, Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, some of the works of St John Chrysostom, the Confessions of St Augustine, and much else. Groups of people in Siberia had regularly gathered round tape-recorders to listen to these texts. Now he was a lecturer at the Barnaul Technical College from where many new young converts had come to join the commune organised by Lapkin in the distant village of Poteryaevka. To get there Roman Lunkin and I (10 September) had the help of Lapkin’s wife, Nadezhda Vasilevna, and a charming taxi-driver with a sunny round face. Without her we would never have found the way. It involved a two-hour drive along the main road, but then we had to cut across the fields for sixteen kilometres, down bumpy tracks which were impassable in spring and autumn, with of course no signposts. I had been warned to wear a skirt, no earrings or lipstick, and to cover my head. Clean-shaven young Roman, however, with his shirt tucked into his jeans was ‘improperly dressed’ in the commune’s view, where all the men were bearded and wore their shirts hanging loose with a rope for a belt. But the atmosphere was most friendly. The commune consisted of 50 members in 14 houses. Ignatii’s brother is an Orthodox priest and takes the services in their tiny church where men and women stand on opposite sides and have to adhere to strict rules about punctuality as well as dress. The community, like Ignatii, belongs to ROCA; Ignatii is highly critical of the Moscow Patriarchate, past and present. Each family builds their own house and tends their own land and animals. Most of the members are well-educated – indeed one of them spoke good English, and had come out to the commune for six months to teach in their school. Ignatii himself has written a bible commentary and was keen that the liturgy be celebrated entirely in modern Russian.
The ‘spravka’ on the Altai krai also includes sections on the True Orthodox Church and the Old Believers, of which there are many different groupings since many of them fled there to escape persecution after the seventeenth-century schism. Lengthy coverage is also given to the Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals and Charismatics. Brief information is given on Islam and Judaism as well as a myriad other denominations: the Church of Christ, the Adventists, the New Apostolic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘Etika povedeniya’, the Mormons, the Scientologists, the Vissarionovites, the White Brotherhood, the Hare Krishnas, the ‘Rerikhovtsy’or followers of Rerikh, and even the Centre for the Occult Philosophy of Merlin and Anastasiya and the Ringing (Sounding) Cedars whose adherents (only about 20) meet every Thursday by the cedars in the centre of Barnaul (whether they hug the cedars or press their heads against their trunks as I have seen Russians outside Moscow do, the tale does not tell).
The Altai Republic
As yet a ‘spravka’ on the Altai Republic has not reached my computer, but I can briefly describe some of the material gathered in that fascinating area, sometimes called the Switzerland of Russia, because of its mountains and wonderful air. The main denomination which we studied was Buddhism since that was declared to be the official religion of the Republic in 1990.
A small group of Buddhists in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital, argue that the Altai’s indigenous religion, by some called Burkhanism (dating from 1904 when a white ‘burkhan’, or horseman, had appeared to a shepherd and drawn four thousand Altais to gather in worship), by others Ak-tyang or the White Faith, is Buddhist at root and that Buddhism would therefore be the most appropriate religion for the Altai people. This small group, formed in 1990-92, has been registered and last year acquired land, with support from the President, Mikhail Lapshin, and members of the local intelligentsia, on which to build a datsan after having met regularly for some time in a member’s flat.
Oddly enough, because of my presence, the ‘komanda’ managed to winkle out some of the Buddhist leaders who during a visit in 1997 had kept themselves hidden. They were all curious to meet an Englishwoman, so Sergei Filatov switched roles with me, pretended to be my Sancho Panza, and meekly sat taking notes while I conducted the interviews. I interviewed, for example, a Russian Buddhist teacher, or konchokh, called Vitali Kozmin, trained in India and Tibet, who knew the Dalai Lama and was trying hard to build up the community and educate its members, but admitted that few in the Altai were interested in serious spiritual matters such as Buddhist forms of meditation. I also interviewed An-chi (or Sergei Samunov), a journalist who trained at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, who was a staunch member of the Buddhist group and the ‘starosta’ (elder) of the community, and Altai-chi (Sanashkin), a local television journalist and militant nationalist, whose favourite film was Braveheart and who passionately believed that Buddhism should be his nation’s religion. (As he described his childhood when he worshipped the sun, and remembered how his grandmother at sunset would make him go to bed, swinging her stick over his head so that he would not dare to sit up as he listened to the voices of other children still playing outside, it became clear that his religious roots were pagan.)
Behind the efforts to establish Buddhism, we discovered, lay a complex sea of white and black magic practices, hidden shamanism, a paganism which by its nature was fluid, ever-changing, with no central structure or written formulae. Sergei Kynyev, a philologist turned businessman who studied at the Institute of Altai Studies, had been working since 1995 for a revival of the White Faith and headed what he called the White Faith movement. The Altai he described as ‘the centre of the world’ or ‘the umbilical cord of the world’ and he believed that ‘the spirit of the Altai’ had called him to rescue the Altai people. He had organised missionary groups to visit Altai villages and spread the White Faith, had carried out research on shamanism, and had established a series of White rituals through which he received occult knowledge about the Altai.
One interview which is still vivid in my mind was that with Anton Yudanov, director of the Altai Republic’s national theatre, who had rediscovered ancient Altai paganism, which he did not link with Buddhism. After studying at the Moscow Shukinsky drama school he became a famous actor and continued to live in Moscow. But at 50 he had experienced an inner crisis and had returned to his homeland, the Altai, where he discovered a new meaning in life, after learning about Burkhanism or the White Faith. He had become a ‘skazatel’ (story-teller), was now in touch with ‘the pulsating soul’ of Altai, the Altai tyan, and carried on conversations with the mountains, rivers and animals. To him all creation was holy, every blade of grass, every drop of water was as important as he was, in his view: ‘We are all children of Altai, equal with the flies and all the inanimate world. I never consider myself superior to a blade of grass.’ Pointing to the mountain outside his flat’s kitchen window, he said: ‘That mountain is alive, it protects me; I speak to it every day.’ In his view the Altai people would not accept Buddhism but would continue their ancient pagan practices.
In addition to interviewing Buddhists and pagans, I also learned something about the Christian presence in the Altai Republic. In the nineteenth century the Russian Orthodox Altai Mission had sent missionaries into the hills and by 1917, according to a recent issue of the local Altai newspaper Listok, it had 31 sections, and had succeeded in baptising 47,000 people. Today, however, the Orthodox Church has no great hold: there are only 22 registered parishes, with ten priests and two deacons (Igumen Makari Chukunov is the only one among them who is an Altai). In Gorno-Altaisk various Pentecostal groups have built up congregations: the ‘New Life’ Pentecostals since beginning their evangelistic work in 1995 had appointed an Altai as pastor and had attracted 150 members; the ‘Word of Faith’ group, founded by Russian missionaries from Kazakhstan, had 40 members; some Russian missionaries from Vladivostok set up the ‘House of Life’ charismatic group and had a group of 10 members. A large Presbyterian church with a Russian-Korean pastor from Kazakhstan had been built in Gorno-Altaisk with a congregation of about 50 people. Further inland we visited the village of Iogach on Lake Teletskoye (210 kilometres from the capital) where some Roman Catholics have established themselves as an incognito religious community in a house on Shkolnaya ulitsa - only Fr Roman Caly, the Catholic priest from Barnaul, travels there regularly.
The fieldtrip to the Altai was just one of many expeditions. Part II of the Encyclopaedia will contain similar spravki on all other administrative subekty of the Russian Federation
British Christians probably know less about Russian believers today, 13 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, than they did in communist times, because there is less information in the press. In the tightening grip which Putin’s policy is exerting on freedom of information, Keston may well have grabbed a unique opportunity to research every aspect of religious belief in every corner of Russia. We believe that this major work will become the standard source of information for the foreseeable future.
(This article is the text of a talk given by Xenia Dennen at a Keston colloquium at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, on 6 May 2004.)