Keston Survey of Religion in Russia Goes on Sale

26 April 2002

A Russian-language book summarising the results of a unique Keston survey of religious life in 78 of the Russian Federation's 89 regions shows a remarkable diversity of faith and practice and reaches some startling conclusions. Based on thorough sociological investigation on the spot, it finds:

*Russia is a country where very few follow one faith systematically and many chop and change between faiths.

*The hysteria around "totalitarian sects" is largely unfounded.

*Orthodoxy is only very thinly represented in Siberia.

*The northern Russian heartland has retained respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, reflected in the life of the local Orthodox Church.

*Protestantism is attracting converts from the cultural field and has growing political clout.

*Orthodox charges of Catholic "proselytism" are unfounded as the faith spreads spontaneously with converts among intellectuals.

*Paganism is a growing force among certain ethnic communities, especially the Mari, Chuvash and Udmurts.

The new book, Religion and Society: Aspects of Religious Life in Russia Today (Religiya i obshchestvo: ocherki sovremennoi religioznoi zhizni Rossii), edited by the Moscow sociologist Sergei Filatov, went on sale in Russia on 12 March. It is a must for anyone wanting to come to grips with this complex subject.

The book comes out of more than three years' research by over a dozen people. From early 1998 to mid-2001 Filatov led a team of Russian researchers visiting virtually every part of the Federation, going deep into the regions to talk directly to religious leaders, local believers, the secular authorities, people responsible for contacts with the local religious organisations, journalists, academics. They were joined at various times by the most experienced specialists from Keston's own staff such as Michael Bourdeaux, Xenia Dennen. Lawrence Uzzell and Philip Walters. Keston's staff also reviewed the anthology's entire text before publication.

Financed by the American Pew Charitable Trusts, the project was under the supervison of Keston's founder and Director Emeritus Michael Bourdeaux. Its fruit is 2000 pages of raw material describing religious life in 78 subjects of the Russian Federation (11 autonomous regions were not covered separately) and profiling the current activities of over a hundred religious denominations and organisations.

Nothing like this has ever been done before. The opportunity was unique. Before 1917 many parts of Russia would have been physically inaccessible. In communist times they were inaccessible for political reasons. There could have been no field trips to gather information, which would therefore have been unsystematic and anecdotal. Even in Gorbachev's time local officials would almost certainly have hindered the work. The Keston team did not just gather material but subjected it to expert analysis. The new book presents a distillation of their research work. In his introduction Michael Bourdeaux tells the story of his own involvement with religion in Russia and describes how the project originated. This is followed by a chapter by Keston's Director Lawrence Uzzell on religious liberty in Russia today. He warns that "at the end of the twentieth century freedom of conscience in Russia was still far from being guaranteed".

There follow twenty chapters on aspects of religious life in Russia at the start of the new millennium. Some train the microscope closely on particular regions; some take a broader denominational focus. All combine detailed factual material with wideranging analysis. The book offers a treasury of new insights, all based on fresh evidence.

On the alleged danger presented by "totalitarian sects", the book argues that there are in fact very few tightly-organised sects which demand a high level of commitment and self-sacrifice from their members. Russians certainly follow a wide range of occult, pagan and pseudochristian beliefs, but they chop and change. People like to meet, talk, read occult literature, and at the most take part in seminars or clubs, but these cannot be called "sects" or "cults". "The battle with 'totalitarian sects' is turning out to be a battle with shadows."

Against this background, a small minority of citizens of the Russian Federation go on to discover a specific faith and practise it systematically. Articles in the book examine the distinctive features of a range of the most important of these faiths.

Some of these faiths are traditional and are being rediscovered; some are new and are being discovered for the first time. A theme in the book is the tension which often arises between "two logically mutually exclusive tendencies": "restoration" and "innovation". The regeneration of local faiths is often seen in national republics - the book focuses on Altai and Tuva - but it is also an important phenomenon among the Russians themselves as the Russian Orthodox Church seeks to define itself as the "local" church throughout the Federation and as the natural spiritual home for anyone in that territory. The last ten years have seen growing Orthodox dismay at alleged aggressive proselytising and stealing of souls by non-Orthodox denominations and religious organisations. In these circumstances the Russian Orthodox Church generally finds it hard to respond creatively to the new reality of religious pluralism in Russia.

We must say "generally", because there are exceptions. The Orthodox Russian North, the area historically controlled from Novgorod, developed a tradition of the freedom and dignity of the individual. Now the local people are resurrecting this tradition, recognising the individual's own responsibility towards church, state and society. Nowadays the development of Orthodox church life in this region shows that "the bureaucratic Moscow style of church governance has not&ldots; destroyed these northern religious traditions."

The authors find that the spread of Protestantism in its various forms is one of the most significant religious phenomena in Russia today. Many actors, artists, musicians, journalists and teachers are becoming Protestants. And Protestants are already having significant influence in the social, political and economic spheres.

Among the various Protestant denominations, Pentecostalism in particular provides "a new formula for the revival of Christianity" in Russia. It is socially and doctrinally flexible and has no central organisational structure, and it is thus well suited to today's conditions. It is well set to become a significant social force, particularly in Siberia and the Far East. "The Pentecostals have broadened the concepts of church and religion and made them more comprehensible for Russians; they have demonstrated new ways of influencing state and society. Essentially they have revealed universal Christianity anew to postsoviet society with its broken traditions."

Catholicism is also spreading, but not as the Russian Orthodox claim as a result of aggressive Catholic proselytising, which the book finds to be "insignificant". Catholicism is spreading spontaneously, particularly among young people, mainly students and members of the intelligentsia - "active people who are most sensitive to the demands of the times they are living in".

The book also turns the spotlight on a variety of regions, each with its distinctive version of the current religious ferment.

The Republic of Khakassia presents "Siberian religious issues in a nutshell". "Russians today think of Siberia as a purely 'Russian land' where there are practically no non-Russians and non-Orthodox. To an inhabitant of Moscow or St Petersburg it would seem nonsense to talk of a multiethnic Siberia." The book finds that reality is quite different. The Russian Orthodox Church is present only feebly and there is a large variety of religious minorities.

In the Volga Region we see "one of the most unexpected and original phenomena in the religious life of post-perestroika Russia: the revival of paganism on a mass scale". Amongst the Mari, Chuvash and Udmurts "the pagan system of values has as its ideal a patriarchal society, the worship of nature, and hostility to technical progress and so-called 'globalisation'."

What is of special interest in Bashkortostan? It is a place where a distinctive prerevolutionary dynamic is reasserting itself: "the state appropriates religion, then the national movements invoke it, then the independent religious feelings of the people overturn the plans of the state and the national leaders alike. "Now we can ask: who is going to win this time? The governor Pilate, the patriot Caiaphas, or the Son of Man?"

The theme of openness to the West recurs in the book. Those who become Catholics are choosing more than a faith: they are choosing to face Europe rather than Asia. Many Protestants are Russian patriots, but "their concept of Russia is necessarily one of a democratic, law-governed state with firmly-entrenched respect for human rights. They often show distaste for mass western culture, but nevertheless Russia is for them a western country, and the sins of the West are sins common to all the Christian world. They regard the idea of a special Russian path of development as an absurd fantasy."

"Eurasianism" is one version of the idea that Russia has a unique destiny. It is the concept that Russia is a kind of crucible where European and Asian values are melted together. The book highlights Tatarstan and discovers that a different type of Eurasianism has been developing there since the mid-1990s. Here Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries, and since the mid-1990s we have been seeing them develop a conservative democratic alliance, taking a united stand against the anticlerical dictatorial modernising policies of the authorities. "But this kind of Eurasianism turned out to be possible only once 'Euroislam' and 'Euroorthodoxy' had developed in the region." "A genuine understanding between Russians and Tatars is here the fruit of the spread of European values, and not of a struggle against them."

"History books and political propaganda have taught us to think of Russian culture as uniform throughout the Federation"; but of course "a Russian living near Sweden looks at the world differently from a Russian living next to China. And the vast distances involved make the differences even greater." One achievement of the book is to uncover the sheer diversity of religious life in Russia today.

Filatov rightly observes in his conclusion to the book that "practising believers in Russia are indeed few in number". Nevertheless the overall impression is one of hope for the future. And it is, of course, the future which will show the long-term result of all the material so painstakingly gathered and analysed here. The authors showed their chapter on the Russian North to an Orthodox priest in Novgorod. He told them that they had picked out the first green shoots of a tendency, but there was still a long way to go. He hoped that in 20 years' time developments would have confirmed the authors' findings. "So," respond the authors, "let our article be a memoir of the future!"

* Sergei Filatov (ed.), 'Religiya i obshchestvo: ocherki sovremennoi religioznoi zhizni Rossii' (Letny sad, Moscow, 2002)

ISBN 5-94-381-058-7

In MOSCOW copies are available at a price of 148 roubles, from:

Letny Sad

46 Bolshaya Nikitskaya ul.


Tel.: +7 095 290-06-88.

In LONDON copies can be ordered through the booksellers Grant and Cutler Although not yet in stock, the price is expected to be between GBP £10-£15 plus postage.

PLEASE NOTE: The book exists in Russian only. Earlier versions of some of its chapters, and articles on similar themes which do not appear in the Russian book, were published in English in Keston Institute's scholarly journal 'Religion, State and Society', vol.28, no.1, March 2000.

For further information please contact Keston Institute's Head of Research, Dr Philip Walters, email: (END)