RUSSIA: Sects and the Church

(This article was published in the Moscow Times on 5 June 2002 and is reprinted with permission)

Sergei Filatov and Lawrence Uzzell

Let us celebrate one of post-Soviet Russia's too few pleasant surprises: the failure of fringe religions. To this day some in the Russian Orthodox Church are still whipping up hysteria over so-called totalitarian sects, then directing that hysteria against mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics. Both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox still often warn that Russia's "slave mentality" and current "spiritual vacuum" provide opportunities for religious demagogues to turn millions of gullible Russians into spiritual zombies. The real story of the past decade is less exciting but more encouraging.

Where are those millions? In Keston Institute's forthcoming encyclopedia on religion in Russia we try to study this and other controversial questions empirically. We believe that the fruits of our research, based on field trips to nearly all of Russia's regions, will be useful even to those who disagree with us. A recently published anthology of essays provides an advance taste of our findings on topics such as diocesan politics, inter-faith and church-state relations, and the rise and fall of new religious movements.

The rise and fall are interesting in sharply different ways. The perestroika years created a more hospitable climate in Russia than anywhere in the West for movements such as the Moonies and the Scientologists -- temporarily. The manifest failure of state atheism and sudden new respectability of religion in general, combined with ignorance about particular religions, made possible scenes worthy of comic opera.

We remember the conspicuous exhibit at Moscow State University's journalism library honoring a man whom one instructor called "the great American philosopher" L. Ron Hubbard. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev himself gave a personal audience to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Soon the Education Ministry was giving the Moonies privileged access to thousands of state schools with their captive audiences of impressionable pupils.

In the early 1990s, Western faiths had the same kind of advantages over traditional Russian religions that McDonald's had over Russian eateries: not just capital but Western organizational techniques, including experience in competing in the free market. But the religious entrepreneurs proved far less successful.

Even at their peak in 1994, the Moonies had only about 5,000 full-fledged members in Russia. In 2000, the dwindling flock of Russian Moonies suffered a severe blow when one of their most visible leaders, historian Lev Semyonov, converted to the Orthodox Church.

Russians soon learned how to use the new conditions to sell homegrown cults such as the White Brotherhood with its crude appeal to Slavic nationalism. This movement claimed that its leader Marina Tsvigun was the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and predicted that the world would end in 1993. Only 144,000 people would be saved -- all of them Slavs.

The White Brotherhood displayed the classic attributes of a sect such as isolation of its members from outside influences, demands that they renounce normal social life and secular careers, and insistence on unquestioning obedience. But however useful the concept of sect may be to sociologists, there is no reliable way to codify it as a precise legal term. Renunciation of property, asceticism, obedience -- all these have been requirements of monastic life, including that of the Orthodox Church, for centuries. Any legislation empowering the state to crush "destructive sects" would also enable it to persecute any religion.

In October 1993, however, the White Brotherhood did something justifying the arrest of its leaders: it stormed the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev. Unfortunately for Tsvigun, the world did not come to an end that autumn as she had predicted, nor did the Kiev police. She ended up spending several years in prison. In Russia, unlike Ukraine, her followers committed no such assaults and suffered no serious state repression -- but they never numbered more than 4,000 even when their posters seemed omnipresent in Moscow. Now there are perhaps 1,000 of them. As with the imported cults, what strikes us is the discrepancy between their tiny size and society's stormy reaction.

In fact, it is repression rather than freedom that causes sects to become entrenched in their most sectarian characteristics. In free societies such movements usually abandon their defiance of social norms within just one generation. In authoritarian Russia, by contrast, the 18th-century Skoptsi continued to practice self-castration until at least the middle of the 20th century.

Russian religious life is now characterized by eclecticism and experimentation. Rather than becoming highly disciplined followers of sects strictly controlled by their leaders, today Russians dabble in readings and discussion groups from a wide variety of movements -- often mutually contradictory. The current situation of religious entropy is now becoming a stable system rather than a transitional stage to a new religion. The Russian Orthodox Church itself is now infected with this nontraditional religiosity.

For serious Orthodox Christians, this is unfortunate, but the remedy is in their own hands. The Moscow Patriarchate should be more consistent about teaching its members their own heritage. For example, its priests in northern Siberia should stop encouraging simple-minded believers to arrange both Christian baptism and pagan initiation ceremonies for their children. Parishes in university towns should insist that Orthodox Christianity is logically incompatible with certain other belief systems, that Sunday-school teachers and Bible-study leaders should stop blending Orthodoxy with the promotion of flying saucers, extra-sensory perception and New Age teachings.

The entrenched reflex of today's Moscow Patriarchate is to rely on the secular state to protect its status as a traditional religion -- but the state's agenda will not always coincide with the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, and the state will always put its own interests first. If it is truly serious about opposing new religious movements, the Orthodox Church should rely more on its own preaching and internal discipline and less on the courts and police. (END).

Lawrence Uzzell is head of Keston Institute, an independent research center based in Oxford, England. Sergei Filatov of the Russian Academy of Sciences is editor of Keston's forthcoming encyclopedia on religious life in post-Soviet Russia. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times (

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