Why Russia Restricts Religions

An Orthodox Russian explains the protectionist attitude in the post-Soviet religious marketplace

As the plane landed over the western Siberian city of Syktyvkar, I saw a red brick cathedral with a giant, shining, gold dome dominating the drab skyline. I was inspired, feeling that it's not only in Moscow that Orthodox church domes are rising as symbols of Russia's return to its faith.

But I was mistaken.

Syktyvkar's new Russian Orthodox diocese is headquartered in a much smaller church on the outskirts. The Orthodox cathedral in the central square was razed by Bolsheviks, and the church has just received from the government its fifth small, dilapidated place of worship in town.

And what about the new red-brick, gold-domed wonder? It's a Baptist church.

How many gold-domed Baptist churches are there in the world? The philosophy behind such an unusual architectural decision is easy to guess.

Gold-domed churches are what real churches are supposed to look like to people of the Orthodox culture. This Baptist church is deliberately confusing to the spiritually hungry and ideologically disoriented people of post-communist Russia, where visible forms of religious life were nearly completely uprooted during decades of state-sponsored atheism.

The majority of people in this region are of Orthodox Christian descent. By building a church so clearly designed to attract people of the Orthodox culture - and even naming it "Christ the Savior Cathedral," after a famous Orthodox church in Moscow - local evangelicals and their German and Finnish sponsors inspire the feeling among Orthodox Christians that they are trying to steal the souls of Russians whose destiny, but for a 70-year communist detour, would have been the Orthodox Church.

And that would seem fair in a situation where the competition of various faiths has been a tradition.

Limiting the competition is fair

But in Russia, the history of the Orthodox Church is inseparable from the history of the Russian culture. From the predominant Orthodox perspective, the future of Russia should include the return of the millions taken away from the mother church by the communist persecution.

That ideology is behind Russia's new law on religion - adopted against the protests of the West, but overwhelmingly passed by the parliament and signed by President Boris Yeltsin.

The law, inspired by just the kind of "nontraditional" influence seen in Syktyvkar, aims to protect the Orthodox Church by limiting its competition.

While stating that individuals have full freedom to choose a religion, the law sets up a two-tiered system of religious organizations.

New religious "groups" would be on a 15-year probation, during which their institutional rights would be limited. After 15 years they could apply for the status of "organization," which would permit them full rights of property, publishing, education, and access to public institutions.

The law says much about Russia's post-communist search for identity. Critics of the law call it discriminatory and antidemocratic: That is, it doesn't correspond to liberal Western, namely American, norms.

The new law is, indeed, a step away from Western liberalism, which triumphantly arrived here in an American wrapping in the early 1990s and was imitated in every field of public life.

Russia's 1990 law on religion introduced freedom of conscience in its American form of complete separation of church and state and full equality of all religious groups. It was a radical departure from state atheism and strict government control of the few religions allowed a limited existence in the Soviet era.

But that sudden transplantation of religious freedom was a shock. The Russian Orthodox Church, handicapped by decades of persecution, was tragically unprepared.

As the only public institution predating communism, the church is seen, even by many nonbelievers, as a key symbol of national identity.

But turning millions of largely atheist Russians into pious, churchgoing Christians overnight is a miracle the church has been slow to perform. Imagine the fear and indignation of the troubled Orthodox Church when foreign missionaries of all possible kinds flooded into Russia in the early 1990s aiming, with the backing of their richer western churches and the more sophisticated selling techniques of their market economies, to "convert the godless Russia."

In the post-Soviet religious boom, the Baptist cathedral in Syktyvkar was completed even before the Orthodox Church could name a bishop to that Texas-size Siberian region where only three Orthodox churches existed in the 1980s.

Respectable non-Orthodox churches such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, as well as dubious sects seemed to just trample into Russia, unaware of the fact that it had a rich, 1,000-year Christian tradition. Their dollars bought a lot - not just a gold dome in Siberia.

Aum Shinri Kyo, the Japanese-based cult involved the 1995 nerve-gas attack on a Tokyo subway, bought the connections it needed in the defense ministry to have its cadres trained at a top-secret Russian military installation. The Church of Scientology in 1993 held a lavish party in the Kremlin for Moscow intellectuals.

Domestically bred prophets, like Maria Devi Christos of the doomsday White Brotherhood, also appeared in large numbers, ready to convert a disoriented Rus-sian populace.

The marketing of salvation was unprecedented in Russia.

Orthodoxy is Russia

The Russian Orthodox Church sees itself in its ancient historic role as the Rus-sian national church, representing the majority. Without the church, Russia would not be Russia - but some other country.

Russian Orthodox Church thinking goes like this: Millions of sons and daughters were taken away from Russia's mother church by force and religious persecution, and should rightfully be returned to it.

Though it is certainly a questionable stance, the Orthodox Church sees every descendant of Orthodox believers as its prospective son or daughter. Any church that wins their souls first is seen as a thief, taking advantage of Orthodox weakness after years of persecution.

Race for Russian souls

The Orthodox Church doesn't really question the individual's freedom to choose a religion, but it strongly opposes the complete freedom of various churches and cults to proselytize on Russian Orthodox "territory." This is part of Russia's broader, wounded sense of justice - fueled by the nation's post-Soviet loss of standing, and its identity crisis over rapid economic, political, and spiritual change.

Polls show that about 50 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, but hardly more than 4 percent are regular churchgoers. The church has a lot to do to narrow this gap.

The new Russian law on religion - anathema to an American standard of democracy - is not aimed at banning new religious groups altogether. But it does attempt to level the playing field in the race for Russian souls.

And supporters of the law - the parliament and the president - just don't see that as unfair.

Both Russia and the US are multiethnic and multireligious countries. But their genesis could not be more different. The US was largely built by religious minorities that fled persecution in Europe. Hence, the American model of church-state relations.

Russia was built by the Russian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, tolerated and even cooperated with other religions - such as the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, as long as they preached in their German and Latin languages and did not try to convert Orthodox Christians. The church mentality hasn't changed - and from this perspective, the ideology of the new law is consistent with Russian tradition.

The notion that democracy and capitalism will eventually make Russia another US has disappeared from the minds of even the most Westernized Russian reformers. But the West seems to find it hard to swallow.

As it is with economics, foreign policy, or constitutional law, the new religion legislation is constructing - for better or worse - a Russian model for the future of Russia, which will be part of the modern world, but not quite American or European.

In a nation that, after all, is known for the way its laws don't work, it is too early to say what kind of imprint the law will have on the faith of Russia, if any.

* Andrei Zolotov Jr. is a staff writer for The Moscow Times and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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