Opinion: Russia cannot have freedom of religion


Why, in a secular Russian state, religious views outside the "basic confessions" constitute the essence of a crime

by Alexander Soldatov

Novaia Gazeta, 10 February 2019


Three kinds of believers


At the start, one must deal with this common word: "sect." Upon it all discussions about the repression of "different believers" in Russia (as once in the U.S.S.R.) usually hinge. Contrary to the opinion of many ordinary people, and even some specialists, the term "sect" does not exist in Russian legislation. There only "religious associations" exist, which are divided into "groups," without the status of a legal entity, and "organizations," with the status. In their turn, "organizations" are divided into local and centralized. And they all are identically equal before the law and separated from the state.


But contemporary Russia has departed far from the norms of a state ruled by law. In any case, in such a sphere that is so ideologically sensitive for the regime as religion, it is more determined by "adjustments" that are proclaimed in their statements by the president and agencies subordinate to him. And law enforcement practice depends more on these statements than on the letter of the law. Therefore, although nothing of the sort is prescribed in law, officials are convinced that in the Russian Federation there are four "traditional confessions," with which the state accomplishes "cooperation," and there are several "tolerated" confessions of a second class, occupying their own narrow ethnic and cultural niches. And everything that is beyond these boundaries is a "sect" of diverse degrees of danger.


The word "sect" derives from the Latin, where it has an ambiguous etymology. Some philologists derive it from the verb sequor—to follow or obey someone—and others, from secare—to cut, divide. Scholarly dictionaries give an infinitely broad spectrum of definitions of the term. Its legal interpretation is interesting. The Great Law Dictionary of 2001 defines "sect" as "a group of believers who have broken away from the principal or dominant religious confession, adhering to its own views and interpretation of its individual doctrines, rituals, teachings, and the like."


Alas, such a definition clarifies nothing. Well, let's say, in a religious state of the type of Saudi Arabia or Iran it is clear that there is a "dominant religious confession." But does such a thing exist in a secular, religiously neutral state like the Russian Federation? Whenever Christians themselves have broken away from "the principal or dominant religious confession" of their country (Judaism or paganism) that means they should be considered a "sect." Or does a "sect" gradually cease to exist as such? How much time does this require? So the law dictionary leaves the sphere of strict legal definitions in the sphere of informal "concept," and "current practice." Which means, in the sphere of the arbitrariness of officials and security forces.


So in order to somehow formalize the "intuition" of officials, rescuing them from unnecessary "scientific" inquiries and providing them ready-made lists of persons to be repressed, in Russia "sectologists" are vigorously engaged. They all belong to the most "principal, dominant" religion of the RF—the Moscow patriarchate. The recognized guru of "sectology" is Professor Alexander Dvorkin, who, as his opponents have argued, does not have an officially recognized degree of kandidat or doctor of sciences. In his time, when a Dvorkin student of the Orthodox St. Tikhon's University, Alexander Konovalov, became the Russian minister of justice, the "professor" headed up the Council for State Religious Studies Expert Analysis," which was conceived specifically in order to prevent the registration of the "most harmful sects." It is curious that while occupying such a responsible position, Dvorkin remained an American citizen.


Alexander Dvorkin has long fostered the complete prohibition of Jehovah's Witnesses (an organization forbidden in the RF). And today he has turned out to be, if you will, the only public figure in Russia who could blame his fellow believers for the sufferings of the Danish Witness, Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced to six years in a Russian penal colony. "They will use this incident for their own propaganda and, of course, as a reason for increased pressure on ordinary members of the sect: they will say, increase your measures; after all, Dennis Christensen is suffering for you!" Dvorkin declared. And he added: "they will use the incarceration of the Dane also for an intensification of the campaign of defaming our country." The latter sounds especially provocative, considering Dvorkin's citizenship.


Without experience of secularity


Russia does not have its own experience of a secular state, as does France, Germany, or the U.S.A. Up until the bolshevik decree "On separation of church from state" it was an Orthodox state with a single dominant state church. Back in the epoch of the grand principality of Moscow they executed Strigolniks and Judaizers, and then they persecuted Old Believers and "Christ bearers", and since the 19th century, the Shtundists (Baptists) who were imported from the West. It is also difficult to consider the aggressively atheistic ideology of the soviet state to be "religiously neutral." Besides, without renouncing state atheism, in 1943 Stalin engendered—to be sure in limited form and in new circumstances—the Moscow patriarchate as a state church. In any case, whereas even in the bloody year of 1937 in the U.S.S.R. Orthodox churches of various jurisdictions (Renovationists, Sergians, Grigorians, Josephians, autocephalists, etc.) operated legally, then after 1943 any Orthodoxy outside of the Moscow patriarchate was forbidden and strictly punished.


The commissioners for affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church (as a rule, M.G.B. officers) strictly saw to it that priests of the revived Moscow patriarchate exposed on the territory of their parishes the True Orthodox believers (catacomb believers), who did not acknowledge the "red" church, and they reported them to the authorities. In 1944 also, from the territory of Riazan, Voronezh, and Orel oblasts, 1,673 True Orthodox Christians, who did not recognize the Moscow patriarch, were deported to Siberia. Now, from the point of view of the authorities, they also were turned into "sectarians" subject to repression.


Besides Orthodox believers outside the Moscow patriarchate in the U.S.S.R., Jehovah's Witnesses were totally forbidden, as were several varieties of Pentecostals and Russian "Christ-bearers" which arose back in the pre-Petrine era (Khlysts, Skoptsy, Besedniki, etc.), and individual varieties of Old Believers (Stranniki, Chasovenny).


In essence, the first attempt in all the thousand-year history to create in Russia a secular state was undertaken in the time of the fall of the U.S.S.R. In late 1990 finally the soviet "legislation on cults" ceased to function and all religious organizations received legal registration as legal entities, and the prohibitions on the activity of True Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, and new religious movements like Hare Krishnas, Moonies, and Scientologists were lifted.  But freedom did not last long. Bureaucrats at the local level who did not have experience of religious equality did not renounce repressive practice.


The year 1991 can be recognized as really more or less free, although Orthodox groups that departed from the Moscow patriarchate were subjected to persecution and harassment even then.


But by 1992 there began deliberate discrimination of religious minorities that constituted primarily direct competition for the RPTs. The largest churches were taken from the "alternative" parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the number of registered congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses or new religious groups was sharply curtailed. In 1997 the communist majority in parliament adopted, and Yeltsin signed in his second attempt, an overtly discriminatory law "On freedom of conscience," which, with more restrictive amendments, is in effect to this day.


The preamble to this law somewhat hints at the privileges of "traditional confessions," which include Orthodoxy (and Christianity, separate from it), Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. A newly created congregation, if it is not a member of a centralized organization, could be registered only after 15 years from its creation, and a centralized organization could be created by at least three local organizations, if they prove that they have operated on one and the same territory for no fewer that 15 years (that is, since 1982) "continually and legally." Neither Orthodoxy, nor Christianity (if it is considered separate from Orthodoxy), nor Islam, nor Buddhism, nor Judaism has a monopoly structure within the RF. Besides the main center recognized by the state of each of these religions there is a mass of "alternative" structures. Despite the respect declared by the law for the religions themselves, and not for any of their administrative centers, actually in Russia Orthodox, and other Christians, and Muslims, and even Buddhists are discriminated against if they are "alternative" forms. Actually nothing is known about persecuted alternative forms of Judaism, since not very many Jews have remained at all in the RF.


Churches are still being taken away from "alternative" Orthodox believers (the last historic church of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church in Briansk oblast was seized late last year) as well as even relics of saints (as was done in Suzdal in 2015). Jehovah's Witnesses, who profess Christianity although in a nontraditional version, are totally forbidden and more than 60 of their followers are incarcerated and recognized as political prisoners. "Nonorthodox" Muslims, primarily of the movement of Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tabligi Jamaat (both organizations are recognized to be terrorist and are banned on the territory of the RF), have been jailed by the hundreds while they receive fantastic terms: up to 20 years and more. Even Muscovite Buddhists that are not subordinate to the Central Ecclesiastical Administration in Ulan-Ude were not able to defend their sacred stupa on the territory of the Lopukhin Estate.


List of the repressed


In the course of almost all of Putin's reign, Russia has figured in the annual reports of the Commission on International Religious Freedom of the State Department of the U.S.A. as a country causing special concern because of systematic violation of believers' rights. High ranking representatives of the MID and the Moscow patriarchate regularly respond to these accusations in the sense that, on the contrary, in Russia an unprecedented spiritual revival is flourishing and each year thousands of churches are being opened, which all comers have full freedom to enter. And if someone is prosecuted, it is not for faith but for purely criminal offenses, even with a political edge, that is, for a threat to state security. Religion has nothing to do with it.


This is precisely what was said by the founder of the contemporary Moscow patriarchate, Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky), in his only interview with foreign journalists, which he gave on the initiative of the O.G.P.U. in 1930. "Repressions conducted by the soviet government against believers and priests," Sergius "testified," are applied to them not at all because of their religious convictions but in the same way as for other citizens, for various illegal activities." Continuity is evident: just as Russia cannot cease being an empire, so it is powerless to become secular and escape the sacralization of the state.


Is it possible to compose a full list of confessions and even individual believers who are persecuted for their religious convictions in Russia? Various foreign and domestic rights advocacy organizations wrestle with this task. The list of forbidden organization that is regularly published and refreshed by the Ministry of Justice is just the tip of the iceberg. Of the religious organizations, besides the Jehovah's Witnesses, this includes pagan (the Slavic society Vek Ra and the Ancient Russian Inglingi Church), Muslim (Nurjular, Tablingi Jamaat, Khizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat Muvakhidov, At-Takfir Val-Khijra, Kazan Society of Faizrakhman, Borovsky settlement of Tiumen oblast, Mirmamed mosque in Samara), Satanist (Noble Order of the Devil), and syncretistic (Orda and AUM Sinrikyo) organizations. Secretly, at the insistence of "Chinese comrades," the religious and health movement Falungong, which supposedly threatens the unity of the CCP, is banned.


In reality, a dozen times more organizations are subject to discrimination, which are not even protected by their state registration and officially recognized status. A tragicomic story has unfolded in Leningrad oblast, where the law-abiding parish of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is formally a part of the officially registered centralized religious organization of that church, cannot receive registration because the state religious studies expert analysis "does not perceive" in it the indicators of a religious organization.


From various regions of the country there regularly arrive reports about confiscation of houses of worship from unregistered Baptists and Pentecostals. The history of these groups traces back to the "Khrushchev persecutions" of the early 1960s, when hundreds of congregations, that received the name "Initsiativniki," withdrew (actually into the underground) from the state-recognized (but controlled by intelligence agents) All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. Gradually refusal of state registration became a kind of element of their doctrine.


Fully legal Pentecostals also are pursued, who are members of the union headed by Bishop Sergei Riakhovsky, who sits on the Public Chamber and the Council [on Human Rights] under the president of the RF. As a rule, they are prevented from building houses of worship, and conducting preaching on news media and on the streets, and last summer in Tatarstan a pastor was convicted who dared to baptize new converts in a lake. Quite recently, on 29 January, a court in Moscow prohibited fully legal Pentecostals from meeting in an apartment, because a neighbor complained of discomfort caused him by prayers behind the wall. In Omsk, the trial of a Pentecostal pastor is continuing, who practiced healing during his worship services that is traditional for this confession. Inasmuch as healing actually occurred, he was charged with medical activity without a license.


We should not fail to mention a group of St. Petersburg Scientologists who for about a year now have been sitting in a SIZO because believers in their congregation made donations and this—from the point of view of the F.S.B., which for some reason is investigating the case—is "illegal enrichment." Of course, when the same thing happens in the RPTs, and the patriarch then flies in a private airplane and relaxes on a luxurious yacht, living in palaces worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it is not viewed as illegal enrichment.


* * *


It is possible that "churched" Russian officials pursue heterodox believers for the best purpose—to help these unwise, deceived people to find the true path to salvation and to get to heaven. Let's remember what Putin said: "We will get to heaven and they will simply die." But most likely, at the foundation for such touching care lie motives of a totalitarian government type: the less pluralism of thought, the more control.


In the contemporary civil arrangement of the Russian Federation, the Russian Orthodox Church is perceived not so much as one of the religious organizations as the "glue" of the regime and source of sanctity for it, and for citizens it is the source of loyalty and obedience. The centers of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are supposed to play the same role for their "minorities." Everything that is beyond their boundaries is considered an area of unreliability and sedition.


The government, basing its legitimacy on medieval methods also using religious compulsion does not quite fit into the global architecture of the 21st century. It does not even fit into its own constitution that guarantees separation of religion from the government, secularity, and complete freedom of belief. But if everything written in the constitution is fulfilled, it would be necessary to change the government every four years (well, okay, say six years), but it is impossible to allow this. After all, authority is "from God," and God does not change. (tr. by PDS, posted 10 February 2019)

Russia Religion News Current News Items

Editorial disclaimer: RRN does not intend to certify the accuracy of information presented in articles. RRN simply intends to certify the accuracy of the English translation of the contents of the articles as they appeared in news media of countries of the former USSR.

If material is quoted, please give credit to the publication from which it came. It is not necessary to credit this Web page. If material is transmitted electronically, please include reference to the URL,