Monday, December 24, 2012

Window on Eurasia: 80, 41 or 5 –What Percentage of Russians are Orthodox Christians?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 24 – The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church frequently say that 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation consists of Orthodox Christians, but a new survey finds that only 41 percent of Russians in fact identify themselves as members of the Church and only five percent say they are active members of their local parishes.

            Last week, the Sreda Research Center and the Public Opinion Foundation presented the results of their Russian survey of almost 57,000 Russian residents in some 79 of the federal subjects of the country for the Atlas of Religions and Nationalities of Russia (ARENA) (

            According to Alina Bagrina, who coordinated this effort for Sreda, 41 percent of Russian residents said they are followers of Orthodoxy and belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, another 25 percent said they believe in God but do not profess any particular religion, and 13 percent said they did not believe in God.

            Some 6.5 percent said they were followers of Islam,4.1 percent of Christianity in general, 1.5 percent “call themselves Orthodox but do not below to the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Old Believers,” and 1.5 percent described themselves as pagans.  No other faith attracted as much as half of one percent of the population.

            As Bagrina noted, “in recent years one hears that 70 to 80 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox,” but such self-identification does say much about religious practice. Indeed, only about five percent seek to practice Orthodoxy and maintain ties with their local parish communities.

            There has long been an academic discussion of what identification of Orthodox means if it doesn’t mean church attendance. (For a useful example, see But the Moscow Patriarchate which routinely uses the 80 percent figure to advance its agenda is clearly defensive about any suggestion that the real number of Orthodox is lower.

            Reacting to the Sreda-Public Opinion Foundation figures, Vakhtang Kipshidze, an official of the Synod’s Information Department, said that the Patriarchate uses the higher figure “not because we do not read sociological studies but because these people [the 70 to 80 percent rather than the 41 or five percent] carry in themselves the signs of Orthodox identity; that is, they potentially belong to Orthodox culture” and listen to Patriarch Kirill.

            The links between religious identity and nationality involve not just Orthodoxy and ethnic Russians. The new survey found that only 6.5 percent of Russian residents are Muslims, a figure that specialists dispute, apparently using the same logic as the Patriarchate, and suggest that it is only a fraction of their real share in the population.

            The survey sparked other questions as well. Some journalists suggested that perhaps the number of Orthodox had declined because of incidents like the Pussy Riot case, but investigators argued that the explanation lay with “the worldwide fashion for ‘secularism,’” and for faith without denominational membership (

            And the investigators reported that Protestants are the most likely to follow religious rules, that Muslims are the happiest, that Jews are the most unhappy, that Orthodox are most afraid of immigration, and that Jews and atheists are the most likely to want to emigrate themselves.

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