Thursday, April 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Nationality in Russia Increasingly Defined by Religion, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 11 – A most dangerous trend in Russian social and political life is “’the nationalization’ of religion,” transforming it from one ethnic characteristic among many into “the most important component of ethno-national identity” and “the basis for the development of nationalistic attitudes,” according to a Moscow scholar.

            This trend is particularly threatening because it holds not only for Islam but also for Orthodoxy and “all [the other] faiths of Russia, including the shamanism of the northern peoples,” according to Tatyana Koval, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (

            From Soviet times on, observers have talked about “ethnic Muslims,” people who are members of traditionally Islamic nationalities but who know little about the faith and do not consciously follow its precepts. But Russians have been less prepared to use the same terminology for other religious groups, even though it is obviously relevant.

            Koval focuses her remarks on the Russian Orthodox.  She notes that “the overwhelming majority of Russians – some 75 percent – call themselves Orthodox but at the same time almost half of them do not believe in God.” And that “ethnic principle,” which holds that “Russian means Orthodox,” is also supported by the Russian Orthodox Church.

            By routinely speaking about “the cultural canonical territory,” the Church “in other words” is accepting the idea that “attachment to religion ‘by blood’ does not require either the presence of faith as such or knowledge about the bases of doctrine or even about religious practice or fulfillment of the commandments.”

            Instead, Koval says, this idea “reanimates archaic aspects of consciousness and easily can become an instrument of political mobilization and a means for unity against any common, if dreamed up ‘enemy,’ a milieu for the development of aggression and force committed ‘in the name of God,’ ‘for the defense of faith and the church,’ and so on.”

            A similar pattern holds for most other religions in the Russian Federation at the present time, she continues, and this “gives birth to ethnic conflicts under religious banners,” something that makes them more difficult to address or overcome and thus more dangerous for both individuals and society as a whole.

            This is just one of three ways that “the religious renaissance in Russia” is not unifying people in that country but rather “in many respects dividing” them, the scholar says, as the events of the last year have shown.  The situation has become so dire, she suggests, that many researchers in this area are now speaking of “two peoples and two churches.”

            The second divisive tendency is “the politicization of religion,” the scholar argues. In recent years, Koval says, “the Russian Orthodox Church has ever more become not only a religious instrument but an important independent political player both on the territory of Russia and in the world, in the first instance on the post-Soviet space.”

            The ROC “ever more recalls a closed corporation” with a distinctive authoritarian and imperial program, interested in “a symphony with the state,” a rejection of democracy in favor of monarchy, and the promotion of a “Russian world” geopolitical project.  And it has as a result, “politicized the issue of the number of Orthodox believers.”

            With a slight delay, the Church has constructed within its hierarchy “a power vertical” and “a year ago,” it appeared to many in the Russian Federtion that there was “a new power tandem, the President and the Patriarch,” especially since “a number of senior government officials” were brought it to head “religious organizations and foundations.”

            And third, the Higher School of Economics professor says, by focusing on political activity rather than the care of its flock, the ROC has promoted “the ideologization of religion.” Orthodoxy in this conception “plays the role of an ideology” which “is becoming almost ‘obligatory’ for many in the leading political parties and state structures.”

            This ideology can be defined as “statist” and oriented toward a “great power” point of view. That represents a major departure from the early 1990s and means that the Church is increasingly oriented “toward anti-democratic ideas and authoritarian forms of rule” in the Russian Federation.

            At the same time, the social activity of the Church has declined, and as a result, “it is losing out to other religious organizations above all Protestant ones in the organization and mobilization of believers” who are interested in acting on their religious convictions by helping the poor and the disadvantaged.

            All three of these trends “are becoming especially dangerous under the conditions of the colossal gap between external religiosity and complete ignorance of the bases of the faith among Russians,” Koval says, and as a result, “we see not the rebirth of the Orthodox faith buy religious syncretism, the rebirth of paganism, archaic faiths, magic and witchcraft.”

            (In yesterday’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” director Andrey Konchalovsky makes exactly the same point, arguing that at the present time, most ethnic Russians are in fact pagans regardless of what they tell each other or themselves (

            The ROC has made this situation worse by distorting underlying Christian values, stressing the sinful nature of man and his inability to overcome it “without the help of Church pastors and government bureaucrats” – a sharp contrast to Western Christianity with its stress on a natural moral law.”  As a result, the ROC says that “’secular humanism’” is “the main enemy.”

            This is “a mistake in principle,” Koval says, “because namely secular humanism and a sincere faith can be the main allies in the struggle with the real enemy of the common good – anger and hatred, the destruction of life … the demeaning of human dignity and the undermining of justice.”

            Unless the ROC changes its social doctrine to bring it “into correspondence with constitutional” ideas and supports love, mercy and forgiveness rather than “the establishment of detachments of “Orthodox militants and similar groups,” she concludes, “the spiritual and moral recovery of society will hardly be complete.”

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