Sunday, February 21, 2016

In Soviet Times, People Were Afraid to Say They Were Religious; Now, They’re Afraid Not to, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 21 – Elena Kublitskaya, a senior specialist on religion at the Moscow Institute for Social-Political Research, says that one must treat polls on the religious identification of Russians with skepticism because in Soviet times, people were afraid to say they were religious while now they are often afraid to say that they aren’t.

            In an interview in “Moskovsky komsomolets,” she says that she found but was unable to publish that the level of religious faith among Soviet citizens was significantly higher than the authorities believed – about 35 percent in Moscow and “approximately 70-80 percent” in Central Asia (

                Soviet officials were often upset by her findings. The Tajikistan leadership, for example, wanted to know why she had found that “among communists” in that Central Asian republic, “40 percent were believers, and among Komsomol members, 70 percent were.” But Soviet officials were even more angry when she reported that the most educated were often the most religious.

            The situation today, she says, is “precisely the opposite.”  Russians routinely claim to be religious because they are afraid not to. “Many atheists [in fact] try not to advertise their convictions and often hide their position by telling sociologists that they find it ‘difficult to answer’” questions about religion.

            After rising rapidly in the 1990s, the growth in genuine religiosity has levelled off, at least in Moscow. Today, the ratio of the religious and non-religious segments of the population is six to one in the Russian capital, three to one in Russia as a whole, four to one in the Southern and Volga Federal districts, and one to one in the Far East.

            But if more people are saying they are religious, Kublitskaya says, they are not taking part in religious activities. Instead, the number doing so is falling. In Moscow, 45 percent of those identifying as religious attended some religious services; but as of last year, the share of those doing so “did not exceed 30 percent.”

            Asked to describe the typical believer in the capital, the scholar says that “this is a woman aged 50 to 59, a non-indigenous Muscovite, with middle specialized education, an employee or pensioner with a middle level of material well-being.”

            The typical Orthodox Muscovite, Kublitskaya says, is likely to be “a native Muscovite, an ethnic Russian over the age of 30 with incomplete middle, middle specialized or professional education” and to be an employee or member of the intelligentsia or a pensioner.

            The typical Muslim Muscovite, she continues, is likely to be “a young man aged 25 to 29 with middle specialized or incomplete higher education, a worker or entrepreneur, and to have an average income and to be non-indigenous to the city.

            And the typical non-believing Muscovite is likely to be “an indigenous Muscovite, an ethnic Russian aged 18 to 29, with incomplete higher or higher education, from engineering and technical workers and students, with an average level of material income.” This group as almost doubled in number over the last five years, from 10 to 17 percent of the total.

            Many atheists and unbelievers nonetheless identify as Orthodox because they view that as a political identity, and as ever more do so, that has the effect of pushing up the number who declare themselves to be believers in Orthodoxy or Islam as ever more people view religion as a marker of nationality, Kublitskaya points out.

            Russians continue to have a high regard for the Orthodox church, but the share of them who believe that the church and religious institutions generally are playing a positive role has been falling, from 43 percent in 2010 to “only 32 percent” last year, a trend that seems likely to continue.

            And Kublitskaya points out that “however strange it may seem and despite the fact that trust in the Church as a social institution continues to remain high, nevertheless the orientation of the population toward religion as an all-national idea capable of uniting Russians does not find significant support.”

            Indeed, she concludes, “only the Muslims (32 percent) identify religion as a unifying idea and religious traditions at a higher level. Only 13 percent of Orthodox view religion as a consolidating force.”

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