Friday, March 15, 2019

Russia on Brink of Khrushchev-Style Anti-Religious Campaign, Mitrokhin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 14 – Nikolay Mitrokhin, a specialist at the University of Bremen on religious life in Russia, says that Russia is on the brink of a Khrushchev-style anti-religious campaign, a reference to that Soviet leader’s effort to revive Lenin’s effort to close down religious life in the USSR in 1959-1961.

            But there is one major difference, at least so far. While the Russian authorities have gone after non-traditional religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and are now turning their attention to traditional ones like the Muslims, Jews and even Buddhists, they have not yet launched an attack on Russian Orthodoxy.

            (Khrushchev’s anti-religious efforts are remembered in Russia as especially horrific, even though many in the West overlook it because of Khrushchev’s simultaneous de-Stalinization program. For a survey of this campaign, see Dimitry V. Pospielovsky, A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice, and the Believer, vol 2 (New York, 1988).)

            Mitrokhin’s comments come in response to an advance copy of the SOVA Center report on the status of anti-religious actions by the authorities and the population that RBC has obtained a copy of and that journalist Vladimir Dergachev has written up for that news agency today (

            The chief targets of Moscow’s actions so far are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 120 of which have been subject to legal sanction and “approximately 5,000” of whom have been forced to seek political asylum abroad.  The campaign against them and other Protestant groups, like the Pentecotals, Baptists and most recently Mormons, the SOVA Center says, continues unabated.

            But the regime’s attention has not been limited to Protestant groups. Instead, it has spread to Jewish ones: six Israeli citizens were fined for engaging in missionary activity in Russia last year, to Muslim ones and even to Buddhist groups, followers of three of the so-called “traditional” faiths of Russia who had largely escaped persecution until recently.

            The significant exception, at least so far, are the Russian Orthodox, although the regime has gone after groups the Moscow Patriarchate considers schismatic like the True Orthodox, often referred to as “the catacomb church’ and even some Old Believers. 

            The problems the Orthodox face come from another direction: the population. During 2018, there were demonstrations against the construction of new Orthodox churches in Petersburg, Izhevsk, Chelyabinsk, Chita, Pervouralsk, Sverdlovsk oblast, the Altai, Yekaterinburg and Moscow.

            In addition to legal sanctions against believers, the Russian authorities during 2018 used some “non-standard” forms of discrimination including the expulsion of religious leaders from the country as in the case of a rabbi and his family in Ulyanovsk oblast and unjustified refusals of entry to religious leaders from abroad.

            What is especially worrisome, the SOVA report suggests, is that the Russian authorities are increasingly using the nearly universal conviction of religious groups that their doctrines are true as being evidence of an attack on other faiths because of the supposed implication that if their faiths are true, then others are not.

            Such a line of legal reasoning, of course, opens the way for official sanctions against all believers, including the Orthodox.

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