Staunton, March 23 – A new poll showing that the share of Russians who identify as Orthodoxy but don’t take its faith seriously is falling while the share, admittedly much smaller, who are prepared to follow its precepts, is growing is good news for Russian Orthodoxy, Sergey Khudiyev says.
The theologian who writes frequently on religious issues says this may seem “paradoxical,” but in fact it is completely obvious. In recent decades, many Russians say they are Orthodox because they see it as an ethnic or national marker but do not see the church as an important part of their lives (vz.ru/opinions/2021/3/23/1090638.html).
The fact that they are no longer identifying as Orthodox – and a new VTsIOM survey finds that their numbers have declined from 75 percent in 2018 to 66 percent now (wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/velikii-post-2021) – is a positive development because it shows that Russians see such identification as more serious than they did.
They see it, Khudiyev suggests, as requiring that they accept at least most of the church’s teachings and strictures. Indeed, according to the theologian, getting people to recognize that they are not believers is more important than securing declarations from the lukewarm or indifferent that they do.
That suggests that those who continue to identify as Orthodox are far more likely to be Orthodox than those who did so only a few years ago, something that means the church as an institution is doing its job rather than failing to do so as some commentators have suggested in reaction to this poll.
“When it turns out that to be Orthodox is not something which we in Russia are born with but a definite worldview choice, it becomes clear that many of us have still not made this choice or do not want to make it,” he says. And that is the basis for real conversations about the faith rather than empty declarations and claims.
According to Khudiyev, “an unbeliever may relate to the Church will well-intentioned respect – many in fact do – but that doesn’t make them Orthodox.” And if members of this group recognize that reality, “there is no tragedy.” Instead, it suggests the church is becoming more important and its views more significant for society as a whole.
People are forced to make a choice. And there is evidence that at least some are turning to the Church even as those who were never close to it are turning away. The same poll, Khudiyev says, showed that the share of those who say they will observe Lenten fasts has risen from 11 percent three years ago to 13 percent now, while that of those who won’t has fallen.
What is taking place, he suggests, is a sorting out of “ethnic” Orthodox who really don’t see the church as more than one characteristic of being Russian from genuine believers – and that is anything but a bad sign for any denomination including the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Khudiyev concludes.