By Paul Goble
In the name of fighting foreign influence and without an adequate understanding of the nature of religious faith or religious organizations, the Kremlin has handed control of Russia’s religions back to the country’s special services, thus restoring a much-criticized Soviet era practice, according to Roman Lunkin.
In the current issue of “NG-Religii,” Lunkin, who heads the Center for the Study of the Problems of Religion and Society at the Moscow Institute of Europe, says that this is the meaning of the country’s new security doctrine, which, regarding religion, means “security from religion” (ng.ru/ng_religii/2016-12-21/5_412_doctrina.html).
In one sense, this is “the most logical result of the restoration of Soviet stereotypes in Russia over the last decade,” a period in which the massive interest in religion in the 1990s largely dissipated. “But few could have predicted that as a result, there would emerge in society an unusual consciousness based on the denial of religion.”
There have been warnings about this trend before, Lunkin says. In 2007, sociologist Dmitry Furman said in a book “New Churches, Old Believers; Old Churches, New Believers” that there is too great a divide between the “’official traditional religions’” and “the ignorance of the population about practical religiosity.”
That divide laid a delayed action mine under the relations between organized religion, on the one hand, and the population and now the Russian state, on the other. But its full extent was concealed by the rapid growth in the number of Russian Orthodox Churches (from 11,000 in 201o to 16,000 now) as well as the growth of the number of those listed as parishioners.
But this growth would not have happened, Lunkin argues, “without the harsh interference” of the state authorities who saw the new churches as a way to control independent Orthodox activists and reduce the influence of other faiths, two serious misreadings of the outcomes of what they were doing.
The government’s conflict with all but the official Orthodox structures and popular support for the regime’s position grew in response with the anti-Western propaganda of the last few years and the fear, promoted by the authorities, of the spread of radicalism “on a religious basis,” either Islamic or sectarian.
“In fact,” the religious specialist continues, “the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t know what to do in response to spontaneous social protest. And what it has done has often approached “the absurd.” But the political authorities have concluded they have no choice but to support the official hierarchy and “traditional” religions.
“The only way out which the state has found,” Lunkin argues, “is to declare the entire religious sphere potentially dangerous” and to specify in the new Doctrine on Information Security that the special services, not the usual civil authorities, are now in charge of sorting things out and thus controlling religious groups.
That document, signed December 5, goes significantly beyond the 2000 version it replaced which only spoke of the need to counter “foreign missionaries and their ‘cultural-religious expansion on the territory of Russia from the side of other states.” In a directive released at the end of November, the MVD specified that the security organs should protect people from being pressured into non-Orthodox faiths.
That builds on the consequences of the so-called Yarovaya package of laws and amendments adopted in July which increased penalties for missionary activity and has led to numerous arrests and trials of foreigners for simply engaging in religious activities, Lunkin points out.
Such arbitrary actions against non-traditional faiths and “indifference to the real interests of others (traditionalists) are in and of themselves a dangerous policy, only superficially similar to the support of the balance of interests of the majority and the minority.”
These actions reflect “a major error of bureaucrats and special services” in thinking that “non-Orthodox groups cannot develop on their own [in Russia] without foreign help.” That is nonsense. There are now approximately 10,000 Muslim communities and about the same number of Protestant ones, and they were not all set up by foreigners.
There is one particularly alarming immediate threat, he says. “This is the threat of extremism on a religious basis. The current relation of the state to religion renders the authorities blind and senselessly cruel in the sphere of struggle with religious radicals … and with non-traditional believers.”
Since about 2010, “religious policy at the regional level has been carried out by the force structures rather than by the executive authorities” such as prosecutors and the courts. As a result, “the Constitution and the Law on Freedom of Conscience have ceased to work and officials in the localities even those well-inclined are forced to ignore all non-Orthodox.”
That is a tragedy because “the police and officers of the special services don’t see the shades of various trends, their particular features and do not understand the network character of present-day religiosity and the psychology of fundamentalists.” Obviously, every country must use its special services against extremists; but Russia is now using them against all believers.
The result, Lunkin concludes, is that the authorities are laying the groundwork for “new and unpredictable conflicts” rather than for the stability and calm they say they are working to achieve.