‘Atheism Without Atheism And Orthodoxy Without Orthodoxy’: Religious Life In Russia Today – OpEd


The Yarovaya laws on religion have “sown fear among believers and bureaucrats” and made all of them suspicious of any independent religious activity thus creating a situation in Russia where there is “atheism without atheism and Orthodoxy without Orthodoxy,” according to Roman Lunkin of the Moscow Institute of Europe.

In a 6200-word article, the religious specialist says that as a result, “religion has automatically been turned into something dangerous for society where any independent civic activity is suspect,” something that will take far longer to overcome than the xenophobia which led to the law (keston.org.uk/_russianreview/edition69/03-Lunkin-Yarovaya-Low.html).

Many commentators think that what exists in Russia today is the dominance of Orthodoxy over all other faiths, but in fact, Lunkin argues, it is only about the Moscow Patriarchate as a structure and thus is “Orthodoxy without faith, a unique post-Soviet civic religion” in the Russian Federation.

Indeed, he says, “the religious policy of the authorities and the new law on religion shows that the government as far as it is directly concerned with religious life (but not with property, money and official measures) has a position which contradicts rather than supports the Russian Orthodox Church.”

In this, Lunkin continues, “it is difficult to refrain from the temptation” to draw parallels between the Yarovaya laws and the 1929 Stalin decree about religious organizations. In both, “all organizations and groups must be registered, and the main demands concerning missionary activity [in the two documents] correspond.”

Under current conditions, “neither total atheism nor the criticism of religion from atheistic positions is possible. But the widespread interest in religion of the 1990s has receded into the past. Therefore, in society has evolved not a hostile but to a large extent suspicious relationship to everything religious.”

Russian society is dominated by “a fear before religion as something unknown and potentially dangerous,” Lunkin says, the result of the ways in which religion has been linked to international terrorism and extremism and the widespread “nostalgia for the Soviet past” among many Russians.

But at the same time, he points out, “this suspicion about religion is not connected with atheism and militant godlessness as it was in Soviet times.” And thus in addition to having Orthodoxy without Orthodoxy, Russia today has atheism without atheism as a formal doctrine and organization.

“Formally,” the government’s religious policy “is based on Orthodoxy;” but “in fact,” this policy is not based on faith but on the patriarchate as a structure that can be counted on to support the Kremlin. Thus, “the very same people who with suspicion view any faith nonetheless call themselves Orthodox.”

“It is completely logical that a situation has emerged when the limitation of religion is being carried out by people who do not understand it and who fear it.” They are working in that direction because they view religion just as they view any independent thinking or activity – as a direct threat to stability. Indeed, the Yarovaya law is predicated on exactly that.

Lunkin devotes most of his article to documenting the nine consequences he sees in Russian society since the adoption of that law. They include:

  • “Representatives of the police in fact began to consider that foreigners in general do not have the right to engage in any religious activity.”
  • “Foreign citizens cannot speak about faith in their residences or invite people to them.”
  • “Fear of an ‘orange’ revolution and of ‘Ukrainian influence’ has also become one of the factors” behind this law and its application.
  • The law has given the police and the force structures new opportunities to win plaudits from the regime.
  • Much that has been done is “fully in the spirit of Soviet atheistic times,” as it is directed “against religious activities in principle.”
  • The authorities clearly fear that Protestant groups will win support if they can share their ideas.
  • The authorities are increasingly applying the law not only outside the walls of churches but inside them as well.
  • The law is being used to provoke fears among Russians about any religious activity in public.
  • Those applying this law are using other laws with even more serious punishments to ensure that it is obeyed.

“Many politicians and patriotically inclined representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church suppose” that their faith will benefit from this, failing to understand, Lunkin says, that the Yarovaya laws “establish a ceiling for the growth of church-based Orthodoxy” and thus threaten its future as well.

Lunkin concludes that “the anti-Westernism and lack of respect to people of other faiths may with time exhaust themselves, but indifference to faith and suspiciousness about ‘religious fanatics’ will be much more difficult to overcome” and will take “much longer” because it subverts the possibility for an honest discussion among everyone about issues of faith.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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