Vienna, April 17 – As most Russians prepare to celebrate Orthodox Easter on Sunday, even though many tell pollsters that they do not know what that holiday is all about, an increasing number of them are worrying about the consequences of the growing officialization of Orthodoxy not only for Russian society but also for the Church itself.
In an article in today’s “Moskovskaya Pravda,” for example, Irena Tatonova, who describes herself as an atheist who has nonetheless long prepared the foods associated with Orthodox Easter, expresses her fear that the secular nature of the state, which she says “unites” Russians, may now be under threat (www.mospravda.ru/issue/2009/04/17/article17001/).
Saying that no one could call her “a hater of Orthodox Church holidays,” she expressed her nervousness about the efforts by some Church leaders and politicians to make Easter a state holiday. While no one opposes getting another day off, she continues, these calls prompt the question: “Do we live in a secular state?”
“From the extremism of the atheism of Soviet times,” she continues, Russians “are careening toward the side of faith. To believe (at least in something good) is hardly a bad thing. Only without the consequences of extremism, which such measures are,” in her opinion and the that of many others, “fraught.”
That is especially so, she suggests, because the authors of this idea want the state to get involved not just in support for rituals but even for matters of belief. And in a country like Russia where there are not only many followers of other religions but a large number of people who are agnostics or atheists, such measures will prove divisive.
Moreover, Tatonova continues, supporters of this measure constantly point to Europe as a model. But that is a mistake. “In European countries,” she writes, “the population as a rule is more homogeneous ethnically and religiously and consequently it is far simpler there togive a religious holiday the status of a state one.”
But Russia is and remains a multi-national and poly-confessional country, and it would be a terrible mistake “to mix patriotism with religion,” she concludes, given that in the past members of “various nationalities and confessions” fought for the country, something some of them might be less inclined to do if the state sought to impose one religion on all.
Tatonova’s article is only one of many that have appeared this week in the wake of the publication of poll results indicating that up to 90 percent of Russians will celebrate Easter (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=29810), even though a third of them have no idea what that day is about (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/11736.html).
Many religious leaders of various faiths as well as many secular analysts have argued that a rebirth of religion is a necessity for Russia if it is to overcome the consequences of the anti-religious Soviet past, but at the same time, ever more of them are worried about what the official promotion of religion may do.
Most who express their concerns are worried as Tatonova is about the consequences of such a step for relations among the followers of various religions or those with no religion at all, but an increasing number are disturbed that the officialization of church holidays is having a negative impact on faith itself.
An increasing number of writers argue that the state’s involvement with Orthodoxy is compounding the problems generated by commercialization, detracting from the religious meaning of the holiday (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=monitor&id=13650) and reducing religion in the minds of many to ritual alone (www.foma.ru/articles/2166/).
And many of these people are worried that if the central government gets involved with Orthodoxy, convinced that followers of that church constitute a majority of the faithful in the country, regional governments now and the central government in the future might back another faith, such as Islam, where its followers are or will be a majority.
Consequently, they suggest, even if the religion one or another group favors gets state backing now, the establishment of such a principle could mean that a religion that individual or group does not approve of could invoke this precedent against their faith somewhere else or in the future (www.islam.ru/rus/2009-04-16/#26244).