Saturday, December 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Mapping of Russia’s Religious Communities Sparks Controversy

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 12 – Both an interactive online atlas launched with much pomp in Moscow this week and two books on which it is based that were released at a scholarly conference there have sparked controversy among experts not only because of numerous errors of fact but also and especially because of the political agenda of their authors.
On the one hand, the new works have been compiled in order to suggest that adherents of the so-called four “traditional” religions – Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism -- make up 95 percent of all believers, a conclusion that dramatically understates the number of Catholics and Protestants but one that can be expected to be used to justify Moscow’s policies.
And on the other, these atlases include what might be called “the dead souls” of Orthodoxy, the numerous churches listed as working so that the Patriarchate can maintain its control of the buildings but that do not in fact offer regular services -- while at the same time, all three carefully exclude inactive mosques and ignore most non-traditional congregations.
As a result, the compilers argue that Orthodoxy has increased its share of registered religious organizations from 53.2 percent to 55.1 percent of the total over the last eight years because they simply ignore the large and growing number of non-traditional Protestant groups in the Russian Federation.
What makes this so unfortunate, as the critics have pointed out, is that few Russians know much about religious groups other than perhaps their own and that these three new works appear intended to displace a much more complete and careful three-volume study (“An Atlas of Contemporary Religious Life of Russia” (in Russian), 3 vols., M-SPB, 2005-2009).
On Tuesday, Roman Silantyev, an instructor at the Moscow State Linguistics Institute but better known for his close ties with the Moscow Patriarchate and bad relations with Muslim leaders, presented the interactive map at a press conference at Interfax headquarters (
He said this map is “unique not only for Russia but also for the world as a whole,” noting that it contains data about 25,000 religious organizations, their precise names and location. To date, he said, it has data only on the four “traditional religions” but the printed atlases on which it is based contain data on others as well.
Silantyev said that the atlas will be updated on a weekly basis and eventually include 12 kinds of data on all groups, including non-traditional faiths, and he stressed that its particular value is that users can group the data in a variety of ways as they conduct their electronic searches.
The researcher and activist said that he and his fellow compilers had come to the conclusion that today “a minimum of 95 percent of all believers in Russia are members of traditional religious organizations” even though the organizations of the four constitute only three-quarters of all religious groups (
Not surprisingly, given both the importance of the topic and Silantyev’s reputation, none of these statements remained unchallenged. In a comment to “Yezhednevny zhurnal” on Wednesday, Roman Lunkin, a distinguished specialist on religious affairs at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, took issue with many of them.
Lunkin said that Silantyev may be “a good specialist on Islam and a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate” but that in this instance he had “pursued the easiest path” in his research rather than the one that would provide the best information for all concerned. And as a result, the atlas must be used with extreme caution.
The Institute of Europe scholar noted that “in the Moscow Patriarchate, depending on the eparchy, from five to ten percent of the congregations exist only formally, being registered in order to hold the church building.” But Silantyev counts them all as he does all those disputed churches in Suzdal.
The compiler’s data on other religions are even more problematic. Islamic groups are ignored in many places as are Buddhists. According to Silantyev’s atlas, “there are no Buddhists in Moscow, Petersburg, and many other cities, where [such believers and their communities] really exist” as anyone who lives in these places can testify.
But as distorted as the atlas is concerning the traditional religions, Lunkin continues, it is even worse with regard to Protestant groups, which Silantyev more or less ignores, even though as S.B. Filatov, who edited the three volume atlas on religious life in Russia, points out, there are as many as 8,000 of them.
Given those distortions and an enormous number of simple factual mistakes, Lunkin concludes, “Silantyev’s map is above all a reflection of the policy of the Russian Justice Ministry.” Indeed, he says, it is possible to say that “the justice ministry has created that religious picture which it wants to see.”
Consequently, “the map has no scientific value, but only an ideological one. Silantyev in the religious sphere is acting like Lysenko did in genetics, attempting with the support of the powers that be to present what is wanted as real and to show a half-truth, but a half-truth as is well known can turn out to be the very greatest lie.”
Lunkin’s conclusions about the interactive online atlas are shared by ethnographer Damir Khayretdinov, who examined the two books on which it is largely based, a chronology of Orthodoxy and Islam in Russia and “An Atlas of the Islamic Community of Russia” (of which Silantyev was a compiler) (
After calling attention to some of Silantyev’s conceptual failures – his ambiguous attitude toward “ethnic” believers and his failure to define such terms as “Wahhabi” even while using them – Kharetdinov focuses on what he describes as the superfluity of “factological mistakes,” especially about Islamic communities.
As examples of these mistakes, the ethnographer points to the designation on the map of a mosque where there has not been one since 1816. Instead, the land on which this supposed Muslim community operates is now a monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church! And in Ryazan, a mosque is shown where there has never been one, and none is shown where they are.
Such mistakes occur not only in Central Russia but in the North Caucasus, Khayretdinov points out. In North Ossetia, for example, the atlases show no mosques at all even though they exist and even existed throughout the Soviet period. Unfortunately, anyone who used these handbooks as his or her only source would never learn that.
“I do not think,” Khayretdinov concludes, that these studies “are worthy of being called scientific works.” Instead, “before us are the latest works for naïve preschoolers who are prepared to believe any adult uncle with a serious face. Alas, far from all of these uncles want to teach children with good information.”

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