Vienna, March 23 – Russians for a long time have dismissed many of the traditionally Islamic peoples of their country as “ethnic Muslims,” a term that refers to the fact that, as a result of Soviet anti-religious policies and modernization, many members of these nations identify as Muslims but neither know much about Islam or practice the faith.
Now, largely in reaction to a new poll, Russians and especially Russian religious leaders are having to focus on the reality that alongside “ethnic Muslims,” there appear to be an increasing number of “ethnic Orthodox” Russians who identify with the religion but neither know much about it or take part in religious practice.
The confrontation with that somewhat uncomfortable reality has at least two serious consequences. On the one hand, it calls into question the claims the Moscow Patriarchate makes and that some in the Russian government accept that the Russian Federation is genuinely “an Orthodox Christian” country.
And on the other – and quite possibly more importantly -- it raises the question as to whether some members of the nominally Orthodox Russian community may be subject to radicalization, as some of the “ethnic” Muslims have been, either on a religious basis or because of the efforts of political entrepreneurs to exploit that undefined identity.
Earlier this month, the Public Opinion Foundation released the results of a poll which found that 72 percent of the population of Russia identify as Orthodox, 12 percent more than in 2008-2009, but that only four percent regularly attend church and follow religious rules, a fraction that has remained almost unchanged over the last decade.
The same poll found that 84 percent of the population say that “Russia needs Orthodoxy,” a percentage greater than the share of ethnic Russians among Russian residents. And the foundation reported that 11percent of the Russian population identify themselves as atheists, seven percent as Muslims, and two percent to other Christian groups.
As it often does in response to such news reports, the Regions.ru news agency surveyed the opinions of various religious figures concerning their views as to how reliable these figures are and why there is the number of Russians who practice Orthodoxy is so much smaller than the number who identify with it (www.regions.ru/news/2278972/).
Archpriest Valentin Timakov, the deputy chief editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s publishing house, told the news agency that he thought the figure of four percent active Orthodox was too low, but he acknowledged that “the enormous gap between the number of nominal and churched Orthodox really exists.”
In his view, Timakov continued, the gap reflects “the strict discipline and serious internal work” required for those who are fully Orthodox. “Many now,” he said, “are simply not up to that.” But he added that “the future of our entire Fatherland” depends on whether this will change or not.
What matters, of course, is not so much “the external observation of doctrinal norms” as “the changes [which] take place in souls,” the archpriest said, but the future of Orthodoxy and of Russians will reflect not only the commitment and actions of believers themselves but also “the relations of the Church with society and government.”
A second Orthodox leader, Archpriest Maksim Kozlov, who serves as pastor of the church at Moscow State University, said he thought the poll results were accurate but incomplete because they did not call attention to what he says is the growing number of practicing Orthodox in cities and among the educated and the intellectual “soup” of the nominal Orthodox.
But a third Orthodox leader, Archpriest Aleksandr Lavrin, a pastor in Tsaritsyn, “expressed regret” about the high percentage of atheists identified by the poll. In his view, most of them are simply “religious indifferent.” On another matter, he pointed out that the gap the poll had found with the Orthodox had long existed among Muslims.
Regions.ru also spokes with two Muslim leaders. Mukhammedgali-khazrat Khuzin, head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Perm, said he was “sincerely glad” that more young Russians were returning to religion, but at the same time, he offered his views “ethnic” believers.
“Muslims earlier never had such a term as ‘nominal’ membership in religion,” he pointed out. “Islam defines all side of the life of a Muslim … and with us even in Soviet times, all traditions were observed. Today, the term ‘nominal Muslim’ exists, but all the same, believing Muslims are more than non-believing ones.”
But clearly the situation with Orthodoxy is different, Khuzin continued. “Unlike Islam, Orthodoxy does not define all aspects of the life of an individual, and therefore the number of nominal Orthodox is greater than the number of practicing ones,” although he expressed the hope that this will change as a result of an increase in the number of practicing Orthodox.
The other Muslim leader, Albir-khazrat Krganov, the first deputy chairman of the Central MSD and a member of the Social Chamber of the Russian Federation, said that the pattern was clear: members of various nationalities identify with the religion that has been traditional with their group regardless of what they actually think.
Among the representatives of other faiths polled, Rabbi Zinoviy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Groups in Russia (KEROOR), said he fully agreed with the findings of the Public Opinion Foundation especially concerning the importance of Orthodoxy for Russia as a country.
He said that he had long maintained that “namely the Russian Orthodox Church unites Russia from the Kurile Islands to Kaliningrad. Russia will always be true to Orthodoxy. [And] as a patriot of Russia, I am glad of its successes and will always supporting the strengthening of our power.”