Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Religion is Not Just a Personal Affair in Russia, Moscow Official Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 5 – Poll results released last week showing that 53 percent of Russians believe religion to be “a personal matter,” 28 percent say that it is “a basic part of the spiritual culture of the individual and society as a whole, and 15 percent suggesting that religion is “an opium for the people and a form of business” have prompted some unusual reactions in Moscow.
Aleksandr Zhuravsky, the head of the department of the inter-ethnic relations of the Regional Development Ministry, told “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that these results reflect “a certain social paradigm which has been preserved in the consciousness of Russians from Soviet times” (
That paradigm holds, he continued, that “the social function of religious organizations is limited to the walls” of the church, mosque or synagogue, and it is supported by “elderly citizens and citizens of middle age.” But in his view, the situation now is different: “Religion is part of the spiritual culture and a socially active force,” something protected by law.
In parts of Russia, he said, one religion predominates culturally because it dominates numerically, and in other places, another does for the same reason, even though the country “remains a secular state in which religious membership cannot be the dominating identity. ‘Secular identity’ must dominate.”
As an example of his view, Zhuravsky gave as an example of this reality his native Tatarstan. In that Middle Volga republic, “the religious and the ethnic are intertwined in a very specific manner,” one that is the product of the specific historical and cultural experience of the Tatars.
The intelligentsia of Tatarstan, the Moscow official says, “was founded on jadidism, a trend in Islam which arose out of the doctrine of Ismail Gasprali and the new method schools in which religion played a subordinate role. In their turn, Muslim leader of Tatar nationality considered that on the contrary religion is the defining identity.”
“In their opinion,” Zhuravsky says, “ethnicity must be adapted to the religion because religion must definite consciousness and not ethnic membership, since ethnic membership for Islam is not important just as it is not for Orthodoxy.” But at the same time, “other religions coexisted with the Islamic tradition over the course of many centuries.”
According to Zhuravsky, Russia’s problems in this day have been generated not by Islam or national culture but by “the appearance of non-traditional forms of Islam” such as Wahhabism. But he expressed the view that “there is a sufficient amount of internal energy inside Russian society that it can overcome this conflict.”
Zhuravsky’s views are both reasonable and tolerant, but precisely because they are, some who would like to have one religion dominate Russian society as a whole disagree. Vladimir Legoyda, the head of the information department of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, offered “a somewhat different” interpretation of the latest poll results.
While religion is an inherently “intimate part of human life,” he told the Moscow daily, it is “at the same time is and always has been a colossal social force because religion is that which philosophers call the boundary identity of the individual.” And understanding that is critical to understanding the poll and the meaning of religion in the Russian Federation.
“Today,” Legoyda continued, “we observe a certain break between the so-called cultural religious identity and genuine religious identity. In other words, far from all those who identify themselves as Orthodox, Muslim and soon in their own lives are guided by the very postulates in which they, according to their own words, believe.”
That does not reinforce secularism but rather points to the existence in societies of “a culture-forming religion,” which in Russia, Legoyda argued, is the Russian Orthodox Church.” Only later, “in the process of the development of the state and society did other so-called traditional religions appear and exist.”
Legoyda’s use of the term “culture-forming religion” in this context and his highly problematic assertion that Orthodoxy pre-existed other faiths -- Islam was present in what became Russia long before the so-called “Baptism of Russia” in 988 -- represent yet another assault by the Patriarchate on the Constitutionally-mandated secular nature of the Russian state.

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