Staunton, November 8 – Protestant congregations now outnumber Russian Orthodox ones in Russia’s Far East, a development that both reflects and reinforces the distinctive regional identity and anti-Moscow sentiments of many of the people in that enormous region, according to religious specialists.
Today, the Trans-Baikal news agency reported that “the most ‘Protestant’ regions of the Far East are Primorsky and Khabarovsk krays.” In the former, there are 178 Protestant communities compared to 89 parishes of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church (zabinfo.ru/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=71103&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0 ).
Among the leading denominations there are Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, and Seventh Day Adventists, the news service says, but there are “dozens of others” as well. Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists also lag far behind in numbers: there are six mosques, seven synagogues, and four pagodas.
The situation in Khabarovsk kray is “very similar: of the 163 religious organizations, 96 are Protestant,” twice as many as the Orthodox. Moreover, this Protestant advantage is growing: Not only are ever more Protestant groups organizing and building churches, but the Orthodox
Church, lacking funds and followers, has been shutting down parishes.
Moreover, this report suggests, although its authors do not make this point, that it is no longer the case that Protestant congregations are significantly smaller than Orthodox ones, at least in terms of attendance, activity, and contributions, something that the Moscow Patriarchate has stressed in the past.
This pattern of the rise of Protestantism and the decline of Orthodoxy holds for other parts of Siberia as well. In Krasnoyarsk, there are now 111 Protestant groups, in Irkutsk, 97, and in Sverdlovsk, 94. “The most widespread,” Zabinfo.ru continues, are charismatic churches such as the Pentecostals.
Pastor Konstantin Bendas, administrator of the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians, says that “this phenomenon has a long history. Orthodoxy came to these territories quite late. In Siberia and the Far East, representatives of confessions not tolerated in the Russian Empire were exiled.”
Moreover, he continued, “many fled from oppression – the Molokane, the Dukhobors, the Mennonites, the Stundists and so on. In Soviet times, those religious leaders who were able to escape execution were exiled to the Far East. And in this way, the elite of Russian Protestants was concentrated precisely there.”
In a comment on this report, the editors of Religiopolis.org suggest that this trend, which they acknowledge has deep historical roots, also reflects certain contemporary realities, including the ethnic diversity of the region, immigration and outmigration, and a tradition of independent action (www.religiopolis.org/news/1373-dalnij-vostok-rossii-otkazalsja-ot-pravoslavija.html).
“The social openness” of Protestantism and its commitment to public action, Religiopolis.org argues, means that its various denominations are more attractive to the people of Siberia and the Russian Far East than is the more inward-focused Russian Orthodox Church at least at the present time.
Zabinfo.ru asked the Moscow Patriarchate for comment, but its representatives found it “difficult” to do so. Vladimir Vigilyansky, the head of the Patriarchate’s press service, said that he “does not comment on inter-relationships with ‘sectarians and Protestants,’” a remark that says far more than he may perhaps have intended.
But the rise of Protestantism in Siberia and the Russian Far East threatens not just the Moscow Patriarchate and its pretensions to speak for all ethnic Russians who it says are Orthodox by birth. It also represents a challenge to Moscow’s political control of the region, given that Siberian regionalism and Protestant religion can and do reinforce one another.
Indeed, one of the major arguments of the Siberian nationalist movement is that Siberia, never knew serfdom and has a Protestant work ethic closer to that of the United States than to that found in European Russia. The rise of Protestant communities across the region will only reinforce that, especially if the Moscow Patriarchate remains so hostile to this development.