Saturday, January 8, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Church Attendance at Christmas Undercuts Moscow Patriarchate’s Claims on Orthodox Nature of Russian People

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 8 – Fewer than two percent of Russian citizens attended Orthodox Christmas church celebrations this year, a number that calls into question not only the claims of the Moscow Patriarchate that Russian population is overwhelmingly Orthodox but also the special relationship it has with the state and the state’s spending to promote Orthodoxy.
As Svetlana Solodovnik noted in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” perhaps no other public organization has benefited as much from the tandem as the Russian Orthodox Church which has positioned itself as the moral arbiter of the majority and extracted both the return of property and enormous state subsidies (
Most of that state deference reflects the personal convictions of the leaders, especially Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, and their views about the role of Orthodoxy in the life of Russia past, present and future. But at least some of it reflects the acceptance by the secular authorities of the Patriarchate’s claims concerning the number of its followers.
(That second factor seems to be particularly important now given the growing evidence of religious fervor of the country’s Muslims as reflected in the massive celebration of Islamic holidays not only in traditional Muslim areas but particularly in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other “traditionally” Russian cities.)
Because of the impact both of Soviet anti-religious policies in the past and of the forces of secularization then and now, far fewer people are believers and active practitioners of any religion than most religious leaders regularly claim. But no denomination in Russia has more consistently overstated both the number and share of its followers.
Orthodox hierarchs routinely say that 65 to 85 percent of Russian Federation residents are Orthodox Christians, a figure that reflects their counting as believers almost all those who are members of historically Orthodox nationalities such as the Russians. In brief, they count as believers all “ethnic Orthodox” even as they dismiss equivalent claims about “ethnic Muslims.”
Obviously, precision in this question is difficult to achieve. On the one hand, declarations of faith are very different than actual belief and practice in Russia as everywhere else. And on the other, the sources of information about such matters vary widely, with religious leaders claiming more and others reporting fewer faithful.
But despite that, many in Russia attend to the numbers of people who take part in religious services especially on holidays as an important indicator. And this Christmas, which took place yesterday according to the Eastern calendar, the numbers of Russian Orthodox were both low and if anything smaller than in earlier years.
According to interior ministry sources, approximately 2.5 million people took part in the celebration of Orthodox Christmas this year, attending services in approximately 8500 churches. The attendees constitute fewer than two percent of the country’s population, and the number of Orthodox churches conducting Christmas services about two-thirds of all Orthodox churches.
In reporting these numbers, the Siberian news agency said that they once again “demonstrate the falsehoods of the demagogy of the Russian Orthodox church about the traditional Orthodox essence of the Russian people” and raise questions about state support for the Orthodox Church (
“It is curious,” the news service said, “that despite the strongest propaganda of Orthodoxy, including in the schools, the number of convinced believers over the last five years has not changed” and that the Patriarchate continues to “exaggerate the real figure by a factor of four to five.”
But it is not just in church attendance on a high holy day that the Russian Orthodox Church appears to be less widely supported than its leaders claim. This week, Archbishop Ioann of Belgorod, one of the most Orthodox places, released figures showing sharp declines in the number of practicing Orthodox there (
Not only have the number of divorces now risen to equal the number of marriages, but the share of people marrying in the church has fallen by two-thirds over the last several years, from 30 percent to only nine percent, the archbishop said, statistics that he acknowledged showed that the standing of Orthodoxy as a “fashion” among the population has changed.
But however that may be, the Russian state is pushing ahead with programs to push the cause of Russian Orthodoxy both at home and abroad. In the waning days of 2010, the country’s ministry of culture announced without much notice that it is spending “almost six million US dollars” on the popularization of Orthodoxy (

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