Twenty years of post-Soviet religious freedom
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The 1997 law asserted the superiority of Orthodoxy, whilst recognising four "traditional religions": Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and (Protestant and Catholic) Christianity. Other groups could also be recognised if they could prove that they had been active at least 15 years before the law’s adoption. Despite the multitude of sects, now some want a more restrictive law. Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology have been targeted. Yet many Orthodox oppose changes to the existing law.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Twenty years have passed since Russia adopted its law on religious freedom, marking a major break with the Yeltsin era just before the start of that Vladimir Putin, one of the longest serving rulers in Russia's history.

The law adopted in 1997 marked the capitulation of the "white raven", who had come to symbolise the collapse of communism and friendship with the West, in favour of a newer version of Russia’s eternal aspiration for isolation and superiority vis-à-vis other peoples, moving from Soviet imperialism to orthodox fundamentalism. Now a new debate has heated up over the same law as some lawmakers call for its revision.

The ‘Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’ repealed existing provisions adopted in 1990 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic President Boris Yeltsin, which had in turn ended 75 years of militant atheism and the persecution of all religious believers.

This was the beginning of Russia’s "religious rebirth", which in a few years saw the reopening of churches, chapels, mosques and other places of prayer, following the wave of enthusiasm and "spiritual thirst" of a population that no longer could stand Marxism-Leninism. No restriction prevented missionaries and preachers from other countries from entering Russia to propagate their creed. From Russia’s underground came priests, philosophers, monks and prophets, many of whom hallowed by years in Soviet-era camps

"Spiritual intoxication"

The Russian Orthodox Church, led by the (very Soviet) Patriarch Aleksy II, stood by powerless as all this unfolded, trying to reorganise itself and dodge the accusations of collaboration with the previous regime, feeling the humiliation of being considered a Church left behind by history.

After the early years of "spiritual intoxication", not to mention the more human forms of intoxication of the president, new paradigms of national, moral, and religious pride began to emerge in Russia. Against the controversial oligarchs, the "new Russians" who were selling the country’s mineral wealth to foreigners, a new group emerged, the so-called Siloviki or “securocrats” who inherited the last institution from the Soviet era, namely Vladimir Putin’s own KGB.

New forms of nationalism developed against the "liberal" and Western-oriented politicians vying for positions in Russia’s vast land, ranging from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s oddball ‘liberal nationalism’ to the new communists of Gennady Zyuganov, ‘Uncle Zyu’ who almost took the presidency, defeated only by the support of the Western powers for Yeltsin who became so indebted to the former that he became their slave.

The other great institution that survived the collapse of the Soviet regime also rose against foreign prophets and promoters of new religions, namely the Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate inspired the Communists to table a new bill in the Duma, which Yeltsin timidly opposed in March, and then signed in September 1997.

A few months later, at the end of winter 1998, the uncertain economy of Russia’s new Russian capitalism collapsed like a house of cards, leaving only mountains of debts and illusions. The short age of Russian liberalism ran out of steam in five years, as it did before the revolution of 1917. Instead of storming the Winter Palace, Putin climbed the ladder of power. "Bad" oligarchs were removed, exiled or jailed; regional governors were thrown out or placed under presidential control; newspapers and TV stopped sparking useless debates; religions other than the Orthodox Church were forced to submit to new rules and controls.

The law of 1997 placed Russian Orthodoxy above all other religions, as the “foundational” Church of the one State of Russian history. Just below it stood Russia’s four other "traditional religions": Islam, imported by Tartar khans in the Middle Ages; the Buddhism of Siberian peoples subjugated in 1500; Judaism, which penetrated into Russia after it was expelled from other European states; and finally Christianity, not coincidentally seen as “heretical” by Russian orthodoxy in its Protestant and Catholic forms imported by Peter the Great following imperial conquests and the opening of "windows on Europe", starting with the new capital of St Petersburg.

In order to register, all other religious confessions had to prove that they had been active in the country for at least 15 years. Since the end of communism was just a few years old, this rule (which he Patriarchate opposed fearing that it would give too much room to new religious groups) was more about the future of those who could find a home in the new Russia.

Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology

The latest proposals focus in fact on the 15-year rule, either to abolish it or to make it even stricter, in order to further simplify Russia’s religious landscape. More powerful tools of repression would be available against "destructive sects", which have come under greater repression in the past year, like the ban against the Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. The Witnesses, who were already present (and persecuted) during the Soviet era, have been accused of extremism and endangering state security, whilst Ron Hubbard's followers are a more specific target, as an example of a "new sect" that needs to be excluded to cleanse the country of pernicious foreign influences. In fact, in Russia today, tens of thousands of religious groups other than the “traditional” ones have been able to register under the 1997 law, so that the targets for repressions are legion.

Proposed changes have however raised many doubts, threatening the "Pandora's Box" of religions, sealed for the past 20 years. Not only have the leaders of minority religions come out against them as they worry what new restrictions may mean for them, but surprisingly so have members of the most "national" groups, like Orthodoxy and Islam. "At present, we do not consider the revision of the Law on Freedom of Conscience as a priority. Over the past 20 years, several corrections have been made,” said Patriarchate spokesman Vladimir Legojda. Similarly, Mufti Albir Krganov, head of the Muslim Spiritual Board of Russia, told RIA Novosti that "this law is good. If there are doubts in some of its provisions, the question can be solved in an ordinary way in a spirit of collaboration." Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berl Lazar, agrees.

Indeed, the 1997 law has given the Orthodox and Muslims an unassailable status, but also many others, each within certain limits. The fear is that, by questioning the status quo, new imbalances might be created in Russian society in which, after the first years of enthusiasm, religion is becoming a matter of convenience and compliance with the government. The push for change, which can partly be attributed to the president’s own inner circle, seems to be driven by a desire for a still elusive social peace, as well as a need to crack down on political and socio-cultural opposition ahead of next year's presidential elections.