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The State of Religious Freedom in Russia and the CIS PDF Print E-mail


The State of Religious Freedom in Russia and the CIS

Galina Starovoitova
Deputy, State Duma of the Russian Federation

Delivered at the International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference "Religious Freedom in Europe toward the New Millennium" on May 30, 1998 in Berlin Germany.

After the break-up of former the Soviet Union, we in Russia and other countries of the CIS were confronted with the necessity of implementing three peaceful transitions simultaneously: First of all, the transition from a centrally planned economy to an open market economy. Second, the transition from authoritarian -- sometimes totalitarian -- regimes in our countries to the creation of real political pluralism. Third, the transition from the Soviet Empire to the real Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Soviet Empire tried to establish a unitary state and to wipe out any kind of spiritual, religious or ethnic peculiarities of the Soviet people. This was the traditional policy of the Russian empire since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, of which the Soviet Union was the heir. The Russian Empire inherited the Byzantine tradition in its relationship between the state and religion, in which there was discrimination against other religions. Unfortunately, some features of this tradition are still alive today in Russia and some other countries of the former Soviet Union.

In the Russian Empire, a person's religion was indicated in internal passports. Representatives of some religious minorities, such as the large Muslim and Jewish minorities, were not permitted to acquire peasants, to buy land or to receive higher education. Jews as a group were forced to live in separate areas. If they wanted to live in the big cities, they were forced to be baptized.

After the Bolshevik coup in 1917, the Soviet Union was established as an atheist state. Churches of all different professions were restricted. Priests of were suppressed; many of them were even executed. The last patriarch of Russia was poisoned in 1921. Still, the ordinary people preserved their faith and religion persisted underground. A lot of people secretly baptized their children and even funeral rituals were widespread, especially in small villages, although not in larger cities.

The same situation continued under Stalin's dictatorship and, later on under Brezhnev. Despite the end of World War II, Stalin was forced to restore the patriarchy because he understood the significance of religion for victory over the Nazi's and the creation of solidarity of the Russian nation. A limited amount of churches and mosques were restored, but the priests were kept under the strict control of the state and many of them were forced to cooperate with the KGB…


Generally, I think that there were several reasons for the break-up of the Soviet Union. First of all, the centrally planned economy did not work anymore. It was not efficient enough. However, the main reason from my point of view was the discrediting of the communist ideology. A very important role was played Soviet dissidents, such as the Andre Sakarov and Alexander Solzhenytzen. One could count among the reasons for breakup of Soviet Union the influence of the so-called "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin wall, the remnant of which we hope to see tonight. The revitalization of ethnic identity and religious revitalization also contributed.

We should also mention the demands of the Solidarity movement, which came from the grass roots level and were a big surprise for the Soviet authorities, even for reformers like Mr. Gorbachev.

Unfortunately, all these appeals were not properly understood and we witnessed the mismanagement of ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union as the Soviet leadership tried to keep together different religious and ethnic groups by force. The Soviet leadership sent troops to variious areas. The last point of existence of the former Soviet Union was August 4, 1991, when the imperialistic center committed suicide and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, which was an objective historical process, was accelerated. Before long the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created.

In the new democratic Russia, its parliament -- at the time the Supreme Soviet -- adopted a new religious bill in 1990, and the limitations for religions were lifted. A lot of old religions were restored and a lot of new religious groups were created. Some of them came from abroad and were considered rather exotic for Russia, such as Scientology, Hinduism, some Islamic influences, and even such sects as Aum Shimrikyo, which by the way still is not restricted in Russia.


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In the current law there is a distinction between regional and nationwide religious organizations. These articles work not only against the aboriginal pagan cults in Siberia and the Far East, they work even against Russian Old Believers. This group does not have a nationally developed network of rights organizations at the present time, but they are, in fact, much older than the current Orthodox Church. They have existed for at least 1000 years in the territory of Russia. The current Orthodox Church has only three and a half centuries of existence. Speaking generally, we think that we can categorize this law as a hidden way to restore the domination of the Orthodox Church in the state and to restore the well-known Byzantine tradition.

Who supported and who voted against this law? Of course, real liberals and democrats of the state Duma, including myself, did not support or vote for this law. But understanding the procedure for adoption of this law is possible only within the context of the political struggle within Russia. The President of Russia vetoed the first draft of this law, which in fac represented a struggle between the Communists and the President for the influence and support of the Orthodox church.


Unfortunately, the situation concerning this law was not properly understood by our foreign colleagues. Exactly at that time when were discussing this law in our parliament, the US Senate announced their appeal to President Yeltsin not to approve this law. Otherwise, they said, aid that was essential for the economic health of Russia would be stopped. This played a very bad role, causing the situation to deteriorate further because our hard liners were ready to say that the Russian President would rather follow the dictatorship of the Americans and the World Bank than the plea of the Russian Patriarch Alexy II. Yeltsin was even accused of being a CIA spy who is the leader of the occupational regime in Russia. The second draft version, which the Russian State Duma was forced to adopt, was the result of compromise.

What are the liberals in the Russian State Duma and those who are fighting for human rights in Russia doing now? We are collecting the case studies of violations of religious freedom. Fortunately the law is not being fully applied, but it could be done one day. We are going to appeal to the Constitutional Court and to make amendments or to abandon this law.

The struggle for freedom of religion is a part of the struggle for democracy and fundamental human rights in Russia. Unfortunately this struggle in our country still is not completed. We are ready to continue this struggle and we hope that our efforts will be understood by the international community.