Was the USSR a state religion?


Inna Hartwich

To person

Inna Hartwich volunteered at "Mannheimer Morgen" and was a guest editor at the Russian daily "Kommersant" in Moscow in autumn 2009 with a grant from the Marion Dönhoff Foundation. She reports as a freelance correspondent for German daily newspapers from Russia and works as an editor for the "Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung".

From atheists to devout Christians

75 percent of the population of Russia profess the Russian Orthodox faith. Religion is a national tradition in Russia - without any really lived everyday religiosity. Islam is also part of Russian tradition: in the North Caucasus for more than 1,300 years.

Boris Yeltsin during a service near a newly built chapel in Moscow. (& copy AP)

The first Russian President Boris Yeltsin mixed up a few things: Christmas and Easter, for example. For a long time religion did not play a major role in the life of the statesman. She wasn't allowed to. He was buried in 2007 according to Russian Orthodox custom. The change "from atheist to sincere believing Christian", as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church at Yeltsin noted, took place for many Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But not only Christians represent a broad religious community in the largest country on earth. Which religious groups are there in Russia? And how do they relate to the state?

Russian equals orthodox?

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the stone Church of the Mother of God at the Krutitskij Patricharchhof from the 13th century was a library with two floors for almost 75 years. The Soviet citizen should find out here in a permanent exhibition what the apartments of the future could look like. The once spiritual had given way to the worldly. Now the clergy is coming back, it is awakening, it is gaining space all over Russia, not just here in the south-east of the center of Moscow. Father Dimitrij fights with the youth. "They say they are Orthodox, but they don't know the faith. How then? The communists had banned the religion."

For many Russians, the saying "Russian equals orthodox" applies. According to the Russian polling institute WZIOM, around 75 percent of the country's 143 million people profess the Russian Orthodox faith. About five percent of those who identify themselves as such are not baptized. The proportion of active churchgoers is a maximum of ten percent of the population. For many, the statement that they are Russian Orthodox does not apply as a commitment to religiosity, but to Russian culture. They understand religion as a national tradition, without any real everyday religiosity - even if hardly any Russian does without an icon in their home, car or wallet, even if it is only in playing card format. It is no longer forbidden, as it was in the times of communism.

The founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, was an enemy of the clergy, while the ousted seminary and former generalissimo Josef Stalin was an advocate of the idea that the Soviet citizen did not need a promise of salvation for the afterlife. Orthodoxy was seen as the pillar of tsarism and should be fought as best as possible. Yet the practice of faith lived on in Soviet Russia - underground. The churches - at least those that were not destroyed and burned down - were converted into museums or warehouses, while the icons were stored in cellars. In the kitchens of the apartments, however, priests read the liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, a version of the old Russian language that still shapes masses in churches today, they baptized children and married couples.

Father Dimitrij from the Krutitskij Patriarchal Court also experienced his first service in secret. His grandmother had taken him. Now he brings the faith closer to young Russians, learns to pray with them and celebrates festivals. Even if many of them don't last long. Because there are no benches in Russian churches. Women come in long skirts and headscarves, and children can also sit on the floor. The priests no longer hide behind thick monastery walls and iconostases, those three-door icon walls that stand in every Orthodox church between the inner nave and the chancel.

The record of the Orthodox Church in Russia for the past 20 years is impressive: Almost 20,000 churches were built or rebuilt under the last Patriarch Alexij II. In 1988 the Russian Orthodox Church had fewer than 7,000 parishes and around 20 monasteries; today there are 26,600 parishes and 652 monasteries. In polls, Russians put the Orthodox Church in second place after the President. Even the Russian communist leader Gennadij Zyuganov cannot avoid praising religion. One third of its party members are considered to be believers.