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The Russian constitution enshrines religious freedom. A law passed in 1997 recognises the Russian Orthodox Church as the leading faith and promises to respect Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. A clause gives courts the power to ban groups inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.

Russian Orthodox Church

After decades of closures and confiscations of property, victimisation, deportations and exe­cutions of believers under the Soviet regime, the Russian Orthodox Church (Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov) is enjoying a big re­vival. By 1991 it already had an estimated 50 million members. The rise in churchgoers has been linked to the growth of Russian nation­alism, for the Church is an intimate part of many Russians’ notions of Russia and ‘Russianness’.

Closed and neglected churches are being restored all over the country, and churches and monasteries that had been turned into museums, archive stores, even prisons, have been returned to Church hands. There are probably now close to 25,000 active churches in the whole country, as against fewer than 7000 in 1988, and 480 working monasteries, up from 18 in 1980.

History & Hierarchy

Constantinople (mod­em Istanbul, ancient Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire after AD 395) was the eastern centre of Christianity in the Middle Ages, while Rome was the western centre. For doctrinal, cultural and political reasons, the two gradually drew apart. The final date of the split between the ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and ‘Roman Catholic’ churches is usually put at 1054.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev effectively founded the Russian Orthodox Church in AD 988 by adopting Christianity from Constantinople. The Church’s headquarters stayed at Kiev until 1300, when it moved north to Vladimir. In the 1320s it moved again, from Vladimir to Moscow.

In 1917 Russia had over 50,000 churches. Lenin adapted Marx’s view of religion as ‘the opium of the people’ to a Russian context, and likened it to home brew. Stalin seemed to be trying to wipe it out altogether until 1941, when he decided the war effort needed the patriotism religion could stir up. Khrushchev returned to the attack in the 1950s, closing about 15,000 churches.

Patriarch Alexy of Moscow & All Russia is head of the Church. The Patriarch’s resi­dence is the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, though some Church business is still conducted at the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius at Sergiev Posad, his residence until the late 1980s. The Yelokhovsky Cathedral is currently the senior church in Moscow. The Church’s senior bishops bear the title Metro­politan. The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the main fellowships of 15 autocephalous (‘self-headed’) Orthodox churches, in which Istanbul is a kind of first among equals.

Beliefs & Practice

Russian Orthodoxy is highly traditional, and the atmosphere inside a church is formal and solemn. Priests dress imposingly, the smell of candles and incense permeates the air, old women bustle about sweeping and polishing. Churches have no seats, no music (only melodic chanting) and no statues – but many icons, before which people will often be seen praying, and even kissing the ground. Men bare their heads and women usually cover theirs.

As a rule, working churches are open to one and all, but as a visitor take care not to disturb any devotions or offend sensibilities. Hands in pockets or legs or arms crossed may attract frowns. Women visitors can often get away without covering their heads, but miniskirts are unwelcome and even trousers sometimes attract disapproval. Photography at services is generally not welcome, though you might get a yes if you ask. At other times you should still feel out the situation first and ask if in doubt.

The Virgin Mary (Bogomater. Mother of God) is greatly honoured: the languagc of the liturgy is ‘Church Slavonic’, the old Bulgarian dialect into which the Bible was first translated for Slavs. Paskha (Easter) is the focus of the Church year, with festive midnight services launching Easter Day.

Christmas (Rozhdestvo) falls on 7 January be­cause the Church still uses the Julian calendar that the Soviet state abandoned in 1918.

In most churches, Divine Liturgy (Bozh­estvennaya Liturgia), lasting about two hours, is held at 8am, 9am or l0am Monday to Saturday, and usually at 7am and l0am on Sunday and festival days. Most churches also hold services at 5pm or 6pm daily. Some in­clude an akafrsr (akathistos), a series of chants to the Virgin or saints.

Church Design

Churches are decorated with frescoes, mosaics and icons, with the aim of conveying Christian teachings and assisting veneration. Different subjects are assigned traditional places in the church (the Last Judgement, for instance, appears on the westem wall). An often elaborately decorated iconostasis (icon stand) divides the main body of the church from the sanctuary, or altar area, at the eastern end, which is off lim­its to all but the priest. During a service the priest comes and goes through the Holy or Royal Door, an opening in the middle of the iconostasis.

The iconostasis is composed of up to six tiers of icons. The biggest is the deisusnyy ryad (deesis row), whose central group of icons, known as the deesis, consists of Christ enthroned as the judge of the world, with the Virgin and John the Baptist interceding for humanity on either side. Archangels, apostles and Eastern Church fathers may also appear on this row. Below the deesis row are one or two rows of smaller icons: the bottom one is the mestnyy ryad (local row) showing saints with local links. Above the deesis row are the prazdnichnyv ryad (festival row) showing the annual festivals of the Church, then the pro­nx•heskiy ryad (prophet row) showing Old Testament prophets, and sometimes a further praotecheskyy ryad (patriarch row) showing the Old Testament patriarchs.

Old Believers

The Russian Church was split in 1653 by the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, who thought it had departed from its roots. He insisted, among other things, that the translation of the Bible be altered to con­form with the Greek original, and that the sign of the cross be made with three fingers, not two. Those who couldn’t accept these changes became known as Starovery (Old Believers) and came in for persecution. Some fled to the Siberian forests or remote parts of Central Asia, where one group who had never heard of Lenin, electricity or the revolution was found in the 1980s. Only in 1771-1827, 1905-18 and again recently have Old Be­lievers had real freedom of worship. They probably now number over one million, but in 1917 there were as many as 20 million.

Other Christian Churches

Russia has small numbers of Roman Cath­olics, and Lutheran and Baptist Protestants, mostly among the German and other non­-Russian ethnic groups. Other groups such as the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Salvation Army are sending hordes of mis­sionaries. Not all groups are being welcomed. Courts have tried to use the 1997 religion law to ban the Pentecostalist Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian faiths seen as threats by the Russian Orthodox Church.


European Russia has about 12 million active and nominal Muslims, mainly among the Tatar and Bashkir peoples east of Moscow and sev­eral of the Caucasus ethnic groups (see Popu­lation & People earlier in this chapter). Nearly all are Sunni Muslims, except for some Shiah in Dagestan. Soviet ‘militant atheism’ led to the closure of nearly all the mosques and madrassas (Muslim religious schools) in Rus­sia. Under Stalin there were mass deportations and liquidation of the Muslim elite. Policies eased marginally after WWII.

Islam has, like Christianity, enjoyed growth since the mid-1980s. Some Muslim peoples – notably the Chechens and Tatars – have been the most resistant of Russia’s minorities to being brought within the Russian national fold since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but nationalism has played at least as big a part as religion in this.

Islam in Russia is fairly secularised – women are not veiled, for example; the Friday Sabbath is not a commercial holiday.

Working mosques are closed to women and often to non-Muslim men, though the latter may occasionally be invited in. There seems to be no way around this. If you are asked in, you’ll have to take off your shoes (and hope your socks are clean! – dirty socks, like dirty feet, may be an insult to the mosque).


Many of Russia’s 500,000 or so Jews have been assimilated into Russian culture and do not seriously practise Judaism; however, there are approximately 30 synagogues. Unlike the country’s other religious groups, Jews have no central coordinating body, though a yeshiva, or rabbinical academy, opened in Moscow in 1956. There are two competing chief rabbis, Russian-born Adolf Shayevich and Italian-born Berl Lazar, who is backed by Putin and is becoming increas­ingly influential.

There has been a disturbing rise in anti ­Semitism not only in far-right political groups with neo-Nazi overtones but also in the Communist Party. In 1998, party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who finished second in the 1996 presidential election, accused Jews of causing ‘mass impoverishment’ and ‘ex­tinction’ in Russia. However, to date, these sentiments have not swept the populace. A poll taken after Zyuganov’s statements show­ed that 83% of people had found them ‘unac­ceptable’.


The 145,000 Kalmyks – the largest ethnic group in the Kalmyk Republic, northwest of the Caspian Sea – are traditionally members of the Gelugpa or ‘Yellow-Hat’ sect of Ti­betan Buddhism, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama. The Kalmyks fled to their pre­sent region in the 17th century from wars in western Mongolia, where Buddhism had reached them not long before. Buddhism was tolerated by the Soviet state until Stalin nearly wiped it out in the 1930s. Today, tem­ples are being rebuilt throughout the Kalmyk Republic. You’ll also find a Yellow-Hat sect temple in St Petersburg, dating from the early 20th century.


The religion of most of the 700,000 Mari and some of the 800,000 Udmurts, both Finno­Ugric peoples in the middle Volga region, re­mains largely animist and shamanist. Animism is a belief in the presence of spirits or spiritual qualities in objects of the natural world. Peo­ple contact these spirits for guidance through a medium or shaman (‘witch doctor’).