The State of Religious Freedom in Russia and the CIS

Galina Starovoytova
Deputy, State Duma of the Russian Federation

Editor's Note: Tragically, Galina Starovoytova, a great champion for democracy and human rights in Russia, was asassinated outside her St Petersburg apartment on November 20, 1998. The following is an edited transcript of her talk which was delivered at the International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference "Religious Freedom in Europe toward the New Millennium" on May 30,1998 in Berlin Germany.

Thank you very much. It is a big honor for me to be invited as a guest to this conference. I will speak about the current situation in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The issue and the topic are very big and I am forced to limit myself to giving a few examples and a brief explanation of the current situations in our countries.

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 the centralized planned economy to the open market economy. Second, the transition from authoritarian -- sometimes totalitarian -- regimes in our countries to the creation of real political pluralism. We needed to create new political parties and to obtain the freedom of speech, freedom of elections and other fundamental democratic freedoms. Third, the transition from the Soviet Empire to the real Commonwealth of Independent States. In affecting this third transition, we were following our historical predecessors, especially the example of the British Empire, with one substantial difference -- we created our Commonwealth in the absence of any British people in the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet Empire tried to establish a really unitarian state and to wipe out any kind of spiritual, religious or ethnic peculiarities of the Soviet people. It was the traditional politics of the Russian empire, because the Soviet Union was the heir of the Russian empire which had its roots as early the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. The Russian empire inherited the Byzantine tradition in its relationship between the state and religion. Orthodox Christianity which was adopted from Byzantium became the dominant state religion in the Russian empire. Other religious minorities were discriminated against. 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 marked in internal passports. Representatives of some religious minorities, such as Muslims or the large Jewish minority, were not permitted to possess peasants, to buy land or to get high 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. By the way, some other countries such as Germany had similar laws. During some periods of Russian history, the power of church was very small. This was mostly during the dictatorship of authoritarian leaders such as Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, who abandoned the institution of the patriarchate in Russia, though it was restored later on.

After the Bolshevik coup in 1917, the Soviet Union was established as an atheist state. Churches of all different professions were restricted. Priests of different confessions were supressed; many of them were even executed. The last patriarch of Russia, Patriarch Tiffin 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, in the so-called period of stagnation under Brezhnev. Despite the end of World War II, Stalin was forced to restore the patriarchal institution 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.

As is well known, the Russian empire and the Soviet Union had great cultural diversity in their population which was ignored by the authorities. According to the last census, there were 126 nationalities within former Soviet Union. The last census was taken 10 years ago. We plan a new one next year. The nationalities belong to different linguistic groups, different racial groups and different religions.

The most influential and the biggest group was, of course, Christians of different denominations. You had Catholics in the estern Ukraine and western Byelorussia. Catholics were a majority amongst the Soviet Polish people and the Lithuanians. We had Lutherans among the Estonians, Latish, Finns, Germans, Bulgarians, and Crimeans, as well as other groups. Of course, the majority of Russians belong to the Orthodox tradition. Armenia had their own Orthodox Christian churches. In addition, we had a lot of Christians and small religious groups such as Seventh Day Adventist, Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses and others. Following the Brest Litovsk agreement adopted in the 16th century, the Greek Catholic or Uniate Church was created in the Ukraine. (At that time it was under Poland.) In this church, the rites are Orthodox but the church is subordinate to the Pope in Rome.

In the Soviet Union, as well as in modern Russia, we have three Buddhists nationalities. They have their own statehood. We had in the beginning of Perestroika about two million Jewish people. They lived mostly in the big cities but they also had their own state, the Jewish National Autonomous District in the Far East. Of course, we had millions of Muslims in Central Asia, in Azerbaijan and in the Bulgar region among the Tartars. They were divided. Most of them were Sunnis and belonged to Sunni traditions, but some of them were Shiites. Finally, we had some aboriginal indigenous population in Siberia and the Far East, in such areas as Kumchatka, Chokortka and the polar areas. These people are still primarily pagans. While some nationalities were very superficially Christianized or Islamized, they still preserved their original traditional faith and rites.

Out of this diversity of nationalities in the former Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership wanted to create a separate national community, the so-called Soviet People. But the nationalities resisted this process and religious diversity definitely played a very significant role in the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Generally, I think that there was 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 discreditation of the communist ideology. A very important role was played Soviet dissidents, such as the prominent westernizer and Nobel prize winner, Andre Sakarov, the author of Nuclear Bomb, and Alexander Solzhenitzen, author of the well known book, Gulag Archipelego, and supporter of the ideal of restoration of religious freedom in Russia. 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. Also, the revitalization of the ethnic identity which was very closely connected with religious revitalization contributed.

The demands of Solidarity came from the grass roots level and were a big surprise for the Soviet authorities, even for reformers like the President of Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev. Unfortunately, all these appeals were not understood in the proper way and we witnessed 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 different areas such as Nagordnikaribov, Azerbaijan, Baikutra, the Transeastern area and other forts on the map of the former Soviet Union. The last point of existence of 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 and Dianetics, Hinduism, some Islamic influences, and even such sects as Aum Shimrikyo, which by the way still is not restricted in Russia despite the well known processes which take place now in Tokyo.

A lot of our people were under the influence of religious groups who came from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and specifically, Turkey. Take into account that the majority of Turkish speaking people lived within the borders of the former Soviet Union or, in other words, behind the Iron Curtain. Turkey was the only member of the Islamic world speaking Turkish not Arabic, yet most of the Turkish-speaking population and their linguistic relatives lived within the former Soviet Union. When the border was opened after creation of the CIS, the cultural and religious influence of Turkey definitely became very strong in some parts of the former Soviet Union.

Speaking generally, the situation in each of the countries of the CIS is now very specific and they differ from each other. I will give you some examples. Tajikistan, the southern republic in central Asia, is a Farsi-speaking population which is located between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. You probably know that there is a very unstable situation. Actually, for a number of years there has been civil war in Tajikistan. From the point of view of religious freedom, there are three peculiarities in Tajikistan. In 1991, the so-called Islamic Party of Renaissance was created, but it is still restricted. It was not registered by the official authorities, because it plays the role of real political opposition to the regime of President Rahmonov. The members of this party want to enter power through Islamic organization. One of the Islamic activists, Lajon Zader, is a well known Moslem fundamentalist and he is a Vice Prime Minister of this country.

Another peculiarity of the situation in Tajikistan is the existence of a relatively small number of Islamic Shiites, mostly in a mountainous area, about 200,000 of them. The third particularity is wide-spread Rahabism, a trend within Islam which is widespread in other areas of the former Soviet Union such as the northern Caucusus and Central Asia. By many analysts, Rahabism is considered as a form of protestantism within Islam. They want to simplify the rituals and to establish more direct connections between believers and God. Rahabist Islam, however, is without an ethnic face, and we can see that, in Tajikistan and other countries of the former Soviet Union, ethnic identity is prevailing over political and religious differences.

If we go to the north and look at the situation in Uzbekistan, the biggest country in Central Asia headed by President Karimof, we can say that Mr. Karimof was trying to get some support from Islamic groups, but he now understands that this religion could not be managed by state power and he is looking for political and economic support from Russia. He recently had a long meeting with President Yeltsin, and we think that this country will be reoriented to a new kind of ties within the continental political policy of the Russian Federation.

As we go further and consider the situation in Kyrgyzstan, we can see that it is a country with strong regional beliefs. The population is Turkish-speaking. It was superficially Islamized several centuries ago but the religious majority feels rather discriminated against in this country. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ is oppressed and some Orthodox believers have grievances that they have sent to Russia.

I would like to mention at least one positive example of coexistence of different religions and churches in the former Soviet Union. I refer to the Ukraine. The Ukraine has several Christian churches and a lot of other confessions including Moslems of the Crimea, Synagogues and other confessions. Even within the Christian branches there are four Christian Churches: two competing autocephalus Ukranian Orthodox churches, one Orthodox church subordinated to the Moscow Patriarch and one Greek Catholic or Uniate church. We can say that the principle of religious freedom is observed in Ukraine.

The main concern in former Soviet Union is the situation within the Russian Federation itself. Unfortunately, the State Duma, the parliament of the Russian Federation, of which I am a member, recently adopted a very restrictive religious law which from our point of view can limit the existence of religious freedoms in our country. Even in preamble of this new law, four more respected traditional indigenous religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism -- are named. Actually, in the first draft of the law, only Orthodox Christianity was mentioned, but, fortunately, we were able to change this position. Of course, this is against the Russian Constitution because it violates the principle of equality of all citizens of Russia.

The second provision in the bill is very important and very bad from our point of view: that education and proselytism of children is limited, practically restricted...


... to have at least 15 years of confirmed stage of existence to get the right to obtain property for their religious community and this is against the Russian Civil Court. 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 me, 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 denied the first draft of this law, but, as a matter of fact, it was 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 American Senate announced their appeal to Russian President not to approve this law. Otherwise, they said that aid which 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. He was even treated as 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.

Thank you very much.

What's New