Religion in Russia

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia. by Tatsiana Volskaya / Getty Images

Russia has experienced a revival of religion since the start of the new millennium. Over 70% of Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians, and the number is growing. There are also 25 million Muslims, around 1.5 million Buddhists, and over 179,000 Jewish people. The Russian Orthodox Church has been particularly active in attracting new followers due to its image as the true Russian religion. But Christianity wasn't the first religion that Russians followed. Here are some main historical periods in the evolution of religion in Russia.

Key Takeaways: Religion in Russia

  • Over 70% of Russians consider themselves to be Russian Orthodox Christians.
  • Russia was pagan until the tenth century, when it adopted Christianity as a way to have a united religion.
  • Pagan beliefs have survived alongside Christianity.
  • In Soviet Russia, all religion was banned.
  • Since the 1990s, many Russians have rediscovered religion, including Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Slavic Paganism.
  • The 1997 law on religion has made it more difficult for less established religious groups in Russia to register, worship, or exercise the freedom of religious belief.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church has a privileged position and gets to decide which other religions can be officially registered.

Early Paganism

Early Slavs were pagans and had a multitude of deities. Most of the information about the Slavic religion comes from the records made by Christians who brought Christianity to Russia, as well as from Russian folklore, but there is still a lot that we don't know about the early Slav paganism.

Slavic gods often had several heads or faces. Perun was the most important deity and represented thunder, while Mother Earth was revered as the mother of all things. Veles, or Volos, was the god of abundance, since he was responsible for the cattle. Mokosh was a female deity and was associated with weaving.

Early Slavs performed their rituals in the open nature, worshiping trees, rivers, stones, and everything around them. They saw the forest as a border between this world and the Underworld, which is reflected in many folktales where the hero has to cross the forest in order to achieve their goal.

Establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church

In the tenth century, Prince Vladimir The Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus, decided to unite his people and create an image of Kievan Rus as a strong, civilized country. Vladimir himself was an ardent pagan who erected wooden statues of deities, had five wives and around 800 concubines, and had a reputation of a bloodthirsty warrior. He also disliked Christianity because of his rival brother Yaropolk. However, Vladimir could see that uniting the country with one clear religion would be beneficial.

The choice was between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and within it, Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Church. Vladimir rejected Islam as he thought that it would pose too many restrictions on the freedom-loving Russian soul. Judaism was rejected because he believed that he could not adopt a religion that had not helped the Jewish people hold on to their own land. Catholicism was deemed too stern, and so Vladimir settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

In 988, during a military campaign in Byzantine, Vladimir demanded to marry Anna, sister of Byzantine emperors. They agreed, providing that he is baptized beforehand, which he agreed to. Anna and Vladimir married in a Christian ceremony, and upon his return to Kiev, Vladimir ordered the demolition of any pagan deity statues and a country-wide baptism of his citizens. The statues were chopped and burned or thrown into the river.

With the advent of Christianity, paganism became an underground religion. There were several pagan uprisings, all violently squashed. The North-Eastern parts of the country, centered around Rostov, were particularly hostile to the new religion. The dislike of the clergy among the peasants can be seen in Russian folktales and mythology (byliny). Ultimately, most of the country continued with dual allegiance to both Christianity and, in everyday life, to paganism. This is reflected even now in the highly superstitious, ritual-loving Russian character.

Religion in Communist Russia

As soon as the Communist era began in 1917, the Soviet government made it its job to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union. Churches were demolished or turned into social clubs, the clergy was shot or sent to camps, and it became forbidden to teach religion to one's own children. The main target of the anti-religion campaign was the Russian Orthodox Church, as it had the most followers. During WWII, the Church experienced a short revival as Stalin looked for ways to increase the patriotic mood, but that quickly ended after the war.

Russian Christmas, celebrated on the night of January 6, was no longer a public holiday, and many of its rituals and traditions moved to the New Year's Eve, which even now remains the most loved and celebrated Russian holiday.

While most main religions were not outlawed in the Soviet Union, the state promoted its policy of state atheism, which was taught at school and encouraged in academic writing.

Islam was at first treated slightly better than Christianity, due to Bolsheviks' view of it as a center of "the reaction." However, that ended around 1929, and Islam experienced similar treatment as other religions, with mosques shut down or turned into warehouses.

Judaism had a similar fate as Christianity in the Soviet Union, with the added persecution and discrimination, especially during Stalin. Hebrew was only taught in schools for diplomats, and most synagogues were closed under Stalin and then Khrushchev.

Thousands of Buddhist monks were killed during the Soviet Union, too.

In the late 1980s and in the 1990s, the more open environment of the Perestroika encouraged the opening of many Sunday schools and a general resurgence of interest in Orthodox Christianity.

Religion in Russia Today

The 1990s marked the beginning of a revival in religion in Russia. Christian cartoons were being shown on main TV channels, and new churches were built or old ones restored. However, it is on the cusp of the millennium that many Russians began associating the Russian Orthodox Church with the true Russian spirit.

Paganism has also become popular again, after centuries of repression. Russians see in it an opportunity to connect with their Slavic roots and rebuild an identity different from the West.

In 1997, a new law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations was passed, which acknowledged Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism as traditional religions in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church, which nowadays acts as a privileged religion of Russia, has the power to decide which other religions can be registered as official religions. This has meant that some religions, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, are banned in Russia, while others, such as some Protestant churches or the Catholic Church, have considerable problems with registration, or limitations on their rights within the country. There have also been more restrictive laws adopted in some Russian regions, which means that the situation with the freedom of religious expression varies across Russia. Overall, any religions or religious organizations that are considered "non-traditional" according to the federal law, have experienced issues such as being unable to build or own places of worship, harassment from the authorities, violence, and denial of access to media time.

Ultimately, the number of Russians who consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians is currently at over 70% of the population. At the same time, over a third of Orthodox Christian Russians do not believe in the existence of God. Only around 5% actually attend church regularly and follow the church calendar. Religion is a matter of national identity rather than faith for the majority of contemporary Russians.