On request of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Alexander Verkhovsky, Director at the SOVA Information and Analytical Centre (Moscow, Russia), reflects on the place and perception of religion in the modern Russian society:

Russia, that left the process of a forced secularisation 25 years ago and has been going through a slow and controversial modernisation, not only abandoned relics of the past but has been steadily using those. There are two layers of such relics to be observed, which has been re-constructed by both the authorities and the society as a whole, namely, the imperial Soviet ones and imperial pre-Soviet ones.
The most evident example here is that we can observe extension of the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and its “younger brothers“, ie recognised big organisations of other religions common for this country. This influence is based on the citizens‘ demand for an ethnocultural identity and the authorities‘ demand for a symbolic capital of religious communities as a legitimate factor. The first demand has been in action permanently and for a long period of time, while the second one is dependent on the political situation. Hence, the latter one has significantly intensified since the start of protests at the edge of 2011-2012, as the authorities needed a bottom-up support again.
But let us not forget that these are not just ideological or identity games: Various religous indicators have been slightly developing, though they can’t be always fixed by obsolete sociological methods.
The activities of the Church regarding public topics has been growing based on conservative and often even politically imperial positions, especially since beginning of 2012. That’s why the Russian Orthodox Church – along with many other religious organisations – makes its opponents annoyed – both due to its antiliberal essence of addresses and due to the fact of “meddling in others’ business”, which was something new to them. On the one hand, this situation has polarisation of the society as a result, while religion has been converted into a kind of an attribute of a political division, even though the Russian Orthodox Church more or less succeeded in taking a certain position on the war in the South-East of Ukraine. On the other hands, this leads to an internal selection in religious organisations themselves – starting exactly from the Russian Orthodox Church. In general, a weird process is going on: The Russian Orthodox Church and the majority of religious organisations play an anti-modernisation role, but have been simultaneously going through their internal modernisation – retarded in the Soviet times. Can we assume that these processes would lead to an approach on the religious basis in the future – instead of today’s polarisation? For the moment, this is not obvious: They are too dependent on how the society will be developing as a whole – and this is an absolutely open question.
A more and more active place of religion in public discussions doesn’t necessarily mean that both the society and the authorities are – at least formally – ready to tolerate public or just too obvious religious displays. Certainly, those displays, which are common for the society, and especially those being a part of an ethnocultural tradition have protests of a small minority only as a result. This may be observed in relation to the Russian orthodoxy or Judaism. Even Moslem migrants, who are not favoured by the majority of Russian citizens, are not refused the right to profess Islam. Nevertheless, anything that lies beyond a narrow notion of “tradition“ is perceived completely different.
A classic example for that is rejection of “Jehovah’s Witnesses“. An average citizen – regardless of his or her political and other views – is not very fond of them because of their active homilising. A lot of people can’t accept such “radical” appearance of the faith as refusal of transfusion. A significant part of citizens and officials are very suspicious about their pacifism, ignorance of state holidays, or headquarters in Brooklyn. An ungrounded campaign of repressions against “Jehovah’s Witnesses” started in 2009. Since that time, a number of their texts and some organisations of them have been declared extremist – just due to their assertions that all other religions are worse than their own one. Some persons were convicted, because they continued with their homilising despite prohibitions to do so. No other valid accusations were mentioned. Yet, there is no campaign on-going for protection of “Jehovah’s Witnesses” beyond narrow circles of religious scholars. I think it happens due to the fact that they are so ‘aggressively religious’.
Certainly, while talking about uncertainty of religion in Russia, one should mention Islam or rather its more or less new movements, as long as Islam is a very pluralistic religion. There is no doubt that some of those are closely connected to the armed underground. There is no doubt either – at least among specialists that Islam doesn’t have a definite interdependence between religious views and political practices, even if this is assumed by various Moslem leaders or “Islamic scholars in civilian clothes”. But how can Russian citizens understand all those nuances, even 60 percent of those, who don’t see Islam as a dangerous ideology, if information from neutral sources are almost nil, while active religious appearance is not trustworthy? It seems to me that law enforcement authorities doesn’t understand these nuances either, though they got a mandate for “regulation“ of not too usual forms of Islam from the government. As a result, we can observe that the authorities bet on forced suppression almost in every case. But this suppression usually doesn’t succeed and lead to a deeper radicalisation of a part of Moslems only. After the ISIL (prohibited organisation in Russia) had come into play and larger groups of Russian citizens had participated in the IS activities, the mentioned problem became even more acute. Certainly, the police should intervene, where violence is applied, but it shouldn’t be the only remedy – especially due to the fact that “alternative Islam“ doesn’t necessarily imply a threat of violence.
Such examples as disciples of moral and political conservatism from the Russian Orthodox Church; “Jehovah’s Witnesses“, who are not perceived by a lot of citizens; “alternative Moslems” – suspicious and sometimes dangerous indeed – just illustrate a common problem. It is true that religious and other actors constantly come into play at the juncture of religion and politics and they don’t respect tolerance, human rights, or equality. Yet, the religious landscape of the society has been changing so fast that all those groups, who more or less respect these principles, don’t have time to get awareness and accept a new reality. This situation has premature and, hence, aggressive reactions as a result, which turn out to be not in compliance with propagated values. In its turn, this reality makes such an important task as a gradual adaptation of non-tolerant groups to more civilised forms of social life even harder.
It may sound common but the way out is to be more consequent in promoting principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. But to promote those in that sense in the field of religious and public relations is not a simple task, even for those who are actually supporters of both freedoms.