The exact statistics for religious affiliations in Russia are difficult to summarise since the official census does not record these numbers. However, estimates taken in 2012 indicate that 41% of Russians identify with the Russian Church, 25% consider themselves spiritual but not religious, 13% identify as and 5.5% are undecided about their religious affiliation (Sreda, 2012). A further portion of the population identifies with minority religions: Islam (6.5%), other variations of Christianity including Protestant, Evangelist and other sects (7.3%), native Slavic faiths, Paganism and/or Tengrism (1.2%) and Tibetan Buddhism (0.5%).
One’s language and somewhat correlates with their religious affiliation. For example, most Christians are Russians (russkiye) and Slavic speakers; Buddhists are generally Mongolian-speaking people from the central or eastern regions of the country; and most Muslims are from Turkic groups (e.g. the Tatars) and from the Caucasus region. However, this is not always a clear relationship. For example, while many Turkic speakers are Muslims, several continue to follow shamanistic traditions and some have converted to Christianity. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Russians are likely to follow the religion relevant to their individual ancestral groups’ regional or cultural tradition. A general trend has also shown that Russians become more religious as they age.
The State and Religion
Research confirms that religious affiliations have grown significantly across Russia.1 This can be explained as a spiritual resurgence and revitalisation since the end of communism in Russia. During the Soviet era, belief or membership in a religious organisation was considered to be incompatible with loyalty to the Communist Party. Therefore, openly professing one’s religious beliefs could hinder people’s opportunities and even put them at odds with the state. Many Russians had to renounce their faith or conceal their beliefs during this time. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became evident that much of the Russian population had continued to follow their faith in private. Furthermore, researchers believe that in the wake of the collapse of communism as a viable belief system, people looked towards religion en masse as an ideological answer. More than 20 years on, religious authority has regained respect and there has been a growing revival of religious traditions from multiple disciplines across the country. The Pew Research Centre’s poll results showed that Slavic Russian adults identifying as Christians rose from 31% to 72% between 1991 and 2008, whilst the share of the population that did not identify with any religion dropped from 61% to 18%.2
Although the current government claims to be and give all religions equal legal status, this is not the reality. A law drafted in 1997 differentiates the freedom to practise religion based on whether they are ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ faiths to Russia. Christian Russian , Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are recognised as faiths traditional to the native people of Russia and are afforded special privileges. All minority religions that fall outside this group of four must register and make themselves formally known to the government (including any Christian church that is not Russian ). This procedure allows state officials to prevent minority groups from renting buildings to be used for the purpose of worship. Furthermore, as part of an anti-terrorist crackdown in 2016, the government has banned . This law particularly targets non-Russian Christian groups. They cannot share their faith outside of their recognised religious institution’s buildings, including online. Generally, a minority faith’s freedom to practise, or build its own institutions depends on its members’ relationships with local officials.
The Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Church has been the dominant religious institution for almost a millennium and continues to be the most popular religion in Russia. The church lost a lot of its property and power during the communist period; however, it has quickly regained esteem and influence. Today, it is commonly thought of as the most trusted institution in society and a reference point of moral guidance for the government. Connection to the church can be cultural to some extent, as a parallel is often drawn between Russian and Russian nationhood.
Most people who identify with Russian Christianity do not practise it formally. However, church attendance is not the most accurate reflection of observance. While only 5.4% of Russians claim to attend church services weekly, 27.9% say they pray outside of religious services every day.3 Other researchers have said this figure is lower. Nevertheless, it is normal to see visible signs of faith in public. People wear crosses around their necks, have religious icons in their houses and ritually perform prayers throughout the day, blessing themselves. Some older Russians (women especially) may say blessings while making the ‘sign of the cross’ – using their index and middle finger to touch their forehead, followed by their chest, right shoulder and left shoulder.
Traditional religions are still followed by many Russians. While they are especially common among rural populations, many urbanised intellectuals and working class people also continue to hold beliefs centred around spiritual ideas of the forest, house spirits and healing practices. A number of behavioural prohibitions continue to reflect old beliefs. Some include:
- You can prevent bad luck by spitting over your left shoulder three times (similar to the idea of knocking on wood). People may imitate the spitting by just saying “tfu-tfu-tfu”.
- Do not sit down at the corner of a square table if you are not married. Doing so will prevent you from getting married for seven years.
- If you forget something and must return to collect it, look in a mirror and smile before leaving again. This prevents bad luck.
- Whistling indoors is thought to summon bad luck and indicate that you will lose all your money soon.
- Lighting a cigarette from a candle brings bad luck.
- Pouring wine backhanded implies you will “pour” away your money.
- Accidentally spilling salt onto the table brings bad luck.
- Complimenting children can cause discomfort as it is thought to potentially summon the evil eye.
Tengrism has also experienced a revival in parts of Central Russia. This is a pagan, animistic and shamanic religion originating from the Turkic and Mongol populations of Central Asia.
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