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Thomas Bremer {*}

How Religious are the Russians?

Results of a Recent Survey


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2009, P. 628-633
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the end of the communist dictatorship in Russia there was a revival of religion. The Orthodox Church as the largest religious community has mainly benefited from it. At the same time, a recent survey shows a high degree of superficiality in matters of religion. Religious rules are highly appreciated but often not respected.


In the last years of the Soviet Union during the perestroika period in all parts of the country the interest in religion increased. Since about 1988 the churches and religious communities were no longer controlled by the state, and many people, even those who had lived completely irreligious, turned for the most part to the religion of their ancestors. This meant that after the disintegration of the USSR the religious communities in all the successor states enjoyed an increased clientele, that new churches and mosques were built, and that the recognized religious communities became important societal and political factors.

In the largest successor state to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, the Orthodox Church is by far the largest religious community. But there was and is little known both of the number of Orthodox Christians and the religious practices of the inhabitants of Russia.



In the USSR, sociology and especially sociology of religion was a subject that found little recognition by the ideology and was therefore always marginalized. And the leadership had no interest in publishing data on religiosity.

There were admittedly empirical studies, but their results were not publicized. Immediately after the end of the state, both Russian and foreign pollsters conducted surveys with which they sought to find out the degree and nature of religiousness in Russia. They showed most notably that the great affirmation of orthodoxy had much to do with identity and less with religious faith. Even people who did not believe in God and were in no way religiously active avowed themselves to be "Orthodox." It is obvious that this meant for the Church major problems in the pastoral area.


Specifics of Orthodox Religious Practice

However, what has been lacking hitherto was a survey on religion in Russia that examined the specifics of orthodox religious practice. Many of the frequently asked questions (e.g. the frequency of church attendance or Bible reading) were typically 'Catholic' or 'Protestant', but there were almost no questions about the characteristics of the Orthodox Church and religious life, as for instance the worship of icons or the sacramental life. A working group made up of three theologians (Jennifer Wasmuth, Berlin, Veniamin Simonov, Moscow, and the author) was established in order to remedy this shortcoming. It developed a catalog of more than 50 questions that also included some of the conventional issues, but in addition there should be gained above all information that refers to the members' identification with the Orthodox Church and to their piety.

In February 2009 one of Russia's leading polling firms carried out a Russia-wide scientific survey among 1600 people aged over 18, whose gender, age, education, social status and place of residence were representative for the Russian society. The project was supported by the Catholic relief organization Renovabis. First results were published in the June issue of the journal "Osteuropa", which was dedicated to the topic "Church and Politics in Eastern Europe".

In the following some results of the survey will be explained and conclusions will be drawn from them. Before that, it should be noted that, a few weeks before the survey, the election and the enthronement of the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church had taken place, accompanied by great media attention. Thus, the topic of religion was present in Russian society, and it had mainly a positive connotation.

In the first question it was about the religious denomination. 72.6 per cent of the population describe themselves as "orthodox." The next largest group, more than 10 per cent, answered the question of religious affiliation with "no concrete" - an evidence to the fact that a significant part of the Russian society regards itself as belonging to no religion, but would nevertheless not consider itself to be irreligious (perhaps also the 1.2 per cent answering with "hard to say" could be added).

Those who are decidedly irreligious describe themselves as "atheist" - after all 7.3 per cent of the respondents. Then the Muslims follow with 6.2 per cent. All other groups are represented with less than one per cent, including Catholics and Protestants each 0.6 per cent. With a population of approximately 142 million people this makes about 850.000 believers for each of the latter two churches.

Unlike previous surveys, it appears that the number of "atheists" decreased, while the percentage of Orthodox Christians has grown or has at least become stable. For Muslims, too, the data are rather stable, whereas they have almost no significance for the other religious communities, due to the small number of respondents. In the following, whenever "Orthodox Russians," "Faithful," or similar people are mentioned, the group of those is meant who describe themselves as "Orthodox."

Understandably enough, most of the questions that should illustrate the Orthodox religiousness were not put to Muslims, Jews or Buddhists (e.g. questions about church attendance, Eucharistic communion or the like). The percentage figures therefore refer normally to those who declare themselves to be Orthodox; with it no ecclesiological statement is made, and the numbers may not be misunderstood as a percentage of the members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


What the Russians Believe

In this context it is interesting that about two thirds of those respondents who identify themselves as "Orthodox" have in their childhood not enjoyed religious education. At least, three per cent have been brought up religiously, not by their family but by other people.



Only 30 per cent declared to have been brought up religiously in their family. There are only minor differences as regards age. In the group of 25- to 55-year-old the number of those who at home were irreligiously educated is only slightly higher than that of older or younger respondents - this is the group of those whose parents and often even grandparents grew up in the prescribed atheism.


Most of Them have an Icon at Home

It can likewise be explained why religious education was less common with higher education (72 per cent of the respondents with university education have not been brought up religiously, but only 64 per cent of those with low education). And it is not surprising that the villagers were much more religiously educated in the family (39 per cent) than e.g. residents of Moscow (28 per cent, in other major cities only 21 per cent!). It fits to this situation that 94 per cent of those who call themselves "Orthodox" are baptized, but only two thirds were carried by their parents to the baptismal font. With 17 per cent the relatives, mostly grandparents were involved, whereas 11 per cent of the adult Orthodox Russians declare that they themselves had decided to do it.

What do the Russians believe? When asked about the ideas of the existence of God the following results came out.

I believe that God exists and have not the slightest doubt of it

33,8 per cent

I believe in the existence of God, although I sometimes have doubts.

21,3 per cent

Sometimes I believe in the existence of God and sometimes not

14 per cent

I do not believe in God, but I believe in a Higher Power

10,7 per cent

I do not know whether God exists, and I doubt whether one can be convinced of his existence

8 per cent

I do not believe in the existence of God

7 per cent

Hard to say, miscellaneous

5,2 per cent

This makes clear that only one third of the population (and also slightly more than 40 per cent of the Orthodox Christians) have no doubts about the existence of God. Other polls show that with regard to other key statements of faith (such as the resurrection of Christ) and with regard to the belief in phenomena such as aliens, horoscopes and the like, the respondents hold often views that are incompatible with church doctrine. This shows that the great interest in religion and the high value ascribed to the religious communities does not correspond to religious education; to a large extent it does not even refer to fundamental statements of the Christian faith. To put it simply, the people in Russia are religious and respect the church, but they often do not know exactly what that means.

The aftermaths of the Soviet period can also be seen in the fact that only 8.2 per cent of the baptized who live in a marriage had a church wedding; the vast majority got married in a registry office. However, almost 38 per cent of the latter answer "yes" or "rather yes" when they are asked whether they would get married in church if their marriage would now take place. It is similar with the question of whether they would prefer a church wedding of their children if they were going to marry. Interestingly, there is, not only in these matters, always a relatively large proportion of undecided, as shown in the example just mentioned:

If your children were going to get married, would you want a church wedding?

Hard to say

31,3 per cent

In no case

9,5 per cent

Rather no

17,8 per cent

Rather yes

22,4 per cent

In any case

19,1 per cent

Roughly can be said: one third of the respondents can form only with difficulty an answer to such questions; another (good) third has rather a tendency to religious behaviour, and the last under a third reject religious acts. The Russian society is divided over these topics, as other questions also show. Even the positive appreciation of religion does not alter this finding.

For the religious practice some areas have been defined that play a major role in Orthodoxy. This includes the observation of the fasting periods. The fasting rules of Orthodoxy are very strict. They include apart of meat usually all other animal products such as fish, eggs, milk and cheese. The periods of fasts pertain to almost one quarter of the year (four several-week fastings, and every Wednesday and every Friday).

Among the Orthodox Russians there is a relatively high awareness of the importance and necessity of fasting. Approximately 34 per cent of the Orthodox Christians respond positively to the question whether one should keep to fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. A quarter refrains from making any comment, good 41 per cent answer in the negative. With regard to the longer periods of fasting and the Holy Week the number of those who recommend fasting is even bigger. A very different picture emerges, however, if you inquire after the practice:



Only 6 per cent of the Orthodox respondents are fasting as a rule, or at least often on Wednesday and Friday, nearly 14 per cent sometimes, but the vast majority, nearly 80 per cent, answered the question of whether they are fasting at those days with "never."

The situation is similar in the question about the behaviour of fasting on Good Friday. Again, 20 per cent declared that it was difficult for them to answer this question. But over 52 per cent of the respondents are of the opinion that on Good Friday one has to fast. It is astonishing that only 23 per cent can affirm the sentence "on Good Friday I do not eat meat," whereas 77 per cent say that it does not apply to them. More than 70 per cent of the Orthodox Christians support the statement "I almost never observe the Lenten season." Here, but also in other questions as e.g. about the necessity of prayer (e.g. before eating) a position appears that could be paraphrased like this: religious behaviour and observing of church rules are good and necessary but do not apply to me.

Approximately 79 per cent of Orthodox Russians have an icon at home, 34 per cent use to carry a small icon on their person, nearly one third of car owners has an icon in the car, and at least 10 per cent of the respondents have one in the workplace. In Orthodoxy icons have a central role both in the churchly and the individual piety. The veneration of icons by means of kissing, lighting of candles, bowing and reverent behaviour is widespread. Those who once attended an Orthodox liturgy have experienced this very impressively.

But when you investigate the icon piety of all Orthodox believers in Russia, and not only the attendees of the Liturgy ("usually" and "often" 7 per cent of the Orthodox Christians take part in the Sunday liturgy) a more differentiated picture results. The usual behaviour before an icon, the reverent sign of the cross, 49 per cent of Orthodox Russians never perform. Another 27 per cent cross themselves "sometimes" in front of an icon, and only 24 per cent do it "usually" or "often" when they see an icon. Even among the church goers there are only 76 per cent who pray before the icons; 24 per cent say 'no' to the corresponding question. And only 50 per cent of the church goers kiss icons in the church. Of those who have icons at home a little more than 27 per cent do it. A large majority has admittedly icons but does not venerate them by kissing. A slight majority also prays in front of the icons at home. Finally only nearly 38 per cent of these respondents light a candle or an oil lamp in front of the icons at home.

Another aspect of religious practice is the behaviour in a church. Here, too, surprising results come out. About 18 per cent of those who regard themselves as Orthodox Christians say that they never cross themselves when they enter a church; nearly 10 per cent cross themselves "sometimes". But 72 per cent of the faithful cross themselves "usually" or "often". It is obvious that regular churchgoers belong to the latter group, but it also shows that among many Orthodox Christians the traditional religious behaviour is not very common.


Church Pretension and Reality Differ Widely

In the area of sacramental life, it turns out that the Church's pretension and the reality in the Russian Orthodoxy diverge widely. 58 per cent of baptized Orthodox Christians say they never receive the Eucharist. This figure decreases with increasing age; with the over-55s only 49 per cent never receive the Communion. Furthermore, 18 per cent say that they receive the Communion less often than annually, and 10 per cent only once or twice a year, and so just 9 per cent receive the sacrament a few times a year or oftener. Traditionally, in the Orthodox Church the Eucharist is received much rarer than today in the Catholic Church, and a closer look shows that especially elderly female parishioners receive the Holy Communion (and small children who not occur in the survey). This is proved by the data.

The Orthodox believers in Russia are likewise cautious with regard to the Anointing of the Sick. As a rule it is administered not to individual persons but to large groups in the parish, often also to people who are not ill. This lack of clarity regarding the meaning of the sacrament is also evident in the survey: in case of serious illness only 0.7 per cent of the Orthodox Russians would ask for a priest. Almost 5 per cent said they would try to receive Communion, and 2.7 per cent said they would try to receive the anointing of the sick. However, the vast majority, i.e. 93.1 per cent of the Orthodox Christians interviewed, said that they would do nothing of the kind.

Finally, in the field of personal piety may be mentioned the celebration of the namesday. Only 42 per cent of Orthodox Russians know the date of their Saint's day. More than half of them do not celebrate this day. The others celebrate it mostly by inviting guests (28.6 per cent of those who know the date) or by attending the church (9.5 per cent).

Another group of questions concerned the relationship of the Orthodox population of Russia to church leadership, both at the local (parish) and at the higher (diocese) level. Here are the results of the question of the role of priest and bishop for the Orthodox believers:



What significance has for you a priest / a bishop?

A spiritual authority

31 per cent / 40 per cent

An authority on social and political issues

7 per cent / 6 per cent

An authority on important questions of life

5 per cent / 5 per cent

Somebody whom I can resort to, if I need spiritual help

29 per cent / 15 per cent

Somebody whom I don't have to ask

12 per cent / 14 per cent


4 per cent / 4 per cent

Hard to say

17 per cent / 24 per cent

It is obvious and not difficult to understand that the relationship to the priest, who can be seen much easier, is much closer than that to the bishop. The bishop appears as spiritual authority, but for the sake of spiritual help you rather approach the priest. Regarding the bishop, there are significantly more respondents who have no ideas (hard to say).

Indeed, in the last five years half of respondents had no contact with a bishop, neither by listening to or viewing a liturgy in radio or television, nor by attending an Episcopal liturgy (or listening to the sermon) in the church, nor by correspondence or personal contact; the "contact" for most of the others happened via electronic media. The faithful normally hardly tried to make contact with a bishop. Of the relatively few believers who have (usually by letter) tried it, most have got no answer. They nevertheless grant the bishops great authority.

It is worth noting in this context the major focusing on the spiritual area. Neither in the political sphere nor in questions of one's own (non-spiritual) life are the clerics regarded as great authorities, regardless of the entitlement, sometimes raised by representatives of the Russian Church, especially to the first area. Most Orthodox Russians ascribe great spiritual authority to their bishops (although they, to say it pointedly, see or hear them mostly not at all or at most via media), but they do not try to communicate with them.

The survey also asked about the financing of the church, including non-Christians and atheists. Here the majority of the respondents tend to a middle position. Neither they were of the opinion that the Russian Orthodox Church had too much or too little money, nor they thought that it spend it for the wrong purposes. However, here the proportion of those who could not answer the question was very high (always around 40 per cent). Of the rest almost 30 per cent said that the church had a bit more or much more than it needs, 45.7 per cent found the financial resources of the church just appropriate, and 24.7 per cent thought the Church had little or far too little money available.

Regarding the financing of the church not even one third of respondents think the state should support the church.



Almost half the population of Russia believes that the church should finance its maintenance by the means of the faithful.

The survey represents a profile of the religious situation in the country, good 20 years after the end of the state-imposed atheism. This has without doubt left its mark, which is particularly evident when one considers the results according to age cohorts and social parameters. Unlike in Western countries religion is rather a matter of (educated and younger) city dwellers. In the countryside and (to a lesser extent) in the elderly generation and among the less educated it is much harder for the belief.


The Russian Society is Divided

On the one hand the high potential of religion becomes evident, which was still present even after the time of the Soviet regime. Out of this potential the degree of religiosity that can be seen today could develop. On the other hand it is clear that there is also a high degree of superficiality in religiousness. Many Russians admittedly identify with the Orthodox Church, and churchly rules are highly esteemed, though often not observed (this can clearly be seen in the question of the fasting practice). However, the church has not always succeeded in using the positive reputation that it enjoys in order to upgrade the existing basis to profound religious knowledge and to a deliberate application of religious practice.

The already mentioned trisection of the country is conspicuous, although it can be explained by Russia's particular situation. Many people, often grossly a third, have no opinion on the questions and have trouble with answering them. Another third has rather a positive attitude towards religious behaviour and church matters, the last third rather a negative. These results vary, of course, depending on the question asked, and the group of non-respondents must be carefully analyzed. Nevertheless, one can talk in this respect from a certain splitting of the Russian society.

In summary, Russia appears to be in the same situation as other advanced industrial countries. Also in Western countries similar results can be enquired, ranging from the discrepancy between one's identification and practice to large gaps in the knowledge of religious principles. The differences that exist (age, positive view of the church and other things) can mostly be explained by historical circumstances. It will be important to examine them more precisely and to compare them. Moreover, it would be desirable to repeat the survey on the religious practice in certain intervals in order to detect a longer-term trend. Nevertheless, the result is an interesting picture of the religious situation, which is primarily for the Orthodox Church a great challenge.


    {*} Thomas Bremer (born in 1957), Dr. theol., Since 1999 Professor of Ecumenics and Peace Studies at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Münster. Research foci: Orthodoxy in Russia and Serbia, ecumenical relations between Eastern and Western churches, churches and religious communities in conflict situations. Publications: Konfrontation statt Ökumene. Zur kirchlichen Situation in der Ukraine, Erfurt 2001; Kleine Geschichte der Religionen in Jugoslawien, Freiburg 2003; Kreuz und Kreml. Kleine Geschichte der orthodoxen Kirche in Russland, Freiburg 2007.


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