Half of Russians define themselves as religious people. Compared to February 2016, the share of respondents who believe that religious organizations have a great influence on public policy and those who believe that religion should not be in school increased by 12%. 21% (+6%) of Russians support the opinion that the Church and religious organizations should not interfere in public life.
The share of those who have called themselves very religious in recent years coincides approximately with the share of those who observe the canons of religious behavior in the Church to some extent.
The celebration of Christmas, which has long been part of the New Year holidays and the Theophany following it, has become widespread (about half of the respondents celebrate them). However, with such mass attention, Christmas (as well as the main holiday of the Orthodox Easter) is not marked, say, by mass observance of fasting, and rather active church attendance on these holidays means communion with the sacrament of the liturgy only for a minority and rather corresponds to the behavior of the so-called C and E Christians (or “zakhozhane” – the term used in the Church). That is, it is merely a ritual.
Against the background of the symphony of the state and the Church established in the 2000s – 2010s, the share of Russians who believe that the Church has too much influence on the life of the state was small, and in the last decade the relative majority considers it “normal”.
However, compared to 2016, the share of those who rate it as too large has increased from 17 to 29%. It is hardly possible to talk here about the growing realisation that according to the Constitution, the Church in Russia as in all modern developed countries, is separated from the state. Rather, as it seems to us, we are talking here about a reaction to the increasing authoritarian role of the state as a whole, and the Church in particular, in the life of society, and what is more important in its current development – in the private life of a person. The vast majority of our society has been living for decades in a state where the only sphere of responsibility and influence of an individual is their family and the inner circle. In a recent poll by the Levada Center, about 70% of Russians surveyed said that the Church should not interfere in a person’s private life and try to control it. Despite the fact that publicly the rhetoric of the hierarchs, like the rhetoric of the authorities, is taken for granted by a significant part of people, it has a limited impact on everyday private life and causes rejection when interference in this everyday life occurs. In general, it is the traditionalist and archaic rhetoric of the Church, and not Christian values, that serves as such an external “bound” for mass consciousness. But when the Church crosses the boundaries of private life, as it happens, for example, in the case of the introduction of lessons on the basics of religion in school, a stable majority believes that it should be an individual choice of students and parents, and in recent years, the number of those who generally believe that religion has no place in school has grown to almost a third.
A third (31% – an increase of 12% compared to February 2016) of respondents believe that religion should not be taught at schools. More than half (56%) support the point of view that at the request of students or their parents, it should be possible to study the history of religion, the basics of religious morality at school; 11% support the restoration of teaching the Law of God in secondary schools for everyone.
The relative majority still sees the Church as a source of moral authority and morality, an institution that preserves traditions. But these are the most general attitudes towards the role of the Church in the life of society, which persist in conditions of a shortage of moral and cultural authorities in it, devaluation by the authorities of their potential sources and carriers in cultural, political, and social environments. Along with the care of the flock, the task of the Church is actually social service – helping the poor and needy, those who have been abandoned by the state. The “demand for mercy” in Russian society is great, how much the current Church satisfies it is another question.
Compared to February 2016, more Russians began to define the role of the Church and religious organizations in public life as “assistance to the poor and low-income segments of the population” (2016 – 29%, 2021 – 41%), “assistance to the preservation of cultural traditions” (2016 – 30%, 2021 – 39%). Also, the share of Russians who believe that the Church and religious organizations should not interfere in public life has increased by 6% – up to 21%.
Commentary by Natalia Zorkaya
The dynamics of self-identification with the Orthodox Church in Russian society can be divided into approximately three periods. The first significant increase occured in the late 1980s – mid-1990s. According to our measurements in 1989 there were 18% of Orthodox people, but by mid-1990s, about a hals of respondents identified as Orthodox. During the perestroika and the reformation period in the 1990s an important factor of this growth was the return of religious freedom, restoration of the role of the Church as a social institution as well as, importantly, the return of the idea of charity and social service to public life. Religious communities and organisations start helping the poor, orphans, the disabled, drug addicts, and this to some extent is happening under the influence of Western ecumenical movements. More educated and active citizens take part in such initiatives. Over time, these initiatives and similar activities face opposition not only from the disintegrating Soviet institutions, which activists have to cooperate with, but also from the Russian Orthodox Church that is getting stronger and strives to submit the life of the faithful to its increasingly authoritarian and traditionalist control.
Within the Church itself a relative freedom can be observed during this period. The religious movements formed in 1960s–1970s among neophytes, renovationists etc. become more and more public. Such priests as Alexander Men, Georgy Kochetkov, Dmitry Borisov and others, who are representing different movements, are gaining followers and popularity, mostly in the educated circles. We can roughly single out several religious communities that still exist today to record the emergence or the revival of a potentially modernizing environment that could become key to the renewal of the Church as well as public life and introduce the values of public service to the people. However as the archaic institution of the Church restored, such movements and communities were forced back into their former or new niches, thus remaining rather group phenomena that do not affect the renewal of the Church and the society.
The second period of significant growth of Orthodox identification begins back in Yeltsin’s time, when in search of sources of symbolic authority, the government begins to flirt with the Church, which marked the beginning of the restoration of the so-called “symphony” of the state and the Church. It was then that the figure of the “chief with a candle” appeared, which during Putin’s rule, especially in the first half of it, became part of the everyday picture of the life of the Church and its public representation, “providing” Russian society with ancient “spiritual bounds”. Then the third phase of the growth of Orthodox identification occurs, when the share of Orthodox in Russian society reaches its maximum over the entire observation period and then fluctuates within 70%. During this period, the proportion of those baptized in the Orthodox Church begins to exceed the proportion identifying themselves as Orthodox and reaches 80%, which is almost equal to the share of the Russian population in the country.
However the analysis of the dynamics of religious attitudes and the spread of canonical Orthodox religious practices – the frequency of communion, confession, participation in the liturgy, fasting, the prevalence of church weddings and other sacraments of the Church – shows the average share of those practices is 10-12%, and the most common indicator is only regular church attendance (at least once a month and more often). This indicator remains at the same level throughout all the years of our observations. In other words, a more or less intense religious life is inherent only to a small minority, and the fact that it almost does not change in its volumes tells us that the Orthodox traditions themselves, destroyed in Soviet times, are not being restored and their instllment by the ROC, which has grown over the years, has not been successful in any meaningful sense, if we mean the rooting of religious values or the development of parish life.
Classifying oneself as Orthodox has become an essential part of national identity, despite the fact that the political nation has not been formed in the post-Soviet period, and the imperial and Soviet complexes and the preservation of social and cultural processes retain their functional role in the reproduction of collective identity. And the Church in its public activities, through the mouth of its established hierarchs, puts at the forefront not the complex world of modern man and his individual search for the meaning of life, including social life, but a simplified image of a submissive person who observes the religious rules of church life and does not pretend to a deeper understanding of religious life and the role of the Church in the modern world.
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