[this interview was made for the Unz Review]
The topic of religion in Russia is a most interesting one, yet the majority of articles on this topic typically focus on Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and, sometimes, Buddhism. Yet there are other religions in Russia and, in fact, there have always been. When I learned that an active member of the Saker community, Edik (pseudonym), was a Quaker I asked him for an interview. I was curious, how does a member of a relatively small denomination view modern Russia and the role of religion in the Russian society. I am very grateful to Edik for this replies.
The Saker: please explain what a Quaker is and how you became one?
Edik: “Quaker” is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a small Protestant movement which was founded in England in the 1640s. Our formal name comes from John 15:15, in which Jesus says “Henceforth I do not call you servants; for the servant knows not what his lord does; but I have called you friends…”. Initially, “Quaker” was a derisive nickname used by outsiders because many early members of the movement used to tremble during worship, from the intensity of their emotions. The name has, however, now ended up in common usage, including by us.
Quaker belief is based on direct experience of Jesus Christ, often described as an “inward light” who illuminates our sin and brings us through it to salvation. We believe that every person has the capacity to experience the light of Christ. Quakers try to do so through silent, or “unprogrammed”, worship. This involves silently and patiently waiting upon the Holy Spirit, without hymns, sermons or other ceremonies. On occasion, a person may feel led by the Holy Spirit to offer a verbal testimony which the meeting will listen to and consider in silence. The reason that Quaker worship does not involve creeds, hymns, liturgies and rituals is that we feel these might distract us from the Inward Light (although, since the 19th century, some Quaker meetings do set aside part of the meeting for the singing of hymns, separately from the unprogrammed worship). As we emphasise direct experience of God, we do not have clergy or churches (our attitude is that any gathering of the faithful is the church, rather than a man-made structure).
The unstructured nature of the Quaker organisation and belief system has resulted in a great diversity of practice among Quakers. However, we all subscribe to the core principles of equality, integrity, simplicity and peace. These principles call on us to treat every person with respect; be truthful and honest; lead a simple life that avoids wasteful or frivolous consumption; and to reject all forms of violence. Quakers have put these principles into practice by, for example, being early opponents of slavery; dealing fairly with the Native American nations in the US (unlike many of the other European colonists); and, more recently, actively opposing militarism and the arms trade, and promoting non-violent ways to resolve disputes.
As to how I came to Quakerism, like many others, this happened through a period of inner conflict. I’d actually had a fairly religious (Protestant) upbringing with regular attendance at services and Bible study, but having religion forced on me turned me into a determined atheist. After school I was focused on my career, making money, owning things, friends, relationships, travel. I practically never thought about religion and when I did it was usually in a negative context. By the time I was in my mid-40s though, I did feel a vague dissatisfaction with life – in particular work, career and money no longer held the same interest. On the contrary, I’d seen a lot of politics, insincerity and dishonesty in the corporate world and it disillusioned me. But I just continued what I was doing, although it was largely going through the motions. It took a tragedy that befell a close friend of mine to shock me into thinking that there had to be something more in life than material things that could disappear on the turn of a coin. One night shortly after, when I couldn’t sleep, I decided to surf the internet. I don’t know what prompted me to google “Quakers” but I did this and started reading about Quakerism on Wikipedia. What I read about the Quakers and their beliefs stirred something in me so I decided to find the nearest Quaker meeting. Not sure about whether there would be Quakers in Russia, I decided to try attending a Quaker meeting for worship in London. I had never experienced anything like it, I felt as though the silent worship brought me close to the presence of God yet at the same time I was in room with other worshippers who were also sharing in that Presence. Totally different from the sort of religion that I had grown up with. I’ve been attending Quaker meetings for almost 4 years now.
The Saker: Russia has 5 “traditional religions” Russian Orthodoxy, several other Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Quakers are not on the list. Has that been a problem for you?
Edik: It has not been a problem for me (nor have I heard of other Quakers facing issues because of this). My personal view is that because Quakers have always been outside the mainstream – even in England, where we were persecuted for almost 200 years – we do not consider it relevant to our spiritual life to be part of a “traditional religion” in any country. The number of Quakers in Russia has never been substantial so it would be rather presumptuous of us to try and claim the same status as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism or Islam!
Today, there are probably fewer than 100 Quakers in Russia, mostly in and around Moscow. Not being recognised as a “traditional religion” of Russia doesn’t really affect us in practice. We don’t engage in proselytising and our meetings for worship are very low-key. Therefore, we don’t need to have a large organisation or to own real estate here in Russia. We do raise money for a couple of Russian charities but otherwise, individual Quakers volunteer their personal time to engage in activities that are close to the ideals of Quaker faith – helping children with disabilities or refugees, and running workshops on alternatives to violence. I’m sure the authorities are aware that we exist – we are open about our meetings and activities – but I suspect that we’re just too low profile and unimportant for them to really care.
The Saker: What is your personal observation about the degree of religiosity of most Russians? What percentage would you say is really religious and what percentage are just superficially “culturally” religious?
Edik: In general, I think that most Russians are more concerned with the issues of day-to-day living (as I was for many years of my life) and don’t think about spiritual issues very much. I would say that a large majority (perhaps as many as 80%) of ethnic Russians identify with Orthodox Christianity. Within this group, I estimate that three quarters treat Orthodoxy primarily as a cultural affiliation – ie., part of being a “Russian” – and are only occasional practitioners (eg., they baptise their children, observe religious funeral rites, wear a crucifix and perhaps attend a church service two or three times a year but not much more than that). My impression, just by speaking to people (not very scientific, I know!) is that many believe in God in an abstract way; that is, if asked, they would say that He probably exists but are otherwise not very interested in His nature or our relationship with Him.
In my view, only 20% – 25% of Christian Russians are really religious, by which I mean praying and going to services regularly, making an effort to observe the important church rules on things like confession and Great Lent, and trying to learn about the creed of the church. My observation is that the religions Russians tend to be people in their 40s and older.
With Muslims, I would say that most Russian Muslims are also “culturally” religious but the percentage of religious Muslims is higher than that of religious Christians (perhaps 30% to 40%). However, it’s more difficult to estimate because Muslims are more likely to observe many of the outward practices of their religion (eg., diet, abstinence from alcohol, dress, prayer, fasting etc.) even if they are not very religious. This is probably due to greater social and family pressure to conform, and the fact that many religious practices are much more integrated into the culture and traditions of the Muslim ethnic groups in Russia.
The Saker: The two big “heavyweight” religions in Russia are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. How would you compare them in terms of appeal, outreach policies, etc. How are these two in terms of growth, especially compared to the other religions found in Russia?
Edik: I can only comment briefly on this as I haven’t made a detailed study of the subject beyond what I read in the media. My general observations are below.
- Both Orthodox Christianity and Islam have positioned themselves as integral components of the Russian national identity, be that ethnic Russian identity (Orthodoxy) or Turkic/Caucasus (Islam), and have been fairly successful. This, however, inflates the number of believers as it counts people who are only nominally religious and may not give an accurate picture of the true strength of these religions.
- There seem to be more religious Muslims than Orthodox Christians and they seem to be growing at a faster rate. This is probably due to a higher Muslim birthrate and immigration from Central Asia. In addition, Muslim political and religious leaders seem to be more forthright about efforts to encourage religiosity (and ordinary Muslims seem to be more receptive to these efforts as well). In Chechnya, for example, the local government tacitly allows (some would say encourages) initiatives to compel people and businesses to observe Sharia and the Federal authorities generally turn a blind eye to this. I couldn’t imagine anything similar on the same scale for Christians; and if attempted, would probably run into opposition.
- Orthodox Christianity operates under a few disadvantages: sustained persecution during Soviet times which was aimed primarily at Christians (and resulted in many Russians being ignorant of, and uninterested in, Christianity); modern secularism; and competition from other Christian denominations like Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, etc.. I don’t see a comparable phenomenon among Muslims.
As to Judaism and Buddhism – I don’t know enough about them to compare with Orthodoxy and Islam. The only observation I would make (on Judaism) is that the religious Jewish presence in Moscow has become much more open and noticeable in the last 10 to 15 years, particularly of orthodox/Hasidic Jews.
The Saker: Again, about the two “heavyweights” – in your personal observations, what is the relationship of Orthodox Christianity and Islam towards the secular leaders (the Kremlin) and how much support, if any, do these religions get from the Russian state? How much influence, if any, does Orthodox Christianity and Islam, have over the Kremlin and its policies?
Edik: The Kremlin is very supportive of both religions and they reciprocate. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. As in the case of the previous question, I’ve not made a detailed study of the relationship between these religions and the Kremlin so can only comment on the basis of what I’ve read in the media.
- The Kremlin publicly displays support for Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism, first by designating them as “traditional religions” of Russia. Secondly, leading politicians (particularly President Putin) make a point of being seen in public with their religious leaders, make supportive public statements and attend religious services on important occasions like Christmas and Easter. President Putin has made it well known that he is a religious Orthodox Christian. All these things confer official approval and legitimacy on these religions. By default, any other religion which is not recognised in the same way is on the margins and likely to viewed as being “not really Russian” at best, or some sort of weird sect at worst, by many ordinary Russians.
- The government does use the law to show its support for the main religions in selected cases. For example, it has supported laws that appeal to conservative Orthodox Christians and Muslims, like the “blasphemy law” (which makes it an offence to “act in a way intended to insult the religious feelings of believers”) or the “anti-gay propaganda law”. The authorities have also taken action to ban or restrict a few non-mainstream religious groups (the most recent example being the banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds of extremism).
- In the past 5 years, there has been a sharp increase in the construction of new churches and restoration of existing churches in central Moscow. The largest mosque in Europe was built in central Moscow a few years ago. Since these types of projects, in the centre of the capital, involve planning permission and other permits, and are difficult to carry out, they would probably not take place without government endorsement.
However, I also think that the ability of religious leaders to “influence” the Kremlin is limited. It’s true that the government considers it important to have the main religions “on side” but so far, the actions taken to demonstrate support for Orthodox Christianity and Islam have been quite measured and entirely justifiable in terms of realpolitik. I doubt that the government would be willing to go beyond what it has already done, even if religious leaders push for it, as that would start to rub against the many Russians who are non-religious, secular (even atheist) and liberal, and generate more support for the political opposition. I also question whether ordinary Russian Christians or Muslims really want the promotion of religion to go much beyond what has already been done, given that (as I mentioned above), most people are still only nominally observant and treat religion largely as a cultural affiliation.
The Saker: Russian patriots often say that the collective West (mainly the USA), is sending preachers to Russia under the guise of religion but that these people, in reality, are agents of influence. The example of Turchinov in the Ukraine is probably the best known one. Russians are also deeply suspicious of “sects”. As a Quaker living in Russia, would you say that these accusations are founded? Are you sometimes viewed with suspicion because you are a Quaker?
Edik: I think that this view of western preachers is a bit exaggerated. My impression is that preachers are, by and large, motivated by a genuine desire to bring their religious message to Russians rather than any other ulterior motive. The problem is that some denominations, especially those from the US, also have clear political biases which colour the spiritual message of the preacher. I don’t think that this is intentional or calculated on the part of the preacher though, it’s just baked into his message. I’m also sceptical about the extent to which these preachers are able to influence the way that Russians think. It might have been the case in the early/mid 1990s, when most Russians had a very naïve view of the west and western societies, and were still reeling from the collapse of the USSR. Now, Russians are a lot better informed, the west is itself in the throes of crisis, Russia and Russians are better off, and this means that Russians are less likely to blindly accept whatever a preacher says on non-religious issues. Also, as you say, Russians are suspicious of “sects”, which further operates to counter the impact of western preachers.
To be fair, there are also western pastors, preachers and religious bloggers who respect Russia and its people, and work for understanding of Russia in the west.
If anything, I think that the western and Russian liberal mass media are far more important as agents of influence than preachers. People go to the mass media for information on politics and society, and have their views on these matters shaped by mass media. With regard to Turchinov, I would simply say that his behaviour reflects on the sort of person he is, rather than his religion. There are bad people who claim to be men of faith in every country. The fact that he is a Baptist lay preacher is only incidental in my opinion.
As for Quakers specifically, I think our situation is very different because we don’t proselytize and our numbers are tiny. The Russians who are Quakerism have sought us out of their own accord because they found out about us and some of our beliefs – for example, pacifism – appealed to them. I can’t say that I’ve ever been viewed with suspicion by Russians for being a Quaker. Russians take it for granted that I, as a foreigner, have a different religion so it’s no big deal. I don’t speak about my beliefs unless someone asks me about them, so no-one thinks that I’m trying to preach to or convert them.
The Saker: how do you see the future of religion in Russia? (open ended question, please reply with your best guess)
Edik: I’ll answer this very briefly as I’m terrible at predictions!
- I think that, in Russia, as in many other parts of the world, there are strong trends which hinder the growth of faith (subject to the caveat below). Materialism is one and social media is another. The nature of modern society forces most people to spend a lot of time on material concerns like career and money, and then we are bombarded constantly by images and messages promoting consumption. This crowds out the time for religious or spiritual introspection. Social media, which is extremely popular in Russia especially among younger Russians, tends to encourage shallow self-obsession, which is again quite inimical to faith. So long as these trends remain powerful in Russia, I think a genuine religious upsurge will be difficult.
- It’s possible that some people will become disillusioned with materialism and turn towards religion. That can already be seen in some Asian countries where the “thrill” of acquiring money and things has passed, and people are left with the stress of trying to maintain their standard of living and material expectations. However, in these countries, it’s the US-style Pentecostal and charismatic churches that have benefited. This may be more difficult in Russia because of the official support which the “traditional religions” currently enjoy but I think that the Orthodox church, in particular, will have to do more than just rely on the instruments of state authority if these foreign churches start gaining popularity – the nature of faith being that persecution has rarely, if ever, deterred people from following a religion.
- Church leaders also need to ask themselves difficult questions about the role of the Church and its spiritual relevance to modern society and engagement with young people; as well as its relationship to political power. If the Church is perceived as another arm of the state, it will compromise its moral legitimacy and could eventually drive believers away. Should this happen, other Christian denominations or religions could be the beneficiaries.
In short, I don’t anticipate a big upsurge in genuine religious belief in Russia. There are issues which I think the Russian Church needs to face but doesn’t appear to be doing (possibly because the current situation suits the Church hierarchy very nicely). Unfortunately, these are issues that could, in future, have a negative effect on its standing and appeal. This assumes, of course, that we don’t experience a major crisis or calamity of some sort which shakes the people’s belief in the status quo, and drives them back to religious faith.
Edik is originally from South-east Asia and lived in Europe and the United States. He never expected that he would end up settling down in Russia but has now lived there for almost half his life and thinks of it as home.