Religiosity in Russia

May 6, 2016 by

[Thanks to Boris Denisov and Martin Lewis for helpful discussions of these issues.]


A recent question from a student about just how religious Russians really are has sent me to look for statistics on this issue. As sociologists of religion know, it is not easy to measure religiosity in any country, as people often lie in response to survey questions about their religious beliefs and attendance. Since religion is not part of the Russian population census data, the best statistics could be gathered from sociological surveys conducted by Levada Center, but although it is considered the best sociological research organization in Russia, some Russian demographers have suggested that I take their findings with a grain of salt. With that in mind, let’s consider Levada Center’s figures.

According to the Center’s director Lev Gudkov, religiosity among the Russians (citizens of Russia, not ethnic Russians) is on the rise: according to the first sociological survey conducted on this matter in the late Soviet years, 16-19% of the population characterized themselves as “believers” (in Russian, верующие), whereas the corresponding figure in 2014 was 77%. Only 19% characterize themselves as non-believers. According to the first map in the National Geographic article “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion” by Gabe Bullard, the number of non-religious people in Russia shrank by more than 5% between 2005-2015. Moreover, as the second map in that article indicates, that shrinking of non-religious population is due mostly to the growth of Christian rather than Muslim population.

However, the relatively high proportion of “believers” needs to be understood in context of what it means to be a “believer” in Russia. A recent sociological survey conducted by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) has shown that the growth in the number of self-identified believers is accompanied by increasingly more popular beliefs in phenomena associated with religion. In this poll, 50% of the respondents said they believe in religious miracles (compared to 32% in 1991), 46% of the respondents believe in life after death (compared to 33% in 1991), and 40% believe in the devil and hell (compared to 25% in 1991). In response to a question as to “whether human life is predestined by higher forces”, 48% of those polled said that it is (compared to 25% in 1991), and only 26% said it is not (compared to 45% in 1991).

Yet, a substantial number of self-identified believers in Russia do not adopt all beliefs and practices of their religion. In the interview cited above, Gudkov explained (translation from Russian here and below is mine):

“On the surface, the number of believers grew in one generation manifold, but what is meant by that concept is more of an ethno-religious identity. Only 4-7% adhere all the required observances, and this number doesn’t change. And about 40% of people who call themselves Orthodox doubt the existence of God, Last Judgement, possibility of Salvation.”

Of the 77% believers, the distribution across different faiths corresponds to the ethnic groups. For example, most of the 7% who self-identify as Muslims come from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups from the Middle Volga region (Tatars, Bashkirs) and North Caucasus (Chechens, Ingush, various ethnic groups in Dagestan). Similarly, the 1% who identify as Jewish by religion are also Jewish by ethnic group (a designation that is included in the census data). Only about 1% of Russia’s population self-identify as Catholics or Protestants.

The relatively high figure of self-identified believers who do not adopt all the articles of their faith—even the existence of God!—mentioned by Gudkov (see above) is matched by a relatively high proportion of non-observance (or rare observance) of religious practices. According to a 2013 sociological survey, only 14% of the population attend religious services at least once a month; this figure is down from 20% in 2007. Only 16% attend religious services only once a year, 17% go several times a year, and 13% do so once in a few years; 35% of respondents admitted to never attending religious services at all.

Even fewer people are taking part in the sacraments: 62% of those who self-identify as Orthodox or Catholics never go to Communion, only 14% go to Communion at least once a year, while 22% do so less than once a year. Based on these figures, deputy director of Levada Center Alexei Grazhdankin said that:

“14% is the approximate number of people who are true believers rather than identifying themselves as belonging to this or that religion based on cultural identity, without having ties to the church. The concept of spiritual-religious identity is much broader than having stable and well-defined religious views. But even that number may be considered too high. Those who regularly participate in the life of their religious community, maintain regular contacts with other believers and conduct their lives in accordance with confessional requirements constitute about five-six percent.”

A recent study, conducted in March 2016, supports the view that while the majority of Russian citizens identify themselves as “believers”, very few are prepared to follow the stricter religious observances. On the eve of Shrovetide (in Russian, Масленница), a carnival-like celebration immediately preceding the 7-week-long fast of Lent, Levada Center conducted a study of what people are planning to do for both the Shrovetide and the fasting period. According to their findings, only 11% of the Russian citizens were not planning to do anything special for Shrovetide, while the majority planned to celebrate it with family and friends (30%) or in public celebrations (23%). Seven out of 10 respondents were planning to bake the traditional pancakes (in Russian, bliny), consumed with copious amounts of butter, sour cream, and sometimes caviar. A quarter of the respondents planned to eat meat on Shrovetide.

But when it comes to a stricter observance, the 7-week Lent fast, very few Russians were planning to stick to its observance. Three out of four people planned to eat as they normally would. Only 16% were going to make partial changes to their normal diet and routine, and 4% planned to fast only during the last week of the fast. Merely 3% of respondents said that they will be observing the fast fully during the entire 7-week period. While 1 in 3 respondents were prepared to give up alcohol for the duration of the fast, but only 1 in 5 were ready to temporarily give up smoking or sex. One in four could abstain from entertainment but only 13% were prepared to curb their business or professional lives.

In accordance with the claims cited above that religion is a matter of cultural and/or ethnic identity rather than faith, many people who do not identify themselves as Christians were planning to celebrate Shrovetide alongside their Orthodox compatriots. Thus, a higher proportion of atheists than of the Orthodox believers were planning to eat meat (27% vs. 24%) or to participate in public Shrovetide celebrations (28% vs. 23%). Moreover, even when it comes to less conspicuous practices such as baking pancakes or celebrating Shrovetide with family and friends, the proportion of the atheists who would do that is almost as high as among the Orthodox. Even a sizeable minority of believers from other faiths would bake pancakes (32%), participate in public Shrovetide celebrations (11%), or celebrate with family and friends (10%). As for Lent, the same proportion of atheists and of the Orthodox, only 2%, would observe the fasting requirements fully for the entire period.

Russian religious activist Dmitry Tsorionov, known under pseudonym Enteo, ascribes this shallow religiosity to “70 years of the communist yoke, when the government fought against the church and the faith”, while also comparing it to the situation found in “other developed countries”. One way or another, Russian society can be best characterized as only nominally Orthodox. It would be interesting to look more closely into the religiosity levels among members of other faiths, particularly among Russia’s Muslims, which I suspect is much higher than among those who self-identify as Orthodox.

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