Events

Religion, Politics and Identity in Rossiia

May 30, 2002 // 12:00am

In a recent Kennan Institute seminar, Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer discussed the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian Federation. She focused on the social connections of four main religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Shamanism. She noted that while the intent of the 1997 Russian law was to give the more traditional religions (Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism) an advantage over Western religions, inconsistent implementation has limited its effectiveness. Balzer explained that the recent rise in proclaimed believers might be attributed to Russians' search for identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the post-Soviet period, Balzer stressed the salience of multiple, fluid identities.

According to Balzer, recent figures from the Russian Orthodox Church showing high conversion rates should be analyzed together with data showing that less than 10 percent attend services more than once a month. Balzer attributed the relatively low numbers to the possibility that Russian citizens may be tired of religious dogmatism. Some survey data, for example of Sergei Filatov, reveal that many citizens continue to associate Church membership with Russian identity. Balzer's field data from Siberia indicate that those converting to non-Orthodox Christian religions are often children of mixed ethnic marriages.

Balzer outlined divergent opinions regarding the interconnections of Islam and politics. Recent data indicate that Islam can create an environment for active community participation, while other figures suggest that Islam provides an identity for many people, similar to Orthodoxy. Islam should no longer simplistically be associated with specific ethnic groups of the Caucasus, Volga region, and Central Asia. Some Russians and Ukrainians have converted to Islam, and large populations of Muslims are found in Russia's largest cities, including Moscow. The Chechen conflict has polarized some Muslims into increased extremism in the North Caucasus, but the leadership of the Chechen opposition is not Islamic fundamentalist. Moderate Islamic leaders, including those following traditions of, Jadidism that advocate education for women, have tried to strike a balance with leaders of Russia's other major religions.

Traditionally associated with Russia's Mongolian peoples, Buddhism in Russia is constantly adapting and changing. Balzer stated that prior to the Revolution, Buddhist centers played a significant role in helping people receive an education. Recently, Buddhist monks are traveling to India to receive instruction, but the process is not easy. While Buddhist communities have fewer believers than Orthodox or Islamic groups, Russians, Kalmyks and Buryats have exhibited loyalty and support for visits of the Dalai Lama.

Finally, Balzer discussed a return to shamanic philosophy, cosmology and healing practices among Siberian peoples. Shamans usually are considered to use their spiritual powers for ecological, social and
individual benefit. Many believers, for example in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and the Republic of Tuva, selectively identify with spiritual aspects of shamanic traditions and consider shamanism to be part of their national identity. Shamanism is heavily influenced by various local traditions, and efforts to establish temples or teach its principles in local schools have been quite inconsistent.

Balzer summarized by saying that Russian leaders must learn how to allow for cultural and spiritual revitalizations as well as religious freedom before democracy can be achieved. Leaders must be wary of polarization and radicalization of all religions, and take appropriate steps to stop the conditions that enable xenophobia and terrorism in the name of religion from occurring.

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