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A bus full of people, covered in inscriptions in Russian such as “You don’t believe in God? You’re not alone!” romps across Moscow streets.
The bus is a shabby flash animation on the Web site Atheists.org.ru. It is the only Russian incarnation of the international Atheist Bus Campaign, launched in Britain in 2009 in response to a similar campaign promoting faith.
All attempts to stage a similar offline drive in Russia have fallen through, said Artem Jouravsky, the head of the atheism and secularism Good Sense Foundation lobby group. “We wanted to do our street billboards saying, ‘There is no God,’ in response to billboards with religious propaganda in Russia in 2009, but it turned out to be impossible,” he said. “This prompted us to create our foundation.”
Atheists are sorely underrepresented in Russian public space, despite comprising about 13 percent of the population, or a solid 18 million people, the latest polls show.
Atheism spokespeople blame their lack of media exposure on the dominance of the Orthodox Christian Church, one of the biggest national institutions whose many hierarchs are putting every effort into turning its teachings into the country's dominant ideology, a role fulfilled by atheism in the Soviet times. “It’s plain scary to be an atheist now. I know cases where people were sacked for this from police and the army by former Communist Party bosses, no less,” said atheism champion Alexander Nevzorov.
But religion analysts say the situation is rather due to Orthodox Christianity becoming a staple of the post-Soviet Russian national identity, if only for a lack of alternatives. “Something needs to unite the people and society into a nation,” said Sergei Filatov, an expert on religion with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “For us, it is currently World War II and Orthodox Christianity. We have no other big ideas to be supported by the populace at large.”
However, atheists comprise a significant part of the Russian society, and the church’s increasing involvement in political and societal affairs is creating a backlash that will only give them more adherents and public representation, experts and non-believers say. “We’re just late in deploying our forces for the battle, like the Soviet Union in 1941,” said Jouravsky. “Give us another year or two.”
The Invisible People
There are at least a dozen atheist rights groups in Russia such as the Good Sense Foundation, which is a member of the Atheist Alliance International, Jouravsky said. He avoided saying how many members his own group has, noting only that it limits its activity to Moscow and the surrounding region. The foundation’s Facebook page has earned a modest 800 “likes.”
Most atheist groups are unknown to the general public, while their most renowned spokesman, Alexander Nevzorov, is a controversial star of perestroika-era shock journalism who has not had his own TV show since 1999. Church spokespeople, such as the heads of the Moscow Patriarchate departments Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and Vladimir Legoida, make headlines on a weekly basis.
This is a distinct imbalance between population and representation, given that the most recent survey of Russians’ relations with the divine, by pollster Sreda in the spring of 2011, showed that 13 percent of the populace did not believe in God. Another five percent were undecided, possibly – but not necessarily – marking them as agnostics, according to the poll, which covered 1,500 respondents and had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
The poll showed the number Orthodox Christian Church followers as 42 percent, with the rest divided between various other traditional religions and a belief in some divine being without following a particular faith. “Atheism is now invisible, like Christianity used to be in Soviet times,” said religion expert Filatov.
Swinging Back and Forth
When Russian Navy Officer Alexander Voznitsyn abandoned Orthodox Christianity for Judaism in 1738, the Senate ordered him burned at the stake along with the Jew who converted him. Christianity was the dominant religion in Russia for almost a millennium, with its status protected by criminal legislation in tsarist times, when apostasy was a felony and being irreligious was forbidden.
But when the old order was brought down by the Bolsheviks in 1917, the church went down with it. “The poor peasants and the working class brought down the crosses in the 1920s,” said Sergei Solovyov, editor in chief of the Scepsis, a self-described online “magazine of science and social criticism” that promotes anti-clericalism.
The church was too firmly associated with the tsarist state, which was too obsolete and retrograde, hampering social progress with its old ways inherited from feudal times, some historians say. The Bolsheviks, for whom religion was an ideological enemy, did their best to foment widespread negative sentiment toward the church, both through promises of a new, better, godless society and relentless repressions of the clergy.
Next came the time of militant atheism. Though religious worship was not banned outright in Soviet Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, believers became pariahs in the eyes of both society and the state, which had arguably the world’s fiercest repression machine at its disposal and was not afraid to use it against priests and their flock, thousands of whom were jailed or executed.
It took the greatest war in history to turn things around. In 1943, when the Nazi Wehrmacht and the Red Army were still locked in a deadly fight and thousands of churches were opened by the Germans on occupied territories to the population’s liking, Josef Stalin allowed reopening the churches for service, spelling the end of active anti-church repression.
After another crackdown under Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the surviving churches were allowed to operate under strict government control, but being an open believer would ruin one’s career as surely as dissident thinking would.
The unexpected consequence was that religion itself became associated with protesting against the oppressive and increasingly rotten Soviet bureaucratic machine. It came into vogue for the intelligentsia to keep Orthodox icons at home, and some of the dissidents, such as Gleb Yakunin, were priests.
The next turning point came during perestroika. When the Soviet state actively promoted the celebration of the millennium anniversary of the baptism of Russia in 1988, it was a clear sign that things have changed again, and the pendulum was swinging back toward the religious quarters.
In 1991, 24 percent of Russians identified themselves as believers; in 2005, the figure stood at 53 percent, with a further 24 percent registering as “not sure,” according to in-depth research into new Russian religiosity by Kimmo Kaariainen of the University of Helsinki and Dmitry Furman of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences, published in 2007.
There is an old building on Leningradsky Prospekt in northern Moscow, an almshouse in Tsarist times and part of a state hospital under the Bolsheviks, which is now being leased to various commercial establishments, including a plastic surgery clinic. The building belongs to the church, which won it back in 2002 as property unlawfully confiscated after the Revolution, said Solovyov of Scepsis magazine.
Creeping clericalism is the main complaint of the Russian atheists, who say the state relies on the church for ideological support and lavishly rewards it with money and assets to the delight of many priests, who are more concerned with earthly riches than with heavenly salvation. “The Russian Orthodox Church is part of the state’s ideological apparatus,” Solovyov said. “No wonder the authorities dislike criticism of the church.”
The alliance of the church and the state has indeed been a hot topic in recent years. Both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stress their religiousness, attending important church services in front of the cameras. There is hardly a single atheist politician on the political scene, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
The list of atheists’ grievances includes the introduction of taxpayer-funded chaplains in the army, the city-backed program to build 200 (previously 600) churches in Moscow’s suburban districts and a new subject that would allow teaching religion basics in schools, though only at the student’s discretion.
In 2010, the Kremlin authorized a sweeping restitution program that has seen the government return real estate confiscated by the Bolsheviks to various confessions, even though the buildings now often house secular establishments, including hospitals and museums, such as the one on Leningradsky Prospekt. Commercial real estate once owned by the church is not part of the program.
The current church is among the country’s richest non-governmental organizations, with assets in real estate, banks, factories, publishing companies and funeral services firms, according to research by the Openspace.ru online magazine, which estimated total church assets at above $1 billion in 2011. The church itself is notoriously opaque about its business activities, and while it often denies allegations of financial misconduct, it rarely provides credible information on its economic record.
The Kremlin’s benevolence was not for nothing. During the presidential election this year, the church leader, Patriarch Kirill, endorsed Vladimir Putin’s candidacy while urging the flock against attending the anti-Putin rallies that swept across Moscow.
Atheists also complain of a media ban. “In federal media, criticizing the church was taboo until recently,” said Solovyov. “They were either not interested or afraid of being accused of insulting believers’ feelings.”
Nevzorov said some atheists have lost their jobs over their convictions, but refused to name anyone, saying this could land the allegedly aggrieved in more trouble.
However, the situation may not be as straightforward as church critics describe it. Nevzorov himself admitted in a recent interview to the Russian edition of Rolling Stone magazine that he was asked to spearhead the atheist effort by a lobby group in the Kremlin, campaigning for secularism on ideological grounds.
He revealed no names and said that the group is being overpowered for the time being by its opponents, who see religion as a useful tool for population control, but that the balance of power could shift in the unspecified but near future. “I was asked to spend some time in this foxhole with the promise that the Red Army is on the way,” Nevzorov said about his championing of atheism in a separate interview in March. But, as he told Rolling Stone in June, “[the Red Army] will probably not come.”
In Soviet Russia, God Doesn’t Believe in You
“Real atheists are so rare, I’ve been saying for a long time that they should be put on the list of endangered species,” said Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, a popular Orthodox Christian media figure. “At the same time, atheism does not necessarily imply fighting God. I have deep respect for some forms of atheism, such as Sartre’s or Camus’s,” said Kurayev, a prominent Christian missionary whose first academic degree is in “scientific atheism.”
He dismissed atheists’ claims of persecution, saying they were just a means of attracting slipping public attention. “Atheism has no state or media backing – and neither does the church,” Kurayev said.
This position is echoed by religion expert Roman Lunkin, who, however, conceded that some issues do exist. “There is no direct censorship of atheists, but we can speak of certain ideological pressure, especially on state-owned television channels,” said Lunkin, who works at the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Federal television is turning Orthodox Christianity into some sort of a sacral symbol,” he said.
But Kurayev said this is not the reason for the lack of atheist presence in media. “Some topics just lose immediacy and go away,” Kurayev said. “Arguing with atheism is not relevant anymore. Such people have nothing to say beside criticism.”
He admitted the modern church is riddled with problems, but said believers are better equipped to expose them and actively fight them. “I can criticize church life too. I’m inside it, and I see more shit than anyone on the outside looking in,” Kurayev said without elaborating.
Expecting a Backlash
On February 21, 2012, churchgoers and tourists in Christ the Savior Cathedral were treated to a sight they hardly expected in one of the country's prime Christian temples: five apparent females in tacky dresses, leggings and balaclavas shouted a song in the altar zone, asking the Mother of God to banish Putin.
Dumbfounded guards were too shocked to detain any of the young women, who scattered away after 41 seconds by the altar, police established later. However, three of the performers are now in jail, awaiting a trial that threatens to land them behind bars for up to seven years.
This was the first in a series of scandals that rocked the church this year and damaged its reputation, especially among the educated urban population. In the case of Pussy Riot, the name of the female group, it was not the event itself – but rather the church's endorsement of the jail term for the performers – that many critics deem harsh to the point of being repressive.
In March, the media reported about a relative of Patriarch Kirill living in his posh penthouse outside the Kremlin, trying to take over the neighboring apartment of a former federal minister-turned-priest in a lawsuit. The story of a church hierarch owning a downtown penthouse generated a storm in the blogosphere, as did the lawsuit's questioned pretexts.
Kirill was also spotted wearing an expensive wristwatch, which was clumsily edited out of a photograph of him on the Moscow Patriarchate’s Web site.
Most analysts saw the string of scandals as the well-off, liberal-minded urbanites’ reaction to the church’s increased presence in social life and support for the government.
Before the elections, even non-believers saw the church as a moral authority standing above everyday political squabbles, but throwing its weight behind Putin has robbed it of its image of infallibility in the eyes of the opposition-minded public, Lunkin said.
The church was the most trusted institution in the country in 2011, with a support rating of 60 percent, beating the army with 58 percent and the government with 46 percent, according to a study by the GfK Verein pollster.
But between 30 and 38 percent of people who attended mass anti-Putin rallies in Moscow in February and March were non-believers, according to a Sreda poll. The number of protesters associating themselves with the Orthodox Christian Church fell from 28 to 19 percent over the same period, after Patriarch Kirill said that believers should not go to political rallies, the Sreda poll said.
The negative feelings part of the populace has toward the church over its marred image and loyalty to the Kremlin have yet to be reflected in future polls, said Lunkin.
They Will Return
Atheism never was a free choice for the Russian populace, as it was imposed as part of Marxist-Leninist ideology, said religion expert Filatov. But neither was Christianity, which was also imposed by the country’s rulers and upheld by draconian laws, said atheism defender Nevzorov. “This is Russia’s tragedy: for a thousand years, the people never had freedom of conscience,” Nevzorov said.
As the church mounts its ideological pressure on society, criticism will mount and more people will embrace atheism as the main available alternative to religion, said Lunkin, who also works for the Sreda pollster.
“They think they came to stay,” said Solovyov of Scepsis magazine. “They’re repeating all of their mistakes, imposing their ideology. People will grow disgusted of it, and it will be another cycle [of destruction], same as during the revolution,” he said.
But some predict a milder outcome. “In modern Italy the two main ideologies are Catholicism and atheism, and they coexist peacefully,” analyst Filatov pointed out. For this, however, Russia needs to drift closer to Europe, embracing secularity voluntarily and without being coerced into it by the government, like in the Soviet times, he said. “When our recent past – say, 20 years or so – will look like Europe’s, we’ll have a secular conscience coexisting with a religious one,” Filatov said.
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