Russia Watch: Is Russia Turning Protestant?

In 1990, an American anthropologist wrote a controversial book: “Is Latin America Turning Protestant?” Two decades later, that same provocative question can be asked of Russia.

Who will win: The Church of the Golden Domes? Or the Church of the Catacombs?

Before I grapple with Russia, let’s look at what is happening in Brazil, a country steeped in centuries of Catholicism.

On Thursday night, the crowd on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach gave a powerful vote for Catholicism.

My sons William and Alexander and I were lost in a happy, singing river of more than 1 million young people — Catholic faithful who came to welcome pope Francis, Latin America’s first pope. On Sunday morning, that figure was topped as some reporters estimated that 3 million people attended the pope’s farewell mass.

But the new pope’s first international visit had a strategic element. It was clearly aimed at countering the explosive growth of Protestantism in what long has been called “the world’s most populous Catholic country.”

In 1960, 93 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholics. Today, 58 percent do.

In 1960, 4 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Protestants. Today, nearly 25 percent do.

Five centuries after Portuguese explorers dropped anchor in this lovely harbor, Catholics now are the minority in South America’s third largest city, population 6.3 million.

In Brazil, Protestant Evangelicals make up a powerful bloc of 73 deputies in Brazil’s Congress. Last month, Evangelicals fielded 800,000 followers for an annual “March for Jesus” through central Sao Paulo. In this environment, Brazilian politicians have banished the phrase “Protestant sects” from their public vocabulary.

In Russia, the Kremlin takes an opposite strategy. Since returning to the Kremlin last year as president, Vladimir Putin seems determined to restore the Orthodox Church to the official status it enjoyed during the time of the Czars. Increasingly, Protestant churches are kept underground. But they are expanding rapidly.

Last month, President Putin signed into law vaguely worded “defense of religion” legislation. In theory, this protects from “insults” Russia’s four religions deemed “historic” by a 1997 law – Christian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Last weekend, any illusion that the law covered Islam disappeared when 263 Central Asians were detained in Moscow for gathering in an informal prayer house and partaking the traditional “Iftar” dinner to break the Ramadan fast. Although there are about 1 million Muslims in Moscow today, the city has only four mosques. City officials deny construction permits, saying most Muslims in Moscow are guest workers who will go home.

Instead, official support for the Orthodox Church can be seen everywhere – from the restoration of golden domed churches, to President Putin’s televised attendance at Orthodox Easter services, to the pre-election comment last year by Patriarch Kirill that Putin’s leadership of Russia is “a miracle of God.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. Photo:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. Photo:

The patriarch recently was given use of lodgings inside the Kremlin, a unique privilege enjoyed during the time of the Czars.

As the Orthodox Church exerts increasing influence over the Russian state, admirals of Russia’s Pacific Fleet nearly dropped traditional images of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, from last Sunday’s Navy Day celebrations. A local Orthodox leader had warned that pagan gods should have no place “at a celebration of an Orthodox Christian Navy.”

Meanwhile, Russian Protestants increasingly hold religious services in living rooms as their pastors are routinely denied permits to build churches. Visas for foreign missionaries are rare. Russia’s anti-Protestant actions are regularly chronicled in Forum 18 News Service, a website based in Oslo, Norway.

But out of sight does not mean out of mind. Despite the efforts of Russian police and prosecutors, Protestantism keeps growing in Russia.

Last Easter, as is customary, Russian police were deployed to every Orthodox church in the land. They kept order and conducted a census. According to Interior Ministry statistics, about 4 million Russians attended Easter services at Russian Orthodox churches. That is 2.7 percent of the population in Russia, a nation where around 65 percent of survey respondents call themselves Orthodox. According to a survey made last April by the Public Opinion Foundation, about half of Russians who call themselves Orthodox admit they have never opened a Bible.

Russia’s Justice Ministry has registered 14,616 Orthodox parishes, 4,409 Protestant parishes, and 234 Catholic parishes. But Anatoly Pchelintsev, a religion specialist and professor at the Russian State Humanitarian University, estimates that for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least two unregistered ones.

Pchelintsev, who edits the Religion and Law publication here, concludes that Russia has about 15,000 Protestant congregations, roughly equal to the number of Russian Orthodox ones. He says the number of Catholic parishes is roughly the same as the official number.

In Siberia, long a land of dissenters and discontents, there are believed to be more Protestants in church on Sunday mornings than Russian Orthodox. On one recent visit to Khabarovsk, the second largest city of the Russian Far East, I went to a packed Baptist church, only a kilometer from a sparsely attended Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The massive Cathedral had been built with federal funds.

What is to be done?

In the 16th Century, the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the Protestant Reformation that swept Northern Europe. In the 17th century, minor reforms by Patriarch Nikon triggered the Great Schism, provoking millions of “Old Believers” to reject Moscow’s Patriarch. Some moved as far away as Alaska.

But with the vast majority of contemporary Russians rarely entering churches, many feel the Orthodox Church will have to change — or end up with the declining demographics of Brazil’s Catholic Church.

On Friday, a push for change came from an unexpected corner: Alexander Lukashenko, the archconservative president of Belarus, a country where half the population is nominally Orthodox.

“As the world is undergoing change, therefore the Church must change also,” said Lukashenko, who has received awards from the Belarusian Orthodox Church. “I think we are on the threshold of reforms in the Orthodox Church.”

“Our church should begin a reform, step-by-step, beginning with the church language,” he continued, referring to Old Church Slavonic, a 1,000 year old liturgical language unintelligible to most Russians and Byelorussians.

“The prayers, services and sermons are too long,” Lukashenko continued. “Adults and the elderly just cannot endure them. One should be brief, succinct and more modern.”

“I am against the practice of people coming in, listening to a sermon standing on their feet and having no opportunity at all to sit,” he said, referring to Russian Orthodox churches that have no chairs or pews. “The practice of building huge cathedrals is no good either. Churches must be cozy and warm, and they must not oppress believers.”

Oddly, similar advice came the next day from the far side of the planet.

In a meeting on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis addressed 300 active and retired Brazilian cardinals and bishops, giving the longest speech of his four-month-old pontificate.

On Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, families held up their children for blessings by the Pope. VOA Photo: James Brooke
On Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, families held up their children for blessings by the Pope. VOA Photo: James Brooke

“We have labored greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures,” the pope said in a veiled reference to the millions of Brazilians who have abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism. “We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.”

Then, warming to the central theme of his speech, he said: “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. For ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”

For Russia, the future offers a choice: Will Russia’s Orthodox Church compete with Protestantism, or try to crush it?


(Main photo: St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, by Anton Denisenko/Wikimedia Commons)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.