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The deep crisis of Communist ideology left a spiritual void that is being filled in by the traditional religions (Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) and new religious creeds. During the Soviet era, the communist authorities suppressed church and religion, and demolished many places of worship. In the 1920s and 1930s, priests, monks, and nuns were targeted as “class enemies” and put behind bars or sent into exile. Attempts at religious education of children were branded “counterrevolutionary propaganda” and stamped out relentlessly. 

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Photo: Oleg Mosienko

Only in the extreme conditions of the Second World War Stalin changed the policy in relation to the church to a certain degree. The rituals of the Orthodox Church and tsarist history were invoked in efforts to raise patriotic sentiments and strength the troops’ morale in the struggle against the Nazi aggressor. However, after the war religious life was again severely restricted. Militant atheism continued to be the regime’s official policy. In the atheistic propaganda of the period religion was characterized as a “vestige of the past” that had to be eliminated completely.

Drastic changes in the status of the church and religion began following the collapse of the Communist regime and the onset of democratic reforms. Under the current Constitution, Russia is pronounced to be a secular state that has no single state or compulsory religion. Religious associations are separated from the state and are equal before law. Each citizen is guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion. Believers may now openly perform rites in congregations, publish religious literature, and engage in charitable activities.

Many old churches have been restored and new ones erected, including Orthodox churches, Moslem mosques, Catholic cathedrals, and Jewish synagogues. The colossal Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished by the communists in the 1930s, has now been completely rebuilt in Moscow. After decades-long neglect and abandonment, many convents and monasteries have come back to life. Theological academies and religious seminaries have been reopened. National television stations regularly show major religious festivals, church services, and sermons.

The activity of religious organizations in Russia is regulated by the Law on Freedom of Worship, adopted by the State Duma in 1997. Apart from Orthodox believers, Russian Christians also include a smaller group of Catholics (mostly ethnic Poles, Lithuanians, Letts, and Germans), and Protestants.

Russia’s second major religion is Islam, which has seen a major resurgence since the demise of Communism. Islam is followed by Tartars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Kalmyks, Dargins, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups. The overwhelming majority of Russian Moslems are Sunnites. Major cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Samara, and Nizhny Novgorod, have sunstantial Judaist communities. There are also significant numbers of Buddhists in Russia, most of whom adhere to Lamaism. Buddhism is the traditional religion of Buryats, Tuvinians, Kalmyks, and other ethnic groups. 

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