The vast majority of Russian Christians (Orthodox and non-Orthodox) do not experience state-led persecution or discrimination. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys a place of significant social and official privilege in the wake of the dismantling of Soviet state atheism. Socially conservative strains of Russian Orthodoxy have major influence in the public sphere, including on controversial questions of policy. Members of minority groups, however, including some Christian groups, have not been so lucky in recent years. Muslims in particular have faced discrimination as a result of conflicts in the Caucasus and corresponding extremism. Christian minorities have also reported societal discrimination and sporadic, but not widespread, violence. 

Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Russia

China, Russia, and Post-Soviet Central Asia (begins at Russia presentation)

Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University

Christian Demographics

Measuring religious demography among Russia’s 142 million residents poses a distinct problem. As a result of decades of Soviet rule, which viciously suppressed religious practice without successfully erasing religious tradition, many Russians today identify with religions they do not actively practice. The CIA estimates that 15-20 percent of Russians are practicing Orthodox Christians, 10-15 percent are practicing Muslims, and about 2 percent are practicing Christians other than Russian Orthodox. But other sources, relying on self-identification rather than practice, produce very different results: the State Department, for example, has reported estimates of the Orthodox population as low as 42 percent and as high as 75 percent. In 2022, the Levada Center, a Russian NGO, conducted a poll and found that 71 percent of respondents identified as Orthodox Christian, 5 percent as Muslims, 3 percent as members of other Christian and non-Christian religions, and 19 percent as irreligious or atheist. In 2020, the Levada Center conducted a similar poll and found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim. Despite variations in demographic measures, the key takeaways are fairly clear: Russia, in practice and identification, is a principally Orthodox Christian nation, but substantial religious minority groups exist. The largest of these is Muslim, but non-Orthodox Christian communities also constitute a number of religious minorities in Russia.

History of the Russian Christian Community

Early Christianity developed in Russia—then Kievan Rus—primarily due to the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the mid tenth-century, Olga, the Matriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and then Princess of Rus, converted to Orthodox Christianity and her son, Prince Vladimir, declared Rus a Christian nation in 988. Christianity has historically been linked to the legitimacy of the Russian state (in fact the Orthodox Church was a part of the state during most of early Russian history) and as a basis for Russian national identity, as during the troubles and regime changes of the early seventeenth century in Russia, giving Russian Orthodoxy a comparatively privileged position. This dynamic marked as outsiders those who did not conform to Russian Orthodox Christianity, including Muslims and other non-Orthodox Christians. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union aggressively persecuted religious adherents of all faiths, using propaganda, expropriation, and violence, including the summary execution of tens of thousands of clergy to dismantle religious organizations in the Soviet state. This drove millions of religious people to flee the country or conceal their religious identification in favor of state atheism. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have resumed public religious practice, although the proportion of religious identifiers attending religious services remains low, even as the Orthodox Church regains a position of public esteem and minority Christian groups—Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses—attract new adherents.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

The Russian Orthodox Church enjoys significant social and official privilege in the wake of the dismantling of Soviet state atheism. As the leading recipient of presidential grants awarded to non-governmental organizations, the Russian Orthodox Church has benefited from state financial support, for example, in 2014 a USD 40 million grant to create “spiritual enlightenment centers. Socially conservative strains of Russian Orthodoxy have major influence in the public sphere, including on controversial questions of policy. In contrast, religious minorities such as Muslims, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians have experienced escalating state persecution.

The legal framework of religious freedom, established in a 1997 law, purports to protect individual religious freedom but includes broad and vaguely construed exceptions, for the stated purposes of protecting public morality and combating extremism. In practice, various levels of the Russian government apply this framework arbitrarily, to the detriment of religious minorities

In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses, denying freedom of worship to around 175,000 members within Russia. Forum 18, a religious freedom NGO, reports that between the 2017 ruling and June 2022, over 600 Jehovah’s Witness worshippers were prosecuted and over 200 convicted on extremism charges. 60 individuals faced prison sentences of between one and eight years. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities raided the homes of 1,594 believers between the 2017 ban and November 2021. Although authorities lacked warrants for many of these raids, they nonetheless broke into homes, and in numerous cases committed violence and torture against believers. 

Since July 2016, a federal “counterterrorism” law with a deliberately broad scope has allowed prosecutors to charge individuals and religious organizations with illegal “missionary activity” for a wide range of routine religious activities, such as meeting for worship. In 2021, Forum 18 recorded 44 convictions out of 71 prosecutions under this law. In December 2021, the Supreme Court of Russia ordered the dissolution of Memorial International, a prominent human rights NGO founded and based in Russia, but declared a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice and subsequently held in violation of Russia’s 2012 foreign agent law. Since the fall of the USSR, Memorial International had witnessed to human rights abuses in both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Memorial International’s forced liquidation highlighted the Russian government’s recent campaign to suppress perceived dissent within both religious and political spheres.

On 24 February 2022, Russia escalated hostilities against Ukraine in a large-scale invasion. Since then, the Russian government has imprisoned and fined individuals who express even veiled opposition to the war, including Christians who object to the invasion on religious grounds, under new laws that ban criticizing actions of the Russian military. For example, two Russian Orthodox priests were fined approximately one month’s average local wages for speaking against the war in sermons and online. A woman who held a poster with the words “Thou shalt not kill” outside of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was detained but not charged, yet ultimately lost her job due to her protest. 

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a close Putin ally, has voiced strong support for the invasion, characterizing Russian military actions as a defensive crusade against Western forces of evil. Many high-ranking Russian Orthodox leaders have followed suit, and none has expressed dissent. However, even as Putin's administration pressures religious leaders to support the invasion, and as diocesan officials discipline clerics for their dissent, at least 293 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons have signed a letter appealing for “reconciliation and an immediate ceasefire.” Several dissenting priests have resigned their parish positions, or even left the country. Leaders of already unfavored, minority religious denominations have largely kept silent, with notable exceptions. For instance, Lutheran Archbishop Dietrich Brauer, who believes that religious leaders can be “intermediaries in achieving sustainable peace,” spoke against the invasion in a sermon three days after it began, and subsequently relocated to Germany, where he continues to vigorously oppose the war.

Reflections from the field

From Godless Communists to Holy Russia and the Immoral West[1]

Jekatyerina Dunajeva, PhD (Political Capital Institute, HU; Eotvos Lorand University, HU)

Karrie Koesel, PhD (University of Notre Dame, USA)


russiachurchPhoto taken by Katya Dunajeva (2015)

At the height of the Cold War Russia was frequently depicted in the West as a country ruled by godless communists—a brutal regime that set out to eradicate religion and, thus, one that also lacked a strong moral compass. These same charges are again resurfacing many years later, but this time Russia is directing the charges at the West. Over the past several years, Russian leaders have played up its moral superiority and defense of traditional values, while openly criticizing the West as amoral and devoid of spiritual values.

How does a country redefine itself from godless to godly in just over two decades?

The Failure of Russian Democracy 

This shift must first be understood within Russia’s distinct pathway from communism. From a Western perspective, the Russian transition to democracy in the 1990s is generally considered a disappointment. This disappointment has again been reaffirmed under the rule of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia has become increasingly autocratic with the centralization of power, decline in competitive elections, greater control over civil society and the media, and growing international isolation. Russia, in other words, failed to embrace democracy and democratic values.

From a Russian perspective, however, it is democracy and the West that have failed Russia. Political transitions are rarely seamless, and many Russians maintain that the West abandoned Russia in its time of need. The 1990s were awash with crumbling stability, social chaos, Ponzi schemes, the privatization of lucrative national industries, and extreme corruption. It is hardly surprising then that this same “democratic decade” is commonly associated with lawlessness, instability, and the decline of international prestige; and the fact that 61 percent of Russians prefer order to democracy, even when order means the curtailing of rights and freedoms.

The failure of Russian democracy has seeped into popular culture. In one telling instance, the word “democracy” in Russian slang is “dermokratiya” [дермократия]—a portmanteau of the words “crap” and “democracy”—in other words, “demo-crap-ia.” Even Russian police violence is associated with democracy. The rubber batons carried by police are nicknamed “democratizers” [демократизаторы]—a term that came of age in the 1990s when police used them to repress popular protests. Democracy, quite simply, is often seen as a destructive and destabilizing force, an imposed foreign political system that the misguided West exported.  Religious communities have expressed similar opposition toward democracy. Roman Lunkin, one of the leading scholars of religion and society in Russia explained, “Orthodoxy is associated with resistance to democracy and with the ideology of Putin’s majority.”

The Changing Role of Religion

The failed export of democracy alone, however, cannot explain the striking shift from a godless to a godly Russia. We must also consider the revised role of religion. In contemporary Russia there is now not only greater religious freedom and expression than in the Soviet past, but also some religious groups are playing a decisive political role. The Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, has waded into political waters declaring Orthodox Christianity as a sine qua non marker of Russian identity—in other words, to be Russian in a post-Soviet context is also to be Orthodox. Alexander Agadjanian, a professor of Religious Studies at the Russian State University of the Humanities has written that in many ways the enlisting of the Church to shape “the ‘new nation’ seems natural in Russia… given its dominant position and clear links with a dominant ethnos.” One lawyer working on issues of religious freedom in Russia explained that “There is still a mentality that being Orthodox is the right thing, it’s patriotic.” Indeed, not only do we see that “Russians are perceived as Orthodox,” added another colleague, but even “abroad Russia is symbolized through its Orthodox churches and cupolas.” Thus, both at home and abroad there is the constant reminder that Russian statehood was founded on religious principles.

Given these sentiments, it may seem natural that the Orthodox Church has taken on the role of national defender. Church leaders have become outspoken critics of any and all perceived threats to Russia, including NATO expansion, Western sanctions, the crisis in Ukraine, and domestic opposition groups. The defense of the motherland has also meant that the Church has gone on the offensive against liberalism. Patriarch Kirill has equated liberalism with evil and declared it a pathway that eventually leads to hell. The official website of the Orthodox Church claims that liberalism is not only an anti-Christian value system, but is also an anti-Russian one. Some religious activists warn “The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere…We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology.”

Here, it is interesting to note that other religious communities have also gone on the offensive against liberalism in defense of traditional Russian values and joined the circle of anti-Western defenders of Motherland. “I love Russia,” shared a Baptist pastor, “I voted for Putin myself…. Crimea is ours – now that we have it again, fairness has won, and this is a pure Russian position.” The deputy mufti of Tatarstan, Rustam Batro, declared “Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.” Another Protestant pastor we interviewed speculated that Russia is probably the last country “sticking with traditional values in Europe.” Putin’s traditionalism makes him popular among other Christian communities in Russia, suggested yet another Russian expert on religion during our fieldwork. Western consumerism and individualism, many religious leaders suggested, is what most Russians show aversion to.

A New "Morality"

To be sure, the defense of traditional Russian values feeds conveniently into the larger anti-Western rhetoric of Kremlin. At a Federal Assembly meeting Putin stressed the growing immorality and destruction of traditional values outside of Russia. As tensions with the West have increased this summer, Putin declared: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization…. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” This moral superiority decline of Western values was also echoed among some religious communities. One expert of evangelical Christianity explained that traditional values are “in the interest of a strong Russia…if we don’t have strong families, which are evidently weakened by same-sex marriage and similar horrific ideologies,” it will prohibit the flourishing of the country.

As for the larger implications of the Russian shift from godless to godly, we observed at least two. One is that the Kremlin’s filtering of politics through a religious prism lends support to Russia’s increasingly illiberal and isolated position; it clearly distinguishes Russia from the West; it reinforces the idea that Russia is the only authentic alternative to Western ideology; and it positions Russia as pious and in contrast to an immoral West. This is a dangerous political project.

The other is that religious groups, for the most part, seem uncritically and openly participating in this latest political project. One Orthodox priest explained, “For the moment freedom is not a popular concept [in Russia], because we have to revive tradition and revive the Church. When we are reviving something from the past we have to take freedom away.”  And yet, we cannot help wonder if this revival of the Church is also nurturing a precarious position for religious communities—one with hardened boundaries between themselves and their co-religionists abroad, one that props up an increasingly authoritarian regime, and one that encourages religious groups to be on the front lines of civilizational conflict.

[1] This post is based on observations from fieldwork in Russia during July-August 2015 and is in connection to “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a global research project supported by the Templeton Religion Trust. We visited three major cities in Russia and conducted interviews with lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, academics, and politicians. To protect identities, all informants are anonymous.