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Religion of Russia

Historical ethnic distinctions within Russia have often been intertwined with religious dimensions, with the status of religious entities and their followers fluctuating in accordance with the prevailing political climate. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir I, influenced by Byzantine missionaries, embraced Christianity as the state religion, establishing the Russian Orthodox Church as the preeminent religious authority for close to a millennium. However, the advent of communist rule in 1917 marked a period of hardship for religious institutions. The church experienced significant losses of property, and numerous monks were expelled from their monasteries. Although the Soviet Union’s constitution formally upheld the principle of religious liberty, actual religious expression was severely limited, and affiliation with religious groups was deemed incompatible with Communist Party membership, thereby impeding personal career progression for believers.

During the Second World War, a temporary relaxation of religious suppression occurred as the government sought the allegiance of Christians and Jews in the collective struggle against fascism. Nevertheless, post-war years saw a reinstatement of stringent controls. It was not until the 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership and his policy of glasnost, that a more lenient stance towards religious practice was adopted. The eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union facilitated the actualization of religious freedom and uncovered the persistent adherence to various faiths among significant portions of the populace. In the 1990s, a resurgence of Russian nationalism highlighted the Russian Orthodox Church as a cornerstone of Russian cultural identity.

As of today, the Russian Orthodox Church stands as the preeminent religious institution within the Russian Federation, accounting for a majority of the religious populace. Throughout the majority of the 20th century, Soviet governance maintained a policy of systematic suppression toward organized religion, resulting in a significant portion of the population—over one-quarter—identifying as secular.

Other Christian communities exist in markedly fewer numbers. This includes the Old Believers, who diverged from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, as well as Baptist and Evangelical factions, which experienced a slight increase in their congregations during the previous century. Catholic adherents, both of the Western (Roman) and Eastern (Uniate) rites, alongside Lutherans, were considerably more prevalent within the territories of the erstwhile Soviet Union, yet they maintain a minimal presence within the current borders of Russia.

Islam is recognized as the second most practiced religion in the nation. Legislative measures introduced in 1997 have imposed limitations on religious organizations that fall outside of five designated “traditional” faiths—Russian Orthodoxy, select Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. These regulations specifically target groups that had not been registered in Russia for a minimum of 15 years prior to the enactment of the law. Consequently, religious entities such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced restrictions that precluded them from establishing educational institutions or engaging in the distribution of religious materials at the time the legislation came into force.

It is acknowledged that while there exists a certain level of association between linguistic groups and religious affiliations, this relationship is not absolute. The Slavic population predominantly adheres to Orthodox Christianity. Conversely, Turkic language speakers are chiefly followers of Islam, with notable exceptions within Russian territories. Notably, the Chuvash people primarily practice Christianity, whereas Buddhism is the principal religion among significant numbers of the Altai, Khakass, and Tyvan communities. Furthermore, numerous Turkic-speaking individuals situated east of the Yenisey River continue to observe shamanistic traditions, although there has been a conversion trend towards Christianity in some areas. Among speakers of the Mongolian language, such as the Buryat and Kalmyk, Buddhism is widely practiced.

The Jewish community in Russia has endured a history of persecution, including targeted actions in the 19th century, suppression during Joseph Stalin’s leadership, and horrific crimes committed by the Nazis on Russian territory during the Second World War. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist agenda in the 1980s, Jewish emigration to Israel and other countries was increasingly sanctioned, leading to a reduction in the Jewish demographic within Russia and the broader former Soviet Union. Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, approximately one-third of its Jewish population resided in Russia, with a significant proportion not actively engaging in Jewish religious practices. Presently, roughly one-tenth of Russia’s Jewish community is concentrated in Moscow. In the 1930s, Stalin initiated the establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, intended as a homeland for Jews. However, by the early 21st century, Jews represent a mere 5 percent of the region’s populace.

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