Exploring the Russian Religious Fringe

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RIA Novosti is featuring a six-part series on the history of Russia’s religious sects, their leaders, and particularly, asks why “Russia has proved such fertile ground for the growth of new and bizarre beliefs.”  It is estimated that there are 300-500 religious sects in Russia with a total flock of around a million people.  They range from small occultist and pagan groups, to more controversial new “religions” like Scientology, foreign imports like Jehovah Witnesses, Baptists and other Protestant groups, homegrown Old Believers (and their offshoots), the small and rather strange Khysty, Skoptsy, Molokans, the Dukhobors, and the flourishing of new cults and the popular practice of magic and divination.  And though Russian law ensures the freedom of conscience, some wonder if Russian Orthodoxy under the politically proactive stewardship of Patriarch Kirill is becoming Russia’s state religion.  “One has to wonder,’ writes Brian Whitmore,  “given these trends and Kirill’s rising influence, if Russia’s much-discussed diarchy of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin is on the way to becoming a de facto troika.”

Perhaps Kirill’s political flexing is a direct response to the fact that Russian religious sects are flourishing. Many argues that the religious vacuum  produced by Soviet communism has resulted in spiritual revival often devoid of rhyme or reason.  I often wonder if this “spiritual vacuum” is overstated, because frankly we don’t have the historical studies to prove it, and most works looking at the promotion of atheism show that it didn’t really take among most Russians. After all, Russia is hardly alone in the spiritual revival department.   I suspect the increasing search to spirituality has more to do with general global collapse of secular ideologies’ ability to explain our present historical moment.  Nevertheless, in her summation of Susan Richards’ observations on Russian religious faith in Lost and Found in Russia, the Guardian‘s Lesley Chamberlain writes:

What then of the actual spiritual life? Susan Richards . . . sees the Russians as emerging from a long period of addiction to unfreedom, with the result that many have lost their spiritual bearings in the relative personal freedom they now have. They don’t know what to believe in and reach for extremes. Travelling in the provinces during 1992-2008 she came across a remote settlement of Old Believers, a sect devoted to a 16th-century form of Orthodox worship, with new converts still joining. In another remote area she found a young couple building a new life for themselves based on self-sufficiency, sensitivity to nature and chastity. At the same time she met scientists keen to measure the ungraspable life-force and intelligent individuals captivated by fortune-tellers and UFOs.

Perhaps this quest for the spiritual in post-Soviet Russia is the reason why Russian religious sects have increasingly become the subject of historical study in the American academy.  Sergei Zhuk’s Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917, examines the spread of radical Protestantism in their Russian countryside; Heather Coleman looks at Russian Baptists life and survival in late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia in Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929; Laura Engelstein’s Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale delves into the strange faith of the Skoptsy; for a broad scholarly examination of the occult, there’s Bernice Rosenthal’s edited collection The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture; and finally, for an explication of magic and divination see W. F. Ryan’s mammoth classic The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia.

Religion in Russia is a rich and complex subject.  RIA Novosti‘s series proves to be a good primer into a present world neglected by most Russia watchers: Russia’s multi-confessional culture and the large number of religious sects it has spawned over the centuries. So far four of the six parts have been published:

Part One: The Schism and the Skoptsy.
Part Two: Waiting for Doomsday in the Penza Region.
Part Three: Vissarion, the Siberian Messiah.
Part Four: Magical Services.