Backlash of faith shakes atheists

Non-believers fight for rights as power of church grows in Russia

Special report: Russia

Amelia Gentleman in Moscow
Sunday January 7, 2001

Russia's beleaguered atheists have formed a new society to campaign against the growing power of the Church in government and what they perceive as the 'threatening clericalisation' of society.

After 70 years of protection and promotion by the Soviet regime, atheism has become deeply unfashionable over the past decade amid a surge of enthusiasm for the Russian Orthodox faith.

This rediscovered public affection for religion is reflected in newly adopted lyrics to Russia's revived anthem, which describe the nation as a 'holy country' that is 'protected by God'. Atheists now see themselves as a repressed minority whose rights need to be protected.

City authorities recently refused to register the Moscow Society of Atheists as a legitimate body.

The group insists it is not motivated by a Marxist belief that religion is the opiate of the people or by a Bolshevik equation of religion with backwardness, but by concern at the unconstitutional privileges being handed to the Orthodox Church - discriminating also against other faiths. Russia's constitution provides for the equality of all religions before the law and the separation of Church and State; activists claim these statutes are being abused.

A founder of the organisation, Lev Levinson, called for action to stem the creeping incursion of the Orthodox Church into public institutions and to curb the growing number of religious bodies funded by the taxpayer. 'We are witnessing a wholesale attack on the secular state, with religious indoctrination appearing in every key sphere of life,' he said.

The organisation is dismayed that several regional governments have introduced instruction in the Orthodox faith in state secondary schools as part of the main curriculum, contravening the law on education.

'Moreover, what is happening in the army contravenes all legislation,' Levinson added. 'Military academies have employed priests to instruct recruits in Orthodox belief. Dozens of priests have been sent to Chechnya at the army's expense to agitate and propagandise the soldiers.'

The construction of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 1997 - on the site of a church knocked down by the Bolsheviks to build a Lenin statue and tower - is another source of resentment. The atheists' organisation is gathering evidence to show that much of the $360 million to build it came from the taxpayer.

Activists also recount cases of discrimination against those who question the religious orthodoxy in the cultural sphere, including harassment of artists who have played on anti-religious themes in their work.

'It is only natural there has been a surge in interest in religion over the past decade, given the repression that went before,' Levinson said. 'But we are particularly concerned about the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church - which has become the de facto state religion - to the exclusion of all other convictions.'

After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks replaced religious traditions with communist substitutes. Babies could be Octobered instead of baptised, and given revolution-inspired names, such as Revolutsia, Lenina or Pravda. Now religious traditions have been re-embraced. Today, the new Orthodox Russia celebrates traditional Christmas, by the old Julian calendar. Tomorrow is a public holiday, even in those republics where Christians are in a minority.

Polls suggest 55 per cent of the population are Orthodox believers, about 3 per cent being regular church attenders, while 40 per cent are indifferent to religion or do not believe. About 5 per cent remain committed atheists.

Geraldine Fagan, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, said the atheists' campaign reflected widespread concerns about the power accumulated by the Orthodox Church.

'The Russian constitution says everyone has a right to express any religion or none, but there is a growing sense that the Orthodox Church has a free rein,' she said. 'Out of all of the belief systems, it is probably hardest to exist as an atheist today because this belief was so closely associated with the old order and has become discredited as a result. Atheists tend to be looked upon as strange relics of the Soviet Union.'


"Научный Атеизм" 2001