Friday, February 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘The Farther from Moscow, the Greater Level of Religious Tolerance,’ Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 8 – Many Russians and most people from abroad evaluate inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations in the Russian Federation on the basis of what they see in Moscow. But that is a mistake, experts says, because “the farther from Moscow [one goes], the greater the level of religious tolerance [one finds].”

            Speaking at the opening of the Library of the Sociology of Religion in Moscow yesterday, Xenia Dennen, president of Oxford’s Keston Institute, said that this was perhaps the most important finding she and two Russian colleagues, Sergey Filatov, a Moscow expert on religious life, and Roman Lunkin, head of the Experts Guild on Religion and Law, made during their travels (

            Their “main task” during their travelers throughout the Russian Federation over the last several years, the British scholar said, was “the description of the interrelationships of various religious organizations with each other and with the authorities and also the faiths of all Christian denominations and non-Christian religions.

            Dennen said that they were struck by “the sharp contrast between the European part of Russia, on the one hand, and the regions east of the Urals and in the Far North or in distant southern regions, on the other.”  People in the latter, including Orthodox, were more tolerant than those in the former and did not behave “as if they belonged to a state Church.”

             In Buryatia, Kalmykia andAltay, “where Christianity lives next to various trends of Buddhism, paganism and shamanism,” the Keston head said, she and her Russian colleagues were delighted by their meetings both with Orthodox bishops and with representatives of other faiths.

            “I was pleased by the Orthodox bishop in Siberia who talked about Protestants and Catholics not as aggressors threatening some so-called spiritual security but as brothers in Christ,” Dennen said, and she was delighted to find the Orthodox bishop in Buryatia in Arabic and delighted to use it in his free time.

             She took particular pleasure in sharing the story of an Orthodox bishop in Kalmykia, a Buddhist area, who was stopped for speeding but wasn’t fined because of the respect of the militiaman involved when the latter found out “who he was.” That church leader said he believed that Buddhists could convert to Orthodoxy but that he was opposed to aggressive proselytism.

            That particular bishop said he maintains “good relations” with the head of the Union of Buddhists of Kalmykia, and she observed in that republic the phenomenon of “dual faith,” a state iin which “people consider themselves at one and the same time Orthodox and Buddhist, being baptized but taking part in Buddhist rituals.”

            Dennen added that she and her Russian colleagues also met with representatives of some very “untraditional” faiths, including Tengrianism in Kalmykia, unusual and independent Christian missionaries, and several members of the Maydar sect in Buryatia, a group Moscow experts had thought extinct.

            And she called attention to something in the Cossack community in Volgograd that many in Moscow might find strange.  In each district center of that oblast, she noted, there are Cossack Baptist and Cossack Pentecostal, and they “peacefully coexist with the Orthodox Cossack community.”

            Dennen said that the findings of the three would be reported in a new edition of “The Encyclopedia of the Religious Life of Russia” that will appear later this year.

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