The Politics of Religion in Russia

Last Wednesday the Kennan Institute within the Woodrow Wilson Center held a panel seminar titled “The Politics of Religion in Putin’s Russia” that aimed to address the current state of religious liberty in Russia, as well as how Putin’s leadership has affected the religious landscape there. The panel consisted of Catherine Cosman, the Senior Policy Analyst at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); Paul Goble, the Former Special Assistant for Soviet Nationalities for the U.S. Department of State; and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, professor of anthropology at Georgetown University and editor of Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia. Cosman started off by outlining the 2014 USCIRF report detailing the status of religious freedom in Russia. The report found that the anti-extremism law in effect, which defines extremism in a religious context and does not require violence to have been inflicted, has been used to ban religious works that authorities find disagreeable throughout the country and to fine and jail those who are in possession of those works. On the other hand, an anti-blasphemy law passed in 2013 seeks to root out activities that “disrespect or insult religious beliefs.” This law was passed after the conviction of the band Pussy Riot, which made world headlines and caused international outrage at the state of religion in Russia. Humanists may not approve of religion all the time, but they should recognize that quashing both religious and anti-religious sentiment, defined on the state’s terms, poses a danger to freedom of expression and impartial justice. Goble, who was not subtle about his disapproval of Putin’s administration, outlined a phenomenon he called “negative convergence.” He argues that Putin has been selecting and combining the worst elements of the Soviet Union and Western capitalism when it comes to religious policy. On one hand, like the Soviet Union, he denies the social role religion can play. Also, a 1997 law declared the “official” religions of Russia to be Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, at the exclusion and oppression of all others (and oftentimes the exclusion and oppression of everything except Christianity). On the other hand, more reminiscent of Western society, Putin uses religion as a populist tool and ardently opposes secularism. Goble explained that despite silencing religious freedom, Putin still commits the classic fallacy that equates secularism with atheism. Humanists know that it is possible, and important, for a society to be secular without necessarily espousing atheism. The panel continued with Balzer, who used her field experience to put these reports in a human context. She made it clear that Russians, particularly those in oppressed religious groups such as Islam and Judaism, are not content with Russian laws. The USCIRF report outlined some suggestions for U.S. policy which included pressuring Russian officials to expand religious freedom, engaging with Russian regions that have sizable religious minority populations, and funding civil society programs in Russia that would address historical, cultural, and religious issues as well as issues of tolerance and freedom of belief. These might be some good preliminary steps, but as long as Putin is in power, he seems poised to destroy what little religious freedom there is left in Russia.Tags: , ,