Civil Religion and Religious Symbols in Public Institutions in Russia

Chapter 25
Civil Religion and Religious Symbols in Public Institutions in Russia


Elena Miroshnikova


This chapter addresses religious symbols in public institutions from historical, sociological, legal and religious perspectives. The topic is presented under five separate categories of discussion.


Religious Symbols and Modern Russia


Religious belief is one of the disputed legacies of human history. Typically, a person’s religious Weltanschauung reflects private beliefs that somehow must fit within the public framework of religion. But private belief and this public framework of religion often conflict. According to human rights law, every person has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. So it is in theory, but things are different in real life. How can a political regime harmoniously accommodate a range of private religious Weltanschauungen into a structure of public belief that has been shaped by time and tradition? Are public religious symbols good for the national and cultural identities of the State? Answers to such questions do not come easily.


These inquiries are especially germane to modern Russia because of the new issues and forms in State–Church relations. Through most of its history, Russia lived under a State–Church model of close identification with Russian Orthodoxy. The Byzantine idea of ‘symphony’, which included the belief that the political power has to honour the true religion, was changed to the idea of religious freedom. It means that the State has to respect and guarantee the religious freedom of all citizens and it is not the province of political power to decide which religion is true and which is not. In the twenty-first century the theory of symphony, based upon the equality of State and Church, has been considered an alternative to the cooperation model, combining religion and democracy based on the neutrality of the State towards all religions.


Russia’s religious tradition (that is, State identification with Russian Orthodoxy) was broken during the Soviet period. A form of separation appeared during the Soviet era, but it was a hostile separation of religion from national life rather than a friendly separation of religion from State activity. Soviet policy marginalized religion, did not embrace it. In 1970 only 10 per cent of Russians claimed to be religious. The religious picture of today’s Russia is very different. There are more than 60 religions, and about 30,000 religious organizations have been officially registered; more than 45 per cent of the population declare themselves religious; non-believers without religious doubts number about 30 per cent, and those with doubts about 25 per cent.1 Sociological findings indicate clearly that the two main religions in Russia are Orthodoxy and Islam.


The large number of religious symbols in the public space is not necessarily a sign of a confessional State, nor do constitutional positions favouring separation guarantee separation in social life. In the main, it is impossible to put religion outside of public life. In Russia there are many religious symbols in public institutions: a number of official holidays have a religious meaning; there are icons in the State offices, chapels in the State universities, factories and airports; covenants have been concluded between religious organizations and governmental institutions, and so on. The new national anthem, while retaining the old music, has new words and they include the words ‘the nation, protected by God’.


The main influence is exercised by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The number of Orthodox adherents has increased three times during the last 18 years, after the collapse of USSR. In 1990 there were 24 per cent claiming Orthodoxy; in 2005, 62 per cent; in 2006, 63 per cent; and in 2008, 73 per cent. Recent data by VZIOM2 suggest that the main reason for the rise in religious belief is that people need national traditions, moral ideals, consolation in life’s struggles, troubles and difficulties. Approximately 19–21 per cent of the population cite these reasons. Another 9–10 per cent cite their interest in the supernatural or in religion because of the influence of a new social trend. Only 3 per cent are interested in religion because they have a low level of confidence in education and culture.3 Russian officials are committed to raising the status of the Orthodox churches.


In this context, what are the place and role of religious symbols? Is there a link between civil society and religious symbols? Do they foster societal harmony or do they disturb the peace? What changes, if any, should be made with reference to existing public religious symbols? Not enough attention is paid to questions like these in today’s Russia.


Religious Symbols, Globalization and Secularization


Globalization changes things too. Cultural and national particularities are melting away, so to speak, in many parts of the world. Religion in this situation acquires a new status; it becomes a sign of national and cultural identity, both for the main population and for immigrants. An analysis of the confessional orientations of the Russian population shows a greater commitment to Orthodoxy or other religious confessions than to belief in God. People who declare to be member of a religious confession (60.5 per cent in 2000; 57.8 per cent in 2001, 82 per cent in 2002, 61 per cent in 2003) are significantly more numerous than those declaring to believe in God (43.4 per cent in 2000, 37.5 per cent in 2001; 45 per cent in 2002).4 It is clear that religious self-identification focuses less on a particular religion than on culture, religious nationalism, and related themes (all of which of course are influenced by a particular religion).


What has the State to do in this situation? State neutrality in religion and belief does not mean State indifference to its own culture and traditions in Church–State affairs. Russia wants to keep its culture, where historically the ROC was first among religions. We should remember Robert Bellah’s ‘habits of the heart’.


Religious symbols in public institutions might be a way of coming to terms with the process of globalization. The conflicts between Islam and Christianity about the use of religious symbols in public institutions show the practical difficulties of accommodating a range of private religious Weltanschauungen