Paul Goble

Staunton,February 11 – The 1993 Constitution notwithstanding, Russian officialdomdivides believers subordinate to officially recognized structures of the four “traditional”religions – Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – and almost everyone else,including those in these four who follow their own leaders and those beyond thefour Moscow calls “sects.”

Thosein the first category are protected from abuse as long as they are submissiveto the dictates of the state; those who in the second, including OrthodoxChristians who don’t accept the Moscow Patriarchate as well as other Christiansand numerous groups in the other three, are now grouped together and subject torepression.

Asreligious specialist Aleksandr Soldatov puts it in Novaya gazeta, “officials are convinced that in the Russian Federation,there are four ‘traditional confessions’ with which the state cooperates, a few‘tolerated’ confessions of the second class … and everyone else beyond theselimits are ‘sects’” that state treats with “various degrees of hostility” (

Only byrecognizing this Russian approach to religion, which is more about structuresthan about faith, can one make sense of the ongoing repression of the Jehovah’sWitnesses, many independent Orthodox Christians, some Protestants, and evenBuddhists who pursue their own course independent of the officially sanctionedstructure.

Russia’s chief “sect” hunter, Aleksandr Dvorkin, has beenpushing for the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a long time; and Soldatovsuggests that he should be held accountable for the absurd and cruel six-yearjail sentence just handed down to Dennis Cristensen. But Dvorkin, who has closeties to the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin, has a larger agenda.

Whathe wants and apparently what the powers that be want as well is the completesubordination of all religious groups to officially recognized structures thatthe state can intimidate and control and discrimination against and evenoutright bans of all others regardless of whether they are Christian oranything else.

Thatfocus on control of structures rather than on religious faith informed Stalin’sapproach to the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate and its subsequentmanagement by interior ministry officials, an approach that continuedthroughout the rest of the Soviet period and, with the exception of a briefperiod in 1990-1992, has now come back.

Itis important to understand this point, that the Kremlin cares about structuralcontrol rather than faith, because “neither Orthodoxy, nor Christianity if oneconsiders it separately from Orthodoxy, nor Islam, nor Buddhism nor Judaism havemonopoly structures. Besides the main center recognized by the state each of theserelations has a mass of ‘alternative’ structures.”

Allof these groups are increasingly at risk, and those who view the Jehovah’s Witnessesas an exception are deceiving themselves. Oppression against them will onlyopen the doors to more oppression against the others, including some many in theWest believe are immune from such attacks, Soldatov suggests.

“Justas Russia has not been able to cease to be an empire,” he concludes, “it lacksthe ability to become a civil state.”

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