Given Karl Marx’s trenchant criticism of religion as the “opium of the masses,” it is not surprising that the Soviet state diligently promoted scientific atheism during its seven decades of existence. The Soviet Union’s four principal faiths—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—all suffered under Joseph Stalin’s reign, with houses of worship closed, clerics imprisoned, and funding sources blocked. Where the Kremlin could not destroy organized religion, it co-opted it, such as forcing the patriarchy to pledge its allegiance to the state and strictly controlling the education and appointment of Muslim leaders.
   Under perestroika, religious organizations began to flourish under the mantle of “informal” (neformal’nyie) cultural groups. With the end of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s monopoly on power in 1990 and the chaos associated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union a year later, many Russians turned to religion to fill the gap left by the abandonment of the secular faith of MarxismLeninism.
   In Siberia and the Russian Far East, indigenous peoples rediscovered ancestral faiths such as shamanism, animism, and Tengrism. Buddhism enjoyed a revival in Kalmykiya, Buryatiya, and Tuva, while neo-Buddhist beliefs combined with “New Age” principles, such as the Rerikh Movement, gained appeal among ethnic Russians. For other Russians seeking spirituality, neo-paganism and Vedism proved attractive.
   Of all Russia’s faiths, Islam has experienced the most dramatic revival. Across the North Caucasus and the Volga-Ural region, Russia’s traditionally Muslim ethnic minorities—including the Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, and others—rediscovered their Islamic roots and began to build religious connections to other parts of the Dar al-Islam, including the Middle East and South Asia. In some instances this went far beyond spirituality, with many Russian Muslims embracing Islamism in both its pragmatic and extremist forms. Judaism has also benefited from the new environment, with many Russians conducting family histories and reconnecting with their Jewish heritage.
   While the early-1990s predictions of ethnic Russians’ wholesale return to Orthodoxy failed to materialize, the church is thriving. Support from politicians, particularly Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Yury Luzhkov, endowed the patriarchy with a new authority. Even the Communist Party of the Russian Federation supports the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country’s identity. Religiosity is now worn as a badge of patriotism in the contemporary Russian Federation, and is often used as a tool for establishing corporate networks and business contacts. Despite this flurry of enthusiasm for faith, a majority of Russians believe that there is no God, roughly comparable with the highly secular outlook of Western Europeans.
   See also Old Believers.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.


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