Staunton, April 4 – As many as 85 percent of Russia’s residents identify as Orthodox Christians but almost none of them go to church and approximately a third are quite prepared to say that they don’t believe in God, a pattern that raises serious questions as to just how many Orthodox Christians there are in Russia, Nikolay Mitrokhin says.
The Bremen-based Russian specialist on religious life in Russia points out that the Moscow Patriarchate doesn’t keep track of the numbers but that independent investigations show only 0.5 to 2 percent of Russians attend church regularly and that only eight percent do so from time to time (takiedela.ru/2017/04/takaya-rossiya-cerkov/).
Sociologists have three basic methods for addressing these questions, the scholar says. The first involves polls conducted by various research outlets, but these have cut back in the number of times they ask about belief since 2010, when Patriarch Kirill was elected, because otherwise they would have shown a decline in attachment to Orthodoxy, Mitrokhin says.
These figures are problematic and can be explained “in various ways,” the researcher says. According to some, Orthodoxy has become an ethnic rather than a religious identification. According to others, many Russians don’t tell pollsters the truth but only what they think the powers that be want to hear.
But it is obvious that the high percentages these outlets do report as far as identification with Orthodoxy is concerned have nothing to do with reality. Indeed, the best of these outlets, like the Levada Center, admit as much when they concede that 30 percent of those who say they are Orthodox also say they don’t believe in God.
The second means scholars have for calculating Orthodox numbers are surveys concerning how often people go to church, but these figures too are problematic not only because in most cases, they are so low as to be within the poll’s margin of error but also because they rely on self-reporting and count alike those who attend services versus those who just visit churches.
And the third is to make use of interior ministry reports on the number of Russians who attend services at Christmas and Easter. The totals are also small – 1.4 to 2.0 percent of the population – and unreliable as well because the interior ministry counts visits to cemeteries as visits to churches even though the Patriarchate views cemetery visits as non-religious.
There has not been up to now “a single massive all-national investigation” on church attendance, Mitrokhin says. But some studies have been done in regions. They show that the share of Russians who attend church at least once monthly is only 10-30 percent of those who attend Christmas or Eastern services.
What that means, he says, is that the core number of church attendees “in major cities and typical regions of Russia” is “approximately 0.5 percent of the population.” And even in “hyper-Orthodox” places like Kostroma and Vladimir oblasts, the share is no more than twice that – or about one percent of the population.
Mitrokhin says there is another reason to be suspicious about statistics concerning church attendance in Russia: Many Russians go to church not for services but to light a candle, request prayers, pray before an icon, or buy religious books or kulich. But these visitors are almost always counted as if they were church attendees, thus overstating the actual number.
Such visitors are not much respected by the clergy or by those who regularly attend, but they are now “a relatively massive phenomenon. [And] together with parishioners, they form approximately two to four percent of the population of the Russian Federation which appears in church at least once a month and sometimes more often,” the scholar says.
Some priests are themselves becoming more honest about the share of real attendees, he continues. In the words of one, most baptized Orthodox “are people entirely focused on earthly achievement, infected by superstitions and unhealthy eschatological attitudes, and subject to pagan and neo-pagan tendencies.”