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By Sean — 9 years ago
RIA Novosti is featuring a six-part series on the history of Russia’s religious sects, their leaders, and particularly, asks why “Russia has proved such fertile ground for the growth of new and bizarre beliefs.” It is estimated that there are 300-500 religious sects in Russia with a total flock of around a million people. They range from small occultist and pagan groups, to more controversial new “religions” like Scientology, foreign imports like Jehovah Witnesses, Baptists and other Protestant groups, homegrown Old Believers (and their offshoots), the small and rather strange Khysty, Skoptsy, Molokans, the Dukhobors, and the flourishing of new cults and the popular practice of magic and divination. And though Russian law ensures the freedom of conscience, some wonder if Russian Orthodoxy under the politically proactive stewardship of Patriarch Kirill is becoming Russia’s state religion. “One has to wonder,’ writes Brian Whitmore, “given these trends and Kirill’s rising influence, if Russia’s much-discussed diarchy of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin is on the way to becoming a de facto troika.”
Perhaps Kirill’s political flexing is a direct response to the fact that Russian religious sects are flourishing. Many argues that the religious vacuum produced by Soviet communism has resulted in spiritual revival often devoid of rhyme or reason. I often wonder if this “spiritual vacuum” is overstated, because frankly we don’t have the historical studies to prove it, and most works looking at the promotion of atheism show that it didn’t really take among most Russians. After all, Russia is hardly alone in the spiritual revival department. I suspect the increasing search to spirituality has more to do with general global collapse of secular ideologies’ ability to explain our present historical moment. Nevertheless, in her summation of Susan Richards’ observations on Russian religious faith in Lost and Found in Russia, the Guardian‘s Lesley Chamberlain writes:
What then of the actual spiritual life? Susan Richards . . . sees the Russians as emerging from a long period of addiction to unfreedom, with the result that many have lost their spiritual bearings in the relative personal freedom they now have. They don’t know what to believe in and reach for extremes. Travelling in the provinces during 1992-2008 she came across a remote settlement of Old Believers, a sect devoted to a 16th-century form of Orthodox worship, with new converts still joining. In another remote area she found a young couple building a new life for themselves based on self-sufficiency, sensitivity to nature and chastity. At the same time she met scientists keen to measure the ungraspable life-force and intelligent individuals captivated by fortune-tellers and UFOs.
Perhaps this quest for the spiritual in post-Soviet Russia is the reason why Russian religious sects have increasingly become the subject of historical study in the American academy. Sergei Zhuk’s Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917, examines the spread of radical Protestantism in their Russian countryside; Heather Coleman looks at Russian Baptists life and survival in late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia in Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929; Laura Engelstein’s Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale delves into the strange faith of the Skoptsy; for a broad scholarly examination of the occult, there’s Bernice Rosenthal’s edited collection The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture; and finally, for an explication of magic and divination see W. F. Ryan’s mammoth classic The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia.
Religion in Russia is a rich and complex subject. RIA Novosti‘s series proves to be a good primer into a present world neglected by most Russia watchers: Russia’s multi-confessional culture and the large number of religious sects it has spawned over the centuries. So far four of the six parts have been published:
By Sean — 12 years ago
If this week’s news is any indication, it appears that Nashi’s efforts to solve dedovshchina by flooding the Russian military with its activists will prove difficult. First, all the prosecution’s five witnesses in the Sychyov Case have recanted their testimony or pulled out completely. For those who aren’t familiar, last New Year’s Private Andrei Sychyov was so severely beaten by senior recruits that his legs and genitals had to be amputated to save his life from gangrene infection. The case has engendered a firestorm of condemnation by the Russian public. President Putin called the incident “tragic” and promised to form a military police force to combat dedovshchina, which according to estimates have claimed 16 lives last year.
Putin’s words now appear empty. According to the Times London and the Moscow Times, one of witnesses, Andrei Shevchenko, says that the military investigators forced him into signing a statement. The prosecution’s star witness, Artyom Nikitin, didn’t attend the court date, and citing family reasons left Chelyabinsk for Moscow. Then, Mikhail Loginovskikh, the chief surgeon at the military hospital, said in his court testimony that he did not find any evidence that Sychyov was beaten! If that wasn’t enough, Sychyov’s mother and sister claim that there have been attempts to bribe them out of holding the military responsible.
Sychyov’s mother and sister, Galina and Marina, have revealed that in the run-up to the trial they were approached by a man who offered them ?50,000 and a flat in Moscow if they said they did not think the military was to blame.
“We are outraged and shocked by the dirty tactics the defence ministry is employing,” said Marina. “They offered to buy us off and they put pressure on us to sign a statement saying that we did not believe Andrei had been beaten. Instead we were to claim that his injuries were the result of some genetic disease. They want the case buried.”
Perhaps it was the scandal that Sychyov Case has become that drove Kirill Grigorev, a 19 year-old conscript and Moscow student to hurl himself out the window of the General Staff building in Moscow. His suicide was first reported in Moskovskii Komsomolets. Grigorev prepared press digests for the Defense Minister and was the General Staff’s computer expert. In his last letter to his mother, Grigorev wrote:
“[Older conscripts] told us to bring them money, alcohol, cigarettes, prepaid telephone cards, and beat us severely, tortured us and did not let us sleep if we didn’t do what we were told. And they beat us for no particular reason, just out of boredom or when they were drunk.
He further claimed in his note that commanders hired him and other conscripts out as labor on commercial projects. Hiring out or subjecting recruits to forced labor is a practice that stretches all the back to the Tsarist military.
His mother also reports that in December, Grigorev was so severely beaten that he could hardly walk.
Given the brutality and intimidation of dedovshchina, is this really something that can be solved by putting Nashi activists in the military? Hardly. Military culture is a tough thing to reform, let alone break. There is no reason to think that hazing is new to the Russian military, and that long history will outlast any real attempts at reform. It also doesn’t help that Russian officials verbally condemn the practice but then turn around and undermine efforts at punishing those responsible for it. Given this, one can expect more suicides like Grigorev’s to occur.