When “fiercely atheistic” communist radicals swept into power in Russia more than 100 years ago, they had many targets.
One of them was the Russian Orthodox Church, “long a pillar of legitimacy and support for the Romanov czars,” according to CNN. They tore down one prominent cathedral and built a huge swimming pool in its place. Another, St. Isaac’s, was left standing as a museum against religion.
But when communism fell, that all changed. The church became a big part of Russians’ identity again and the Kremlin actively promoted it.
“With the collapse of communist society, there was a great void,” said Alexander Dugin, chief editor of Tsargrad TV, a Russian Orthodox channel. “The only way to fill this void was to return to the pre-communist values. And pre-communist values were Christian Orthodox.”
Official state religions
According to Pew Research, many of the formerly atheistic regimes of central and eastern Europe now have an official state religion or an unofficial preferred faith.
In those countries, people are “more likely to see religion and national identity as entwined,” Pew reported.
The study surveyed 18 countries and found that two — Armenia and Greece — have an official state religion. Nine others, including Russia and Poland, unofficially “prefer” a religion, giving it disproportionate benefits.
Large majorities in those countries say that being a part of the preferred or official religion is part of their national identity — for instance, being Orthodox is important to being Greek, and being Catholic is important to being truly Polish.
Marc Ira Hooks, a former Southern Baptist missionary to Eastern Europe, says that’s definitely true in his experience with Russians.
“To be Russian is to be Russian Orthodox,” said Hooks, who now serves as associate director of missions for the Dallas-area Collin Baptist Association/CBA Church Network. “Though it is not officially the state religion of Russia, so much of a Russian’s national identity is entwined with Russian Orthodoxy; it is impossible to extricate the two.”
Orthodox ceremonies mark major life events, such as birth, marriage and death, he said. And most Russian homes contain icons of the saints who at the very least are said to protect the home.
It’s a cultural identification, but the majority of Russians hold to a faith that’s nominal at best, Hooks said.
But even though that might seem to be a barrier to evangelism among Russians, it actually opens doors, he said.
“While on the surface it may seem this, coupled with 70 years of the suppression of spirituality by communism, is an obstacle to evangelical Christians engaged in sharing the gospel with Russians, the reality is much different,” he said.
“Due to their tacit exposure to the biblical narrative and to the mysteries of God through Orthodoxy, most Russians are by nature very spiritual.”
Because of that, they are often more willing to have conversations about God and faith, Hooks said. “In fact, many say it is easier to have a gospel conversation with a Russian than with someone from a Western European background.” (Grace Thornton)