While pondering the current state of religious freedom in the world, we have to take into consideration the historical background. Any society, any individual, albeit being not completely determined, is dramatically exposed to the personal history and the history of the community he/she lives in. Certainly, each of us is able to take a responsible moral step by themselves, to make our own existential choice, which is proven by such prime examples as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or other modern dissident thinkers, but to be bent on making this step or choice real, a human being has to walk the path of intellectual and spiritual emancipation. A non-emancipated and mentally constrained person, even more – a non-emancipated society, cannot compete for such a level of the moral responsibility reached by emancipated people and societies. It is testified not only by the European tradition of the Enlightenment, but also by the much older Christian tradition in Europe.
Speaking about the current situation with regard to religious freedom in today’s Russia, before criticizing by acknowledging well-known issues, we need to gain insight into the massive historical background of these issues in Russia and in the Russian culture. Such insight would let us take the next – after having criticized the present situation – important step: to move on to developing a sort of a road map for assistance provided by the European community to Russia in establishing and developing such term as “religious freedom” in the forms of the Russian culture.
I belong to the tradition of the protection of religious freedom in Russia directly. My father, an Old Believer and a Cossack, used to be a dissident during the Soviet period. He used to collaborate and afford any assistance to Alexander Men and Gleb Yakunin in carrying out their activities aimed at combating religious persecution. This is why, I hope, my reasoning and conclusions are built upon impartial experience gained in the course of the family tradition and they are considered to be independent of any influence of confessional and corporative subjectivity.
In reviewing the Russian history, we can easily get convinced that there was an inherent tendency in the tradition of Ancient Russia to demonstrate a real religious tolerance. Ten years ago, we managed for the first time to digitize and widely publish the so-called “Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible”. This major work was created by Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow, in the middle of the 16th century as a textbook for Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar of Russia, and it contained information on Biblical history, the history of Russia and the Ancient World. While reading this Illustrated Chronicle, my attention was particularly drawn to the author’s tale about the fact that Catholic (“Roman”) churches and communities were allowed to co-exist and develop freely in Russia since the first centuries of its statehood.
The Illustrated Chronicle testifies that Russia used to cooperate closely with German catholic orders and that dual-faith practice was widely distributed throughout Russia, which means that Christian concepts used to get along in people’s minds with beliefs that are today commonly referred to as ”pagan ones”. While reading the present chronicle, I have not come upon any facts stating that there were forced conversions in any religion or any persecutions condemned by the State towards any religious groups in Russia. Even during the so-called Golden Horde period, Russian Princess visited the capital of the Golden Horde to show her wholehearted loyalty to Zoroastrianism. Exactly during the Mongolian period, we can observe extensive construction of temples (primarily, monastic buildings) in Russia.
Religious intolerance occurred and stroke its roots in Russia since the 17th century in the process of establishing State control over the Church, when religion became a State’s tool and a main weapon for ideological manipulation, primarily while implementing foreign policy. At the beginning of the Romanov dynasty, monarchs also implemented main military reforms resulting in replacing professional mercenaries by forcibly conscripted recruits. It makes sense – it is a way easier to mobilize non-professional soldiers for full commitment to military actions turning them into “cannon fodder”, while real political and economic goals are being disguised as “combating infidels” and “making Constantinople free”, and it’s promised that a soldier will get a 100% reward for the supreme sacrifice in the afterlife. It is more complicated to mobilize a recruit to rush towards his death only by assuring him that the Empire needs to be expanded or needs to have access to the sea for more profitable trading. A religious soldier who lost his legs during the ”holy war against heretics” will not seek compensation for this. Thus, replacing professional mercenaries with forcibly conscripted recruits made religious tolerance in the 17th century extremely unprofitable. Empire westward expansion was boastfully presented as a “battle with papists and Protestants”, while southward expansion was publicized as a fight against undipped Moslems to let orthodox Slavs and Greeks groaning under the oppression of “infidel” Turks free.
Exactly since then Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam have been subject to demonizing in Russian political mythology. For the same purpose, the State implemented a bloody religious reform in Russia in the middle of the 17th century.
Initially, in the 10th century, Russian Orthodoxy was characterized by its identity and transparency, but reformers started tailoring it to “Greek” standards. The church was renamed into the “Greek Church” just to make ”free from the oppression of Turks” Greeks think there was no difference between their own religion and the religion of “their liberators”, what would have made them accept the “religious idea as dominant” in military flareups between the Russian empire and the Turkish-Persian world and turn a blind eye to the purely economic goals.
The so-called Old Believers headed by Tsarist confessors, particularly by Avvakum Petrov, a protopresbyter, rose up against the politicization and manipulation of Russian Orthodoxy carried out by the authorities in the Empire which was getting more and more totalitarian. The main pathos of their sermon was based upon the fact that Russian Orthodoxy could not become a “tool” for satisfying the Empire’s needs to manipulate “ignorant folks” by dealing with purely political issues. Their appeal claimed almost all their lives, they were violently burned at the stake after many years of imprisonment and tortures, by which the authorities had been trying to shut out alternative world views, to drag its preachers into the paradigm of the new relations between the State and Church. But the heroic sacrifice of the protesting leaders only triggered a rapid growth of the Old Believers’ movement popularity, despite severe persecutions carried out by civil and religious authorities towards all the adherents of the above-mentioned movement. Obviously, it was an exact moment when an adamant opposition between the government and people, which still exists, was born and consolidated in Russia; it was a moment when the long-standing ”hybrid” civil war started.
It would be completely erroneous to assume that there have been no ”religious wars” in Russia ever. They were, and they were extremely violent. Stepan Razin’s, Kondratij Bulavin’s and even Yemelyan Pugachev’s rebellions are considered nothing more than wars between the Old Believers and adherents of the new so-called Niconian faith. All three stages of this religious war were violently repressed by the Tsarist authorities, and the leaders and participants of the rebellions – except for those who had managed to emigrate – were executed.
Some Old Believers emigrated mainly to the territories of the modern USA, Turkey and countries of eastern Europe, particularly to Baltic countries, Poland and Romania that used to belong to the Holy Roman Empire.
While studying the history of the Old Believers outside the Russian Empire, I have not come upon any cases when local authorities showed their repressive attitude towards them. Despite major conservatism of the Old Believers in matters of dogmatism and morality, it seems that it would have been difficult for them to find common ground with the unfriendly environments of Islam and Catholicism. But no, they were considered well-disposed and they used to be given wholehearted support from the governments of European countries and Turkey.
To illustrate that fact, it would be enough to recall the history of the reconstruction of the Old Believers’ hierarchy in the territory belonging to Bukovina, in today’s Ukraine. At that time, it used to be an integral part of Austria-Hungary. On a direct instruction of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1785, the Old Believers were entitled to live in the territory of Bukovina, where they were exempt from all taxes and compulsory military service. In the 1840-s, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary issued a decree declaring that it should not only be allowed to reconstruct the Old Believers’ hierarchy, but it was ordered hereby to facilitate this process. To this end, acting through its Minister for Foreign Affairs and Consul in Constantinople, the Emperor entered into negotiations with the Ottoman Empire and Patriarch of Constantinople who actually set Metropolitan Ambrose, a member of the Synod of Constantinople who lived in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, free, because he agreed to heading the Old Believers’ Church that is still colloquially called as the “Austrian Agreement” and is considered to be the largest group among the Old Believers. My research conducted in the Vatican’s Archives last year convinced me that this case was directly overseen by the Pope.
There is an associated question arising in this context: why did the western diplomacy need to spend its time, money and other resources to support the outlying, as well as in terms of its ideology, Russian Old Belief? The message is clear: Old Belief, despite its conservatism and sometimes Russian nationalism, has always advocated the right to have religious freedom and the need to perform actual separation of Church and State. An Old Believer finds it unacceptable when the State manipulates a religion in any way, on the contrary, he/she thinks it is crucial to actually separate Church and State. It is the first and main principle of Old Belief! To uphold these values within already almost 4 centuries, the Old Believers put their lives at the stake, were sent into exile to the camps, fled their homes and lived sometimes in isolation. It became clear for Europe that, by supporting Old Belief, it was sending a message to Russia that it had to establish complete religious freedom to be a full-fledged member of the civilized family of nations. Only in 1905, the highest authority of Russia embarked on the path of the construction of religious tolerance and equality, but already in 1917, all the attempts were swept away by the bloody vortex of the Revolution followed by a dark period of 70 years characterized by totalitarian Bolshevik atheism. Undoubtedly, such historical experience did not contribute to developing a healthy political tradition of the inter-religious world in Russia that is still seeking for its own model. It is not the worst nightmare, because it’s better not to have any tradition at all than to have an erroneous one.
Today’s Europe is intended, while pushing forward any ideals of religious intolerance, to support projects of one kind or another, focal points of civic engagement of one kind or another that are not afraid of encouraging in today’s Russia religious freedom as a basis of prosperity of any community. This year, I founded the World Alliance for Old Believers intended to push forward the historical ideals of the Old Believers. Religious freedom and actual separation of Church and State are the bedrock and the “first commandment” of this astonishing spiritual, cultural and historical phenomenon called “Old Belief”. Hereby I’m inviting all people of goodwill, all leaders of European public opinion to cooperate. By working together, we’ll turn Europe to a flourishing garden with various flowers growing and bearing fruits freely, what used to be eagerly desired by my ancestors – Old Believers.