The Possibility of Religious Revival

A fascinating book review about religion in Russia:

In Russia, there is a religious revival happening. Orthodox Christianity is thriving after enduring a 70-year period of atheistic Soviet rule. In 1991, just after the collapse of the USSR, about two-thirds of Russians claimed no religious affiliation. Today, 71 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox. One can now see priests giving sermons on television, encounter religious processions in St. Petersburg, and watch citizens lining up for holy water in Moscow. Even Moscow’s Darwin museum features a Christmas tree during the holidays.

What is encouraging about such a statistic is that if it can happen there, then it can happen in the West. For as a saying goes, ‘What one man can do, another man can do. If it’s been done before, it can be done again’…and what is true of men is also true of countries.


President Vladimir Putin has encouraged this revival and he has also benefited from it, both at home and abroad. Last year, he explained that Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war was designed to protect Christians from the Islamic State. Not only has the Orthodox Church supported this “holy war” but so have some American evangelicals, who are likewise concerned about Christians in the Middle East and praise Putin’s socially conservative policies.

So, this revival is also tied to the government and supported by it, perhaps even for propaganda purposes. And yet, this is not as bad as it seems, for all governments promote a worldview—the separation of worldview and state is a myth—thus, a government promoting a Christian worldview is not necessarily a negative thing.


In post-Soviet Russia, Orthodox Christianity gives the country a legitimacy that it was “an ancient polity with a millennial pedigree that gave it moral legitimacy,” according to Smolkin. Putin can tout Orthodoxy as the state religion but the reality is just as damning for Orthodoxy’s official status as it had been for Soviet atheism. Most Russians identify as Orthodox but only 6 percent of them attend church weekly and only 17 percent pray daily. Russians are largely unchurched and often don’t conform to the doctrines of the Orthodox Church. The Soviet Union had been the first country to legalize abortion in 1920, and the rate of abortions in Russia is more than double compared to the U.S. and enjoys widespread support despite strong objections from the Orthodox Church. And contrary to Orthodox teaching, attitudes toward divorce and pre-marital sex remain lax.

Now, this is interesting, but as I recall, religious attendance has always been an issue, even during the most religiously devote periods of history. Furthermore, being unchurched is also nothing new, nor is the fact that once a people have access to a personally-beneficial sin, they tend to want to keep it. Human nature is fallen, after all. Still, the good point is that when a culture has a Christian attitude—even if it is not churched—that causes changes in a culture, and often for the better. That is why this article is positive.

Governments sometimes promote belief systems that explain life’s meaning, and rituals that remind us of it, because it lends them legitimacy. But these quests seem to always remain incomplete. That is certainly true of Soviet atheism, and it is also true of Russian Orthodoxy. Smolkin’s book helps us appreciate that in Russia today, as in the Soviet Union years ago, official state faiths mask a more complicated reality.

Absolutely. But then again, life has always been complicated. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a country that was once largely culturally atheistic is now largely culturally Orthodox, and that shows that cultural reversals from atheism are entirely possible.

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