Youth religiosity in soviet and post-soviet russia

Social transformations of the Russian history of the XX-XXI centuries, their influence on the religious consciousness of the nation. The role of religion in the socialization of young people, its transition from indirect forms to legal manifestations.

Рубрика Религия и мифология
Вид статья
Язык английский
Дата добавления 30.04.2018
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Youth religiosity in soviet and post-soviet russia

Vasenina I.V., Khvylya-Olinter N.A.

The article argues that drastic social, ideological and philosophic transformations over the Russian history of XX-XXI centuries had significantly influenced religious consciousness of the nation. However, despite such extreme changes even in Soviet times of Russian history religion indirectly remained an important factor of youth socialization and behavior; and in Post-Soviet Russia its role has been increasing, shifting from indirect and latent state to a more open and institutionalized phenomena.

Keywords: identity, intelligentsia, nihilism, Orthodoxy, worldview, beliefs.

В статье утверждается, что радикальные социальные, идеологические и философские преобразования российской истории XX-XXI веков, существенно повлияли на религиозное сознание нации. Однако, несмотря на такие резкие изменения даже в советское время религия косвенно по-прежнему, как и во всей российской истории, являлась важным фактором социализации молодежи; и в постсоветской России ее роль возрастает, переходя от косвенных и латентных форм к более открытым и узаконенным проявлениям. religion consciousness youth

Ключевые слова: личность, интеллигенция, нигилизм, православие, мировоззрение, убеждения.

Religious belief is considered to be a crucial component of a person's worldview. Religion is one of the most important social institutions, a community of believers, characterized by common doctrine, regulations (norms, commandments), standards of behavior and organizational forms. One the one hand, religion fulfills its positive function by cultural awareness. On the other hand, the differences in religious values, typical for the society of the XX-XXI centuries, can lead to intolerance, social conflicts etc. As P. Buchanan states the global threat of religious clashes is primarily connected with abandoning Christian values.

Among the first Russian secular thinkers and philosophers of the XX century who postulated the importance of religion and the danger of nihilism were the authors of the almanac Vekhi (Landmarks)N. Berdyaev, S. Bulgakov, M. Gershenzon, A. Izgoev, B. Kistiakovskii, P. Struve, S. Frank (Berdyaev et al. 1909).

The works by Nikolai Berdyaev have gained interest and support not only in Russia. Berdyaev (1910) analyzed a problem of relation between notions of scientific knowledge and religious faith and concluded that these two essential spheres of human life shall not be contrasted. Russian philosopher of religion S. Frank carried out a profound research of the man's soul life, highlighted its essential features and described it as an intermediary between empirical (tangible) world and ideal super-temporal world of spiritual life. The writings of N. Berdyaev and S. Frank illuminate an interesting aspect of this theme as they analyze religiosity in the context of a transitional period, which can be distinguished in modern Russian society.

Apparently, vast possibilities of theoretical interpretation on the subject of religious belief necessitate empirical research of religious behavior of different social strata.

Russian historical processes of the XX-XXI centuries, drastic ideological and philosophic transformations have influenced religious consciousness of the population.

The state atheism prevailed throughout the Soviet period; therefore religious people were largely seen as unlucky, belonging to older generation or simply insane. Despite the heavy censorship of the government, the concept of religiosity as a fundamental belief system survived. The 1960s showed an increased interest in religion again, although it was mostly considered to be a cultural and ethical phenomenon. At this time, empirical essays on religiosity started to appear, yet very few in number, due to sensitivity of the issue and difficulty with subjective and objective assessment. In addition, consistent interest in religion suggests that there are certain structures in the social memory that remain almost uninfluenced by social time. Their effect may be temporarily reduced but they can hardly be completely erased from people's minds. Religious mindset is likely to be among such structures of the social memory.

Soviet press published occasional articles on religious and mystical sentiments of the youth. For instance, the authors of the article Soviet Youth is Keen on Mysticism and Patriotism recognized the existence of religious and mystical sentiments in various groups of Soviet population (Struve, 1969). In 1967 in Novgorod, a conference was held on the millennial roots of Russian culture, which emphasized the importance of popularization of teachings and ascetic lives of Saint Sergius of Radonezh and biography of the Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky. Reflecting the growing interest of young Soviet intelligentsia for the Russian philosophy of the XX century, the Science and Religion journal published a series of articles on the philosophy of V. Solovyov, N. Lossky, N. Berdyaev. In Mitrokhin (1968, p.42), published in The Questions of Philosophy journal, a study of communities of believers was carried on and the author concluded that despite the substantial ideological pressure those people were incredibly firm in their religious beliefs and moral values.

It is worth looking at the attempts of the scholars to explain why the anti-religious propaganda proved unsuccessful and led to a revival of religious feeling among the young people. Dissertation abstract Kasiyanov (2005) stipulates that the Soviet state itself had some characteristics of an authoritarian religion: intolerance to freethinking and religious pluralism, promotion of the cult (i.e. of personality), support of community spirit, etc. Consequently, the Soviet people's need for religion was not destroyed which allowed the traditions of ancestors to revive once the ideology had changed.

Giving way to free speech and expression, the process of Perestroika of late 1980s resulted in revival of religiosity of the Russian population. However, it was often shallow and controversial as the young generation was primarily interested in superstitions, mysticism and sectarianism.

Sociologists account the renewed interest in religion that followed a long period of dominance of atheism for the fact that supernaturalism has a specific function of emotional release. This function is especially important for the society in crisis since people facing social instability and uncertainty tend to generate a strong “emotional charge” which religion due to its ceremonialism helps to release or reframe. Another reason is probably the character of the late XX society itself: industrial civilization created living conditions that Heidegger calls “being-ahead-of-itself“. Consumption behavior and constantly increasing workload necessary to provide for such type of behavior, both became a social norm of contemporary society. Kasiyanova (2003, p.146) argues that “a slave of desires is the most pitiful and hopeless slave”. In their attempt to cope with accumulated fatigue people turn to religion. It can also be explained by the social protest when frustration in daily life inspires the search for a higher justice in religious sphere.

As for empirical studies on religious sentiments of the youth, they were rather inconsiderable in number at that period which makes only a broad description of the situation possible (without references for statistics and a separate analysis of the young generation of that time).

The 1990s Post-Soviet Russia underwent a “religious renaissance” that resulted in a drastic increase in the number of religious organizations and movements. The 1993 Russian Constitution endorsed extensive freedoms with the freedom of religious worship among them. The Russian religious life started to change dramatically. The dynamics of growth in the number of religious organizations in Russia, recorded over the period from 1990 to 1998 was a multiple. If in 1990 the total number of religious organizations equal 6650, then in 1998 there were 16017 (A.I. Khvylya-Olinter 2013, p.101). The data of Federal State Statistics Service shows that: 22507 religious organizations belonging to 50 denominations were registered in Russia in 2009; at the end of 2014 there were 27496 (Russian Federation. Federal State Statistics Service. 2016, p.266).

Many researches consider the spiritual crisis caused by the loss of sociocultural identity to be the main force to drive people to turn to religion. In the article Kulakov (1995) it is argued that during this period religious feelings were spread in youth environment due to a variety of reasons: weakening of social institutions, change in moral values and ideology, limited possibilities of self-fulfillment, uncertainty in the future.

Based on the data of comparative social research carried out in Russia in the spring of 1991, Finnish sociologist Kivinen (1994, p.138) asserts that the level of religiosity is influenced among others by social-class differentiation as working class tends to be more religious (the largest proportion of people (35%) calling themselves religious belongs to this class).

Obviously, social and psychological characteristics of youth being a specific group were instrumental in this process. Teenage years and adolescence is a time of self-identification and spiritual search. While in previous years as said above religious people were often considered to be outcasts, in 1990s religiosity is seen a cultural indicator. Sociologists who studied religious views of the youth at this period have come to conclusion that increasing proportion of believers among youth can not be explained solely by permanent physiological characteristics of young man and woman. Several other factors played a crucial role in this process as well, namely the change of the status of religion and arising of new stereotypes replacing the old soviet ones. Therefore, as noted in Kukhtevich (2000, p.175) “spirituality becomes similar to religiosity, orthodoxy starts to be associated with belonging to the Russian nation, and atheism becomes tainted as something immoral, materialistic and solely related to the Soviet period of Russian history”.

Studies of religious views gained even more popularity by the end of the XX century when methods at the basis of research were also analyzed. The ways to reach objectivity of the data and possible criteria of religiosity were also discussed.

Another problem that makes the studies difficult is ambiguity of the issue. The case is that religious identity may be a part of a cultural identity when a person identifies himself with certain denomination due to historical memory or cultural characteristics of those around him (historical inertia) rather than basing on profound religious beliefs, which is especially true for the youth. By way of example, when studying the orthodox church youth, the researches singled out a large group of young people who call themselves orthodox, celebrate some religious holidays, wear next-to-skin cross etc., but lack profound religiosity. For those young people it is enough to share religious premises in general, while not participating in church life for the most of the time to confirm their religious identity.

Thus it is necessary to carry out a more detailed study of youth participation in religious life and denominational group basing on such criteria as: attending the places where religious ceremonies are conducted, taking part in such ceremonies, knowledge and usage of prayers, reading of religious texts, fasting, relationships with the members of denomination, participation in the life of denominational community.

The nationwide sociological research made it possible to draw some conclusions on the religious views of Russian youth (In 1997, commissioned by the Moscow Office of the F. Ebert Foundation, the Russian Independent Institute of Social and Nationality Problems carried out a nationwide sociological survey, on the topic: Young People in the New Russia: What Are They Like? What Do They Care About? What Are They Striving For?, sampling method: youth at the age from 17 to 26, 1974 people).

The authors point out the strengthening of religious sentiment among young people in comparison with the existing data of a study conducted in 1980s. In Mchedlov (1998, p.107) it is in particular stressed that “whereas 10-15 years ago the lowest level of religiosity (1-2%) of all age groups was among the young (about 10% among adults), nowadays the age difference does not have a significant impact on religiosity”.

Sociologists characterize the religious youth of this period as passive and living outside the church, which stands in contrast to traditional communal culture of the church (Kukhtevich 2000).

It should be noted that it was a period in history when Russians faced an acute identity crisis due to dissolution of the country and division of the people. The need for social belonging could also be a powerful incentive for young people to turn to religion since this social institution symbolized continuity, stability and tradition.

The beginning of the XXI century was marked by continued and even increased interest in religion including traditional types of religious beliefs as well as occultism, esotericism, mysticism, sectarianism. The 2002 Law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations regulates in particular such issues as termination of the activities of religious organizations for spreading extremist views. For instance, 225 religious organizations were liquidated by court order in 2003 (the list of such organizations is annually published by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation).

Owing to the mass media, a vast number of pseudoscientific TV programs and websites different types of religiosity can be quickly and broadly spread. In modern society religion often becomes a commercial resource; its elements are successfully exploited in mass culture which actively uses symbols, ideas and terminology of different religions. Modern people are becoming more and more religious, but they turn to “unknown God” (ignoto Deo), that is being looked for and found not in old churches but in the streets of cosmopolitan cities and in crowded supermarkets, at loud night clubs and in glossy magazines, on TV or on the Internet. One of the reasons behind it is the ambiguity of the process itself: the art encompasses religious aspects and becomes religion, while religion losses its traditional character and its crucial features tend to resemble those of the art. Different religious phenomena turn into fashionable attributes of modern culture and become an integral part of youth everyday life losing their traditional sacral meaning.

Many religious scholars and philosophers (religious scholars, theologians, and scholars) regret that commercialization processes are observed within religions as well, when religious ceremonies are gradually turning into a sort of entertainment. They use media technologies, and their wish to bring more and more people into the fold leads to secularization of religion when the sacred fades into insignificance, giving way to “show” that is created for the audience.

Traditional religions actively communicate their ideas to the youth, attracting more and more supporters. For example, they carry different kinds of programs aimed at young people: a youth Cross procession “of the Holy Protection” organized by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) took place in 2008; missionary Orthodox youth organization “Protection” operates in Moscow; young Muslims held a mass if tar dinner; from time to time Protestants organize actions against AIDS and drug addiction; the courses on the history and culture are opened within religious communities. In April 2000 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted the Concept of an Orthodox youth ministry of the ROC and the project “The younger generation of Russia” was launched.

The Department of Sociology of the St. Tikhon's Orthodox University carried out a large-scale social survey the main objective of which was to analyze the attitude of the Russian youth towards the Russian Orthodox Church (a nationwide study, the method - formalized interview, sample volume - 2002 respondents). The study revealed that 71.2% of young Russians consider themselves more or less religious people.

In addition five in ten young people called themselves Christians and Orthodox; 4.9% identified themselves as Muslims; 1% of young people considered themselves to belong to other faiths; 42.8% could not identify themselves with any denomination. The researchers note that the majority of Russian youth do not normally take part in religious ceremonies.

It is worth emphasizing that many researchers studying youth lifestyle indicate a mismatch between young people's asserted religious identity and their daily practices. Such dualism could well be independent and pressing issue of sociological analysis.

Religious paradigms can be indirectly characterized on the basis of analysis of value concepts, as traditional religions advocate universal human values as well (e.g. good, love, the pursuit of truth, honesty, justice) and condemn the antagonistic behavior.

In Pautova (2009) researchers suggest the following segmentation of the values of modern youth:

1) traditionalists (focus on the good, justice) - 37%;

2) innovators (orientation on creativity, self-realization) - 18%;

3) pragmatics (focus on money, career, power) - 13%;

4) patriots (focus on the search for truth, devotion to the homeland) - 12%;

5) hedonists (focus on entertainment, comfort) - 10%;

6) romanticists (focus on faith, love, truth) - 2%.

The data above shows that young people shared universal human values rather than religious ones.

The analysis done on the dynamics of religiosity of the three generations of youth makes it necessary to generalize the findings. For this purpose we would use previously developed models of religiosity described in Lobazova (2010): canonical, social, emotional, conceptual, everyday, protest.

There are 3 religious models among three generations of young people prevalent in each historical period:

Youth of the 1980s: protest.

Youth of the 1990s: social.

Youth of the 2000s: emotional.

The first model is characterized by such a state of mind (both in cognitive and pragmatic spheres) when attention is focused on the problematic aspects of everyday life. In this situation, the youth seeks to dissociate itself from the negative influence of the world with the help of religious ceremonies, to find opportunities for self-realization in religious organizations and thus create a necessary basis of social order. For the social model of religiosity the attempt to find a new identity and new adaptive mechanisms becomes significant. The emotional coloring of such religious behavior is negligible, which, however, does not prevent its relative regularity.

The youth of the first decade of XXI century is interested in gaining religious experience without focusing on the rational component of this process, knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies. Young people often choose behavior patterns randomly, based on the power of their emotional experience. It can be said that religiosity of the Russian youth appears to be quite contradictory, diverse and unstable.

The destruction of religious identity and stirring religious controversy are one of the most effective instruments of revolutions of a new type, and it is not a specifically Russian scenario as summarized in Khvylya-Olinter NA (2010). Common faith draws people together, strengthens stateness of the country, even of a multi-religious one. The more reasons for the separation exist and the more unprotected a value and ideological system is, the easier it is to divide society and provoke protests.

On a related note, there are famous historical examples of spiritual and religious influence exerted over a country. In particular, in the 1960s American and South Korean CIA founded a movement of Moonies that intentionally carried out destructive and subversive activities in different countries, including Russia. Activities of Falun Gong organization in China could be also mentioned: after its exposure and prohibition the leader of the movement escaped to the United States. Referring to the recent events in Ukraine, we can recall that the only religious organization that provided support to the legitimate authorities during Maidan, was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), all the others were on the side of the protesters and, thus, contributed to the political transformations, the result of which was the violent conflict and the destabilization in Ukraine.

The unique role of religion is to form and consolidate national identity; yet modern religious pluralism will not help to overcome the spiritual crisis of the Russian society.


1. Berdyaev NA. 1910. Faith and Knowledge. Problems of Philosophy and Psychology. 102:78-114

2. Berdyaev NA, Bulgakov SN, Gershenzon MO, Izgoev AS, Kistyakovsky BA et al. 1909. Vekhi (Landmarks). The almanac about the Russian intelligentsia. Moscow: Printing House at Petrovka str. by Sablin V.M.

3. Kasiyanov VE. 2005. The Evolution of Religion in Post-Soviet Russia. Dissertation Abstr., University of Rostov-on-Don

4. Kasiyanova K. 2003. About Russian National Character. Moscow: Business books

5. Khvylya-Olinter AI. 2013. Examples of religious associations classifications. In Spiritual and religious base of Russia's national security, ed. AI Khvylya-Olinter, pp. 97-111. Moscow: Golden-Ship

6. Khvylya-Olinter NA. 2010. National and Cultural Identity of Modern Russian Youth in the Conditions of Globalization: the Methodology of the Sociological Analysis. Dissertation Abstr., Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow

7. Kivinen M. 1994. Middle Classes in Russia. Sociological Journal. 2:134-142

8. Kukhtevich TN, ed. 2000. Cultural Worlds of Young Russians: Three Life Situations. Moscow: Lomonosov Moscow State University publishing house

9. Kulakov PA. 1995. Studying Youth and Religion. Sociological studies. 11:91-99

10. Lobazova OF. 2010. Religiosity of Modern Russian Society: the Social and Philosophical Analysis. Dissertation Abstr., Russian State Social University, Moscow

11. Mchedlov MP. 1998. About Religiosity of the Russian Youth. Sociological studies. 6:107-111

12. Mitrokhin K. 1968. The man in the Baptist community. Problems of Philosophy. 8:42-52

13. Pautova L. 2009. Trends in Social Development: the Value of the Future. In The International Youth Forum of designing the future “Hyperborea: the battle of ideas”, Karelia, Sep. 7-15, 2009, avaliable from: [Accessed:9 march 2016]. Moscow: FOM

14. Russian Federation. Federal State Statistics Service. (2016). Russian Statistical Yearbook. 2015. Moscow: AkademPressCentr Science. (10)

15. Struve VA ed., 1969. Sur la question des courants religieux et mystiques dans la vie spirituelle la sociйtй soviйtique contemporaine. Le Messager: pйriodique de l'Action Chrйtienne des Etudiants Russes, 91-92:50-61

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