What does a Russian student believe in?

Those who study in the Moscow State University (MSU) are under much higher pressure from various religious sects. It is well-known that many sects make a special effort to recruit MSU students. Moscow Church of Christ representatives used to be especially active, and in the recent years they were replaced by the Mun’s sect followers: you cannot find a first year student who hasn’t been pestered by their questions.
Vladimir Truchin | 24 May 2006


Lots of opinion polls are carried out among Russian young people lately. We can find out lots of interesting facts, from political views of young people to their sexual preferences. However, opinion polls concerning religion are quite rare, and when they are carried our, it is usually done fairly primitively.

At the same time the question of beliefs of modern Russian students is far from boring. It is not rhetorical either. While not so long ago atheism seemed to dominate the population, nowadays any student is free to choose any religion one fancies. One can see various street preachers next to higher educational establishments – Mun’s sect followers, Moscow Church of Christ or ubiquitous Krishna followers…They are not welcome anymore on the premises of universities, in lecturing halls themselves, though a Russian Orthodox priest in a teacher’s chair is a common sight nowadays.

Those who study in the Moscow State University (MSU) are under much higher pressure from various religious sects. It is well-known that many sects make a special effort to recruit MSU students. Moscow Church of Christ representatives used to be especially active, and in the recent years they were replaced by the Mun’s sect followers: you cannot find a first year student who hasn’t been pestered by their questions. However, Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t ignore the University either, Orthodox hierarchs visit the University regularly, theological conferences are held there, and the course of lectures by Father Andrei Kuraev at the faculty of Philosopy is constantly held with full house, also attracting students from faculties of Biology, Math and History.

We have held our opinion poll among the students of two faculties – History and Linguistics. 159 students were interviewed. Obviously this poll cannot represent all of the Russian students; nonetheless the results can provide us with some valuable information.

As a rule in similar polls respondents are offered to choose their religion from a limited list: atheist, Russian Orthodox, Muslim, Jew or a representative of “other” denomination. The number of Russian Orthodox, according to those polls, reaches up to 80%, which results in some unrealistic conclusions. Nearly always the question of why the respondent identifies oneself as “Russian Orthodox” is not on the agenda, whether the person in question was merely baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church or goes to Church once a year to light a candle.

The limitation of a questionnaire like that is based on the not very substantial reasoning that any Russian who is not an atheist, nor representative of a different denomination, is an Orthodox believer (and not just an “ethnographic” believer). Thus they ignore the fact that religious views of the major part of the Russian society are just developing, and often are quite syncretistic. Turns out that it doesn’t matter that the person in question has no idea of the Creed, goes to Church for half an hour a year at Easter, but believes in reincarnation and treats his illnesses turning to quack psychics. 

To avoid the synonymy of the words “Orthodox” and “christened in the Orthodox Church”, during our interview we offered our respondents to choose their faith from lots of options, including “supportive of the Russian Orthodoxy”, “agnostic”, “God is in my soul”, and also ‘theist” –  a person, who thinks that there is a God, but finds it difficult to choose a concrete religion or set of beliefs.

Turned out that religious views of the students of those faculties were quite varied. The respondents included Muslims, Roman Catholics, Monophisites, Baptists, members of the Moscow Church of Christ, followers of “Old Orthodox Faith”, pagans and Satanists. 24% of the students of the faculty of History and 30% of students of Linguistics consider themselves Orthodox. 13% of “historians” and 25% of “linguists” are supportive of Russian Orthodoxy.  The faculty of History had 11% atheists and the faculty of Linguistics had only 4% atheists. At last, there was a large number of theists and those with “God in their soul” – all together 24% historians and 35% linguists.

67% and 77% respectively said that they believed in the immortal human soul. At the same time 62% and 63% respectively believe in the Resurrection of Christ, so their faith in immortality is based on their Christian beliefs. Though only half of them: 30% and 35% admitted that they believed in the part of the Creed which says about the resurrection of the dead before the Day of Judgement.

Thus as a result we had 24% of “conscious” (and not “ethnographic”) Christians. However, we can estimate their involvement in the Church by the fact that more than 40% of them never took Communion. One of the most important formal criteria of the involvement with the Church is supposed to be the frequency of one’s Confession, a person who doesn’t confess at least once a year is regarded as a Church “drop-out”. According to that only 10% of the Christians in the poll are not “dropouts”. However even that doesn’t prove the “extent” of their religiousness.

The reality is that many of those Christians only remember about their Orthodoxy during Lent, which they try to stick to, then take Communion on Easter day, and then …take a break till the next Lent. Possibly, the people who can be defined as practicing Christians are only those who have Confession regularly (say, four times a year). The poll result showed those made 6% of the respondents. So this very figure, and not 30%, would be a more realistic number of practicing Christians. It is a characteristic fact that smokers among those who consider themselves Christians are nearly as common as among the rest of the students, though they are practically non-existent among those who confess regularly. Besides, among those who consider themselves Christians faith often goes along with superstition, sometimes they are more superstitious than average. However practicing Christians are not superstitious at all.

On the whole the poll shows that among MSU students Orthodox missionary activities cause the greatest response. Most of the students converted during their student years (more linguists than historians).

At the same time we should take into account that these 6% is probably the limit nowadays. The faculties of Linguistics, History and Philosophy are normally considered to be leading in the number of Orthodox Christians. On the one hand, the Orthodox usually have more interest in those subjects, on the other hand, studying these sciences gives students more opportunities to learn about Orthodoxy, many start going to Church through their art, historical or philosophical interests. Other faculties traditionally have a lower number of Christian believers, though nobody knows the exact numbers.  Moscow is the Christian Orthodox capital of the world. We have an Orthodox theater here, orthodox cinemas and even Orthodox extreme sports fan clubs. One has a choice of good priests, a selection of good parishes, after all there are several hundred Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow. What about young people living in other cities and towns? Usually they don’t have a choice like that. And the number of Orthodox Christians there naturally would be much lower.

We must also remember that the MSU is an elite establishment, and this could be the other explanation of the higher numbers of believers among its students, after all it is not a coincidence that every tenth priest in Moscow is a graduate of the Moscow State University.

Unfortunately, the small scale of our poll didn’t allow us to find out whether there is a higher number (compared to other universities) of representatives of other religions (Muslims, Jews) at the MSU. In any case the results we got give us the reason to maintain that tomorrow Russia would be no less religious than today.

Vladimir Truchin

Translated by Elena Smirnova


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