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23 August, 2018  ▪  Hanna Trehub

No alternative wanted

Anti-cult movements as an instrument in Russia’s hybrid war

William Bainbridge, Roger Finke, Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark formulated the theory of religious economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They adapted the idea described earlier by Scottish economist Adam Smith to themodern days. Smith described his concept of economic models of religious institutions, including state-sponsored religious monopolies and competing religious markets, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The state of a nation’s humanitarian and cultural space is clearly linked to the state of its political regime. If it weren’t, the cultural-political project of Russki Mir would be senseless and unnecessary, while its capacity to impact society would be null. Reality is exactly the opposite. 


When Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate (ROC MP) described Russki Mir, the basic elements he mentioned included Orthodox faith, Russian language and culture, shared historical memory and a common perspective of the way society should develop. It is common knowledge that ROC MP is linked to the Russian government and is taking every effort to preserve its monopoly over the religious space within Russia and beyond. The goal is to make sure that there are no alternatives to the “national” Russian Church and the ideas, worldview and values it promotes, while the freedom of conscience and religion — a fundamental element of democracy — remains on paper rather than in reality. ROC MP has a number of auxiliary organizations helping it protect the monopoly by discrediting competitors on the religious market in the eyes of society within its “canonical” territory which, for now, claims Ukraine, among other places. 


These auxiliary organizations include anti-cult and anti-sect movements that treat new religious movements, as well as Catholics, Protestants or other Orthodox jurisdictions, as rivals that should be oppressed by any means. Free and peaceful co-existence of different religious traditions in one state and their equality before law is a democratic practice that does not fit into the spirit of Orthodox Fundamentalism. Whoever does not follow Orthodoxy in its Russian format is treated as an agent in the West’s ideological war against Russia.


Game of interpretations


Anti-cult and anti-sect movements are the instruments the ROC MP has adjusted to its own needs but did not invent. A clash between orthodoxy and heresies permeates the entire history of Christianity, its development and transformations. When orthodoxy was shaped, the political and state support of the Byzantyne Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) played a huge role in the process thereby encouraging the interpretation of Christianity that befit it. Anti-cult and countercult movements were the phenomena of a later period, a reaction of different religious and socio-political forces to the spread of new religious movements in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. They were born in the US where the word culthas a negative connotation in everyday speech and is used for disapproved religious groups. In Europe and post-soviet states, the word sectis the equivalent. 


The anti-cult movement is an umbrella phrase for communities or groups that resist new religious movements, referring to them as cults. Secularism is an important feature of the anti-cult movement, while its key audiences include the government, law enforcement authorities and the media — in their eyes, the new religious movements are portrayed as socially dangerous and criminal organizations to be countered by state and society. 


Countercult movements are more about confessions: they criticize and counter religious communities interpreted as cults(this term covers both representatives of new religious movements, and those perceived as representatives of sects) and originate from religious organizations, missionaries or theologists. Countercult movements seek to reveal to the public where the position of their opponents does not fit into the “true religion” and is damaging to an individual’s development. The key aim of this activity is to warn the followers of their own religious tradition against switching to others, or to persuade the followers of other religious beliefs to return to the “true faith”. 

RELATED ARTICLE: The irreversible path. How close is Ukraine to autocephaly for its Orthodox Church?

Pure countercultism remains a local trend within Protestantism. Quite paradoxically, Protestants are often perceived as “sectants”, or representatives of cults, in a number of ex-soviet countries. Originating from the tsarist Russia, the title was actively exploited by the soviet authorities and remains as a rudiment of that time in social mindset today. 


The Center of Apologetic Studies offers a good illustration of the countercult movement in Russia. Founded in the early 2000s, it has one of its offices in Kyiv, Ukraine, among other places. Another powerful anti-cult movement in Europe is the French-based European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS) that includes a number of organizations from different European countries, as well as from Russia. Its vice president is Alexander Dvorkin, head of the St. Irenaeus of Lyons Russian Center for Study of Religions and Sects. Also, FECRISmembers include a Ukrainian organization called FPPS (Family and Personality Protection Society) which, however, has no website or social media accounts. The Ukrainian equivalent of the St. Irenaeus Center website run by Alexander Dvorkin is called Ukraine Sektantskaya. Run in the Russian language, this and similar resources mostly spread the ideas of Russian anti-cultism in Ukraine.  


Anti-cult movements in the West intensify in waves as the context and reality of its religious life changes: new religious movements were something new 40-50 years ago but they have become part of the religious market by now, even if not a particularly significant one.


The Russian version of the anti-cult movement backed by the ROC MP and Russia’s current government is somewhat different, with some elements of Western anti-cult and countercult movements. While both of these movements focus on specific protection of narrow group or individual interests, the Russian version protects and supports the system that serves the interests of those currently in power and has nothing to do with defending citizen rights or freedoms.


Pillars of resilient monopoly


Confessionalism and relations between confessions and the state in the Soviet Union and Russia have in the past and present been defined by ideological priorities and  superstitions rather than the real context on the ground. State leaders and those involved in carrying out their policies always viewed religion and religious organizations through the perspective of certain ideologies and worldview. In the Soviet Union, policies on religions were driven by Marxism, Leninism and scientific atheism. According to the ideological dogmas driving the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, any religion was treated as reactionary. Still, the state preserved the right to arbitrarily declare certain religious organizations as more damaging than others, based on its political goals of the time. 


Russian researchers define two key stages of religious policy in their country. The first one lasted from 1990 till 1996 and was rooted in the Law on Freedom of Religions passed on October 25, 1990. The Law quite comprehensively and consistently introduced the notion of equality of all religious organizations before law. That document and the religious policy it framed was based on the perception of religion as a positive spiritual phenomenon, while state control over religious organizations had to be brought down to a minimum. The second stage started in 1997 and lasts till now. On September 26, 1997, the Russian Parliament passed the Federal Law On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. The preamble recognizes the special role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and praises Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and others. Neither this law, nor any other laws in Russia contain terms, such as “traditional” or “non-traditional” religions. However, these very terms are actively used in the public socio-political debate in Russia. While lacking these legal definitions, Russia does list on the state level the religions it helps and supports officially, and those it keeps under strict supervision. 


The most visible deformation of Russian religious policies from 2009 on has been the incorporation of the anti-cultideology. Eventually, this has created the ground and opportunities for accusing law-abiding religious organizations and the literature they publish of extremism. 


ROC MP, its episcopate, clergy and parishioners saw the downfall of Communism as a return to the pre-October Revolution domination of their Church, unrestrained by nothing and no-one. They placed their bets on building a symphony with the state authorities. Before it passed the 1994 Resolution, ROC MP criticized Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox of other denominations using quazi-theological arguments. But its intolerance towards missionary activities on its “cannonical territory” was until then viewed as an internal conflict in which neither politicians nor other officials wanted to interfere much. The 1994 Resolution brought the first instructions to each and everyone — political leaders in the first place. 


The anti-cult movement has been used in Russia for its traditional purposes, as well as to discredit politicians, civil servants and journalists rallying for the freedom of conscience and equality of all religions organizations before law. After Patriarch Kirill chaired ROC in 2009, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Justice, underwent a purge getting rid of the officials who supported equality religions organizations before law, and reinforcing the position of anti-cult proponents. Eventually, the anti-cult movement and its concepts began to dominate in Russian government agencies that develop and implement state religious policies. In 2009, Alexander Dvorkin known for his radical anti-cult views was elected to chair the Expert Council for State Religious Expertise at the Ministry of Justice. He had emigrated to the US in the 1970s, studied there and was a well-known figure in the Russian emigre community. He quit his work at Radio Liberty in 1990s before moving back to Russia where he made a good career by working for the interests of ROC MP and Russian law enforcement agencies. 


Russia’s special brand of anti-cult movement is solidly rooted in a very particular model comprised of the doctrines and practices of ROC MP, a religious organization that is in harsh competition with other players of the religious market. Its confessional norms are very far from the civil law or academic notions. Also, it sticks to a special concept of the rights of Russia’s “titular Church”. The aim of all this is to cultivate fears in society, plant the “ours” vs “alien” concept in its mindset, and set “us” against “them”, which serves as a great foundation for constructing the image of enemies. The same processes are taking place in other spheres of Russian society which is going into deeper isolation driven by the efforts of Putin’s regime. This mapping of the world and Russia’s place in it has little to do with the foundations of democracy or peaceful co-existence with neighbors. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Church Opposition

ROC MP uses different tools to remove its competitors from the religious market, ranging from criminal cases and accusations of extremism against representatives of new religious movements to physical elimination or squeezing out representatives of other religious or confessions. This is what happened on the territory of the annexed Crimea or the occupied parts of the Donbas where Russia is waging its armed aggression against Ukraine. As part of ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate sticks to ROC’s anti-cult movement and spreads its ideas and views among anyone in contact with it.


Clearly, criminal or illegal activity qualifies as such regardless of who commits it, regardless of the person’s confession. However, Ukraine’s laws entail accountability for illegal actions, not thoughts or beliefs. Like the citizens, all religious organizations in Ukraine should be equal before law. Another important aspect is that identification as Ukrainian does not necessarily tie the person to a specific religion. A political nation can be comprised of different ethnicities and confessions that see Ukraine as their state and its citizenship as a value. 


An important task for Ukraine’s society is to develop academic religious expertise as an element in defending its national security and resisting hybrid threats in the humanitarian sphere. Also, Ukraine needs quality information and analysis of religious life in the country and the world that’s accessible to everyone. Defense against distortion of information, including in culture and humanities, comes from verifying the messages rather than taking them at face value. Any religious institution that undermines the foundations of Ukrainian statehood ideologically and practically, regardless of the terms in which it coats these efforts, poses a threat to Ukraine’s society.

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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