Over the course of the past year, liberal Russians and international observers alike have watched with growing concern as the government of the Russian Federation has taken an increasingly hard line with New Religious Movements (NRMs) of both domestic and foreign origin.
A new law restricting such religious organizations that was recently passed by the Parliament but vetoed by President Yeltsin is only the latest manifestation of public concern over the spread of so-called “cults” and “sects.” In the post-Soviet era, it is the foreign NRMs that continue to garner most of the publicity (and hostility), since their vast financial resources enable them to spread their word with capitalist efficiency.
Moscow State University’s Journalism School now has an “L. Ron Hubbard Reading Room,” while the Unification Church has recently come under fire from the Russian Commission on Religious Organizations for sponsoring a public school course entitled “The World and I”.
Despite the furor over the role of “imported” religious groups, the “problem” of NRMs in Russia would not be nearly so acute if it weren’t for the tendency of people throughout Russia to create alternative belief systems of their own. The former Soviet Union has produced a number of “home-grown” NRMs that vie with the Orthodox Church for followers.
Though they cannot compete with foreign missionaries in terms of resources, they do have a “home team” advantage: they draw on local traditions to address the widespread anxiety over the nature and future of the Russian identity. Some, such as the Bazhov Academy of Secret Knowledge, look to folklore for the answer: much of the teaching of this group are based on their interpretation of fairy tales written by the Sverdlovsk author Pavel Bazhov (1879-1950), who is said to have encoded sacred truths in his seemingly innocuous children’s stories. Steeped in folklore and national traditions, the Academy sponsors conferences and folklore festivals, and has close ties with the local government; a Bazhov festival in 1995 is said to have attracted 6000 participants.
Other, more successful post-Soviet NRMs have tapped into the emotional appeal that Orthodoxy has for many Russians; by stylizing themselves as the “one true” Orthodox Church, they make conflict with the Patriarchate inevitable. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, two new religious movements have been particularly consistent trespassers on Orthodox turf: the Great White Brotherhood and the Mother of God Center.
On the surface, the two groups are similar enough that they have often been confused in the popular consciousness: members of the Great White Brotherhood wear white robes and worship a woman who calls herself “the Mother of the World Lord Jesus-Maria, Maria Devi Khristos”, while the Mother of God Center’s clergy wear purple robes and look to Mary for the salvation of the world. Each appeals to the traditional Russian reverence for maternal symbols, although, ironically, the Brotherhood used to be run by a man, and the Center’s hierarchy is exclusively male.
Perhaps because of this similarity, the groups are at great pains to distance themselves from each other; indeed, when I was researching the Mother of God Center in Moscow this June, a number of the Center’s priests and deacons repeatedly told me that the Russian Orthodox Church deliberately encouraged the identification of their group with the Brotherhood in order to discredit the Center with the brotherhood’s apocalyptic radicalism.
Of the two groups, the Great White Brotherhood has gained far more notoriety. Espousing an eclectic mix of Theosophy, Buddhism, and even music theory, the group gained notoriety when its leaders claimed that the world would come to an end in November 1993, and only the faithful would survive. The public panic that resulted from a misunderstanding of Maria Devi’s apocalyptic teachings would end only after the Brotherhood’s leaders were put behind bars. Today, the Great White Brotherhood is all but disbanded.
The Mother of God Center, though superficially similar to the Great White Brotherhood, has taken a decidedly different path. The Center was founded in the late 1980s by Ioann Bereslavsky, a defrocked Orthodox priest who claims to be Mary’s prophet. Bereslavsky’s early writings contain numerous allusions to the coming end of the world, but, perhaps in response to the fate of the White Brotherhood, he soon shifted his emphasis away from the apocalypse.
In general, the history of the Mother of God Center traces the path from extremism to accommodation as the Center struggles for respectability: gone are Bereslavsky’s early invectives against the evils of “earthly” parents (especially mothers, who distract their sons from worshipping the Mother of God); gone, too, are the harsh dietary rules and mandatory celibacy for all followers.
All the members of the Center’s hierarchy whom I encountered were at great pains to portray themselves as part of a mainstream movement, and to explain that the Center has been defamed by the Orthodox Church and the press. Today, the Center is showing steady growth and has chapters all throughout Russia. Their ritual is a striking combination of the trappings of Russian Orthodoxy, a Catholic veneration of Mary, and the foot-stomping spirit of Evangelical Protestantism.
At times the purple clad priests and deacons march across the stage carrying Russian Orthodox Banners, singing “Blessed be the Lord”; at others, members of the congregation embrace each other and express their love. Many of the Center’s members whom I interviewed had come to Bereslavsky through Protestantism: the enthusiasm of the Baptists had initially appealed to them, but they missed the staid elegance of Orthodoxy. That the Center manages to combine both in a kind of “Evangelical Orthodoxy” explains much of the movement’s appeal.
New NRMs crop up every day, and none of them seem particularly daunted by the threat of persecution. Even if Yeltsin does finally sign a modified version of the religion law, the Russian Orthodox Church will still find itself obliged to fight for the souls of the faithful on the open market of religious ideas.
— By Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Slavic and Russian Studies at New York University