CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Contemporary Religious Situation in the South-Western Siberia: New Developments and Change of the Traditional Religious-Ethnic Patterns

Julia S. Kovalchuk, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The research on identity of people living on the post-soviet territories continues to be the issue of current importance.  After the collapse of “soviet’ identity, most of the people had to rethink their social identity in conditions of severe social - economic crisis.   In order to maintain society stable, balance of religious, ethnic and state identities should be maintained and form the society members’ base identity, but the current situation is far away from what can be called “ideal” for both the Russians and other ethnic groups. In those autonomous republics of  Russian Federation where the indigenous population practiced other religions than the Russian Orthodox Christianity, the national elites revived the traditional believes.  Doing that, the elites attempted to make the religious identity based on tradition a part of newly formed national consciousness. In addition the religious situation in post-soviet Russia got more complicated with the arrival of new religious movements, missionaries of various denominations, which poured in 1990-ies from abroad.

The paper is dedicated to the analysis of a contemporary religious situation in the South-Western Siberia. The majority of population in Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Altaisk and Kemerovo Regions are the Russians – about 90%, who belong to the Russian Orthodox cultural tradition. And the proportion of indigenous population in three autonomous republics is rather big: in Tyva Republic - 77%, in Hakhasia Republic - 12%, in Altai Republic – 30%. In these republics the public discussion about the choice of national religion is still going on. The research was conducted in 2003-2005, based on the field research, participant observation, monitoring of local press and questionnaires, interviews with region population. 

The state policy of Russian Federation mainly counts on the Russian Orthodox Church, and supports the co-existence of Russian Orthodoxy with Islam, Buddhism in the multinational regions. The cooperation between the leaders of these traditional religions is based on the   fact of being “traditional” in Russia in contrast to newcomers. The state administration and church leaders’ attitude towards coming religions is quite negative; the last continue to exist because of the 1996 religious freedom law, and on conditions that their actions will not lead to instability in the region.  The rise of the protestant churches planted by foreign missionaries is one of the main tendencies in the last years in Siberia region. Churches with elements of Pentecostal doctrines prevail among those that have come recently. The success of Pentecostal churches all over the world shows a great potential of this form of Christianity, as it is able to adapt to different ethnic and cultural forms.  Thus, evangelism has to be viewed as a cross-cultural interaction between newcomers and  Siberian indigenous ethnic groups, who nowadays experience cultural, economic and social difficulties.  

The Altai people faced the Russian Orthodox believes when the first Russians came to Altai territory in the 17th century. Co-existence with the Russians and their religious and cultural tradition, influenced lifestyle of Altai ethnic groups, a part of population started to confess Russian Orthodoxy. Nowadays, the Russians represent 57% of Altai Republic population, 30%  -  the Altaians и 6%  - the Kazakhs, etc. Because of migrations, several religions co-exist in Altai:  Orthodoxy, Islam (the Kazakhs confess Islam), Buddhism, Shamanism, and burkhanism – a syncretic religion, that appeared in the late 19th century.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the debates about choice of Altai state religion are continuing. According to local press monitoring, the majority of population stays indifferent to religion discussions, they simply contrast “our” and “alien” faith. Thus, they see “our” faith as a complex of believes and religious practices of everyday life importance, based on shamanism. The attempts of Altai elite to determine “our” and create religious ideology, that can be used as a symbol of the nation renaissance have been undertaken but not fulfilled.  Altai Republic government supports the dialog of traditional confessions and limits the influence of new coming religious groups in the Republic. Besides, Altai mountain area is considered a sacred place and that fact attracts a number of religious groups from other places of Russia, these groups organize summer camps there. “Religion tourism” does not interest the natives, as they see it as alien and usually ignore or feel irritation towards new comers.


  From the beginning of this century, a lot of religious figures visited Altai religious groups and protestant churches, but nevertheless from 2000 to 2005 there was registered none coming with entrance visa, that permitted religious activities.

The research held in the capital of Altai Republic, Gorno-Altaisk in 2004, showed that the source of information on religion themes is limited: no books or magazines on subjects related to religion (except the Russian Orthodox literature), internet access is limited even for young people, local press pays not much attention to contemporary religious situation. The Russian Orthodox Church had initially strong positions in Hakhasia and the Hakhas (today they present - 11.9%), were converted to Russian Orthodoxy by the beginning of the 20th century. Hakhas shamanism believes and customs are viewed as a part of cultural heritage and ethnography. Some protestant churches (Lutheran, Baptist, others) work in Hakhasia, but the attempts of Korean protestant missionaries to plant churches for indigenous population failed. Missionaries said  - it was because of Russian Orthodoxy potent position in the region and opposition to protestant reinforcement from the  side of Republic administration.

The tolerant attitude towards religious believes of others was formed historically as a result of  ethnic and religious heterogeneity of Altai and Hakhasia Republics. Lets add the lack of information about religious situation for public, plus economic and social difficulties, which population has to face, all these together form the aloofness and indifference of the majority towards religion.

In Tyva the debate on state religion choice continues to be prior as it defines the geopolitical place of the Republic. The Tyva people tend to traditional for them buddhism and shamanism syncretism. The majority says that preservation of religious tradition helps to integrate and revive the Tyva nation, and on the contrary, the fact that the Tyva people confess other religions (Protestantism) brings nation to division and decline, because making the choice towards Christianity the Tyva people change traditional worldview and loose the Tyva identity. Nevertheless, the process of Protestantism adaptation takes place in the Republic. Korean Protestants plant churches mainly for Tyva people, adapt doctrines and practices to local culture. They use the Tyva-centric ideology, mobilizing the ethnic identity of the Tyva Christians. The church services are conducted in the Tyva language, as well as the religious literature in the churches is in  local language.  The planted churches belong to famous Korean Pentecostal denomination Yoido Full Gospel, started to grow in the capital of Tyva, Kyzyl, and also in some rural areas. The process of adaptation to local culture includes the same strategies that have been used in South Korea more than a half century ago: the missionaries count on the ethnic group, who are currently in crisis situation, offering a new ideology including the elements of the traditional local culture.  This strategy is in use today not only in Tyva, but in other regions of Russia as well.

An ethnic and cultural structure of  Siberian cities is more complicated and diverse than it is in rural areas. For example, Novosibirks is the third largest city in Russia with multinational population with Russian majority 92% (representatives of 69 ethnic groups) about 1,6 mln. people. The religion market of Novosibirsk is in great extent diverse; almost all religious groups and organizations that exist in Russia are represented here.

  About 300 religious organizations, 42 denominations were registered in Novosibirsk region by 2002. Many of them are not traditional for Russia, including a number of new religion movements. Often the youth is chosen as a target group in proselytism campaigns, as young people are very eager to join groups while searching for identity, and do not have enough educational and life experience to make a reasonable and independent choice.  

The research on religious and ethnic identity of people of all age groups living in Novosibirsk and Kemerovo regions  has been conducted in February-March of  2005; 740 questioneers - religion connected questins and 660 questineers - ethnic quesion have been collected.


Table shows the religiosity level  of young people (96% respondents are  Russians) in Novosibirsk/Kemerovo regions.



Constantly go to church Sometimes go to church It is personal matter practice at home

Born in 1980-90-ies

Male - 2%,

Female – 2.2%


F- 49%

M -50%,



Among religions that excite student’s curiosity and interest the most popular answers are: “Buddhism” -  29.7%, “Islam” –11%, “Catholicism” - 10.3%, “Russian Orthodoxy” - 7.7%, “Christianity” - 7%, “none of the religions cause interest” answered 32% of respondents.  The next question was about those religions that cause a feeling of fear, students named: “Islam” -  12%, “Jehovah’s Witnesses” -  11%, “different sects” - 8.4%, “Baptists” - 6.8%, “none of religions cause fear” answered 21% of young people. Basically the phobia regarding the mentioned religions is based on existing in Russia stereotypes, more than on real life experience of respondents. Cordial dislike refers to Jehovah’s Witnesses followers, who behaved pretty much troublesome on proselytizing on the streets. Also the Pentecostal, Baptist  and other protestant denominations are very unpopular according to the research results. This fact can be explained as a reminder of  anti-religion and anti-sect campaigns of 1950-60-ies. As a result of the campaigns almost all protestant denominations were labeled as “sects” with extremely negative and disrespectful view of the followers, and that particular stereotypes are continuing to be reproduced in the society. As we see in the table, the proportions of those who have fear of ‘sects’ dominate in older generations.


Table of common religion phobia stereotypes  among novosibirsk/kemerovo region population.


Age of the respondents

Are afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Are afraid of “sects” followers

Are afraid of those belonging to Baptist church

Retirees (Year of birth 1920,30,40)




Born in 1950-ies




Born in 1960-ies




Born in 1970-ies




Born in 1980/90-ies





As most of the respondents consider themselves as Russian Orthodoxy followers, they share the basic attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church towards other religions; the attitude is characterized by strong anti-cult outlook, that excludes the possibility of dialog with others. All denominations and religion groups, except few, which are  traditional for Russia as Islam, Buddhism, are placed  in “black-list of sects”. Municipal and regional administrations (maintain the relationship with the dominating Russian Orthodox Church) as well as  mass media, use the term “totalitarian sects”, thus the negative image of all new religions exists.

The students’ answers on general questions about  their attitude toward different religions displayed tolerance or most likely indifference. The same attitude has been displayed by students when they answered personal questions regarding the believes of their relatives and friends.

Students were supposed to answer the question: “How would you react if someone of your relatives or friends is going to adopt (Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Jehovah Witnesses, Baptism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Buddhism, Krishnaism, etc)?” 23% of both Orthodoxy believers and unbelievers found difficulty in answering this question. 15% of the respondents answered “I don’t care” showing aloof attitude to the problem, 16% showed tolerance saying that “It is normal/ I have nothing against it”. Negative answers such as “I would not communicate with him”, “I would prevent from it”, “I would avoid him” were sporadic and related mainly to possibility to adopt Protestantism and Islam by their relatives or friends. Emotional-perceptible answers such as “would submit to/ wouldn’t submit to/ would be distressed with” predominated among the replies. In general these answers could be interpreted as expression of tolerance and indifference towards other religious traditions. In addition to religions traditional for Russia, the inquiry dealt with a number of new religious movements and religious-philosophic doctrines. 

A table including eighteen oriental religions, religious -philosophic teachings, parcticies has been proposed to the respondents. They have been asked to mark familiar names. All names presented in the table were either declared in advertising companies in Novosibirsk, or covered by media; some of them have their centers functioning in Novosibirsk: Karma Kagyu buddhism, Krishna consciousness, Falungun, Hatkha yoga, Sahadja yoga, Brakhma Kumaris, Osho Radzhnesh, Tantra sangha, Reiki, Agni yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Shri Chinmoi, Ananda Marga, the Unified church of Muhn, Aum Shinrikyo, bahaism, integral yoga, Buddhism Gelugpha. The inquiry have showed very low degree of knowledge and confirmed general indifference of people to religions. 


Table of competence about different religious traditions.



All names are unknown (Kemerovskaya Region)

 All names are unknown (Novosibirskaya Region)

Retirees (Year of birth 1920, 30, 40)



Born in 1950-ies



Born in 1960-ies



Born in1970-ies



Born in 1980-ies




Estimation and attitude of modern youth towards religion is greatly influenced by external sources, more often these are opinions of family, the society of adults  and mass media. Lack of information and absence of religion-studying subjects in the education system leads to the situation when population has a certain set of stereotypes regarding religions that are transferred between generations and very often supported by mass media. Stereotype perception relates not only to religions but predominate in the sphere of ethnic relations. Besides, very often respondents do not see any difference between “ethnic” and  “denomination” categories “Russian/Orthodox”, “Chechen/Muslims” etc. In their answers they substitute one category by another that, in turn, shows that these notions are not distinguished in the respondents’ own identity system.

            The majority of the Russians living in the South-Western Siberia adherers to the  Russian Orthodox cultural paradigm with loyal relation to other religious traditions.  Religious identity continue to be not actualized in the identity system of young people, that explains general aloof attitude of the majority of youth to religious problems and poor knowledge of these issues. In the system of traditional culture values of autonomous republics population religious identity constitutes a single whole with ethnic identity. However in the cities (Kyzyl, Gorno-Altaisk) a new protestant tradition comes and substitute traditional religious identity. Nevertheless, ethnic identity of converted indigenous people does not become weaker after this substitution, but sometimes becomes reinforced. Self-consciousness of Siberian cities population varies from religion-ethnic uncertainty, to tolerant poly-cultural type of consciousness, hence ethnic and religious interaction is included in social and cultural interactions.