On September 21, 1997 anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin presented a paper on "cults" in Russia at an event in Bonn, Germany sponsored by the Enquete-Commission on Sects and Psychogroups of the German Parliament. Dvorkin's views have been largely disseminated by the international anti-cult network, inter alia on the Internet. Marat S. Shterin, a Doctoral student at the London School of Economics & Political Science, and a Senior research fellow at The State Library for Foreign Literature (Moscow) sent the following reply to the German parliamentary commission.This paper represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of the institutions to which he is affiliated or CESNUR. It is at any rate an important contribution to the ongoing international discussion on the Russian situation.
(Edited in html by Massimo Introvigne. Notes are at the end of the paper).
NEW RELIGIONS, CULTS AND SECTS IN RUSSIA: A CRITIQUE AND BRIEF ACCOUNT OF THE PROBLEMS
The "cult problem" has recently been given serious attention by both European countries and European institutions. It has been subject to close scrutiny by special commissions set up by parliaments in some European countries, and it served as the major reason for the radical change in the Russian religious legislation.
The commonly cited grounds for such a dramatic attention to this problem have been the perceived dangers associated with anti-social and illicit activities of some of the new religions, acts of mass suicide and the hypothesised general increase in the influence of cults (found in the growing figures of membership, extended political connections, etc.).
However, there have also been put forward some critically important considerations against taking hasty actions to restrict the activities of new religious movements (NRMs) in Europe. First of all, any changes in legislation should not interfere with the fundamental rights to freedom of conscience and worship guaranteed by the European Conventions on Human Rights. Second, from the legal point of view, it would be extremely difficult to provide any technical definition of "cult" that would not jeopardise the legitimate activities of hundreds of minority religions. Finally, the question has been raised as to whether our knowledge of the cult phenomenon in general and of the causes of the worrying aspects of some of them in particular, is sufficient for taking special actions. Moreover, reports produced by the above-mentioned parliamentary commissions have been subject to severe criticism by the international academic community.
Having said that, there is no doubt that if the cult activities in Europe have become a matter of public concern, this should lead to (a) proper studies of the phenomenon (or phenomena) in different countries, (b) collecting information from different countries and (c) conclusions and proposals for actions based on proper scientific and legal bases.
However, we should be aware of the danger of information, which may be unreliable, from one country affecting the way the problem is perceived in other(s); moreover, we may not be aware that this information comes from interconnected sources and has a similar (if not the same) bias. This is especially true when all new religions are a priori defined as dangerous cults, and any misconduct of any member is seen as another case in point.
Such considerations compelled me to critically review A. Dvorkin's presentation before the Bundestag Commission on 21 September, 1997 in which he offered his account of the present state of the cult problem in Russia. I am of the view that this presentation is flawed both methodologically and factually. I also have reservations as to whether it is acceptable on purely moral grounds as it contains several ad hominem and groundless attacks upon a number of named individuals.
Part I. A critical review of the methodology and evidence
Dvorkin's paper purports to show that
a) the level of sectarian activities in Russia is extremely high;
b) these activities are mainly anti-social and dangerous.
In my view, there are two major problems with the ways in which these two claims are substantiated. First, both claims are lumped together; second, evidence provided for each of them is insufficient, irrelevant, contradictory or incorrect.
It can be argued that the issue of the level of sectarian activities in society should not be taken to be the same as the issue of whether or not these activities are anti-social in their nature. Each of these issues requires a different type of evidence and different kinds of analysis. The level of sectarian activities may be indicative of the fundamental social processes which we need to understand if we are to deal with them. However, we cannot assume that all new religions, cults or sects are "dangerous" or "destructive" and that they all make up a kind of "secto- mafia". By doing so, we may put ourselves at risk of creating a new myth instead of acquiring knowledge about the phenomena that cause our concern.
An underlying assumption of Dvorkin's paper is that all NRMs have essentially the same characteristics, and they all can be called "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults" (1). It seems thus sufficient for the author to give a few examples from a few groups to make the general claim about dangers coming from all NRMs. Moreover, these activities are described as anti-social because they are associated with cults. An "accusation-by-association" method is widely used in the paper. Following such a logic, the author was bound to enter a kind a vicious circle: cults are dangerous because their activities are dangerous; their activities are dangerous because cults are dangerous.
This approach leads to lumping together different types of evidence without giving any consideration as to which evidence relates to which claim. It may be true, for example, that some of the leaders of some of the cults have tried to pester some of the (mostly former) Russian politicians, or that an occasional official might have been through a Scientological course, or that the Church of Christ has been noticed for "hanging around" university campuses, or that the Jehovah Witnesses try to "recruit in working class areas". This kind of evidence per se does not necessarily imply that the "cults" have actually done anything dangerous. On the other hand, this is not sufficient to evaluate the level of sectarian activities, let alone suggest that cults are ubiquitous (I shall try to show that evidence indicates the opposite).
Thus, the methodology employed by the author does not offer us any grounds on which to decide whether his general claims are true or not. We may either believe him, providing we share his basic assumptions, or remain unimpressed if we are to take pains to weigh the evidence provided for the claims made.
Some of the evidence simply makes us doubt about the generalisations the author makes. On the one hand he describes cults as powerful structures (he talks about "empires", "mammoth investments", "secto-mafia", etc) whose activities are associated with everything "anti-social, anti-family and anti-personality [...], mind control, exploitation, and outright crime". On the other, he offers us ample evidence to suggest that their influence was so insignificant that it could be successfully dealt with within the framework of rather routine measures. Thus, according to Dvorkin himself, several programs on a local TV virtually drove Scientology away from one of the biggest Russian cities of Nizhni Novgorod; similarly, a couple of the tax-police investigations were, allegedly, sufficient to cause the Unification Church (UC) to radically change its policies. On one page the author offers his "sociology" of the "general poverty of the population [which] makes it very easy for a rich cult to buy its way up rather easily" and describes the triumphal cultic march into Russian "schools, hospitals, army, military industry and power circles". On the following page, however, he admits that "in spite of all the mammoth investments [of the UC] nothing comes back from it"; on the same page he points out that a single decision of the Ministry of Health was sufficient to cause the "most crushing setback" of Scientology.
Assuming that all the cults are the same, Dvorkin lumps together obviously unrelated "facts" from different groups so that it looks as if logic failed the author. How could the UC's troubles with the tax police directly lead, as Dvorkin puts it, to the "process of pseudo-indigenisation" of which the Hare Krishnas are presented as a typical, though "too-far-gone", example?
I would like to dwell on ISKCON for a bit longer: first, because it is one of the movements I have studied for the last four years, and second, because it seems to be one means of testing the reliability of the evidence supplied by Dvorkin.
Dvorkin accuses ISKCON of getting involved with "neo-nazi and neo-pagan extreme nationalistic groups". To buttress the accusation, he deliberately ascribes to ISKCON the book "The Vedic Rus' in the Past and Future. The Basics of the Mystical Politology (The Arian Gospel)". The book, however, was published by a person who has himself publicly declared that he never belonged to ISKCON. Moreover, in May 1996 ISKCON severely criticised the book for its extremely nationalistic ideas and references to the Vedic philosophy ("ISHTA-GOSHTA" magazine, N 5-6, May-June, 1996, Moscow 123007, P.Box 63). Dvorkin is well aware of these facts, as on several occasions they were presented to him by ISKCON.
Dvorkin alleges that the Hare Krishna are building up their "empire in the food industry and pharmaceutical industry". This is simply untrue unless a dozen of kiosks, a couple of restaurants and a couple of dozens of individuals privately practising ayurvedic medicine can be called "industrial empires".
Another two "stories" are based on sensational media reports.
I would like to stress that even if these stories had been true it would have been insufficient to generalise about the whole movement and its policies. However, Dvorkin's account is incorrect factually. The story about a "Krishna" arrested in Ekaterinbourg did appear first on a local TV and was then repeated by one of the leading channels in September 1997. However, a few days later the local TV and some local papers refuted the earlier information as it had turned out that the young man did not belong to ISKCON and had nothing to do with it (Ekaterinbourgskaya Nedelya, n. 37, September, 12, 1997). Another story, about a 12-year old boy, comes from two Moscow tabloids and is, in fact, a misconstrued and deliberately slanted difficult family story which has nothing to do with the actual ISKCON's policies.
At the same time Dvorkin deliberately ignores the well-known fact that members of ISKCON have been subject to violence in Russia, sometimes on purely nationalistic grounds (as a "non-Russian" religion). He also failed to acknowledge the fact that the movement has received some state money for its program Food for Life because in some extremely difficult emergency situations (such as in the Republic of Abkhasia or in some Chechnya regions) the program was one of the very few charities which was prepared to provide the population with food - and some devotees engaged in the program lost their lives (this has been widely covered by the Russian and Western media, see, for example, New York Times, 12 December 1995; Financial Times, 8 January 1996).
It seems pertinent to mention the fact that in 9 October 1997 another anti-cult author, Kvilia-Olinter admitted, under the pressure of unrefutable facts presented by ISKCON to the Khoroshevsky Municipal Court of Justice (Moscow), that his publication about the movement (based on the same sources, and similar concepts as those of Dvorkin's) was incorrect (2).
Several other examples of uncritical selective usage of the media stories suggest that Dvorkin fails to recognise the difference between the media reports on the one hand and rigorous, systematically conducted investigations on the other. Moreover, he seems to have difficulties in distinguishing between the mass opinion about the cults and the sources of this opinion. First, the mass opinion about cults, to which Dvorkin refers, should be a matter of a separate and accurate study; second, this opinion cannot be regarded as evidence of their proliferation or dangers. After all, Dvorkin himself has been one of the sources of the public "knowledge" about cults and as such he seems to be recycling his own information.
Much in the paper hinges on references to private opinions such as that of Mr. Navarnov's about 250,000 families allegedly "destroyed by sects". We are left without any reference to the grounds for such a calculation which seems absolutely improbable (see below). It passes off as facts unsubstantiated suspicions like that of ISKCON allegedly having connections with the local mafia in Ekaterinbourg. It also refers to highly questionable speculations such as that about Dianetics being responsible for the demise of many Russian industries; this is in a context in which about half Russian enterprises have collapsed because of the economic and other difficulties of the transitional period!
The paper is abundantly supplied with evocative, evaluative definitions: it profusely uses an emotionally overloaded language especially when the author alleges about those whose position differ from that of Dvorkin's ("militant pro-cult position", "vociferous members of this [pro-cult] lobby", etc). This may be indicative of Dvorkin's personal feelings but is hardly useful in our trying to understand the actual situation.
At the same time, Dvorkin systematically ignores evidence which challenges his general claims. To give but one example, Dvorkin is well aware that the activities of the Vissarion community in Siberia have been subject to thorough investigation of a special Commission. The Commission, while highliting some problems, did not find anything criminal or "destructive" in the activities of the community; no reason was found to regard the community as "totalitarian sect" (3). It seems relevant for the present discussion that the Commission emphasised that restrictive or punitive measures may negatively affect the community's development and cause confrontation with the state (Document N26 - 4142DP as of 11.04.97 of the Krasnoyarsk Regional Duma).
In short, the paper gives a black-and-white picture of the cult and anti-cult rivalry in Russia. It is based on a biased selection of negative assumptions, facts, rumours, allegations or incorrect information. Dvorkin's general claims are not substantiated by the evidence provided. On the other hand, he seems to have overlooked the actual problems which Russian society is faced with in its encounter with new religions (4).
Let me now offer a brief alternative account of the situation in Russia apropos the new religions.
II. NRMs, sects and cults in Russia: membership, policies and problems
It is true that since 1990 Russia has witnessed an influx of NRMs; most of them came from the West, some were indigenous. Their arrival took place in the general context of the overall and painful economic and political changes of the transitional period as well as profound cultural changes.
The 1990 Law on Freedom of Religion helped to get rid of the total state control over religious life. The law was drafted in full agreement with the provisions of the European Conventions on human rights signed by Russia and was welcomed by practically all religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church. The Law helped thousands of religious communities, both Russian Orthodox and others, to establish themselves and freely organise and maintain their activities.
However, later the Law became subject to criticism by the Russian Orthodox Church and some other sections of society for its lack of provisions for the protection against competition and dangers from "totalitarian sects". The result of this criticism was the adoption of the new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.
One of the reasons for the change of the Law was the alleged growing membership in non-conventional religious and quasi-religious groups.
II.1. Participation and membership
We should clearly distinguish between the general interest in things religious on the one hand and actual religious participation on the other. Similarly, we should distinguish between the general interest in NRMs and actual growth of their membership.
All the data at hand suggest that the interest in religion in general had been steadily growing in Russia since at least the 1960s. After 1988 (the Millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church) this interest became a mass phenomenon. However, this interest did not lead to the masses actually practising religion, either traditional or non-traditional. Moreover, since around 1995 this interest has been slowly but steadily declining. Surveys conducted between 1991 and 1996 have persistently indicated that the rate of church attendance has been no more than 6-7% of those who claimed to be believers (see: Kaariainen, Furman, Voprosi Filosofii, n. 6, 1997); some observers insist that even these figures are exaggerated.
Similar trends can be found in non-traditional religiosity. Interest in it was rather significant between the 1970s and 1980s, and became a mass phenomenon in the early 1990s when some of the NRMs (like some American televangelists) managed to fill stadiums or attract significant numbers of people to their seminars. At the same time, and, perhaps, even more popular were missionaries and teachers from the faiths traditional to the West.
However, the actual membership in NRMs has always been rather small. Of the groups I have studied, the Moonies have never had more than 800 members in Russia (they now have about 500); the Krishnas have 2,500 - 3000 ; The Family (the former Children of God) has about 70 members (and, perhaps, 200 foreign missionaries). And these are the groups commonly quoted in the anti-cult publications as being among the most successful NRMs in Russia (see, for example, Novaya Gazeta, n. 37, September 15-21, 1997). Apart from that, the rate of defection from most NRMs is no less higher in Russia than elsewhere (for example, between 1994 and 1997, at least 70% of those who had joined UC eventually left it).
There are, as it is widely known among scholars of NRMs, general problems in estimating the membership of NRMs (differences in definitions of NRMs and membership, various possibilities of double counting, interest of both some NRMs and their opponents in exaggerating figures, etc.). However, the figure of three to five million, sometimes quoted in Russia, seems utterly improbable. It appeared in the Reports of the Russian Ministries of Health and Internal Affairs (1996) and has been used by some other officials. The same Reports mentioned 6,000 (sic!) "totalitarian sects" in Russia. By January 1996 there were about 13,000 religious communities registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, of which 7,000 were Russian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate); the difference between the two figures seems to have been taken as the number of sects in Russia. This brings some light on the "methodology" according to which the millions of Russian sectarians were produced.
Another source of our doubt about crowds of sectarians is the anti-cult literature. Thus, a reference book "New Religious Organisations in Russia of Destructive and Occult Character." published by the Missionary Department of the Russian Orthodox Church (Belgorod, 1997) also gives the above-mentioned figure for the sectarian membership; however, in its concrete entries for each movement (almost all commonly cited "dangerous" groups are included) it gives much more probable figures which suggest that the overall membership has never been more than two to three hundred thousand. This more or less tallies with my own estimation and that of other researchers (5).
Finally, if the Reports' estimations were correct, it would mean that one Russian in 30-50, including babies, is a sectarian. It is extremely unlikely that they would not have been "detected" by the numerous surveys conducted in Russia between 1991 and 1997; however, none of the random sample populations (N [the number of respondents] = from 1500 to 2500) of these surveys included a single member of NRMs.
It seems that the Russians have been rather reluctant to join NRMs. Contrary to Dvorkin's speculations, they have not been hooked by "everything Western and spiritual"; rather, they have perfectly been able to make their choices according to their background, interest, knowledge, etc. (This does not necessarily mean, of course, that a choice in favour of an NRM was the best possible). In this respect, I would tend to agree with Dvorkin that, despite all the efforts, little have come out of them. However, even those "efforts" have been made by only some, in fact, very few, of the groups (see below).
Since 1996 the membership in most NRMs has been steadily declining or stabilised. It would be reasonable to suggest that membership in NRMs reflects fundamental processes in Russian society (the issue which could be a subject of a separate paper). For the present purposes it can be argued that "general poverty" of the population in Russia has been conducive to not people joining NRMs (as Dvorkin puts it) but to people not joining them. It is widely known that in the West NRMs have predominantly attracted people from comparatively well off middle class circles which Russian society lacks.
II.2 NRMs' policies
As elsewhere, NRMs' policies in Russia differ enormously. Some of the NRMs, like ISKCON, have existed before the fall of communism. The Krishna Devotees have been through persecutions and prisons, providing but one example which refutes Dvorkin's statement about all the "cults" beginning their operations in Russia by making connections in high places.
In fact, only some NRMs have sought support from and cooperation with the state agencies. There are no grounds whatsoever for generalisations from these few examples to all NRMs (in fact, it would be hardly possible to find many more examples than those mentioned by Dvorkin: Scientology, Aum Shynrikyo and the Unification Church; allegedly, some attempts have been made by the Mother of God Centre [or, as it prefers to be called, the True Orthodox Church with a Special Devotion to Our Lady of All Nations]). However, even their "success" should not be exaggerated.
There have been various reasons why some officials and politicians welcomed the activities of some NRMs: lack of knowledge, sometimes compounded with lack of money for various projects, genuine interest; possibly, mere corruption (however, there has not been a single legally proven case of this sort).
(Perhaps the Church officials also could make a mistake: Aum Shinrkyo publicly announced in 1995 that it had bought office paper worth $ 80,000 for the Moscow Patriarchate; this has never been refuted, see: Dumski vestnik, N4(9), 1995, p.120).
However, it did not take long for most politicians and officials to do a U-turn on their attitudes towards NRMs which turned out to be "totalitarian sects" (Rutskoy, mentioned by Dvorkin, very quickly became one of the staunch opponents of all "foreign religions"; it was he who, in the besieged White House in October 1993, signed an extremely restrictive law against their proliferation).
NRMs differ in their proselytisation methods and level of activism. The Family, for example, according to its new general policy, does not try to make new converts; it focuses primarily on missionary work, whereas the Jehovah Witnesses or the Church of Christ are active and well organised in both their missionary and proselytisation efforts. In fact, most of the other groups are comparatively low key and have neither sufficient human nor material resources even to try to have much success in Russia.
It must be stressed that, having done most of my comparative study of NRMs in Russia and England, I am well aware of the extent to which NRMs in Russia differ not only from their contemporary counterparts in the West but also from what these counterparts used to be in the 1970s and even 1980s. There is a variety of reasons for this: partly they learned the lessons from their controversial activities in the West, partly they are trying to adapt themselves to a new cultural and social environment; also, they simply became older. It is unreasonable to suggest that people in their thirties and forties would think in the same fashion and do the same things as they used to do when they were in their early twenties, some of them having come from the counter-cultural circles of the late 1960s - early 1970s. It is not surprising that Dvorkin has ended up by ascribing to the Russian Krishnas the ideas of one of their gurus which were published 15 years ago as a young and inexperienced man, and with which the majority of the Russian Krishnas are simply unfamiliar (6).
There have been several cases in which minors were involved by some groups, especially at the early stage of their proliferation. This was especially true about the indigenous (Russian - Ukrainian) White Brotherhood, which used to be known for its rather brash methods of recruitment. However, as far as I am aware, most NRMs have never had such practices; others have abandoned them as a matter of principle.
In general, those who have been observing NRMs in Russia since their arrival could not help noticing changes that have been taking place in the movements. Even the most controversial of them, like the True Orthodox Church with a Special Devotion to Our Lady of All Nations (Mother of God Centre) or Vissarion movement, have abandoned many of their early practices (which was noted by the above-mentioned Commission on Vissarion).
Having said that, I am far from suggesting that there might not be groups which represent dangers to society or could give rise to other concerns. All such cases should be properly investigated. If there are criminal NRMs they should be investigated as criminal suspects, not as NRMs. We should also clearly distinguish between a group's official policy and the activities of individual members (7). I am not aware of any proven case of a criminal NRM in Russia. (The Aum Shinrikyo activities in Russia are under criminal investigation at present).
The Aum Shinrikyo case, mentioned by Dvorkin, was not criminal, it was a civil case. However, the way it was handled by the court of justice begs a lot of disturbing questions especially as far as the evidential proof is concerned (8). Similarly, the activities of the controversial White Brotherhood have never been subject to a thorough legal analysis in Russia, and truth about its policy are difficult to disentangle from myths. However, both cults were hastily declared typical destructive cults, and other groups began to be bracketed with them. An approach like this is unlikely to be helpful if we are to understand the cult problem in Russia.
As far as "hard data" are concerned, according to the office of the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, since 1991 there have been only one criminal conviction of a member of a new religion (9) (letter from the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, N 27/2-359-96 as of 28.03.97). And this is in a Russia with its 1,000,000 of prison population and thriving corruption and crime! What are the grounds then, we are compelled to ask, on which "cults" are associated, according to Dvorkin, with crime, mafia, the breaking up of families, etc.?
II.3. The anti-cult movement
As elsewhere, the ACM in Russia mainly comprises parents of members (or ex-members) of NRMs, ex-members, some Orthodox priests, some psychiatrists and other concerned individuals. There are, however, differences between the ACM organisations and different groups within them; they, like the NRMs, cannot be lumped together.
Committee for the Salvation of Youth consists mainly of parents; its aims are mainly to disseminate warnings about dangers of cults and to "save victims of totalitarian sects". It has a loose network throughout the country. The Committee was one of the main lobbyist of the new (1997) Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations and its representatives took an active part in the work of various organisations which were responsible for drafting the new religious legislation in Russia.
As far as information is concerned, apart from personal stories circulating among the members of the Committee, it mainly relies on information from St.Ireneous of Lyon Information and Consultation Centre which is affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. Founded by A. Dvorkin in 1993, this centre focuses mainly on collecting negative information about cults. The bulk of this information comes from the West (American and French ACM, but most prominently the Danish and German Dialog-Centre) (10) ; the working labels for NRMs are "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults". Conversion and participation in NRMs are explained mainly through the concepts of brainwashing and mind control.
The Centre for the Assistance to Victims of Totalitarian Sects named after A. Khomyakov (led by Father Oleg Stenyaev) aims mainly at helping those disappointed with an NRM to come to the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church (for which special repentance rite should be performed by an ex-member). In recent years the Missionary Department of the Moscow Patriarchate has also become very active in the opposition to NRMs.
I would argue that the ACM, as all cult watching organisations, has an important role to play in highlighting the negative aspects of the activities of some NRMs, and the ACM has certainly pinpointed some of the problems connected with the rise of NRMs.
However, the ACM in Russia, as elsewhere, is not homogeneous. I would distinguish between those who have had personal experiences with NRMs (parents, members) and those who can be called ACM ideologists. There is no suggestion that the parents learn about the problems in their families only from the anti-cult circles (11); it would be unreasonable to doubt that they actually experience problems. However, they may be looking for a kind of interpretative framework in which to understand what is going on. Very often, in order to explain changes in behaviour of the new convert parents have recourse to the ideas and images picked up from popular literature, such as "zombification", "programming", "mind control", etc. Apart from that, parents in Russia sometimes believe widely disseminated stories that NRMs are, generally, foreign inventions aimed at subverting Russians. However, their problems are only exacerbated when instead of competent explanation of what has happened, they are told that their offspring have been caught by "mafiosi structures" or "criminal organisations", "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults". On many occasions I have met parents who had been extremely worried by Dvorkin's publications that ISKCON was a near-"fascist organisation" which made slaves out of its members. Similarly, parents are often not aware of the changes in the movements as the information they receive is often outdated and deliberately used by the ACM ideologists in their struggle with NRMs as such, which is not the same as careful monitoring and well-grounded criticism of NRMs' actual policies.
II.4. Sources of information, definitions and popular image of NRMs in Russia
As elsewhere, in Russia the main sources of information about NRMs have been:
- NRMs themselves;
- the media (12).
A very few NRMs were relatively active in portraying themselves through the media in 1991 - 1994. However, with the passage of time their presence in the media have been steadily decreasing, and at present it is hardly possible to hear them disseminating their message via mass communications means (13).
On the other hand, negative information about NRMs has been increasingly prominent in the media. The interest of the media in cults and sects was particularly triggered off by the events related to the White Brotherhood. In the absence of reliable information many journalists used highly exaggerated figures of the membership in the cult (up to 150,000 whereas it hardly had more than 1,000 members) as well as gross misinterpretations of its teachings and its sociological reality (14). As a result, instead of giving reliable and useful information about those worrying events, the media (together with the cult itself) created what amounted to mass hysteria.
The ACM has been instrumental in supplying the media with this kind of information: in my estimation, since 1993 more than 90% of the publications in the central print media about NRMs were negative. Not only information, but also interpretations, concepts and approaches have also been picked up by the media from the anti-cult circles.
Alongside with the influx of NRMs there have also been an influx of information about them from the West. Much of what has been published in the Russian media have been based on the Western anti-cult sources which, as I said earlier, influenced Russian perception and understanding through their Russian counterparts. Russian new religious groups came to be routinely subsumed to the "established" categories of "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults".
Some documents issued in the West as well as the decisions of the Western courts of justice have also been used to expose movements in Russia. Thus, in the court case Dvorkin versus Committee for Religious Freedom quotations from and references to this kind of material, as well as popular literature, sometimes grossly misrepresented, made up 1/3 of the judge's summing up. Another example is the Resolution of the European Parliament on Cults in Europe (1996). Paragraph D of the Resolution states that "many religious and other sects are perfectly legitimate and are therefore entitled to have their organisations and activities..." whereas other paragraphs contain warnings about the dangers of criminal or illicit activities of some groups. Despite this, in Dvorkin court case the warnings were used against the groups (such as ISKCON, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, which were presented by Dvorkin as "mafioso structures" and criminal organisations) which in most European countries would be regarded as legitimate and whose legitimacy had not been challenged in Russia by any decision of a court of justice. What started as a warning in Western Europe seems to have become a social weapon in Russia.
One of the problems with the terms "destructive cult" and "totalitarian sect" is their extended, "liberal" and often irresponsible usage in Russia. There are various documents at my disposal in which such groups as Adventists, Protestants and others were subsumed to those categories. A grotesque though not rare example of this sort is the following extract from an interview with the chief of the Dagestan diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church:
"What is going on is the devious destruction of the country and the Church by the sectarian influence and by the movements which are alien to us... Such movements are called Scientology, in other words, Charismatic Protestants " (Makhachkalinskie Izvestia, N11, 7.03.1997).
This example is also suggestive of the fact that in Russian usage the images of "totalitarian sects" have often almost merged with the image of "foreign religion". This fact seems to have been reflected in the provisions of the 1997 Law (see below).
II.5. NRMs and the Russian Orthodox Church
The influx of NRMs, sects and cults, coincided with the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Church's position vis a vis NRMs has been expressed in its 1994 Statement of the Archbishops Council of The Russian Orthodox Church :
"These [sectarian] views destroy the traditional organisation of life that has been formed under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. They destroy the spiritual and moral ideal that is common to all of us; and they threaten the integrity of our national consciousness and our cultural identity ".
It would have been surprising had the Church not opposed the sects theologically. However, in her understanding of the social reality of sects the Church was dependent on the knowledge available to her representatives.
Apart from that, the Church is generally against any proselytising activities on the Russian territory which she has regarded as the "canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church".
For those reasons, the Church was the main driving force behind the changes first in and then of the 1990 Law on Freedom of Religion.
II.6. Problems with NRMs in Russia
Nothing I have written should be taken to suggest that there are no problems with NRMs in Russia. However, I would argue that we should distinguish between problems posed by the activities of NRMs themselves and those which are more related to the treatment of NRMs by society.
I could sum up these problems in the following way:
- The influx of NRMs has taken place in a situation in which the society has lacked reliable, objective and balanced information about the movements, their histories, realities, structures, changes, proselytisation methods, etc (15).
- There has also been a lack of mediating structures which could help resolve problems related to involvement in NRMs.
- Some of the problems are concerned with the demographic characteristics of new converts, who are often young and deal with their problems in an immature way. This is not dissimilar to the problems we can find in other youth circles. The state and social agencies has not found an effective policy to deal with these problems.
- As I mentioned before, some NRMs use rather aggressive methods of missionary work and proselytisation which offend cultural sensitivities of the Russians. According to my data, many of these kinds of problems can be resolved by providing information about NRMs and by public criticism (16). In fact, negotiation structures and methods could be widely used to prevent unnecessary anxieties which would lead to an exacerbation of the problems.
- Law enforcing agencies should be more active both in properly investigating the activities of some NRMs when there exist legal grounds for this, and in protecting NRMs from unlawful actions of their opponents. However, the problem is that, as I already indicated, the usage of such concepts as "totalitarian sects", "mind control" , etc. may lead to a situation in which we may have a priori accusations instead of proper investigations, and biased interpretations instead of legally valid evidence. One of the main problems with this approach is that some real dangers and unlawful activities may be overlooked.
- In the absence of mediating structures and reliable information, the NRMs and their activities are commonly defined in the extremely negative terms and tarred with the same brush. Their members are a priori labelled as victims. In relation to this, a worrying aspect of the Russian situation is what can be called the "medicalisation " of the problem. Participation in NRMs in general is seen by some representatives of Russian psychiatry, as mental illness which requires specialised treatment (17). (This should not be confused with competent counselling which is, sometimes and by no means always, needed by those who wish to leave an NRM).
Many proposals have been made (including by Dvorkin) of setting up a nation-wide network of "rehabilitation centres", possibly affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, in "remote places" in which the "victims" of cults would be given treatment to bring them back to the "right ways". Given the extremely broad definitions of "victims" commonly used in the anti-cult literature, these proposals look worrying and could well create new, and exacerbate existing, problems.
II.7. NRMs and Russian politics
The controversy over "foreign religions" in general and "totalitarian sects" in particular has played an increasingly prominent role in the Russian politics.
Many political parties (especially the Communists and Zhirinovski-led Liberal Democrats but also pro-governmental Our Home Russia) made pre-election promises to undertake "tough measures" against "totalitarian sects". Similar statement can be found in Yeltsin's pre-election program. A very right-wing, nationalistic Zhirinovski's party has organised a conference in which the problem of "destructive cults" featured prominently (and in which Mr. Dvorkin was an active participant).
Considering the lack of evidence about dangers coming from NRMs or "foreign religions" in Russia, it could be argued that this "politicisation" of the problem has been part of the campaign to appeal to the cultural and national sensitivities of some sections of Russian society for purely political reasons.
It did not come as a surprise that the new Law was passed by the communist and nationalist dominated Duma, with (contrary to Dvorkin's misleading information) the biggest liberal faction, the Yabloko, led by Prof. Grigori Yavlinski, abstaining from the vote.
II.8. The new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations
The Law [see an English translation in this CESNUR's Web page] was the result of complicated debates during the last 5 years or more. Contrary to what Dvorkin said in his paper, the 1997 Law has caused concern not only among new religions, but also, and, perhaps, primarily among many Russian and foreign Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Pentecostals , Adventists, and various Orthodox churches (including millions of Old Believers). Disturbing questions about its implications for religious freedom have been raised by those who see its provisions as excessively restrictive and downright anti-constitutional (according to many experts, the Law clearly violates articles 14, 17(2), 19, 28, 30, 35 and 54 of the Russian Constitution) as well as the international conventions signed by Russia. It is the integrity of the Russian constitutional system and the future of freedom of conscience in Russia that are at stake, not narrow interests of the mythical "pro-cult lobby" as Mr. Dvorkin would have us believe.
To a considerable extent the Law is the result of misinformation, misunderstanding, and an overall misconstruction of the cult problem in Russia. It was also caught in the swing of pendulum as a reaction to the laisser faire attitude of the early 1990s.
As far as "dangers from sects and cults" are concerned, it is possible that a key provision of the Law concerning a 15 years probation period will be counterproductive. According to this provision, a religious association which cannot submit a proof of its existence on Russian territory for 15 years, cannot be registered, i.e. it will be deprived of the possibility to acquire the legal entity status necessary to maintain normal religious life. The measure purports to protect Russian citizens from dangerous religions. However, it is known that:
- State and social agencies are interested in acquiring as much as possible information on NRMs which is much more difficult when groups are not registered.
- The 15 years provision will drive at least some religious groups underground while social isolation has always been one the main factors in the negative evolution of some sects which eventually led to a tragic outcome.
- Socially dangerous tendencies may develop in different religious associations, not only in new ones. In fact, some of the "dangerous" religions began as rather traditional to their host societies.
In fact, the first attempt at closing a religious community in accordance with the new Law was concerned with a Lutheran community in the Republic of Khakasia; this is indicative of how the 15-years requirement will be construed by the local officials (the community is still struggling for its existence; see Keston News, Friday 10 October 1997).
It was impossible to discuss the numerous problems related to cults, sects or new religions in a comparatively short paper. However, it seems obvious that these problems are as much created by NRMs themselves as they are caused by overreaction of some sections of society to their presence.
This overreaction has much to do with the overall situation of instability and sense of insecurity in Russia. However, a lot depends on how the "cult problem" is construed on the basis of information, interpretations and concepts available. This is where proper methodology and thorough research become crucial. The failure of some of the state and social agencies in Russia to recognise the importance of proper research is a great part of the problem. Biased, negatively selected and unreliable information may mislead us into taking hasty and inappropriate actions which can only add to the problems and cause unnecessary suffering. It will also prevent us from creating necessary and helpful mediating structures between NRMs and the wider society.
Numerous observations and studies of the last thirty years indicate that both NRMs and the negative stereotypes about them "travel" from country to country. We may need to distinguish between the problems directly caused by NRMs and those which are caused by the inaccurate stereotypes which may surround them.
(1) Dvorkin states that "there are so many dangerous cults, and some sects can be utterly destructive". However, his "liberal" and extended usage of these labels in relation to various groups with essentially different characteristics, as well as his references to hundreds of thousands of sectarians in "destructive cults" in Russia, suggest that he does not actually make any essential distinctions between the groups. Apart from this, we are not informed about the grounds for the above-mentioned labelling (see also below on the lack of evidence).
(2) As a result, the sides settled the matter amicably and the defendant expressed his apology to those whose religious feelings were affected by his publication.
(3) There have been three deaths in the (4,000 strong) community which were not attributed by the medical conclusions to the community's practices or teachings. However, some anti-cult authors routinely ascribe these events, which may happen in any community, to its practices and teachings.The above mentioned Commission also highlighted the sumptuous life-style of the leader. The suggestion was made that some disappointed followers could, in theory, claim their donations back. However, nobody has been found to use opportunity. The problem of voluntary donation is well known in the history of religion in general.
(4) The limits of the present review do not allow me to offer an analysis of the court case mentioned in Dvorkin's paper. It is on appeal now and being currently under close scrutiny by representatives of the legal profession both in Russia and abroad. Should the members of the Commission express their interest in this important case, an analysis can be submitted to them in due course (as well as the results of the legal expertise).
(5) In my view, if we take as members only committed individuals the figures would be even less.
(6) I refer to "Varnashrama Manifesto" by Harikesha Swami which on several occasions has been used by Dvorkin to present ISKCON as a fascist movement. Leaving aside the issue of Dvorkin's interpretation of the book, it has never been any of ISKCON's official documents.
(7) It must be noted that on several occasions NRMs have been accused (including by Dvorkin) of various anti-social tendencies on the grounds of their teachings. Usually this is done by taking quotations from religious texts out of context and/or misusing them. Unlike in Dvorkin court case, where theological differences (including interpretations of scriptures, like, for example, Bhagavad-gita) were widely used for various accusations, in Khvila- Olinter case (see p.5) the judge ruled that such differences should not be misused for legal purposes ("The Ruling of the Choroshevski Municipal Court of the City of Moscow, 9 October 1997). There may be dangerous teachings, however, it is common sense among experts on religion that we should be cautious in distinguishing between religious teachings and direct appeals for social actions.
(8) For example, the charges of psychological harm have not been based on a single proven case of psychiatric disease. Among material evidence featured a helmet which was, according to the court, used to inflict personality changes, and this is in spite of the fact that the court had a special expert conclusion from the Moscow State University that the helmet was absolutely innocuous. These examples could be multiplied. This is not to suggest that the cult itself was innocuous, however, our understanding of the actual problems should be based on proper data.
(9) The decision was later overturned on appeal.
(10) It is not, perhaps, by chance that in the booklet for which Dvorkin has recently been sued, many statements and concepts, repeat, sometimes word for word, Thomas Gandow's statement in the Russian Duma 14.02.1995 (Dumski Vestnik, N4 (9), 1995, p.124). Dvorkin's booklet is almost exclusively based on the Western popular anti-cult literature. However, the labels and images from that literature were automatically extended to the movements in Russia (see also p. 14). In the court case Dvorkin admitted that he had not known any legally proven case of criminal activities of NRMs in Russia, which is in contradiction to the thrust of his paper for the Bundestag Commission.
(11) A. Dvorkin characteristically misconstrues the academic approach to this problem.
(12) The academic perspective on NRMs is under-represented in Russia. Apart from occasional visits of some academics, only one academic book has yet been published in Russia (E. Barker, New Religious Movements. A Practical Introduction , St.Peterbourg, 1997).
(13) ISKCON has broadcasting facilities to transmit their programs within a limited area (mainly Moscow region).
(14) Thus, it did not follow from the teaching that the leaders were preparing an act of mass suicide. Also, to describe behaviour of the followers and the alleged "super-power" of the leaders, journalists commonly used such "concepts" as "programming", "modelling", "zombification", etc. and, in fact, shared with the cultists themselves their belief in the leaders' "extraordinary abilities". For an excellent analysis of the mass-media reaction to the White Brotherhood, see: E.Borenstein, "Articles of Faith: the Media Response to Maria Devi Khristos", in Religion (1995) 25, 249-266.
(15) Very often even state officials' repertoire includes quasi-scientific terms and explanations of the activities of NRMs ("coding", "modelling", "zombification", etc). Similar "terms" are used in the Reports of the Ministries of Health and Internal Affairs. (In Ukraine the local authorities believed such explanations to such a degree that, according to some reports, they asked the leaders of the White Brotherhood to "unhypnotize the youth they had stupefied"- Shchit i Mech, 25 Nov. 1993, p.9).
(16) Last summer I took part in a study of the situation in four Volga regions. One of the preliminary conclusions of that study is that by around 1996 the religious situation in many regions had stabilised and the local authorities, after some period of frustration and, perhaps, overreaction (such as local anti-missionary laws) to the new and difficult problems, have found ways of dealing with the new religious structure of Russian society.
(17) See, for example, F. Kondratiev, Sektantstvo v Rossii Glazami Psikhiatra [Sectarianism in Russia from the Point View of a Psychiatrist], Segodnya, n. 159, 24 August 1995.
A Postscript on the Great White Brotherhood (by CESNUR, 2005)
Both Maria Devi Christos and her husband have received the benefits of an amnesty and have been released from jail. The movement reports that international pressures contributed to this development. For updated (presented from the point of view of the movement) please see the Great White Brotherhood’s own Web site at www.usmalos.com.
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