MOSCOW — Lena and Roman Nabatnikov were newlyweds when they were approached on a Moscow street in 1991 by two clean-cut men in suits and ties who asked if they wanted to attend a meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The couple liked the wholesome look of the missionaries so they went and ended up staying for hours at the meeting in a simple hall. They were drawn in by the simplicity of the language, a far cry from the symbol-laden liturgy of their own Russian Orthodox faith, and they liked how the missionaries took a keen interest in their day-to-day lives. They all spoke of their personal feelings about God. Ms. Nabatnikov, then 21, was impressed with the Mormon focus on family life. She wanted lots of kids.
The Nabatnikovs would become among the first Russian converts to the Mormon Church. Like millions of other Russians during the perestroika era, they were hungering for a spiritual life, which was officially forbidden during 70 years of Communist rule.
Seventeen years later, the couple has four children and their faith is as strong as ever. But Russia’s religious freedoms aren’t.
The Latter-Day Saints, like a raft of other non-Orthodox faiths, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been labelled “totalitarian sects” by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose criticism is frequently tinged with nationalism. In the past decade, the Russian government has severely restricted the activities of these churches, whose followers routinely face harassment, discrimination and even detention.
“In Russia, it’s a given that you must be Orthodox,” Mr. Nabatnikov, 39, said in an interview at his family’s rambling, toy-laden house in the woods outside Moscow. Each night at dusk, the Nabatnikovs sing hymns around the piano, then pray together aloud before dinner.
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When the couple first converted, friends and family were opposed, describing their decision as anti-Russian. Today, Mr. Nabatnikov does not discuss his faith with people he doesn’t know or trust. Most people react negatively, he said, and he doesn’t want to provoke an argument.
Despite Russia’s secular status, with a constitution guaranteeing religious freedom, the government has clamped down on many non-Orthodox faiths, denying permits to build churches, refusing to register them and storming worship services.
The Orthodox Church has encouraged the restrictions and has forged a cozy alliance with the Kremlin, reminiscent of pre-revolutionary czarist times. In today’s Russia, church and state share tandem visions for their country, characterized by a distrust for Western democratic traditions and a resurgent nationalism.
An unspoken rule for anyone with government or military ambitions is to be a practising Russian Orthodox churchgoer.
Moscow’s Jehovah’s Witnesses have tussled for nearly a decade with local authorities since they attempted to shut them down. That case is now before the European Court. The sect, in particular, has touched a nerve with Russian officials, who dislike their aggressive proselytizing, opposition to military service and ban on blood transfusions.
“It’s not a Stalinist era, but there are elements in the authorities that try to link us to an extremist organization,” said Paul Gillies, a London-based spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Last year, Russian prosecutors launched more than 100 investigations against Jehovah’s Witness congregations, more than double the previous year. Some followers were also detained, but Mr. Gillies said no charges were laid.
Two years ago, Moscow city officials refused to register the Salvation Army’s Moscow branch, labelling the organization a “paramilitary army” that threatened the state. The Salvation Army took its case to the European Court and won.
Elena Nechiporova, a spokeswoman for the Morman Church in Russia, described its attempt to establish congregations as “an uphill battle.” In meetings with authorities, the term “totalitarian” is often used by officials, she said.
“We have our own perception of who we are and we try to explain this,” said Ms. Nechiporova. “It isn’t easy.”
The Russian Orthodox Church makes no apologies for its distrust of non-Orthodox faith, claiming most are Western-based and undermine Russian values. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II frequently appears on television denouncing these faiths as harmful to Russian society.
Russia’s move to tighten controls on non-Orthodox faiths is in part a reaction to the stampede of religions that entered Russia after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. Some were bona fide faiths eager to establish a foothold in the newly freed country. Others were simply con artists, questionable healers and cult leaders.
One of the most distasteful was Grigory Grabovoi, a self-proclaimed healer who arrived in Beslan a year after the hostage debacle in which more than 300 people were killed, including 189 children. Mr. Grabovoi told victims’ parents he could raise their children from the dead. Many paid for interviews with Mr. Grabovoi before he was arrested.
The Russian Orthodox Church lobbied the government of then-president Boris Yeltsin to rein in non-Orthodox faiths, singling out Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, Krishna and the Unification Church.
In 1997, Russia passed a law that required all religions not associated with its four main faiths – Orthodox, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – to register their congregations and accept tighter controls.
Alexander Dvorkin, an academic at Moscow’s St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, defended the hard-line position, saying Russian society was unprepared for the wave of new faiths that arrived in the 1990s. “People in Russia were far more vulnerable than in other societies,” which he said have “built-in immunities,” to proselytizing. And he insisted the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. “Just ask them the next time they come to your door what happens to you if you attempt to leave.”
Mr. Gillies said Jehovah’s Witness followers are free to leave the church if they choose.
Meanwhile, in Zelenengrad, the Nabanikovs try to keep a low profile, saying they aren’t political people. They were drawn to the Mormon Church because of its wholesome values, such as bans on smoking and alcohol.
Recalling her first Mormon service, Ms. Nabatnikov, 37, said she liked how church leaders spoke directly to the congregation using simple language. The Book of Mormon also used parables she could understand. “I prayed to God to ask whether this was true,” she said. “I felt … the book was something I had been looking for.”
For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church said it will continue its campaign against foreign-based faiths. “The Orthodox Church will always challenge the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the likes because they have no connection with the real history of the [Russian Orthodox] Church,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations. “They all divert a believer from the truth.”
When asked to define a “totalitarian sect,” Father Chaplin explained it as a “movement that harms the personalities of its believers, destroys families and takes their property away.”
Critics say Russian officials, at the urging of the Orthodox Church, have gone too far.
Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer with Moscow’s Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, agreed that Russia was a breeding ground for questionable faiths during the 1990s, but the religious landscape has stabilized and the vast majority of Russians, as many as 75 per cent, identify themselves as Orthodox. However, only a tiny percentage, fewer than 5 per cent, say they attend regular services, according to Russian census statistics.
Mr. Pchelintsev, who became a Baptist 15 years ago, said many Russians are looking for modern spiritual messages. They also resent the church’s close relationship with the Kremlin. He said his own conversion exacted a professional price. Once a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Russian Army, he was told his military career was over not long after he joined the Baptist Church.
Mr. Pchelintsev, who represents churches who encounter legal problems with authorities, urged the Russian church and government to restrain their criticism, warning the tight restrictions could backfire, propelling more Russians into the churches and meeting halls of non-traditional faiths.
“The Russian Orthodox Church is engaged in politics too much and ordinary people understand this,” he said.
With a report from Nadia Popova
A breakdown of Russian denominations, by number of worshippers. The Russian population is 142 million.
New Pentecostal: 300,000
Jehovah’s Witnesses: 150,000
Source: The Russian Federal State Statistics Service, October, 2007.