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Religion and Democracy in a Russian Perspective - Alexander Dvorkin

On the ideological level communist regimes were often compared with a flood, covering countries and continents. If we accept this comparison, we can say that today’s Russia is like a land, that was flooded for many years, and finally, the waters have subsided. Everything that was hidden before under the thick layer of dirty stale water, is now open to the eye of the spectator. One can see thickets of seaweed, curious species of under water life, beautiful anemones and ugly shellfish, rusti tin cans, worn out shoes, undistinguishable refuse, rot and filth of the huge city.

During the time of the flood everybody was traveling by overcrowded public boats, steered by the Party functionaries. Individual boat making was forbidden. The main concern of common citizens was not to rock the boat. Who in his right mind would like to plunge into these stinking brown waters? Now everybody has to tread the bottom by himself and at the same time participate in huge clean up and construction programms that go simultaneously. It is difficult, it is tiring, it is frustrating, it is dangerous.


Many Russians miss the previous life and want the waters to come back. It was so much easier! Others propose to cover the bottom with asphalt, so nothing of the old would remain, and to begin completely anew. Still the third say that true democracy is to leave everything as it is. Is not the axiom that all things have a right to exist? It is up to the individual citizen to decide what plants to grow in his private garden and what pets to have in his home. Nobody has a right to tell him how to clean his private apartment, or, in fact, whether to clean it at all.

Well, in a regular life the absurdity of this proposal is obvious: if we will not set limits to the rights of the individual in these areas, his weeds might seriously hinder the agriculture of the entire area, his dog might bite all of the neighbours, and his children might catch all kinds of deceases from the rotting garbage in his living room.

Unfortunately, not many people see that the same considerations can be applied to the spiritual life. The prevailing opinion is that any religion is a positive phenomenon, and to choose between them is a private right of any citizen. It is so easy to overlook the fact that religiosity can be negative as well as positive, that there are so many dangerous cults, and that some sects can be utterly destructive. There are numerous examples. Everybody still remembers the recent bloody end of the Root of Jesse sect in Texas, or the 1978 mass suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana.

Yes, my neighbour has a right to confess any religion of his choice. But I also have the same right not to allow his preaching on my territory. More over, as a tax payer, I have a right to demand from the state to limit possibilities of dissemination of the sect which I find harmful for me or my dependents. And it is up to the state authorities to examine the substantiality of my complaints.

On the other hand, it is quite obvious that the appropriate organs of the state in most cases are not very informed and sometimes are quite ignorant in these matters. How then will they determine which sects are dangerous and harmful and which are not? There cannot be a universal rule, established once and for all. What seems to be the most practical solution is to work out firm guidelines for examination of each and every organization claiming to be religious and to apply them in every case when there are complaints about the malpractice. Sure, these examinations can be very difficult. Sometimes the difference is made by very fine points, which can be discerned only by professionals.

Let us return to our analogy of the cleaning of the formerly flooded lands. It is obvious that the job must be done with a lot of care, attention and foresight. It can be very hard to tell the weeds from the good plants, and to distinguish between the refuse and the fertilizer. It should take a lot of education, research, and scholarship; it can be very difficult, disappointing, and sometimes frustrating. Yet, I do not think there is another solution to this problem in a democratic society, which wants to guarantee the freedom of religious conviction and worship to all of its citizens.