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Protestants in Russia: An active minority

Russian Protestants are considered one of the most religious groups in the country. While they are relatively small in number, they are actively involved in the lives of their communities. What do we know about the often overlooked religious denomination?

October 12, 2017 - Oksana Kuropatkina - Analysis

Russian Protestants are considered one of the most religious groups in the country. While they are relatively small in number, they are actively involved in the lives of their communities. What do we know about the often overlooked religious denomination?


In the early 2010s the number of Protestants in Russia reached 1.5 million people. The overwhelming majority of them are either from the second and third “waves” of Protestantism, or Evangelical Christians (Baptists, Methodists, Adventists, Pentecostals).

The most numerous groups of Protestants are Baptists (500,000 followers), Pentecostals (300,000 followers) and Adventists (90,000 followers). The old Russian sects that separated from Orthodoxy in the 18th century and have many views in common with Protestantism should be mentioned specifically: those are Doukhobors (15,000-20,000) and Molokans (40,000).

All of the currently existing Protestant denominations were present in Russia even before the revolution; due to the religious repression in the Soviet time, some of the Protestant movements were completely extinguished and effectively revived in the late 1980s – early 1990s (Reformed Church, Methodism, Salvation Army). Around the same time, the influential groups consisting of relatively numerous converts who did not come from the traditionally Protestant families emerged in Lutheranism, Evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism (though as a general rule, the leaders of those groups had Protestant background).

Protestants are present in virtually all regions of Russia but are most widespread in Siberia and the Far East, owing to the extremely low level of religious commitment among the local residents and the activity of Korean missionaries.

From the gender perspective, Protestant churches are “female”: women make 70 per cent, and men – 30 per cent. As regards the age composition, pensioners are least common (from all Protestant churches) among Pentecostals (15  per cent), and most numerous among Baptists (49 per cent) and Adventists (43 per cent). One in four Protestants is under the age of 30.

Regional studies indicate that work and professionalism are very important for Protestants, therefore, for example Baptists and Pentecostals, attract middle class. Moreover, in depressive regions Protestantism has become an impulse to survive (get a job, quit addictions etc.) for a number of peoples in the Far North, and a social elevator for women from Muslim families.

As regards the employment, blue collar workers are most numerous common among Evangelicals (48 per cent), while white collar workers (30 per cent) and students (19 per cent) make up the majority of “new” Pentecostals.

Russian intellectuals

The vast majority of ethnic Russians in Lutheranism, Calvinism, Methodism are intellectuals who converted not only in search of religious truth, but also of the intellectual community. At least two registered Lutheran church unions in Russia and the Russian Reformed Church (very few in number) are the result of the personal spiritual and intellectual quest of their founders. As regards Baptists, Evangelicals, Adventists, Pentecostals, their churches are less attractive for intellectuals, though from 2000s on, educated people have also joined those denominations and now increasingly claim that they should decide on the agenda in their churches and unions.


What do Protestants represent as a religious and ideological group? To start with, it should be noted that Protestants in Russia are the most religious community: they go to church more often than others, they pray and read the Scriptures every day. The aspiration to copy religious practices and learn from the Western partners, which was spread in the 1990s, is long gone. Many Protestants say that the Evangelical movement in Russia has its roots and its own history which is different from the Western history, and that they only share the general doctrines with the Western co-religionists, but not the worldview. With regard to Pentecostals, this can be observed in their sectarian structure, which is different from its foreign analogues.

Three waves of Pentecostalism

For instance, researches have identified three “waves” in Pentecostalism: the classic Pentecostalism of the early 20th century, the Charismatic Movement (1960s) and the neo-Charismatic Movement (1970s). Whereas Russian Pentecostalism, which was analogous to the first “wave” until the end of the 20th century, has split into three closely related groups, with family ties, in the early 1990s (unlike Western Pentecostals from different “waves”): the traditional Pentecostalism, which adheres to the ultra-conservatives of the first “wave” and disapproves of “modernising” the service; “moderate” Pentecostalism, which in its theology adheres to the first “wave”, though its more moderate branch, and overall is open to the idea of modernising the service; “new” Pentecostalism, which adheres to the third “wave” and advocates for using mass culture in the service to make it modern and attractive for young people.

Protestants versus Russian culture

However, there still remains a question of how Protestants “fit” within the Russian context. This question is particularly relevant for Pentecostals, being the youngest and the most “Americanised” denomination. In 2010 they organised the so-called Evangelical Council, so that Protestants from various denominations would agree on all-Protestant (“Evangelical”) theology. Moreover, the participants of the Council claim that the “Evangelical movement” is not restricted to Protestantism, as it brings together all devoted and thoughtful Christians.

Protestants have several options if they want to “fit” within the Russian culture. They may attempt to adopt the Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox theology, so that, while recognising and respecting historical “Orthodox Russia”, they would build (or rather, in their opinion, revive) “Evangelical Russia”. They can admit that Russia is a unique country, where, according to one preacher, “… after the cruelest time of darkness and persecution in Russia, there will come the last awakening, the light of which will lighten many peoples”. They may also draw the nation together through mercy, charity and social service. Finally, they can attempt to integrate Russia in the “civilised world” through appealing to the Western values of democracy, rights and freedoms of an individual and so on. Interestingly though, Protestants condemn the West for betrayal of the Christian values, especially with respect to sex and marriage.

It should be mentioned that whereas 2000s was the period of an intensive search for a new ideology, the majority have now reconciled with the fact that they are the “Russian Evangelical Christians”, and so are occupied solely with their practical problems.

The organsing units

As a community, Protestants are organised not only “vertically”, i.e. by denominations, but also horizontally, by a large number of various communities. The first one is the family, the importance of which is more emphasised in Protestant churches than in any other denomination. There are different types of relationships in Protestant families, however, they share a common ideology – it is a “Biblical hierarchy”. The regional research has shown that for the majority of Pentecostal, Baptist and Adventist women the word of their husband is law.

The family as a community is also important because it is the basic unit of maintaining and replicating religiousness. Like in the majority of other confessions, conversion in Protestant communities often occurs through the relatives, and it is actually a family tradition for Doukhobors and Molokans. In Protestant families, grown-up children more rarely leave religion than representatives of other confessions (with exception of Doukhobors and Molokans, where inheritance of religious tradition is declining), though the problem still remains.

There are virtually no settlements or areas densely inhabited by Protestants in Russia; there are only villages of Doukhobors and Molokans.

The most popular community is the parish. Those communities are typically not very large, with some 100-150 people in small towns, and up to 1000 people in cities. Some Protestant parishes count more than 1,000 people, but those are not widely spread. Home (or small) groups become increasingly popular, i.e. when the faithful gather in private homes to read the Scriptures and plan their work. This form is the most popular among Pentecostals, particularly in the North Caucasus where the groups are small, as this is the only possibility to go to church for the newly converted who fear their relatives and neighbors.

National and ethnic identity

The nationality question is relevant both to the communities of protestants and to their “external” activity. Interestingly, Protestantism might be indicative of ethnicity not only in case of Lutheranism (Germans, Finns); for example, Methodism is one of the traditional denominations for Koreans who had settled in the Far East in the second half of the nineteenth century. Molokans and Doukhobors constitute ethno-confessional groups within the Russian people. As a result of dispersed settlement, Doukhobors and Molokans that used to be quite isolated groups became increasingly merged with the Russian population. The way of life, traditions and folklore of Molokans and Doukhobors (largely similar to those of the Old Believers) constitute a unique layer of the Russian culture.

Aside from Russians, there are many representatives of other peoples who did not profess Protestantism traditionally and were converted into Protestantism due to the free sermons in 1990s – 2000s (for example, in churches established by the Korean missionaries in Altai Republic, Tyva Republic and the Republic of Buryatia, the share of titular population is 80 to 100 per cent of the faithful). The most interesting development is, however, that Pentecostals, the most “non-traditional” Protestants, have created new ethno-confessional communities in those regions. As a rule, such mono-ethnic churches put a special emphasis on the ethnic identity; the newly-converted do not change their traditional way of life and consider themselves part of their people, which is integrated based on more ambitious religious grounds.

Generally, Protestants are the most tolerant of all confessional groups with regard to the national relationships. Some churches even have services dedicated specifically to migrant workers.

Community service

Protestants are actively engaged in community service, almost every church is active in this regard. They have succeeded in some particular areas, for example, rehabilitation of alcohol and drug addicts. Notably, their rehabilitation centers are not just philanthropic institutions, but also close-knit religious communities. For example, Iskhod movement (which is now called the Church of Christian Mission) which was formed by Pentecostals from the rehabilitation centers, presently consists of approximately 90 churches and communities (around 9,000 people).

For the purposes of social and cultural service, Protestants have established secular non-governmental organisations, associations and professional communities. They view such forms as the best way of both service and a dialogue with the secular community which is vary of religious foundations and initiatives.

Evangelicals pay much attention to work with the youth and to the modern methods of the Christian mission. Protestants establish their own schools, some of which have gained public recognition, such as the school attached to Pentecostal church in Kazan (the Republic of Tatarstan) and Kholmsk (Sakhalin Oblast); Adventists have their own Scout-type organisation named Sliedopyty (Pathfinders).

“New” Pentecostals are most proliferating with interesting youth projects, including sports movement Sport for Gospel, actively engaging secular professional and amateur sportsmen, Creative for God festival, where young people present their projects in the field of sport, painting, design, fashion, and developing of the “virtual” church based at the “new” Pentecostal Moscow Good News Church, offering spiritual advice. This platform is visited by 12,000 people.

Relations with other faiths and the state

Relationship with the “traditional” denominations remains complicated: the Orthodox, Muslims and Pagans blame Protestants for disintegration of the ethnic culture. However, some of such issues have been resolved. For example, Pentecostal church Osanna, comprised of ethnic Dagestanis, has managed to establish relationships not only with Dagestani authorities, but also, and more importantly, with the relatives of the new converts and the local population in general.

As regards relations with the state, Evangelical Christians generally consider themselves patriots and trust the government more than the Orthodox. Unlike in the 1990s, when some Protestant groups strove for power. At the same time, some Protestants have succeeded at the local level: for example, two active members of Protestant churches have become mayors (in Tolyatti and Nikolayevsk).

Evangelical Christians, in particular Pentecostals, have long been the most dynamic segment in Russian religious life. They are characterised by the high level of religiosity as compared to other groups, high level of cohesion, ability to work with the youth, close-knit families with many children, ethnic tolerance, patriotism among majority of the practicing members, which is understood as building of the community with Christian values. At the same time, the secular community views them as “sectarians” and adepts of the Western (American) culture, they have overt and covert conflicts with the influential Orthodox, Muslim or Pagan clergy in the regions, and face difficulties with national and cultural self-identification. In view of the increasing legislative pressure in relation to religious organisations, Protestants are now searching for new forms of legal protection, consolidation and their mission to the secular community.

Oksana Kuropatkina, PhD, is a senior researcher at the Cross-Cultural Relations Center.

This article is funded by a grant from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs received via the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.


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