Russian identity is sometimes called “the Russian soul” by Russians. That demonstrates well the significance of the history of Christianity in the largest country in the world. Christianity came to Russia six centuries prior to the appearance of Luther’s 95 Theses, and Orthodox Christianity became the state religion. It remained so until 1917. During that period, the Orthodox Church played an important role in the history of the country. Other Christian confessions were either banned or restricted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1917 after the Russian Revolution, the situation was radically changed. All religions were banned due to the new ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which proclaimed materialistic atheism as the only truth. Communists destroyed churches and other religious buildings; executed, exiled, or sent to labor camps religious leaders; flooded the schools and media with anti-religious teachings; and introduced a belief system called “scientific atheism.” According to sources, the total number of Christian victims under Soviet rule ranged from 12 to 20 million.
The Soviets organized widespread anti-religious propaganda. They were especially opposed to Evangelicals and Baptists (the word ‘Baptist’ still carries very strong negative connotations for many Russians). Communism severely persecuted any signs of Biblical faith. Some anti-religious campaigns were more intense, followed by “warming” periods. In the 1980s under the last USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local believers. Eventually, underground churches began to cautiously resurface, and the Russian Orthodox Church began to reassert itself.
In the transitional period that has followed, there has been relative freedom of religion. But since 1997, the law against “sects” has being increasingly enforced, which in effect outlaws any Christian group except the Orthodox Church. Restrictions based on law and prosecuted in the courts (including 159 cases in the last 12 month period for which statistics are available) are increasing year by year.