Russia Table of Contents
In the mid-1990s, the relationship of Russia's central government to its regional jurisdictions remains tentative; the Yeltsin administration's failure to contain separatist movements is a favorite target of the president's nationalist critics. The Yeltsin government's policy toward separatism grew from the theory that compromises made with individual ethnic groups would satisfy the need to express national identity. Such an approach rests on the proposition that the diverse inhabitants of the Russian Federation ultimately will identify closely enough with the federation to ensure its continuing territorial integrity, and that centrifugal impulses will not lead Russia to the fate suffered by the Soviet Union.
Theoretically, the secession of one component of the Russian Federation could encourage the movement of others in an irrational but uncontrollable domino effect. On the one hand, Russia's inability to reverse secession despite the deployment of a large-scale force in Chechnya is cited by experts as an inducement to other national units to break away. On the other hand, the fact that no minority ethnic group constitutes more than 4 percent of the federation's population militates against breakaway jurisdictions attaining the critical mass and political leverage needed to secede and function successfully as independent nations. In many respects, Russia's ethnic republics, many of which lie deep within the boundaries of the federation, remain heavily dependent on the center, especially in economic matters. For example, under the conditions of the mid-1990s, Tatarstan's oil cannot be processed or transported to the outside world without the utilization of facilities lying outside its borders, in Russia proper. Thus, the threat of secession has now been established as a bargaining chip in the struggle with the central government for political and economic advantage, but it is a threat of limited practical value.
The chief religion of Russia is Russian Orthodox Christianity, which is professed by about 75 percent of citizens who describe themselves as religious believers. Because the concept of separation of church and state never took root in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, was a pillar of tsarist autocracy. During the communist era, the church, like every other institution in the Soviet Union, was completely subordinate to the state, achieving a modus vivendi by ceding most of its autonomous identity. Under the officially atheist regimes of the Soviet Union, no official figures on the number of religious believers in the country were available to Western scholars. According to various Soviet and Western sources, however, more than one-third of the citizens of the Soviet Union regarded themselves as believers in the 1980s, when the number of adherents to Russian Orthodoxy was estimated at more than 50 million--although a high percentage of that number feared to express their religious beliefs openly.
Islam, professed by about 19 percent of believers in the mid-1990s, is numerically the second most important religion in Russia. Various non-Orthodox Christian denominations and a dwindling but still important Jewish population complete the list of major religious groups in the Russian Federation. In general, Russians of all religions have enjoyed freedom of worship since the collapse of the communist regime in 1991, and large numbers of abandoned or converted religious buildings have been returned to active religious use in the 1990s.
Data as of July 1996