In Russia, a long-suppressed community is restored

In Brief: 

Members of today's Bahá'í Community Since the fall of the Soviet Union, with its official state ideology that eshewed God and religion, many Russians have undertaken searches for spiritual meaning. The Bahá'í Community of Russia, long-suppressed, has re-emerged as men and women from all walks of life have embraced the Faith and its ethical principles.

New freedom to investigate religion has opened doors for individual spiritual searching; many have re-discovered the Bahá'í Faith, which has focused on building tolerance and ethics

PERM, Russian Federation - Like so many of her generation, Larissa Tsutskova was raised without any religious education - and would have classified herself an atheist if someone had asked before the Communist Party lost its power in Russia.

Yet, also like so many in her generation, Ms. Tsutskova felt her life in the old Soviet Union lacked something. Something of a spiritual nature.

"My life was no different from the life of most people in the former Soviet Union," said the 42-year-old civil engineer in this medium-sized industrial city some 900 kilometers east of Moscow. "I was in a 'Red October' children's group, then I became a young 'Pioneer,' even secretary of a Communist youth group. Later I became a member of the Communist Party. I lived like any citizen of my country.

"I can't really say that my life in the former USSR was all that bad," she continued. "I feel uncomfortable when everyone heaps abuse on the past. But it is true that I was constantly looking for some hidden spiritual meaning, trying to find my identity."

And so it was that shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ms. Tsutskova embarked on a personal journey of spiritual searching. In 1986, she and her daughter were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. This was during the Perestroika reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev, which made such a step easier and more acceptable. "But I never really became part of the Christian community," she said, explaining that she felt uncomfortable with the rituals and dogma of the Church. "It was part of just trying to think of spiritual things in a more spiritual way."

Then she began to study foreign languages, enrolling in a humanities program at the University of Nizhny Novgorod in 1987. "Knowledge of languages other than Russian somehow makes life a little fuller," she said. "But if I look at it more closely, it probably says more about the state of my spirit at that time, about my sense of futility and emptiness." In the early 1990s, she also tried yoga. But that, too, failed to satisfy her spiritual longing.

Then, at the beginning of 1991, Ms. Tsutskova read a newspaper story about the Bahá'í Faith. Its lack of clergy or rituals very much resonated with Larissa's thinking about religion. She wrote for information and, intrigued, attended a Bahá'í conference in Estonia that summer. There, she and her daughter, Olesya, formally accepted the Faith.

The decision brought an end to her search. "It brought me such joy, the kind of happiness I can only compare to those moments when one discovers more and more beautiful qualities in a loved one," said Ms. Tsutskova, recalling when she first read from The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh, one of several books of Bahá'í sacred writings that she received that year.

New Atmosphere of Freedom

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, with its official state ideology that eschewed God and religion, many Russians have undertaken similar searches for spiritual meaning. Public opinion surveys indicate a general rise in the percentage of people who believe in God. Membership in the Russian Orthodox Church, previously highly regulated, has surged. The number of parishes has more than doubled since 1988, according to statistics from the Moscow Patriarchate. And more than 13,000 religious organizations have been legally registered with the Ministry of Justice as of January 1996, according to the Russian President's Center for Analysis.

More significantly, perhaps, the new atmosphere of religious freedom has allowed Russians to investigate a wide variety of movements - some of which are entirely new to the country, and some of which have been around since before the Russian Revolution. After 1991, for example, scores of evangelists and missionaries brought a plethora of unfamiliar names and ideas, covering the full range of social, religious, esoteric, hedonistic, and ecological concerns. Many of these movements, including some of those that pre-dated the Revolution, have flourished and are today winning a firm place in the pluralistic society that Russia is striving to build.

Among thriving religious organizations in the new Russia, the Bahá'í Faith stands out. In the first place, its position is well-grounded in modern Russian history: a robust community of Bahá'ís existed in Russian Turkistan at the turn of the century. [See page 13] In addition, the revived Bahá'í community has today won solid acceptance among not only the people but also Government officials and academics. They say that its high moral principles have much to offer to a society that has seen so many upheavals in recent years.

Spirit of the Times

"The principles of the Bahá'í Faith correspond to the spirit of the times," said N. F. Suvorov, head of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Perm Regional Government. "There is such a need for peaceful coexistence and tolerance among the various religious denominations and it is so important that people make joint efforts to solve social problems. Bahá'ís should be more active in the sphere of spiritual education - they should become much more noticeable in the life of the region."

Such comments come amid a backlash that has developed against some of the new movements that have sprung up in Russia, principally as foreign-based missionaries have sought aggressively to win converts. In 1993, for example, the Government considered legislation that would have placed restrictions on foreign missionary activity. More recently, a 1996 federal program for combating organized crime has identified several newly arrived foreign-based "religions" as socially dangerous.

Well-informed officials, however, are quick to distinguish Bahá'ís from this category. "Bahá'ís are law abiding and peaceful, known for their humanitarian views and their honesty," said Aleksandr I. Kudryavtsev, head of the Religious Registry in Russia's Department of Justice. "That is the official view of the Ministry of Justice, and not only my view but that of all my colleagues as well. The Bahá'ís have long roots in this country and now they are restoring their community."

When laws granting religious freedom were passed in 1990, there were no functioning Spiritual Assemblies, the local governing unit that forms the heart of Bahá'í community life. By late 1996, there were 46 Assemblies in Russia and over 160 more in the other former states of the Soviet Union. All totaled, there are an estimated 9,000 Bahá'ís in Russia and the former Soviet Republics today.

"The universal character of the Faith, the fact that it accepts different religious revelations as true - this is new to Russians and people welcome this idea," said Sergei Poselski, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Russian Federation, the national governing council of the Bahá'í community of Russia. "People are tired of instability, tired of the ethnic conflicts and conflicts among religious groups. So this teaching is very appealing to Russians. The other appeal is its contemporary character. The Faith is well suited to modern life. It has no rituals, no clergy and it is very scientific."

Indeed, the Faith's resurgence has come as men and women like Ms. Tsutskova have embraced the Faith - and felt the transformations that it has led to in their lives. "Finding a new sense of morality and ethics is today the main requirement for society," Ms. Tsutskova said. "Because previously we had Communist morality and all that was lost and there is no foundation now. And you can't live without a foundation."

Shortly after Larissa Tsutskova and her daughter became Bahá'ís, her husband, Vitaly, enrolled. Under the Soviet Union, he worked as a civil engineer at Perm's central heating plant. Today, however, he is president of his own successful insurance company, with an office of a dozen people and more than 30 agents in the field. One reason for his success is his emphasis on running an ethical business. Business decisions are made on the basis of consultation and mutual respect; his company is also quick to meet its obligations when insurance claims are filed.

Mr. Tsutskov is a founding member of the Russian Bahá'í Business Partnership, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help businesspeople explore the spiritual side of economics and to put ethical principles into daily practice. It is something the cut-throat business environment in today's Russia sorely needs, said Mr. Tsutskov.

"I started getting involved in business the same year that I became a Bahá'í, after I left my government job," he said. "So I grew in both ways at the same time, as a Bahá'í and as a businessman. My colleagues' trust grows when, right at the beginning, I give them some literature about the Partnership and they read about business ethics. Somehow, the level of tension in our business relationship disappears. Of course, I feel a great responsibility never to deceive anyone, and I don't think I have so far."

Leonid Osokin and the Orange Show

Leonid Osokin has also found that his embrace of the Bahá'í Faith has led him to a new view of ethics and morality. Born and raised in Siberia, the 23-year-old Mr. Osokin was raised as an atheist and one of the last things on his mind was religion, which he and his peers understood as something very strait-laced and conservative.

Then, in 1990, a musical group from California came to his city, Ulan-Ude. Mr. Osokin learned that they were all Bahá'ís and became attracted to the Faith. He soon discovered that there was already a well-established Bahá'í community in Ulan-Ude and he joined.

"The Bahá'í community seemed like one great big family," he said. "I thought deeply about the Faith, the more I got into it. I started to become more spiritually mature and my life became fuller. The Faith helped me to develop a vision not only of myself but of the whole world. I found my place in life."

In 1995, Osokin began hosting a live TV program for young people in Ulan-Ude, called the "Orange Show." The program was modeled on a show called "ZIPOPO," which translates from Russian as "Institute for Positive Behavior." ZIPOPO was started in Kazan by another Bahá'í, television journalist Shamil Fattakhov.

The Orange Show featured young actors who doing a skit to dramatize a moral problem: Should I try drugs? Should I lie to my father? Cheat on my girlfriend? The action stopped dead just before the critical moment of choice and the audience then had the opportunity to share their ideas and suggestions as to what the decision should be. After the discussion, the actors completed the scenario, demonstrating a positive moral decision.

During its two year run, the bi-weekly Orange show was quite popular, reaching upwards of a million people in the region, filling a crucial need for young people facing the kind of moral confusion that often prevails in today's Russia.

Last fall, Mr. Osokin ended the show and enrolled in a doctoral program at St. Petersburg University. Once again, his subject of choice is morality and ethics. "Almost all the philosophers and great thinkers of the past recognized the importance of values," said Mr. Osokin. "Today we are lacking a system of ethics and morality universal in its nature, one which embraces all the particular truths of ethics. I believe this goal is attainable now with the coming of the Bahá'í Faith, which provides a pattern within which all the ethical systems can receive a new life and can serve humanity in the best way."

Like Mr. Poselski, Mr. Osokin is a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Russian Federation, a position to which he was elected in 1996. This work, which is voluntary and unpaid, takes a huge amount of Mr. Osokin's time. But it offers him a chance to witness ethical principles in action. "The Bahá'í administration is not just about abstract ideas and philosophy, but a practical way of functioning," he said. "It evolves like a living organism."

Zakir Buttaev, graphic artist

Zakir Buttaev, a 47-year-old Moscow graphic artist had always believed in God, even under Communism. "I was born in a deeply religious family," said Mr. Buttaev, who is originally from the city of Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea. "My father was educated in a Muslim spiritual seminary - which, by the way, didn't prevent him from becoming a member of the Communist Party."

"Like many others of us, he had to live a double life," he added, using the term common for those who believed in God but hid their beliefs from the authorities.

"Since early childhood, I never doubted that God exists," he said. "But dogma was foreign to our family. I was never forced to pray. Even as a child, the authoritarian ways of the clergy disturbed me and I was bothered by the fact that almost all religions were spread by force."

Mr. Buttaev, like Ms. Tsutskova, first read about the Faith in a newspaper. "I was taken with the fact that the Bahá'í Faith recognizes the unity of all religions." He formally enrolled in the Bahá'í community in 1994, after attending regular meetings in Moscow. There, he said, he was struck by the diversity of the people, who came from at least a dozen different countries and ethnic backgrounds and seemed so entirely without prejudice - qualities that he believes Russia very much needs.

According to Evgeny G. Balagushkin, a senior research associate with the Center for Research on the Philosophy of Culture and Religion at the Russian Academy of Sciences, new religions have become a sort of scapegoat for the social and economic difficulties facing post-Soviet Russia. "Religion has thus become highly politicized," he said. "People don't see religion as a source of cultural enrichment, of enlightenment, bringing people together. They rather see it as a political tool.

"I see in the Bahá'í approach the most attractive position, fostering a peaceful attitude towards one's fellow Russians and towards those in neighboring countries. There's no emphasis on ritual separateness, or sectarianism."

--Evgeny G. Balagushkin, Russian Academy of Sciences

"With regard to the Bahá'ís, however, I think they take a very constructive position, in that they are obedient to the law, supportive of the development of society, and support the growth of civil rights, human creativity and prosperity," Dr. Balagushkin continued. "I see in the Bahá'í approach the most attractive position, fostering a peaceful attitude towards one's fellow Russians and towards those in neighboring countries. There's no emphasis on ritual separateness, or sectarianism.

"This kind of religious movement could very well function as the pivot around which harmony can be created among the religions; the Bahá'ís have a peacemaking role, opening dialogue between those who haven't found a common language yet," Balagushkin said.

Mr. Buttaev feels strongly about the need for more peace and harmony in the world. He speaks heatedly and sorrowfully about terrible events in the former Yugoslavia, about the war in Chechnya, and about the persecution of Bahá'ís in Iran. He is also troubled by religious fighting, asking why Christians and Muslims are unable to agree among themselves, even

But he finds solace in the Bahá'í teachings about the importance of unity in thought and action. "One person alone cannot decide these things," he said. "It has to be done together."

That process of building towards social unity, he believes, is essentially a spiritual one. "We can't only think about bread - that's empty, futile. Everything depends on how spiritually developed we are as individuals. In my opinion, prayer is like a vertical connection to God. When you pray, you get answers to what most concerns you in your own behavior."

Mr. Buttaev finds he has become much more optimistic since becoming a Bahá'í. "My whole outlook on life has changed," he said. "I feel we are able to overcome problems. You don't just run around in circles, like before, thinking that there's no way out of the situation. The Faith gives you a wise approach to life, a way of dealing with difficulties.

"I find that when I am focused daily on God, through prayer and reading, that I am able to become more objective about the everyday crises of life - in the family, at work, in the community," he said. "It has helped me to really work on myself, to keep myself 'accountable.' I know I'm a long way from reaching that ideal, but it's the striving that counts, to keep facing myself honestly."

- Reported by Nancy Ackerman and Lev Lanier