Russian nationalism negatively affects foreign religions

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Luke Salisbury stands with Russian friends at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Luke Salisbury)
BYU student Luke Salisbury stands with two Russian friends at an Olympic event. Salisbury returned to Russia as a translator for the 2014 Olympic Games after serving a full-time mission in the country. (Luke Salisbury)

Many international, foreign religious groups have suffered because of heightened nationalism around the world, including Latter-day Saints in Russia, according to a recent report.

The Russian report from the SOVA Center, translated by Stetson University in February, cited an unscheduled inspection of a Latter-day Saint meeting place. It reported that a local official had the building sealed, and the congregation was moved to a new location. But just as the meeting began in the new location, the building lost power, and the members were forced back into the streets. The report also stated that young protesters had picketed outside the meetinghouse on more than one occasion.

According to reports, the citation was overruled by a higher official, and church members were able to resume meetings as usual. A church member quoted in the article claimed the incident was due to political tensions and U.S. sanctions against Russia.

These claims are not institutionalized but are, rather, local responses to political feelings, according to Don Jarvis, a former mission president in Moscow and Russian language professor.

“Although national officials in Russia are sensitive to religious rights and aware of international difficulties that may arise from interfering with approved religious activities, Russian provincial officials are sometimes less sensitive and less aware of both,” Jarvis said. “(They) are more eager to want to show how strong they are in defense of Russian nationalism and opposition to foreign influences.”

Some LDS missionaries who have served in the country noticed negative attitudes toward citizens who had joined the church. David Doane, a recently returned LDS missionary, said it was easy to see Russians question if members of the church were still “good Russians,” at least in the beginning. “After a while, though, they will see that they’re normal people, they aren’t different or becoming ‘Americanized’ — loving America more, even though the Mormon church is associated with America,” Doane said.

John Young, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Northern British Columbia and former mission president in Moscow, also spoke about patriotism and religion. “For ethnic Russians, it is not uncommon to conflate nationality with religious belief,” he said. “Someone who professes a religion other than Orthodoxy, particularly a religion associated with a foreign country, might be considered unpatriotic.”

BYU student Luke Salisbury was able to experience two sides of Russian patriotism, as an LDS missionary from 2007 to 2009 and as a translator for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

During his mission in Russia, a war ensued between Russia and Georgia and affected the way missionaries proselytized. “For a while we weren’t able to wear our name tags outside, because America is an ally of Georgia, and so there was quite a bit of anti-American sentiment,” Salisbury said. “But it was interesting being there not as a missionary … it was easier to talk to people.”

As a translator, Salisbury was on a train home from an event where a Russian athlete had just won a gold medal. Every other person on the train was singing the Russian national anthem, and Salisbury decided to join in, because he had made friends with several other passengers.

After they finished, fellow passengers asked him to sing the American national anthem. “Right there, with a train full of Russians, I belted out the entire ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and this man afterward leans over to me and says, ‘Hey Luke, with all due respect, we still hate America.’”

Salisbury said these prejudices aren’t one way. “There is an unspoken and spoken rivalry between Russia and the United States. Think about the Cold War or the Space Race. But even in American pop culture, three-fourths of the bad guys of any movie you watch are Russian,” Salisbury said. “It’s no mistake that tensions are high.”

In a recent article the New Yorker called the nationalist response to liberalism the “most powerful political force of our time,” and it is not isolated to Russia or Mormons.

Last November the Russian Federation Supreme Court liquidated the Local Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara for being “extremist.” According to records, previously banned books were found in their place of worship. The organization called the liquidation a “dangerous precedent” but would not comment further on the ruling.

While national attitudes may reflect treatment of certain foreign national groups, they are not often reflected in the law.

“Despite laws that may be on the books, the implementation and the enforcement of law is quite arbitrary and also contradictory. Thus, while the (Russian Federation) Constitution might declare freedom of conscience, protections for religious freedom are vague and unpredictable. Freedom of conscience in Russia is quite vulnerable to other laws banning ‘religious extremism’ or ‘offending the religious feelings of believers’,” Young said. “Putin’s regime has also attempted to restrict the alleged interference of civic groups supported by international or foreign organizations in Russian society.”

Jarvis compared the persecution to the civil rights movement in the United States. “Racism was much more likely to be demonstrated by provincial officials than by national ones,” he said. “The amount of harassment was roughly proportional to how provincial the location was and how much its officials wanted to show how tough they were to perceived outsiders’ threats to their culture.”

This principle was demonstrated with the Russian Latter-day Saints when higher authorities refused to uphold the ordinance of the local officials and permitted LDS members to continue worship in their building.

The church became officially recognized by the Russian government in May of 1991, after which the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in the famous Bolshoi Theater. There are now 22,039 members, seven missions, 98 congregations and 55 family history centers in Russia.

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