Russia, the prominence and authority of various religious groups is closely tied to the country's political situation. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir I, who was converted by missionaries from Byzantium, embraced Christianity as the official Russian religion. For approximately 1,000 years thereafter, Russian Orthodoxy became the country’s primary denomination.
Although the constitution of the former Soviet Union nominally guaranteed religious freedom, religious activities were greatly constrained and membership in religious organizations was considered incompatible with membership in the Communist Party. Thus, overt claims of religious beliefs was a hindrance to individual advancement. While open expression of Christian beliefs was permitted during World War II, because the government sought the support of Christians and Jews in the fight against fascism, restrictions were re-imposed when the war ended.
In the 1980s, under the reformist regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, a policy of glasnost (English: openness) was declared, allowing greater tolerance for the unrestricted practice of religion. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, religious freedom was made a reality and revealed that large segments of the population continued to practice a variety of faiths. Russian nationalists who emerged in the 1990s identified the Russian Orthodox church as a major element of Russian culture.
The Russian government has a number of laws against religious extremism and foreign funding of non-government organizations including the Yarovaya Law, that can be used to restrict the practices of religious minorities, such as evangelism or the importation of foreign religious literature. Critics of these laws argue that the Russian government gives priority to the Russian Orthodox Church, making it into an unofficial state church.
Conditions improved for some minority religious groups while remaining largely the same for most, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion for most of the population. Some federal agencies, such as the Federal Registration Service, and many local authorities, continued to restrict the rights of a few religious minorities. Legal obstacles to registration under a complex 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (the 1997 Law stating Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as traditional religions) continued to seriously disadvantage some religious groups considered nontraditional. There were indications that the security services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), treated the leadership of some Islamic groups as security threats.
There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Religious matters were not a source of social tension or problems for the large majority of citizens, but there were some problems between majority and minority groups.
Resistance against non-Orthodox religions were behind manifestations of anti-Semitism and occasional friction with non-Orthodox Christian denominations. Conservative activists claiming ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) occasionally disseminated negative publications and held protest meetings against religions considered nontraditional, including alternative Orthodox congregations. Some ROC clergy stated publicly their opposition to any expansion of the presence of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and other non-Orthodox denominations.
The country has an area of 17,098,242 km2 (6,601,668 sq mi) and a population of 142.8 million. In practice, only a minority of citizens actively participated in any religion. Many who identified themselves as members of a faith rarely participated in religious life or not at all. There is no single set of reliable statistics that breaks down the population by denomination, and the statistics below are compiled from government, polling, and religious group sources.
Approximately 100 million citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, although the vast majority are not regular churchgoers. The largest religious minority is formed by 14 to 23 million Muslims, most of whom live in the Volga-Urals region and the North Caucasus, although Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia and Yakutia have sizable Muslim populations. The Buddhist Association of Russia estimated that there were between 1.5 and 2 million Buddhists, who live in the traditionally Buddhist regions of Buryatiya, Tuva, and Kalmykiya. According to the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, Protestants make up the second-largest group of Christian believers, with 3,500 registered organizations and more than 2 million followers. There are an estimated 600,000 Jews (0.4% of the population), the vast majority of which live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Catholic Church estimated that there are 600,000 Catholics, most of whom are not ethnic Russians. In Yakutiya and Chukotka, pantheistic and nature-based religions are practiced independently or alongside other religions.
According to Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin's annual report, the Ministry of Justice had registered 22,956 religious organizations as of January 1, 2007, 443 more than in January 2006. Among the registered religious groups are Russian Orthodox, Orthodox Old Believers, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Evangelical Christians, Catholic, and other denominations.