East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Cults and New Religious Movements in the Former Soviet Union

Paul Carden

With the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a flood of foreign religious groups sent missionaries, literature, and tons of humanitarian aid in hopes of making converts and establishing a long-term presence in one of the world's largest mission fields. Glasnost also enabled new indigenous movements to display their wares in an open religious marketplace.

Noted religion scholars Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May 1997), explain that "Other things being equal, new and unconventional religious organizations will prosper to the extent that they compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy"--in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church in the former Soviet republics. "Put another way, new religious organizations will do best where conventional religious mobilization is low--at least to the degree that the state gives such groups a chance to exist. Thus, we ought to find that where conventional church membership and church attendance rates are low, the incidence of unconventional religious movements will be high."

Evangelistic media blitzes, stadium crusades, leaflet distribution, and unprecedented Bible dissemination exposed millions of curious citizens to the Christian message, but many would agree that few of those reached had corresponding opportunities for follow-up, discipleship, or integration into a Christian church. Some observers feel that this negligence is being exploited by a variety of pseudo-Christian and theologically aberrant movements, some of them quite aggressive and well organized. Among these would be Jehovah's Witnesses, the New Apostolic Church, the Local Church/Living Stream movement of Witness Lee, the International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement), and the Word of Life (Livets Ord) movement of Ulf Ekman--all of which are evidently experiencing significant growth.

Few cults and new religious movements (NRMs) regularly make membership statistics available to outsiders, and the notion of what constitutes a member varies considerably from one group to the next, so objective data can be difficult to obtain. The following summarizes some of the most recent information available on the strength of several of the more noteworthy heterodox and controversial religions operating in the former Soviet republics.

Jehovah's Witnesses
By far the most successful foreign cult in the former Soviet Union is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which first shipped its publications to Russia in 1887. The movement was actively persecuted by authorities throughout the Soviet era but obtained legal status in Russia in March 1991. Thanks to its comparatively deep roots in Eurasian soil and enthusiastic lay proselytizing force, the Watchtower Society has achieved impressive growth. Witness congregations in St. Petersburg alone increased from one to 43 between 1990 and 1997.

In 1997 Jehovah's Witnesses in seven former Soviet states reached nearly 200,000 "publishers" (active, baptized members), who logged nearly 40 million hours going door to door and standing on street corners with the Watchtower message. A better indication of the actual number of people participating in the life of the cult (preparing for baptism, engaging in home studies) is the figure of those attending its annual "Memorial" observance--over half a million in the countries listed. But the Watchtower Society has stated that the total of its active members in all 15 former Soviet states--including Central Asian republics, where its operations are suppressed or banned--is over 225,000, and that last year's combined Memorial attendance surpassed 600,000 (Awake!, 22 February 1998).

Rapid growth has caused an acute shortage of worship facilities. As of August 1997 roughly 85 percent of the congregations under the Russian administrative branch were without permanent meeting places. To oversee this expanding flock, Jehovah's Witnesses built a lavish national headquarters office complex in Solnechnoe (some 40 km northwest of St. Petersburg), which was dedicated in June 1997 with extensive press coverage. At the time of its dedication, the center served 800 congregations in Russia and nine other former Soviet republics. The Solnechnoe complex disseminates 90 tons of Witness literature per week in Russian and 20 additional languages, much of which is printed in Germany and Italy. The Society now publishes The Watchtower regularly in Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian and East Armenian, Estonian, Georgian, Kirghiz, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ossetian. Russian-language articles are available on the cult's official web site (http://watchtower.org).

Though no plans to produce a Russian version of its New World Translation have been disclosed, in January 1997 the Watchtower Society announced a program to distribute more than 300,000 copies of its new Russian-language Bible, Holy Scriptures, to universities, prisons, and other public institutions throughout the Russian Federation. This Bible combines a little-known translation of the Old Testament by nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Archimandrite Makarios and the Synodal version of the New Testament. More seriously, these Bibles feature over 30 pages of deceptive "Bible Topics for Discussion" which deny such essential Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ--along with reasons for refusing blood transfusions in medical emergencies.

Compared with the Watchtower Society, the wealthy and powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has seen only meager results from its proselytizing efforts since the first Mormon missionaries arrived in Leningrad in January 1990. According to its official web site (http://www.lds.org, the LDS church obtained official recognition from the Russian government in May 1991, and hopes ran high. One month later, "the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir received publicity 'beyond its wildest expectations' as it performed in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The choir recorded songs later broadcast to a potential audience of 339 million" (http://www.lds.org/Pioneer/The_Church_In_Your_Area/089_Russia.html). But in early 1998 the LDS church had only some 6,000 members in Russia (Salt Lake Tribune, 23 March 1998), some 2,000 in the Kyiv region (Gary Browning, Russia and the Restored Gospel, 341), and even fewer in neighboring countries. There are currently seven Mormon missions in Russia (two in Moscow and one each in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Rostov na Donu, Samara, and Ekaterinburg), two in Ukraine (in Kyiv and Donetsk), one for the Baltic nations (in Vilnius), and modest proselytizing efforts in Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and several other republics. An estimated 700-800 Mormon missionaries now work in the former Soviet Union. Translation work is progressing in Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, and Georgian, among other languages.

Unlike Mormonism, L. Ron Hubbard's "applied religious technology" of Dianetics and Scientology has spread quickly across the former Soviet Union. In St. Petersburg Scientologists distribute the movement's leaflets and hawk copies of Dianetics at subway entrances, while on the busy Nevsky Prospekt passersby are offered bus rides to the Dianetics Center for free personality testing. In March 1997 the German news weekly Stern reported that the movement's offices were spread "from Minsk to the Kamchatka Peninsula," and International Scientology News (Issue 4, 1997) boasted that "the two fastest-growing areas in all of Scientology [are] Russia and Hungary. Russia currently has 54 missions, with staff in training to open another 50 missions." With 170 paid employees, the Moscow Dianetics Center is the largest such branch office in the world. In February 1998 the web site for Scientology Missions International (http://www.scientology.org) offered contact addresses for 38 centers in the Russian Federation, three in Kazakhstan, two in Ukraine, and one each in Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, and Lithuania. Such Scientology-based organizations as Criminon, Narconon, the Way to Happiness Foundation, and Hubbard College of Administration also operate with varying degrees of success--and controversy.

Unification Church
Papers authored in 1997 by Galina A. Krylova, a Moscow attorney sympathetic to the Unification Church, state that the movement, led by self-styled Korean messiah Sun Myung Moon, has been active unofficially in Russia since the 1970s and received official registration in the Russian Federation in May 1992. It currently works in 55 cities in the former Soviet Union, including Moscow, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Kyiv, Minsk, Vilnius, Tallinn, and Almaty. An early strategy to gain influence was to conduct seminars for educators in resort areas. Orthodox countercult activist Dr. Alexander Dvorkin, in his 1998 article, "A Presentation on the Situation in Russia," Spirituality in East and West, no. 11, estimates that over 60,000 attended these events, adding that the Unification textbook, My World and I, is being used in over 2,000 Russian schools. Moon's university front group, known as CARP, has been the target of legal actions in St. Petersburg and Oryol. Dvorkin also reports that the cult has developed a new textbook, The Inner World of the Soldier, "designed as a basic moral and religious education tool to be used throughout the army." Moscow sociologist Sergei Filatov gives a figure of 5,000 Moonies for 1994 and less than 3,000 for 1997. ("'New Religious Movements' and the Socioreligious Situation in Post-Soviet Russia," paper presented at a Keston Institute conference on proselytism, Oxford, England, May 1997.)

Hare Krishna
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is one of the most active and visible of the imported new religious movements and is known for its noisy street processions, extensive literature work, and distribution of free vegetarian meals to the poor. According to attorney Krylova, "The first Krishna religious organization to be registered in Russia, the Moscow Society of Krishna Consciousness, was registered only in 1988, even though the Krishnas began their activities in Russia much earlier, and were persecuted for their religious beliefs under the Soviet regime. Their All-Russian organization was registered in 1992." Though exact membership figures are not available, Russian ISKCON representative Vaidyanatha Dasa claimed in the September/October 1997 issue of Hare Krishna World that "We are not less than 30,000 [in Russia]. In Moscow alone we have thousands of followers because of our active radio preaching." Moscow's Institute of Religion and Law, however, more conservatively estimates 10,000 Hare Krishna. The July/August 1998 issue of the Hare Krishna's Back to Godhead magazine lists 22 ISKCON centers in Russia, seven in Ukraine, two each in Georgia and Lithuania, and others in Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzia, and Tajikistan.

Children of God/The Family
This pernicious pseudoevangelical sect claims to have been active in Russia since the early 1980s and may be best known in the region for its brightly colored posters featuring apocalyptic messages and sexually suggestive imagery. While its membership is probably small, in 1997 the cult boasted of its expansion into Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tatarstan, and Siberia. Of special concern to Christian nationals and missionaries is the cult's efforts to gain credibility by posing as evangelicals, working alongside them in humanitarian efforts, and infiltrating evangelical churches. A recent promotional magazine, The Family-- Making a Difference!, describes Project Aid Siberia as "a relief organization spearheaded by Faith Berg, the daughter of The Family's founder," which "secured and shipped 300 tons of humanitarian aid from the U.S. to several struggling cities in Siberia." The same magazine describes donations of hospital equipment and supplies, as well as clothing and other items, to Latvia, Ukraine, and various Russian cities, adding that the cult has "projects" in "penal institutions and halfway houses" in Russia and Ukraine. The magazine indicates that "Family-produced children's videos" were broadcast on Russian and Ukrainian television. These videos are distributed under such titles as "Kiddie Viddie," "Treasure Attic," "New Worlds to Discover," and "Fantastic Friends." The group's music audio cassettes are distributed as "Songs of Life" and "Heaven's Magic."

International Church of Christ (Boston Movement)
The International Church of Christ (Boston Movement), widely considered cultic because of its abusive authority practices, founded a fast-growing branch in Moscow in 1991. The group's LA Story magazine (January 1998) claims 22 churches in the former Soviet Union--six in Russia, four in Ukraine, and one in the capital of every other post-Soviet republic except Tajikistan, with a combined Sunday attendance of 8,736. The Moscow church is the largest at 2,571, followed by Kyiv with 2,245, and Novosibirsk with 949. (Other Churches of Christ, much more numerous in Russia and the West, should not be confused with the Boston Movement and should not be considered cultic.)

Local Church/Living Stream
The first representatives of this controversial sect, founded by the late Witness Lee and registered in Russia as Church of Home Meetings, "came to the USSR in 1984 as students in Russian-language courses in Leningrad. With the help of local evangelists, . . . [they] . . .began to translate into Russian the tracts of Witness Lee, which then were printed in West Germany and distributed in the USSR" (Nezavisimaia gazeta, 5 September 1996). A February 1998 report on a Local Church-related web site (http://members.aol.com/trainee95/ftta-grad/index.htm) indicates that its efforts now extend to 169 cities in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Latvia, and Lithuania. "Rhema Inc.," as it is also known, has distributed seven million pieces of Local Church literature, including the sect's free Stream magazine. The sect's Biblical Book Depot is translating its Recovery Version of the Bible into Russian, Ukrainian, and Armenian. The group is laboring to bring Christians from "denominations" into its fold. Thus, the Local Church reports that its church in Dnepropetrovsk "had a pastor who brought the whole congregation into the way of the recovery."

Other Movements
Various small cultic and fringe groups, though not sending significant numbers of missionaries, are extending their influence through translation efforts.

Indigenous New Religious Movements (NRMs)
Eliot Borenstein, professor of Slavic and Russian studies at New York University, writes in the September 1997 Religion Watch that "despite the furor over the role of 'imported' religious groups, the 'problem' of NRMs in Russia would not be nearly so acute if it weren't for the tendency of people throughout Russia to create alternative belief systems of their own." Borenstein describes the esoteric Bazhov Academy of Secret Knowledge and two movements that consciously compete with the Russian Orthodox Church: the apocalyptic Great White Brotherhood of Maria Devi Khristos and Ioann Bereslavsky's Mother of God Center, which has attracted Protestants. (On the Great White Brotherhood see Eliot Borenstein, "Articles of Faith: The Media Response to Maria Devi Khristos," Religion 25 [July 1995]: 249-66.) A distinctively New Age group that has drawn harsh media attention centers on the self-styled prophet Vissarion, based in southern Siberia.

Organized Responses
Fears of mind control, family upheaval, cultural contamination, and other concerns have sparked grassroots efforts to resist the spread of controversial new religions. The first of several anticult groups organized by parents of NRM adherents is the Moscow-based Committee for the Defense of Youth from Pseudo-Religions, founded in 1992. Similar organizations have formed in St. Petersburg, Novgorod, Ekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Kyiv, and Minsk. The Russian Orthodox Church has organized anticult efforts of its own, beginning with the St. Irinaeus of Lyon Information and Consultation Center at the Department of Religious Education and Catechism of the Moscow Patriarchate, established in 1992 by Dr. Alexander Dvorkin. The dioceses of Novosibirsk, Tver, Yaroslavl, and Minsk have since founded others. The dioceses of Karelia, Krasnodar, and Ekaterinburg conduct active anticult efforts without formal centers. The only established evangelical countercult outreach in the former Soviet Union is the Center for Apologetics Research in St. Petersburg, which works in cooperation with both secular and Orthodox groups. 

Paul Carden is executive director of the Centers for Apologetics Research, San Juan Capistrano, CA.

Selected Cult Statistics for the Former Soviet Union

Jehovah's Witnesses
Unification Church (Moonies)
under 3000*
ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

* 5,000 in 1994

Sources: East-West Church & Ministry Report 1 (Fall 1993), 5; Paul Carden, Center for Apologetics Research; Sergei Filatov, "'New Religious Movements' and the Socioreligious Situation in Post-Soviet Russia," unpublished paper; Associated Press, "Despite Pessimism, Mormon's Achieve Legal Status," 15 May 1998.

 Members of Selected Cults in the Former Soviet Union
Jehovah's Witnesses

*Brierley gives a figure of 30,000 Mormons in Russia, but this appears to be inaccurate. Mormons themselves put the 1998 figure at 8,500 (Associated Press, "Despite Pessimism, Mormons Achieve Legal Status," 15 May 1998).

Source: Peter Brierley, World Churches Handbook (London: Christian Research, 1997). Figures are derived from the 1995 update of the database used by Patrick Johnstone in Operation World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).

Editor's Notes:

Christian Resources on Cults in Russian

Association for Spiritual Renewal
The Association for Spiritual Renewal, Moscow, distributes 12 books on cults by both Western and Russian authors. For more information, or to place an order, contact Nadya Pomazkova, ASR, 29-30 kv. Novye Cheryemushki, ul. Nametkina, korpus. 5, Moscow 117420, Russia; tel: 095-719-7945; fax: 095-719-7890; e-mail: booksales@asr.ru; web site: http://www.asr.ru.

Center for Apologetics Research
The Center for Apologetics Research, St. Petersburg, offers 66 books, pamphlets, research papers, and tracts on cults and related issues. The Center also offers training for pastors and lay believers, and a free quarterly research update (Vestnik) specifically for pastors. For more information, contact: Sergei Gushchin, Center for Apologetics Research, Box 954, 194044 St. Petersburg, Russia; tel: 812-248-8153; e-mail: dima@crir.spb.su; web site: http://members.tripod.com/~CFAR/.

Good News Defenders
The 56-minute video Witnesses of Jehovah is available in PAL and NTSC from Good News Defenders, Box 8007, La Jolla, CA 92038. Price: $22.00 each, including U.S. postage and handling. Quantity discounts available.

Gospel Truths Ministries
Gospel Truths Ministries offers four Russian-language tracts on Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses. Order from Gospel Truths Ministries, 1340 Monroe Ave., NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49505; tel: 616-451-4562; fax: 616-451-8907; e-mail: bray@irr.org; web site: http://www.irr.org. Price: $8.00 per 100, plus postage and handling.

InterVarsity Video/2100 Productions
The 26-minute video The Search: New Age in a New Light is available in PAL and NTSC from InterVarsity Video/2100 Productions, Box 7895, Madison, WI 53707-7895; tel: 800-828-2100 or 608-274-4823, ext. 456; fax: 608-274-7882; e-mail: 2100ord@ivcf.org; web site: http://www.gospelcom.net/iv/mmcp/. Price: $19.95 each (item # V4000RUS), plus postage and handling.

Orthodox Institute on Missiology, Ecumenism, and New Religious Movements (PIMEN)
Part of the Russian Christian Humanitarian Institute, St. Petersburg, the Institute publishes brochures and leaflets on the development of new religious movements. For more information, contact Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov, PIMEN, Voznesensky pr. 34 "B," 190068 St. Petersburg, Russia; tel: 812-315-3817; fax: 812-315-3917; e-mail: pimen@mail.nevalink.ru; web site: http://www.rchgi.spb.ru/pimen.html.

Personal Freedom Outreach
The 53-minute video Mormonism: The Christian View is available in PAL and NTSC from Personal Freedom Outreach, Box 26062, St. Louis, MO 63136-0062; tel: 314-388-2648; fax: 314-388-0064; e-mail: info@pfo.org; web site: http://www.pfo.org. Price: $21.50 each, including U.S. postage and handling.

Russian Literature Ministries
As well as other relevant literature, Russian Literature Ministries offers the 536-page paperback Krizis sovesti [Crisis of Conscience], by Raymond Franz. The author, a former member of the Governing Board of the Watchtower Society, reveals the inner-workings of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Contact Russian Literature Ministries, Box 851, Corvallis, OR 97339-0851, USA; tel: 541-745-7934; fax: 541-745-5152; e-mail: sales@rlm.org; or Moscow Second Baptist Church - "Triada", Varshavskoe shosse 12a, 113105 Moscow, Russia; tel: 095-952-2173; fax: 095-952-2173: web site: http://www.rlm.org/.

Editor's Note: For additional literature on cults, consult the East-West Church & Ministry Report 1 (Fall 1993), 5.

Paul Carden, "Cults and New Religious Movements in the Former Soviet Union," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Summer 1998), 1-5.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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