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‘I think there’s a list out there somewhere’ A prominent folklorist and anthropologist in St. Petersburg explains how he was fired and why Russia fears religious sects

Meduza
Alexander Panchenko / Vkontakte

On December 3, folklorist and anthropologist Alexander Panchenko announced on Facebook that he was fired from St. Petersburg State University. He says the school’s administration kicked him off the faculty back in August without any explanation. One of Russia’s leading specialists on folk Orthodoxy and Russian mystical sects, Panchenko believes he lost his job because he gave expert testimony in a trial against representatives of a Pentecostal church, “essentially shattering the prosecution's case.” Meduza spoke to him to learn more about the circumstances of his dismissal and to find out why the Russian state fights against religious groups.

Were there a lot of reactions to your post?

A lot of people wrote to me on Facebook and expressed their support.

What about the university’s administration?

No, the administration didn’t comment. They’ve sent this boilerplate letter around to all the media outlets, saying that I wasn’t teaching any classes in the fall semester, so they supposedly planned to renew my contract from the spring semester. But that isn’t entirely true: I was also teaching classes in the fall semester. Additionally, I was on the [liberal arts and science] department board, and serving as the director of the sociology and anthropology program, which required me to be present at the university. So they’re just trying to save face.

What did your departure cost your students?

There’s a class where I gave lectures based on my research. I don’t know how successfully I met my duties, but many students have written on Facebook that they miss me. I’ve tried to keep up with their independent research, even though I’m no longer their academic supervisor.

You wrote that you should have come forward about this a long time ago, but you only did it this week. Why?

I’m pretty busy. Don’t go thinking that I only worked there, and they tossed me into the street. My main place of work is the Institute of Russian Literature, and I run the St. Petersburg European University’s Center for Anthropology and Religion, where I also give lectures. And I have several grant projects. Honestly, I just didn’t get around to it. A lot of people — both colleagues and students — asked me [to write about it], because they didn’t understand what had happened, and nobody had explained it to them. Doing this, I’m not trying to defend my own rights. What I want is for situations like this to be made public.

Before September, there were no signals that they planned to fire you?

No, as I understand it, this came as a total surprise to the department. My direct supervisors apparently didn’t expect it at all, and there were no preliminary discussions. Except it had been known since the spring that this story [with my court testimony] caused some irritation in the chancellor’s office. I didn’t pay much attention. The whole thing was ridiculous to any reasonable person.

Can you describe the trial where you testified?

I’ll ask you to take these questions to the lawyers at [the human rights group] “Team 29,” who handled this case. [Team 29 announced on social media that it won’t discuss any details of the case until another expert testimony in the trial is complete.]

Have you given similar expert testimonies in the past?

It’s pretty rare for me to provide this kind of expertise. I’m more involved in scholarly work. I’ve participated in a few trials, but I don’t want to talk about that because these cases aren’t finished, either.

Were these cases where you’re testifying opened after the adoption of the “Yarovaya laws”? This was the legislation, after all, that imposed restrictions on missionary activity.

It’s not just the Yarovaya laws that matter here. Anti-extremism legislation has been around for awhile, and there was already plenty of room for abuse. Generally, I think anti-extremism legislation needs to be completely [abolished].

I think the key moment was the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses. This was the first total ban of a pretty respectable religious organization on Russian territory since the fall of the Soviet Union. This was a serious move that created problems for hundreds of thousands of people. And I have the feeling that somewhere out there someone has developed a whole list of “dangerous sects” or “dangerous movements” that they’ll just try to expel from the country completely. The Jehovah's Witnesses were just the first.

Why do you think that?

I’m basing this on various indirect signals, but of course I don’t have any exact knowledge here.

And what’s objectionable about the religious organizations that could end up on this list?

Russia still has an anti-sectarian mythology that, in a certain sense, derives from Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. The mythology also absorbed some relics of the West’s anti-cult movement from the 1970s and 1980s (before it disappeared almost completely). Plus, Russia made some of its own contributions in the 1990s.

Russians have the myth of the totalitarian sect, which has nothing to do with reality, but is quite popular in society. This mythology has undoubtedly infected many state officials, and it plays a certain role in the thinking of Russia’s intelligence agencies. Also, Russia has its Orthodox — let’s call it — lobby that doesn't want any competition on the religious market. And third there are more basic considerations: both the FSB and the Interior Ministry’s anti-extremism centers need to check those boxes and show that they’re doing their jobs. Wherever [officers] go looking for extremism today, they earn their stripes. Everyone knows this, it seems to me. So there are different factors at play here, but the fact that there are certain ideas about the existence of especially dangerous sects … I think there’s a list out there somewhere.

Who could be behind such a list? The Russian Orthodox Church? The Kremlin?

Oh, I don’t claim to know. All this started back in the late 1990s, though it didn’t take the form it does today, of course.

Can you go into any greater detail?

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a religious boom for Russia. Everyone suddenly thinks all religions are good and the vacuum on the religious market starts to fill up rapidly. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church is totally unprepared for this, and the vacuum is being filled by Western missionaries: Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and a lot more groups. And they’re all focused on preaching and multiplying their membership numbers. Then there’s a certain reaction in society, because [the missionaries] actually offer another way of living. People are accustomed to drinking alcohol, and [the missionaries] say: “You don’t have to drink.”

For movements built on sermons, the concept of conversion is extremely important, where someone is living the wrong life, he crosses the line, and then he becomes a real person. This form of conversion leads to salvation, spiritual rebirth, and so on, forming some kind of new identity. But it’s clear that someone who values such an idea so much will set boundaries between himself, his new religious identity, and the whole outside world. Say a wife converts, but not her husband, and then the two start having problems. And you can observe this on a wider social scale.

Russian society’s rejection [of new religious movements] was apparently part of a situation like this. Also, at some point, the [Russian] Orthodox Church managed to collect itself, especially when it started getting support at the state level. As a result of all this, dating back to the mid-1990s, the anti-sect movement emerged and started developing an anti-sect mythology. In a sense, we’re witnessing the evolution of all this now.

You talk about anti-sect mythology, but the concepts of totalitarian and destructive sects are pretty common. Are they unscientific?

Both the “totalitarian sect” and the “destructive sect” are completely unscientific concepts, of course. It’s another matter that totalitarian tendencies can take hold in any religious organization, but how and why they emerge is a very interesting question and it should be discussed. Very often, it’s due to some form of external pressure. Recall the self-immolation of the Russian Old Believers — undoubtedly a destructive thing, but that was apparently due to the state’s attempts to pressure them quite severely. But there’s no, let’s say, religious organization that could be called destructive or totalitarian. It’s never existed or ever can exist.

Both these terms arise in the post-Soviet context. They’re connected to the emergence of the idea of totalitarianism as a state system, as a state like the Soviet Union revealed itself to be. But in many respects these terms are our post-Soviet invention. In Western use, the word “sect” is far less negative, unlike the word “cult.” I almost never use the word “sect.” In modern scholarship, it doesn’t really work.

Should Russians expect the fight with, as you say, “dangerous sects” or “dangerous religious movements” to escalate?

I don’t rule it out, though it’s hard to know what plans there are, or who has what plans. State policy [in Russia] is deeply chaotic and contradictory. I honestly have a very hard time believing that the Kremlin acts in concert with the FSB [Federal Security Service] and other federal agencies and they all have a clear idea about the future and are working together to get there.

Interview by Evgeny Berg

Translation by Kevin Rothrock