Article 14 of the 1993 constitution stipulates that "the Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be established as the state religion or a compulsory religion. Religious associations are separated from the state and are equal before the law." However, such a constitutional guarantee existed even during the Stalinist era, when religious oppression was at its worst. In the 1990s, the Russian citizenry has shown that the traditional, deeply felt linkage between Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian state remains intact. That linkage has a palpable effect on Russian secular attitudes toward religious minorities, and hence on the degree to which the new constitutional guarantee of religious liberty is honored.
Even before the demise of the Soviet Union, the new openness of Russian society had attracted religious activists of many persuasions from all over the world. In Moscow evangelists and missionaries filled the airwaves and the streets. Notable among them were German Lutherans, a Roman Catholic missionary society, Swiss Protestant church groups, the Quakers, the Salvation Army, and the Sisters of Charity, a Roman Catholic order of nuns headed by Mother Teresa. Also present were members of such groups as the Hare Krishnas, the Unification Church, and the Church of Scientology.
The activity of such groups, which paralleled Russia's new enthusiasm for all things Western in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had begun to wane by 1994. However, it stimulated a strong reaction among conservative political and religious groups. In November 1992, the influential conservative wing of the Russian parliament reacted to the influx of non-Russian religious activists by proposing the creation of a so-called Experts' Consultative Council of church representatives and government officials. That body would have had the power to tighten the requirements for registration of a religious group or missionary activity.
After a flurry of criticism from international human rights and religious groups, President Yeltsin failed to sign the consultative council bill, which died in the fall of 1993. After a new parliament convened, additional versions of the bill appeared. In mid-1996 a somewhat milder bill requiring registration of foreign missionary groups was passed by parliament. Meanwhile, some eighteen jurisdictions in the federation passed a variety of bills restricting missionary activity or requiring registration. Non-Orthodox religious groups also found that the purchase of land and the rental of building space were blocked increasingly by local authorities.
In the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy's position on the issue of religious freedom has been muted but negative in many respects, as church officials have seen themselves defending Russian cultural values from Western ideas. Patriarch Aleksiy lent his support to the restrictive legislation as it was being debated in 1993, and Western observers saw an emerging alliance between the Orthodox Church and the nationalist factions in Russian politics. In another indication of its attitude toward the proliferation of "foreign" religious activity in Russia, the hierarchy has made little active effort to establish contacts with new foreign religious groups or with existing groups, and experts see scant hope that an ecumenical council of churches will be established in the near future. In October 1995, the Orthodox Church's governing Holy Synod refused to participate in a congress of Orthodox hierarchs because the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople had recognized the Orthodox community in Estonia and an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
In 1995 the Yeltsin administration formed a consultative body called the Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, which included representatives from most of the major denominations. On the council, the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and Islamic organizations have two members each, with one representative each for Buddhist, Jewish, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-Day Adventist representatives. Council decisions have only the status of recommendations to the government.