Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Setting
THE RUSSIAN STATE HAS EMERGED from the Soviet era dominated by an ethnic group, the Russians, whose language prevails in most educational and government institutions, and a religion, Russian Orthodoxy, that is professed by the vast majority of those citizens who admit to a religious preference. In some respects, Russia's relative homogeneity in language and religion is the result of the uniformity imposed by Soviet rule. As they had in the centuries of tsarist rule, Russians continued in the twentieth century to occupy a percentage of governing positions disproportionate even to their lopsided ethnic majority. Enforced use of the Russian language was a chief means of preserving Moscow's authority in the far-flung regions of the Russian Republic, as it was in the other fourteen Soviet republics. Although it was not spared the persecution meted out to all faiths practiced in the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodoxy retained its preeminence among religiously observant Russians throughout the seven decades of officially prescribed atheism.
In the 1990s, Russians continue to constitute the largest ethnic group in all but a handful of the Russian Federation's nominally ethnic republics, but leaders in many of the republics and smaller ethnic jurisdictions have pressed the central government to grant measures of autonomy and other concessions in the name of indigenous groups. The breakaway Republic of Chechnya has taken the process to its furthest extreme, but in the mid-1990s other republics--in the North Caucasus, Siberia, and the Volga and Ural regions--were pushing hard to achieve the local autonomy to which Soviet governments had only paid lip service.
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church, long forced to rubber-stamp the cultural decisions of Soviet governments, has moved rapidly in the 1990s toward a more balanced partnership in the governance of Russia's spiritual and secular life. Post-Soviet Western influences have brought new variety to the spectrum of religious practice, but the loyalty to Orthodoxy of average Russians and of the Russian government has become clear as the church has added millions of professed believers in the 1990s and the government has sought church advice on many critical decisions. This renewed alliance has posed a challenge to the freedom of religion nominally guaranteed in the 1993 constitution.
The issue of language diversity has risen in parallel with issues of local sovereignty. The Russian language retains its traditional dominance in official communications and in the education system; however, the increasing unofficial use of the federation's many minority languages shows that they survived Soviet repression with the capacity to flourish anew as the central government's power has diminished.
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