Russia is to Orthodoxy what America is to baseball. Even though America has the “World Series”, and even though there are a handful of baseball teams in Canada, Japan, and a few other places, everyone knows that 90% of the baseball teams are American, and that baseball is predominantly an American sport.
Similarly, Russia is the center of gravity for the Orthodox Christian world. Not the Middle East. Not Sinai. Not Jerusalem. Not even Greece. Just Russia. Worldwide, if you count all the Orthodox Christians in every non-Russian jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox overwhelmingly outnumber them.
These numbers are not for bragging rights, merely for the sake of counting noses. There are major implications for the Church and for the world.
What this means, practically, is that the infrastructure of the Orthodox world today is overwhelmingly supplied, funded, controlled, and directed by the Russians. By far, the majority of the world's Orthodox bishops, Orthodox seminaries, Orthodox television stations, Orthodox journals, Orthodox bloggers, Orthodox publishing houses, and Orthodox books are Russian.
Of course, there are some bishops, seminaries, books, and media that are Greek, Romanian, Serbian, Georgian, or Antiochian (Syrian). But all of it combined makes a drop in the bucket, compared to the vast ocean available from an endless supply of Russian sources.
This surprised me when I first noticed it. I recently stumbled across a Wikipedia article which listed numbers of Orthodox in different countries of the world, based mostly on census data, and saw the same thing I had seen many times — that there are 220 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and that nearly half of them are Russian. But then I started looking at the numbers a little more closely . . .
I was thinking about how many Russians live throughout the world, outside Russia, and how many of the world's Orthodox Churches are under Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church.
In Belarus, everyone speaks Russian, and all the Orthodox Churches are Russian. Similarly for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan. The country names may end with "stan", but they are full of Russian speakers, and lots of Russian Orthodox Churches. The same goes for Ukraine. For many centuries, Ukraine's tens of millions of Christians have been Russian Orthodox, and they continue to be so today. (A small minority in Ukraine recently entered a sect at the behest of the Patriarch of Constantinople, but their numbers are small, and that is another story for another article.) The vast majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are under the spiritual umbrella of Patriarch Kirill of Russia. The Baltic nations, Estonia, Lativa, and Lithuania, have numerous Orthodox churches, all which are under the Russian Orthodox Church
There are also significant numbers of Orthodox Christians in Australia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Switzerland. This is largely due to the millions of Russian and Romanian immigrants who have settled around the world, and a significant percentage of these are Russian Orthodox.
While it is impossible to get exact numbers, and I am not a professional statistician, I spent a few hours combing through the data, to get some back-of-the-envelope estimates of the worldwide demographics.
Even by the most conservative estimates, Russian Orthodoxy dwarfs every other Orthodox jurisdiction in an overwhelming way. They outnumber Romanians by a factor of 8, Greeks by a factor of 10, Serbians by a factor of 15, and Antiochians (Syrians) by a factor of 100.
Even if you combine all the Orthodox Christians who are Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and every other jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox still have triple the amount of people, outnumbering the rest of the Orthodox world by a factor of 3 to 1.
Russian Culture & Ethnicity
If you look at the picture from a viewpoint of ethnicity, it is also radically different from what the Wikipedia article implies. Let’s start with two big numbers of Orthodox outside of Russia - the Ukraine and Belarus.
Most people in the West believe the narrative that these are somehow different ethnicities, but by any measure of what constitutes an ethnicity - race, language, faith, culture, political history, these are one and the same people, and this was always what was understood by these people and the rest of the world during the hundreds of years of Tsarist empire, and during the Soviet period. It is only during the last 30 years that a false narrative has been promoted (very actively by the US government), that these people are different.
Some may ask, well, what about the Ukrainian language?, not knowing that this so-called ‘language’ was artificially invented beginning in the late 19th century by intelligence agencies of the UK, the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the German Empire as a way to foment division within the Russian empire, and that it was never taken very seriously by the Russians living in Ukraine itself, even during the Soviet period. It is only in the last 30 years that it has been presented and used as a serious alternative to Russian.
It is a plain fact that the linguistic, racial, religious, and cultural differences between the people of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are far less than the differences between say, Bavarians and North Germans, and the same can be said about almost all European countries.
So if you add the Ukrainians and the Belarussians to the Russian tally, it goes up by a lot.
But there is more. Most people in the West don’t realize two additional political facts about modern Russia, that there are millions of ethnic Russians living outside of these 3 countries, a huge diaspora, in the countries of the former USSR, and around the world, primarily in the US and the EU, people who immigrated over the last 30 years. According to another Wikipedia article, the numbers are roughly 5 million in the US, 5 million in the EU, and another 1 million elsewhere, excluding countries of the former USSR. In the former USSR, there are 6.5 million.
One can make a rough assumption from these numbers that many of the Orthodox listed in these regions in the first Wikipedia article are therefore probably ethnic Russians.
So the ethnic picture which emerges is that world Orthodoxy is dominantly ethnic Russian, around 146 million, roughly 75% (similar to the jurisdictional number), followed by the Romanians, around 23 million (include Moldova in their total, and the Romanians also have a huge diaspora, mostly in the EU, similar in size to the Russian). The next are the Greeks and Serbs at around 10 million each (there are many ethnic Serbs in the countries of former Yugoslavia, and in the US), and then there are the Bulgarians and the Georgians at about 4 million each, and that is pretty much it. All other ethnic groups are statistically insignificant.
Now, these are back of the envelope, very rough estimates I make based on these two sources, and they may well be off here and there, so please let me know if I am wildly off in this.
My point is not just jurisdictionally, but also ethnically, the Orthodox world is culturally, linguistically, historically Russian. This is part (but by no means all) of what Russians mean when they talk about the ‘Russian World.’
I would even go further, and argue that one really shouldn’t include most of the Greeks in the world total, because by any fair evaluation, as expressed by its hierarchy and in the beliefs of its adherents, both in the US and Europe, the majority of Greek Orthodox have turned away from the faith, accepting homosexuality and other practices antithetical to traditional Christianity (see the data below). These criticisms do not apply to all Greek Orthodox believers, but unfortunately they do seem to apply to the majority. This bumps the Russian totals up towards 80%.
Getting back to the jurisdictional picture, consider the relatively small number of people under Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (Istanbul), located in modern day Turkey. In the entire nation of Turkey, there are only about 5,000 people who consider themselves to be Greek Orthodox. (There are individual churches in Russia that have more people.) Patriarch Bartholomew is also over many (but not all) churches in Greece, a handful of churches in Crete, a moderate number of parishes in western Europe, around 75 parishes in Canada, and the vast majority of Orthodox churches in the United States. For every Christian under the influence of Patriarch Bartholomew, Patriarch Kirill has about 15 times the amount.
From a numerical perspective, when Patriarch Bartholomew has a disagreement with Patriarch Kirill, it is like a mosquito irritating an elephant.
This is a vastly different picture from what we see within the limited confines of the United States, where the majority of Orthodox parishioners are in Greek congregations, under the dubious spiritual leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew:
According to this 2020 data, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese overwhelmingly outnumbers every other Orthodox jurisdiction in America. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), by comparison, has over ten times fewer adherents.
To skew perceptions even further, the Greek church can hardly even be called “Orthodox” or “Christian” anymore. In stark contrast to every other Orthodox jurisdiction, the Greek church has strayed so far from the traditional Christian faith, that a huge portion of its members support satanic abominations, such as homosexual behavior.
According to studies performed by the Pew Research Center:
“The vast majority of Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe say homosexuality should not be accepted by society. This includes virtually all in Armenia (98%), and more than eight-in-ten in Russia (87%) and Ukraine (86%), which have the region’s largest Orthodox populations. Overall, Orthodox Christians in former Soviet republics are less accepting of homosexuality than are those elsewhere in Eastern Europe.”
“Two exceptions to Orthodox Christians’ overall rejection of homosexuality are in Greece and the United States. Fully half of Orthodox Christians in Greece say society should accept homosexuality, as do a clear majority (62%) of Orthodox Christians in the United States.”
For those only looking within the borders of the United States, a very skewed picture emerges. One might assume that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are Greek, and that a lot of them are liberals, supporting homosexuality, abortion, feminism, Black Lives Matter, and every other piece of “woke” garbage under the sun. One might imagine that Russian Orthodox Christians are relatively few and far between, and that their traditional conservative values don’t represent the Orthodox Church in general.
One might imagine such things. One would be wrong.
Less than half a percent of the world’s Orthodox Christians are in America. And the crazy things going on in America are not representative of the rest of the Orthodox world.
Worldwide, the Russian Orthodox are far greater in number than the Greek Orthodox, vastly more numerous than the Romanian or Serbian Orthodox, and overwhelmingly more populous than the Antiochian Orthodox.
Numbers alone do not necessarily make a group better. But they do make it bigger, stronger, and more influential.