Religion rules in Russia
Why does freedom of religion and belief continue to cause conflict in post-Soviet Russia?
22 Jan 2014
From the magazine: Why does freedom of religion and belief continue to cause conflict in post-Soviet Russia? Alexander Verkhovsky looks at the new blasphemy act and its implications for freedom of expression




Pussy Riot supporters prevented from praying for Putin's resignation. (Image: Anton Belitskiy / Demotix)

Pussy Riot supporters prevented from praying for Putin’s resignation outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow    (Image: Anton Belitskiy / Demotix)

Two issues preoccupying post- Soviet society are a wish to oppose outside influences (mainly from the West), and to resist aggressive behaviour in matters of religion. It is not difficult to point out inconsistencies and contradictions in these approaches, but more germane is the fact that both have survived, if in modified form, to the present day. When the possibility of further restrictions on freedom of conscience are being discussed, a key topic is invariably the need to protect society from the “expansionism” of new religious movements and radical Islam.

The arrests of members of the Pussy Riot punk band after their performance outside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour proved a powerful catalyst for both these concerns. The protest was seen as a frontal attack on “tradition” by “pro-Western forces” (the actual point Pussy Riot wanted to make was neither here nor there), and as an attack on the religious sensibilities of the “Orthodox majority”. The reaction was accordingly heavy-handed, including not only imprisonment of two members of the group, but also the passing of a law criminalising the “offending of believers’ religious sensibilities”, often referred to as the “blasphemy” law.

The legislative proposal was introduced in September 2012 and became law in August 2013 but has not yet been enforced anywhere. There may be at least two reasons for this. First, many laws that are aimed at NGOs, protesters or what is seen as the “opposition” have either been applied much less rigorously than expected or not at all. The authorities have chosen not to resort to wholesale repression, preferring intimidation. Second, the Russian state and its political elite are still very secular and feel uncomfortable about what is widely regarded as a law against blasphemy.

Strictly speaking, this is not a law against blasphemy, unlike, for example, similar legislation in Italy. The offence is not against religious doctrine, the deity, or things considered holy. Desecration of sacred objects is an offence not under the Russian Criminal Code, but under the code of administrative offences, which means it is seen as less serious. Offending religious sensibilities or beliefs is a crime in the penal codes of several European countries, but the European Court of Human Rights (and, following it, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) has consistently confirmed that a distinction needs to be made between offending sensibilities and inciting hatred.

In Russia today there are still attempts to bring charges of incitement to hatred under Article 282 of the criminal code in incidents that the law enforcement agencies, victims or others might reasonably have been expected to regard as mere offences against religious sensibilities. In a few cases, charges have been brought and, in fewer still, these charges have led to convictions. From interviews with law enforcement officers and representatives of various religious organisations, it is evident that numerous individuals and organisations that feel they have been offended on religious grounds appeal to the police and prosecutor’s office to institute criminal proceedings under Article 282. These requests are almost invariably turned down, and this is not a matter of officials taking sides: they are simply reluctant to institute proceedings on a shaky legal basis, except when that is in their own self-interest. They will do so if there is pressure on them from above, or if they face a pressing need to meet some target.

The addition of this new article to the criminal code, if it is not repealed, will lead sooner or later to its being enforced, and the main source of litigation will be complaints from numerous indignant parties. Demands for charges to be brought rained down upon the prosecutor’s office and police even before the amendments became law. It is important to recognise that the problem is not only repressive intentions on the part of the authorities, but also the repressive instincts of Russian citizens. Representatives of a wide range of community interest groups (though, thankfully, by no means all), including a number of minorities, constantly demand that criminal prosecution be the main way to influence those who cause them offence.

If the system does start enforcing this law, freedom of conscience will come under immense new pressure because of the likelihood of the sheer volume of litigation. Enforcement is likely to be highly selective, because a law of this kind can only be applied selectively. It will be manifestly discriminatory, in accordance with some individuals’ personal preferences and depending on the government’s latest priorities. Finally, it will be completely chaotic, because complaints will come in from all directions and there is nobody remotely qualified to assess their merits.

We can hope, of course, that the new article may yet be removed from the criminal code, but the chances of that are slim. The fact that it is there in the first place results from a consistent trend towards restricting freedom of expression in matters of religion, justified on the basis of the need to maintain “religious peace”. There are two main aspects to this laudable aim, and they enjoy widespread support. The first is safeguarding national security against the preaching of terrorism motivated by religion. The second is to safeguard national security against internal, particularly ethnic, conflicts, which are seen as often being fuelled by religion.

These two security aspects were major reasons for the introduction, in 2002-2007, of the current legislation to counteract “extremism”. This legislation is used extensively against violent racist groups, but also against sundry ideological minorities, which by no means espouse violence or pose a serious, or indeed any, threat to national security.

Abuse of this legislation is made possible by its imprecise wording, which we also find in respect to the new law to protect religious sensibilities. This inevitably leads to arbitrary application and, specifically, to exploitation for political purposes. There have been numerous instances of this, but let us focus on just three. Among the first major “anti-extremist” trials associated with religion were those targeting contemporary art exhibitions at the Andrey Sakharov Museum, which presaged the Pussy Riot case. Also, in 2011, a journalist was convicted for making rude remarks about believers in general, and the clergy in particular, even though his was not by any means a high profile protest and could not be represented as involving incitement to hatred against any group. Lastly, over several years there has been a serious campaign of criminal prosecution against people who read or distribute the works of a Sufi teacher, the late Said Nursi, even though neither he nor his Russian followers have links to terrorism, or engage in conduct which might constitute a threat to society.

In the case of the Sakharov museum exhibitions, the general public could at least understand more clearly what was going on. Some might consider the exhibition a profound artistic meditation on relations between the church and society; others might see the exhibits as an amusing send-up of the church and/or orthodoxy; some might consider it a send-up in bad taste or even an attack on the church, but within acceptable limits of freedom of expression; others, however, were determined to prove that the exhibition was a criminal incitement to hatred of orthodoxy and Orthodox Christians.

In the case of the persecution of followers of Said Nursi, the general public know nothing about the subject and must either just believe or disbelieve what they are told by the security services, believe or disbelieve what is said by Muslim leaders defending those being persecuted, or simply turn and look the other way. Most people choose the last option, including a majority of journalists,which means a majority of citizens, even those who take an interest in social matters, know nothing about these prosecutions.

Our citizens’ understanding of the issues around freedom of conscience is fragmentary. Most are far more concerned about conflicts over the balance between the slow-but-sure process of de-secularisation and the constitutionally guaranteed secular nature of the state. There are controversies over the presence of religion in schools, about the erection of Orthodox churches and mosques (although in the case of mosques the main cause of dissension is racism), and about various symbols of the cosy relationship between church and state. The real-life problems facing religious groups and, more generally, people expressing an opinion about religion, get forgotten.

These problems are legion. The most acute in recent years have arisen from improper application of anti-extremism legislation, but there are also the more “ordinary” problems, like refusals to release building land for places of worship and systematic campaigns of defamation. In a number of cases, like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, all these problems come together.

The Federal List of Extremist Materials has, however, excited the public’s interest by its scale and, even by Russian standards, sheer absurdity. The list can be found on the website of the Ministry of Justice and itemises materials banned from mass circulation. The ban is imposed by courts at the insistence of local prosecutors, who must satisfy the court that the material contains elements that can be construed as constituting “extremist activity”. This is usually incitement to hatred of some sort, impugning the dignity of a group, asserting the superiority or inferiority of a particular religion, and so forth. The whole process is quite  remarkably ineffective and does not stand up to scrutiny. Most of the materials the list is seeking to ban cannot be identified from the titles given and, no less problematically, banning them does not in strictly legal terms mean they cannot be re-published, because a new court case would be needed to re-establish the identity of the materials.

A great many of the banned books, websites, videos and material involves religion in one way or another. Many are jihadist texts openly calling for terrorism or other forms of violence, but many have nothing prejudicial in them: perhaps at most a claim of the superiority of one set of beliefs over others, to which texts of Jehovah’s Witnesses are prone. There are works by Muslim authors well known for their contribution to jihadist ideology, but on topics that are of no concern to national security (most commonly, on aspects of Sharia law). Finally, a number of texts have found their way on to the list purely by chance, having been confiscated from some “wrong-thinking” individual. This explains the presence of medieval treatises by the likes of the Persian mystic al Ghazali. In 2013 there was even a ban imposed on one of the most popular translations of the Quran.

The absurdity of such methods of “fighting extremism” has obliged even President Putin, at a recent meeting with muftis in Ufa in Bashkortostan, to acknowledge that there are problems with the current approach to banning religious materials. Alas, there is no sign of willingness to review the methods of fighting extremism more generally, or those aspects of them that most blatantly violate freedom of conscience.

 Translated by Arch Tait

This article appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Index on Censorship magazine