Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2015

Edited by Alexander Verkhovsky

PROBLEMS RELATING TO PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the construction of religious buildings : Problems with existing religious buildings : Positive resolutions


This is the latest annual report by the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis on freedom of conscience in the Russian Federation.[1]

The report is based on information collated during monitoring carried out by our Center. This material is available on the Center’s website, in the section ‘Religion in Secular Society’ (, together with links to media and internet sources. In this report, references are given only for those sources which are not available via the website.

This report contains only relevant updates on events discussed in the previous year’s report.[2] Events mentioned in our reports generally serve to illustrate trends we have observed; we are not aiming to exhaustively describe all developments in the sphere of public religion.

Problems and cases connected with the misuse of anti-extremism legislation are discussed in a separate, dedicated report.[3]



Some of the tendencies observed in previous years continued and developed in 2015.

Church construction continues to provoke tensions in various regions, and the situation in Moscow – as before – remains especially tense. The increasing aggressiveness of those who support construction, and the absence of any effective countermeasures from the authorities, has encouraged those who oppose illegal construction to organize themselves. The potential success of this organized activity is illustrated by the case of Torfianka Park: the park’s defenders managed to get the construction moved to a different location and fended off efforts by Orthodox activists to circumvent this decision for more than six months.

Orthodox defenders of believers’ feelings also began to act more aggressively. That as influential and significant an ecclesiastical figure as Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov participated in one of their events confirms that such activities are not confined to fringe groups and are considered entirely acceptable at the highest levels of the Church.

Bureaucrats and law enforcement officials demonstrated their readiness to protect believers’ feelings, as they did last year. Nevertheless, the relatively severe administrative punishments awarded for the attacks on exhibitions at Manezh Central Hall in Moscow and the institution of court proceedings under article 243 of the Criminal Code testifies to the fact that the authorities’ readiness to support the defenders of religious feelings has limits.

Levels of anticlericalism in society have increased as a result of conflicts over church construction and artworks. Over the course of the year anticlerical events were organized in various regions, supported by diverse social movements.

The increasingly insistent and multifaceted anti-secular rhetoric of prominent ecclesiastical spokesmen also contributed to rising anticlericalism. The Russian Orthodox Church endeavored to exploit an advantageous political climate, as the country’s political leadership drew substantially on the Church’s own ideological groundwork in conducting its anti-western politics.

One might even deem thisa new point of serious tension in Russian society, which by now probably concerns even the federal authorities. The ROC leadership’s response to this situation was the high-profile dismissal of Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for Cooperation of Church and Society . Chaplin’s provocative speeches had provoked indignation amongst a significant sector of society. The almost simultaneous dismissal of Sergei Chapnin, executive editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, was probably an effort to preserve balance within the Church: Chapnin’s ‘excessive liberalism’ had already drawn censure from conservatives within the ROC.

Russian Muslims remain at risk, primarily as a result of anti-extremist and anti-terrorist policies; there has been no further development as regards other types of discriminatory attitudes towards Muslims. High ranking Muslim leaders’ loyalties to the political course of 2014-2015 (including the operation in Syria) in no way enhanced the security of not only ‘alternative’ Muslim groups, but also of local organizations under the mainstream Muslim Spiritual Authorities.

The notable intensification of the struggle against ‘sects’, in terms of both rhetoric and legislation, is cause for concern. ‘Anti-missionary’ bills have been passed in several regions. The degree to which this represents a danger is demonstrated by the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose organization has been banned as extremist after a campaign against them which has lasted for several years. The number of attacks on their representatives and their prayer houses (Kingdom Halls) remains high.


Legislation relating to religious organizations

Federal legislation

Several changes were introduced to the federal law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’ over the course of the year.

On 13 July the president signed amendments to this law which proposed to remove the requirement for religious groups to prove they have existed for 15 years in order to be registered as religious organizations, and the requirement for religious organizations to provide information about their continued activities on an annual basis. Furthermore, in accordance with these amendments the teaching of religion and religious education do not count as educational activities, and consequently are not subject to licensing. Now, it seems, inspection agencies will stop demanding that Sunday Schools acquire licenses to conduct educational activities, as has often happened in the past.

At the same time these amendments have toughened up the registration of religious groups and restricted the rights of local religious organizations: in particular, religious groups which are not even preparing to register in the future are obliged to inform the authorities about their basic creed, the places in which they conduct religious activities and even about all the participants in their groups. Such a requirement contradicts – albeit former ­– norms of personal data protection. Moreover, the law does not clearly specify exactly which groups of believers are obliged to disclose about themselves, which makes abuse a possibility.

To all appearances, the authors of the bill were guided by security considerations, designed primarily to better control alternative Muslim groups. However, in the form in which they were passed, these amendments are more likely to facilitate the radicalization of these same groups, as a result of excessive pressure.

Other amendments to the law ‘On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’ were introduced in November. These amendments grant the Ministry of Justice the right to check the financial and operational business activities of religious organizations where there is indication of extremism in their activities, and also oblige religious organizations to report their sources and amounts of foreign funding and to provide information about the organization’s leadership. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church participated in the development of this bill, and to a great extent the amendments protect the interests of this religious organization in particular. Since officially ROC parishes do not receive foreign funding, they will not be required to provide reports on financial and business activities – unlike the majority of other religious organizations.

As with the previous amendments, the innovations leave scope for abuse, since they do not regulate the grounds for conducting checks or the number of checks that may be conducted.

Furthermore, as a result of these amendments being passed, the Ministry of Justice is now duplicating the efforts of the Prosecutor’s office, amongst whose functions is control of statutory compliance by religious organizations, and the efforts of the tax authorities, which control the use of financial resources and financial and business activities as a whole.


Amendments to the law ‘On Combating Extremist Activity’ were introduced in November. The law was supplemented by a provision which prevents the sacred scripture of world religions from being deemed extremist. The Bible, Qur’an, Tanakh and Kanjur fall into this category: according to these amendments, neither these texts in their entirety, nor separate citations from them, may be deemed extremist material.

The attempt by a Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk court to ban the book Supplication (Dua) to God: Its significance and place in Islam (Mol’ba k bogu: ee naznachenie i mesto v Islame), which evoked indignation in Muslim communities and the wrath of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, provided the impetus to implement this legislation. The amendments contain many shortcomings, as might be expected of legislation developed in response to a scandal, and do not facilitate change in the current situation with regard to the banning of religious texts.

The amendments only relate to the four above-named texts, in effect allowing the banning of other sacred writings belonging to the Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish religious traditions.  The texts of other religions are not mentioned at all in the legislation, which allows the possibility of their being deemed extremist and those who follow their teaching being discriminated against.

Moreover, the new legislation does not even mention the issue of translations, or the diverse variants of the Bible, Qur’an, Tanakh and Kanjur.

Interestingly, at almost the same time as these amendments were introduced, a group of deputies brought an alternative bill to the Duma which proposed that the question of banning extremist materials be transferred to the level of the highest courts of federal subjects. The proposed measures – removing cases about extremist literature from the jurisdiction of district and magistrates’ courts, engaging competent experts – could have considerably greater impact in terms of reducing the number of illegitimately banned religious texts. As yet, however, this legislative initiative has not even made it onto the Duma’s work schedule.


Changes relating to the activities of religious organizations were also introduced to article 14 of the Correctional Code of the Russian Federation, which guarantees prisoners’ freedom of conscience and religious confession. The amendments, passed in April, regulate the procedure for concluding agreements between penitential institutions and religious organizations, the procedure for meetings between prisoners and clergy (no limitation on the number of meetings, each may last up to two hours, subject to the written agreement of the clergy and the use of video surveillance). They also regulate the procedure for transferring churches situated on Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia territory to religious organizations.


Regional initiatives

Two federal subjects passed laws regulating missionary activity. Until now there has been a long hiatus in law-making of this type. Arkhangelsk’s regional assembly of deputies passed a law ‘On missionary activity on the territory of Arkhangelsk Region’ in October, and in December Stavropol regional Duma passed a similar law. In both cases the laws propose that preachers carry confirmation of their affiliation with a centralized religious organization, and that missionaries are obliged to inform government agencies about their activities. Furthermore, they stipulate that conducting such activities without informing the relevant bodies warrants administrative proceedings.

Although these laws were conceived in the first instance as means of controlling the activities of foreign preachers, there is no doubt that they will also impact upon the majority of religious organizations registered in Russia, not to mention the unregistered religious groups whose members are simply unable to prove their religious affiliation. Moreover, the bureaucrats in these regions now have formal grounds to deem any attempt to tell others – e.g. a fellow traveler on public transport – about one’s religion, without prior notification of the relevant authorities, as missionary work (and to impose administrative sanctions). This will, naturally, seriously limit religious freedom.

At the beginning of 2016 Arkhangelsk deputies introduced a similar bill for consideration by the State Duma.

Moscow city Duma passed two laws affecting the interests of religious organizations. Amendments to the Moscow city law ‘On sales tax’ release organizations for which trade is not a primary activity, including religious organizations, from the requirement to pay this tax. Amendments to another city law – ‘On the empowering of local government bodies of municipal districts in Moscow city as separate authorities of the city of Moscow’ – simplify the process of registering building plots for the construction of churches and other buildings of religious significance.


Initiatives not (yet) successfully progressed

In November a group of deputies introduced a bill of amendments to the Civil Code of the Russian Federation and other legislative acts to the State Duma. The proposed amendments would mean that unauthorized constructions of religious significance escape the extrajudicial procedure of demolition normally applied to such buildings. The bill endows religious organizations with the right to apply to the courts seeking a declaration of their property rights over unauthorized constructions of religious significance. By the end of 2015 the document had been approved at first reading, and in February 2016 the Legal department of the State Duma recommended that deputies pass the bill at second reading.


Problems relating to places of worship

Problems with the construction of religious buildings

As in the previous year, it was most often Orthodox Christians and Muslims who experienced problems with the construction of places of worship.

Conflicts continue to accompany the Moscow government-supported program of modular Orthodox Church construction. Almost all the plots allotted for building were unsuitable, located within parks or nature reserves.

One of the most notable conflicts was over the construction of a church in the Torfianka Park in Losinoostrovsky district – not only because of the size of the protests, but also because the supporters of this building project were reluctant to comply with the court decision. Despite the court ruling that the construction was illegal, the decision of the Moscow Town Planning and Land Commission to allocate a plot elsewhere, the intervention of Valery Vinogradov, prefect of the north-eastern administrative region, and calls by Patriarch Kirill for the warring parties to quit the park, the building site was not removed. In order to forestall construction the park’s defenders had to conduct a round-the-clock watch for over six months. Nonetheless, a chapel was already under construction on the new plot in Anadyrsky Passage.

The Moscow section of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunisticheskaia partiia Rossisskoi Federatsii, KPRF) and the Yabloko party came out in support of the protesters. The ‘Forty Forties’ movement (Sorok sorokov), Cossacks and the God’s Will (Bozh’ia volia) group supported the pro-construction activists, including with violence: several attacks were made on park defenders. In the summer one construction supporter hit a female activist from the ‘For Torfianka Park!’ (Za park Torfianka!) civil movement. The girl, who was tearing down an announcement about the church construction, had to seek medical treatment. A further two attacks were made on park defenders at the beginning of 2016, and in March 2016 the defenders’ tent was dismantled by order of the authorities and with the support of the police.

Old conflicts over church construction continued, and new conflicts arose, in other areas of Moscow too. In particular, the residents of Yasenevo, Izmailovsky Park, and the Southern administrative region protested against the erection of churches. In a number of cases those protesting resorted to the courts, if not always successfully. Moscow city court refused to consider a case brought by those who opposed the construction of a church in Rostokino district, for example, although the plot of land allocated for building was not only located within the territory of a park, but also adjoined an aqueduct – a cultural heritage monument dating from the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century – thereby threatening to damage the monument.

In contrast, in Troparevo-Nikulino, where local residents collected more than 2000 signatures in opposition to the construction of a church, the authorities took notice of residents’ wishes and proposed a new building plot.

Along with local populations, authorities and organizations also complained about the erection of churches. Legal proceedings were instituted over the illegal construction of a church in Khodynka (the parish of St Sergius of Radonezh). In Kosino disctrict the Town Property department considered the enlargement of the ‘Life-bearing spring’ chapel-church (Zhivonosnyi istochnik) to be illegal. In both these cases, however, construction work continued. The Moscow company “Avtokombinat No.3” also initiated court proceedings to assert its rights as a tenant of a plot allocated for the building of a church dedicated to St Aleksei, Presbyter of Moscow.


Conflicts over the construction of Orthodox churches were recorded in many other regions too. Tensions escalated over the Church of the Holy Myrrh-bearing Women (khram sv. Zhen Mironosits) in St Petersburg’s Malinovka Park, for example, the construction of which had been called off in 2014. In June the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg approved an amendment to the city plan proposed by deputy Vitaly Milonov, which shifted park territory into a business development zone. This meant that, once again, the construction of a church here could be considered. Local inhabitants recommenced their protests, and were supported by several deputies and the governor. As a result, despite the accepted amendment, the church was nevertheless moved to a different plot – one previously reserved for the construction of a hospital and maternity unit.

Despite continuing grassroots protest, construction works commenced on the Church of Saints Prince Vladimir and Admiral Feodor Ushakov, in the Maritime Glory (Morskaia slava) Park of Ryazan’s Kaneshchevo micro-region. Residents of Anapa, Balashikha (Moscow region), the village of Nizhny Olshanets in Belgorod region, Yekaterinburg, Novokuznetsk, Novorossiysk, Obninsk, and Smolensk also protested against building developments in green zones. Several more conflicts were connected with the fact that the protesters wanted to see developments other than churches on the contested plots. Residents of Tomsk and the Cossack village (stanitsa) of Severskaia (Krasnodar region) agitated for schools to be built, while the residents of Togliatti asked for a children’s playground. Residents of the village of Bychikha in Khabarovsk region wanted to protect their allotments, located where the municipality was preparing to build a church. In the Chelyabinsk region village of Roshchino, local inhabitants were unhappy that a church was being built in close proximity to a school.

In several cases the protesters managed to achieve their aims. Thus, after prolonged public protest – supported by the KPRF – in Saratov, the proposed construction of a church in a park on the crossroads of Ordzhonikidze Street and Entuziastov avenue was moved to another plot. It is interesting that during this conflict townspeople also demanded the resignation of Metropolitan Longin (Korchagin), since “he did not take the interests of the people of Saratov into account in his actions, [thereby] evoking strife.” Opponents of church construction in Nizhny Novgorod region’s Sormovsky district managed to get the building work deemed illegal via the courts.


Muslim organizations also occasionally encountered public opposition to the sacrifice of green zones for the construction of mosques. In Kazan, for example, participants in public hearings voiced their opposition to the construction of a mosque on the territory of city hospital no.12, since it required the felling of trees.

More often, however, difficulties over the construction of mosques were caused by the opposition of authorities, who either refused to provide the community with building land or for various reasons opposed construction which had already commenced.

The situation remains difficult in Moscow, as in previous years. In an interview in the October issue of Afisha, Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin once more repeated that he saw no need to build new mosques since the vast majority of potential attendees were migrants.

Under pressure from the public, bureaucrats in Tyumen region overturned their decision to allocate a building plot for the construction of a mosque in the village of Novoseleznevsk.

For several years now, the Muslims of Khabarovsk have failed to secure a building plot. The authorities promised to provide land back in 2013, but then overturned their decision about the construction. In the absence of a mosque believers have to pray in the street, even in bad weather, according to Sarverdin Tuktarov, a representative of the city’s Tatar ethnic-cultural autonomy of ‘Khabar’,

The Abakan Muslim community failed to recommence their mosque construction, halted in 2014, since the town’s administration has still not provided the community with a list of the shortcomings they need to rectify in project documentation. The believers turned to the courts in an effort to make the administration provide this list and to grant permission to recommence the building work. However, in February 2016 the court refused to uphold the community’s claim.

The ‘Nur’ Muslim organization in Komsomolsk-on-Amur was fined 250,000 rubles for the construction of a building for ritual ablution (tahāra). Despite the fact that ritual bathing premises are traditionally considered part of a single mosque complex, and the community already has permission to build a mosque, the town prosecutor deemed the construction illegal. At the request of the prosecutor’s office the community received separate permission to build the ablution facilities, but the court fined the organization nonetheless.

Muslims in Ussuriisk also had problems completing the construction of a mosque, and were obliged to complain to Vladimir Putin about the local authorities. The town’s mayoralty went to court in an effort to take the almost completely built mosque, and the land on which it was built, away from the community. The official reason for this was the liquidation of the Primorsky district’s directorate of Muslims, which the Muslim organization belonged to. It did not prove possible to register an agreement transferring the property rights from the district’s directorate to the community. Local officials intended to confiscate the mosque as a municipal property and only then transfer the building on lease, for use in perpetuity or to be owned by the religious organization. Moreover, as the believers’ complaint explains, “the energy supply to the mosque building, by order of ‘those on high’, was disconnected without legal grounds. Checks which nobody has sanctioned are continually carried out on the territory of the mosque.[4]


We know of only three cases in which representatives of other confessions experienced problems with the construction. In Novosibirsk, for example, Young Guard (Molodaia gvardiia) organized a petition against the construction of a Mormon prayer house and demanded that the legality of the allotted building plot be checked.

The Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community in Perm continued to experience problems in securing a building plot for the construction of a cultural center with an integral synagogue. Since the project included a synagogue, the authorities refused to agree a plot: in order to construct a house of worship one must hold public consultations, and this had not been done. Fearing the appearance of ‘Jewish Wahhabis’ in the town, nationalistically-inclined local residents – supported by Cossacks – protested against the construction of the center. At the beginning of 2016, after a visit from Berl Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia (FEOR), Governor Victor Basargin instructed the authorities to help the community acquire a building plot. The protests, however, continued.

In Yekaterinburg, public pressure secured the transfer of a proposed Lutheran church construction from the territory of a park to another part of the very same park.


Problems with existing religious buildings

It was also generally Muslims and Orthodox Christians (moreover, not only those belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)) who experienced operational difficulties with existing religious buildings. In the Penza region village of Pobeda the Mikhailovsky Cloister prayer house, under the jurisdiction of the True Orthodox Church (Istinno-pravoslavnaia tserkov’, IPTs) was demolished by order of Penza’s Zheleznodorozhnyi district court. This ruling was upheld by the Penza regional court. The court found that the prayer house was an illegal construction, and that construction was carried out without proper authorization of documents.

A functioning church building was put on sale in the Ruzsky district of Moscow region. This church, in Nesterovo village, has been used by an Orthodox community since the mid-2000s. The building’s owners promised to transfer it to believers free of charge; instead, however, in 2015 they put it on sale as a dormitory.

The Church of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth in the Russian Land (Khram Vsekh sviatykh, v zemle rossiiskoi prosiyavshikh), built in 2014 on the site of a chapel, was deemed an illegal construction by a Saint Petersburg court. This was because the community did not have permission for major construction work and, moreover, permission to build the chapel had been received retrospectively. The court transferred ownership of the church to the city administration and ordered that the community pay 6,000 rubles state duty.

The Novyi Urengoi administration managed to demolish the Nur Islam mosque, in existence since 1996, through the courts. Plans to develop the district furnished the reason: they plan to construct a shopping and entertainment complex on the site of the mosque.

Bailiffs evicted the ‘Rakhmat’ Muslim community from their Yekaterinburg mosque, enforcing compliance with a 2014 decision of the Sverdlovsk region Court of Arbitration. The city authorities subsequently decided to transfer the vacated building to a different Muslim organization.


Positive resolutions

Several conflicts over religious buildings both under construction and those already in use were resolved in favor of religious organizations. Moreover, the majority of those cases known to us relate to Muslim organizations. Thus, after several years of lobbying by the Muslim community, the authorities in Bratsk finally allotted a plot for the construction of a mosque. A Tyumen Muslim community managed to secure a new building plot, and permission to transfer the frame of their old prayer house to it. The community had been deprived of their original plot and instructed to dismantle their prayer house by court order in 2014. In Pervouralsk, where in 2014 the authorities had been preparing to evict the Muslim community from their mosque, the opposing parties managed to reach a settlement in court. The town administration dropped their case against the Muslim community. In the Saratov region village of Aleksandrov Gai, the Muslim community managed to get their property rights over a mosque recognized in court. The district administration had refused to transfer the mosque, built in 1994, to community ownership.

In Saratov, the Leninsky district court found the prosecutor’s ban on ‘cult activity’ in the prayer house of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be illegal. The prosecutor’s office had imposed the ban after identifying infringements of fire safety regulations at the Mormons’ building on Ordzhonikidze Street.

Once again the evangelical Christian church ‘House of the Gospel in the Resort of Sochi’ (Dom Evangeliia na kurorte Sochi) managed to assert their property rights over the prayer house building through the courts. Ownership of the prayer house was transferred to the community back in 2014, but the Sochi administration had attempted to contest this decision.

Furthermore, after extended legal proceedings the Kaliningrad administration granted a Jewish community permission to build a synagogue.


Defending believers’ feelings

In 2015 the new rewording of Part 1, Article 148 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (‘Infringements of the right to freedom of conscience and religious confession’) began to be more actively applied in defense of religious feelings. Although no sentences were imposed under this article in the first half of the year (we do not currently have data for the second half of the year), cases relating to this article began to be brought more often. At least one of these cases reached court: the case of Stavropol resident Viktor Krasnov. Posts he made in 2014 on the city’s web community in social network VKontakte provided grounds for the charges brought. Amongst other uncouth utterances, including anti-Semitic ones, Krasnov crudely declared his negative attitude towards Biblical quotes and announced that ‘There is no God!’

Legal proceedings were instituted against a teacher in one of Orenburg’s higher education institutions under Part 1, Article 148 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, for publishing an article which included insulting statements directed at Christianity, Judaism, Jews and the Russian Orthodox Church. Unfortunately we do not have any information about the outcome of the investigation.

Cases were brought under the same article against two residents of Kirov region, for hanging a scarecrow on a memorial cross on their arrival at one of the region’s villages. They had made the scarecrow out of ‘trousers, a jacket, rope, a hat, a mask and self-tapping screws’. According to the investigation, this was done in order to insult the feelings of believers.

A further case was brought under this article against Yekaterinburg resident Anton Simakov. Simakov conducted a magical ritual in his office which was intended to affect the authorities in Ukraine. He sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed cockerel over a voodoo doll made of clay or plasticine, a shroud and funeral wreath worn by the deceased in church, a printed copy of the prayer of absolution read over the deceased during the funeral service, and a small wooden cross. This was, for some reason, considered as an insult to Christian feelings. The case of the ‘master of voodoo magic’ went before the court in February 2016.

Furthermore, a resident of Kaluga was found guilty under Part 2 of Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (‘Deliberate public desecration of religious or liturgical literature, objects of religious veneration, signs or emblems of worldview symbolism and paraphernalia’) and fined for ‘mocking the institute of monasticism’ and icons. He had published certain images on the social networking site VKontakte which, according to the judge ‘contained mockery of the sacred institution of monasticism, and of sacred images of the Last Supper, the saints and the Savior’. The judge also considered that these images were aimed “at discrediting the Christian creed, ecclesiastical traditions of religious life (the veneration of relics and devotion to the saints), and also the very institution of the Church itself.”

We also noted that a whole series of publications received warnings from the prosecutor’s office for reprinting the French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. This caricature provoked indignation amongst many Muslims. The Inter-religious council of Russia then called for freedom of speech to be curtailed in order not to offend the feelings of believers.


The majority of conflicts were connected with cultural events and with works of art, in which sedition was perceived almost exclusively by defenders of Orthodox Christian feelings. Moreover, their protests were often expressed very aggressively.

The conflict over Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Tannhäuser’ which began in February became the most scandalous case. In the staging by Novosibirsk State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, director Timofei Kuliabin shifted the opera’s action to the present day. He presented the main hero as a director making a film about the unknown years of Christ’s life, spent in the ‘Grotto of Venus’. The region’s Orthodox public perceived blasphemy in the director’s very conception, and also considered the opera poster, and the inappropriate use of ecclesiastical symbols, as insulting.

After the Metropolitan Tikhon of Novosibirsk and Berdsk appealed to the prosecutor’s office, legal proceedings were brought against Kuliabin and theatre director Boris Mezdrich under Part 2, Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code. In March the magistrates’ court of Novosibirsk’s central district closed these cases ‘in the absence of occurrences of violations’. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture recommended that the two directors apologize to believers, and subsequently removed Mezdrich from his post as theatre director completely.

This case had broad public resonance. Famous cultural figures spoke out in support of Kuliabin and Mezdrich, and the Orthodox public protested against the ‘sacrilegious’ production. A mass protest against Church interference in cultural policy was held in Novosibirsk.

At the same time as the protests against ‘Tannhäuser’, the Novosibirsk Metropolitanate also spoke out against the play ‘Songs of the Motherland’ at the local Globus Theatre. One act of this play was a staging of a humorous tale by Maya Kucherskaia; the main hero, a hedgehog, accidentally drowns a squirrel who cannot swim during baptism, and rejoices that she has died Orthodox. The regional Ministry of Culture compelled the theatre’s management to cut this part of the play.

In several other regions Orthodox believers attempted to protest against performances they considered to be insulting, and in some cases changes were made to the plays in response to this pressure. Thus, after a complaint by nuns of the St Elizabeth Convent (Sviato-Elisavetinskii monastyr) a play at the Tilzit Theater in Sovetsk, Kaliningrad region, was subjected to the censor at the insistence of an official from the regional directorate of culture and art. The play was about Blessed Xenia of Petersburg, and in one of the scenes the saint denounced the heroes – a priest and his wife. The director was obliged to cut this scene, but he also removed his own name from the playbill.

In Moscow activists from the God’s Will (Bozhia volia) group renewed their protests against the ‘Ideal Husband’ play at the Moscow Art Theater, and placed a pig’s head, in protest, at the entrance to the theatre building. Soon afterwards the Meyerhold Center and five other Moscow theaters were notified by the Tversky inter-district prosecutor’s office of forthcoming inspections ‘on grounds of using “foul language, propaganda of amoral behavior, pornography” in theatrical productions’. Performances staged by director Kirill Serebrennikov evoked the most questions from the prosecutor’s office. These plays had been earlier accused of amorality and insulting religious feelings by Orthodox activists, and some of them had already been removed from the theatre’s repertoire by the time the theatre received the notification.

An Orthodox priest in Udmurtia was shocked by the use of Orthodox symbols in a staging of Pushkin’s novel ‘The Snowstorm’, but the republic’s ministry of culture did not consider the play insulting to believers’ feelings.


Proponents of religious feelings interrupted the performance of several musical events. In Moscow, parishioners of the Annunciation church in Petrovsky Park attempted to disrupt a concert dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of the Silver Rain (Serebriannyi dozhd’) radio station, declaring that loud music made it difficult for them to pray. During the concert a group of believers headed by the parish priest Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov – head of a department of the Moscow Patriarchate and one of the most influential Moscow priests – rushed the stage. They engaged in a scuffle with security, knocking over a walk-through metal detector and knocking event organizer Mikhail Kozyrev off his feet. The concert continued after this intrusion. The radio station’s director complained to the prosecutor’s office, but we are unaware of the outcome.

In Kaliningrad region, the popular music festival ‘Kubana’ was cancelled after protests from the diocese. The diocese had publically opposed the festival for several months. Protests by Orthodox activists were at first ignored by the authorities, and a diocesan representative who spoke against the festival was even expelled from the Council of Culture’s meeting by the governor. However the long-established festival was then called off anyway, by the village administration, which cited inadequate security measures rather than offending believers as their reason for doing so.

The management of the Siberian State Medical University cancelled another music festival – ‘Oecumene’ – after an appeal by Maksim Stepanenko, head of the ‘To the Truth’ Tomsk Information-Consultation Center on Sects and Occultism Issues (Tomskii iformatsionno-konsul’tatsionnyi tsentr po problemam sekt i okkul’tizma ‘K Istine’). Until this intervention, the festival had been held within the walls of the university – without evoking any censure – for three years in a row.


Art works and exhibitions were also subject to attacks by Orthodox activists. In August Dmitrii (Enteo) Tsorionov, leader of the God’s Will group, attacked the ‘The Sculptures We Do Not See’ (Skulptury, kotorykh my ne vidim) exhibition in Moscow’s Manezh, together with several of his associates. The vandals destroyed four works by the sculptor Vadim Sidur, including a linocut entitled ‘The Crucifixion’, declaring that the exhibits offended believers’ feelings. Less than two weeks later the exhibition was attacked again, and another of Sidur’s works was damaged.

In this instance the vandals were punished under article 20.1 of the Administrative Code (‘Minor hooliganism’): Tsorionov was sentenced to ten days’ arrest, his associate Georgii Soldatov to five, while Pavel Timonin and Luidmila Esipenko were fined 1,000 rubles reach. A criminal case was also opened under article 243 of the Criminal Code (‘Destruction or damage to items of cultural heritage’) and this is the first case we are aware of in which the given article has been applied to a conflict with broad public resonance. Simultaneously, at the request of Orthodox activists, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation began an investigation into the Manezh Foundation, with respect to indicators of incitement to hatred in Sidur’s works.

It is worth noting that members of God’s Will have not conducted any significant protest activities since this punishment was applied.

In Omsk an installation by Maria Shinkevich and Alena Pozhilenko ‘Jesus of Rubbish’ (Musornyi Iisus), a figure of Christ made out of bits of rubbish collected from the city’s streets, was destroyed at the prompting of the local diocese and with the support of the ‘E’ Center (Police department for combating extremism). Orthodox in Perm were disturbed by the graffiti ‘Gagarin: The Crucifixion’ which appeared on one of the city’s buildings on 12 April, when Cosmonaut’s Day coincided with Easter. The graffiti’s author was fined 1,000 rubles for minor hooliganism.

On St Petersburg’s Lakhtinskaia Street the figure of a demon was broken off the façade of an architecturally-significant building dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, two days after a cross was erected on the church under construction opposite. The Cossacks of Petersburg (Kazaki Peterburga) organization claimed responsibility for this act. Soon after, several hundred Petersburg residents gathered to protest against the vandalism. A criminal case was opened in relation to the vandalism under article 243 of the Criminal Code. The arrested industrial climber Konstantin Isakov confessed, and the case was closed when damages were paid in full.

Also in Petersburg, activists of the social movement ‘People’s Assembly’ (Narodnyi sobor) – joined by representatives from the Council of Muftis of Russia – demanded that the exhibition ‘The Human Body’ (Telo cheloveka) be banned. The exhibition continued, however.


The by now traditional protests against Valentine’s Day and Halloween celebrations, conducted in various regions, should also be mentioned. In several instances authorities found it necessary to respond: school managements in Moscow, Krasnodar region, and Saratov and Orenburg regions in particular were advised not to celebrate Halloween. Orthodox believers also protested – as tradition would have it – against the rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’: several activists organized a one person pickets at the concert hall in Omsk. In a number of regions there were also calls for the films ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ not to be screened.

Furthermore, after an appeal by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for Cooperation of Church and Society , Kirov region authorities halted the activities of a night club located near two churches in Yaransk.

Although representatives of the authorities by no means always responded to such protests, their increasing readiness to support protesters – if only on the level of rhetoric – should be noted. Protests against publication of the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, for example, moved a whole series of State Duma deputies to remind journalists of ‘the special responsibility and delicacy of publishing material which might impact upon and offend the religious feelings of citizens’. Deputies of the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg announced the drafting of amendments to several legislative acts, which recommended the introduction of preliminary public evaluation of plays, films and museum collections in order to avoid offending religious feelings. The Legislative Assembly’s Commission on Education, Culture and Science deemed passing this legislation inadvisable, however.

Preferential treatment accorded certain religious organizations by the authorities

As in previous years, on occasion the authorities provided certain religious organizations with financial support. Most often, money was allotted from federal and regional budgets to restore religious buildings: since the majority of these are architectural monuments, this financial support is entirely justified. In particular, money was allocated to the restoration of such buildings in Moscow and Petersburg, and in Arkhangelsk, Novgorod, Orenburg and Tyumen regions. Moscow government increased its spending on restoration by 50 million rubles; consequently, 200 million rubles was spent on the restoration of 14 religious buildings in Moscow over the course of the year. Among the biggest tranches of finance is the 1 billion rubles allocated to restore Solovetsky Monastery as part of the federal program, and the 475.6 million rubles spent on the restoration of the Moscow Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God at Kulishki (khram Rozhdestva Bogoroditsi na Kulishkakh). The majority of buildings in receipt of budget funds were Orthodox, but other religious organizations were financed too: 50 million rubles were allocated to restore the Cathedral Mosque (Sobornaia mechet’) in Petersburg, for example.

The state allocated money to religious organizations not only for restoration works. In December the Center for Economic and Political Reform presented a report which analyses the distribution of presidential grants. From this report it is clear that in the period 2013–2015 the Russian Orthodox Church was one of the main grantees: ‘Large grants to “Orthodox projects” are won by organizations which are either directly controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate (the religious organization of the department of religious education and catechesis of the ROC), or are close to the ROC (“The Center for Religious Studies”, “Orthodox Youth”, “The Union of Orthodox Citizens” and others)’.[5] For example, a grant of eight million rubles was awarded to the organization of the educational readings ‘Prince Vladimir: Rus’s Choice of Civilization’, and the ‘Faith and Action’ (Vera i delo) Information Agency won two million rubles ‘to develop patriotically-inclined Orthodox bloggers’. The report’s authors consider this situation to be ‘covert state support of the ROC and structures close to it’.

The authorities sometimes allocated, or at least expressed their readiness to allocate budgetary funds, to entirely unexpected Orthodox events. The government of Rostov region allocated money to organize a banquet on the occasion of a visit by Patriarch Cyril: in connection with this, two proposals – jointly worth 450,000 rubles – were published on the State Procurement website. These proposals were withdrawn without explanation shortly after publication, however.


In some cases, rather than allocating funds directly, officials used administrative methods to compel subordinates to financially support some religious endeavor or other. By order of the acting governor, the Kaluga region Ministry of Health compelled employees of organizations under its jurisdiction to donate funds to the local diocese for the erection of a memorial to St Lavrenty, and to report to the Ministry on ‘work completed’. The acting governor himself, Anatoly Artamonov, called for members of the regional government to donate ‘as much as civic duty demands’ towards the saint’s memorial.


Administrative pressure could also be applied in matters other than financial. Employees of the Petersburg ‘Contact’ Rehabilitation Center for Minors in Difficult Life Circumstances, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Committee for Youth Policy, were required to participate in a religious procession in honor of the move of St Alexander Nevsky’s relics. In accordance with the official order, the day of the religious procession – a Saturday – was declared a working day, and employees were required to be at the procession of the cross ‘in order to accompany juveniles to a city event’.

The transfer of property remains yet another means of supporting religious organizations, again, in the majority of cases, the ROC. However, the number of property transfers substantially declined. It would appear that religious organizations have managed to secure the buildings that interest them most, but do not yet have sufficient resources to maintain the new ones. In the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo) itself they evaluate the current situation as ‘depressing’: the majority of religious organizations simply turn down the buildings the state offers them. According to Sergei Anoprienko of Rosimushchestvo, the ROC was offered 1971 buildings, the Buddhist Sangha of Russia and the Federation of Jewish Communities were offered 27 each, the Council of Muftis – 11, and the Armenian Apostolic and Russian Orthodox Old Believer Churches were both offered two. Moreover, only the ROC was responsive to the idea, submitting 212 proposals of which 120 were fulfilled: 94 buildings were transferred for free use of the ROC, 26 into its ownership.[6]

Among those buildings transferred were monuments of cultural heritage like, for example, the Savior-Prilutsky Monastery (Spaso-Prilutskii monastyr’) complex, which dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century. This was transferred into the ownership of Vologda diocese.

In the majority of cases transfers were uncontentious: where other organizations occupied the transferred buildings, they were, as a rule, offered other accommodation. In the same Vologda diocese, an art gallery formerly located in the Resurrection Cathedral (Voskresenskii sobor) on the territory of the Kremlin was moved to another building on Cheliuskintsev Street.

All the transfer-related conflicts of which we are aware are connected with museums. As in previous years, bureaucrats often prioritized the interests of religious organizations over those of museums, and museum employees had to fight to preserve their institutions intact.

Demands from Petersburg Metropolitanate that St Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskii sobor) be returned to it evoked a public outcry. The Petersburg authorities did not initially rule out the possibility of transferring the building, but in the event they refused to do so. According to the governor’s press secretary, Andrei Kibitov, their decision was based on the fact that if the cathedral was reassigned for diocesan use, the expense of its upkeep would remain with the owners – in other words the city – and this would involve ‘additional serious expense for the city’s budget, and a cut in finance to other socially significant projects and programs’.

In connection with the attempted transfer of St Isaac’s Cathedral to ROC, a group of Petersburg deputies drafted two bills on limiting the transfer of cultural heritage monuments to religious organizations, but the Legislative Assembly refused to even include them on the agenda. Soon after, the Union of Russia’s Museums proposed a temporary moratorium on the transfer to the Church of those former religious buildings which currently house museums: this idea did not garner support either.

In Rostov region there was public protest against the transfer of four buildings from the Starocherkassky historical-architectural museum reserve (Starocherkasskii istoriko-arkhitekturnyi muzei-zapovednik) to the Don Metropolitanate. Despite a promise by ecclesiastical representatives to share the building rather than to evict the museum, local Cossacks organized a petition against the transfer. Nevertheless, at least one building – the Ataman Palace – was transferred to the ROC anyway, and in January 2016 museum employees went to court in an effort to overturn this decision.

The authorities have not established a unified position in the case of Chita’s Church of St Michael Archangel (Mikhailo-Arkhangel’skaia tserkov’), which has housed the Decembrists Museum since 1985 and which the local diocese has laid claim to. The governor of Zabaikal region, Konstantin Il’kovsky, declared that the church would not be transferred to the diocese while the museum was still in existence. In contrast, Gennady Chupin, deputy prime minister of Zabaikal regional government, appealed to Putin with a request that the museum building be transferred to the diocese. Chita residents and the region’s Public Chamber have spoken out against the transfer.


Several conflicts arose over buildings already transferred to the ROC. The SENT company, created by Valaam Monastery, managed to evict some local residents from the island through the courts. The evicted were those living in the ‘Winter Hotel’ building. The residents attempted to contest this decision, pointing out that the court of first instance had not taken into account the complaint against the expert conclusion which deemed the Winter Hotel unfit for human habitation. The Supreme Court of Karelia considered the eviction to be legal, however.

In Ryazan region, too, regional authorities supported the Dormition-Vyshensky Convent (Svyato-Uspenskii Vyshinskii Monastyr’) in evicting local residents – employees of the psychiatric hospital which has long shared the convent complex – from its territory. For that purpose the hospital was transferred to a new building, the convent was recognized as a heritage monument of national significance, and the territory – together with the residential buildings – was re-categorized as federal land. Since 2014 local residents have begun to re-register their residency documents, but as a rule they only have documents for the buildings, and not for outbuildings. In the run-up to the anniversary celebrations in honor of St Feofan Vyshensky (with whom the convent is connected), the residents began to be evicted from their homes and the outbuildings knocked down. The regional authorities simultaneously began to fine those living on convent territory for illegal construction work and seizure of federal land.


Following recent tradition, several regional festivities have been declared public holidays by the regional authorities. In Bashkiria, Tatarstan, Chechnya and several other regions, for example, extra days off have been announced for Uraza Bairam (Eid al-Fitr). In a series of regions Radonitsa [when Orthodox Christians commemorate their dead] has been declared a public holiday.

Moreover, at the request of Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, Kaluga town Duma moved civic festivities in honor of the town from 29 August to 22 August, the day of St Lavrenty – the town’s patron saint.


New ways of supporting religious organizations also appeared. Thus in at least two regions, Kaluga and Tula, the authorities decided not to register divorces on 8 July, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Fevronia, honored as patrons of marriage. This ban only applies to the feast day – on every other day of the year it is possible to get divorced.

The first case of which we are aware in which the prosecutor’s office checked parental declarations of their choice of ‘The Foundations of Orthodox Culture’ (one of the electives of the ‘Foundations of Religious Culture and Secular Ethics’ course), and applied some sort of sanction for infringements, may be considered indirect support of the ROC. The Gorno-Altai prosecutor’s office provided the management of School No. 7 with a list of recommended corrections to legislative violations, because the school had failed to provide parental declarations of their choice of the ‘Orthodox Culture’ option.

In an effort to combat ‘insufficiently high indicators’ of a preference for the Orthodox Culture option (83% rather than the projected 98%) the district education department and district administration in Khvalynsk, Saratov region, demanded a written explanation from the deputy head of one school. Tatiana Kotserova was required to write a report explaining why she doesn’t go to church, was accused of celebrating Halloween and of ‘anti-Orthodox activism’ amongst parents, and was ultimately dismissed from her post.


Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration

We know of substantially fewer cases of religious organizations being liquidated in 2015 than in the previous year. One of the most significant cases was that of the Moscow Church of Scientology, liquidated by a November ruling of the Moscow city court in favor of the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice. Grounds for this decision were – according to the Ministry of Justice and the Court – that the organization’s charter does not accord with the law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’, and its activities conflict with article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religious confession. The Ministry of Justice and the Moscow city court considered as violations the fact that the church conducted its activities in Petersburg despite the registration of its central organization in Moscow, and also the registration of the name ‘scientology’ as a trademark. This led them to conclude that the organization could not be considered ‘religious’.

This ruling was preceded by a July case in Moscow’s Izmailovsky court, brought by the Church of Scientology in an attempt to protest the Ministry of Justice’s actions and to force it to register the organization’s charter. The court deemed the Ministry’s actions legitimate, however. The Izmailovsky court’s decision was based, in particular, on religious studies expertise provided by Larisa Astakhova, head of the religious studies department at Kazan Federal University. Astakhova reached her conclusion that Scientology is not a religion by evaluating it from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity. Her expert report evoked much censure from the religious studies community.

In January 2016 the Church of Scientology lodged an appeal against the liquidation ruling by Moscow’s city court.

The local organization of Scientologists yet again failed to achieve registration in Petersburg. In June Petersburg’s Oktiabrsky district court once again refused to register the organization, despite the fact that in February the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights had upheld its 2014 ruling that the refusal to register the Church of Scientology in St Petersburg is illegal. The Oktiabrsky court decreed that ‘the fact that the European Court has deemed the refusal to register the Church of Scientology on grounds that it has not provided evidence of its existence on the territory of St Petersburg for more than 15 years to be a violation of the convention does not imply that other grounds for refusing to register are also deemed illegal.’ [7] In addition to doubts over the religious nature of the organization, authorities also have problems with its charter, and consider the election of the organization’s president and auditing body to be inappropriate.


In March, the local religious organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Abinsk was found extremist by Krasnodar region court. The court ruled that the organization should be liquidated, and transferred its property – 800 square meters of land and a 67 square meter residential building – into government ownership.

In December, Belgorod regional prosecutor’s office applied to the courts to liquidate two further communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Belgorod and Staryi Oskol, on grounds that they had been carrying out extremist activities. In February 2016 both communities were liquidated.

In October 2015 Alexander Parygin, head of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Arkhangelsk, filed an application for the liquidation of his organization with the Ministry of Justice himself. This followed a warning from the prosecutor’s office about the impermissibility of distributing banned literature, searches of Kingdom Hall and the homes of active parishioners, and Parygin being fined.


Furthermore, the Horde organization (Orda) was banned in three regions over the course of the year: Altai, Orenburg and Kurgan regions. Despite the fact that the organization has been included in the Federal list of extremist organizations since 2013, the prosecutorial case against it boiled down to providing unlicensed medical services, ‘the manipulation of [devotees’] consciousness’, presenting a threat to public health and ‘causing damage to the morals’ of citizens.


Discrimination against religious organizations and citizens on the basis of their attitude to religion

Authorities at both federal and regional level resorted to ‘anti-sect’ rhetoric in public speeches more often than in the previous year.

In September Sergei Gavrilov, head of the cross-party State Duma deputies’ group for the defense of Christian values, announced that ‘anti-sect’ amendments to legislation were being prepared. He also told journalists about the danger of ‘sects’, mentioning Scientologists and ‘the Adventist sect, moreover with huge amounts of money, with an extremely aggressive way of behaving’. Representatives of this group have made similar speeches a number of times since its founding in 2012, but these have not been translated into action. However in February 2016 Gavrilov confirmed that the drafting of amendments to anti-extremist legislation – aimed at limiting the activities of a whole series of religious organizations – is already underway in the State Duma.

At the end of September, head of the CIS Anti-terrorist Center Andrei Novikov evaluated Russian new religious movements (NRM) at a conference entitled ‘A Warning about Youth Engagement in the Activities of Terrorist and Extremist Organizations’ in Belgorod. He mentioned as extremist the ‘quasi-religious’ and ‘quasi-Christian’ Jehovah’s Witnesses, the White Brotherhood (Beloe Bratstvo), the Church of the Last Testament (Tserkov’ poslednego zaveta) and a few other groups which do not practice violence.

In an interview published on the Arkhangelsk diocesan website in December, acting governor of Arkhangelsk region Igor Orlov called for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be ‘delegalized’ in the region. He also defined one task of state power as being ‘to resist, [in collaboration] with the Church, the destructive forces which destroy human souls’.[8]

The most notable declaration, however, was that made in December at a round table on ‘Sects and destructive cults as challenges to Russian national security’, in the State Duma. It was made by Sergei Lobyrev, head of the analytical section of the expert-legal department of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, from whom – given his position – one might expect a speech in defense of religious freedom. Instead he proposed that the procedure for registering religious groups should be made more difficult, and that legislative amendments aimed at ‘opposing the activities of totalitarian, destructive cults’ should be developed. According to Lobyrev, this is necessary in order to ‘protect the rights of citizens of the Russian Federation from those organizations pursuing a specific ideology, specific aims, potentially commercial [ones]’.[9]

In full accordance with the ‘anti-sect’ rhetoric, discrimination was most often directed at the representatives of new religious movements over the course of the year.

The campaign of discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses which began back in 2009 continued. In addition to the above-mentioned liquidation of local organizations accused of extremism, police officers in various regions detained the organization’s preachers throughout the year. Such detainments were recorded, in particular, in the Lipetsk region village of Strelets, in Moscow region, in Sasovo (Ryazan region) and Saratov. The police photographed and questioned believers at local police stations; in some cases believers were fingerprinted and their religious literature confiscated. We know of no less than nine cases in which believers were fined for distributing banned religious literature, as happened in Abakan, Birobidzhan, Perm and Syzran, for example. In some instances, instead of a fine, warnings about the inadmissibility of distributing extremist literature were issued. In Rostov region, two missionaries preaching and giving out literature on the street were fined 20,000 rubles each under part 2, article 20.2 of the Administrative Code – which relates to conducting a public event without giving appropriate notification.

In Krymsk, Krasnodar region, police officers broke up a three day convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses with the help of Cossacks. The electricity was turned off at the stadium where the event was being held, and the Cossacks pelted believers with stones.

Customs at the Finnish border seized 2016 copies of the Bible translated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, intended for distribution among Russian citizens. Three copies of the Bible were taken to be examined for indications of extremism. As a result, by March 2016 proceedings had already begun in Vyborg to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of the Bible.


Representatives of the Church of Scientology were sanctioned under article 13.11 of the Administrative Code (‘Violating the procedure for Collecting, Keeping, Using or Disseminating Information about Citizens (Personal Data)) in two regions. In November the head of the religious group of Scientologists in Yakutsk was fined under this article for conducting the ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis Personality Test’ in one of the town’s schools without prior permission for personal data collection. A case was brought against the leaders of the religious group ‘The Chelyabinsk town Church of Scientology’ under the same article. Inspectors considered recording the names, addresses and telephone numbers of parishioners and those who purchased books in a register to constitute a violation of the law on personal data.

Moreover, security services representatives searched the Moscow office of the Church of Scientology and the Center for Management of Dianetics and Scientology Dissemination in Moscow region’s Losino-Petrovsky several times during the course of the year.

In Moscow two followers of Falun Gong, one of whom was distributing the movement’s brochures and the other of whom was doing exercises, were fined under article 20.2 of the Administrative Code. Attempts were made to prosecute a Falun Gong follower in Vladivostok for conducting a one person picket, but the court did not perceive any violations of the law in her actions.

In Moscow, Tversky District Court fined two members of the Novosibirsk Society for Krishna Consciousness under the same article, for distributing religious literature on Red Square.

The administration of Nizhnevartovsk sent letters out to local officials indicating the undesirability of hosting yoga lessons on the territory of municipal institutions. In particular, the letters informed recipients that yoga ‘is inseparably linked to religious practices’, and hatha yoga ‘has an occult nature’. The town administration later retracted these letters and permitted yoga classes.


Several cases of discrimination against representatives of protestant churches are well-known.

Both Krasnodar regional court and the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld the legality of the December 2014 decision by Sochi’s Khostinsky district court to fine Aleksei Kolyasnikov, leader of the ‘Community of Christians’ (Soobshchestvo khristian) evangelical Christian group 30, 000 rubles for holding a meeting of believers and Bible reading in a café specially rented for the purpose. Kolyasnikov appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where his complaint has been registered.

Artur Neifeld, a member of the Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Tomsk region, was found guilty under Part 2, Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code and fined 10,000 rubles for disseminating the Gospels on the streets of Tomsk.

Alexander Filippov, pastor of the Chelyabinsk ‘Cornerstone’ (Kraeugol’nyi kamen’) Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, was fined 500 rubles for violating the law on personal data. He also received a caution from the prosecutor’s office on the inadmissibility of breaking this law. This religious organization was investigated after a complaint from local residents unhappy about believers’ meetings being held in a House of Culture belonging to the All-Russia Society of the Deaf.


We observed fewer cases of discrimination against Muslims which do not have a direct connection with persecution under anti-extremism legislation than in 2014; there were such cases, however, and some of them – as in the year before – involved arbitrariness on the part of the police.

Employees of the law enforcement agencies in several regions detained mosque visitors, as they did, for example, at the mosque in Prokopyevsk, Kemerovo region. Here representatives of the “E Center” wrote down the telephone numbers and passport details of worshippers leaving the mosque building after Friday prayers, and also videoed them.

In Moscow two brothers, one of whom is a minor, were detained after a neighbor complained of hearing ‘religious singing’ coming from their apartment: the young Muslims were listening to surahs of the Qur’an. The detainees’ computer was confiscated.

The continuation of the Mordovian ‘hijab saga’ (see our 2014 report) should also be noted. In February the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dismissed an appeal by representatives of the Muslim community of Mordovia and upheld the legality of the ruling by the republic’s government, which upheld school uniform requirements and prohibited the wearing of religious garments. Efforts by Mordovian Muslims to gain permission for girls to wear headscarves to school were unsuccessful.



Cases of foreign preachers from various religious organizations being expelled from Russia became more frequent. In a whole series of cases either the preachers themselves, or the organizations to which they belonged, were fined for violating migration procedures.

We know of no less than three cases of representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) being persecuted. In Altai and Rostov regions, and in Khabarovsk, the Mormons were fined for violations of migration legislation: in Rostov region the Directorate of the Federal Migration Service fined two communities 400,000 rubles each, and in Altai region and Khabarovsk they fined several preachers.

Obert Chelenga, a pastor of the Pentecostal ‘Truth’ (Istina) church and a citizen of Zimbabwe, was deported from Astrakhan and fined in 2014 for violations of migration legislation.

Lama Shivalkha Rinpoche was expelled from Tuva republic, where he had been living for eleven years, at the decision of the FSB.

Muslims were also expelled for violations of migration legislation. Four imams were expelled from Sverdlovsk region by court order. The imams were citizens of Turkey, and their migration documentation specified the aim of their visit as business, rather than religion. One of them is a follower of Said Nursi. More citizens of Turkey, Ugur Ialgyn, Alper Aslankurt and Metin Karakoch, were expelled from Astrakhan. The three were banned from entering Russia for ten years, for ‘the propaganda of pan-Turkism’. According to their documents they were in Russia for teaching purposes.


Those subjected to discrimination often attempted to defend their rights, and in several cases they succeeded. Two court cases found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation supported an appeal by Human Rights Commissioner Ella Pamfilova to overturn the fines leveled at the local religious organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Orel. Two fines of 100,000 rubles each had been imposed on the religious organization for allegedly illegally conducting public events in 2013 and 2104.

The Kotlas court in Arkhangelsk region ruled to dismiss a case about the dissemination of extremist literature brought in relation to the Kotlas community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and its chairman. During the court process it became clear that the publications presented by the FSB were not extremist.

The Prosecutor General appealed the ban on Armenian Apostolic Church parishes using sound amplifiers during worship, imposed in 2011 by the government of Rostov region.


Insufficient protection against defamation and attacks

We recorded no less than 22 individuals injured in attacks in which the underlying causes were religious. The number of injured is significantly higher than that of 2014 (15).

The number of attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses increased; not for the first year, their missionaries regularly became the victims of assault by aggressive citizens. We know of no fewer than 18 such incidents. Happily, in the majority of cases the health of those injured was not seriously harmed, but in a few cases the victims needed medical help or even received life-threatening injuries.

A resident of Komsomolsk-on-Amur shot one preacher, injuring him in the chest. A man in Volgodonsk beat the head of a 75-year-old female preacher against a lift wall, and gave her a kicking. An 82-year-old missionary in Vladivostok was pushed in such a way that she fell over, hit her head and passed out. Another Witness, shoved by the resident of an Orenburg housing block, fell over and broke her shoulder. Four women conducting door-to-door missionary work in apartment blocks in Pervouralsk (Sverdlovsk region) and Samara needed medical help after attacks by local residents. A Cossack in the Voronezh region village of Kostino-Otdelets beat one female missionary with a whip. In Moscow, a passer-by fired several times at a stand beside one Jehovah’s Witness, and the resident of one apartment block visited by Witnesses fired pepper spray in the eyes of a female preacher. She subsequently needed medical attention. Another Witness, distributing religious literature on a Petersburg street, also received burns to the eyes from pepper gas. Before this he was threatened with a pistol. A resident of an apartment block in Orsk, Orenburg region, threatened a preacher with a pistol, removing the gun’s safety catch.

Although in many cases those assaulted turned to the police, punishments for these attacks proved the exception rather than the rule. One of these exceptions was the above-mentioned case in Pervouralsk; the case went as far as the magistrate’s court, but was halted because of an amnesty. Those injured received compensation for having suffered moral damage.

We know of three cases of attacks against Muslims, all of which took place in Moscow.

Security guards at a shopping center beat up a man who was preparing to say his ritual prayers (Salah) in a secluded spot.

A group of football fans attempted an assault on a girl in Muslim dress, and began to insult her. The fans went to stab a passer-by who intervened in defense of the girl, but the man managed to dodge the blow and the attackers only grazed his face.

Parishioner of the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow, responsible for order in the building, was beaten up by fellow believers for preventing a group of provocateurs from reaching the microphone. The agitators were calling for public disturbances at the French embassy, after the publication of the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo magazine.[10]

In Volgograd an Orthodox priest was injured while trying to remove a drunken man from a bell tower. The hooligan reacted aggressively, and hit the priest several times.



In comparison with last year, the level of religiously motivated vandalism fell slightly – from 32 incidents to 28. Most often the vandals targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses’ property: we know of no fewer than 11 incidents, exactly the same as last year.

The number of attacks against Orthodox targets fell from ten to six, and half (three) of these cases were acts of vandalism directed against memorial crosses. In contrast to the previous year, however, these incidents were unconnected with conflicts over church construction. Moreover, a church, a chapel and a bathing hut at a holy spring were also vandalized.

The number of Muslim targets also fell slightly – six, in contrast to seven in 2014. Besides prayer houses, graves in a Muslim cemetery were also vandalized. We also know of vandals attacking four Jewish targets – one of which, a Holocaust memorial in Tver region, was vandalized twice. And we know one pagan target: in Petersburg vandals cut down sculptures of the Korean Chansy idols, motivated by the fact that ‘ours is an Orthodox state’.

In the majority of cases these incidents did not present any danger to people, but there were exceptions: in Arkhangelsk a synagogue was shot at; in several regions the windows of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls were smashed and rocks thrown into the buildings. One Muslim prayer house, one Kingdom Hall and one Orthodox bathing hut were set on fire, and there was also one arson attempt against a mosque.


As in previous years, federal and regional media published xenophobic material, the majority of which – as in 2014 – was directed at Protestant churches and new religious movements. This sort of piece appeared both on federal television channels and in mainstream mass media outlets such as, and the newspaper Izvestia. As a rule, representatives of religious organizations named in these pieces expressed their indignation publically, and demanded that misleading information be retracted.

This happened, for example, with material broadcast on the television channel Rossia 1, which aired at least two ‘anti-sect’ pieces during the year – both during the news program (Vesti). Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses complained to the Public Board for Press Complaints about one piece, aired in September. Rossia 1 journalist Ilya Filippov reproduced a string of negative stereotypes about Jehovah’s Witnesses, accusing them of ignoring the law, extortion and ‘recruiting children’. In its consideration of the complaint, the Board came to the conclusion that the screened piece promoted religious intolerance, ‘spreading a negative attitude towards Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and insulting believers.

By November, however, the Vesti program had already broadcast yet another ‘anti-sect’ piece. This time the Seventh Day Adventists, the Scientologists, and the ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘New Generation’ (Novoe pokolenie) evangelical churches were ‘unmasked’. The Seventh Day Adventists appealed to the head of the television channel, Anton Zlatopolsky, demanding a rebuttal to this material, and also to Yaroslav Nilov, head of the State Duma Committee on public associations and religious organizations. Nilov in turn asked the head of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, Oleg Dobrodeev, ‘to commission an investigation into what grounds there were for creating and repeatedly showing the given piece on the Rossia 1 television channel’. No response was forthcoming from the television channel management, but the text of the report which had so upset believers was removed from the channel’s website. It is significant that even the diocese of Chelyabinsk, to whom the Adventists had also appealed, responded in writing that the commentary given by their employee had been misused by Kirill Solodkov, the author of this piece.

The ‘anti-Adventist campaign’ returned to the mass media in connection with the August murder of six children and their mother in Nizhny Novgorod region. In narrating the tragedy, the majority of journalists deemed it necessary to mention that the children’s father, accused of the crime, was an Adventist. However, he had been excluded from the Nizhny Novgorod church of Seventh Day Adventists back in 2007 and, moreover, is being seen by a psychiatrist, as the church leadership swiftly informed journalists. Nevertheless, many publications continued to connect the crime with Adventist influence, at the same time publishing erroneous information about Adventist religious teachings and practices.

Besides moral injury to believers, such publications provoked increased interest in the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists amongst law enforcement agencies. Soon after the murders, 14 Adventist prayer houses, a Sunday school and a church television company were searched in Nizhny Novgorod region, as were the Seventh Day Adventist churches in Vladimir region, and the home of Alexander Sinitsyn, the president of the Volga-Vyatka union of Seventh Day Adventists.

In March Petersburg’s Channel Five (Piatyi kanal) dedicated part of its ‘Main’ (Glavnoe) program to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. The piece carried the inflammatory title ‘With the call sign “saint”: how American spies penetrate into Russia masquerading as pious missionaries’. The material evoked indignation amongst followers of the Church, who demanded a rebuttal from the channel’s management.

The Union of Missions of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) managed to get the prosecutor’s office to warn Dmitry Pechenkin, a specialist from the Surgut region department of public security, about the inadmissibility of not fulfilling the requirements of the legislation on freedom of conscience and on religious associations. In May the newspaper Surgut Tribune (Surgutskaia tribuna) published an interview with Pechenkin entitled ‘Will they manage to achieve power over people? Why they regularly try to recruit us and how not to fall into the hands of sectarians’. In the piece the official accused Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Pentecostals and Mormons of, amongst other things, creating ‘political imbalance’, ‘destroying society from inside’ and collaboration with a foreign intelligence.

We note that Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, one of the most significant ecclesiastical functionaries who was at that point still head of the Synodal Department for Cooperation of Church and Society (before his sacking in December 2015), publically supported the accusation of ‘spying’ leveled at NRMs (new religious movements) and Protestants. In January, commenting on the conducting of searches in the Moscow office of the Scientologists, Chaplin called on Russians not to cooperate with Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups financed by the USA. He practically accused the followers of these organizations of being agents of America. In his words, ‘as branches of American corporations and analytical centers, [these organizations] are primarily conducting propaganda in Russia rather than expert or humanitarian activities – for example, they allege that there is no alternative to the western model of democracy, the capitalism of finance and oligarchs and so on’.[11]


According to our observations, anti-Muslim material appeared less often. Indignation amongst Muslims was primarily generated by the publication of the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In addition, some Muslims found a poll published in January on the website of the radio station Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) offensive: the poll asked whether it is allowable to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed. Representatives of Muslim communities in Novgorod region asked the prosecutor’s office to evaluate the legality of the Echo of Moscow editorial board’s actions, and Mairbek Abuezidov, a member of the Novgorod regional government Committee for Interethnic Relations, even perceived a crime under article 148 of the Criminal Code in their publication of the poll. The prosecutor’s office, however, did not find grounds to bring any sanctions against the radio station.


Besides this, representatives of civil society organizations and private individuals attempted to oppose the activities of religious organizations, primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses and representatives of other NRMs.

As in previous years, ‘anti-sect’ events were held in various regions. Members of the NGO ‘Youth Ambulance’ (Skoraia molodezhnaia pomoshch’) organized several ‘anti-sect’ pickets at the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Belgorod. Pickets against the Jehovah’s Witnesses were also held in Syzran (with the participation of the LDPR), and in the Yaroslavl region town of Gavrilov Yam. Leaflets containing offensive remarks about Jehovah’s Witnesses, produced by the St Joseph Volotsky Missionary Center (Missionerskii Tsentr prepodobnogo Iosifa Volotskogo), were found in the middle of March near Moscow’s Nagornaia metro station.

Stavropol residents complained to the anti-monopoly service about local Jehovah’s Witnesses’ street banners, depicting believers and the address of the organization’s official website The believers had to remove the banners and pay a fine.

In tandem with the civil society organization Baltic Youth (Baltiiskaia molodezh), local residents protested the Scientologists’ move into the Petersburg district of Avtovo by conducting a series of pickets in front of the Petersburg Church of Scientology’s new office. During one picket, the protesters attempted to burst into the Church’s building. The residents’ protest was supported by officials from the local district administration, who declared that they ‘did not welcome’ the appearance of the center, since the religious organization had been subject to several court cases and because there were two kindergartens and a school located not far from the new center.


[1] This project has been funded by finance awarded to the project EIDHR/2014/348-053 ‘Counteracting all forms of discrimination on grounds of religion and beliefs in the Russian Federation’, financed by the European Union, under representation of the European Commission.

[2] Olga Sibireva, Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2014. Moscow: SOVA Center 2015, pp. 72–99 (also available at:

[3] Maria Kravchenko, Alexander Verkhovsky. Nepravomernoe primenenie antiekstremistskogo zakonodatel’stva v Rossii v 2015 SOVA Center, 2 March 2016 (

[4] ‘Konflikt vokrug Ussuriiskoi mecheti doshel do prezidenta Rossii’, IslamNews, 14 July 2015 (

[5] Prezidentskie granty NKO: Pooshchrenie loialnosti vmesto razvitiia grazhdanskogo obshchestva, TsEPR December 2015 (Президентские-гранты-НКО_Поощрение-лояльности-вместо-развития-гражданского-общества.pdf).

[6] Predstavitel’ Rosimushchestva rasskazal v Dume o praktike peredachi religioznym organizatsiiam imushchestva religioznogo naznacheniia, SOVA Center 1 February 2016 (

[7] Mariia Golubkova, ‘Ne priznali’, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 29 June 2015.

[8] Igor’ Orlov, ‘Vosstanovlenie kafedral’nogo sobora preobrazhaet liuboi gorod’, the website of the Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory diocese, 7 December 2015 (

[9] Vladimir Petin. ‘Pravozashchitniki predlozhili priniat’ zakon protiv sekt’, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 8 December 2015.

[10] It should be clarified that this sort of attack should also be considered motivated by enmity which relates to religion, since the issue was clearly about a difference in interpretations of the demands of Islam. 

[11] ‘Protoierei Vsevolod Chaplin prizyvaet uzhestochit’ otnoshenie k saientologam i jegovistam’, Interfaks-religia, 30 January 2015 (