Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2016

Edited by Alexander Verkhovsky

LEGISLATION : Initiatives not (yet) successfully progressed
PROBLEMS RELATING TO PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the construction of religious buildings : Problems with existing religious buildings : Positive resolutions
DEFENDING BELIEVERS’ FEELINGS : Top-down defence : Defence from below
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS AND CITIZENS ON THE BASIS OF THEIR ATTITUDE TO RELIGION : Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration : Restriction of missionary activity : Other forms of discrimination

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]


In 2016, some of the tendencies noted in previous reports have developed in ways which evoke serious concerns.

The passing and early application of ‘anti-missionary amendments’, part of Yarovaya’s and Ozerov’s ‘anti-terrorist package’, was undoubtedly the most important event of the year. The amendments have seriously impeded the activity of many religious organizations, especially unregistered religious groups. The introduction of these amendments is a victory for those within and beyond the machinery of State who are dedicated to combatting ‘sects’ – that is, religious minorities they deem undesirable.

The sharply increased pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses demonstrates that the authorities also intend to continue in this same direction. The long-running state campaign against them continued in 2016 with a ban on five communities, and by the beginning of 2017 had led to legal action seeking a total ban on the activities of Witnesses in the country. We are dealing with actual religious persecution, comparable in scale with the harassment of minorities within the Islamic community, but without the excuse of any threat to national security.

The state’s course of increasingly severe policies in relation to ‘non-traditional’ religions and religious movements is supported by the mass media, which continues to maintain the ‘anti-sect’ rhetoric that we observed earlier. This tendency seems to us an extremely dangerous one, since furthering the growth of xenophobia amongst the public also invites the possibility of new repressions.

The construction of religious buildings, most often Orthodox churches, continues to create tensions in various regions. The main reason for conflicts remains the contentious sites selected for building works. Although in a number of cases the authorities listened to citizens’ opinions and cancelled or moved construction, they often preferred to ignore the protests. Bureaucrats demonstrated more readiness to take public opinion into account when mosques, rather than Orthodox churches, were being debated.

The defenders of religious feelings, who were convinced that they could endure punishment for their actions, tempered their enthusiasm somewhat: in opposing ‘blasphemous’ works of art, at least, they dispensed with the use of force. As before, the authorities periodically reined in this category of activists, but did not interfere with their active use of the Criminal Code to defend religious feelings.

Overall, although religion continues to play a secondary, supporting role in the State’s ideological edifice, it seems that in 2016 repressive and discriminatory approaches specifically in spheres connected with religion were used much more actively than before.


Over the course of the year several pieces of legislation affecting the activities of religious organizations were passed. The most significant event was the State Duma’s acceptance, on 24 June, of Irina Yarovaya’s and Victor Ozerov’s anti-terrorist package of bills at second and third readings. Amendments to the law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’, which introduce the concept of ‘missionary activity’, regulating and essentially circumscribing missionary activity, were unexpectedly included in the package at precisely this point. The entire package was approved by the Federation Council on 29 June, and signed by Vladimir Putin on 7 July.

In the law, the concept of ‘missionary activity’ means not preaching, as such, but the dissemination of information by religious associations (organizations or groups) about their beliefs with the aim of attracting new participants. The list of those who may conduct such activities is limited by the amendments: in the case of religious organizations ‘the leader of a religious organization, a member of its board and (or) a cleric’ may preach without restrictions; any others intending to carry out missionary activity in the name of a religious organization now require a special document granting permission from the leadership of that organization. This document, amongst other things, must confirm ‘the fact of the religious organization’s entry into the unified state register of legal entities and state registration issued by a federal body or by its territorial body.’ The same requirements also extend to registered religious groups, but the group’s assembly will issue the document. The members of unregistered groups have, in practice, entirely lost their constitutional right to promulgate their religious convictions, since – by definition – they are unable to produce a document which confirms registration.

Moreover, the choice of places in which one might preach without special permission is limited: in property and on plots of land owned by the religious association, and in cemeteries. Missionary activity in residential accommodation is completely banned.

The passing of this law had broad public resonance. Considering that the anti-missionary amendments were unexpectedly introduced into the ‘Yarovaya bill’ before the second reading and in contravention of the order for considering draft bills, there was no time for proper public consultation. In the short interval between their introduction and acceptance, religious organizations, lawyers and human rights activists attempted to convey to the designers the danger of passing these amendments, pointing out indistinct formulations which allow for varying interpretation and, necessarily, may allow for abuse in law enforcement practice. Nevertheless, the amendments were accepted without substantial corrections.

For many years now, efforts to legally restrict missionary activity have ended in failure. Several regional bills about missionary activity were passed in 2015, a similar bill was approved by the Legislative Assembly of the Yamalo-Nenetsk autonomous district in May 2016, but until the summer of 2016 similar efforts on the federal level were voted down. This time, those who support the limitation of missionary work managed to get their own way, correctly calculating that all public attention would be concentrated on the not insignificant number of other scandalous points in the given package of bills, including tightening control over the internet, and the restriction of missionary work was successfully introduced almost unnoticed.

Another piece of legislation successfully passed in 2016 simplified the use of buildings of religious purpose. Approved by the State Duma on the third reading on 18 March and signed by the President on 30 March, amendments to the Civil Code and the law ‘On the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations’ forbid the demolition of unauthorized religious buildings, and likewise objects intended for the maintenance of property of religious purpose or forming part of a single monastic, church or any other cultic complex, in the absence of a court ruling.


Initiatives not (yet) successfully progressed

Regional parliaments continued to develop laws which regulate missionary activity on regional or federal levels. However, work on these bills was halted by the passing of amendments relating to missionary activity within the framework of the ‘Yarovaya – Ozerov package’.

Over the course of the year there were other attempts to introduce changes to the law ‘On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations’. Amendments were introduced to this bill in the Duma on the initiative of the People’s Assembly of the Republic of Ingushetia, for example. It was proposed to change Article 7 (“Religious group”), making it mandatory for religious groups to register and to present notification of registration annually, and limiting the size of groups to ten members. The bill was withdrawn in October.

Ramzil Ishsarin, a deputy of the State Assembly of Bashkortostan, proposed to change this same Article, plus Article 11 of this law, and Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (‘Violation of legislation on freedom of conscience, on freedom of religious confession, and on religious associations’). He recommended that the concept of a ‘representative of a religious group’, who might substitute for the leader in communication with the body responsible for state registration, be excluded from the law. He further proposed to introduce penalties for activity by a religious group without prior notification or for the provision of information known to be false about the group’s activity. As before, the law remains under consideration in the State Duma.

Moreover, the State Duma yet again dismissed a proposal for a ban on mentioning the ethnic and religious identity of terrorists in the mass media. This time the proposed ban was initiated by the parliament of Chechnya.

In November, senator Elena Mizulina suggested to State Duma deputies that legislation on religion be improved, that the concept of a ‘destructive sect’ be enshrined in law, and that a working group for the ‘struggle with destructive public associations and religious sects’ be created. Such a group was founded under the Federation Council in February 2017. Notably, it included several ‘experts on sects’ from the Russian Association of Centers for the Study of Religions and Sects (Rossiiskoi Assosiatsii tsentrov izucheniia religii i sekt, RATsIRS), including its president Alexander Dvorkin, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate[4], representatives of the security services, including the FSB, and Larisa Astakhova, head of the religious studies department at Kazan (Volga Region) Federal University, whose expert testimony on the activities of the Moscow Church of Scientology served as one of the grounds for liquidating this organization.

Problems relating to places of worship

Problems with the construction of religious buildings

It was most often Orthodox Christians and Muslims who encountered problems with the construction of religious buildings, as it was last year. In the case of the Orthodox, difficulties again arose primarily because the places selected for construction were inappropriate, impinging on the interests of residents.

As before, the situation in Moscow remains difficult. Conflicts accompany the implementation of a building programme of Orthodox churches ‘within walking distance’, which is supported by the city government.

The fiercest conflict remains that around the construction of a church in Torfianka Park. Despite a court ruling that the construction site be moved from the park, and the commencement of building on a different plot, construction supporters attempted to secure the renewal of building works on the territory of Torfianka, regularly holding ‘prayerful stands’ (molitevennye stoianiia) while their opponents attempted to disrupt them. This degenerated into physical conflict between the opposing sides. In February people in masks attacked local residents who were attempting to obstruct the unloading of building materials, and squirted them with pepper spray. In April activists from the Forty Forties movement (Sorok sorokov) once again attacked the park’s defenders, and green activist Sergei Makarkin, a local woman and her defender Vladislav Kuznetsov, aide to Communist Party (KPRF) Duma deputy Alexander Potapov, were injured. Supporters of the building programme reported an attack on Fr Oleg Shalimov, whose church construction was moved out of Torfianki Park, but video materials provided by them did not confirm the fact of the attack. In July, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at the not yet dismantled construction site. A scuffle also broke out when attempts were made to erect a fence around the construction site, in which both park defenders and Orthodox activists reported physical injuries.

Despite the court ruling that construction be relocated, the authorities appear to have taken the side of the Orthodox activists. In any case, it was precisely the park defenders who were detained more than once over the course of the year, after protesting continuing action in the park by construction supporters. In August two defenders of the park were fined for minor hooliganism after complaints from Orthodox activists that they had obstructed a prayer service. In November, criminal proceedings were instituted against several activists under part 1, Article 148 of the Criminal Code (‘Public actions expressing obvious disrespect to society and committed with the aim of insulting the religious feelings of believers’).

Protests against the construction of churches in public squares and parks also continued in other Moscow districts, as in Nagatino-Sadovniki, Tushino or Lefortovo, for example. In several cases the situation also degenerated into physical conflict. While under the influence of alcohol, one of the supporters of the construction of a church on the banks of the Khimkinsky reservoir beat up a park defender, breaking his spine. In the park by Golovinsky ponds, a representative of the Forty Forties movement knocked a phone from the hands of an elderly woman resident who was trying to film the arrival of the church’s skeleton frame at the construction site.

Conflicts around the construction of Orthodox churches were also recorded in other regions. Residents of Bryansk, Volgograd, Voronezh, Irkutsk, Obninsk, Omsk, Rostov on Don and Saratov protested the construction of ecclesiastical buildings in green zones. In Moscow region’s Pushkino, local inhabitants protested the construction of an Orthodox chapel on a football field in Novaia Derevnia. Togliatti residents continued to protest the appearance of an Orthodox metochion [a satellite church usually belonging to a monastery] and Sunday school on a sports ground: in June they dismantled part of the church fence and wrote ‘The President supports the development of neighborhood sport for all’ in red paint on the remainder. Inhabitants of St Petersburg’s ‘Baltic pearl’ quarter came out against the construction of an Orthodox church on the banks of the Matisov canal, arguing that a kindergarten or school should be built there instead.

In several cases the local authorities supported the protesters. Thus, deputies of the Chita town Duma voted against construction of a church in the MZhK park, supporting residents who had been opposing the development of the park since 2015. The construction of a church in Chukovsky park, Rostov on Don, was also called off in the face of protests by townspeople. In the face of public pressure, the administration of the rural settlement Seversky of Krasnodar region dissolved an agreement to assign a plot of land – on which local residents had hoped to build a school – to an Orthodox parish.

In other regions government officials opted to ignore public opinion and support construction. The governor of Sverdlovsk region, for example, confirmed that a church of St Catherine would be built for Ekaterinburg’s 300th anniversary. The town’s residents have been opposing this proposed reconstruction since 2010. The proposed construction site has changed several times as a result of public pressure: now it is proposed to build the church on the banks of the river Iset, which would spoil the historic appearance of a nearby monument of 1934 constructivist architecture, the Dynamo sports complex.

In Novorossiysk, where protests against the construction of the Naval cathedral near Sudzhuk lagoon have continued, the regional Directorate for the state preservation of cultural heritage filed a lawsuit against the diocese, since construction was carried out in two protected zones at once, and the diocese did not have all the necessary permission documents. Construction was temporarily halted, but then the eparchy obtained full documentation granting permission and the erection of a two-story church and religious education centre was resumed.

In Chelyabinsk, however, the prosecutor’s office handed out a warning to student Ekaterina Omel’chenko, who organized a petition against the construction of a chapel in the square in front of the Southern Ural State University, about the impermissibility of violating Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation (‘Violation of legislation on freedom of conscience’), Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (‘Insulting the feelings of believers’) and Article 280 of the Criminal Code (‘Public calls for the realization of extremist activity’).


Residents of various regions also protested against the construction of mosques, however, in these cases the question of town protection – if raised at all – was far from the most important motive. Protesters above all linked the appearance of mosques with a rise in the number of migrants and the danger of terrorism. This was the case in Volzhsky, Volgograd region, for example, where the residents organized a petition against a mosque which noted the possibility of trees being cut down but put greater emphasis on the creation of ‘fertile conditions for the development and appearance of radically inclined elements and Islamic terrorism in the town

The possible ‘criminal activity of migrants’ also worried those protesting against mosques in Khabarovsk and Perm. The latter even managed to secure the suspension of construction, however it was then resumed despite continuing protests. Despite protests, a building plot was also allocated to Khabarovsk’s Muslims.

Omsk residents also came out against the construction of a mosque, fearing loud calls to prayer, and the worsening of roads and ecological conditions in the face of an influx of believers. Samara residents also protested, ready to lose their garages and sheds for the sake of a sports complex with a swimming pool but not for the sake of a mosque.

In Ufa public opinion, supported by the Orthodox diocese, opposed the construction of a Muslim center ‘Muslim City’ (Muslim-siti) by the Ar-Rakhim mosque, citing threats to the preservation of neighboring ancient monuments. As a result, Ufa authorities referred the project back for further work, and its authors changed the name to ‘Multiconfessional Quarter of Peace and Concord’ (Mezhkonfessional’nyi kvartal Mira i soglasiia).

We know of difficulties with the construction of one further religious organization: after public protests the administration of Bratsk, Irkutsk region, overturned a decision granting permission for the construction of an evangelical Christian church and rehabilitation center in the park of the Iuzhnyi Padun microregion. Local residents did not want a rehabilitation center for the alcohol and drug dependent as a neighbor.


Problems withexistingreligiousbuildings

As in the previous year, it was most often Muslims who experienced difficulties using already existing religious buildings, and also Orthodox who are not under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The decline in the number of problems experienced by Protestant organizations in using religious buildings, which we observed two years ago, has continued: they now have significantly fewer difficulties.

The Muslim community of Urengoy, Yamalo-Nenetsk autonomous district, has not managed to recommence the work of the mosque halted in 2014 by a ban on the use of the building. Back then, the court had upheld a lawsuit by the prosecutor’s office, which had revealed violations of fire safety regulations and of the requirements of town planning legislation. In 2016 the community attempted to change the means of implementing the court ruling, confirming that the violations identified had been rectified. The court, however, dismissed their petition.

In the village of Podberezovo, the Orlov Regional and District Courts found a Muslim prayer house built by local inhabitants to be an unauthorised construction, and ordered that it be taken down. This followed a complaint to the prosecutor’s office by disgruntled village residents neighboring the prayer house.

The administration of the village of Belozer’e in Mordovia, distinguished by a continuing three-year conflict over the ‘hijab problem’, also demanded that a mosque be demolished. The authorities are insisting on the demolition of the mosque despite the fact that the community has ownership rights over the building, constructed in 2013.

Two decisions about the demolition of churches were taken in respect of ‘alternative’ Orthodox churches. The Penza authorities announced the demolition of the partially-built church of a monastic community of the Church of True Orthodox Christians of Greece (Tserkov’ istinno-pravoslavnykh khristian Gretsii). Noginsk City Court upheld a lawsuit by the district administration, which demanded that the Trinity church (Troitskii khram) – under the jurisdiction of the Kievan Patriarchate – be demolished. The court found that the church had been built illegally on that particular plot of land, despite the fact that it has been functioning since the beginning of the 1990s. Moscow City Court upheld this ruling.

Other organizations also had problems using existing religious buildings. In Nizhny Novgorod Region bailiffs dismantled the building of the Divya Loka center of Vedic culture in Chukhlomka village, Vetluzhsky district. In this fashion the Vetluzhsky District Court ruling from 17 September 2015, which deemed part of the monastic complex illegal, was complied with.

Over the course of the entire year the Sverdlovsk regional directorate of the Federal Service of Court Bailiffs sought to demolish the Shad Tchup Ling Buddhist monastery, situated in the exclusion zone of a mining and processing industrial complex near Kachkanar. The court ruling to demolish was made back in 2014, however implementing this decision has been postponed, the demolition date has been moved, and the monastery continues to exist on that same spot. However, the decision about the demolition still stands, and in November the Regional Forestry Department announced their intention to invite tenders and find a contractor who will undertake the demolition.

It is notable that bureaucrats did not demand the demolition of an Orthodox chapel which was declared an illegal construction, but only required that ownership of it be registered. The St Petersburg Committee of property relations served the corresponding lawsuit against City General Hospital no. 2, which had built the chapel on its territory in 2013 without permission from the authorities.

However, the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (Rossiskaia pravoslavnaia avtonomnoi tserkov’, RPATs) continued to be deprived of that property still remaining to it after the confiscations of recent years. In November the Yaroslavl Regional Court of Arbitration satisfied the suit of the Territorial directorate of the Federal Agency for the Management of State Property of the Russian Federation, thereby dissolving a contract with the local religious organization of the RPATs which accorded it use of the seventeenth century Church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God at the Almshouse (khram vo imia Vladimirskoi ikony Bozhei Materi na Bozhedomke) in Yaroslavl.


Positive resolutions

Some organizations managed to defend their rights to prayer houses. The authorities in Perm, who had earlier refused to approve the documents for a plot on which to build a Jewish cultural center with a synagogue, reconsidered their decision and – despite protests from nationalists – nevertheless allotted the town’s Jewish community a piece of land for free use for a period of ten years.

The Jewish community of Sochi managed to renew their leasehold on a plot of land to build a synagogue through the courts. The town administration attempted to annul a lease agreed in 2008, citing the fact that the plot of land was located on the grounds of a health resort. The Krasnodar Regional Court of Arbitration, however, took the side of the Jewish community.

The ‘Azerbaijan’ Muslim community of Ekaterinburg secured, through the courts, permission to build a mosque and the extension of a leasehold agreement for a plot of land which the mayoralty had attempted to revoke.

Tula Regional Court of Arbitration recognized the right of the Seventh Day Adventist church to ownership of a prayer house in the town of Lipki. Since this religious organization was liquidated back in 2007 for failing to file reports, the prayer house had no formal owner, therefore the electricity company had cut off the electricity supply to the building in 2014. The newly re-registered church managed to prove in court that it had de facto never stopped existing and had maintained the building in appropriate condition. The court agreed to restore property rights to the building.

Defending believers’ feelings

Top-down defence

In 2016, for the first time, we encountered a significant number of convictions under the so-called law for the protection of religious feelings –Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (‘Public actions expressing obvious disrespect to society and committed with the aim of insulting the religious feelings of believers’), the formulation of which was changed in 2013. Similarly, several new proceedings were instituted under that Article. We also consider the majority of proceedings under that Article inappropriate.[5]

In Orenburg, a teacher at Orenburg state medical university, Sergei Lazarov, was sentenced under that Article for a debate about an ancient icon. The court fined him 35,000 rubles but waived the punishment because of the length of time that had passed. Lazarov did not manage to dispute the sentence. In Ekaterinburg ‘voodoo master’ Anton Simakov was sent for compulsory medical treatment for a ritual directed against the authorities in Ukraine, since he had used – amongst other things – items used in the Orthodox funeral service. Residents of Sosnovka in Kirov region, Konstantin Kazantsev and Rustem Shaidullin, were sentenced to 230 hours compulsory labor for hanging a homemade scarecrow with an offensive inscription on a monumental cross.

Of course, Article 282 of the Criminal Code was also used against those offending religious feelings, as happened before the change to Article 148. Thus activist Maxim Kormelitsky, who published a photograph of bathers in an Epiphany ice-hole with an offensive commentary on his VKontakte page, was sentenced under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to a year in a penal colony.

Sometimes both of these Articles of the Criminal Code were used simultaneously. In Kirov a sixteen year old was sentenced in this fashion to 120 hours of compulsory labor for having published in 2015 some photos with commentaries which experts deemed offensive to religious feelings and a justification of violence against believers.

The case of Daghestani sportsman Said Osmanov was particularly high-profile. Arriving at Kalmykia’s capital for a sports competition, he went into a Buddhist temple, urinated there and kicked a statue of Buddha in the nose. He then published a video of this act of vandalism on the internet, evoking the indignation of local residents. Despite an apology from the sportsman, criminal proceedings were brought against him and Elista City Court sentenced him under Article 148 Part 2 and Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code to two years’ imprisonment (suspended) with one year’s probation.

Another widely-reported case under part 1 Article 148 of the Criminal Code is that of Stavropol blogger Viktor Krasnov, which began back in 2015 and has dragged on for over a year. In October 2014 Krasnov left several rude – and some antisemitic – commentaries on the social media site ‘Overheard in Stavropol’. In particular he expressed a negative attitude to quotations from the Bible and declared that ‘there is no god!’ By February 2017 Stavropol’s Promyshlennyi District Magistrates’ Court dismissed the case because of the amount of time that had passed.

Over the course of 2016, several new proceedings were initiated for offending religious feelings. The most well-known was that brought against Ekaterinburg blogger and atheist Ruslan Sokolovsky, under Article 282 Part 1 and Article 148 Part 2 of the Criminal Code. Sokolovsky is accused of publishing several video clips with utterances insulting to believers, including one about Pokemon hunting in an Orthodox church.

In Tuva in November, proceedings were instituted under Article 148 Part 2 of the Criminal Code in connection with the distribution on social media of photographs of a girl posing in front of a Buddhist prayer drum in Kyzyl town square. According to the investigation, the girl had aimed a kick at the drum. In the photograph published by the investigating committee of the Tuva Republic, however, the girl can be seen to touch the drum with her hand rather than her foot.

A criminal case was brought against a resident of Rostov on Don in September under Article 148 Part 1 for publishing images, video clips and poetry on social media which investigators considered offensive to Christianity.

Moreover, in December a case was brought against Orlov pensioner Andrei Nevrov, under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Administrative Code (‘Deliberate public profanation of religiously venerated objects, signs or emblems of worldview symbolism and paraphernalia’), for bringing a model of a coffin with the inscription ‘Potomsky’s reason, honor, conscience’, topped with a cross, onto a public square during a protest against the region’s governor. The court considered that Nevrov’s actions did not constitute an administrative offence, since they did not conform with the definition of profanation.

We also note that in March Moscow City Court upheld the September 2015 ruling of Moscow’s Tagansky District Court about the legitimacy of the warning issued by the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) to the publication, for publishing images of men with the heads of Christ, Pushkin and Putin (a composition by the ‘Blue noses’ group). The court ruled that the image contained ‘artistic devices of a derogatory nature in relation to some famous religious actors, and also expressive devices which are offensive or humiliating to the dignity of representatives of religious confessions and associations (or religious groups)’.


Defence from below

In comparison with 2015, activity by grassroots defenders of religious feelings was somewhat reduced. The punishment of those who attacked the Moscow Manezh Exhibition probably had a restraining effect: in addition to the administrative penalty imposed in 2015, the authorities pursued criminal proceedings under Article 243 Part 1 (“Destruction of or damage to objects of cultural heritage or cultural values”) against the pogromists. Recognized as the injured party, the Moscow government served one of the participants in the attack, Liudmila Esipenko, an activist in the God’s Will (Bozh’iya volya) movement, with a civil claim for 1,169, 802 rubles for ruining the exhibits. During the investigation Esipenko was detained and held in custody. The case was closed in September for lack of corpus delicti, however the possibility of being subject to a criminal prosecution evidently somewhat cooled the enthusiasm of the warriors against ‘blasphemous’ concerts, performances and exhibitions. Nevertheless, although they are less active, they have continued to protest about diverse cultural events and have sometimes managed to get them cancelled or censored.

As earlier, rock concerts often became a target for the defenders of religious feelings. In Krasnodar and Ekaterinburg concerts by ‘Satanist’ groups – the Austrian band Belphegor and the American band Nile – were cancelled at the request of Orthodox believers, and a concert by the band Batiushka was called off in Moscow. Orthodox believers in Ufa protested against a concert by the British band Cradle of Filth.

Not only concerts, but also exhibitions, theatre performances and other cultural events were subject to attacks by the defenders of religious feelings. In Omsk, for example, the regional Department of Culture cancelled a Litseisky theatre performance of Khorovod [circle dance, roundelay], a staging by Polish director Peter Shal’sha of Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. The head of the Department, explaining his decision, declared that he did not want ‘a repeat of Tannhäuser’. According to theatre employees, a letter from Omsk eparchy preceded the cancellation of the performance. The reference to the 2015 Novosibirsk saga – when at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church not only was the opera Tannhäuser removed from the repertoire but the theatre management was replaced – is anyway telling, testifying to the fact that some bureaucrats have learnt their lesson and are ready to compromise with the defenders of believers’ feelings.

Omsk has proved fairly sensitive to the demands of these activists: the Jesus Christ, Superstar show by the Petersburg Rock Opera theatre, which should have been put on at the Musical theatre, was cancelled after protests from the Orthodox community. Representatives of the Family, Love, Fatherland (Sem’ia, Liubov’, Otechestvo) movement demanded that the town authorities call off the performance. Vladimir Legoida, head of the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations and the Mass Media, subsequently spoke out in defense of the rock opera. The Omsk authorities later declared that unsold tickets were the reason for cancelling the show, not the protests of believers. It seems, however, that the organizers of the protest took the signal from the Patriarchate into consideration: during the Rock Opera theatre’s road tour in Krasnodar in January 2017, the chair of the local Orthodox Union (Pravoslavnyi Soiuz) Roman Pliuta asked those disturbed by the ‘blasphemous’ show not to organize protests, so as not to draw unnecessary attention to the performance.

Interestingly, the loudest Orthodox protests in 2016 were in relation to a film not yet on general release – Aleksei Uchitel’s Matilda, about a romance between Nicholas II and ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. Igor Smykov, head of the Orthodox mission for the restoration of the spiritual values of the Russian people (Pravoslavnaia missiia po vozrozhdeniiu dukhovnykh tsennostei russkogo naroda) complained to the Prosecutor General about the film’s trailer, on the basis of which he accused the director of slander against the ‘tsar-martyr’, inciting hatred and offending religious feelings. Ekaterinodar eparchy, which has not blessed its parishioners to watch the film, justified its position with reference to the presence in the film of ‘morally doubtful interpretations, and also direct historical and biographical distortions relating to Emperor Nicholas II and the most august family, canonized for brave witness [to the Orthodox faith]’. This saga continued in 2017, when the Christian state – Holy Rus (Khristianskoe gosudarstvo – Sviataia Rus’) organization sent a letter to cinema managers requesting that they not screen Matilda and threatening to resort to ‘radical methods of struggle’ should they do so. Natalia Poklonskaia, State Duma deputy and former Prosecutor General of Crimea, joined in with a request to ban the film.

Moreover, as is traditional, Orthodox believers in various regions came out against the celebration of holidays ‘alien to traditional Russian values’ – Halloween and St Valentine’s Day. The congregation of St Petersburg Metropolia, in particular, called for Halloween not to be celebrated. Vyatka lawyer Yaroslav Mikhailov appealed to the prosecutor’s office to test the legitimacy of celebrations and to ban this festival on Russian territory altogether. An Orthodox human rights analytical center asked Minister of Education Olga Vasil’eva to address the celebration of Halloween in kindergartens. In Krasnodar, activists from the Orthodox societyof Maidenhead (Pravoslavnoe obshchevstvo Gimena’)indicated their opposition to the celebration of St Valentine’s day by hanging a banner, which declared ‘You kiss her, and Judas kisses us all’, from the Bridge of Kisses.

In the struggle with unwanted cultural events, warriors against ‘blasphemous’ productions and performances often cited not only offense to feelings but also invoked other threats to the safety of society and, in the majority of cases, this tactic worked. Thus the Lumière Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow closed the ‘Without Embarrassment’ exhibition of American photographer Jock Sturges, which had evoked the displeasure of Senator Mizulina, the children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova and Orthodox activists who deemed the exhibition paedophilic propaganda.

In Novosibirsk representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church managed to cancel an adventure game ‘Dante’s Hell’, based on the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, adjacent to the crematorium of the Museum of World Funeral Culture, having complained to the prosecutor’s office about ‘The desecration of burial places’ (Article 244 of the Criminal Code).

Also in Novosibirsk, a court ruled that the organizer of concerts of the band Leningrad be fined 40,000 rubles. It is notable that during the concert the police did not record any breaches of order, however after the concert Yury Zadoia, director of the Novosibirsk section of the People’s Assembly (Narodnyi sobor), complained to the Ministry of Culture department for the Siberian federal district about obscene language heard at the concert.


It was not only Orthodox believers who complained about offended feelings. The Muslim community was disturbed by a clip of the singer Rezeda Ganiullina, in which she had herself filmed in the grounds of Bolgar’s White Mosque in translucent clothing. The investigative committee for Tatarstan promised to look in to possible offense to religious feelings, but the case managed to end peacefully: the singer deleted the video clip from social media and apologized to those who found it offensive.

A resident of Ulan-Ude, Valeria Sanzhieva, managed to organize a campaign against ‘Buddha bars’ in various regions of the country, demanding that the name of Buddha not be used in the names of entertainment venues, and attributes of Buddhism not be used in the venues themselves. In November, the Buddha Bar in Krasnoiarsk was fined 30,000 rubles for offending the feelings of Buddhists in Kalmykia, Tuva and Buratia. Moreover, the leisure establishment was ordered by the prosecutor’s office to change its name and remove an image of the Buddha from the interior. In Kemerovo region, the prosecutor’s office also deemed that dancing and drinking spirits in front of a statue of the Buddha could be offensive to Buddhists, and that setting up a statue of the Buddha in an establishment open to the public infringes both the law on advertising and the Constitution.


Far from all complaints by the zealous defenders of religious feelings evoked the desired response. Moreover, in a number of cases the bureaucrats responsible for staging cultural events that provoked indignation clearly articulated a position contrary to that of the warriors against ‘blasphemy’. Take, for example, Archpriest Evgeny Sokolov, head of the missionary department of Arkhangelsk eparchy, who was disturbed by the ‘Line of Love: eroticism in the works of the great masters of the twentieth century’, an exhibition which opened in the town’s Museum of fine arts on the first day of Lent, and threatened its organizers with ‘severe punishment’ at the Last Judgement. The region’s Minister for Culture, Veronica Yanichek, reminded him of the constitutional right to access cultural treasures and the exhibition continued.

Anatoly Lokot, the mayor of Novosibirsk, despite demands by groups of Orthodox activists, refused to cancel the first of May ‘Monstration’ (Monstratsiia [literally ‘monstrance’, but a play on the word ‘demonstration’]). ‘Our aim is to ensure that all – in accordance with the Constitution – are treated equally’ declared the Mayor.

We note that it was not only bureaucrats who attempted to oppose the defenders of religious rights, but also civil society representatives. In Novosibirsk, where – the Tannhäuser saga aside – Orthodox activists have disrupted concerts and performances more than once, some individuals have organized one person pickets calling for the authorities to stop supporting Yury Zadoia. Zadoia, chair of the Novosibirsk branch of the People’s Assembly, an Orthodox grassroots movement, has more than once organized actions to defend the feelings of believers.

Preferential treatment accorded certain religious organizations by the authorities

As in earlier years, from time to time the authorities provided certain religious organizations with financial support. Money was allocated from federal and regional budgets primarily for the restoration and maintenance of religious structures, the majority of which are culturally significant architectural monuments. Funds were earmarked for these aims in Moscow, Petersburg, Kazan, Maykop, Novgorod, and Vologda Region in particular. One of the most significant tranches was the 314.5 million rubles allocated for fire safety and restoration works in more than twenty monasteries and Patriarchal metochions, as part of the Federal Special Purpose Program ‘The culture of Russia 2012-2018’. Furthermore, as we have seen before, the majority of structures for which budget funds are allocated were Orthodox, but Muslim structures were also restored with budgetary funds. The Petersburg authorities allocated 40.6 million rubles for the restoration of the Cathedral Mosque prayer hall in Petersburg, for example.

Besides financing the restoration of churches, budget funds were also allocated to religious organizations for other aims. Presidential grants were awarded to several religious organizations, not only Orthodox ones, and not only for social work but also to aid the internal aims of the organization. Six and a half million rubles were allocated to the Spring (Krinitsa) organization, for the creation of a publicly accessible electronic library of significant medieval Russian culture and art books preserved by Old Believers. The inter-regional charitable civil society organization ‘Revival of the shrine of the Gromovsky Old Believer cemetery and medieval Russian culture’ (Vozrozhdenie sviatyn’ Gromovskogo Staroobriadcheskogo kladbishcha i drevnerusskoi kul’tury) received six million rubles to prepare senior choristers, choir masters and Sunday school teachers for the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church.

The St George center for Orthodox youth programs, and the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Moscow and the Central region, received four million rubles each. The first was awarded a grant for conducting educational and cultural-educational events aimed at improving interethnic and inter-confessional relations, the second for ‘counteracting pseudo-Islamic radicalism’ on social media. The Russian Association for the Protection of Religious Freedom was allocated four and a half million rubles to prepare a report on religious freedom in Russia ‘to counterbalance the unobjective reports of the US State Department and foreign NGOs’. Two Russian Orthodox parishes won grants to conduct social work: the Chelyabinsk parish ‘Assuage my sorrows’ (Utoli moia pechali) for helping the homeless, and a village parish of the same name in Tyumen Region for work with the elderly and disabled.

Moreover, the Petersburg authorities allocated 450,000 rubles to educational events for Muslims. These funds were earmarked for the organization of meetings between the parishioners of two city mosques and representatives of the authorities and the law enforcement agencies, lectures on legislation and the struggle with extremism, and a visit to the Museum of the history of religion.

The Bashkirian authorities decided to finance a banquet in honor of the Patriarch’s visit from the republic’s budget: the regional State committee for commerce and consumer rights announced a tender for a banquet for 60 people, at a total cost of 264,000 rubles.


The transfer of property, as before, may be viewed as a form of support to religious organizations – primarily to the Russian Orthodox Church, although property was also transferred to other organizations. The Rostov on Don administration, for example, announced the transfer of the former Choral Synagogue building, occupied by a dermatological and venereal clinic, to the Federation of Jewish communities (Federatsia evreiskikh obshchin). A new building will be constructed for the medical institution, and a building plot has already been allocated for this. The Congress of Jewish religious communities and organizations in Russia (Kongress evreiskikh religioznykh organizatsii i obedinenii v Rossii) was given the synagogue building in Orel. New premises will be built for the road transport technical college which had been based there.

As in 2015, there were few cases of property restitution, and they generally did not prove contentious. In cases where the buildings being transferred were occupied by other organizations, they were given other premises. This happened, for example, in the case of the Sukhotinsk Mother of God of the Sign convent (Bogoroitse-Znamenskii Sukhotinskii monastyr’) complex, which had housed a neuropsychiatric residential care facility and was transferred to Tambov eparchy, and in the cases enumerated above.

There were exceptions, however. The residents of Rostov on Don protested the decision to transfer ownership of the building of the children’s puppet theatre to the local eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church building which had been located on the site of the theatre belonged to a Greek community; another building site had been allocated for its restoration already at the beginning of the 2000s, and the church is already almost completely built, but the eparchy began to lay claim to the theatre building too. At the beginning of 2017 it became clear that, despite local opinion, the authorities were considering relocating the theatre to the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile the inhabitants of Sarov, Nizhny Novgorod Region, protested the transfer of the premises of a children’s polyclinic to Diveevo convent.


Not all religious organizations received the property that they wanted. After three years of fruitless efforts to reclaim the Peter and Paul church (khram Petra i Pavla) in Miliutinsky pereulok, Moscow Catholics resorted to the courts. At the time of writing, the judicial process is continuing. The Smolensk authorities decided to open a filial of the Moscow State Academic Philharmonic in the former Catholic church, despite the fact that the Catholic community has been seeking the return of the building since 1991.

The Russian Orthodox Church occasionally encounters problems too. The Ministry of Property Relations for Omsk Region refused to transfer ownership of the grounds and building of the diocesan Cathedral of the Russian New Martyrs and Confessors to Isil’skul’sky eparchy. The refusal was based on the fact that the territory of the requested plot is significantly larger than the building’s footprint, and in such cases – in accordance with the Land Code, the claimant must justify the need for exactly that amount of territory. The eparchy is unable to do so, and it is impossible to transfer the church without the land.


Relations remain strained over museum buildings claimed by religious organizations, primarily the Russian Orthodox Church. The number of controversial situations fell, but this is probably explained by the fact that museum workers – convinced in previous years that in most cases the authorities are prepared to sacrifice the interests of cultural institutions for the sake of religious organizations – prefer not to enter into direct conflict, for fear of greater losses.

The Vladimir-Suzdal museum reserve, for example, which has for many years opposed the transfer of the Cathedral of St George (Georgievskii sobor) in Gus-Khrustalny to the Russian Orthodox Church, announced that it would now allow the transfer. In the words of Igor Konyshev, the museum’s general director, the cathedral building – which houses a museum of crystal – is not suitable for displaying the largest collection of crystal in Russia, and the museum is requesting other premises more appropriate for today’s needs. No final decision about the transfer has yet been taken.

Vologda eparchy was given two museum buildings in Ustiuzhna – the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God cathedral (sobor Rozhdestva Presviatoi Bogoroditsy) and the Annunciation church (Blagoveshchenskii khram). Both churches housed Ustiuzhna local history museum exhibits, although liturgies are held there on significant Orthodox feast days. Although new premises for the museum exhibits have not yet been found, the transfer has already taken place.

The desire of the Russian Orthodox Church for certain famous buildings has resulted in several conflicts. Orenburg eparchy demanded that the former seminary building on Cheliuskintsev Street be transferred to it. Since the 1990s the eparchy has shared the building with the Cadet corps and a Museum of Aviation and Cosmonautics, but now it is insisting that the whole building be handed over to it. A new building offered to the museum by the authorities was unsuitable, and the museum has no other premises.

Moscow eparchy announced its claim on Averky Kirillov’s chambers, a seventeenth century private residence which had, until recently, housed the Russian Institute of Cultural Studies. The proposed transfer was opposed by academic circles, and appeals were made to the Patriarch to abandon the idea.

Conflict over the State museum of St Isaac’s cathedral in Petersburg, claimed by the St Petersburg Metropolitanate, continued to grow. Turned down in 2015, supporters of the transfer attempted to contest the refusal in the courts and appealed to Dmitry Medvedev for assistance in the matter. The situation took a turn for the worse at the start of 2017, when the possibility of St Isaac’s transfer evoked large-scale public protests and court proceedings.

Nevertheless, we know of several cases where museums managed to defend their interests in conflicts with religious organizations. Thus, Starocherkassky historical architectural museum reserve employees managed to contest a decision to transfer the building of the Ataman’s Palace to Donskoy Metropolitanate in the courts. The court of arbitration, and following it the Rostov Region 15th Court of appeal, found the Ministry of Property for Rostov Region’s resolution to transfer the building to be illegal, and left the Ataman’s Palace under museum supervision.

The Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo) dismissed the Russian Orthodox Church’s claim to ownership of the Nikolsky Edinoverie Church, which houses the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. Rosimushchestvo had earlier rejected a claim to this church from the Edinoverie community, and now the St Petersburg eparchy has tried, unsuccessfully, to secure the building.

Muslims of Stavropol did not manage to gain ownership of the former building of a mosque in which the G. N. Prozritelev and G. K. Prave Stavropol state historical-culture and natural-landscape museum-reserve is housed. However, this given case is less about protecting the interests of the museum than about bureaucrats’ concerns that local inhabitants will be unhappy at having a functioning mosque as a neighbor.


We note other types of patronage too. In an already established tradition, the authorities of several regions declare certain religious feasts to be public holidays. Thus 5 July, when Muslims celebrated Uraza Bairam (Eid al-Fitr), and 12 September for Kurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), were declared non-working days in Adygea, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Dagestan and other regions. In Kalmykia the Buddha’s birthday, 23 May, was declared a supplementary day off. In a number of regions, in particular Krasnodar, Stavropol, Bryansk and Kemerovo, Radonitsa [when Orthodox Christians commemorate their dead], 10 May, was declared a public holiday.

Motivated by his religious convictions, the Mayor of Pyatigorsk Lev Travnev refused to agree the construction of a crematorium. ‘I am a believer, therefore we will not have a cremation’ he declared. The Stavropol television channel, commentating on the situation, announced that the suggestion to build a crematorium ‘is at variance not only with the opinion of the municipal authorities, but also with the position of the Orthodox church’.

In the town of Rasskazovo, Tambov Region, the head of the registry office L. Protasova attempted to dissuade newlyweds from registering their marriage on Easter Saturday, and when she was unsuccessful, declared that the wedding would take place without musical accompaniment since the registry office employees ‘are not prepared to sin’ for the sake of this couple. The future spouses complained about the actions of this bureaucrat to the town administration, where they were informed that a conversation had been conducted with her ‘about improving civility in the reception of citizens’ and promised that the wedding would be held on the date chosen by the young couple and ‘in the presence of all appropriate attributes (musical accompaniments, festive decoration of the hall and so on)’.


One cannot but note that from time to time the authorities’ unfounded support of religious organizations at the expense of others evokes protest. The inhabitants of Omsk, for example, were concerned by the allocation of budget funds for the restoration of the Resurrection Cathedral (Voskresenskii sobor). The townspeople demanded that this money be spent on mending roads in the region, on paying wages and supporting socially vulnerable citizens.

Novosibirsk inhabitants appealed to the mayor with a request to forbid road closures during processions of the cross, since this leads to traffic jams and makes travelling around the city difficult for the majority of the population. Moreover, the authors of the document suggest that throngs of people may result in crushes, threatening the safety of townspeople. The fact that ‘Novosibirsk is a secular town and conducting religious cults in the very center frustrates a significant portion of the population’ is highlighted in the address.

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

Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration

In 2016 six religious organizations were liquidated using anti-extremism legislation. Five communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses were liquidated as extremist – in Birobidzhan, Belgorod, Orel, Staryi Oskol and Elista.[6] One further organization was liquidated as terrorist: at the request of the Prosecutor General, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation banned the activities of Aum Shinrikyo on the territory of Russia.[7]

Two organizations were liquidated in Bashkiria. In Ufa a court banned the activities of the Horde (Orda) organization, considering that its followers’ practice of healing with holy water, prayers and blows of a lash encroaches on the persons and rights of citizens. These same complains served as grounds for banning the Heritage of Ancestors (Nasledie predkov) organization on the territory of the republic. We note that, as the courts have already determined more than once, both these organizations are identical to the Ata Zholi orWay of the Ancestors (Put’ predkov) organization which is banned in Kazakhstan and in various Russian regions, including Bashkiria. Moreover, the Chelyabinsk section of the Horde is included in the Federal List of Extremist Organizations. But the Bashkirian bans were imposed without appeal to anti-extremism legislation.

The Moscow Church of Scientology did not manage to contest the 2015 decision of the Moscow City Court to liquidate it as a religious organization: the Supreme Court upheld this decision in June, and the Constitutional Court would not consider a complaint. In this fashion the Russian legal system finally concluded that Scientology is not a religion, and now it remains to wait for the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights.

Restriction of missionary activity

There have always been efforts to limit religious preaching in public, but the situation qualitatively changed when, on 20 July, the above-described amendments which regulate missionary activity came into effect. Despite assumptions that these amendments are intended to counteract extremism, above all the spread of radical Islamic tendencies, thus far they have been used only against Protestant organizations and new religious movements hitherto not noted for extremist activity. In 2016, less than half a year into the existence of these amendments, several dozen cases of the imposition of administrative sanctions in accordance with the new version of Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation have been observed: as a rule, fines between five and fifty thousand rubles were applied as punishments. The diversity of acts deemed illegal missionary activity by courts over this period, and the absurdity of the charges, support the concerns of the ‘Yarovaya package’ critics that the amendments may be interpreted however one chooses.

Several times fines have been applied to members of unregistered religious groups specifically because they have conducted their activities without documents which confirm their religious membership. Ebenezer Tua, a Ghanaian citizen and leader of the Embassy of Christ (Posol’stvo Khrista) group of evangelical Christians (Pentecostals), was fined for this in Tver, for example, and in Orel US citizen Donald Osserwaarde, a Baptist, was fined for leading a Bible study meeting in his home.

In Mari-El, Alexander Yakimov, pastor of the New Generation (Novoe pokolenie) Pentecostal church, was accused of illegal missionary work for making an address at a village festival against the backdrop of a banner which declared ‘Happy holiday, my village’ and included the name of the church. A seminar for the alcohol and drug dependent, led by Bishop Sergii Zhuravlev of the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church of Christ the Savior in the premises of the New Hope (Novaia nadezhda) Jewish messianic community in Petersburg, was interpreted by the court as an effort to ‘persuade the Jewish community to convert to Orthodoxy’. In both cases the clerics were also fined.

However, the decision taken by the Noiabr’sk authorities to shut down a playground for the children of parishioners of an evangelical Christian prayer house seems the most absurd. Inspectors from the prosecutor’s office, the Emergencies Ministry (MChS), the town administration and a few more institutions were worried by the fact that parishioners’ children might hear sermons and prayers, and have access to religious literature, while in the playground. The pastor, Alexei Teleus, was fined for this.

Yet another notable decision was taken in November by the Kirov District Court of Astrakhan, which found the leader of an unregistered community of Astrakhan scientologists guilty of illegal missionary work and fined him for ‘preaching’ the teaching of Ron Hubbard in a marquee near a shopping centre as part of a ‘Volga goodwill tour’. There is a conflict in the fact that, in recognizing the activities of the scientologists to be missionary work, the court in practice recognizes scientology as a religion, while the 2015 decision to liquidate the Moscow Church of Scientology was based on the premise that its activities are not religious.

Finally, one cannot but recall the December ruling of the Leninsky District Magistrates’ Court in Vladivostok, which fined the local Salvation Army 30,000 rubles for not indicating the full name of the religious organization on the literature stored on its premises. The court ordered this improperly labelled literature – which included copies of the Bible in Russian (Synodal translation) and English – to be confiscated and burned. This decision evoked such a public outcry that the district court overturned the part of its ruling which specified burning.

And court proceedings for illegal missionary work were instigated against the Tver community of Krisha devotees twice in October: the first time after a procession of Krishna devotees around the town, and the second one three days before a proposed ‘Mantra-Yoga’ concert, with the organization’s representative having the documents necessary to conduct missionary work.


Other forms of discrimination

Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to the most pressure, as they have been for several years running.

Besides the persecution of followers of this organization via anti-extremism legislation, members of the law enforcement agencies continue to regularly detain believers during their preaching ministry. This happened in various regions, including Moscow, St Petersburg, Kabardino-Balkaria, Mordovia, Tatarstan, Udmurtia, and in the regions of Moscow, Leningrad, Belgorod, Vladimir, Volgograd, Ivanovo, Kirov, Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg, Rostov, Ryazan, Samara and Sverdlovsk. Some of those detained were taken to the station, subjected to body searches, and might have literature taken from them and be forcibly fingerprinted.

Preachers were fined several times under Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation (‘Violation of the established order of organization or conducting of an assembly, meeting, demonstration, march or picket’). In May, for example, in the Bashkirian town of Uchala, Jehovah’s Witness Rustem Nabiullin was fined for standing near a shopping center, at a stall of religious literature, allowing those interested to look at it. The court of the first instance imposed a fine of 15,000 rubles, but the Republic’s Supreme Court lowered this to 10,000. Under the same article Zabaikal region’s Shilkinsky District Court fined the local organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses 20,000 rubles for holding a convention in the events hall of the district culture and leisure center.

The religious buildings and residential properties of Jehovah’s Witnesses were regularly subject to searches, which generally involved numerous procedural violations and disruptions of religious services. In particular, searches took place in the regions of Moscow, Leningrad, Samara, Bashkiria, Karachai-Cherkessia, Stavropol, and in the towns of Voronezh, Kislovodsk, Naberezhny Chelny, Novosibirsk, Penza, Petrozavodsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (here the security services even broke a window), Saransk, Smolensk, Snezhnogorsk in Murmansk Region, Sochi, Syktyvkar, and Tula.

Moreover, in July Karelian customs detained a consignment of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature: around a hundred books and brochures in Russian, Finnish, Arabic and other languages, plus several compact discs with inscriptions in Finnish. The customs service explained the confiscation by the fact that the consignment contained forbidden literature, however publications which were permitted for distribution were also impounded. In relation to the imported literature, administrative proceedings were brought against a Finnish citizen under Article 16.2 Part 1 of the Administrative Code (‘Not declaring on the requisite form goods subject to customs declaration’)

We note that Sakhalin and Arkhangelsk Regional Dumas called for a Russia-wide ban on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation heard their calls and by March 2017 had applied to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation with a lawsuit to liquidate the Administrative center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and there are no grounds to suggest that the court will decline this lawsuit, unfortunately.


Besides Jehovah’s Witnesses, representatives of other new religious movements and of Protestant churches were also frequently subject to discrimination.

We know of fewer cases of ‘anti-sectarian’ rhetoric from bureaucrats than in 2015, but there were some. During a June meeting of the interagency commission of the Khanty-Mansi – Yugra Region for the combating of extremist activity, Maxim Baranov, deputy head of the Tyumen regional department of the FSB and head of the Service for Khanty-Mansi – Yugra region, voiced concern about the activities of Protestant organizations on the region’s territory. He connected the ‘ideology’ and activities of ‘non-traditional’ religious organizations with threats to the country’s security. Among those organizations active in the region and mentioned as causing concern were the Voice of Faith (Golos Very) Church of Christians of the Full Gospel, the Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Voice of Truth (Golos istiny) Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Full Gospel Church of the Living God Jesus Christ and the Church of Scientology. The FSB representative was particularly concerned by the dynamic preaching and social activity of these organizations, and also by efforts to evangelize the indigenous peoples of the North.


It goes without saying that the activity of religious organizations was impeded by more means than rhetoric alone. In Zabaikal Region court proceedings were initiated against a pastor of the Salvation (Spasenie) Pentecostal Church under Article 20.2 Part 1 of the Administrative Code (‘Violation of the established order of organization or conducting of an assembly, meeting, demonstration, march or picket’). The prosecutor’s office identified a violation in the fact that in the notification about holding a church-organized ‘Festival of Peace and Hope’, the aims of the event were not specified. The pastor was issued with a warning about the impermissibility of violating legislation on combating extremist activity,  while the acting head of the local administration who had earlier accorded the festival received an order  requiring the elimination of the permitted violations of legislation and the bringing of the guilty functionaries to account. The festival itself was ruined. Using this same article, Taganrog City Court fined Igor Gaivoronsky, a member of the local Krishna devotees organization, 10,000 rubles for conducting a religious procession.

We are aware of several cases where religious organizations were held liable for violating the legislation on personal data. In particular, a prosecutorial warning about the impermissibility of violating this law and the Law on Freedom of Conscience was issued to the local religious organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in Omsk. In Naberezhny Chelny, as part of a case under Article 137 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (‘Illegal collection or the dissemination of information about the personal life of an individual, comprising his personal or family secrets, without his consent or the dissemination of this information in a public presentation, publicly displayed production or the mass media’) searches of the office of the Church of Scientology and the residential accommodation of its followers were even conducted. In November the case was closed for lack of corpus delicti.

And in Vladivostok a search of the Mormon community was conducted on the basis of an anonymous call, informing that pornographic material was being stored on church premises.


As in previous years, there were many cases of foreign preachers being harassed. The head of the Open Heart charitable foundation and pastor of an evangelical church, Pavel Dudchenko, a citizen of Ukraine who had lived in Russia for more than ten years, was deported from Petersburg. The directorate of the Federal Migration Service refused to issue him with a residence permit and annulled previous permission for temporary residency, citing Dudchenko having allegedly called for violent change to the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional system in his sermons.

Six US citizens, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) were deported from Samara. The court considered the presentation of migration registration according to the address of the religious organization – rather than according to place of residence – to be a violation, although this is not forbidden by law.

The Supreme Court upheld two bans on the entry into Russia introduced in 2015 against Lama Shivalkha Rinpoche and US citizen Shay Billy Fountain, pastor of the Cornerstone (Kraeugol’nyi kamen’) Baptist church.

Pentecostals Alexander Whitney and David Kozan, US citizens travelling around Russia together with the underage daughter of one of them, were fined 3000 rubles each in Kaluga: representatives of the law enforcement agencies considered that their tourist visas did not give them the right to participate in services at the local Word of Life (Slovo Zhizni) church.


The amendments envisaged in the Yarovaya package, and the 2015 changes to the Law on Freedom of Conscience, which have laid new responsibilities on religious groups, have complicated the position of unregistered religious groups. From all appearances, the very existence of religious associations in such form may soon become a reason for persecution. At any rate, there were already such instances in 2016. In Chernyshevsky district, Zabaikal Region, the prosecutor’s office instigated proceedings in relation to the leader of a religious group of evangelical Christian-Baptists, under Article 19.7 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation (‘Failure to present information’), because the group had not notified the Ministry of Justice about the start of their activities. And in Voronezh the activities of the Association of Voronezh Region Churches of Evangelical Christian-Baptists (Obedineniia tserkvei evangel’skikh khristian-baptistov Voronezhskoi oblasti) were halted for lack of registration.


Muslims also experienced pressure. As before, there were not infrequent instances of police arbitrariness towards them. Employees of law enforcement agencies periodically held large-scale checks at mosques, during which believers might be detained, taken to the station, photographed and fingerprinted. Such checks were conducted in Elista, Saransk, and several other towns. In Moscow 13 girls in Muslim headscarves, who were working in a shop selling Muslim clothes, were detained.

Several instances of discrimination against Muslim women wearing headscarves were recorded. In July, for example, security guards at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations refused to allow a prospective student in a Muslim headscarf to enter the Institute, and in Tambov a schoolgirl in a headscarf was not allowed into the school building. The girl was transferred to home schooling.

At the end of the year the conflict in the village of Belozer’e in Mordovia, mentioned in previous reports, took a turn for the worse. The management of the village school introduced new rules for internal discipline, imposing sanctions for wearing religious clothing within the walls of the school. Before this the school had been visited by a commission of representatives from the Ministry of Education and the local administration, accompanied by police, suggesting to Muslim teachers that they remove their scarves or face expulsion. In January 2017 teachers resorted to the courts with a complaint against the management’s actions.


In a string of cases, believers and religious organizations managed to protect themselves from discrimination.

Several of those accused of illegal missionary activity managed to defend their rights, including through the courts. In Cherkessk a case against the Krishna devotee Vadim Sibirev, accused under Article 5.26 of the Administrative Code for giving religious literature to two passers-by, was dropped. The court did not discern a corpus delicti in his actions.

Activists of the ‘Orthodox human rights analytical center’ secured the detention of several believers of various Protestant denominations who had been giving out New Testaments on Moscow region suburban trains (elektrichki), and attempted to initiate legal proceedings against them under Article 213 of the Criminal Code (‘Hooliganism’) and Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Administrative Code. However, the Lineinoe department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation refused to initiate proceedings, not seeing anything illegal in the actions of the believers.

Orenburg region’s Novosergievsky District Court acquitted Alexander Demkin, pastor of a Baptist church in the village of Suzanovo, accused under Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Administrative Code for holding a children’s party in the yard of the prayer house.

Magadan City Court closed a case against Krishna devotees Vladimir Gerasimenko and Oleg Kim, who were accused under Part 5 of this same article for participation in a prayer meeting without presenting the relevant notification. That said, the organizer of this event, Nikolai Kriukov, was nevertheless found guilty by the very same court.

In November in Kaliningrad four administrative cases – brought in connection with ‘illegal missionary work’ by Jehovah’s Witnesses – were dismissed for lack of corpus delicti. Moreover the court stressed that ‘the law “On freedom of conscience” does not contain a ban on the sharing of personal religious experience and conversation on religious topics’ and resolved that ‘the activity of believers who simply wanted to realise their right to disseminate their religious views, does not contain the sum total of characteristics of missionary activity’.

Vyborg district court satisfied the claim of the Gideon Association of Evangelical Christians against Vyborg customs, who had confiscated a large contingent of New Testaments and Psalters at the Finnish border and had demanded that expert examination be conducted on the impounded books in order to determine whether they were extremist. The court found the actions of the customs illegal, but by then the books had languished at customs for many months, been damaged and had already been returned to Finland.

Insufficient protection against defamation and attacks

The level of religiously motivated violence remains more or less as it was in 2015: we know of no less than 21 victims compared to 23 the year earlier.

The majority of victims, as in 2015, were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were attacked most often while going door to door as part of their missionary service. Such attacks were recorded, in particular, in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov on Don, Chita, Kopeysk in Chelyabinsk region, the village of Stepantsevo in Vladimir region, Volodarsky village in Orenburg region. Such attacks generally resulted in minor injuries, but occasionally believers suffered more serious wounds. A 76-year-old Chita resident, for example, beaten up during her street service by a resident from a neighbouring block, was hospitalised with a broken hip.

Moreover, in Alexandrov, Vladimir region two knife-wielding hooligans attacked Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) from the Emmanuel church. One of the parishioners was so wounded he required treatment in Casualty, another was threatened with a knife. The attackers also shouted that they ‘are indigenously Orthodox’ and bound ‘to exterminate all sectarians’, insulted the believers, made them stand with raised hands and shouted fascist greetings.

In comparison with 2015, the number of acts of religiously-motivated vandalism also declined marginally, no less than 30 compared with 33. The largest group of targeted objects were Orthodox – ten (nine in 2015), five of which were monumental crosses. One of the toppled crosses, in the village of Berdovka, Kemerovo region, had already suffered at the hands of vandals a year earlier. In two cases, Orthodox targets were set on fire. One of these cases, the arson attack on the Winter Hotel building on Valaam, may be the consequence of a conflict between the local inhabitants and the monastery, which has evicted residents from this building in order to use it as a hotel for pilgrims.

Jehovah’s Witness targets make up the second largest group, with nine instances (11 in 2015). They were often the targets of dangerous vandalism: apart from arson in the town of Roshchino, Primorsky region, the hurling of an improvised explosive device (also in Primorsky region, in the town of Artem) and shooting at a Kingdom Hall in the town of Khor, Khabarovsk region, were recorded. Moreover, in Zelenokumsk, Stavropol region, unknown individuals broke the windows of a building during a religious service. No believers were injured in any of these instances.

The number of Jewish targets of vandalism remained the same as in the previous year – five, one of which was arson (the synagogue under construction in Arkhangelsk, which was shot at in 2015). One further target had been attacked before: the Jewish cemetery in Litovsky val in Kaliningrad, where xenophobic slogans were discovered, was the target of vandals in 2007 and 2008.

We know of fewer cases of vandalism against Muslim targets than in 2015 – four in contrast to seven. Two incidents happened in Crimea and Sevastapol. The Ivanovo mosque, on which vandals daubed Nazi graffiti, has also been subject to attack more than once.

In addition, two Buddhist targets were subject to vandalism: in Elista a sportsman arriving for a competition kicked a statue of the Buddha and urinated on it, and – as mentioned above – was subsequently convicted under two articles of the Criminal Code, and in Petersburg vandals scrawled obscene and xenophobic slogans on the fence of a Datsan.


Federal and regional mass media continued to periodically publish defamatory materials about religious organizations. Most such publications, as before, were directed against new religious movements and Protestant churches, and transmitted popular theories about the danger of ‘sectarians’. In October, for example, the Astrakhan regional edition of the news programme Vesti aired a story timed to coincide with the Volga Good Will Tour organized by the Church of Scientology, entitled ‘Landing of the Scientologists’, in which offensive statements were made against the followers of this organization. In the ‘Patrol service’ programme, broadcast by the Tver regional television channel ‘Tverskoi prospekt’, a story dedicated to the local organization of the Soicety of Krishna Consciousness was aired in which an employee of Tver State University theology department accused Krishna devotees of fraud.

Some television channels occasionally show repeats of the popular ‘anti-sectarian’ film Fishers of Souls (Lovtsy dush), overflowing with insulting statements and diverse unfounded accusations aimed at the followers of many religious organizations. The Kaluga region Nika television channel accompanied a showing of the film – made several years ago – with a studio discussion in which the participants repeated many of the statements heard in the film.

The authors of such material, as before, engage Alexander Dvorkin – the main Russian warrior against sects – or his followers, as experts. The newspaper Izvestiia published an entire, substantial interview with him about the need for an ‘anti-sectarian’ law. Moreover, the interview was not accompanied by editorial comment, nor by comment from any religious studies scholar.

Believers usually express their opposition to such material, but have not yet managed to reduce the quantity of it. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists evaluated federal reportage on the Fifth Channel, ‘Agents in Cassocks’(Agenty v riasakh), in which deported Pastor Shay Billy Fountain was accused of spying for the USA, as ‘incitement to interreligious discord, the discrediting of a famous Russian Evangelical confession, sowing mistrust and suspicion in society’.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) also had cause to complain to same television channel. This church detected further incorrect material about itself in various publications and appealed to journalists to check their material more carefully, enumerating the most popular clichés used by journalists when mentioning Mormons and explaining why they do not reflect reality.

Interestingly, the Voronezh edition of Komsomolskaia Pravda significantly pre-empted the Ministry of Justice with a lawsuit for the liquidation of the Administrative center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘banning’ this religious organization across the whole of Russia way back in August. In conversation with readers who had pointed out this mistake, the journalist cited a certain list of religious organizations, released by a holding company to its filial agencies, where this organization had featured precisely as banned. After this, however, the journalist corrected the article, removing mention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses entirely.

We know of far fewer anti-Muslim publications. Where such material did appear, Muslims also attempted to respond to it. The internet publication was required to refute the news they published – to the dismay of Muslims – about the arrest of ISIS recruiters in a mosque, illustrated with a photograph of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Editorial staff apologized to Muslims and explained that the depicted mosque had no relation to this event.


Naturally, influenced by similar publications a certain sector of society is prepared to come out against ‘dangerous’ religious organizations. In several regions there were ‘anti-sectarian’ actions – directed primarily against Jehovah’s Witnesses – albeit poorly attended. One of the largest, attended by around 50 people – was the March meeting in front of the Kingdom Hall in Arkhangelsk. Participants, who demanded the banning of the organization, held posters declaring ‘Suitcase – Train Station – Brooklyn’, ‘Pomorye is a territory without sects’, ‘In Taganrog, Rostov, Moscow, Belgorod, Samara they’ve banned the JWs. What’s wrong with Arkhangelsk?’, ‘Don’t give up your life to a sect’, ‘The Biblical God is Love, the god of the Jehovah’s Witnesses brings death’, ‘No to religious extremism in Arkhangelsk region’. The action was reflected in an ‘anti-sectarian’ story on the regional channel news program Events of the Week (Vesti. Sobytiia nedeli).

The above-mentioned attack on the elderly woman in Chita was also preceded by a protest campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April, employees of the Information-Apologetics center of Kemerovo eparchy called on residents of Kuzbass to ignore the ‘Easter ribbon’ campaign, conducted by Protestant churches across the whole of Russia for several years now, as ‘pseudo-Christian’. Representatives of the eparchy maintained that, in this fashion, the campaign organizers ‘will attempt to lure people to their gathering, ask them for a ‘donation’, and also disseminate sectarian information disguised as sermons about Christ.’

[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.

30 December 2016 the regional public organization Sova Center was compulsorily entered in the register of ‘non-commercial organizations, fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent’ by the Ministry of Justice. We do not agree with this decision and are appealing it.

[2] Olga Sibireva, ‘Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2015’, SOVA Center, 15 April 2016 (

[3] Maria Kravchenko, ‘Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2016’, SOVA Center, 21 April 2017 (

[4] Hereinafter the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate refers to “the Russian Orthodox Church”.

[5] The cases of Lazarov, Simakov, Kazantsev and Shaidullina, Kormelitsky are described in Kravchenko, Op. cit.

[6] For further detail see Kravchenko, Op. cit.

[7] Unfortunately, we have no further details of this ban. We also could not find any religious studies scholars who studied Aum Shirikyo in the 2000s, and doubt that any research has been done on this. It is therefore difficult to assess how legitimate this ban is.