​Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2017

Edited by Alexander Verkhovsky

PROBLEMS RELATING TO PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the construction of religious sites : Problems with the construction of religious buildings : Positive resolutions : Conflicts around the transfer of property to religious organizations
PROTECTING THE FEELINGS OF BELIEVERS : Top-down defence : Defence from below
DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF ATTITUDE TO RELIGION : Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses : Restriction of missionary activity : Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration : Other forms of discrimination : Positive resolutions

SOVA Center for Information and Analysis presents the 2017 annual report on freedom of conscience in the Russian Federation . [1]. The report is based on information collected through monitoring conducted by the Center. The collected information, including the links to mass media and online sources, is presented on the Center’s website in the section on Religion in Secular Society (www.sova-center.ru/en/religion). This report provides citations only for the sources not found on the SOVA website.

With regard to the events of the 2016 described in our preceding report,[2] only the necessary updates are provided. We are not aiming to provide an exhaustive description of all events related to religion in the public sphere; the events mentioned in the report generally serve to illustrate the tendencies observed.

The problems and themes related to misuse of anti-extremist legislation are analyzed in a separate report, dedicated to the subject.[3]


The state course on adopting more restrictive policies towards new religious movements and Protestant organizations continued in 2017. Banning the center and local religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist has become the most massive repressive action against believers of the entire post-Soviet period. This decision has put tens of thousands of Russian citizens at risk of criminal prosecution for continuing to practice their religion, and deprived hundreds of communities of their property. In addition to state discrimination, this ban provoked a wave of vandalism against Jehovah’s Witnesses sites throughout the country as well as other manifestations of non-state discrimination. In fact the right to freedom of conscience has ceased to apply to Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Amendments from the Yarovaya-Ozerov Package of laws that restrict missionary activity are still actively used with respect to new religious movements (NRMs) and Protestant organizations. The concept of “illegal missionary activity” has been interpreted by law enforcers very expansively. For the first time, the effect of these amendments was extended to online activities, so, potentially, virtually any reference to a religious organization made by individuals, who do not have the permits required by the Yarovaya Package, can become a punishable offense. However, these sanctions are imposed only on religious minorities, which continue to be the target of the “anti-sectarian” campaign in the media and of the efforts by local authorities.

The tensions are still running high with respect to construction of religious (primarily Orthodox) buildings, although the number of such conflicts in Moscow has decreased. As in the preceding years, such conflicts were most often caused by problematic location choices for new building sites and by violations during the public hearings process. The scale of protests against new construction, observed in the preceding years, had its effect; the authorities started taking into account the wishes of residents more frequently and sought compromise solutions when building new churches. However, in many cases, officials still gave their permission for construction with no regard for opinions of local residents.

The number of conflicts related to transfers of property, including museum property, to religious organizations has increased somewhat, and all of them were triggered by the transfers of property to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The activity of the defenders of “religious feelings” showed no quantitative increase, compared to the preceding year, but exhibited a qualitative change. Some of these activists turned to violent methods they had avoided a year earlier. Notably, their choices included increasingly dangerous methods that could potentially lead to numerous victims; only by a lucky chance nobody was hurt. While the state, of course, does not approve of radical actions, it continues its criminal prosecutions for “insulting the religious feelings” and thus, in fact, supports the de-secularization trend in the society.

On the positive side, we can note a decrease in the extent of discrimination against Muslims, except in the context of fighting extremism. However, the anti-extremism policies remain a very significant source of problems even for Muslim groups that are not directly on the intelligence services’ radar.


Legislative activity pertaining to religious associations was quite modest in comparison with the preceding years. Not a single legislative act was adopted in this sphere in 2017. Apparently, the adoption of “anti-missionary” amendments in 2016 as part of Yarovaya-Ozerov Package exhausted the legislators’ list of priority tasks relating to the regulation of religious life.

Several legislative initiatives were introduced in the course of the year, but, at least for the time being, none of them have progressed any further. Some of them pursued even more restrictive policy towards followers of religious teachings that were not “traditional” for Russia.

In February, the Federation Council created a working group to combat “destructive sects” chaired by Yelena Mizulina. According to her, the absence of the “destructive sect” notion in the Russian legislation hinders the fight against “sects,” the number of which, in her opinion, reaches at least 500 in Russia. In this “war on sects,” the working group intends to seek support of “strong allies”- the “traditional” religious organizations. Mizulina announced in October that the public discussion of the draft bill on protecting citizens from fraudulent “sects” was about to commence in November, but, at the time of writing, the bill has still not been introduced.

In June, an expert group was established under the State Duma Committee for the Development of Civil Society and Issues Relating to Public Associations and Religious Organizations, in order to improve legislation related to freedom of conscience and religious associations. This group is remarkable in its composition. Besides representatives of “traditional” religious organizations and “sectologists,” led by Alexander Dvorkin, it included several religious scholars and a number of lawyers, who consistently defended the principle of freedom of conscience. However, the participants, who failed to support the idea that “sects” were dangerous and had to be counteracted, were soon excluded from the group. The group presented no results of its work in 2017.

In May, Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov from the United Russia party made yet another attempt to put under control the activities of healers and introduced a corresponding bill in the State Duma. The author proposed a new addition to the Criminal Code, Article 325.2, which would penalize practicing traditional medicine without permission and causing bodily harm by occult magical activity with a fine of up to 120 thousand rubles, mandatory labor or imprisonment for up to 3 years, and – in case of inflicting death or damage on an especially large scale – mandatory labor or imprisonment for up to 5 years. The bill has not been considered.


Another legislative initiative, introduced in November by a plenary meeting of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, is important due to its potential in limiting the rights of followers of “non-traditional” religious teachings. Resolution No. 44 “On the court practices when applying legislation in resolution of disputes on protection of the rights and legitimate interests of a child in case of an immediate threat to their life or health, or when limiting or revoking parental rights” suggests including “involvement of children in activities of a public or religious association or other organization, with respect to which an enforceable court decision on its liquidation or prohibition of activities has been issued” into the acts defined as “abuse of parental rights.”

According to the law, abuse of parental rights can be used as the grounds for termination of parental rights. The example of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose organizations were completely banned in Russia in 2017 (see the section on Discrimination of Religious Organizations and Citizens on the Basis of Belonging to a Religion for more details) shows how easily a peaceful religious organization can be banned as extremist. An organization can also be liquidated for more prosaic reasons, such as violation of the reporting procedures. Since the concept of “involving children in activities of the organization” lacks a clear definition, we can safely assume that practical implementation of this decision will lead to numerous abuses and can be used to exert pressure on believers from the banned organizations.


Throughout the year, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to soften previously adopted legislative acts that, in practice, proved to limit freedom of conscience. In October, Deputy Oleg Smolin from the Communist Party introduced in the State Duma a bill to amend Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“public actions expressing obvious disrespect for the society and committed with intent to insult the religious feelings of believers”), intended to limit its scope.

Smolin believes that the law in its existing form fails to define clearly the ways, in which the right to freedom of conscience can be violated by an insult to the religious feelings of believers, thus leading to encroachmenton freedom of speech and freedom of dissemination of information. Therefore, his amendment proposes making this part of Article 148 applicable only to the acts committed “when and where religious rites, assemblies and ceremonies are taking place.

The government of the Russian Federation gave the bill a negative review, noting that insults to religious feelings are unacceptable “regardless of the place and the circumstances.” The review also noted that the amendment failed to suggest either modification to Part 2 of the same article (which prescribes more severe sanctions than Part 1), or its deletion from the Criminal Code. Thus, the adoption of the amendment would lead to competition between the two parts of the article.

Another attempt was made to mitigate the consequences of the “anti-missionary” amendments to the Yarovaya package. In January, the expert working group, which considers the petitions of the Russian Non-Governmental Initiative that received over 100,000 votes, rejected a proposal to abolish the Yarovaya Package of laws, but admitted the need for its correction. The group recommended that the State Duma clarify the concepts of “missionary activity,” “insulting religious feelings” and “extremist activity,” and that the Supreme Court inform the lower courts on impermissibility of expansive interpretations of these concepts.

In the same month, the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation drafted an expert report on the same Yarovaya-Ozerov Package, which also mentioned the “anti- missionary” amendments. The authors of report noted that these amendments were not relevant to the anti-terrorism legislation and encouraged arbitrary enforcement, and, therefore, should be removed from the Yarovaya Package and developed anew. Neither the expert group recommendations, nor the Human Rights Council report had any effect.

Problems Relating to Places of Worship

Problems with the construction of religious sites

Construction of new religious sites, most often Orthodox churches, continued to be a frequent cause of conflicts with local residents. However, the tension associated with the implementation of the “walking distance” church construction program in Moscow, has markedly decreased. Early in the year, several protests took place in the Torfyanka Park; residents of Kurkino District opposed the church construction near their homes, started in spite of their objections, but we observed no new major conflicts. Probably, the situation shifted after the mass protests of the preceding years, and the city authorities started taking the local residents’ opinion into account more often, when choosing a construction site. In addition, the slowdown in construction, which, in the preceding years, had elicited complaints from the officials responsible for implementing the program, also led to a decrease in the number of conflicts.

However, the conflicts related to construction of Orthodox churches were still frequent in other regions. In particular, protests against the new construction were observed in Tomsk, Chernogolovka (the Moscow Region) and Kamensk-Uralsky (the Sverdlovsk Region).

As in the preceding years, the protests were primarily caused by reluctance of the authorities to take the local residents’ opinion into account when choosing sites for new religious buildings. Attempts to build in a park and recreational areas were the most frequent trigger for protests. For example, residents of Smolensk continued to protest against the church construction in the neighborhood of Solovyinaya Roshcha. Bryansk residents protested against the new church in the Proletarsky mini-garden, and residents of Rostov-on-Don – against a church at the mini-garden named after Anatoly Sobino.

One of the most resonant conflicts was the ongoing struggle over the construction of a church of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine in Yekaterinburg – the “temple-on-the-water” – for which an artificial island was to be created in the city pond water zone. Along with picketing and collecting signatures, opponents of the construction resorted to unusual forms of protest – in February, about a hundred people, holding hands, “embraced” the pond, next to which the construction was planned, and, in March, the protesters distributed anti-construction leaflets in shopping centers. The leaflets were stylized as an advertisement for the newly released feature film Iskuplenie-2018 [Atonement-2018] – one side of the leaflet depicted the “temple-on-the-water” under construction and a submerged subway car under it. In October, authorities finally paid attention to the opinion of city residents and decided to move the church building site from the spit of the Iset River to the area near the Drama Theater.

The authorities also had to make a concession to residents of Nizhny Novgorod, who opposed the construction of churches in three parks – on Prygunova Street, on Rodionova Street and on Vozhdei Revolyutsii Street – and called for repeal of the regional law, passed in 2016, which allowed construction of religious buildings in the park zone. At least four thousand signatures were collected under the petition. Protests against the construction on these sites took place throughout the year and led to eventual cancellation of the plan to cut down the trees of Dubki Park in order to build a chapel on that location. In early 2018, Chairman of the regional parliament Evgeny Lebedev announced his readiness to reconsider the law responding to the concerns of city residents.

On the other hand, despite the protests of local residents, the Chelyabinsk mayor signed a draft plan for the garden, containing an Orthodox chapel, to be constructed across from South Ural State University.

Often, the protests were caused by the wishes of local citizens to see a different object (most often related to the social infrastructure) on the disputed site instead of a church. In particular, St. Petersburg residents continued to protest against the construction of a temple on the bank of Matisov Canal and collected at least two thousand signatures under the proposal to build a kindergarten or a walk-in medical clinic at this location. Pskov residents, who opposed the construction of an Orthodox church in their new neighborhood, expressed similar preferences.

On several occasions, protesters questioned the relevance of a religious object as a memorable symbol of significance for all population groups. For example, Krasnoyarsk residents, who opposed the construction of an Orthodox church on a spit near the Vantovy Bridge, noted that the city embankment “should belong to the people, and not to the ROC,” and proposed erecting a monument to the city’s native Dmitri Khvorostovsky in its place. Residents of Obninsk in the Kaluga Region insisted that the church construction be moved away from the A.I. Leypunsky Institute for Physics and Power Engineering, arguing that there were always a lot of atheists on the Institute staff. The residents of the village of Ikkovo in Chuvashia spoke against the construction of an Orthodox church in its historical place – the old cemetery – since it would require not only partially cutting down the apple trees, but also moving the monument to fallen soldiers.

Residents of Vyazniki in the Vladimir Region did not approve at the public hearings the construction of the Old Believers’ Church on an empty lot in Tekmash neighborhood. In addition to the fact that the citizens preferred to see on this location a medical center, a public bath or a bank branch, many regarded possible presence of the Old Believer church as propaganda “to join another faith.” Meanwhile, Muslims in Naberezhnye Chelny opposed the installation of a prayer cross near a water spring in the Nizhnyaya Kama National Park. Many of them viewed the introduction of the Orthodox symbol as contrary to the law on freedom of conscience and as a potential cause of conflicts on religious grounds.


Construction of Muslim sites led to conflicts as well. In a number of cases, similarly to Orthodox churches, the objections of the opponents arose out of reluctance to see a religious object on a disputed site or to put up with possible inconveniences associated with the presence of a mosque, such as increased traffic, reduced parking spaces, etc. Thus, Perm residents continued to oppose the construction of a mosque on Krylov Street, because they wanted to see a kindergarten built there. As a result, they managed to get the construction moved to another location. And the construction of a mosque in Mekhzavod settlement in Samara was halted, because the locals chose instead to build a sports complex with a swimming pool. The Omsk City Hall was forced to move the mosque construction away from Mega Shopping Center due to the protests of local residents. The Muslims were offered three alternative sites to choose from.

However, as in the preceding years, these objections were often tinged with the xenophobic motive. For example, the Kazan administration temporarily suspended the construction of a mosque in Vakhitovsky District due to the protests of local residents. One of the reasons for their reluctance to see mosque in their neighborhood was their fear of “extremists” potentially congregating there. The authorities of Krasnodar sided with protesters who objected to the construction of a mosque and justified their position by arguing that the territory was “traditional Cossack lands,” and that “Adygea is nearby; it has enough mosques; why not go there to pray.”[4]

The authorities in Osinniki, the Kemerovo Region, also gave up the plans to build a mosque in the city due to the protests of local residents. The protests were instigated by the Russian Patriotic Club.


Representatives of other religions also encountered local resistance against construction of their religious buildings. In the village of Smolenka, the Trans-Baikal Region, the villagers protested the construction of the Salvation in Jesus pentecostal church, because they wanted to build a community center and a children’s playground instead.

Protests continued in Perm against a Hasidic center, the construction of which was approved by the authorities in 2016. Lacking support of the authorities and the majority of residents, the construction opponents complained to Alexander Dvorkin, the head of the Irenaeus of Lyon Anti-sectarian Center, urging him to take “decisive actions in connection with the activities of this anti-human and anti-Christian sect.”[5]


Problems with using the existing religious buildings

Some religious organizations encountered difficulties with using their existing buildings.

The organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose property was subject to confiscation, in accordance with the Law on Combating Extremist Activity after their general prohibition in April 2017, were, of course, affected the most. In several regions, including the Krasnoyarsk Region and the Republic of Tatarstan, local Ministries of Justice filed court claims to seize the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ property.

However, in some communities, the property, including real estate, was not owned by the organizations, but belonged to private individuals or to Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations in America. The authorities undertook some effective measures to confiscate this property at least partially. In December, the Sestroretsk District Court granted the claim, submitted by the Kurortny District Prosecutor’s Office of St. Petersburg and the territorial administration of the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo), and seized from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania a compound of 14 buildings in the municipal settlement of Solnechnoye with the total area of 33 thousand square meters. In the 1990s, Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses bought a former Young Pioneer summer camp from a Russian company to house their Administrative Center. This compound was donated to the American Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania in 2000. The American organization, in turn, provided it for the use of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center. The prosecutor’s office and then the court found that, since the Administrative Center never stopped using the property in Solnechnoye, the 2000 deal was a fraud; it was declared invalid. Thus, the real estate became the property of a Russian banned organization and was confiscated on this basis.

This scheme of recognizing transactions with foreign organizations-owners of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses property as invalid gained further popularity in 2018. Prosecutors and Rosimushchestvo recognized similar transactions in Irkutsk, the Irkutsk Region, Michurinsk (the Tambov Region) and Petrozavodsk as invalid.


The downward trend in the number of conflict situations around the buildings used by Protestant organizations, observed in the two preceding years, was unfortunately broken – such situations were reported in several regions in 2017.

In August, two women owners of a prayer house in Tula, which was used by an unregistered Baptist community since 1991, were fined 10,000 rubles each. After 26 years of operation, the authorities decided that the presence of the sign “House of Prayer,” the services schedule and the library schedule was an evidence of inappropriate use of the residential building. Two months later, electricity and gas in the building were turned off. The officials demanded that a legal entity become the documented owner of this residential building, threatening otherwise to confiscate the building from the community. The believers had to petition V. Putin to intervene in the situation.

In December, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court granted the claim of the City Prosecutor’s Office regarding the ban on using the House of the Gospel – a temporary church building of Evangelical Christians – until the believers eliminate violations of anti-terrorist legislation. The Prosecutor’s Office went to court based on the results of a planned inspection, which recognized the church as a site of mass gathering (over 50 people) and thus ordered it to obtain a safety passport. However, according to Vasily Yevchik, the Deputy Head Bishop of the Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith, by the time the prosecutor’s office filed the claim, the church had rectified all the violations indicated by the inspection, and notified the relevant authorities. Nevertheless, the court prohibited them from using the building. A month before, the church was fined 100,000 rubles, based on the claim filed by the city land committee, for having (several years prior to that) moved a fence, which enclosed the construction site, in order for a crane to pass.

The Baptist church in Rostov-on-Don and its leader were fined for a total of 800 thousand rubles by the court decision under Article 8.8 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Use of lands for an improper purpose, as well as failure to meet the established requirements as a particular land category”) in December. The prosecutor’s office, and then the court, also found that the building of the organization was constructed on the federal property intended as administrative premises.

Meanwhile, the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation turned out positive for the Church of Evangelical Christian Baptists in Moscow, but infringed upon the interests of the Moscow Seventh-day Adventist Church, which were sharing with the Baptists the building on Maly Tryokhsvyatitelsky Lane since 1951. The building was granted to the Baptists for use as early as 2015, but the Adventists challenged the authorities’ decision, believing that they also had the right to their part of the building; several courts took their side. In 2017, the Supreme Court recognized the Baptists’ right to the entire building.


Muslim organizations, on the other hand, had fewer difficulties with the use of liturgical premises in comparison with 2016. However, such problems were still reported occasionally. Specifically, the Nur-Usman community in Yekaterinburg continued its struggle to save the mosque, slated for demolition by the regional Ministry for State Property Management. The Arbitration Court of the Sverdlovsk Region refused to satisfy the Ministry’s claim for the demolition of the mosque in February, but the 17th Arbitration Appeals Court overturned this decision in March. The community appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation challenging this new decision, but lost once again.

Orthodox communities also faced problems with using their ecclesiastical buildings. In Yaroslavl, bailiffs evicted a community of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) followers from Vladimirskaya Church on Bozhedomka; a decision to seize the building from the community was issued back in 2016.

The Old Believers Community of Yekaterinburg was unable to start using the previously granted building of the Trinity (Troitsky) Church (a.k.a. the Austrian Church) on Rosa Luxemburg Street. The building had previously housed a tuberculosis dispensary, and the supervisory authorities refused to allow religious services there. The community is ready to transfer the building to a construction company, so that in return the company could build a church on another site that the Old Believers are expected to find independently, according to the regional Ministry for State Property Management. The community has not yet been able to do so.

A parish of the Russian Orthodox Church also encountered difficulties using its temple; the authorities in Krasnoyarsk decided to demolish the Trekhsvyatitelsky Church, built in 1890, in order to widen Sverdlovskaya Street. The demolition has been slated to occur in three years, and, in the meantime, a new church is supposed to be built nearby, but no funds have been allocated for this purpose.


Meanwhile, Lamrim – a Lamaist temple (datsan) in Ulan-Ude – was put up for auction. It had been financed by a mortgage, taken by Choi Dorzhi (Alexander Budaev), then the chairman of the Union of Buddhists of Buryatia. Since he failed to repay on time, the bank refused to reduce the interest on the loan and, in 2015, announced that the building was about to be put up for sale; the plan was only implemented two years later.


Positive resolutions

In a number of cases, religious organizations were able to defend their rights to the buildings in court. As before, Protestant organizations were more successful in these efforts. Thus, the Arbitration Court of the Omsk Region recognized the ownership by the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches of the house of prayer, operated by the organization since 1996. Baptists were able to provide the evidence that they had invested in repair and maintenance of the building throughout the entire time period.

The Azerbaidzhan Community Organization managed to obtain the court permission for building a mosque on Repin Street in Yekaterinburg. The Regional Ministry of Construction and Infrastructure refused to issue such a permit, since the land plot, on which the construction was planned, was within the protected zone of the old cemetery – the Necropolis Cultural Heritage Site. A year earlier, the community managed to win the case regarding this land plot in court over the mayor’s office, which was refusing to renew their lease.


Conflicts around the transfer of property to religious organizations

As in the preceding years, property was transferred to religious organizations in 2017 – most often to the Russian Orthodox Church, but to other organizations as well. For example, the ownership of Peter and Paul Cathedral on Starosadsky Lane in Moscow was transferred to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, which has been using the building for a long time.

Some religious organizations had to go to court to obtain the desired property. This was the case, for example, with the Moscow Catholics, who had spent several years suing the city authorities for four buildings on Milyutinskiy Lane, including the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. The Moscow Arbitration Court, and then the appellate court, recognized these buildings as religious property and ordered the Moscow government to return them to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mother of God.

Some organizations have not yet managed to obtain the transfer of property even through legal action – such was the case of a Lutheran community in Voronezh that was claiming two historically Lutheran buildings used by the City Electric Network Company (Gorodelectroset) during the Soviet era. The city authorities announced their intention to transfer these buildings to other organizations refusing to designate them as religious sites.

In most cases, the property transfers were not accompanied by conflicts; if the buildings, claimed by the religious organizations, were being used by some other entities, these institutions were provided with new premises. For example, the authorities arranged for moving the Republican Center of Folk Art in Ulan-Ude to a new building in order to transfer their previous quarters of St. Michael’s Church to the Buryat Diocese.


Conflicts still arose in a number of cases, because the transfers infringed on the interests of other people and organizations. Such incidents were, perhaps, a little more numerous than a year ago, and they were all related to the transfer of property to the ROC.

The most significant among these conflicts took place in St. Petersburg. After Governor Georgy Poltavchenko confirmed in January the decision to transfer Saint Isaac’s Cathedral to the ROC, the protests in the city resumed. In addition to solitary pickets and collecting signatures under a petition to repeal the transfer, the activists also held several large rallies, numbering several thousand people each. Local residents and some deputies of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg called for a referendum on the issue, but the authorities did not give permission for its organization. Attempts of the Museum’s defendants to appeal the legality of the transfer failed as well – two district courts and the City Court refused to take their claim for consideration.

Apparently, the scale of the protests forced the authorities to slow down the transfer process. In June, V. Putin declared that the final decision on the transfer had not yet been reached. Late in the year, it turned out that the city administration had never received the official application from the ROC, without which they could not begin the transfer of the cathedral. The media reported that the transfer was postponed for an indefinite period, as the diocese and the museum reached a mutually satisfactory arrangement to increase the number of services in the cathedral and to transfer the holiday services from the side nave to the central nave. It is possible, however, that the retreat of the transfer supporters was temporary and caused by the desire not to stir up discontent on the eve of the presidential elections, and now the conflict could recommence.


St. Isaac’s Cathedral was not the only museum object claimed by the ROC. Other claims pertained to several objects of the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum-Reserve, including Transfiguration Cathedral of the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius (Spaso-Evfimiev Monastyr) as well as the Znamensky Church and the Prikaznaya Izba of the Convent of the Intercession (Pokrovsky Monastyr) in Suzdal, the Trinity (Troitskaya) Church and the Golden Gate in Vladimir, and, finally, St. George’s (Georgievsky) Cathedral in Gus-Khrustalny, currently occupied by the Museum of Glass and Crystal. Igor Konyshev, the museum’s director, considered the application for the transfer of the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery buildings as “one of the most serious and difficult challenges facing the museum.”[6]

Conflicts arose not only regarding the transfer of museum objects. In Moscow, a major conflict developed around the transfer of the building of the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (Vserossiyskiy nauchno-issledovatel’skiy institut rybnogo khozyaystva i okeanografii, VNIIRO). The court decision, approving the transfer, was issued back in 2016. Rosimushchestvo and the Federal Agency for Fishery (Rosrybolovstvo), to which the Institute was structurally subordinated, tried to challenge this decision in 2017, but lost twice. Rosimushchestvo has six years to find a new building for the VNIIRO relocation.

In Rostov-on-Don, local residents continued to protest against the transfer of the State Puppet Theater building to the ROC. The city administration announced the construction of a new building for the theater, but city residents did not accept the proposed options. One of them involves moving the theater to a remote area, whereas now the theater is located in the center of the city between two parks. Another proposals puts the theater in Druzhba Park, which, in order to allow this construction, would have to be rezoned to a different land category. Governor of the Rostov region Vasily Golubev promised that “the theater will not move anywhere until it finds a suitable building. The suitable one will work for Rostov residents, young spectators and the creative team that works for children.[7]

For the same reason, Penza residents protested against the transfer to the ROC of the Dzerzhinsky Community Center building, which serves about 400 children. The authorities promised to transfer the activities to the Officers’ House, but residents continued to object, since the Officers’ House building is located in a remote area and is not ready to accommodate the children at the moment. The protesters believe that the city has enough churches but not enough walking-distance enrichment centers for children.

A conflict in Orel was similarly related to the Children’s Art Center building. People’s Orthodox Movement – whose founders include popular Elder Elijah (born Alexei Nozdrin) believed to be the confessor of Patriarch Cyril – came up with the initiative to transfer the building to the Russian Orthodox Church. It was proposed to create a spiritual center on the premises of the current Children’s Art Center, which could also organize children’s activities. However, this idea found no support among local residents at the public hearings, and the mayor refused to authorize the transfer without their consent.

The authorities of Yekaterinburg also sided with the locals. The proposed transfer to the ROC Yekaterinburg Diocese of buildings, which housed three colleges, drew objections not only from the students, parents and employees of the educational institutions, but also from the Ministry of State Property Management. It pointed out that ecclesiastical services had never been conducted in this building. The Diocese went to court, but the Sverdlovsk Regional Arbitration Court refused to satisfy its claim.

It should be noted that, in a number of regions, the ROC has claimed the objects, the transfer of which could be fraught with new conflicts. For example, the Tambov Diocese announced its wish to obtain several buildings that had belonged to the church prior to 1917. Three of them are currently occupied by schools, and one – by the Financial Directorate of the Tambov Region. In addition, the diocese lays claim to a plot of land, currently occupied by an abandoned restaurant construction site and a residential building, whose residents the Diocese requested to be resettled.

Protecting the Feelings of Believers

Top-down defence

Criminal prosecutions for insulting religious feelings continued in 2017. In the course of the year, at least five verdicts were issued under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“Public actions expressing obvious disrespect to society and aimed at insulting the religious feelings of believers”).[8] We consider the majority of these sentences inappropriate.

In May, blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky from Yekaterinburg was found guilty under three articles of the Criminal Code, including Article 148 Part 1. The incriminating offenses included the video of Sokolovsky catching Pokémon in an Orthodox Church, and this fact brought the case to public attention. The other charges pertained to Sokolovsky’s rude statements – about believers in general, about various groups of believers in particular, and about other social groups – contained in his other videos. The blogger received a suspended sentence of 3.5 years.

A Belgorod resident was convicted under the same article in May; the court fined her 15 thousand rubles for publishing photos of herself lighting up a cigarette from a candle in an Orthodox church. In July, a resident of Omutninsk in the Kirov Region was fined 25,000 rubles for his online publication of photographs, which offended the feelings of believers. In December, Barnaul resident Natalya Telegina was convicted under the same article in aggregation with Article 282 Part 1 (“Incitement to ethnic and religious hatred and humiliation of dignity”) and received a two-year suspended sentence followed by the probation period of 1 year and 6 months. The charges were based on the images she had published on VKontakte social network, including an image that depicted a warrior in a horned helmet swinging a hammer over the silhouette of a burning temple.

Meanwhile, writer Viktor Nochevnov from Sochi, sentenced to a fine of 50 thousand rubles in August under Article 148 part 1 for sharing on VKontakte several cartoon images of Jesus Christ, managed to get this sentence revoked. The case was sent for a new review in October and then was terminated in January 2018 due to the statute of limitations.

Occasionally, insulting the feeling of believers resulted in administrative responsibility. For example, Novgorod resident Daniil Sukachev was fined 30 thousand rubles under Article 5.26 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Desecrating objects of religious veneration”). Sukachev published on VKontakte a video, set to the song of the Polish black metal band Batushka [Father], whose 2016 concerts in Russia were marked by protests by defenders of the religious feelings. The video used the footage of Christian Orthodox worship with superimposed flames and smoke.

Several new cases related to insulting the religious feelings were initiated during the review period. For example, a case under Article 148 Part 1 was opened against a resident of Angarsk posting a video, which showed an Orthodox Christian Icon being used for painting a wall. The psychological and psychiatric expert examination found that the defendant had a mental disorder that prevented him from understanding the nature of the publication and controlling his actions. Nevertheless, the case has been referred to court.

Based on the complaint from two Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky residents, the case under the same article and Article 282 of the Criminal Code was opened against artist Denis Lopatin for his cartoon depicting Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya holding a dildo in the shape of Nicholas II. The image was created specifically for a rally in defense of “Matilda,” the movie that faced protests from believers. The image was also exhibited in the Garage Art Center, where it was placed in a separate room; a sign, warning about the possibility of some items being offensive to one’s feelings, was put in front of the exhibition entrance. Another case under Article 148 was initiated against Nikolai Vitkevich, a resident of Bryansk, for publishing an article with objections against conducting a procession of the Cross and against erecting a prayer cross in the city.

On the other hand, a Magistrate court in Krasnoyarsk closed the case against Irina Kudinova due to absence of corpus delicti. Kudinova was charged under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Deliberate desecration of objects of religious veneration”) for publishing on VKontakte an image of the Easter cake and eggs arranged in a composition, which the prosecutors interpreted as a phallic symbol. The case of Viktor Krasnov – a blogger charged under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code for his rude comments about Christianity on the same VKontakte network and for writing “there’s no god,” with the word “god” intentionally misspelled – was discontinued in Stavropol, due to the statute of limitations,

In addition, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the complaint of Novosibirsk artist Artyom Loskutov, filed in connection with the prosecution against him under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses – he posted images in support of Pussy Riot, stylized to resemble the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, on the streets of his hometown.


Defence from below

The social activity in defense of the religious feelings did not intensify in comparison with the preceding year. As before, the activists’ attention was focused primarily on cultural events.

Protests against Alexei Uchitel’s film “Matilda” undoubtedly constitute the most important story in this category. Even before its premiere in October, several dioceses, such as Yekaterinburg and Khanty-Mansiysk, were collecting signatures for the ban against the theater release of the film. Meanwhile, a group of representatives of the Orthodox community, including the leaders of well-known Orthodox funds – President of the Russian Heir Fund Irina Volina, President of the St. Petersburg Vasily the Great Cultural and Educational Foundation Vasily Boyko-Veliky, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for the Patriarch Hermogenes Monument Galina Ananyina, Director of the Slavic Literature and Culture International Fund Alexander Bochkarev and President of Russky Vityaz Foundation Dmitry Lysenkov – called for A. Uchitel to be prosecuted under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code.

Street actions took place in several regions, including Tyumen and Yekaterinburg. Representatives of national-patriotic organizations took part in some of them. For example, participants of such a rally in Irkutsk included activists from the National Liberation Movement (Natsional’no-osvoboditel’noye dvizheniye, NOD) and the Guard of the Holy Tsar the Passion-Bearer, as well as lawyer Alexei Sukhanov, who had previously defended Vladimir Kvachkov and other radicals. A patriotic procession of the Cross took place in September in St. Petersburg and involved the Imperial Legion Club and the St. Petersburg branch of the NOD. Participants of the action carried the imperial flags, the banner depicting the royal family and the slogans protesting the picture: “Matilda is a slap in the face of the Russian people,” and “Honor of the Emperor is the honor of the people.” This action elicited a sharply negative response from the St. Petersburg Diocese, which stated that it had given no blessing to the NOD’s participation in the procession, and expressed disagreement with the form of protest against Matilda: “We view the conversation around the film Matilda in this context as a provocation and condemn this action as contrary to the norms of the Orthodox ethics”.[9] The Sorok Sorokov movement organized a public prayer against Matilda in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Kadashi in Moscow.

The protests took other forms as well. For example, a resident of Satka in the Chelyabinsk Region filed a complaint against Matilda with the regional office of the Federal Antimonopoly Service. In her opinion, the phrases “The Secret of the House of the Romanovs,” “The Secret of the Last Russian Tsar,” “Based on Actual Events,” and “The Foremost Historical Blockbuster of the Year,” used in the film posters, did not correspond to reality and therefore violated the law on advertising.

In contrast to the preceding year, opponents of the film did not limit themselves to peaceful forms of protest and resorted to violent methods, more dangerous than before. Early in the year, members of the previously unknown organization Christian State – Holy Rus (Khristianskoye gosudarstvo — Svyataya Rus’), mailed about a thousand letters to the administrators of Russian movie theaters, warning that “for any step against Orthodoxy, Russia’s saints, the people of Russia or the President, for any provocation to the civil war, for any of your positive references to the film “Matilda,” our Brothers will turn to radical methods to combat lawlessness and insanity.”

These were not just empty threats – in late August, unknown persons threw Molotov cocktails into the building where Uchitel’s studio was located in St. Petersburg. In September, two parked cars were set on fire near the office of Uchitel’s lawyer, and “Burn for Matilda!” flyers were scattered at the scene. The criminal cases were opened for both incidents: in St. Petersburg – under Article 213 Part 2 (“Hooliganism committed by a group of persons by previous concert”) and under Article 167 (“Willful destruction or damage of property”). Three people were detained in connection with the second case, including Holy Rus leader Alexander Kalinin and his first cousin. Another case against Kalinin was opened under Article 179 Part 2 of the Criminal Code (“Compulsion to complete a transaction or refuse to complete it”) – for pressuring cinemas to refuse to screen Matilda.

Holy Rus soon turned out to be a very small group, but its actions attracted eager followers. In September, Orthodox activist Denis Murashev in protest against the film’s screening, drove a car, loaded with barrels of gasoline and gas cylinders, into the building of Kosmos Cinema Theater in Yekaterinburg, and threw in a “Molotov cocktail.” Fortunately, nobody was injured. The court found Murashev insane, and he was referred for mandatory treatment in December.

Despite the protests of the Orthodox activists, the movie was released in theaters, although local venues in some regions refused to screen it, occasionally supported by the authorities, In particular, the authorities of the Kemerovo Region and the Tver Region decided not to show the film in municipal movie theaters. Several venues in Moscow also refused to screen Matilda. This position was verbally expressed by Nadezhda Dolzhenko, the director of the Premier Movie Theater in Yeysk of the Krasnodar Region, which also decided not to screen Matilda: “I am an Orthodox person, and I have promised that the movie will not be shown. <...> Yes, the State Duma approved it, and so did the Ministry of Culture. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued an order to ensure security during the show. Why would we want all these problems?”[10]

The protest campaign against Matilda had one more consequence – the spread of the anti-Semitic version of the Royal Family story, formerly known primarily in the conservative Orthodox circles, related to the allegedly ritual character of their murder. In the course of the campaign, the discussion of this version migrated first from Orthodox pickets to respectable media, without an appropriate critical commentary, and then advanced to an official level. In November, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation announced the launch of psychological and historical expert examination to investigate the possibility of the “ritual” murder.


In addition, several cultural events were canceled or postponed in 2017 upon request of the defenders of the religious sensibilities. For example, in April, after a petition by the leaders of four Orthodox funds to V. Putin and D. Medvedev, a concert of French medieval music, timed to coincide with the exhibition of the Western European art of the 13th-14th centuries organized by the Kremlin Museums and the French National Monuments Center (Centre des monuments nationaux), was unexpectedly moved from the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin to a different location. The petition’s authors argued that the performance in the Orthodox cathedral of works, “created by professional poets and troubadour-musicians”, would be a defilement of sacred objects, comparable “in its blasphemy with the Pussy Riot performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. And Saint Louis would not have approved of this sacrilege. In his time, troubadours sang in castles and palaces, not in cathedrals and churches.”

In May, 2x2 TV Channel chose not to show the 19th episode of the 28th season of The Simpsons, in which the main character catches Pokémon at various places, including a church. This decision was preceded by a published compilation of opinions from Orthodox clergymen, who found “propaganda of false moral values to adolescents” in the Simpsons and called for raising the age limit for watching the show. The administration of 2x2 expressed its reluctance to screen “content that could compromise the Channel and produce mixed reaction in the society.”

Notably, in both cases the complaints did not come from the top Church leadership, and, in the case of the concert, the disapproval was expressed by the relatively marginal figures. Nevertheless, the administrators of both the Kremlin Museums and a large television network decided to conform to their wishes.


The Orthodox believers were not the only group to declare their religious feelings insulted; as in the preceding year, Buddhists demanded protection for their feelings as well. To be precise, in this case the officials spoke on their behalf. In December, Baatr Lidzhiev, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kalmykia with the President of the Russian Federation, demanded that the administration of TNT TV Channel apologize for an insult to the feelings of Buddhists. In his opinion, it took place in one of the episodes of “The Street” series, where two young men look at a Buddha statue that has a figure of a naked woman attached to it. One of the characters had bought this souvenir as a gift to his wife, as “a symbol of the fusion of emptiness and serenity.” The other person sees the object as the “symbol of having sex” and finds resemblance to the friend and his wife. The religious context in this scene is clearly absent, but RIA Kalmykia reported on the complaints it had received from believers, and B. Lidzhiev suggested that the channel remove the scene from the episode, otherwise threatening to get the law enforcement involved.


The Chelyabinsk Regional Office of the Federal Antimonopoly Service also became involved in protecting the feelings of believers. In December, it fined Uralservis, a microfinance organization, 100 thousand rubles for issuing a calendar, on which the organization’s logo was placed next to an Orthodox icon and the text of the Lord’s Prayer. The FAS Office came to the conclusion that this placement violates the law on advertising, “because it can be offensive to the feelings of believers.” During the investigation the FAS turned to the diocesan administration for consultations.

Some complaints from believers were not satisfied. For example, in Kirov a local lawyer Yaroslav Mikhailov, who’s already been spotted on the scene of “religious” litigation in previous years, filed a request with the District Investigative Committee in February to prosecute the management of Vyatich Brewery for producing Trifon beer which uses the image of Sergey Shnurov, the frontman of the rock band Leningrad. In Mikhailov’s opinion, this image was offensive for believers, who honor St. Trifon of Vyatka, a local saint.

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for Tatarstan refused to open a criminal case on insulting religious feelings based on the photo session featuring a model in a transparent dress posing inside an inactive Orthodox church, having found no crime.

Discrimination on the Basis of Attitude to Religion

Intensification of the “anti-sectarian” struggle, the tendency noted in our prior reports, continued in 2017 as well. Believers from Protestant organizations and NRM’s were the most frequent targets of discrimination.

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the worst one since the Soviet era, was the principal development of the past year. On April 20, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, acting on the claim filed by the Ministry of Justice, liquidated the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia and 395 local organizations as extremist. This decision put tens of thousands of believers at risk of criminal prosecution merely for continuing their religious activities. The decision was upheld by the appellate court in July.

The discriminatory campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses has been going on for about ten years, but, immediately after the decision to ban the organization, the pressure has increased.

The leaders of several communities in different regions, in particular, in Bashkortostan and the Vladimir region, were fined under Article 20.28 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Organizing the activities of a public or religious association, with respect to which an activities suspending decision was made”) for continuing to hold their meetings. In other cases, the same “offense” was punished under the “anti-missionary” amendments of the Yarovaya-Ozerov Law. For example, in Asha of the Chelyabinsk Region, the Jehovah’s Witness, who was holding the believers’ meetings at his house, was fined 25,000 rubles for failure to notify the authorities about starting the activity of a religious group. The Tomsk community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was fined 100 thousand rubles for the same offense. Administrative fines were also imposed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses preachers in Bryansk, Anapa, the Krasnodar Region, Yemanzhelinsk (the Chelyabinsk Region) and other regions.

As before, believers faced persecution from the security forces. The police detained Jehovah’s Witnesses in different regions – in Dmitrov (the Moscow Region), in the village of Severnaya Ferma (the Vologda region), in Diveevo (the Nizhny Novgorod Region), in Neftekumsk (the Stavropol Region) and in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. A Sochi resident was detained while walking, based on a complaint from a passerby that “Jehovah’s Witnesses, “who are forbidden,” were walking along the alley. A believer was arrested for ten days under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Disobedience to a lawful order of a police officer”) for refusing to sit in a police car.

The cases of the police raiding the believers’ homes were also recorded. Thus, in Kushva of the Sverdlovsk Region, the police searched an apartment without the owner’s permission, insulting the woman and her guest throughout the procedure and making disparaging remarks regarding their faith. In Belgorod, a married couple of Witnesses complained about the fact of illegal entry of the police into their apartment and the installation of audio and video recording devices. In Novosibirsk, police officers visited the workplace of a Jehovah’s Witness and, according to him, planted religious brochures in his office. In Naberezhnye Chelny, the police, together with officers of the FSB, arrived at a resort, rented by Jehovah’s Witnesses, to check their identification and record their personal information.

Many Jehovah’s Witnesses, when drafted into the army, were denied the right to pursue alternative civilian service. This happened, in particular, in Serov of the Sverdlovsk Region and in Chuvashia, where the reference to the decision on banning the centralized organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was cited directly as the motive for refusal. In Bakhchisarai, the draftee was even pressured to renounce his faith. Nikolai Glinin, the military commissar of the Khabarovsk Territory, formulated the attitude of military enlistment offices toward Jehovah’s Witness draftees. In December, telling journalists about the course of the autumn draft, he said: “No sect – no problem! If a draftee declares his wish for an alternative service based on his belonging to this organization, banned in Russia, we will not even consider his request.”[11]

There were also cases of non-state discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Employers forced Jehovah’s Witnesses to quit their jobs or threatened with dismissal, citing their religion, in several regions, including Yelabuga in the Republic of Tatarstan, in Smolensk and the Smolensk Region, in the village of Ilinsky in the Perm Region, and in Ozyora of the Moscow Region.

Incidents of pressure against children from Jehovah’s Witnesses families were reported as well. Schoolchildren were forced to give explanations about their faith in Ufa and the Rostov Region. In the Kirov Region, two sixth-graders were ordered to leave the classroom for refusing to perform a song about a war for religious reasons. The teacher told the sisters in front of the entire class that they were “now banned, and already got everyone fed up with their religion.” A school principal in Tomilino, the Moscow Region, threatened to inform the police and transfer an eight-year-old student to a different format of education for humming Jehovah’s Witnesses songs and telling her classmate about God.


Restriction of missionary activity

Persecution of believers for “illegal” missionary activities continued, reflecting the innovations introduced by the Yarovaya-Ozerov package. Similarly to the preceding year, the activities of Protestant associations were regarded as illegal most frequently. Usually, “illegal” missionary work resulted in fines for believers and religious organizations under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of the Administrative Offenses (“Implementation of missionary activities in violation of the requirements of legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations”). So it happened, for example, in Abinsky District of the Krasnodar Region, where a court fined the Head of the Baptist religious group five thousand rubles for failing to notify the Ministry of Justice regarding the beginning of the group’s activities. In the Oryol Region, three Baptists were fined five thousand rubles each under the same article for distributing religious literature and inviting people to religious meetings, also without notifying the Ministry of Justice. In Ivanovo, a local resident was fined under the same article for the same reason (failure to notify the Ministry of Justice), despite the fact that he, personally, was not a member of any religious association, and, in this case, no permanent religious group existed.

God’s Glory, the Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostal) in Syktyvkar, was fined 30,000 rubles under Part 3 of Article 5.26 (“Implementation by a religious organization of activities without the indication of its official full name, including issue or distribution of literature and printed, audio, and video materials within the framework of its missionary work not bearing the name of the issuing religious organization or with deliberately false labeling.”) However, neither the court decision nor its proceedings mentioned the names of books that failed to display appropriate labels. Syktyvkar Regional Community Fund “Obitel” was also fined based on the fact that the religious literature from their library was not labeled properly.

Two students from Ghana faced responsibility for their “illegal missionary work” in Ufa. Salif Issa was found guilty under Article 5.26 Part 5 (“missionary activities committed by a foreign citizen in violation of the requirements of the legislation”). The court fined him 30,000 rubles for having created a religious group without notifying the authorities, and ordered his deportation him from Russia. However, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan, while not revoking the decision of the lower court, nevertheless permitted not to expel the student and to give him an opportunity to graduate. Another student, Ousu Gideon, was fined under Article 18.8 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Violation by an alien of the rules of entry into the Russian Federation or the regime for staying in the Russian Federation, expressed in the inconsistency of the declared goal of entry with actual activity while in the Russian Federation”) for participating in the Pentecostal Sunday service, and was, in fact, deported from the country.

The leader of the Baptist group in Chara (a village in Kalarsky District of the Trans-Baikal Region) was fined under Article 19.7 of the Administrative Code (“failure to submit information”) for conducting meetings without notifying the Ministry of Justice.

It should be noted that, in 2017, believers also faced responsibility for illegal missionary activity (or whatever was regarded as such by prosecutors and courts) conducted over the Internet. In one of such cases, the pastor of the Kirov Bible Church was fined under Article 5.26 Part 5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for online missionary activity conducted by a parishioner of his church. A Murmansk resident, who published materials of the Vozrozhdenie [Rebirth] Ukrainian spiritual center on VKontakte was also fined for preaching online, but this time under Article 5.26 Part 4. A court fined Tambov journalist Sergey Stepanov under the same Article 5.26 for posting on VKontakte an invitation to attend the Easter service at the Source of Life Tambov Baptist church.


Representatives of the new religious movements were frequently targeted for illegal missionary work. The Chelyabinsk Region became a leader in the struggle against the NRMs by charging them of illegal missionary activity. In Miass, two women preachers of the World Brotherhood Union were fined under Part 4 of Article 5.26 for distributing Kniga Znaniy [the Knowledge Book] without a permit. Another preacher of the same organization was fined, also in Miass, under Parts 3 and 4 of the same article. The cases against him were initiated following the complaint from the Chelyabinsk diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, which reported to the law enforcement that a “Turkish sect” advocating suicide was operating in the region. In Chelyabinsk, the leader of a group that followed the “Ascended Masters-Keepers of the Violet Flame” doctrine was fined under the same article for meetings, held without notifying the authorities and without permission to conduct missionary activity.

Interestingly, the leader of the Horde (Orda) – an organization, included on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations and banned in several regions – was also charged with illegal missionary work in the Chelyabinsk Region. The case against him was opened under the same Article 5.26 Part 4.

Of course, followers of the NRMs were prosecuted for illegal missionary work in other regions as well. For example, a follower of Falun Gong was fined in Yalta under the same article for distributing literature. In Simferopol, a follower of the Hare Krishna movement was fined for illegal missionary work, despite the fact that his charges pertained to organizing the procession, which took place with permission of the city administration. Thus, the Prosecutor’s Office also submitted to the Simferopol administration a motion regarding the violation of the law, demanding that the offender – that is, the employee, who issued a permit for the religious event – be brought to justice. Meanwhile, a teacher of the International Kabbalah Academy was fined for illegal missionary work in Sochi.

In one reported case, a member of a pagan organization faced responsibility for illegal missionary work. Natalia Kuznetsova, the head of the neo-pagan association Rodosvet in Naberezhnye Chelny, was fined for preaching at shrines, organized in the forest park area.

It should also be noted that the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation rejected the complaint of the Salvation Army in Vladivostok that challenged the requirement to label materials, which a religious organization can potentially disseminate in the course of its missionary activity. The Constitutional Court did not find Paragraph 3 of Article 17 of the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” and Part 3 of Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offenses to contradict Article 28 and Article 55 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, as asserted in the religious organization’s complaint.

Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration

We recorded only one case of liquidation of a religious organization in 2017 that happened outside of the anti-extremist legislation framework. In October, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court, based on the claim from the city prosecutor’s office, liquidated the centralized religious organization Union of Churches of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Tatarstan. The claim seeking its liquidation was filed after the inspection of the church building, which the employees of the Prosecutor’s Office and the regional Ministry of Justice had attempted to conduct on the day when no worship services had been scheduled, but found the door locked. On this basis, it was concluded that the organization does not carry out its activities. The facts that the organization regularly submitted reports, in accordance with the established requirements, and that cash flow occurred on its bank accounts, were ignored. The claim was considered without notification of the defendant and with no representatives of the defendant present. When the employees of the organization learned about the court decision, the appeal period had already passed, and the decision has entered into force.

The St. Maria of Gatchina Parish in the Leningrad Region, which is under the ROAC jurisdiction, experienced problems with registration. The regional department of the Ministry of Justice repeatedly denied registration to the community, several times in the course of the year, under the pretext that the documentation was filled out incorrectly. In this case, according to the parish priest, Archpriest Alexei Lebedev, the documents were filled out in accordance with the recommendations provided by the Head of the relevant unit of the Department.

Other forms of discrimination

In October, the Blagoveshchensk Prosecutor’s Office conducted a survey of students of the College of Culture and Arts, enquiring whether their teachers attended the New Generation Church, whether they encouraged the students to attend this church, and whether they collected money for the church needs. The students were also expected to provide the names of the teachers known to attend the church.

In Arzamas, the Nizhny Novgorod Region, law enforcement officers interrupted the holiday religious service in celebration of the Trinity Sunday in an Evangelical church. Ignoring the announced ban on filming and the pastor’s request to leave the premises, they began video recording during the service and then questioned the parishioners, frightening the children. A few elderly believers needed medical help afterward. As a reason for their visit, the officers cited a complaint regarding the lack of a sign on the fence around the building.

As in the preceding years, officials often resorted to “anti-sectarian” rhetoric. “Anti-sectarian” conferences were held from time to time in a number of regions, usually supported by local authorities. In September, one of such “research and practice” conferences – “Destructive and Pseudo-Religious Organizations, Sects and Cults: Challenges and Solutions” – was held in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District government building in Salekhard. Its organizers included the District government, the Salekhard Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Regional Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. In his welcoming address to the conference participants, Yamal-Nenets Governor Dmitry Kobylkin expressed his concern over the “uncontrolled activity of various pseudo-organizations,” and suggested cultivating “the sense of healthy patriotism” and “strengthening the spiritual immunity of citizens with the participation of traditional religious institutions,” as the most effective methods of fighting against them.

Participants of the Round Table on Religious Security in Nizhnevartovsk, attended by officials, law enforcement officers, and representatives of religious and public organizations, recommended that residents of the region report the activities of “pseudo-religious” organizations to the law enforcement.

The administration of the Trans-Baikal Region sent a letter to the heads of the rural and city districts of the region in March to call their attention to the surge in activity of Pentecostals, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and encouraged non-cooperation with representatives of these religious organizations.


Representatives of “traditional” religious organizations also encountered discrimination. For example, the Central District Court of Sochi annulled the permission of Sochi Chief Rabbi Arya Edelkopf for temporary residence in Russia. The appellate court upheld this decision. The decision was based on the assertion that the rabbi “creates a threat to the security of the Russian Federation by his actions,” but neither the Migration Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation for the Krasnodar Territory, nor the court specified the nature of the threat. The rabbi and his family, who had lived in Russia for 16 years, were made to leave the country.

In Novosibirsk, a district court annulled the residence permit of Catholic priest Janez Andrej Sever, a US citizen, who lived in Russia since the early 1990s and had a residence permit valid until 2019. The FMS Directorate canceled this residence permit, claiming that the application for its extension had provided false information. False information consisted of the fact of studying in several universities in the United States in different modes of study, and the failure to mention the second citizenship of Slovenia – the country of origin of the Janez Andrej Sever’s parents.

Cases of discrimination against Muslims, excluding the cases of misapplied anti-extremist legislation, appear to have decreased, although we have information on some incidents of police interference. For example, in April, the police cordoned off the mosque in Naro-Fominsk, the Moscow Region, and checked the identifications of the attendees. According to the believers, “people were loaded into buses without explaining the reasons; there are parishioners with children among the detainees.”

Positive resolutions

Believers, including those accused of “illegal” missionary work, quite often managed to successfully challenge the discrimination in court. For example, the Smolninsky District Court of St. Petersburg discontinued the proceedings in the case of Dmitry Ugay, charged with illegal missionary work for his lecture on yoga given at the Vedalife city festival in 2016. The representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who had initiated the case, tried to appeal the decision on its dismissal, but the court refused to satisfy his complaint.

In Yekaterinburg, the case against yet another follower of the Hare Krishna movement, Aleksei Pomazov, was also closed due to absence of corpus delicti. The charges of illegal missionary work against him related to the New Year procession, during which he was dressed as Santa Claus, and his assistants – as Snow Maidens. Religious literature was distributed in the course of the procession. Although, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, the literature was not properly labeled, the leader of the religious community actually had a permit to conduct missionary work.

Andrei Puchkov, a follower of the Hare Krishna movement from Tver, successfully appealed two rulings of a Magistrate court that had fined him for illegal missionary work under Article 5.26 part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. In Nizhny Tagil, the case under same article against six Protestants was also closed.

A similar case against a taxi driver, who had distributed Pentecostal evangelistic pamphlets “Gaisa Christ our Savior” in Tatar and Russian, was closed in Nizhnekamsk. The court took the side of the believer and his lawyer, who insisted that the taxi driver had not conducted missionary activity in this manner, but had simply shared personal religious beliefs.

Pentecostal Pastor V. Schmidt from Ulyanovsk managed to appeal his fine of 30 thousand rubles, levied under Article 5.26 Part 3 for distributing the literature that had not been properly labeled. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rescinded the fines and ordered to return the seized literature.

The following cases related to violations of the migration legislation were also terminated: the Samara case against the local religious organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and the case in Moscow against Joseph Khersonsky, the Rabbi of Sredi Svoikh [Among Our Own] Hasidic synagogue.

In addition, the Romodanovsky District Court of the Republic of Mordovia recognized as illegal the infamous order of the Belozerye Village School principal that prohibited teachers from wearing Muslim scarves during classes. The reprimands, issued to teachers for wearing headscarves, were also nullified.

The European Court of Human Rights communicated the complaint of Alexei Kolyasnikov, leader of the Community of Christians (a group of evangelical Christians in Sochi), who challenged the fine imposed on him in 2014 for reading the Bible in a café.

Insufficient Protection against Defamation and Attacks

We know of only three attacks on the basis of religious hatred in 2017 (vs. 21 in 2016). However, it would be a mistake to declare that the level of religious violence has fallen so dramatically. Such a sharp decrease in the number of the incidents is due to our lack of information – after the ban against the centralized and local organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses – regarding attacks against their followers; and it was the Witnesses who used to be the prime target of attacks in the preceding years.

Nevertheless, two of the three reported incidents still involved Jehovah’s Witnesses. A woman from Nikonovskoye village in the Moscow Region attacked a 56-year-old preacher, hit her on the head with a glass jar, and scattered the contents of her bag, while shouting threats. The victim was taken to a hospital with a head injury. Another preacher was attacked by a building resident in Moscow, who pushed her so hard that she fell down on a stairway landing, breaking her tablet computer. Since the majority of the known acts of religiously motivated vandalism also pertain to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and given the high degree of the “anti-sectarian” sentiment in society, we can assume that such attacks were, in fact, much more numerous.

The third attack was committed against a Muslim woman (no such attacks were documented in 2016). Four young people in a minibus in Saransk attacked a passenger in a head scarf and began to insult her; one of the attackers tried to hit her with a bottle. One of the passengers got involved to protect the young woman and, as a result, was injured in a fight.


The number of acts of vandalism motivated by religion remained at about the same level as in 2016, when we recorded at least 29 incidents (vs. 30 in 2017). The largest number of incidents – at least 14 (vs. 9 in 2016), including 3 cases of arson, is related to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Moreover, the first of these acts of vandalism occurred just a few hours after the decision to ban their centralized organization – the building of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg was blocked by cars and pelted with rocks. Attacks against the property of Witnesses were also reported in the Republic of Komi, Udmurtia, the Krasnoyarsk Region, Voronezh, Irkutsk, Moscow, Rostov, the Tula Region, and in other regions.

Sites and objects pertaining to Orthodox Christianity take the second place with at least 11 incidents of vandalism (vs. 10 in 2016), two of them arson. Prayer crosses were damaged in four of these, a chapel in one, a church fence in one, and the rest pertained to church buildings. Notably, one of these cases can be viewed as a reaction to the court proceedings against blogger Sokolovsky – the vandals left the graffiti “For Pikachu!” at the Yekaterinburg Church on the Blood.

Protestant objects were attacked by vandals at least twice, (no incidents in 2016). We view both of these cases as quite dangerous, although, fortunately, no one was injured: a fake explosive device was planted at the Lutheran church in Voronezh, and a vandal pelted the Source of Power Pentecostal Church with rocks.

In addition, we know of vandalism against Jewish and pagan sites – one incident in each case (vs. 5 and 0 respectively in 2016). Several Molotov cocktails were thrown at the building of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in Moscow, but the damage was minor and limited to the façade. A neo-pagan shrine was destroyed in Yanino, St. Petersburg.


Federal and regional media outlets continued to periodically publish defamatory materials about religious organizations. As in 2016, such publications were most often related to the NRMs and Protestant organizations. The ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses triggered a wave of “anti-sectarian” materials.


Unfortunately, similar materials also continued to appear on federal TV channels. For example, in September, several regional episodes of the Vesti show contained “anti-sectarian” stories. In particular, Vesti-Yamal publicized the above-mentioned “science and practice” conference in Salekhard and expressed the position of its participants, who viewed “pseudo-religious organizations, sects and cults” as a threat. The Stavropol TV channel presented the True Orthodox Church (CPI) as a “sect” that had “spread out its networks throughout the North Caucasus.” The credits referred to the parishioners as “members of the sect,” the missionary activity of the CPI was characterized as “recruitment,” and other offensive statements were made with respect to the group. A priest of the Russian Orthodox Church was invited as an expert; he declared that involvement with the CPI could lead to serious psychological problems and would require rehabilitation.

On their Conspiracy Theory show in October, Zvezda TV network broadcasted a documentary with the revealing title “Espionage Disguised as Religion.” Its authors, using Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses as examples, argued that “many representatives of religious minorities, which are, in fact, sects, are closely associated with the US intelligence services.” The film mentions Mormons in the negative context as well. Similarly to other suchlike films, it presents Ukraine as a negative example of an intervention by the “sects;” according to the authors, Jehovah’s Witnesses had actively participated in “the Maidan events.” Among the invited experts were a “sectologist” Alexander Dvorkin and Head of the Religious Studies Department Larissa Astakhova. The latter, according to the film’s creators, “had the courage to conduct an honest and objective examination of the Scientologists’ teeming activity,” and, “in revenge,” the Scientologists put her under surveillance.

Astakhova’s expert opinion, supported by Sergei Ilyinsky – another religious studies scholar, the Deputy Head of the Civil Society Development Department of the Administration of the Head and the Government of Udmurtia – was cited by the SM News, which published a defamatory article “Without Witnesses. What happens to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Udmurtia?” This material, more restrained and scientific in its tone, in comparison with those mentioned above, nevertheless unambiguously encourages a reader to form the negative image of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also expressed their indignation with regard to the article “From Heaven to Earth” published by the Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper in October. According to the believers, the article could “incite hatred on the basis of attitudes towards religion and lead to a stream of violations of the rights of innocent people.” The article used insulting and pejorative language in relation to believers, such as “patronizing the sect,” “run their shady dealings through Jehovah,” “clog the brains,” and “take Witnesses by the scruff of their necks.” In addition, the article abounded with statements about this organization that were not consistent with reality.

Regional newspapers also published “anti-sectarian” materials. In April, the Arctic Circle newspaper in Salekhard published an article “God, Sectarians and Intelligence Services,” discussing the activities of some religious organizations in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District. The author put forward a series of accusations against these organizations, describing the ways “Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Christians, True Christians, neo-Pentecostals and others recruit their supporters,” and “bring the peoples of the Far North to degeneration.”

It is worth noting that Snob, an online magazine never previously involved in this campaign, also produced an “anti-sectarian” material. In November, it published a compilation of testimonies from former members of religious organizations, designated as “sects” by the author. These testimonies were intended to prove that staying in such organizations is dangerous for physical and mental health, the finances and the family relationships. The publication was not accompanied by an editorial commentary, so the editorial board appeared to agree with the author of the material.

In some cases, the “stars” of such materials tried to protect themselves and occasionally managed, at least, to achieve public condemnation of the authors of these defamatory publications. For example, in June, the Public Collegium on Press Complaints issued a decision on the complaint by the Environmental Rights Center Bellona against the story on Mormons, produced by the Fifth Channel TV, which contained negative false statements about Mormons. The Collegium recognized the show as propaganda and a violation of the human rights in the sphere of mass information.

It should be noted that, despite the abundance of “anti-sectarian” materials, undoubtedly influencing public moods, we observed almost no grassroots activity directed against “non-traditional” religious associations.

[1] Our work on this topic in 2017 was supported by the funding provided under the EIDHR/2014/348-053 project “Counteracting all forms of discrimination on grounds of religion and beliefs in the Russian Federation”, funded by the European Union represented by the European Commission, as well as by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

On December 30, 2016, the Ministry of Justice forcibly included SOVA Center on the list of “non-profit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent.” We disagree with this decision and have filed an appeal against it.

[2] Olga Sibireva. Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2016 // SOVA Center. 2017. 30 March (http://www.sova-center.ru/en/religion/publications/2017/05/d36996/).

[3] Maria Kravchenko. Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2017 // SOVA Center. 2018. 6 March (http://www.sova-center.ru/en/misuse/reports-analyses/2018/04/d39253/).

[4] The Мosque Оpening in a Maykop Suburb Is Planned for Early 2018 // Caucasus Node. 2017. 24 November (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/312935/).

[5] Orthodox Perm Residents Appealed to Leading Russian Sectologist Alexander Dvorkin Regarding the Sect of Chabad-Lubavitch // Periscope. 2017. October 16 (http://periscop.prpc.ru/news/2688-171016).

[6] The ROC Lays Claim to Additional Sites in the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum // RBK. 2017. 17 May (http://www.rbc.ru/society/18/05/2017/591dd6839a79479badb40f1d).

[7] The Rostov Puppet Theater, Whose Building is Claimed by the ROC, Has Not Yet Moved Out // TASS. 2017. 22 March (http://tass.ru/obschestvo/4117092).

[8] For additional details see Kravchenko, Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2017

[9] Official Statement on Unpermitted Actions during the Procession of the Cross on September 12 // Department for the Church and Society Relations of the St. Petersburg Diocese. 2017. September 14 (http://ethnorelig.ru/2017/09/14/nesoglasovannie_aktsii/).

[10] Yeysk in Kuban Matilda Will Not See Matilda // Interfax-religion. October 23 (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=68454).

[11] Conscripts in the Khabarovsk Region Are Now Lining Up // Khabarovsky Kray Segodnya. 2017. December 27 (https://todaykhv.ru/news/society/10194/).