Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2018

Настоящий материал (информация) произведен и (или) распространен иностранным агентом РОО Центр «Сова» либо касается деятельности иностранного агента РОО Центр «Сова».

PROBLEMS WITH PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the construction of religious sites : Problems with using the existing religious buildings : Positive resolutions : Conflicts around the transfer of property to religious organizations
Restriction of Missionary Activity
Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration
Other forms of discrimination
Positive resolutions
PROTECTING THE FEELINS OF BELIEVERS : Top-down defense : Defense from below
INSUFFICIENT PROTECTION AGAINST DEFAMATION AND ATTACKS : Violence and Vandalism : Defamatory Materials about Religious Minorities

SOVA Center for Information and Analysis presents its 2018 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 ( This report provides citations only for the sources not found on the SOVA website.

With regard to the events of the 2017 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, observed over the past few years, continued in 2018.

The situation of Jehovah's Witnesses, who came under increasingly widespread persecution in the past year, causes the greatest alarm. Over a hundred people have already been prosecuted for continuing the activities of a banned organization - de facto, for continuing to profess their religion; 25 of them are in custody and several thousand people had to leave Russia. Property was confiscated from the communities all over the country. Judging by the harshness of the sentence imposed on Danish citizen Dennis Christensen (issued in early 2019), no liberalization of the policies towards Jehovah's Witnesses is expected in the near future.

The scope of persecution against believers under the amendments from the Yarovaya-Ozerov Package of laws, which restrict missionary activity, has not decreased. In 2018, the law enforcement began to apply these amendments not only to Protestants and representatives of new religious movements, but also to “traditional” religious organizations. This development suggests that the state has no intention to stop at the “anti-cult” campaign and is ready to repress almost any believers, ideally limiting the activities of religious movements that are undesirable to federal or local authorities only to conducting religious ceremonies.

The construction of religious (primarily Orthodox) sites remains a source of tension, but the center of confrontation shifted from Moscow, which had long accounted for the majority of such construction-related conflicts, to the regions. As in the preceding years, such conflicts were most often caused by problematic location choices for the new building sites, violations during the public hearings process, or failure to conduct such hearings. The confrontation experience of the preceding years has taught the opposing sides to find a compromise, although achieving it is still not always possible.

At the same time, religious organizations, primarily Protestant churches, faced increasingly frequent problems with the use of their existing buildings. Taking into account the fact that, in many cases, officials raised objections against the buildings previously used for several years without any complaints from the authorities, these objections can be viewed as another way of pressuring religious organizations.

Meanwhile, no criminal prosecutions for insulting religious feelings took place in 2018. The grassroots defenders of religious feelings noticeably quieted down, and, in contrast to the preceding year, all their protests were peaceful. Nevertheless, the organizers of various cultural events, apparently by inertia, often resorted to self-censorship in order to avoid possible objections from such defenders.

Defamatory publications against religious minorities continued to appear in the media from time to time. The abundance of “anti-sectarian” (“anti-cult”) materials on federal TV channels was apparently intended to legitimize repressive measures against these religious organizations. However, taking into account the mass character of the audience of these TV channels, their shows can be regarded as creating an enemy image out of a significant segment of law-abiding citizens - adherents of new religious movements or Protestantism.

When viewed in combination with several other events not covered in this report, such as the Moscow–Constantinople schism, we can note the growing tension in the areas of government policy related to religion.



In the course of the year, several laws that affect the activities of religious organizations were adopted. Three legislative initiatives, developed at the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church, simplified the life of religious organizations by abolishing a number of clearly excessive regulations.

On July 26, the State Duma adopted the amendments to the Civil Code (signed into law by the President on August 3) allowing religious organizations to use unauthorized structures if they meet the requirements of the law and have a religious purpose or are used to support other property that has a religious purpose. In cases of these buildings not being in compliance with the requirements of the law, they can be legalized until 2030.

Amendments to Article 3 of the Federal Law on Special Evaluation of Working Conditions adopted by the State Duma on December 18 and signed by the president on December 27 freed clergymen from having to fulfill some of legal requirements stipulated by the Law. According to the authors of the amendments, the existing working conditions standards did not take into account the confessional differences and the specific features of religious sites – in particular, with respect to the requirements for light, temperature, size of the workplace, etc.

Simultaneously with these amendments, Article 345.1 was added to the Labor Code of the Russian Federation and provided religious organizations with a simplified procedure for withdrawing from participation in regional minimum wage agreements. The new article allows religious organizations to submit a withdrawal from participation in minimum wage agreements without having to attach the previously required minutes of consultations with an elected body of the primary trade union and a proposal for a wage increase timeline. It was difficult for religious organizations to participate in the agreement for a number of reasons: the donations-based budget does not always allow raising wages to the established minimum and the positions of religious organizations’ employees are not listed in the Russian National Classification of Occupations. Centralized religious organizations now can also submit withdrawals on behalf of other organizations that are part of their structure.

Conversely, the requirements for religious groups were tightened. The order of the Ministry of Justice “On Amendments to the Form of Notification of the Beginning of Activities of a Religious Group,” which entered into force on July 20, demands that the notification of establishing a religious group include the personal data of its creator, as well as “information about the fundamentals of religion, places of worship, and other religious rites and ceremonies, a leader, a representative, and citizens belonging to a religious group.” The concept of “religious group” has no clear definition, since it was created to denote the most informal associations, so there is reason to fear that the new regulation may create problems for many believers.

Changes in legislation affecting the life of religious organizations were made at the regional level as well. For example, the Law on Regulation of Land Relations in the Moscow Region was amended to allow the transfer to the ownership of religious organizations of agricultural land that is state or municipal property and already used by religious organizations under the right of perpetual use. De facto, this will affect the lands of the major Orthodox monasteries located in the Moscow Region.


We also would like to mention that, in March, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation issued a ruling on the complaint of Tambov journalist Sergey Stepanov, fined in 2017 for posting on a social network an invitation to attend the Easter service in a Baptist church. He tried to challenge the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations related to missionary activity, as well as Article 5.26 part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The Constitutional Court rejected Stepanov’s complaint; however, its ruling has clarified the legal norms governing missionary activity.

In particular, according to the ruling, the core attribute of missionary activity by a religious association is “the distribution by citizens or their associations of information about a particular religious dogma among people who, not being its followers, are being encouraged to join.” It is also noted that missionary activity “is carried out by a specified circle of persons (religious association, its participants, other citizens and legal entities in the established manner).” Thus, the fact of missionary activity can be considered proven only if all these signs are present in the activities of a religious association. Otherwise, its activity “cannot be qualified as missionary in the sense of the Federal Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,” and therefore, even if done in violation of the legislation on freedom of conscience, religious freedom and religious associations, it does not form the offense provided for by Article 5.26 Paragraph 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation.[4]

This ruling has not yet fundamentally changed the law enforcement practice under Article 5.26; however, those charged with “illegal” missionary work can now cite the ruling, insisting that the courts should not classify acts that don’t have the attributes indicated by the Constitutional Court as missionary activity.


Projects Not Implemented (Yet)

Some legislative initiatives were not implemented in 2018.

Amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which became publicly known in October, attracted the greatest attention. These amendments provide for a shorter list of documents required for the state registration of religious groups. At the same time, the amendments stipulate annual submission of notifications about the continuation of the activities of a religious group, rather than once every three years, as has been the rule under the existing regulations. Under the same amendments, clergymen and employees of religious organizations, who have received religious education abroad, have to undergo certification in Russian religious schools (it is hard to envision these rules being applied to certain religious confessions).

However, the proposal that caused the greatest concern among many believers and lawyers suggested replacing the word “members” with “participants” of a religious group in several articles of the law. Since the concept of “church membership” is very important for Christians, and they will continue to use it regardless of the wording of the law, religious groups will become subject to administrative prosecution due to unavoidable discrepancies between the statutes that refer to “participants,” and the fact that people, when answering the inspectors’ questions, are going to describe themselves as “members” of the group.

The bill, proposed by the Ministry of Justice, has passed public discussion, but has not yet been submitted to the State Duma.


It should be noted that the State Duma is not going to abandon its course on harsher policies with respect to religious associations that are undesirable for the authorities. In June, the State Duma announced the allocation of more than four million rubles for preparing an expert analytical study aimed at the improvement of legislation on counteracting “sects.” Vitaly Milonov - an author of many initiatives aimed at regulating the activities of religious organizations - moved from the Committee on International Affairs to the Committee on the Development of Civil Society, and Issues of Public and Religious Associations in November. In his new position, he intends to focus on the church-state relations and to counteract “the spread of totalitarian sects and destructive cults in our country.” However, he came out with his first initiative - a proposal to certify providers of “occult” services - only in 2019, and, at the time of writing this report, the State Duma had not yet considered his bill.


Problems with 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 “walking distance” modular church construction program in Moscow, which had provoked violent protests for several years, apparently ceased to be a source of tension. We noted a decrease in the number of conflict situations around the construction of these temples in our 2017 report, but now the conflicts have practically stopped. In the isolated cases of discontent, for example, in Novogireyevo or Academichesky Districts, the scale of the confrontation never came close to the events of several years ago. Apparently, the initiators of the construction, its opponents, and officials have taken into account the experience of these past few years, and conflicting groups of citizens have learned to find peaceful solutions.

In other regions, the construction of Orthodox churches was still in many cases accompanied by conflicts in 2018. As in preceding years, they stemmed from the reluctance of local residents to give up their parks and recreational areas for the sake of a church. Protests against the construction of churches in green areas were reported in Izhevsk, Chelyabinsk, Chita, Pervouralsk of the Sverdlovsk Region, and the village of Elekmonar of the Altai Republic. Residents of Kanonerskiy Island in St. Petersburg went to court challenging the order of the Committee for Urban Planning on the allocation of a site in the public garden for the construction of a church.

Some protests stemmed from the wishes of local citizens to see a different object on a disputed site instead of a church. For example, residents of Kurgan decided that a school or kindergarten would be more appropriate on the site allocated for the church construction. Residents of St. Petersburg, Nizhnevartovsk, Syktyvkar, Tolyatti and Tomsk also preferred to see different objects built instead of a church.

The ongoing multi-year confrontation around the construction of the Church of St. Catherine in Yekaterinburg was the most resonant conflict in this category. In 2017, the authorities, under pressure from the protesters, moved the church building site from the spit of the Iset River to the area near the Drama Theater. However, once again, many city residents found this location unsuitable. Several protests, now directed against the “temple-on-the-drama,” took place during the review period. Opponents of the construction also sought to hold a referendum on the construction of a church in the public garden on Teatralnaya [Theatre] Square. However, in February 2019, the City Council refused to hold a referendum, insisting that the construction procedures were regulated by the Town Planning Code and were not under the purview of local self-government bodies. At the same time, the deputies approved changes in the city land legislation to allow the construction of a church in the Teatralnaya Square public garden.

This was not the only case when the authorities made a decision against the protesters’ demands. The authorities of St. Petersburg, despite the protests by the city residents, agreed to the construction of an Orthodox church in the Baltic Pearl (Baltiyskaya Zhemchuzhina) District. The Blagoveshchensk authorities also ignored the protests and confirmed the agreement to construct a church on the Golden Mile (Zolotaya Milya), a new landfill embankment.

Increasingly, however, the authorities have been listening to the protesters and taking their position into account when resolving contentious situations. For example, in response to the residents’ protests, officials in Rostov-on-Don terminated an agreement with an Orthodox parish on the uncompensated use of a land plot in the Elektroapparat Park, where the church construction had been planned. The Tomsk authorities also supported the protesters - the deputies of the Zarechny rural settlement did not pass the proposal to change the zoning permissions and allow for building a church on the disputed site. The Property Management Committee of the Tambov Region, not waiting for mass protests, refused to provide the Orthodox community with a site for building a church in Maisky neighborhood, noting that the location was intended for constructing social, transportation or engineering infrastructure objects.

The construction of mosques also triggered protests of local residents. However, in all cases known to us, the discontent was based either on anticipation of possible inconvenience from having a mosque in the neighborhood or on xenophobic motives. Thus, Kazan residents, who spoke out against the construction of a mosque on Khorovodnaya Street, were concerned about loud calls to prayer. The authorities of Perm, who provided the Muslim community with a plot for the construction of a mosque in 2016, announced in 2018 that this place would instead be used for a public garden. The latter decision was preceded by protests of local residents, who feared that the new mosque in Danilikha neighborhood would increase the number of migrants. The residents of Severouralsk in the Sverdlovsk Region, who opposed the construction of a mosque, were also motivated by the fear of migrants, “Muslims of various kinds.” One of the local elected representatives even complained about this construction to the FSB.

Other religious organizations also encountered resistance against construction of their buildings. The Perm authorities refused to issue a permit to a Pentecostal community for building a temple on the site, which the believers purchased back in 2007 along with the dilapidated building of a children's center. The City Commission on Land Use and Development decided that the construction of a church was an “exotic use of the territory” for the residential neighborhood.

Mormons, who bought a plot in Novosibirsk back in 2014, were unable to start the construction work on the building, despite the Supreme Court decision of December 20, 2017, which ordered the Novosibirsk Mayor’s Office to change the zoning of this land plot from the recreational category to the public business land and to issue a construction permit. Alexander Kondratyev, the head of the Construction and Architecture Department of the Novosibirsk Mayor’s Office, said that the Office intended to continue delaying the execution of the court’s decision, and one of the elected officials called the Mormon temple “satanic.”


It is worth noting that, in some cases, the authorities pressured citizens, forcing them to donate money for the construction of Orthodox churches. In June, Governor of the Penza Region, Ivan Belozertsev suggested that the elected officials donate their one-day earnings for the restoration of Spassky Cathedral. At the same time, a Penza resident complained to journalists about compulsory salary deductions practiced at his place of employment to fund the construction of the cathedral. It was reported in December that money for construction of the main cathedral of the Russian Ministry of Defense was being forcibly deducted from the soldiers’ paychecks in the garrisons of Khabarovsk and Pskov - although the Ministry of Defense repudiated this information, calling it “a Ukrainian propaganda fake.


Problems with using the existing religious buildings

Unfortunately, religious organizations encountered difficulties in using existing buildings more frequently in 2018 than in the preceding year.

The confiscation of property from the Jehovah's Witnesses communities, which began in 2017, continued in 2018. In some cases, the religious organizations managed to transfer to foreign owners the property that was subject to confiscation in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of April 20, 2017. Nevertheless, the state confiscated this property, with courts declaring the transfer transactions void. This scheme was first tested in 2018 by seizing a building complex in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg – a former location of the Jehovah's Witnesses Administrative Center in Russia. Jehovah's Witnesses tried to challenge this decision, but to no avail. The St. Petersburg City Court upheld the decision of the Sestroretsk District Court, which deemed the transaction transferring the complex to a foreign owner to be invalid.

Similarly, the transactions donating Jehovah's Witnesses property to foreign organizations were deemed invalid in the following locations: Astrakhan, Petrozavodsk, Dimitrovgrad (the Ulyanovsk Region), Belorechensk and Kansk (the Krasnoyarsk Region), Tynda (the Amur Region), Engels (the Saratov Region), Asino and Seversk (the Tomsk Region), Angarsk and Usolye-Sibirskoye (the Irkutsk region).

The Krasnodar regional authorities have put the seized property up for auction in Armavir, Apsheronsk, Novokubansk, Tikhoretsk, Gulkevichi and the village of Otradnaya. The authorities of Kazan and Nizhnekamsk did the same. In these cases, even if the ban on Jehovah's Witnesses organizations is overturned at some point, recovering the sold property from a bona fide purchaser will be challenging.


Protestant organizations also had more difficulties using their premises in 2018 than in the preceding year. Usually, officials found problems with documentation on buildings that had been used by believers for many years. For example, Pentecostal prayer houses were demolished in Tula and Novorossiysk. In both cases, the buildings were recognized as unauthorized by court decisions in 2017. Moreover, the court in Novorossiysk ordered a pastor to pay 353 thousand rubles as a penalty for non-compliance with the demolition schedule.

In May, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court of Oryol, upon request of the prosecutor’s office, banned the Resurrection (Voskresenie) Evangelical Church from operating a prayer house on Zheleznodorozhnaya Street. The prohibition was based on a violation found during the prosecutorial inspection - according to the documents, part of the prayer house (8 square meters) was built on the land that did not belong to the head of the community; thus it was not possible to formally register the building to be put into operation. At the same time, the Oryol administration demanded that part of the land plot be taken away from the community. The community filed a counterclaim against the administration in January 2019. The head of the community believes that the dispute over the ownership of the site arose due to a cadastral error and requests that the Oryol Regional Office of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Cartography (Rosreestr) correct this error.

In June, the Kirovsky District Court of Kazan ruled to demolish the private house, in which Evangelical Christian Baptists were conducting their prayer services; this decision was approved by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tatarstan in August. The house was purchased by a church staff member in 2010, and some additions were built. Then, for several years, the owner unsuccessfully tried to formalize the ownership of the house and the land. In addition, officials determined that the house was not a residential building, and, therefore, the site was not being used for its intended purpose.

In Rostov-on-Don, the Rosreestr fined the Youth with a Mission (an organization under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians) and its leader for a total of 1,300,000 rubles in two separate court cases. Rosreestr and the court found the plot to be used without authorization; meanwhile the organization had been seeking legal authorization since 2013. In addition, the organization and its head were fined for misuse of the site. Attempts to appeal these decisions were unsuccessful.

Of course, occasionally the problems with the buildings’ use by religious organizations arose due to internal circumstances rather than official objections. For example, the building of the New Apostolic Church on Kalinin Street in Khabarovsk was put up for sale due to a financial crisis. The number of parishioners decreased significantly since 1999, when a temple was built with the support of German believers, and the community no longer had enough money to maintain the large building. The believers found a smaller building for worship. The New Apostolic Church buildings in Yakutsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Magadan had already been sold for the same reasons.


Various Christian Orthodox communities also frequently faced problems with using their ecclesiastical buildings.

The last historic church - the 19th century Ilyinsky Church in Trubchevsk of the Bryansk Region – was taken away from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC). In July, the Arbitration Court of the Bryansk Region refused the claim on the church by the Klintsov Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church due to the expiration of the limitation period for the claim. Nevertheless, the appellate body of the Arbitration Court still seized Ilyinsky Church from the ROAC in December.

The Mayor’s Office of Krasnodar went to court seeking the demolition of an Old Believer church currently under construction. The building is located on a plot that belongs to the Old Believers community under the private property rights. Pending the outcome of the case, the court has seized the building, which the officials regard as an illegal construction.

In the Rostov Region, the arbitration court refused the Old Believers community in forming the cadastral site for transferring the ownership of the land under the cathedral and the adjacent buildings. In 2017, the city administration refused the community and didn’t grant its preliminary approval of the property transfer to the Old Believers, citing the fact that the site intersected with capital construction objects, including apartment buildings. Then the community went to court and provided a conclusion, prepared by the cadastral engineer, that the site did not intersect with any residential buildings, but the court sided with the authorities.

A number of Russian Orthodox Church parishes faced difficulties as well. Thus, due to the motorway construction, the Moscow authorities decided to demolish the wooden Venerable Joseph of Volotsk church in Old Belyaevo as well as a Sunday school, a gymnasium and a missionary center located next to it. The believers are outraged by this decision, as well as by the fact that they have not been allowed to attend the public hearings dedicated to the planning project for the area between Academician Chelomey Street, Novatorov Street and Obruchev Street.

A similar conflict in Yekaterinburg, where the light rail line construction necessitated the demolition of the church of John the Baptist, was resolved in February 2019. The parish was promised monetary compensation, and the leaders of a local industrial enterprise expressed their willingness to erect a new stone church on their land, as well as a temporary building to house the parish during the construction of a permanent one.


Muslim organizations had fewer difficulties with the use of liturgical premises than in the preceding year, but some problems were still reported. For example, the Kunashaksky District Court of the Chelyabinsk Region invalidated the property right of Imam Mukhtar Farkhutdinov to the mosque building in the village of Muslyumovo. Farkhutdinov had built a mosque with the support of the villagers; he registered a religious community in it and formalized a property deed on the site and the prayer house back in 2007. Believers regard the conflict between the imam and the mufti of the Chelyabinsk Region as the reason for the seizure of the mosque.


Positive resolutions

Fewer cases of religious organizations successfully defending their property in court were reported in 2018 than in previous years, but such incidents still occurred.

Thus, the Arbitration Court of the Volgograd Region recognized the ownership of the house of prayer in the village of Zaplavnoe (Leninsky District) by the local organization of the Voice of Truth (Golos Istiny) Evangelical Christian Baptist Church. The building, used by the community since 2005, had long been considered an illegal structure. However, the court agreed with the expert opinion, which argued that the building was safe in operation and did not create a threat to the life and health of people, and legalized the structure.

The Trinity (Troitsky) parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) in Noginsk of the Moscow Region, which had its church seized in 2016, went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights defending its interests. The ECHR communicated the complaint of the parish in September.


Conflicts around the transfer of property to religious organizations

As in the preceding years, property was occasionally transferred to religious organizations, most often to the Russian Orthodox Church, but to other organizations as well. For example, the Jewish community in Tomsk obtained a wooden building of the “soldiers’ synagogue” - an architectural heritage site of regional importance.

If the transferred property had been in use by other organizations, then, as a rule, these organizations were given alternative premises, and, in most cases, the transfers took place without conflict. For example, in St. Petersburg, a building on the Obvodny Canal, which had housed the Russian National Library collections since 1965, was transferred to the ROC. The transfer decision was made in 2015, but the move of the library collections to another building only became possible in 2018.

However, not all religious organizations managed to acquire the property they claimed. In particular, the St. Petersburg administration refused to return to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria the late 18th century church building on Kirochnaya Street, which had served as residential property of the St. Anna Lutheran Church before the revolution of 1917. The authorities did not recognize the building as religious property.

In some cases, religious organizations had to go to court to obtain the desired property, and the court did not always rule in their favor. We know of at least three court cases involving property claims by Catholic communities. Only the Barnaul Catholic Parish of Christ the King of the Universe has achieved some degree of success in seeking the transfer of a historic building currently occupied by a pharmacy. The community demanded that several regional legal acts, transferring the building and the land under it to the city ownership, be declared invalid. This way, the believers hope to reinstate the building and the land as the property of the region, and then transfer them to the parish. The court of first instance dismissed their claim in July; the appellate instance in October confirmed this decision. However, in February 2019, the cassation instance overturned these decisions and sent the case for a re-trial.

The Catholic communities of Kirov and Krasnoyarsk were less successful in their court fights for former church buildings. Since in both cases the buildings in question are occupied by the regional philharmonic societies, the authorities refuse to consider them as religious property and hand them over to the Catholics. The court already ruled against the parish in Krasnoyarsk; the Kirov case continued into 2019.


Several high-profile conflicts of the past years related to the transfer of property to religious organizations were resolved in 2018. A number of protests against the possible transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church took place in St. Petersburg throughout the year. On December 30, however, it was reported that the 2016 transfer order was no longer valid, and the diocese had never submitted a new transfer request. According to Boris Vishnevsky, the leader of the Yabloko faction in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who has consistently opposed to the transfer, the church will make no further attempts at taking over the cathedral at least until September 2019, when regional elections are held in St. Petersburg.

Moreover, the Arbitration Court of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region overturned as illegal the decision of the St. Petersburg Department of the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) on recognizing the transfer of the St. Sampson Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church; the court ruled that the FMS had exceeded its authority by issuing the transfer decision.

In June, the Arbitration Court of the Sverdlovsk Region in Yekaterinburg once again rejected the claim of the Yekaterinburg Diocese against the Ministry of State Property Management in the region regarding the transfer to the Russian Orthodox Church of three buildings, which currently house colleges and have been claimed by the diocese since 2016.

However, some conflicts over property transfers to religious organizations have continued unabated. Situations around the sites occupied by cultural institutions have produced the most tension. Thus, for example, the conflict has escalated over the transfer to the Barnaul Diocese of the building of the former Exaltation of the Cross (Kresto-Vozdvizhensky) Church, which has been operating for almost 70 years as the city planetarium. The transfer decision was made in 2014, but, so far, no new home has been found for the planetarium. Local residents started to collect signatures on a petition demanding that the building not be handed over to the church. The diocese is ready to wait until a suitable location is found for the planetarium.

In Moscow, bailiffs sealed and blocked the entrance to the basement of a building on Petrovka Street, which houses the workshop of the Petlyura Cultural Centre. This was done in accordance with the court decision of 2017, which transferred part of the basement space of the building to the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery. The building residents challenged the court decision, but the bailiffs sealed the space, without waiting for the verdict of the appellate instance.

In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church has made several new claims on museum sites – the Assumption (Voznesensky) and Dmitrievsky Cathedrals in Vladimir, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as well as a number of sites of the Kirillo-Belozersky and Ferapontov monasteries in the Vologda Region. In both cases, the museum community does not consider the transfer feasible. The Federal Property Management Agency rejected the claim filed by the Vologda Diocese. No final decision has been made with regard to the Vladimir sites.


Discrimination on the Basis of Attitude toward Religion

Criminal Prosecution

Since April 2018, isolated criminal prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses have grown into a relatively mass campaign. Throughout the year, new cases were initiated against the believers, who continued to gather for communal prayers and reading religious literature and were charged with continuing the activities of an extremist organization (Article 2822 of the Criminal Code). Occasionally, believers faced the charges of financing the activities of such an organization (Article 2823 of the Criminal Code) or inciting religious hatred (Article 282 of the Criminal Code). According to representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses Yaroslav Sivulsky about 50 such cases were initiated in 33 regions as of February 2019; most of them were opened in 2018. 115 people (90 men and 15 women, including seven people over age 70) faced criminal prosecution. At the time of writing this report, the number of defendants exceeded 120, and 25 of them were in custody. Approximately five thousand believers were forced to seek political asylum outside Russia.

Also according to Sivulsky, since the announcement of the ban against the central and local Jehovah's Witnesses organizations, about 270 searches have been conducted in connection with criminal cases in different regions. As a rule, these searches were accompanied by various violations. For example, detainees in Krasnoyarsk were threatened with arrest if they refused to testify against their fellow believers. In Nevinnomyssk of the Stavropol Region, a 77-year-old believer, detained during a search, became ill while in custody and needed medical assistance.

Law enforcement officers in various regions continued to detain believers, bring them to the police stations, and subject them to searches. These actions have been reported, in particular, in Moscow, Ufa, Krasnoye of the Belgorod Region, Murom, the Vladimir Region, Tuapse, and the Krasnodar Region. In the village of Kuduk-Chilik in the Omsk Region, the police dispersed a meeting of believers, detained its participants, brought them to the police station and demanded that they write an explanatory letter and reveal their religion.

Believers in Togliatti and Syzran were fined under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“mass distribution of extremist materials”) for publishing links to the Jehovah's Witnesses website on their social network pages. In Togliatti, the police broke into the believer’s apartment.

Cases of denying the right to pursue alternative civilian service to Jehovah’s Witnesses, drafted into the army were more frequent as well. In addition, a 79-year-old believer in Engels of the Saratov Region was denied medical treatment when she rejected a blood transfusion and asked for an alternative. The doctor replied that there was no alternative to the transfusion, and that, since the patient was “in a sect,” she would not be treated.

The investigation continues in the case initiated in 2016 in St. Petersburg against a group of Scientologists. Five leaders of the Church of Scientology of St. Petersburg - Ivan Matsitsky, Sakhib Aliev, Galina Shurinova, Anastasia Terentyeva and Konstantsiya Esaulkova - were charged under Article 171 Part 2 Paragraphs “a” and “b” of the Criminal Code (“illegal enterprise”), Article 282 Part 2 Paragraph “c,” of the Criminal Code (“incitement of hatred”) and Article 2821 Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code (“organizing an extremist community and participating in it”). Aliev, in addition, was charged under Article 1741 Part 4 of the Criminal Code (“legalization (laundering) of monetary funds on a large scale”). Two of them, Matsitsky and Aliev, have remained in pre-trial detention since June 2017; the others are under house arrest. The charges of extremism are based on the assertion of the superiority of Scientology, contained in some of their literature, as well as on the internal rules of Scientologists governing the behavior of believers toward some of their compatriots categorized as “potential trouble source.”


Restriction of Missionary Activity

Persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activities continued in accordance with the amendments of the Yarovaya-Ozerov package. According to the statistics cited by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, 42 legal entities and 105 individuals were prosecuted in the first six months of 2018 (data for the full year have not yet been published) under Article 5.26 of the Code of the Administrative Offenses (“violation of the requirements of legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations"). A fine was imposed as a punishment in almost all the cases, confiscation in four cases, community service in two cases, and deportation from the country and a warning - in one case each. The total fines in these cases amounted to 2 471 000 rubles over 6 months (some of them possibly were or will be appealed successfully)[5]. Of course, Article 5.26 includes some other offenses, formulated prior to the Yarovaya Package, but the law enforcement practice of using them has always been very small, and they have almost no effect on the statistics.

As before, the “anti-missionary” amendments were most frequently applied to representatives of the Protestant churches and the new religious movements. However, we have started to see them being applied to members of “traditional” religious organizations as well. In Moscow, six Israeli citizens were fined for “illegal” missionary work for lighting their Hanukkah candles in the office of the Kabbalah Center. Muslim organizations were brought to justice for the “illegal” missionary work on several occasions. Their example illustrates the incompleteness of our data on the use of this repressive legislation, since many organizations prefer not to publicize the cases against them.

One of the most highly publicized cases was the prosecution for “illegal” missionary work against Zimbabwean Kudzai Nyamarebvu, a sixth-year student at the Nizhny Novgorod Medical Academy, who was fined twice. In January, the Sormovsky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod fined her 5,000 rubles under Article 18.8 part 2 of Code of Administrative Offenses (“violation by a foreign citizen of the regime for staying in the Russian Federation expressed in noncompliance of the declared purpose of entering the Russian Federation with the activity or line of business actually carried out while staying in the Russian Federation”) for inviting her friends to a concert of African music in a Pentecostal church. The court also decided to have her deported from the country upon graduation. This decision was approved by the Nizhny Novgorod Regional Court. Then, in June, the Prioksky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod fined Kudzai Nyamarebvu once again, this time under Article 5.26 Part 5 (“missionary activities in violation of the requirements of the legislation on freedom of conscience committed by a foreign citizen”), because she spoke about the prior court case in an interview. Since the interviewer called the student a “hero of faith,” the court found the interview to possess a “hidden missionary nature.”

In addition to Kudzai Nyamarebvu, several other African students in Nizhny Novgorod were charged with illegal missionary work. In particular, the same Sormovsky District Court fined another African student of the same medical academy, Nosisa Shiba, 7,000 rubles with deportation from Russia; however, given that she was finishing her last year of studies, her deportation was postponed until the end of her final examination. According to the court, the fact that the student, while in Russia on a student visa, sang at the service of the “Jesus Embassy” Evangelical (Pentecostal) Christian church, constituted an offense under Article 18.8 Part 4 of Code of Administrative Offenses.

Fines for “illegal” missionary work were often imposed for improper (in the opinion of the inspecting authorities and courts) signage at the entrance to the premises of a religious organization. For example, the head of the Mormon community in Taganrog was fined five thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 4 for holding the community meeting without a posted sign indicating the full name of the organization. Meanwhile, the day before the meeting, the sign on the building was present and in compliance with the requirement. Having found the sign missing, the believers immediately posted a sheet of paper with the organization’s full name in its place and reported the theft to the police. The community leader himself was not at the meeting that day. Interestingly, the case was filed following the claim by a former police officer, who said that he had been accidentally passing by and had noticed the absence of a sign. He was brought in as a witness.

A rural Adventist community in the Shakhunsky District of the Nizhny Novgorod Region was fined 30 thousand rubles for the absence of a sign with the full name of the church on their prayer house. In this case, according to the believers, the sign had been switched following the police visit the day before.

A religious group of Baptists in the Petukhov district of the Kurgan Region was fined the same amount of 30 thousand rubles. The charges were based on the facts that their sign failed to mention the regional Association of Evangelical Christian Baptists, to which the group belongs, and also that the group had failed to notify the authorities of its existence. The prosecutors and the court considered these infractions to be an offense under Article 5.26 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.

A Murmansk resident was fined under Part 4 of the same article for having published on his VKontakte page the Revival (Vozrozhdenie) Spiritual Center material.

In the Bryansk Region, Presbyterian Adventist Oleg Korban was fined under the same article. He was charged with having conducted his “illegal” missionary activity since 2008, despite the fact that the amendments, regulating such activities, were adopted only in 2016. In addition, he was fined under Article 19.7 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“failure to submit data”). It is worth noting that both cases were opened after addressing the complaint of an Orthodox resident of the town of Klintsy regarding the behavior of her Adventist daughter. The claimant was outraged that Adventists forbade working on Saturday and made their followers pay the tithe; she demanded that Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin “set things straight and prohibit sectarians.”

On several occasions believers were prosecuted under Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“organizing or holding a public event without filing a notice of a public event in the prescribed manner”). For example, in Naberezhnye Chelny, the court fined the pastor of the Revival (Vozrozhdenie) Evangelical Christian Baptist Church 20 thousand rubles for holding the sacrament of baptism on the Kama river without notifying the authorities. Only believers of his church were present during the sacrament. Nevertheless, the pastor was brought to court in handcuffs and found guilty.

The Soviet District Court of Kazan fined Maxim Murashov, a follower of the Hare Krishna movement, 10,000 rubles under the same article for holding a procession. Interestingly, the organization filed the required notice on time. However, the court found that the participants of the procession performed a religious ceremony (singing mantras), whereas their notification indicated that they were going to conduct a “street chant with a procession accompanied by playing musical instruments and dancing.” The Supreme Court of Tatarstan upheld this decision.


Liquidation of religious organizations and denial of registration

We know of two religious organizations liquidated in 2018. A court terminated the activity of two branches of the Horde (Orda) organization - in Ufa and in the village of Abkazovo in Bashkiria - based on a prosecutorial claim. Both local organizations operated in residential buildings. This organization was previously banned in several regions, including Bashkortostan, because the methods of healing through communication with ancestral spirits, used by its followers, “are detrimental to morality and health.”

The parish of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) in Gatchina, which was denied registration several times, succeeded in getting the Town Court order for the Ministry of Justice to reconsider the registration documents of the parish. However, the court refused to recognize the denial of registration in the form of a letter signed by the department head of the Ministry of Justice as unlawful and refused to issue an order for the Ministry of Justice to register the parish.


Other forms of discrimination

Several clerics were expelled from Russia in the course of the year. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation approved the decisions of the first and second instances to annul the residence permit of Josef Marozof, the chief rabbi of the Ulyanovsk Region, who, after 12 years in Russia, was accused by the FSB of conducting extremist activity.

The local unit of the Federal Migration Service (FMS) revoked the residence permit of chief rabbi of the Omsk region Osher Krichevsky, also on the basis of FSB materials. The rabbi failed in his attempts to challenge this decision. The Omsk Regional Court rejected his claim and declared the FMS decision lawful; meanwhile, the reason for the revocation was never named in court. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld the deportation decision.

In November, the border service of the Sheremetyevo airport handed a notice of the ban on entry to Russia to Yevgeny Peresvetov – the pastor of the Restoration (Vosstanovlenie) Russian Christian Center and a Ukrainian citizen residing in Moscow. Administrative violations, given as the reason for the ban, included, among other issues, an allegedly unpaid fine for dirty car license plates. In February 2019, when the pastor attempted to appeal the decision to deny him entry, it was discovered that his name had been excluded from the database of persons banned from entering the Russian Federation. However, the FSB still decided to deport the pastor, whose family remains in Moscow.

The prosecution of religious organizations for violation of the law on personal data continued, although we know of significantly fewer cases than a year earlier. For example, the Primorsky District Court of Justice in Vladivostok fined the leaders of the Primorye Organization of the Center for Krishna Consciousness under Article 13.11 Part 2 of the Administrative Code (“violating the procedure for collecting, keeping, using or disseminating information about citizens (personal data) established by law”). The charges were based on the fact that the copies of the passports of three members of the governing collegial body of the organization were kept on the premises since 2005. In addition, they were issued a warning under Article 19.7 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“failure to submit data”).

The Kuybyshevsky District Court of Omsk issued a suspended sentence of 3.5 years to Nikolai Kuznetsov, the pastor of Revival XXI Century (Vozrozhdenie XXI Vek) - religious group of Evangelical Christians in Omsk. Kuznetsov was sentenced under Article 239 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“creation of a religious or public association whose activity is fraught with the infliction of injury to citizens' health”) and under Article 111 Part 3 Paragraph “b” (“intentional infliction of a grave injury”). This is the first known case of applying this article to a religious organization. The charges were made on the basis of an expert opinion, which stated that the organization’s leadership used “psycho-technologies,” which had already led the believers to develop a dependent personality disorder, and that the believers’ continued presence in this church would lead to “other mental disorders.” As evidence of mental disorder among the parishioners, the experts cited, in particular, the testimony of the believers about the feeling of oneness with God. The investigation failed to reveal any other health hazards.

As in the preceding years, Muslims occasionally faced police pressure. Thus, a search, carried out with numerous violations, was conducted in the Adam Mosque in Yakhroma, the Moscow Region, on the basis of a court order authorizing the search of the building in order to find a certain person. The security personnel entered the mosque without taking off their shoes, broke down the door to the imam's office and took outside everyone, who remained in the mosque after the morning prayer. Not only the mosque building but also the parishioners' cars were inspected. About 70 people were detained as the result of the search. In Lyantor of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, as a result of a raid on several cafes and homes of believers, the National Guard forces detained about 50 Muslims and brought them to a police station. Many detainees complained of beatings.


As before, cases of non-state discrimination sometimes come to the surface. Professor Vyacheslav Baburin, the head of the Department of Economic and Social Geography of Russia at the Faculty of Geography in Moscow State University, refused to administer the geography exam to а student wearing a kippah. The professor suggested that the student take off his hat or leave the room. The student had to appeal to the dean's office and to have the exam administered by a different instructor. It should be noted that the MSU leadership condemned this incident, describing it as “an absolutely special case, which has nothing to do with the policies of the Faculty and Moscow State University in general.”[6]

The administration of the Aquarena sports complex did not allow 71-year-old resident of Kazan to use the swimming pool for wearing a burkini - a Muslim bathing suit.

The authorities of St. Petersburg State University has fired Professor Alexander Panchenko - an anthropologist, a religious scholar, and the head of the Sociology and Anthropology program at the St. Petersburg State University Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This happened after he wrote the religious studies part of the expert opinion in the case on recognizing brochures of the American Pentecostal preacher William Branham as extremist. It is worth noting that the court eventually also refused to recognize the works of the preacher as extremist.


Positive resolutions

Believers and religious organizations that faced discrimination were often able to defend their rights in court. Those accused of “illegal” missionary work had the greatest success rate. For example, the Altai Regional Court overturned the ruling of the Magistrate Court that fined Denis Chuprov, the head of the Cornerstone (Kraeugol’ny kamen’) Evangelical (Pentecostal) Christian Religious Group, five thousand rubles for participation in a charity event, where religious literature had been distributed without appropriate labeling. The Magistrate Court considered it an Administrative offense under Article 5.26 Part 4, despite the fact that Chuprov had not been present at the event.

The Mezhdurechensk city court of the Kemerovo region overturned a fine of five thousand rubles issued under the same article to Lyubov Koltyrina, the head of the Health (Zdorov’e) Club and a Falun Gong follower. The Magistrate Court regarded as illegal missionary activity the distribution of Falun Gong materials at the Petal (Lepestok) exhibitions organized by Koltyrina in Mezhdurechensk and Kameshek without notifying the authorities. The court of second instance dismissed the case, having concluded that Koltyrina’s actions did not violate public order and constituted no public danger, and the activities carried out by her club did not constitute preaching of a religious creed.

The Ovchinnikovs, married owners of a yoga center in Orenburg, also succeeded in having their two fines rescinded. The fines of five thousand rubles each under Article 5.26 part 4 were imposed for allegedly acting as an unregistered religious group under the guise of a yoga center.

The Novokuybyshevsk City Court of the Samara Region overturned the decision of the Magistrate Court, which imposed a fine under the same article on a local Pentecostal who, during the church service, had spoken about his personal experience of overcoming drug addiction. His speech was then posted on YouTube.

Vladimir Zakharchuk from Voskresensk in the Moscow Region - the pastor of the Word of Life (Slovo Zhizni) Church of Christians of the Evangelical (Pentecostal) Faith - successfully challenged the ruling of the Magistrate Court, which fined him ten thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“obstructing the exercise of the right to freedom of conscience or freedom of belief, including the adoption of religious or other beliefs, or refusal thereof, as well as obstructing the entry into a religious association or the exit therefrom”). The pastor’s offense, according to the Magistrate court, consisted of allegedly coercing two people to convert to “his religion.” As it turned out at the trial, these individuals were not present in the church on the day of the service. On the other hand, the service was attended by three law enforcement officers who disrupted the ceremony. The Voskresensk City Court overturned the decision regarding the fine.

The Frunzensky Borough Court of Vladivostok concluded that there was no corpus delicti in the actions of Julia Broslavskaya, charged under Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Administrative Code for organizing the Hare Krishna procession. The defense was able to prove that the procession had not required the authorities to take measures to ensure public order and security, and, therefore, there had been no need to notify the authorities. The case was terminated.

Meanwhile, the Magistrate Court of the Pervomaisky Justice District in the same city of Vladivostok found no corpus delicti in the case of the head of the Center of Societies for Krishna Consciousness in the Primorye Region, charged under Article 5.62 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“discrimination”). The charges were based on the announcement “For followers of Vaishnavism teaching only” posted at the entrance. The case was also dismissed.

Sergei Solonko, the pastor of the Revival (Vozrozhdenie) Pentecostal Christian Center from Voronezh, managed to obtain the revocation of the warning issued to him under Article 19.7 of the Administrative Code (“failure to submit data”) for creating a religious group in Borisoglebsk without notifying the Ministry of Justice. The court took into account the fact that S. Solonko had not created a group or carried out religious activities in Borisoglebsk, since he was a pastor in Voronezh. Despite the positive court decision, the administration of the aircraft factory in Voronezh, where the believer had worked for almost 30 years, forced him to resign.

In addition, the Novosibirsk Regional Court recognized the 2017 district court decision to annul the residence permit to Catholic priest Janez Andrej Sever as illegal and ordered the regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to reinstate the residence permit.


Protecting the Feelings of Believers

Top-down defense

Criminal prosecutions for insulting religious feelings continued, but were clearly not as active as in the preceding years.

In the course of the year, one sentence was pronounced under Article 148 of the Criminal Code (“Violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion”). Anton Ushachev, a resident of Naberezhnye Chelny, was sentenced to 320 hours of community service under Part 1 of this article and under Article 214 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (vandalism) for his insulting graffiti on the fence of the Borovetskaya Church of the Holy Ascension (ROC) and near the well-spring. Taking into account the fact that Ushachev had already spent more than six months in custody, the punishment was considered served.

Several cases under this article were discontinued. In Sochi, the case of Viktor Nochevnov, fined 50,000 rubles in 2017 under Article 148 Part 1 for sharing cartoon images of Christ on VKontakte, was terminated due to the expiration of the limitation period.

The case of an 18-year-old local resident, charged under the same article, was dismissed in Kurgan. The young man had published a photograph of himself holding an inverted Orthodox icon, accompanied by an offensive comment; he has since repented, published an apology and made a donation to an Orthodox church.

Irkutsk anarchist Dmitry Litvin, charged under the same article for sharing anti-Christian memes on VKontakte, refused to have his case terminated due to expiration of the limitation period; he believes that the case should be terminated on exonerative grounds.

The law enforcement in Krasnodar dropped the case of Maxim Drozdov, charged under Article 282 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“incitement of enmity, as well as abasement of dignity") initiated in connection with the publication of his satirical poem “The Heretic Woman.” The investigation found that the poem was ironic in character and contained no calls for any aggressive action against atheists.

Insulting religious feelings could also entail administrative responsibility. Severodvinsk resident Igor Markov was fined 15 thousand rubles under Article 5.26 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“deliberate public desecration of items of religious reverence”) for sharing atheist images. Daniil Sukachev, a resident of Novgorod, was fined 30,000 rubles under the same article for publishing a video of the Polish black metal band Batushka (Father, used to address a priest), whose concerts had provoked Orthodox protests several years earlier.

We view the majority of these prosecutions as inappropriate.

It is worth noting that the absurdity of most court cases on protecting religious feelings and the lack of proportionality between the punishment and the offense became apparent to representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose congregation most of such cases aim to protect. In August, vice-chairman of the Synodal Department for Church's Relations with Society and Mass Media Vakhtang Kipshidze called on all parties involved in such cases to discontinue them due to the reconciliation of the parties. He noted that repentance and regret on the part of those who committed the act of desecration should suffice for an Orthodox Christian. “We call on investigators, judges and applicants who consider themselves Orthodox believers to ensure that the majority, and preferably all the court proceeding for insulting the feelings of believers, end specifically with the reconciliation of the parties,”[7] said V. Kipshidze.


Defense from below

In contrast to the preceding year, social activists used exclusively peaceful forms of protest in defense of religious feelings. The surge of militant methods of protest, observed a year earlier, faded away with the end of theatrical run for Matilda (a feature film that caused outrage among the Orthodox Christians) and with the detention of the leaders of the Christian State (Khristianskoe gosudarstvo), a group that instigated and organized the majority of the militant actions.

However, Orthodox Christians were not the only ones complaining about insults to their religious feelings in 2018 - representatives of other religions did the same more frequently than before. For example, Russian Catholics were insulted by the “Flaming Gothic” performance, organized by artist Nikolai Polissky at the Nikola-Lenivets Art Park in the Kaluga Region during the Maslenitsa festival. Their indignation was caused by burning of a 30-meter-high structure made of twigs and brooms, which resembled a catholic church. However, the believers did not demand that the organizers of the performance face any sanctions. Muslims have repeatedly expressed their outrage in connection with the photo shoots they found offensive, which used mosques as a backdrop.

Usually, people, whose religious feelings were offended, merely declared their indignation publicly, but occasionally they went further and demanded that various authorities take action against the offenders. For example, a resident of Gorno-Altaisk complained to the State Duma about the fact that merchandise at a street market included bath brooms made from juniper, considered a sacred plant by the Altai people.

In most cases known to us, these complaints had no consequences. Even the complaint of the Orthodox residents of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, supported by the Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya, against the cartoon by artist Denis Lopatin, which depicted Poklonskaya holding a dildo in the shape of Nicholas II, proved impossible to build into a criminal case. The expert examination found no signs of incitement of hatred or insulting the feelings of believers in this image.

However, if a mass cultural event emerged as an irritant, its organizers often preferred to cancel or censor it in order to avoid dealing with objections from believers. Thus, the organizers of the “zombie parade,” which was planned in Perm in August, were forced to cancel the parade “due to the heated situation” after the unanimous protests from the Perm Diocese and the regional Spiritual Administration of the Muslims.

It is important to note that, in some cases, event organizers resorted to self-censorship even without waiting for the protests. The administrators of the Novosibirsk State University of Architecture and Design – which, in August, was hosting an event of the forum symbolically named “Novosibirsk Is a City of Infinite Possibilities” - ordered the nude statues located in the foyer to be wrapped in cloth and secured with stationery clips as they were waiting for the visit of the Novosibirsk Diocese delegation. After the visit, the statues were, once again, “undressed.”

The director of the Rostov Musical Theater preferred to coordinate the operatic production of Khovanshchina with the local Orthodox metropolitan upfront. He explained his contact with the diocese by observing that “the topic of religion in society has attracted increased attention recently.”


Insufficient Protection against Defamation and Attacks

Violence and Vandalism

We know only one case of violence on religious grounds in 2018, (vs. three in 2017); a passenger in the Moscow metro stabbed the other with a knife after an argument about wearing a cross.

Apparently, the level of religious violence has indeed declined, but we should take into account the fact that, in the preceding years, Jehovah's Witnesses had constituted a large segment of the victims. After the ban of their central and local organizations and the subsequent wave of criminal cases, Jehovah's Witnesses lost their ability to regularly keep track of and publish the statistics on the attacks. Moreover, Witnesses now almost never conduct their door-to-door missions or missionary pickets, so there are fewer opportunities for attacks against them. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that such attacks did occur.

The same applies to information about acts of vandalism motivated by religion. We do not know a single case of attacks against the sites of new religious movements. At the same time, according to the representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses Yaroslav Sivulsky, at least 27 acts of vandalism against Jehovah's Witnesses sites took place since the ban of the organizations and as of April 2018.[8] Probably, some of these acts of vandalism took place in 2018, but we have no further details. In addition, most potential targets of such vandalism were confiscated by the authorities.

In general, the situation with vandalism on religious grounds did not change compared to 2017. Sites and objects pertaining to Orthodox Christianity were attacked by vandals at least 11 times (same as in the preceding year). Three of these acts of vandalism affected prayer crosses. The crosses in Arkhangelsk and Crimea were cut down (this was the second time this particular act of vandalism took place in Arkhangelsk). In the Stavropol Region, vandals drew a swastika and several pagan runes on a cross after toppling it. In at least four cases, vandals attempted to set fire to Orthodox objects. The icon of Nicholas the Wonderworker on a well-spring was set on fire in Pervouralsk of the Sverdlovsk Region; two churches and a Sunday school in Moscow and an 18th century wooden church in Kondopoga were set on fire as well. In addition, a church in Petrozavodsk had its windows broken, a cemetery church in the Skopin of the Ryazan Region was covered with “cynical graffiti,” and crosses were toppled on three graves of Orthodox clerics. In the Ship Grove of Pervouralsk, a cornerstone at the church construction site was attacked by vandals twice in the course of one week. In the latter case, vandalism evidently resulted from a conflict over the construction that was opposed by local residents.

We recorded two acts of vandalism against Protestant sites (same number as in 2017) and two acts against Jewish sites (vs. one in 2017). An intoxicated resident of Nizhnevartovsk urinated on a cross and smashed the streetlights on the grounds of the Word of Life (Slovo zhizni) Pentecostal Church, which had been attacked several times on prior occasions. During the arrest, the perpetrator referred to the parishioners as “Satanists” and promised that he “would not stop here.” In St. Petersburg, vandals damaged a sign on a Christian literature bookstore.

In the Smolensk Region, vandals left anti-Semitic inscriptions on the wall of a Jewish cemetery in the village of Lyubavichi, the burial place for the founders of the Chabad movement in Russia. In addition, several wooden tombstones burned down on the Jewish cemetery in Voronezh, presumably due to arson.

At least one case of vandalism against a Muslim site was recorded the fence of a mosque in Crimea was covered with the Nazi graffiti.


Defamatory Materials about Religious Minorities

Similarly to the preceding years, federal and regional media often published defamatory materials about religious organizations; Protestant churches and new religious movements continued to be the most frequent targets. Such publications were possibly slightly less numerous than in 2017, when the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations provoked a wave of “anti-sectarian” publications, but federal TV channels still broadcasted such materials regularly.

Specifically, “anti-sectarian” reports appeared on the Russia-1 and NTV channels. Russia-1 included them in the regional and federal versions of its Vesti news show. The news segment from Astrakhan in February covered the picket of an unnamed “Astrakhan Volunteer Movement” in front of the building occupied by Baptist Initiativist (supporters of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists) community. Like most similar materials, the segment included offensive statements and baseless accusations against believers. In particular, they were accused of “non-recognition of laws” – the show’s interpretation of their refusal to serve in the army, obtain state registration or participate in elections.

Another episode of Vesti, aired on Federal television in November in prime time, focused on Jehovah's Witnesses and also contained insults and baseless accusations. The authors of the report called the fact of religious persecution into question and portrayed the mass flight of Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia in search of refuge as a desire to “get Euro-aid and lead their beheaded flock” from abroad.

A similar item on the NTV Chrezvychainoe Proisshestvie show was dedicated to the case of Omsk pastor Nikolai Kuznetsov, convicted of intentionally causing serious harm to mental health (see above). The story repeated a lot of “anti-sectarian” clichés, and had “sectologist” Alexander Dvorkin on air as an expert.

Occasionally, religious organizations tried to challenge defamatory publications or at least get them publicly denounced. For example, the Moscow Church of Scientology appealed to the Public Collegium on Press Complaints with a complaint against Espionage Disguised as Religion – a documentary, shown in 2017 on Zvezda TV channel, which, using the Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses as examples, “proved,” that “many representatives of religious minorities, which are de facto sects, are tightly connected with the US intelligence agencies.” The Collegium concluded that the documentary violated a number of basic journalistic principles, noted the authors' disrespect for religious minorities and recognized the show as propaganda aimed at creating a negative image of religious minorities.


As for the grassroots fighters against the “sects,” their activity remained just as low as in the preceding year. The only reported “anti-sectarian” action is the above-mentioned “volunteer movement” picket against the Baptist Initiative followers in Astrakhan.


[1] Our work on this topic in 2018 was supported by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, International Partnership for Human Rights and the European Union.

[2] Olga Sibireva. Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2017 // SOVA Center. 2018. 2 April. (

[3] Maria Kravchenko. Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2018 // SOVA Center. 2019. 22 February (

[4] Ruling No. 579 of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation of March 13, 2018 // Website of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. 2018. April []

[5] Report on the Work of Courts of General Jurisdiction in Administrative Cases // Judicial Department at the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2018. 16 October (

[6] The MSU recognized the right of students to wear “symbols of faith”// Interfax. 2018. 24 January. []

[7] The Russian Orthodox Church called on Orthodox judges to terminate cases on insulting the feelings of believers by reconciling the parties // “Moscow” City News Agency. 2018. 6 august. []

[8] A Year Ago, the Russian Authorities Declared Jehovah's Witnesses Extremists // Voice of America. 2018. 19 April