Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2019

Bills Not Yet Implemented  PROBLEMS WITH PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the Construction of Religious Sites : Problems with Using Existing Buildings : Favorable Resolutions : Conflicts Surrounding the Transfer of Property to Religious Organizations DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF ATTITUDE TO RELIGION : Criminal Prosecution Restrictions on Missionary Activities

Liquidation of Organizations and Denials of Registration
Other Forms of Discrimination
Favorable Resolutions
Protecting the Feelings of Believers : Protection from the Top : Protection from Below
Fight for “Traditional Values” INSUFFICIENT PROTECTION AGAINST DEFAMATION AND ATTACKS : Violence and Vandalism : Defamation of Religious Minorities

Sova Center for Information and Analysis presents its 2019 annual report on freedom of conscience in the Russian Federation. [1]

This report is based on information collected through monitoring conducted by the Center. The collected information, including 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 2018 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 on the subject. [3].


In 2019, the trend toward more restrictive policies toward Protestants and new religious movements, observed for many years, not only continued but intensified. 

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses has become more large-scale and severe. Criminal prosecution for continuing the activities of an extremist organization, de facto for continuing the profession of religion, has already affected more than 300 people. 18 of them were sentenced, half of them to prison time, including three who received six years in penal colony. This is the first time since the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization was banned that its believers were tortured during criminal investigations. Numerous rough searches and arrests and confiscation of community property continued.  

The events of the early 2020 suggest that no liberalization of the government policy toward Jehovah’s Witnesses is to be expected in the near future: new sentences, including jail time, have already been handed down, and in at least two cases, the prosecution has asked for sentences of more than six years. 

Anti-extremism legislation continues to be used against other religious groups and movements as well, primarily Muslim ones.[4]

The scale of persecution of believers under the “anti-missionary” amendments of the Yarovaya-Ozerov package has decreased slightly. Protestants and new religious movements remain the main target of the “anti-missionary” legislation; in 2019, however, these amendments were implemented against believers of “traditional” religious organizations more frequently than in 2018. 

Protestants and new religious movements have faced problems with the use of their existing buildings perhaps even more frequently than in 2018, to the point of bans on use and demands for demolition. 

Mass media has not refrained from defamatory publications about religious minorities, shaping a negative attitude toward Protestants and new religious movements believers. The volume of defamatory materials may not have increased compared to previous years, but the fact that these publications are hardly ever criticized by authorities and public organizations only confirms the belief of a large part of the population that the perception of their fellow citizens as dangerous “sectarians” is normal.  

All these problems have forced Protestant leaders to publicly acknowledge the fact of systematic pressure by the government. In July, the church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the village of Verkhnebakansky near Novorossiysk, whose services were disrupted for a month, building sealed, and pastor fined for “illegal” missionary work, made a statement about “systematic effort to suppress religious freedom in the city”, “direct violations of the Constitution and Federal Law”, and the threat to other Protestant churches.[5] As Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, Chairman of the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals), said at the October meeting of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, “I smell the Soviet Union… It feels like the government is hinting: you don’t belong here”.[6] In November, Bishop Pavel Abashin, Chairman of the Church of God Association of Christians of Evangelical Faith, called what was happening to Russian Protestants “an orchestrated war against the Evangelical churches of Russia” and “part of a plan to put pressure on non-Orthodox denominations”. [7].  

The construction of new churches, especially Russian Orthodox ones, remains a source of tension in society, but this tension has not intensified in comparison to 2018. As in the previous year, most of the conflicts occurred in the regions and were caused by poor location choices for new construction sites, violations during public hearings or refusals to hold them. The tendency we noted a year ago to seek peaceful resolutions to these conflicts and to take into account the opinion of local residents has continued: protests are increasingly succeeding in moving construction away from disputed sites. And the situation in Yekaterinburg, where protests against the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral escalated in May to a violent confrontation that forced President Putin himself to react, gives hope that this tendency will continue: neither the authorities nor other parties in these conflicts want a repeat of what happened in Yekaterinburg in other regions. 

Criminal and administrative prosecutions for “insulting religious feelings” remained not very active. The level of activity of social activists defending these feelings remained low. They limited themselves to peaceful protests, although there were isolated incidents of threats against the insulters. In cases where concessions were made to the defenders of the feelings of believers, these concessions were typically not unconditional: conflicts were often resolved by compromise. 

Thus, while some 2019 trends are encouraging, the overall situation with freedom of conscience is cause for alarm, especially with regard to the situation of religious minorities.


In the course of the past year, several legislative acts were passed that affect the activities of religious organizations. Some of them were aimed at simplifying bureaucratic constraints. 

On May 1, President Putin signed amendments to Article 19 of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” and Article 87 of the Federal Law “On Education in the Russian Federation”. These amendments gave religious educational institutions the opportunity to implement secondary vocational and higher education programs as well as additional vocational and training programs in accordance with the requirements of Federal State Educational Standards. The religious educational institutions that implement such programs are accorded the right to issue academic certificates to those who have passed the final certification in accordance with the requirements of the law “On Education”. 

Other amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and the Federal Law “On The Basis of Tourist Activity in the Russian Federation”, signed by the President on July 3, granted religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities, both on a paid and free-of-charge basis. 

Some legislative acts, on the contrary, have significantly complicated the life of religious organizations. This included the decree signed by Prime Minister Medvedev on September 11 approving the requirements for the counter-terrorism measures to be taken by religious organizations and for the safety permits for their real property. 

According to this decree, real property of religious organizations is divided into three categories depending on the maximum occupancy of the building. All real property must be equipped with lighting and fire extinguishing systems and guarded during services by members of public organizations. In addition, facilities with occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must be equipped with “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or Rosgvardiya (National Guard) personnel. Leaders of religious organizations are responsible for oversight of compliance with these requirements. 

It is obvious that few religious organizations have the financial ability to meet these requirements, and the penalty for noncompliance is high fines of up to 100,000 rubles. Even the head of the Legal Services of the Russian Orthodox Church, Mother Superior Ksenia (Chernega), mentioned in October a number of complications the implementation of these requirements would cause for religious organizations. In addition to the financial difficulties already mentioned, she pointed out that professional security guards may be non-believers or may profess a religion different from the one whose building they guard, which is unacceptable for the religious organizations that employ them. She also noted that the decree does not specify restrictions on the location of surveillance cameras. 

The law expanding the list of persons prohibited from being founders, participants, and members of non-profit organizations, including public and religious associations, signed by the President on December 2, will also have a negative impact on the life of religious organizations. Under this legislation, the Federal Laws “On Non-Government Associations”, “On Non-Profit Organizations”, and “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” were amended to ban organizations and individuals whose accounts have been frozen by the Russian Interagency Commission on Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism from becoming the founders, members, or participants of non-profit organizations. In the case of religious organizations, even restrictions on participation can be seen as a violation of the right to freedom of conscience. 

The Constitutional Court has issued two important definitions related to the activities of religious organizations. On October 10, it ruled on the appeal by the Reconciliation Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, registered in Yoshkar-Ola, that was fined in 2018 for “illegal” missionary activities for the distribution of its printed materials 100 km from Yoshkar-Ola, that is, outside the borders of the municipality where it is registered. The complainant challenged several provisions of Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (CAO) (Violation of laws on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and religious associations). The Court did not find any violations of the constitutional rights of the complainant but ruled that the scope of missionary activities of religious associations is wider than the territorial scope of their main religious activities. Having reviewed a number of provisions of this article and the Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations”, the Constitutional Court concluded that the restriction of the missionary activity of religious organizations on the territorial basis is contrary to constitutional principles. 

On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled on the complaint by the parishioner of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Vesely village of Rostov Oblast Olga Glamozdinova, who was fined 10,000 rubles in 2017 for improper use of a land plot. The fact that Glamozdinova provided her house for worship for four hours a week to a religious organization free of charge and agreed to register her address as the legal address of that religious organization was deemed misuse of the land. The applicant claimed that Part 1 of Article 8.8 of the CAO (Improper use of a land plot) and Article 42 of the Land Code (Obligations of landowners) stand in contradiction to the provisions of the Constitution that guarantee the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freely hold and dispose of property. 

The Court explained that the disputed norms do not contradict the Constitution and do not involve administrative liability for the owner “in cases where a religious organization is provided the opportunity to hold services and religious rites and ceremonies at residential premises and to use the address of residential premises as the religious organization’s address but do not allow such use of the premises when it loses all the characteristics of residential premises and is transformed into a worship building or administrative offices of the religious organization”. [8]

Thus, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation upheld the right of citizens to hold services, religious rites, and ceremonies in residential premises.

Bills Not Yet Implemented

In October, a group of deputies from different factions submitted a draft for another round of amendments to the laws “On Freedom of Conscience” and “On Physical Culture and Sport in the Russian Federation” to the State Duma. The authors of the bill proposed consolidating the legislation that would allow sports events organizers to provide religious athletes with the opportunity to practice their religious duties and with adequate premises for such activities, but this would only be applicable to registered religious organizations. It is possible that these amendments are aimed at limiting the influence of Rodnovery, or practitioners of the Slavic Native Faith, which, according to some representatives of Russian Orthodox Church, is popular among Russian wrestlers. However, these amendments, if adopted, are unlikely to produce significant impact: even without them, any organized religious ceremonies during sporting events are held by representatives of centralized religious organizations. These amendments do not imply restrictions on practicing religious duties on an individual basis. Consideration of these amendments has been postponed until 2020. 

In the same month, the State Duma rejected the bill introducing an additional public holiday on Easter Monday, the day after Easter Sunday, submitted in 2017 by deputies Yaroslav Nilov and Igor Lebedev. The State Duma Committee on Labor, Social Policy, and Veterans’ Affairs voted down the bill, arguing that work on a public holiday pays at least double the normal wage rate, and therefore, a new holiday would increase the financial burden on employers. The Council of the Federation Committee on Social Policy did not support the bill either, noting that “the introduction of the changes proposed by the new legislation may lead to inter-faith and inter-ethnic tensions among the population”

Moreover, Chairman of the Committee on Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Organizations Sergei Gavrilov announced two more initiatives related to religious organizations. Both were aimed at tightening the policy on religious organizations that have leading centers abroad and religious groups. 

In February, Gavrilov spoke about the need to “establish strict restrictions on the legal capacity” of religious organizations that have administrative and financial centers abroad, “up to legal liquidation”. In December, he announced the possibility of introducing mandatory registration for religious groups with more than three members “to strengthen supervision over such religious and pseudo-religious groups”

Fortunately, none of these initiatives has been implemented so far even at the level of submission to the State Duma.

Problems with Places of Worship

Problems with the Construction of Religious Sites

Tensions over the implementation of the program for the construction of modular Orthodox churches in Moscow, which eased to some extent in 2018, did not intensify, although several conflicts, both ongoing and new, did occur. 

For example, protests against the construction of temples in the Zyuzinsky Park and the Afgansky Square in the Novogireyevo district drew in several hundred, and the protests in Novogireyevo even became a subject of discussion at the Moscow City Duma. In the Beskudnikovo district, a protest rally against the construction of a temple in Svyatoslav Fyodorov Park actually drew more supporters of the construction. On the overall, the issue of the construction of the “walking distance” churches in Moscow appears to have lost its former sharpness, although the implementation of this program is proceeding at a much slower pace than its initiators have anticipated. 

In other regions, conflicts over construction continued. As before, in most cases they stemmed from the poor location choices for construction sites and procedural violations during the construction site selection process. 

Local residents protested primarily against the attempts to build in green areas. Thus, in Nizhny Novgorod, the conflict over the construction of a temple in the Fallen Police Officers Square Park escalated anew when the Orthodox diocese began to insist on changing the land purpose of the square to a zone for “cultural and educational purposes and sites of worship”, disregarding the local residents’ wish to have the construction relocated elsewhere supported by the regional Public Chamber. Representatives of the Sorok Sorokov Orthodox movement attended public hearings on this issue, but no violent confrontation occurred. Already in January 2020, following the results of another round of public hearings, the city administration announced that it would be looking for another site for the temple. 

St. Petersburg residents protested against the construction of a church in Yuzhno-Primorskiy Park and organized several rallies in the past year. A similar wish to preserve the recently improved square park became the reason for yet another protest against the planned construction of an Orthodox church in the Pervomayskaya Square in Tambov. 

The local residents’ wish to have a different structure erected on the selected site instead of a church gave rise to protests even more frequently than the wish to protect green spaces. For instance, residents of the Yuzhniye Vorota district of Tomsk preferred a park or a sports ground instead of a church. In Sochi, the participants of the public hearings did not approve the construction of a temple in Tchaikovsky street, as they found the construction of a sports ground on this site more appropriate. 

Sevastopol and Sol-Iletsk residents protested the plans for relocation of monuments in order to make space for the construction of new temples. In Sevastopol, the plans involved a monument to the heroes of the Vesta Steamer; in Sol-Iletsk, a fallen revolutionaries memorial. Both cases would have disturbed mass graves, so the townspeople demanded the relocation of the construction sites. 

The very fact of violations present during the church construction site selection process is another frequent cause of discontent. Opponents of the construction of a temple on the grounds of the Stroitel Gardeners’ Association of Krasnodar reminded the authorities that the paperwork for the transfer of the plot to the diocese in 2014 was prepared with violations. Residents of the Mekhzavod village near Samara found out that the construction of an Orthodox church was being carried out without the appropriate permission and filed a complaint with Stroinadzor (Construction Control) against the unauthorized construction. 

As in previous years, representatives of political movements often joined protests against the construction of churches. In Astrakhan, for example, representatives of the PARNAS, or People’s Freedom party, took part in single pickets protesting against the construction of an Orthodox church near Stepan Zdorovtsev Boarding School; in Ulyanovsk, protesters against the construction of a temple in the Semya park were supported by a deputy of the regional Legislative Assembly from the Communist party.  

The most resonant was the exacerbation of the several-year conflict over the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral in the square near the Drama Theater in Yekaterinburg. Protests were held throughout the first half of the year, and when the construction site was fenced in May, the defenders of the square organized a round-the-clock duty and knocked the fence down. This year was the first time that the Rosgvardiya and OMON were used for protection of the site. They were joined by an organized group of powerfully built men (presumably members of the Russian Copper Company Martial Arts Academy), who used force against the protesters. 

As a result of the confrontation, about 100 of the defenders were detained, with more than 100 administrative violation protocols drawn up against them. Many of the detainees were fined under Article 20.2.2 of the CAO (Organizing a mass gathering and/or movement in public places that caused a violation of public order) and Article 20.2 of the CAO (Violating the procedure established for conducting a meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picket) and sentenced to administrative arrests or corrective labor. Apart from that, one of the protesters was charged under Article 319 of the Criminal Code (Insulting a representative of the authorities). One of the participants in the May protest became a defendant in a criminal case under Article 212 of the Criminal Code (Mass riots). In December, the defendant pleaded guilty, received a fine, and the case was dismissed. 

Given the scale of the protests, the city administration was forced to suspend construction. Prompted by President Putin’s comment about the desirability of polling the local residents, the Yekaterinburg authorities had Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) conduct a poll, which found that three-quarters of residents disapproved of the chosen construction location. 

In the October citywide vote, the former grounds of the instrument factory were selected as the new location for the construction of the cathedral. In November, the Yekaterinburg City Duma changed the land purpose of the square near the Drama Theater from “religious” back to “public use”, making the construction of a church in the square impossible. 

After the confrontation in Yekaterinburg, the authorities in the regions marked by similar conflicts have immediately made concessions to protesters. Mayor of Krasnoyarsk denied an application for a church construction permit in the Troya park, opposed by the residents. Mayor of Chelyabinsk suspended the construction of a chapel in the square near South Ural State University, which has been a source of conflict for several years, and announced a referendum. The Ulyanovsk authorities began preparations for a poll of the town residents on the question of the construction of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the Semiya (“Family”) park, and the Ulyanovsk Prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation into the legality of the permit for the cathedral construction. 

But even before the exacerbation of the Yekaterinburg conflict, authorities in some regions chose to accommodate the demands of protesters. On the whole, compared with the previous year, 2019 saw noticeably more instances of opponents of church construction succeeding in their demands. For example, St. Petersburg authorities gave in to the pressure from Kanonersky Island residents and abandoned the idea of building the Saints Cyril and Methodius cathedral on the island, declaring sacrificing of the square park for the sake of the cathedral impractical and announcing the decision to find a more appropriate site. Referring to the results of the public hearings, Tver authorities refused to allocate a lot for the construction of a church on the banks of a man-made pond in the Mamulino district, a source for protests that lasted for a year and a half. 

Furthermore, as a result of public hearings, Nizhnevartovsk residents succeeded in relocating the church construction site from the park at the intersection of Lenin and Chapayev streets elsewhere. In Omsk, following the residents’ protests and an online poll, the Land Use and Development Commission of the city administration refused to change the permitted type of land use for the Leninsky square park so as to facilitate the construction of the Ilyinsky temple despite the fact that the initiators of the construction (Spiritual Heritage Foundation and the Cossacks) sought the support of both the Governor and President Putin. 

In Rybinsk, Yaroslavl Oblast, the diocese itself made the decision to abandon the idea of building a church in a birch grove after protests by local residents. According to the Bishop’s statement, “Wishing for the new temple – a place to serve God “with one mind and one mouth” – to become a true home for all the Christians of the town of Rybinsk, we are making the decision to cancel its construction on this site in order to consult once again with the opinion of the residents and select a location convenient for everyone”. [9].  

At the same time, there were instances when officials ignored the opinion of protesters. Thus, St. Petersburg authorities permitted the construction of a church in Prospekt Nauki (Science Boulevard) in disregard of the residents’ opposition to the construction expressed since 2018 and their preference for a hospital to be built on that spot. 

The reaction of the Tambov authorities to the town residents’ discontent over the construction of the Chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker near Dynamo Stadium was quite original. According to the protesters, the construction was carried out without necessary permits. In response to the request by the head of the Communist party faction of the Tambov City Duma Artem Aleksandrov to the Prosecutor’s office to investigate the legality of the construction, the regional Stroinadzor announced that what was being constructed near the stadium was not a chapel but “a collapsible wooden gazebo (a non-permanent, temporary structure) in traditional ancient Russian architectural style”. Meanwhile, the collapsible “gazebo” has a foundation, and Theodosius, Metropolitan of Tambov and Rasskazov, consecrated its dome in September. 

We should add that it seems likely that neither authorities nor the public want a repeat of what happened in Yekaterinburg and both are willing to look for ways to prevent potentially contentious issues related to the construction of churches from developing into open confrontations. Examples include conducting polls in social networks to find out local residents’ opinion beforehand, as it was done in Khanty-Mansiysk, where 75% of the online poll participants voted against the construction of a new cathedral near the university building; in Petrozavodsk, where 80% voted against the choice of location on the Onezhskaya embankment; and in Kurgan, where a majority voted against a new church in Mostostroitelei street. We should note that temples of other confessions also gave rise to conflicts. Protests against the construction of mosques are still most frequently based on the fears of the inconveniences associated with the proximity of the Muslim community. In Samara, based on the results of public hearings, the authorities rejected plans for building a mosque in the village of Mekhzavod, whose residents had opposed its construction since 2016. 

Residents of the Aviastroitelny district of Kazan, confident that the construction of Rahmatullah mosque near residential buildings and a school violates sanitary standards, went to court and succeeded in initiating a Prosecutor’s office investigation into the legality of the construction. Residents of the Uva village in Udmurtia petitioned the Prosecutor’s office to launch a similar investigation into the construction of a mosque on the lot owned by a store director. Residents of two villages in Ulyanovsk Oblast protested against the sale of the former school building to the Muslim community and construction of a Muslim cafe with a prayer hall. 

Other religious organizations also encountered difficulties with construction. For instance, Pskov administration refused to grant permission to the Union of Evangelical Baptists Christians to build a church on Shosseynaya street, although the site was approved for the church construction at a public hearing held in 2018. Residents of Chita organized the collection of signatures against the construction of the temple of the Gospel Life Church denomination near the Truda Square. 

Perm saw ongoing protests against the construction of the Jewish center and synagogue. A banner saying “They want to build a synagogue of the fascist Chabad sect here” appeared at the construction site in March, and an Orthodox prayer service “against the satanic abomination of the Jews”, attended by about 40 people, was held in November. 

Old Believers had to turn to both secular authorities and the ecclesiastical authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church after encountering problems during the construction of their churches in two regions. In October, after Tver authorities failed to approve the project documentation for the construction of a church on the site allocated as far back as in 2013, the head of the Union of Old Believers Leonid Sevastyanov turned to the Governor of Tver Oblast for assistance in obtaining the permit. In November, he appealed to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow for assistance in obtaining a land plot in Sergiev Posad, which historically was the property of Old Believers and where they were planning to restore the church destroyed in Soviet times.

Problems with Using Existing Buildings

As in the previous year, religious organizations often encountered difficulties when using existing buildings. 

The confiscation of property from Jehovah’s Witnesses communities continued based on the 2017 decision to ban both the central and local branches as extremist. Agreements for the donation of property to foreign organizations were serially deemed as putative transactions by courts, and the donated properties were consequently confiscated in favor of the state. Such decisions were made, among others, in Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Krai (Biysk), Buryatia (Ulan-Ude and Gusinoozyorsk), Kabardino-Balkaria (Nartkala), Syktyvkar, Tula, and Kostroma Oblast (Sharja). 

In a number of cases, as in St. Petersburg and the Khanskaya village in Adygea, buildings confiscated from Jehovah’s Witnesses were put up for auction by local authorities. Notably, in Belorechensk, Krasnodar Krai, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ property failed to sell at auction twice: both attempts to auction it off were declared invalid when no bids were made for the two lots, a residential building and a land plot. 

Protestants encountered problems when using their buildings as frequently as in the previous year; in most cases, these difficulties arose in connection with various officials’ claims. 

For example, the Nizhny Novgorod court ordered the church building of the Evangelical Christian Church organization (also known as Embassy of God) closed for noncompliance with fire safety regulations. Since 2018, several inspections of the church building revealed 78 violations, which is not surprising: the building was erected in 1949 in accordance with the requirements of that time. In May, based on the results of these inspections, the district court ruled to close the building. The organization managed to challenge this decision and eliminate all the detected violations within a few months. Still, the court of appeals upheld the decision of the district court. 

In Kaluga, at the request of the Prosecutor’s office, the court prohibited Word of Life Evangelical Church from using their Church of Christ the Saviour unless the building complies with the 2000 registration certificate despite the fact that the organization was in possession of a more recent valid registration certificate. In case of noncompliance, the court prescribed to “demolish the entire temple”. 

The church of Seventh-day Adventists in Novosibirsk was declared an illegal structure and demolished despite the amendments adopted in 2018 that facilitate legalization of such structures by religious organizations. 

Ukhta Baptists failed to challenge the refusal by the city authorities to issue a permit to put into operation their house of prayer. The refusal was justified by the fact that construction rules changed since the construction permit was issued in 2006 and the construction itself was completed in 2012. The refusal on this basis was considered legitimate by three different courts. 

Apart from that, in Voronezh, the Arbitration Court terminated the agreement between the Territorial Administration of the Federal Property Management Agency and the St. Mary Magdalene Evangelical Lutheran Parish on the gratuitous use of the church in Karl Marx street, which the community had used for 12 years. The reason was the departure of the community from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. The building is a cultural heritage object of federal significance, and such objects can only be used by centralized organizations. Notably, it was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession that initiated the motion by the Federal Property Management Agency against the parish. 

There were more than a few instances of Protestant believers being fined under Part 1 of Article 8.8 of the CAO (Use of land plots for a wrong purpose) for holding religious services in private homes. In Omsk, the regional Union of Evangelical Baptist Christians and a believer in the Slavyanka village of the Novovarshavsky district were fined; in Kozmodemyansk, the Mary-El Republic, a member of Evangelical Baptist Christians was fined. It is hoped that after the above-mentioned decision of the Constitutional Court on this issue this practice will stop.  

Protestants were not the only ones who had problems using premises for worship. In Yekaterinburg, the Nur-Usman mosque was demolished due to the construction of an ice arena. By agreement with the city administration, the community had to move to a new location but could not do so for a long time, as the allocated temporary premises were not ready by the time of the eviction. When the community did move, it turned out that the residents of the Sortirovka village, where the authorities had allocated a plot for the construction of a new mosque, were unhappy about the proximity to mosque and demanded moving the construction elsewhere. Local residents’ protests continued into 2020. 

After the anti-migrant unrest in March, Yakutsk residents demanded that the grand mosque be relocated from the city center to the suburbs. The administration did not accommodate their request: Mayor of Yakutsk Sardana Avksentyeva called it unacceptable and urged the protesters to remain “within the legal framework”. 

In the village of Kushchevskaya, Krasnodar Krai, the District Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to the manager of TRANSPark roadside service about the inadmissibility of violating the provisions of the law “On freedom of conscience, religion and religious associations” after one of the service’s premises was used by Muslim passengers as a prayer room without informing the Ministry of Justice. 

After never receiving a new church promised by the governor in replacement of the one demolished in preparation for the Olympic Games of 2014, the Old Believers community of the Imereti Valley near Sochi began building a new Old Believers Church of the Assumption of the Virgin. It was arrested at the request of the city administration: the believers were unable to register the building because the city administration changed the rules of land use after the construction had begun. The parties agreed to cancel the arrest, but the community never managed to register and use the church. 

In Novosibirsk, the Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension was fined 75,000 rubles for repeated failure to comply with fire safety rules. 

In the vicinity of Maloyaroslavets of Kaluga Oblast, the Pyatibozhie (“Five Gods”) pagan temple was demolished by the order of the Prosecutor’s office. It ruled that the temple was erected illegally, without the consent of the plot owner.

Favorable Resolutions

As in the previous year, we are aware of only a few cases where religious organizations have been able to defend their property in court, although such cases did take place. 

In one such instance, the Church of Evangelical Baptist Christians of Taganrog was able to legalize the prayer house that was previously considered an illegal construction; the Arbitration Court of Rostov Oblast recognized the religious organization’s right to the building. The Samara First Apostolic Christian Mercy Mission succeeded in defending its prayer house, which the city administration had ordered to be demolished within a year as an illegal structure. In January 2020, the Arbitration Court of Samara Oblast dismissed this claim, citing the amendments adopted in 2018 that allow religious organizations to legalize buildings. 

And the Catholic community of Rostov-on-Don managed to avoid paying more than five million rubles in fines that the city authorities tried to collect as debt for land use. According to the Department of Property and Land Relations of Rostov-on-Don, the parish had to pay off the debt and interest for the actual use of the land for three years, as the buildings located on the lot were made property of a religious organization. Courts of two instances dismissed the Department’s claim. 

Furthermore, the Moscow City Court overturned the decision of the court of first instance that banned the activities of a group of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) after a complaint by communal apartment neighbors.

Conflicts Surrounding the Transfer of Property to Religious Organizations

As before, properties were granted to religious organizations to be used for religious purposes. The most frequent recipient was the Russian Orthodox Church; in Altai Krai, for instance, the authorities went as far as to use budget funds to renovate the Znamensky Church in the village of Kurya, where the weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov was baptized, before handing it over to the Orthodox diocese. 

Other organizations were granted property as well. 

In Syzran, the Jewish community received a historic synagogue building. 

The Catholic communities of Petrozavodsk and Barnaul managed to receive properties, too. Karelia authorities granted a church, a regional cultural heritage object, to the parish of Our Lady of Relentless Aid. On the other hand, the Barnaul Catholics had to endure lengthy litigation with the city administration over the ownership rights to their church building that long housed a pharmacy; the litigation ended in June with the signing of a settlement agreement. Officials were ordered to find a new location for the pharmacy. 

Other religious organizations were unable to obtain ownership of the properties they laid claim to. The Ministry of Property and Land Relations of Crimea refused to hand over the historic church building in Yevpatoria, currently occupied by the Ministry of Defense, to the Lutheran community of Crimea. The community fears that the building will eventually be sold to a private owner. 

The demands of the Catholics of Kirov and Krasnoyarsk for their respective churches, currently housing philharmonic halls, to be handed over to them could not be granted even through court. The lawsuits over both properties have been ongoing since 2018. The Catholic parish of Krasnoyarsk tried to challenge the 2018 decision rejecting the transfer but was unsuccessful. The Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Kirov also tried to contest the rejection but in January 2020 lost even the ability to hold a few services a year in the former cathedral; the city authorities insist that the parish signs an agreement for free-of-charge use of the building and in return abandons ownership claims. The community finds such conditions unacceptable and refuses to sign the agreement. 

The Saratov Oblast authorities that had earlier refused to transfer the former Old Believers Kazanskaya (Gorinskaya) Church to the Old Believers community handed it over to the Russian Orthodox Gymnasium instead. The school management’s plans to open a Pan-Orthodox church in the building were met with support from the representatives of the Old Believers community. 

A small number of conflicts resulted from interests of other parties being jeopardized in the course of the transfer of properties to religious organizations. This happened when the building housing the School of Olympic Reserve specializing in Nordic Combined was handed over to the Orthodox Spaso-Pargolovsky parish by the decision of the Property Relations Committee of St. Petersburg. The decision angered both the school staff and the parents of the athletes who train there, as they found the alternative premises offered to them unsuitable for sports activities. No preliminary discussion of any kind concerning the transfer was held with the affected parties, although such discussion is stipulated by the law “On transfer to religious organizations of the property of religious purpose which is state-owned or municipal property”. No archival documents confirming the ownership of the building by the Russian Orthodox Church were presented to the parents or school staff. 

In the course of 2019, St. Petersburg Governor Alexey Beglov received demands from several deputies and the Committee for Physical Culture and Sports of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg to stop the process of the transfer of ownership; no resolution has been reached. 

The Russian Orthodox Church has laid new claims to properties housing cultural and educational institutions. Patriarch Kirill filed an application with the head of the Federal Property Management Agency requesting the handover of the Spaso-Andronikov Monastery in Moscow (a complex of buildings), which houses the Central Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art. The Museum community, as in other similar conflicts, opposed the transfer, seeing the relocation as a threat to future functioning of the Museum. As of the year end, the Museum was renovating the premises provided by the Government of Moscow in preparation for the transfer of a part of the exhibits. However, the Ministry of Culture does not exclude the possibility of having the Museum and the Church share the monastery complex. 

The Russian Orthodox Church also laid claim to the former Moscow Synodical Printing House (15 Nikolskaya Street), which has housed the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives of the Russian State University for the Humanities since Soviet times. In a letter to the Minister of Science and Education, Rector of RSUH Alexander Bezborodov pointed out that the building “does not meet the criteria under the law for classifying it as a religious property, as it has not been used for these types of activities of religious organizations throughout the history of its existence”.[10] Further progress is yet to be seen.

Discrimination on the Basis of Attitude to Religion

Criminal Prosecution

Repressions against Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose centralized and local branches were banned as extremist in 2017, has increased many times compared with 2018. 

During the past year, new criminal charges were brought against Jehovah’s Witnesses under Article 2822 (Organization of and participation in an extremist organization) and sometimes Article 2823 of the Criminal Code (Funding of extremist activity) in multiple regions of the country. In reality, communal prayer and reading of religious literature often served as pretext for initiating the charges. In 2019, criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions (in total, criminal prosecution is ongoing in 52 regions). By the end of the year, 313 people were accused; 213 of them had charges filed against them in 2019. 

In these criminal cases, eight sentences were handed down in 2019, and 18 people were convicted. Nine of them were sentenced to real prison terms; three, including Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, received six years. 

During the year, 84 persons involved in these cases were detained for various periods of time (a total of 149 people spent some time in custody since 2017, 22 of them women). 

This year was the first time that the detained Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured. In February, after mass detentions, believers in Surgut reported torture in the building of the Investigative Committee of Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug. They complained of beatings by the employees of the Investigative Committee that lasted several hours, of being stripped naked, doused with water, and stunned with stun gun, all while their hands were tied behind their backs. The Investigative Committee investigated their claims and found no grounds for initiating a criminal case but acknowledged the use of “combat techniques” on Jehovah’s Witnesses “due to their active resistance before the search”. The Jehovah’s Witness from Kaluga Roman Makhnev, arrested in June, also reported being tortured in the FSB building after he claimed that the banned literature was planted on him during the search: he was handcuffed to a pipe all night and was denied food for three days. It should be added that in the first months of 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported torture of people of their faith in other regions as well. 

We should note that many elderly people became the subject of criminal prosecution. For example, in Arkhangelsk, a case under Part 2 of Article 2822 of the Criminal Code was opened against 78-year-old Kaleria Mamykina; later, due to the lack of the elements of crime, the case was dismissed. Mamykina was placed under surveillance for a year. Six women aged between 61 and 85 were charged under the same article in Vladivostok. The case was sent back to the Prosecutor’s office. A 68-year-old believer held in the Armavir jail was denied medical care. He lost 24 kilograms during his month-and-a-half detention. 

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses data, in the course of the past year, 489 believers were subjected to searches as part of the criminal investigations; that is more than one-half of the total of 778 searches conducted since the organization was banned. In most instances, searches were accompanied by other violations: believers and their relatives were threatened, intimidated, interrogated at night, and their homes were broken into in early morning hours. In Smolensk, one of the believers was threatened with having their child removed from the family. In the same town, an 81-year-old woman was taken from a sanatorium under false pretenses and interrogated for six hours. In Kaluga, the search team forced the 15-year-old daughter of one of the believers out of the house barefoot in the rain. 

Believers report that search teams sometimes seize unusual “evidence”, such as a personal diary and a fridge magnet, as happened in Karelia, or “a napkin with pretty design” in Tynda. 

Criminal prosecution is not the only form of pressure exerted on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Kemerovo Oblast administration sent a letter of warning to mayors and governors about the danger that Jehovah’s Witnesses presented and called for measures “to counteract the popularization of extremist beliefs”. One such measure recommended by the administration was organizing a media campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses involving “representatives of traditional faiths”. 

There were also instances of non-governmental discrimination. For instance, a resident of Surgut, who had worked as a firefighter for more than 20 years, was forced by the management to submit a letter of resignation. The reason was his affiliation with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Restrictions on Missionary Activities

Persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments package continued, although, judging by the Supreme Court data for the first half of 2019 (data for the second half of the year was not available at the time of the publication of this report), its intensity has slightly diminished. In the first six months of 2019, 174 cases under Article 5.26 of the CAO (Violation of the law on freedom of conscience, religion and religious associations) were heard; the vast majority of them were cases on “illegal” missionary work (in comparison, in the first half of 2018, their number was 234). 102 persons – 74 individuals, 2 officials, and 26 legal entities – received penalties; in 2018, that number was 147. 

Fines remain the main punitive measure for this article (99 instances); sometimes, written warnings are also issued (3). In some cases, additional penalties were imposed, such as five expulsions from the country and one confiscation. The total amount of fines imposed by the courts of first instance in the first six months reached 1,899,100 rubles (some of them could be challenged by appeal), which is lower than the total for the same period in 2018 (2,471,000 rubles). [11] 

Protestants and representatives of new religious movements remain the most frequent target of persecution under the “anti-missionary” amendments. However, as we rightly expected last year, these amendments were actively implemented against believers of “traditional” religious organizations as well. 

In February, a Buddhist was fined 5,000 rubles for “illegal” missionary activity in Sochi. The court found him guilty under Part 4 of Article 5.26 of the CAO for preaching without the permit of the Russian Diamond Way Karma Kagyu Buddhists Association. The joint investigation that revealed the violation was conducted by the Prosecutor’s office of Sochi and the FSB. 

In several instances, administrative charges for “illegal” missionary work were brought against Muslims. In one such case, in August, the Mufti of Moscow Ildar Alyautdinov and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow were fined 30,000 rubles each under Part 3 of Article 5.26 of the CAO (Distribution of literature, printed, audio, and video materials without labeling the material with the specified name or incomplete or deliberately false labeling). 

According to Forum 18, one Muslim and one Jewish organization were fined under the same article in Crimea.[12] 

In addition, a February lecture by two foreign guest speakers at the Jewish Lifehacker seminar for Jewish youth in Novosibirsk was deemed “illegal” missionary activity by the law enforcement. Velvel Belinsky and Asher Altshul, the guest speakers invited by the Beit Menachem Jewish community cultural center, were fined 2,000 rubles each under Article 18.8 of the CAO (Violation by a foreign citizen of the rules for entry into the Russian Federation) after their participation in the workshop was seen as inconsistent with the purpose of visit stated in their tourist visas.  

As before, implementation of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments is frequently marred with violations. For instance, in Novorossiysk, presbyter Yury Kornienko was fined under Article 5.26 of the CAO for conducting illegal missionary activities despite the fact that, as a presbyter, he had the very authority to conduct missionary activities. Besides, the protocol was compiled 11 days after the religious service that constituted offense, although the law prescribes that it should have been done no later than two days following the offense. Although the defense pointed out this violation, it was unable to challenge the fine. 

As in previous years, often the absence of a sign bearing the full name of the centralized religious organization or of labels on religious literature served as the ground for prosecution for “illegal” missionary work, as did failure to notify authorities of the creation of the religious group and the absence of documents confirming the right to conduct missionary activities. This was the case in Magnitogorsk, where a resident was fined 5,000 rubles for setting up a prayer room without notifying authorities and for not displaying the name and schedule of religious services. In Yoshkar-Ola, two Baptists, members of an unregistered religious group, were fined 5,000 rubles each for distributing religious literature without the required labels. A member of the same religious group, a citizen of Ukraine, was fined 30,000 rubles under Part 5 of Article 5.26 of the CAO (Carrying out missionary activities in violation of the requirements of the law on freedom of conscience, committed by a foreign citizen). 

Additionally, in Kaliningrad, a volunteer for the Initiative Inter-Regional Public Center for Assistance to Drug Addicts, Alcoholics, and People in Difficult Situations was fined 50,000 rubles for “illegal” missionary activity. The presence of religious symbols and the display of the plan of daily activities that included communal prayer, spiritual discussions, and religious literature readings were both considered as “missionary activity”. The New Generation Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) in Satka, Chelyabinsk Oblast, was fined 50,000 rubles under the same article for holding services in one of the city’s cafes without a document confirming that the premises were indeed made available to them. And in Sevastopol, two Hare Krishna followers were fined 5,000 rubles each for chanting mantras in a city park.

Liquidation of Organizations and Denials of Registration

We are not aware of any liquidations of religious organizations in 2019. In Moscow, however, there was an attempt to ban a religious group whose meetings were held by a Pentecostal couple in their room in a communal apartment. The ban was imposed in January by the Ostankino district court of Moscow on the basis of the flatmates’ complaint; they claimed feeling “uncomfortable with them praying in there”. In April, this decision was overturned by the Moscow City Court. 

We have information of only one case of denial of registration of religious organization. In Astrakhan Oblast in April, a Muslim organization that is not part of the regional Spiritual Administration of Muslims was unable to obtain state registration. We do not have information about the official reason for the denial, but Deputy Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Southern Federal District Anatoly Safronov saw the attempt by this organization to obtain official registration as an attempt by “external destructive forces” to “undermine the national accord” and “split the Muslim Ummah”.

Other Forms of Discrimination

As in previous years, there were instances of deportations of foreign clergy and missionaries from the country. In March, two U.S. citizens who were in Russia on a volunteer program and were detained in Novorossiysk, Mormons Col Brodovsky and David Haag, were deported. They were found guilty under Part 2 of Article 18.8 of the CAO (Violation by a foreign citizen of the rules for entry into the Russian Federation manifesting itself in the noncompliance of the declared purpose of entering the Russian Federation with the activity or line of business which is actually carried out while staying in the Russian Federation). Both volunteers had arrived in Russia on humanitarian visas which indicated religious activities as the purpose of their trip. They did not teach English but participated in an English-language event, where they were detained. Before deportation, they were held in a temporary detention center for foreign citizens for more than a week. 

A Baptist pastor, Helmut Herman Beringer, who had been living in Russia since 1995 and had a residence permit valid until March 2021, was deported from Sverdlovsk Oblast. The regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs revoked his residence permit after the information was provided by the FSB that the pastor “advocated a violent change of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” and “urged citizens to refuse to fulfil their legal duties and to confront the Russian Orthodox Church”. 

How exactly he went about doing it was not clarified even in the courtroom, neither in the Tavda district court in November, where the decision on deportation was made, nor in the Sverdlovsk regional court in December, where this decision was confirmed. The pastor himself believes that his distribution during the 2018 World Cup of the brochures titled Russia. Football: History, Facts, and Evidence, published by the Russian Union of Evangelical Baptist Christians, may have been interpreted in this way. 

It should be mentioned that the decision to deport the pastor separated his family: his wife is a Russian citizen, and their children do not speak German. 

Pastor Yevgeny Peresvetov, a Ukrainian citizen and the head of Vosstanovleniye (“Restoration”) Christian Center, who was deported from Russia in 2018, also was unable to challenge the deportation decision. 

Several times law enforcement agents disrupted services held by various religious organizations. For example, in April, on the Annunciation Day, a celebratory religious service held by a registered group of Evangelical Baptist Christians in a private house in the village of Verkhnebakansky in Novorossiysk was disrupted by the Rosgvardiya, police and FSB officers, firefighters, Cossacks, and representatives of the city administration; they broke into the house and demanded that the religious service be stopped. After that, the house was banned from use for religious purposes and sealed. 

In Kaluga Oblast, armed employees of the Center for Countering Extremism and the OMON disrupted a Falun Dafa event held in one of the guesthouses. They surrounded the building, blocked the exits, and conducted documents inspection and interrogation, justifying their actions by the need to verify the legality of staying in Russia of the foreign participants of the event. 

The pressure on Protestant educational institutions has not abated. Since 2018, many of them have been subject to numerous checks by Rosobrnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science) and other agencies, which identified numerous violations. In the majority of the cases, sanctions were imposed on the seminaries even when violations were eliminated. For instance, after numerous inspections, the magistrate court fined the Moscow Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Baptist Christians and its rector Peter Mitskevich for non-compliance with the Rosobrnadzor’s instructions that the Seminary had actually fulfilled on time. It was not possible to challenge this decision. At first, the Seminary’s activity was suspended for 60 days, and students were not allowed to enroll. Then the Seminary’s license for educational activity was suspended. Finally, Rosobrnadzor asked court to withdraw the license. In February 2020, the Moscow Arbitration Court granted this motion. 

In addition, Rosobrnadzor announced that the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg will no longer be admitting students. The reason for this decision was also failure to comply with Rosobrnadzor’s instructions in a timely manner. 

It should be noted that sometimes Rosobrnadzor found fault with educational institutions of other religions as well. At the end of the year, the license of Imam Ashari Islamic University of Khasavyurt was terminated.  

Muslims continued to be subjected to police pressure from time to time. For example, in the Moscow district of Lyublino, the police detained 27 Muslims who were doing namaz (praying) at the door of the Trade Fair Complex. All the detainees received administrative charges: two of them, citizens of Tajikistan, were charged under Part 3 of Article 18.8 of the CAO and the others, citizens of Russia, CIS countries, and Turkey, – under Part 5 of Article 20.2 of the CAO (Violating a procedure established for arranging a meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picket). 

In addition, in some regions, law enforcement agencies have paid increased attention to the appearance of schoolchildren and their use of religious objects. In Kazan, the Department of Juvenile Affairs of the local Ministry of Internal Affairs sent a letter to one of the schools asking it to provide information on schoolgirls wearing hijab to schools and their families. The resulting public outcry forced the republican Ministry of Internal Affairs to launch an investigation into the collection of this information. According to the investigation results, Venera Sabirzyanova, the head of the department, who initiated and signed the letter, was brought to disciplinary responsibility. 

In Penza, changes were made to regulations on school uniform for 20 schools at the request of the Prosecutor’s office of the Oktyabrsky district, and a ban on wearing religious clothing, including headscarves, inside schools was introduced. Commenting on the ban, the Prosecutor’s office explained that its aim was to ensure compliance with the principle of secular education as well as “the fundamental principles of countering extremist activities”. 

And in the Yamal district of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, the Novoportovsk L. V. Laptsuy Boarding School administration conducted an official check after one of the school staff turned out to be a Church of Scientology member. By this measure, the administration tried to “protect itself and the children”.

Favorable Resolutions

In some instances, believers were able to defend their rights, including in court. For example, they were able to overturn the fines imposed for “illegal” missionary work. 

Thus, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in May declared illegal and overturned the February decision by the magistrate court to impose a fine of 30,000 rubles on the Pentecostal pastor Alexander Barakhtenko under Article 5.26 of the CAO. 

In January 2020, in Ryazan, the case of Oleg K., who was fined under the same article in November 2019 for distributing Bibles near the Radio Engineering Academy, was dropped for lack of evidence. 

The pastor of the Maykop Word of Life Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) Yuri Dachev was unable to challenge the fine he received in May under Part 2 of Article 20.2 of the COA (Organizing or holding a public event without filing a notice of a public event in the prescribed manner) for holding a service in a restaurant without notifying the authorities but managed to reduce the amount twofold, from 20,000 down to 10,000 rubles. 

The Embassy of Jesus Pentecostal Church in Nizhny Novgorod, fined 100,000 rubles in 2018 for publishing an interview with the Zimbabwean student of the local State Medical Academy Kudzai Nyamarebvu, in which the court identified a “hidden missionary nature”, filed a complaint against the court decision with the European Court of Human Rights; the ECHR has registered the complaint. 

We point out an interesting decision of the Prosecutor’s office of Obninsk, Kaluga Oblast, that defended the principle of equality of religious organizations. It issued a warning to the city administration for not including some of the registered religious organizations in the Council on Interethnic and Interfaith Relations. The Prosecutor’s office found that the administration’s ignoring of some organizations and unwillingness to cooperate with them constituted a violation of anti-extremism legislation.

Protecting the Feelings of Believers

Protection from the Top

Just as in the previous year, criminal prosecution for “insulting the religious feelings” was not very active. 

In 2019, we are aware of only one sentence under Parts 1 or 2 of Article 148 of the Criminal Code (Obstruction of the exercise of the right of liberty of conscience and religious liberty). In Irkutsk, anarchist Dmitry Litvin was sentenced to 100 hours of mandatory labor for publishing anti-Christian memes in VKontakte social network. He was released from punishment due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. 

Two cases under this Article against the residents of Barnaul Maria Motuznaya and Andrey Shasherin, who were also charged under the decriminalized Part 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (Incitement of hatred), were dismissed. The case against the resident of Barnaul Daniil Markin, who was charged under Article 282 for publishing anti-Christian memes on a social network, was also dismissed. 

During the past year, at least three new cases were opened under Article 148, all three for publishing images on social networks: in two cases, the images were offensive to Christians, and the third did not specify which believers were insulted. 

There were several instances of administrative charges for insulting religious feelings. Anatoly Kazikhanov, a resident of Severodvinsk, was fined 15,000 rubles under Part 2 of Article 5.26 of the CAO (Deliberate public desecration of religious articles or symbols). A case under the same article was initiated against Ilnur Kamaldinov, a resident of Ingushetia. Both cases concerned publishing images that were offensive to Russian Orthodox believers. 

The case under the same article against Yaroslav Varenik, a journalist from Arkhangelsk, was terminated: the investigation did not find any signs of desecration of objects of religious veneration in the video clip by the Batushka (“Father”) rock band that the defendant had posted. 

As before, we find most of these cases to be inappropriate.

Protection from Below

Throughout the past year, believers, mostly Russian Orthodox, claimed from time to time that their religious feelings were being insulted. Most of the time, certain events or acts were reported as offensive by the offended party, but no punishment was demanded. 

For example, Muslim bloggers limited themselves to expressing discontent in social networks over the poem by Sergey Shnurov that uses mat (Russian profanity) and mentions Allah. Some Russian Orthodox Christians declared it offensive when the St. Petersburg Concert Choir, performing at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, sang a ditty depicting a Russian nuclear attack on the United States. The choir representatives explained in social networks that the song was composed in the Cold War era and, as a historical material, should not be altered “for the sake of political correctness or some other agenda”, adding that a concert in a church does not imply the performance of liturgical works exclusively. The matter ended there. 

In some cases, believers addressed their complaints about insulted religious feelings to various authorities but did not always get the desired response. 

For example, the Krasnoyarsk diocese, unhappy about the release of Yenisei-Batyushka brand of vodka that comes in a chapel-shaped bottle, filed a request with the Prosecutor’s office calling for the legal assessment of the product. According to the believers, “the manufacturer entices consumers to blasphemy, because opening the bottle means removing the ‘roof’ of the chapel, and the fragile cross and dome may be broken”. However, there was no information on any penalties imposed on the manufacturer. 

A group of Orthodox Christians urged the General Prosecutor’s office to prevent the release of the film Karamora by Danila Kozlovsky, a fantasy film whose plot is based on the connection of the Romanov dynasty with vampires. According to the petitioners, linking something as sacral as the image of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, with something “base and vulgar (possessing the semantics of religious Satanism and suggestive of an openly mocking farce)” “cannot but cause grave insult of religious feelings of Russian Orthodox believers and the deepest humiliation of their human dignity”. The result of the petition is unknown: the film has not yet been released, but only because work on it has not yet been completed. 

In most of the cases known to us when a conflict over the insulted feelings of believers did flare up, the parties were able to reach a compromise. 

For example, in Yekaterinburg, a group of the Russian Orthodox believers who opposed the restoration of the Suprematist Cross artwork by the street artist Pokras Lampas (Arseny Pyzhenkov), accidentally partially paved over with asphalt by utility workers, failed to achieve cancellation of the restoration of the artwork but did manage to ensure the alteration of its shape. 

In protest against the restoration, the believers held an action “Don’t Trample on Love”: they stood holding hands and wearing t-shirts with inscriptions that formed the phrase “The Cross is a symbol of Christ’s victory over your death. Don’t trample on love.” During the protest, threats were voiced against both the artist and the organizers of the Stenograffia street art festival, within the framework of which the Suprematist Cross was created. If the Suprematist Cross is not removed, one of the participants of the protest threatened “to make his own artwork”, saying “I will smear blood all over these Satanist Indians. That will be the artwork that will ring throughout Russia. I’m prepared to go to jail.”[ 13] 

After these threats, Pokras Lampas refused to come to Yekaterinburg, and the police started investigating. With the mediation of the Ordzhonikidze district administration, the organizers of Stenograffia and the Russian Orthodox activists held a meeting; it was decided to restore the artwork and alter its shape. 

In Novosibirsk, a member of the Sorok Sorokov movement complained to a police officer about a young man who was standing at the entrance to a metro station wearing a t-shirt with a “caricature of a saint” that offended the complainant's religious feelings. With the mediation of the police officer, the parties agreed that the young man would remove the “offensive” t-shirt, and the insulted would not submit written complaint. 

Residents of Kaliningrad were able to defend “Homelins”, the small statues of home spirits (known in Russian as “domovoy”), installed with the support of the regional Ministry of Culture and opposed by the Kaliningrad diocese and representatives of the Communist party. Baltic Archbishop Seraphim regarded the installation of the statues, which quickly gained popularity among the city residents, as a “trend toward popularizing the idea of neo-paganism”, which “eliminates the cultural heritage of one thousand years, formed under the influence of Christianity”. His view was supported by the Regional Duma deputy, Communist Ekaterina Koroleva. 

The authors of the statue installation project were ready to suspend it, but Kaliningrad residents organized a large-scale flashmob in social networks titled “Do Not Touch the Homelins”. One of the authors of the project, Natalia Shevchenko, met with the Archbishop and managed to convince him to change his mind; soon after that, a new Homelin statue was installed – that of a sailor home spirit.

Fight for “Traditional Values”

Apparently, there were fewer cases of self-censorship employed to prevent potential protests by offended believers. We have information about only one such instance; this year, it is related to trade and not to cultural events, as it was in previous years. In spring, the head of the Council of the Khoroshevo district of Moscow, Sergey Bakhrov sent a letter to the directors of trade and public catering companies recommending the suspension of the sale of alcoholic beverages during the Orthodox holidays of Palm Sunday, Easter, Krasnaya Gorka, and Trinity Sunday. According to the shoppers’ reports, the Auchan store in the Aviapark shopping center actually suspended the sale of alcohol on the occasion of Palm Sunday. 

The regulation elicited a massive negative response: many interpreted the ban as a violation of law and restriction of the rights of atheists. As a result, the head of the Council declared the incident a mistake, denied issuing the regulation, and mentioned that drinking wine was not prohibited during the above-mentioned Orthodox holidays. 

The fact that no cases of the use of force to protect religious feelings were reported during the past year does not mean that the defenders of these feelings completely abandoned aggressive tactics. The above-mentioned threats against the creators of the Suprematist Cross was not the only case. At the end of the year, State Duma Deputy and TV presenter Oksana Pushkina and lawyer Konstantin Dobrynin, who helped draft the domestic abuse bill, reported threats from Russian Orthodox activists. The campaign against this law was supported by about 100 Russian Orthodox organizations, including Sorok Sorokov. The campaign organizers accused the authors of the bill of trying to “introduce the principles of radical anti-family ideologies, such as feminism and gender ideology, into Russian legislation”

Pushkina and Dobrynin had to contact law enforcement and request an investigation into the organization of the campaign and threats to the authors of the bill. They believe that the Russian Orthodox activists’ actions fall under a number of criminal articles, including Article 282 (Incitement to hatred) and Article 277 of the Criminal Code (Encroachment on the life of a statesman or public figure). 

This is not the only instance in 2019 when Russian Orthodox activists have defended not just religious feelings but “traditional values” in general. The resident of Novosibirsk Ivan Kvasnitsky, who previously participated in the protests of the Orthodox against rock concerts, succeeded in initiating an investigation into the lyrics of the rapper LJay suspected in promoting alcohol and drugs. The regional office of the Federal Antimonopoly Service found LJay’s music dangerous for teenagers and the “12+” age restriction on his show posters insufficient, and, as a result, an administrative case was opened against the artist.

Insufficient Protection against Defamation and Attacks

Violence and Vandalism

As in the previous year, the level of religiously motivated violence remains low. We are not aware of any attacks motivated by religious hatred in 2019. 

As we noted in the previous report, the sharp drop in the number of attacks is primarily due to the lack of information about attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have long been the main victims. The ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations and their consequent inability to preach door-to-door seems to have significantly reduced the number of attacks on adherents of this faith. At the same time, it is important to remember that, in current circumstances, Jehovah’s Witnesses have lost the ability to record regular statistics of attacks, so it cannot be ruled out that they did occur. We are aware of at least the threats received in 2019 by the family of a Jehovah’s Witness in the village of Sukhobuzimskoye in Krasnoyarsk Krai. We are quite sure that this was not the only such case. 

In a number of violent crimes, religious motive cannot be ruled out. In Yekaterinburg, a nine-year-old boy was murdered in November; his father was charged with a ritual murder, and Zemfira Gainullina, the head of the Disciples of Christ religious group, with which he was affiliated, was charged with complicity to murder. 

In 2019, a number of attacks targeted Russian Orthodox clergy, but these attacks were not motivated by religious hatred and were of a more criminal nature. For example, in Nizhny Novgorod, a drunk resident threatened a guard of Pechersky Ascension Monastery with a handgun and shouted insults at the clergy.  

The level of religiously motivated vandalism decreased further compared with 2018. Most of the attacks known to us (6) targeted Russian Orthodox sites; this number is almost twice as low as in the previous year (11). Two of the attacks were arson: in St. Petersburg, a church on Vasilievsky Island was set on fire, and in Zelenodolsk, Tatarstan same happened to the chapel of the Kazan Cathedral. A dangerous act of vandalism occurred in Moscow after the conflict over the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral escalated in Yekaterinburg: activists of the radical right-wing People’s Resistance Association (ANS) placed a banner that said “Apologize for EKB” (EKB stands for “Yekaterinburg”) on the gates of the patriarchal residence in Chistiy Pereulok and threw smoke bombs onto the residence grounds. 

There were two incidents of toppled crosses: the graves of the relatives of a local priest were desecrated in the Novo-Leninsky cemetery in Irkutsk, and the Poklonny ("worship") Cross was desecrated at a Tatar settlement near Stavropol. In both cases, this was not the first time vandalism was reported at these sites. In the village of Kostino, Vladimir Oblast, vandals painted a swastika on the wall of the Trinity Church. There were at least five incidents of vandals’ attacks on Jewish sites (compared with four in 2018). On the Eve of Passover, in the Ramenskoye district of Moscow Oblast, one of the buildings of the Torat Haim yeshiva was set on fire, and Nazi symbols, the swastika and the numbers 88 and 130 (probably stands for the 130th anniversary of Hitler’s birth), were drawn on the walls. 

Other acts of vandalism were graffiti: in the village of Aksai of Volgograd Oblast, a cross was painted on the memorial to the Holocaust victims; in Moscow, anti-Semitic inscriptions appeared twice near the Moscow Choral Synagogue; and in Kaliningrad, vandals painted a swastika on the tombstone of the 19th-century Jewish preacher Israel Salanter in the Jewish cemetery near the Litovskiy Val fortification structure. This is not the first time that the Kaliningrad cemetery has seen the vandals’ attacks. 

Two attacks on new religious movements’ objects that we know about concerned the property of Jehovah’s Witnesses (none such attacks were reported in 2018). Both of these incidents should be classified as dangerous: in Prokhladnoye, Kabardino-Balkaria, a Jehovah’s Witnesses community building was set on fire, and a surveillance camera was damaged. In the village of Sukhobuzimskoye of Krasnoyarsk Krai, the car belonging to a local Jehovah’s Witnesses believer had its windshield smashed, and a handwritten note with threats against Jehovah’s Witnesses was thrown inside the car. 

It should be noted that while the confiscation of property owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses communities has undoubtedly contributed to the reduction in the number of acts of vandalism against their sites, one cannot rule out that the number of attacks was actually higher: as mentioned above, regular monitoring of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses is no longer conducted. 

One Muslim and one Catholic religious site became objects of vandalism (in 2018, one Muslim site was attacked but no Catholic ones). 13 headstones were damaged in a Muslim cemetery in the village of Osypnoy Bugor, Astrakhan Oblast. In St. Petersburg, a woman tried to set fire to the door of a Catholic church. 

Additionally, a wave of false bomb threats affected religious sites in Moscow. Four bomb threats were called in against the Christ the Saviour Cathedral and one against the Evangelical-Lutheran St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral.

Defamation of Religious Minorities

Federal and regional media continued publishing defamatory materials about religious organizations related to Protestants and new religious movements. While the number of such publications has seemingly not increased compared to the previous year, the materials did appear, including on state-owned TV channels. In particular, the “anti-sectarian” stories discussed below were aired by the state-owned Russia-1 and Zvezda TV channels; Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted by the former and Scientologists – by the latter. 

“Anti-sectarian” materials regularly appeared in regional media. For instance, in April, the St. Petersburg TV channel 78 broadcast a story about the followers of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, a Chinese religious practice, accusing them not only of extremism but also of espionage. 

Sobytiya (“Events”), an internet information agency from Tatarstan, made a whole range of defamatory and xenophobic statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses when announcing an upcoming October trial of the organization’s members in Naberezhnye Chelny. The former head of the Department of Religious Studies at Kazan State University, Larisa Astakhova, invited as one of the experts, said that Jehovah’s Witnesses “had to be disposed of” since the government has made the decision to ban them. Another expert, Sergey Zheleznyak, an assistant to the Dean of the Zakamsky district for missionary work, went as far as to suggest that “all the missionaries who came here should be thrown out of the country”, adding, “I would put their top management in jail. It is necessary to eradicate the top instead of catching ordinary followers who themselves are victims”.[14]

At least one of the experts quoted by the agency, Astakhova, later said that her words were distorted by the journalists, but, as far as we know, Sobytiya has not issued a retraction. Moreover, this material was published by at least one other information agency, Tatar-inform. 

Reporting on the situation with the demolition of the Adventist house of prayer in Novosibirsk in May, the Novosibirsk edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda referred to Adventists as “sectarians” and invited the Orthodox “sectologist” Oleg Zaev in an expert capacity. 

Baptists in Krasnodar Krai also complained about defamatory publications in local media. 

And the Samara information agency, reporting in December that the Samara Baptists were given a site for building a church, did not refrain from adding that “the Orthodox and Catholics consider Pentecostalism a sect, although their teaching is not prohibited by law”. 

In some instances, the religious organizations at the center of these reports managed to draw the attention of the public to the unreliability of the published information and to get them publicly denounced. For instance, Russia’s Public Board for Press Complaints looked into the complaint by the Moscow branch of the Church of Scientology about the episode of the Kod Dostupa (“Access Code”) show titled Soul Catchers and aired by the Zvezda TV channel on January 31, 2019. The Panel found the material tendentious, violating the principles of journalism ethics, and showing “multiple signs of manipulation”. Members of the Board concluded that the episode’s authors “have crossed the line that separates information, even if critical in nature, from slander”. 

The unexpected consequences of publishing such material about Jehovah’s Witnesses were felt by two journalists at AllRussia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, Elena Erofeeva and Pavel Kostrikov, have experienced on themselves the unexpected consequences of their defamatory publications on Jehovah's Witnesses. In April, the Ministry of the Interior of Estonia banned them from entering the Schengen area for five years. According to Estonian police, the material filmed by the journalists with a hidden camera in one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses communities of Estonia aims to discriminate against the believers, “ridicules the activities of the religious organization and incites hostility toward it”. Let us stress that the Russia-1 TV channel found this and another, similar video recorded in Finland acceptable and used both videos in an episode of Vesti (“News”). 

The “anti-sectarian” activity of public activists was almost invisible: we are unaware of any actions organized by them. However, in Bryansk, Sergei Maslov, a lawyer, and Alexander Kupriyanov, a Communist party member, voiced their protests against the celebration of Hanukkah in the city square. In their letters to the law enforcement and the Mayor’s offices, they claim that the installation of menorah and the chants in Hebrew are religious rites that “generate anti-Semitic sentiment in the population”. On this basis, they demanded that the celebration be cancelled, as they have done once already, last year. This year, just as back then, the city authorities did not respond to their demands. 

[1]Our work on this topic is supported by the European Union. On 30 December 2016, the Ministry of Justice forcibly listed Sova Center as “a non-profit organization performing the functions of a foreign agent”. We do not agree with this decision and are appealing it.  

[2]Olga Sibireva. Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2018 // SOVA Center. 2019. 14 March. ( [3]Maria Kravchenko. Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremism Legislation in Russia in 2019 // SOVA Center. 2019. 27 February (( 

[4]For more information see: M. Kravchenko. Inappropriate enforcement… 

[5]Open Information Letter // Website of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. 31 July ( 

[6]Presidential administration discusses implementation of freedom of conscience in Russia and implementation of the existing legislation in the sphere of religion // SOVA Center. 2019. 16 October ( 

[7]Special address by Bishop Pavel Sergeyevich Abashin to the Christians of Russia // 2019. 28 November ( 

[8]On 14 November 2019, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation announced its decision in the case on verification of constitutionality of Paragraph 2 of Article 42 of the Land Code of the Russian Federation and Part 1 of Article 8.8 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation // The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. 2019. November 14 

[9]Statement by Veniamin, Bishop of Rybinsk and Danilovsky, on the situation related to the construction of the Church of St. Seraphim Vyritskiy in the Veretye district of Rybinsk // Rybinsk Diocese VKontakte Blog. 2019. 24 July ( 

[10]Crusade against science: Russian Orthodox Church about to claim an RSUH building // Citizen Forces. 2019. March 27 ( 

[11]Consolidated statistics on the activity of federal courts of general jurisdiction and magistrate courts for the first half of 2019 // Official website of the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. 2019. October ( 

[12]CRIMEA: 35 “anti-missionary” prosecutions in 2019 // Forum 18. 19 February ( 

[13]The Orthodox and Stenograffia fought over the cross in the Pervoi Pyatiletki Square. The head of the district broke up the fight // 2019. 25 August ( 

[14]Refusal of blood transfusion and calls for refraining from allegiance to the symbols of the state: the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect in Naberezhnye Chelny reaches court // Sobytiya. 2019. 31 October (