Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2020

Bills Not (Yet) Implemented
PROBLEMS WITH PLACES OF WORSHIP : Problems with the Construction of Religious Sites : Problems with Using Existing Buildings : Favorable Resolutions : Conflicts Surroundings the Transfer of Property to Religious Organizations
DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF ATTITUDE TO RELIGIONCriminal ProsecutionRestrictions on Missionary ActivitiesOther Forms of DiscriminationFavorable Resolutions
PROTECTING THE FEELINGS OF BELIEVERS : Protection from the TopProtection from Below
INSUFFICIENT PROTECTION AGAINST DEFAMATION AND ATTACKS : Violence and Vandalism : Insufficient Protection of Religious Minorities

SOVA Center for Information and Analysis presents its report[1] based on information collected by the Center through its monitoring program. 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 2019 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 2020, the state policy of discriminating against religious minorities continued unabated.

The state continued the campaign of criminal prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses for continuing the activities of an extremist organization (de facto, for the constitutionally guaranteed right to collectively practice their religion). The number of guilty verdicts increased from 18 in 2019 to 25 in 2020, with 13 people sentenced to real terms of imprisonment. New criminal cases were initiated, albeit in smaller numbers than a year earlier. In total, more than 400 believers have been prosecuted since the Administrative Center and the local organizations were banned in 2017. Physical violence against detained Jehovah's Witnesses has been reported regularly.

Representatives of several other religious organizations were prosecuted – the Church of the Last Testament, the Church of Scientology, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as well as a “non-remembering” Orthodox community in the Pskov Region [opposing priests, unwilling to pray for the Patriarch during the service]. Various charges were brought against them, but the number of these incidents and the obvious excessiveness of the measures applied in these cases suggest a planned official campaign of pressure.

Administrative sanctions against believers and religious organizations continued as well. Unfortunately, the downward trend in the number of administrative cases for “illegal” missionary work, noted in our prior annual report, did not persist. Moreover, the amendments from the Yarovaya-Ozerov package that regulate missionary activities were more frequently applied to believers of the “traditional religions.” In the first six months, the number of Muslims who were punished for this offense surpassed the number of Protestants. However, this peculiarity of the past year can be viewed as part of the policy of pressure against religious minorities, since the Muslims, who faced the sanctions, primarily belonged to the Crimean organizations that refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the pro-Russian Spiritual Administration of Muslims.

New legal instruments to put pressure on religious organizations were crafted. Amendments to the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” introduced in 2020 and adopted already in 2021 will complicate the life of all religious associations. In particular, the amendments mandate that priests and employees of religious organizations who have received spiritual education abroad and who are starting religious or missionary activities in Russia for the first time receive additional professional education either in religious educational institutions that have the state accreditation for programs in state-confessional relations or in federal universities, the list of which has not yet been determined. Besides the fact that this norm openly discriminates against religious organizations that have no religious schools in Russia, the ambiguity of the wording leaves room for abuse in its enforcement.

The fact that the term “members” (of a religious group) has been replaced with “participants” provides yet another possible avenue for abuse in the law enforcement practice; the concept of “church membership” is significant for Christians. In addition, a newly introduced legal norm, banning the persons included in the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring List of Extremists and Terrorists) from the participation in religious groups, directly contradicts their constitutional right to practice their religion together with others.

Religious organizations still often have to face difficulties when using existing buildings – Protestant churches more often than the others.

The construction of new churches, primarily the Orthodox ones, remains a source of tension in the society, but the level of this tension did not increase relative to 2019. Most of the construction-related conflicts, as in the previous year, took place in the regions. The discontent of local residents was most often caused by an unfortunate choice of a site for the future temple or by violations in the course of public hearings or refusal to conduct such hearings. The authorities abandoned their construction plans under pressure from the public less often than in the preceding year, but the cases of open disregard for the opinion of the townspeople were also few and far between. As a rule, the two sides managed to find a compromise solution.

Criminal and administrative prosecutions for “insults to religious feelings” were even less active than a year ago. The activity of public champions of “the feelings of believers” also remained low against the background of the restrictions related to COVID-19. Most protests in defense of these feelings were initiated by several groups of believers who have been active in this sphere for several years. As in the preceding year, there were practically no cases, in which the authorities or the organizers of cultural events that the “Orthodox activists” found problematic made unconditional concessions – most often the conflicts were resolved by compromise.

Pandemic-related restrictions did not significantly affect the situation with freedom of religion, but they revealed the existing internal problems of religious organizations. The changes in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state constitute another important development – the ROC was the loudest in its objections against the church attendance restrictions for its followers. As in previous years, the level of religiously motivated violence remained low. However, defamation of religious minorities in the media, directed, as before, primarily against Protestants and followers of new religious movements, has remained a serious problem.

In general, it can be stated that freedom of conscience in 2020 became even more restricted by the authorities, but less so by non-state actors.



The law “On Amendments to Part Two of the Tax Code of the Russian Federation (in terms of tax support measures in the context of the spread of the new coronavirus infection)” was adopted in the third reading on May 22, and signed by the President on June 8. The adopted amendments exempted centralized religious organizations, along with other non-profit organizations conducting social activities, from paying taxes and insurance premiums for the second quarter of 2020 in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.

The greatest public outcry was caused by the draft amendments to the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” prepared by the Ministry of Justice and submitted to the State Duma in July, which was adopted outside of our review period in March 2021. Along with innovations that simplify the life of religious organizations and facilitate registration, this law provides for the extension to religious groups of several repressive norms previously introduced for NGOs.

Among other legislative innovations, the amendments indicate that the following types of persons are not allowed to be leaders or members of religious groups: a foreign citizen or a stateless person, whose continued stay in the Russian Federation has been deemed undesirable; a person included on the Rosfinmonitoring List; a person in respect of whom a court decision established that their actions amounted to extremist activity; an individual whose accounts are frozen by the Interdepartmental Commission on Countering the Financing of Terrorism. Thus, these categories of people completely lose their constitutional right to profess their religion together with others. It has also been proposed to make the notification procedure for continuing the activities of religious groups more complicated – they will have to submit such notifications annually instead of once every three years, as they do now, and the notification should contain the same amount of information as the one submitted at the start of the group's activities.

These amendments also expand the ability of the state to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations. It has been proposed to replace the current wording regarding non-interference of the state, applicable if the activity of a religious organization “does not contradict this Federal Law” with “if it does not contradict the legislation of the Russian Federation.” The possibility of banning the secession of a religious organization from a centralized organization has also been legally established.

Another amendment provides for the replacement of the term “members” (of a religious organization) by “participants” throughout the text of the law. The amendments also mandate that priests who have received spiritual education abroad undergo re-certification in Russia and receive additional professional education. In the final version, adopted in March 2021, this requirement was removed for the clergy already operating in Russia. Considering that some religious organizations simply do not have religious educational institutions in Russia, this requirement is openly discriminatory.

Even though almost all of these amendments significantly complicate the life of religious organizations and groups, only the last two points caused heated discussion. Believers, as well as lawyers and religious scholars, noted that a number of religious organizations do not have the opportunity to train clergy and employees of their organizations in Russia due to the lack of appropriate theological schools. Besides, the amendments do not explain who and how should re-certify clergy. Replacing the term “members” with “participants” is fraught with abuse in the course of the law enforcement since the concept of “church member” is important for believers and they will not give up using it, but failure to use the correct term can be interpreted as contradicting their charter.

The public outcry forced the legislators to promise to take the wishes of believers into account, at least concerning the recertification of the clergy. Consultations were held with representatives of religious organizations. By the second reading of the bill, which took place on March 22, 2021, some changes were made – clergy and religious personnel, who received their religious education abroad and are about to start performing religious services, missionary or teaching activities in Russia for the first time, will have to get “additional professional education in the field of the foundations of state-confessional relations in the Russian Federation,” once the law goes into effect. Individuals, already engaged in religious, missionary, and teaching activities after having received a foreign religious education, are not required to get additional education in Russia. At the same time, the law does not specify who should be considered a person starting their religious activity for the first time or what kind of additional education they should receive.

The remaining text of the bill was adopted in the second and third readings without changes.

Another bill, prepared and submitted to the State Duma by the government, and adopted in the first reading outside of our review period in January 2021 is the draft law “On Amending the Federal Law “On Counteracting the Legalization (Laundering) of Criminally Obtained Incomes and Financing of Terrorism” by clarifying the requirements applicable to religious organizations and legal entities created by them.” The amendments allow religious organizations and legal entities created by them not to report their beneficial owners (profit recipients) to the Federal Service for Financial Monitoring (Rosfinmonitoring).

The authors of the bill believe that religious organizations can be removed from the provisions of the anti-money laundering law due to their low money laundering risk.


Bills Not (Yet) Implemented

In January, the Ministry of Justice proposed for discussion a draft of a new Code of Administrative Offenses, which also included amendments to the article that stipulates the punishment for violations of legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and religious associations. Article 5.26 of the current Code is expected to be replaced with Article 6.4 “Violation of the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and on religious associations.”

The texts of both articles are largely identical, but the new edition provides for the mitigation of punishment for individuals for obstructing the exercise of the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion (including the acceptance or renunciation of religious or other beliefs and joining or withdrawing from a religious association). Instead of the current fine in the amount of 10 to 30 thousand rubles, a fine of three to five thousand rubles or a warning has been proposed.

The new version has removed the phrase “signs or emblems of ideological symbols and paraphernalia” from the current wording of the article “Intentional public desecration of religious or liturgical literature, objects of religious veneration, signs or emblems of ideological symbols and paraphernalia, or their damage or destruction.” The amount of the fine for this act has not changed, and the number of community service hours has decreased from 120 to 60. The project was not submitted to the State Duma in 2020.

In January, the State Duma Committee for the Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Associations announced that it was working on the amendments to simplify the supervision of organizations under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and other “traditional” confessions. According to Sergei Gavrilov, who serves as the head of the committee, the changes were intended to “reduce the volume and frequency of inspections, as well as reporting that religious organizations submit to the justice authorities.” Amendments were never introduced in the course of the year.

In June, another attempt was made to bring under control the activities of traditional healers, shamans, and psychics. Viktor Zubarev, a State Duma deputy from the United Russia, addressed Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova with the corresponding proposal. He proposed “to introduce mandatory licensing for all practitioners of near-medical consulting.” As did many previous attempts to regulate this area, this one has failed – the proposal was never even formalized for introduction to the State Duma.

In November, the Ministry of Justice prepared yet another series of amendments to the laws “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” and “On Non-profit Organizations” clearly motivated by the pandemic realities. The amendments made it possible for the governing bodies of non-profit and religious organizations to hold online meetings and sessions on issues that do not require a secret ballot. These amendments have not yet been introduced in the State Duma. It is worth noting that a similar bill was introduced to the State Duma by a group of deputies in April, but was withdrawn in July.


In the course of the year, the Constitutional Court issued three important rulings concerning religious organizations, all related to the use of premises for worship.

On January 14, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling on the complaint of the Association of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia (Mormons) on violation of constitutional rights and freedoms under Article 8.8 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation as well as Article 7 Paragraph 2 and Article 42 of the Land Code of the Russian Federation. The Association appealed a court ruling that fined it for using its administrative building in Taganrog for holding religious services and as the legal address of the local religious organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Constitutional Court upheld the right of religious organizations to hold services, as well as religious rites and ceremonies in administrative buildings, regardless of whether the building belongs to the religious organization itself or is provided by the owner. The court referred to its prior determination, issued in 2019 regarding the complaint of Olga Glamozdinova, which confirmed the owners’ right to provide their living quarters to a religious organization for conducting services.

On November 17, the court ruled on the complaint filed by the Tver community of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Reigning Mother of God, which challenged the constitutionality of Article 2 Paragraph 1 of the Federal Law “On the Transfer of State or Municipal Property Intended for Religious Purposes to Religious Organizations.” This paragraph defines property intended for religious purposes as “immovable property (premises, buildings, structures, facilities, including objects of cultural heritage (historical and cultural monuments) of the peoples of the Russian Federation; monastic, temple and (or) other religious complexes), built for conducting and (or) supporting such activities of religious organizations as performing religious services, other religious rites and ceremonies, holding prayer and religious meetings; teaching religion, professional religious education, monastic life, or religious veneration (pilgrimage); as well as buildings for temporary residence of pilgrims, and movable property intended for religious purposes (interior decoration accessories of religious buildings and structures; objects used for worship or other religious purposes).”

The religious organization filed a complaint regarding the refusal of the Tver authorities (based on the above-mentioned law) to transfer ownership of the non-residential premises, which the community, with official permission, used for holding its services from 1996 to 2011. During this time, the community repaired and rebuilt the building, increasing the area, so that it was accepted for operation as a temple of the New Russian Martyrs. The authorities not only refused to transfer the building, citing the fact that it never fully became religious property (other entities, such as workrooms and a district heating center also occupied space on the premises) but also tore up the new lease agreement and then completely gave the temple over for gratis use to the Orthodox parish of the Church of Lazarus of the Four-Days, which belongs to the Kashin Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. The “Reigning Mother of God” community failed in their attempts to challenge these actions of the authorities in court.

The Constitutional Court concluded that the clause of the federal law contested by the religious organization “does not comply with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, specifically its Articles 19 (Parts 1 and 2), 28 and 55 (Part 3) to the extent that it does not allow to unambiguously resolve the issue of whether or not the procedure for transferring property established by this law <...> extends to premises in a building that is in municipal ownership and was reconstructed by a religious organization with the consent of the owner <...>, and creates uncertainty about the mechanism for protecting the legitimate interests of a religious organization after the removal of such property from its use” and ordered the federal legislators “to take measures to eliminate the identified vagueness of the legal regulation.”

Once the above-mentioned uncertainty is removed, the Tver “Reigning Mother of God” community will be able to demand a retrial of its case. However, the Constitutional Court also noted that, if the case is reconsidered, the premises transferred to the ROC cannot be returned to the community, since this “can deeply hurt the feelings of believers, and will lead not only to the affecting the legitimate interests of the religious organization but also to a significant violation of the rights of its members.” Therefore, the community of the Church of the Reigning Mother of God can only expect compensation for the costs incurred.

In November, the Constitutional Court ruled on the complaint of the Word of Life Church of Evangelical Christians from Dolgoprudny, which challenged the constitutionality of Article 5.26 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Carrying out the activities by a religious organization without specifying its official full name, including the release or distribution of literature, printed, audio, and video materials without labeling the material with the specified name or incomplete or deliberately false labeling”) and Article 8 Paragraph 8 of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience” (“The name of a religious organization must contain information about its religious affiliation. A religious organization must provide its full name when carrying out its activities”).

The court concluded that religious organizations should not be held administratively liable for the absence of their full name on the facade of a residential building belonging to a religious organization, in the event that services are performed only in a part of a residential building and not in the entire building, and if the corresponding signs inside a residential building, at the entrance to the liturgical premises indicate the full name of the religious organization. A religious organization should also not be held liable if the services do not take place in a residential building whose address is indicated in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities as the address of the religious organization.

 It is also worth noting that in July, the presidential envoy to the Constitutional Court submitted a response to the complaint of lawyer Sergei Chugunov, who contested the above-mentioned Article 8 Paragraph 8 of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.” According to Chugunov, “the norm does not specify a place, in which a religious organization must post the information indicating its full name,” which, in practice, leads to numerous abuses in its enforcement.

The author of the legal opinion agrees that “it does not follow unequivocally” from the wording of the law “where exactly the information with the official name should be placed;” there are “at least two ways of interpreting this norm,” which implies “certain risks to the public interests,” but at the same time has “positive regulatory aspects.” Thus, according to the plenipotentiary presidential representative to the Constitutional Court, although the contested norm allows for ambiguous interpretation, it does not contradict the Constitution, which means that it does not need to be changed. Marina Bespalova and Andrei Klishas, the State Duma and the Federation Council representatives in the Constitutional Court, came to a similar conclusion.


Problems with Places of Worship

Problems with the Construction of Religious Sites

We can conclude that the program for the construction of modular Orthodox churches in Moscow has ceased to be a source of tension and conflict. In the course of the year, there were no high-profile conflicts around the construction of temples. Apparently, over the past few years, the interested parties learned to find a compromise and negotiate peacefully. In other regions, the number of conflicts around the construction of churches showed no significant increase, but they did arise from time to time, and, as in preceding years, they most often stemmed from the poor location choices for the construction sites.

As before, local residents protested primarily against the attempts to build temples in parks. Residents of Novosibirsk, Omsk, Bor in the Nizhny Novgorod Region, Novokuibyshevsk in the Samara Region, Engels of the Saratov Region, and Miass of the Chelyabinsk Region opposed the construction of churches in their green areas.

Blagoveshchensk Residents also protested against the construction of a church in the park at the intersection of Lenin and Tchaikovsky streets, but they were not worried about the trees being cut down. The protesters wanted to see “the Shadrin Cathedral” – a Trinity Church, built by the philanthropist Semyon Shadrin and demolished in 1936 – restored to its original location on the intersection. The diocese plans to build on this site a brand new temple in honor of the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God.

The construction outside of green areas also often caused dissatisfaction, if the authorities failed to properly coordinate the site for the temple with local residents, who may have had other plans for these areas. One of the most noteworthy conflicts took place in Chita, where residents protested against the construction of three churches. One of them is to be built on Angarskaya Street dangerously close to a bacteriological laboratory. In the second case, a forest site in a former military station was previously envisioned as a children’s recreation camp, but the authorities refused to grant permission at that time; now the site has been proposed as a location for a Russian Orthodox Church complex. The temple construction on the third site, in Sosnovy Bor neighborhood, also runs contrary to the wishes of local residents, who also objected against the location chosen for the public hearings on the construction – in the Beryozka park outside the city, far from the areas under discussion. Not everyone had the means to travel such distances on a weekday.

It is worth noting that Metropolitan Dimitri (Eliseev) of Chita and Petrovsk-Zabaykalsky, who participated in the discussion, frankly stated that he did not intend to take the opinion of a large segment of local residents into account. During public hearings, he said: “Sorry, but I am not going to and do not intend to ask the entire Transbaikalia whether to build my temple here or not. People who need it come to me, I act in accordance with the law, and, according to this law, I approach the appropriate administration.[4]

In response to such a statement, the opponents of the construction appealed to the mayor with a reminder that Chita was a multi-confessional city suffering from a shortage of kindergartens, schools, and medical centers, and the authorities should focus on constructing these facilities rather than supporting the diocese.

In the Oryol Region, residents of the Saburovsky rural settlement went to court to challenge the legality of a temple construction on agricultural land. Residents emphasized that they oppose the construction of a temple on “their” land. As one of the participants commented on the situation during the public hearings, “You could build a new school, connect us to the Internet, the agriculture is dying here – and, instead, you are building a church, and illegally at that.”

Residents of Monetny village in Beryozovsky of the Sverdlovsk Region protested against the church construction near an art school fearing that children would see funeral processions, and that “the bells ringing would interfere with the tuning of violins.”

In some cases, local residents were dissatisfied with the prospect of destruction, reconstruction, or relocation of another object caused by the temple construction. Thus, residents of Ubinskoye village of the Novosibirsk Region opposed moving a monument to fallen fighters of the Second World War for the purpose of building a church in its place. They believed that a different site should have been chosen for the church. Oryol residents protested against a possible restoration of the St. George Church on the site of Pobeda Movie Theater, a mid-twentieth-century architectural landmark. No official decision on the fate of the building has been announced yet, but local residents were alarmed by the Orthodox activists’ statements about the need to rebuild the temple on this site.

As before, construction opponents sometimes chose original means of expressing their point of view. For example, during the protests against the temple construction in St. Petersburg’s Parnas District, street artist Loketski, who had similarly supported the protesters a year earlier, painted graffiti on one of the building fences. The graffiti depicted Patriarch Kirill as Colonel Sanders, the founder, and symbol of the KFC franchise, accompanied by the abbreviation ROC stylized as the KFC logo.

In some cases, the parties found a compromise. For example, in Kostroma, even though the stone-laying ceremony for the Intercession (Pokrovsky) Temple on Sverdlov Street, where many citizens would like to organize a parking lot, have already taken place, the authorities and the diocese have expressed their readiness to take the wishes of construction opponents into account and look for an option that is acceptable to all the parties. The authorities in Omsk, where residents protested against building a temple on Molodozhenov [Newlyweds] Public Garden (which meant having to cut down the trees and move the dog run), nevertheless approved the construction in February 2021. However, fewer trees were chopped down than was originally planned, and the diocese was also ordered to pay for cutting them down and to plant new trees once the construction ends.

Several conflicts that started in the preceding year were resolved in 2020. Thus, after protests of local residents, the Pokrovsky parish in St. Petersburg abandoned the idea of building a new church in South Primorsky Park. It was decided to build a chapel and a small church house instead. The Ryazan diocese officially gave up the idea of building a temple in the Marine Glory Park, opposed by local residents for many years.

However, the compromise solutions and the cases, in which the authorities sided with the protesters, were not as numerous as we could expect after 2019 and the confrontation around the temple construction in Yekaterinburg. As before, regional authorities frequently fail to listen to the opinion of local residents and ignore the arguments of construction opponents. For example, the city land use commission in Perm recommended allowing the construction of a church and a Sunday school on the banks of the Mulyanka River, even though local residents and environmentalists suggested leaving the green zone along the riverbank “for recreational purposes.” An Orthodox parish in Ulyanovsk, despite the opposition from local residents, managed to re-obtain the permission to build a temple and cut down trees in the park of the UAZ Recreation Center, even though, in 2019, the prosecutor's office canceled the decision by the mayor's office to build a temple on this site.


As in prior years, conflicts arose not only around the construction of Russian Orthodox churches; other religious organizations also had to face public protests from time to time during the construction of their religious buildings.

Protests against the construction of mosques were also most frequently caused by violations during public hearings, or by refusal to conduct such hearings, or by the wish to see another object built on the chosen construction site. Thus, the Saratov authorities, following the results of public hearings, decided not to build a mosque at the intersection of Novouzenskaya and Serov streets, although the mosque had been historically located here, the area had no other mosque, and the site has been used by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims since 1992. Most opponents of the construction feared that the mosque would increase traffic and noise levels.

A xenophobic motive was occasionally mixed in with the legitimate concerns. For example, residents of Sortirovka District in Yekaterinburg continued their protest against the construction of a new building for Nur-Usman Mosque intended to replace the building demolished in 2019 during the construction of an ice arena. In addition to fears of a worsening traffic situation and dissatisfaction with the authorities, who did not coordinate the construction with district residents, the opponents of the construction mentioned the undesirability of being in proximity to a “different ethnic group.”

In Berdsk, a collection of signatures was organized against the construction of a mosque on the site of a former parking lot, even though neither officials nor the Muslim community confirmed that construction was ever planned in this place. Journalists suspect that a candidate for the Novosibirsk Regional Legislative Assembly was trying to play the anti-Muslim card.

As before, problems with construction were often caused by the fact that a religious organization did not properly formalize the documents for a religious building. For example, in Nevinnomyssk, an unfinished building was demolished after being declared illegal in 2019; the documents listed it as a warehouse, but the Muslim community was planning to use it as a mosque. The community intended to change the official purpose of the building once the construction was completed. The city authorities emphasized that they did not object to the mosque construction, but the documents for it had to be formalized in accordance with the law.

Notably, despite the protests of the residents of the Aviastroitelny District in Kazan, who did not want the Rakhmatullah mosque next to a kindergarten and a school, the Muslim community managed to obtain a building permit in court.

In Novokuznetsk, local residents protested against the possible opening of a Protestant church in the Siberia Movie Theater building. The protesters emphasized that they had no objections against a Protestant church, but did not want it on this particular location.


Problems with Using Existing Buildings

As in the past, religious organizations often encountered difficulties when using their existing buildings. Protestant churches encountered problems with using their places of worship most frequently.

The Voronezh Evangelical Lutheran Parish of St. Mary Magdalene was unable to challenge the 2019 court decision to terminate the agreement on the use of the church building.

Throughout the year, the Word of Life Church of Evangelical Christians in Kaluga tried but failed to challenge the 2019 decision of the Kaluga District Court to ban the use of the building of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for its services. In March, the Kaluga Regional Court partially canceled the requirement to destroy part of the building to bring it in line with its registration certificate of 2000 but confirmed the ban on the use of the temple. In July, the appellate court upheld this decision. The believers were holding their services in the street.

We are aware of several attempts to demolish Protestant meeting houses in several regions. In particular, the demolition of a Baptist prayer house began in Arkhangelsk; the court decided to dismantle it back in 2017, recognizing part of the building as illegal construction, since it had been built on a site belonging to a garage construction cooperative. This is a residential building, in which the family of Presbyter Alexei Stepanov lives and provides a space for holding services. The owners of the site, who initially had not objected to the construction, then went to court demanding that the part of the house located on their territory be demolished. However, the demolition would jeopardize the safety of the entire building, so the presbyter's family did not comply with the court's decision. The bailiffs arrested and seized the family's property and tried to demolish the house, even though minors were living there. The believers gathered to protect the building and the presbyter's family, trying to prevent the bailiffs from entering the building. Stepanov tried to challenge the actions of the bailiffs in court and postpone the demolition until spring. In December, the enforcement proceedings against the presbyter's family were suspended. The building has not been demolished at the time of writing.

The Novorossiysk administration demanded in court the demolition of a residential building in the village of Verkhnebakansky, where one of the rooms was used for religious services by a Baptist group. Services have not been held there since the summer of 2019, since a court banned the use of the house and land for religious purposes, but the house was still used for living. Unable to find another room, the community was gathering for services in the woods. In September, attorney Vladimir Ryakhovsky discussed the situation with the city authorities, and the head of the city administration assured that a solution would be found.

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the mayor's office went to court to seek the demolition of an annex to the New Generation Pentecostal Church building, but the court concluded that the religious organization should not lose this site, and forbade the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre, and Cartography (Rosreestr) to transfer the ownership of the building.

The Sunrise Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Novosibirsk had to file a court claim against the mayor's office in order to achieve a reconstruction agreement for a residential building where they held their services. The mayor's office believes that the church is using the land plot in a manner that differed from its intended purpose. We do not know the result of the court review of the claim.

A Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Biysk also filed an appeal against the mayor's office in an arbitration court, demanding that their ownership of the community-built prayer house (which they are unable to open since 2005 since its area ended up smaller than originally stated in the documents) is recognized. We have no information on whether the claim has ever been considered.

We also note that, despite the 2019 decision of the Constitutional Court based on Olga Glamozdinova’s complaint, which confirmed the right of citizens to hold services, religious rituals, and ceremonies on residential premises, believers were known to face responsibility for such actions. For example, a resident of Turinsk in the Sverdlovsk Region was fined 10 thousand rubles under Article 8.8 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Use of the land plot for other than its intended purpose”) because her house was used for religious services by a group of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) on the basis of a prior contract. An attempt to challenge the fine has failed.


Other religious organizations also faced similar difficulties from time to time.

Throughout the year, courts in various regions continued to seize property from Jehovah's Witnesses communities. Transactions on the transfer of property to foreign communities, made before the organizations were banned, were declared invalid – including the ones in Tavda of the Sverdlovsk Region and Minusinsk of Krasnoyarsk Krai.

In some cases, buildings used by religious organizations were demolished as illegal structures. This happened, for example, with the building on the Preobrazhensky Market in Moscow that belonged to the Pomorian Old-Orthodox Church (Fedoseevtsy). It was recognized as an unauthorized structure back in 2013.

The administration of Orlovka village in Budennovsky District of Stavropol Krai sought to demolish a Muslim prayer house. The authorities view the building built on a private site as illegal since capital construction on this site is prohibited. According to Imam Shamsudin Kuramagomedov, the community has prepared documents to legalize the building. The fate of the prayer house was being reviewed in court, but we do not know the outcome of the process.

A long-term conflict continued between the Shedrub Ling Buddhist community and the Evraz company over the Buddhist monastery on Mount Kachkanar situated in the ore mining zone. An agreement that the monastery would remain accessible to pilgrims, who would be able to visit the monastery on a set schedule, was reached in September. However, the community terminated this agreement in December, stating that the local administration and Evraz had ignored their opinion, and, in February, announced its readiness to no longer live permanently in the monastery, but only to visit it three days a week. At the same time, the believers began collecting signatures to preserve the monastery complaining that the other contracting parties declared only a three-year moratorium on the demolition of the monastery, while, in the meantime, the buildings deteriorate in the absence of monks since the heating is turned off for most of the week. The petitioners called on the authorities and Evraz to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

A meadow in the Oryol Region, which for a long time had been used by the pagan community to celebrate Kupala Night [Midsummer], was plowed up in June. The pagan community blames the local authorities for the incident.


Favorable Resolutions

We know of very few cases when religious organizations were able to defend their rights to use the premises in court, but such cases do exist. For example, the parish of the Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Armenian Apostolic Church in Omsk won a lawsuit against the Department of Property Relations of Omsk, which had changed the zoning of the land plots leased by the religious organization and raised the rent. The court recognized the actions of the officials as illegal, since “the permitted use of the land plot must correspond to its actual use,” and canceled the department's order to change the zoning.


Conflicts Surrounding the Transfer of Property to Religious Organizations

As before, real estate was transferred to religious organizations in different regions, and, in most cases, this transfer was not accompanied by any conflicts.

Most often, property transfers were made in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, in Moscow, the ROC received, among other sites, the Church of the Ascension on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street with its clergy houses, the Annunciation Church in Fedos’ino, the Church of the Renewal of the Temple in Danilovskaya Sloboda, and the Church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God in Kurkino (all the transferred temples are considered cultural heritage sites). In Crimea, the Orthodox community received a plot of land, a former site of the Kosmodamiansky Monastery of Alushta that was part of a nature reserve.

Property transfers to other religious organizations were less frequent but did occasionally happen. For example, in Saratov, the building of the former Kazan (Gorin) church was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church, which had been trying to get the building for several years. A year earlier, the authorities gave it instead to an Orthodox lyceum, but they have since changed their mind.

In Kazan, the Pomorian Old-Orthodox Church, after several years of appeals to the authorities on different levels all the way up to Vladimir Putin, managed to achieve the transfer of the building of the Prilutsk prayer house, confiscated in 1937 and used by a yacht club and a boat station.

In Kaliningrad, the conflict between the Muslim community and the city authorities ended after many years, when the officials provided the community with a building for gratis use for 49 years; the plan is to organize a cultural center.

Sometimes, religious organizations had to go to court to obtain property rights. In Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church challenged the refusal of the city authorities to transfer into the church ownership one section of the building in Maly Putinkovsky Lane, which housed the editorial offices of the Novy Mir magazine since the 1960s, as well as part of the six-story residential building on Sretenka that, according to the plaintiff, was built in 1905 as a two-story clergy house. It must be noted that the church has agreed not to evict Novy Mir from its premises until their gratis use contract expires.

Some religious organizations failed in their attempts to obtain the transfer of the desired property through courts. Thus, the Kirov Roman Catholic Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was, once again, unable to take over the building of the Alexander Polish Catholic Church, which is currently used by the Philharmonic. The Regional Arbitration Court refused to transfer the building In June; the second Arbitration Court of Appeal confirmed this decision in November, but, when reviewing the complaint, it advised the regional government to reach an amicable agreement with the community. The parish continues to appeal the verdicts of the previous instances.


The Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Rostov Region did not succeed in obtaining a land plot on Krasnoarmeyskaya Street in Rostov-on-Don, on which a mosque used to stand until 1978. The court found no legal basis for the transfer, since the building of the mosque has not survived, and the site has been owned by the city since 2010.


In several cases, the interests of the parties, whose property was transferred to religious organizations, were not fully taken into account, and, as before, conflicts most often arose concerning the transfers of property in use by cultural institutions.

The St. Petersburg diocese once again made claims for the complex of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra buildings, and, most likely, this time the church officials will get what they want. In early December, during his meeting with Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova, Vladimir Putin said that the Lavra sites, claimed by the Church, “should be returned.”

In late December, the Committee on Property Relations of St. Petersburg identified several locations to house the Museum of Urban Sculpture, located on the second floor of the Annunciation Church in the Lavra. The final transfer of the former museum premises to the church took place in March 2021. However, the Committee on Property Relations still refuses to hand over the first floor of the Annunciation Church, where the mausoleum is located, because “tombstones do not constitute interior decoration of religious buildings and are not intended for liturgical purposes; burial places, under the law, can only be state or municipal.[5] In December, preparations began for the transfer of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra cenoby to the church; it will require the resettlement of seven apartments located on its premises.

The St. Petersburg diocese appealed to the authorities with a request to transfer to the ROC the sacristy of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which currently houses the Stone Museum.

In the Voronezh Region, the process of transferring the cave complex with the Church of the Sicilian Icon of the Mother of God (the main site of the Divnogorye Museum-Reserve) to the Russian Orthodox Church has begun. According to the museum staff, the transfer of the cave complex will require the restructuring of the Museum-Reserve and could jeopardize its very existence, while the lack of expert supervision will worsen the condition of the caves. After the museum workers asked Governor Alexander Gusev, to stop the transfer process, the Department of Property and Land Relations of the Voronezh Region suspended it to organize a discussion among all the interested parties.

The Rostov authorities transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church the building of a puppet theater; local residents were protesting the transfer for several years. However, the diocese assured that it would not insist on the eviction of the theater until a new building was found for it.

The claims by the ROC targeting the property of other organizations caused conflicts as well. For example, in St. Petersburg, the conflict continued over the transfer of the Ski Sports School of the Olympic Reserve building to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Spaso-Pargolovsky Parish filed a lawsuit against the Property Relations Committee, which failed to ensure the eviction of the school, despite the fact that the building was officially transferred to the Church in 2019. In September 2020, the authorities allocated a new building site for the parish, but the religious organization continued to insist on obtaining the sports school building.

The Ryazan diocese claimed the rights to the building of School No. 6 with In-Depth Study of French in the center of Ryazan. After several years of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the authorities, the diocese went to court, demanding the transfer of the building. Meanwhile, Metropolitan Mark (Golovkov) of Ryazan and Mikhailovsky compared the educational institution with migrant workers who illegally moved into someone else's house. “Imagine, you built a house, for example, and lived in it for three years. Then you left and, for example, some migrant workers moved in, started living there, and lived there for more than three years, for longer than you did. So what? Are you going to seriously think that, accordingly, they should stay there?[6]

At the time of this writing, the trial is ongoing, and the diocese has not yet provided archival documents to confirm the building’s status as the property intended for religious purposes.


Discrimination on the Basis of Attitude to Religion

Criminal Prosecution

The repressions against Jehovah's Witnesses, whose Administrative Center and all local organizations were banned as extremist in 2017, continued in 2020. In the course of the year, at least 25 verdicts (vs. eight in 2019) were issued against Jehovah's Witnesses under Article 2822 (“Organization and participation in the activities of an extremist organization”) and 2823 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Financing extremist activities”), involving at least 46 defendants. 13 of them were sentenced to real terms of imprisonment ranging from one to eleven years (a Rostov-on-Don resident, who received the longest term, was found guilty not only of participation in the activities of an extremist organization, but also of violence against a minor), 27 individuals received suspended sentences ranging from two to eight years, and six were sentenced to fines ranging from 300 to 500 thousand rubles. We view all these sentences as inappropriate, since, de facto, they were issued for the continuation of religious practice.

The verdict against Artyom Gerasimov should be mentioned as the most severe. In March, he was sentenced to a fine of 400 thousand rubles under Article 2822 Part 1, but, in June, as a result of an appeal, the fine was changed to six years in a penal colony.

As of mid-February 2021, at least 48 people were incarcerated in penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers. In total, as of January 2021, according to the data collected by Jehovah's Witnesses, 59 people have been convicted in criminal cases since the ban – 12 women and 47 men from 23 to 74 years of age.

New criminal cases were opened against Jehovah's Witnesses in various regions throughout the year, albeit in smaller numbers than a year earlier.[7] As before, searches in these cases were accompanied by numerous violations, including the use of physical violence against believers by the law enforcement. Complaints about beatings in detention came, in particular, from Chita, where believer Vadim Kutsenko was beaten, strangled and subjected to electrical shocks in a police car, and Alexander Karpov, a minor, was beaten to blood in front of his mother and sister, and from Moscow, where one of the believers was hit with the butt of a machine gun.

There were reports of torture from the Orenburg colony IK-1, where five believers were beaten, one of them, Felix Makhammadiev, ended up with a broken rib and damage to his lung and his kidney.

The aforementioned beating of Karpov was not the only case of a minor injured in the course of the searches. For example, in Volchansk of the Sverdlovsk Region, two children of believers were kept in the hallway without proper clothing, and the police in Georgievsk, interrogated a sixth grader in the absence of his parents.

The situation with Jehovah's Witnesses has become a matter of concern for the international community: in March, the OSCE Permanent Council upon the authorities to end the persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses and “to drop all charges against individuals who have been unjustifiably prosecuted or imprisoned for exercising their human rights.”[8]


We also have to mention the fine in the amount of four thousand rubles imposed on lawyer Stanislav Kulov, the editor-in-chief of the Religiia i Pravo (Religion and Law) website under Article 13.15 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (dissemination of information about an organization recognized as extremist without indicating its prohibited status) for publishing an announcement regarding the presentation of the annual SOVA Center report on freedom of conscience. The text of the announcement mentioned “intensified persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses” as one of the key trends in the freedom of conscience violations in Russia. In October 2020, the Zamoskvoretsky District Court of Moscow upheld this decision.


Believers of other confessions besides Jehovah's Witnesses were also prosecuted, and not only followers of new religious movements. The believers faced various charges; however, we believe that it is possible to speak of a planned state campaign of pressure against religious minorities.

In October, the Krasnoyarsk Regional Court began its consideration of the prosecutor's office's claim to liquidate the Church of the Last Testament. The church leaders Sergei Torop (Vissarion), Vadim Redkin and Vladimir Vedernikov, were charged under Article 239 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“Creation of a religious association, whose activities involve violence against citizens or other harm to their health, as well as the leadership of such an association”) and Article 111 Part 3 Paragraphs “a” and “b” of the Criminal Code (“intentional infliction of grievous bodily harm by an organized group against two or more persons.”) According to the investigation, all the defendants, in the period from 1991 to September 22, 2020, “in order to generate income from religious activities, solicited funds from citizens, and also used psychological violence against them, as a result of which some of the followers of the religious organization suffered serious health damage.”[9] In fact, the entire charge is based on the fact that two former community members received psychiatric diagnoses after leaving the community.

Four helicopters with police officers were used to detain the leaders of the organization. The homes of the community members were searched. All three leaders were immediately taken into custody and their detention was extended several times. In February 2021, one of the detainees, Vedernikov, complained of torture in pre-trial detention.

In February 2021, based on the claim filed by the Federal Forestry Agency, the Arbitration Court of Krasnoyarsk Krai seized from the community a land plot in the Kuraginsky District and terminated the use agreement; the court ruled that the construction of residential buildings on the site constituted improper use.

In the Pskov Region, the case under Article 239 Part 1 of the Criminal Code was brought against Sergiy (Eduard Ageev), the leader of the “non-remembering” Orthodox community (Orthodox Christians who do not mention Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus' during their liturgy), who then spent more than three months in jail and was released under travel restrictions in late October.

According to the investigation, “Ageev's teaching forms negative perception of the outside world, promotes helplessness and inability to resist evil unless in the isolation of Ageev's community, equates the state with universal evil, induces guilt and develops dissociation to suppress doubt and critical thinking.”[10] The community itself believes that the case against their leader was instigated by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, with whom Ageyev had had conflicts, and that the information about the community was provided to the investigation by former community residents expelled for drunkenness.

Mikhail Iosilevich, the senior priest of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, was charged under Article 2841 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Participating in the activities of an undesirable organization”) In Nizhny Novgorod. The charge was based on the permission he granted to the Golos organization to hold election observer workshops on the church premises. This was interpreted as cooperation with the Open Russia organization, recognized as undesirable, “to encroach on the foundations of the constitutional order.” Iosilevich was taken into custody by a court decision In January 2021.

During the year, the investigation into Scientologists case in St. Petersburg, which began in 2018, continued. The head of the community, Ivan Matsitsky, released from pre-trial detention under restrictions of certain activities, was once again taken into custody in March 2021.


Restrictions on Missionary Activities

The persecution of believers for “illegal” missionary work continued in 2020. Judging by the data of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation for the first half of 2020 (statistics for the second half of the year had not yet been published at the time of writing this report), the tendency we noted a year earlier towards a decrease in the number of cases under Article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Violation of the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations”) did not persist. In the first six months of 2020, the number of cases reviewed by the courts increased to 201 (vs. 174 reported for the same period in 2019.) 132 offenders were punished for “illegal” missionary work in the first six months, including 90 individuals, 39 legal entities and three officials (102 offenders in the first half of 2019).

Fines remained the most commonly used form of punishment under this article. In the first six months of 2020, those prosecuted for “illegal” missionary work were fined in 101 cases, received warning in five cases and were sentenced to community service in 26 cases. Confiscation was imposed as an additional punishment in five cases, and deportation from the country – in two cases.

The total amount of fines under the regulations that entered into force in the first half of the year also increased slightly and amounted to 1,581,000 rubles (vs. 1,452,000 rubles in the same period in 2019).

Another development was the increasingly frequent application (compared to the preceding year) of Article 5.26 to believers of “traditional religions,” but evidently it tends to be applied to the groups that do not belong to the principal religious organizations of these religions. According to Forum 18, by mid-2020, the number of Muslims convicted of “illegal” missionary work exceeded the number of Protestants.

A significant part of the court cases against Muslims went to trial in Crimea, where local authorities used “anti-missionary” amendments to pressure the believers who did not want to join the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea after the incorporation of the region into Russia.

For example, Imam Rasim Dervishev, charged with conducting Friday sermons and performing namaz in a mosque that did not join the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Crimea, was fined five thousand rubles in Simferopol under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“conducting missionary activities in violation of the requirements of the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations”). Imams Yusuf Ashirov (in Alushta) and Abliakim Galiev (in Sudak) were fined in the same amount and under the same article. Their offenses also consisted of carrying out namaz or religious rituals without joining the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Crimea.

The use of amendments from the Yarovaya-Ozerov package was not the only method of encouraging Crimean Muslims to join the Muslim Spiritual Directorate favored by the authorities. Imam Dilyaver Khalilov was fined 30 thousand rubles under Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Organizing or conducting a public event without filing a notice in accordance with the established procedure”) for a similar act – organizing Friday prayers in the Zavetnoye village mosque of Sovetsky District.

Muslims faced sanctions for “illegal” missionary work in other regions as well. For example, “Islam,” a religious organization of Muslims in the village of Kamen-Rybolov in the Khankaysky District of Primorsky Krai, was fined 30 thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Carrying out the activities by a religious organization without specifying its official full name, including the release or distribution of literature, printed, audio, and video materials without labeling the material with the specified name or incomplete or deliberately false labeling”“). In Sochi, a foreign citizen was fined 50 thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Conducting Missionary activities in violation of the requirements of the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations, committed by a foreign citizen”) for creating a prayer room for construction workers.

In Yevpatoria, a court fined the Hava Nagila synagogue of Messianic Jews 30 thousand rubles; the synagogue was found guilty under Article 5.26 Part 3 of the Administrative Code, since the full name of the religious organization was not provided on the synagogue’s VKontakte page.

For the first time, the “anti-missionary” amendments were applied to an Orthodox Christian organization. In Kurgan, the Holy Trinity parish (outside the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church) was fined under the same article and in the same amount.


Protestant churches and followers of new religious movements continued to face persecution for their “illegal” missionary activities. In particular, the head of the religious group of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Troitsk of the Chelyabinsk Region was fined five thousand rubles, and the pastor of the Tree of Life Anapa Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) – 35 thousand rubles for failure to notify the Ministry of Justice about the beginning of a religious group’s activity. Both were found guilty under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The head of the Christians of the Evangelical Faith group from the Kemerovo Region was prosecuted under the same article for failure to notify about the beginning of the group's activities. “Church of St. Paul of Feodosia” of Christians of the Evangelical Faith was fined 30 thousand rubles, and the church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Yalta received a warning under Article 5.26 Part 3.

Sochi resident Sergei Baldanov was fined 10 thousand rubles in November under Article 5.26 Part 4 for practicing Falun Gong exercises. During his practice, according to a witness, he “quoted the Teacher from the book,” which the FSB and then the court interpreted as recruitment into the Falun Dafa association.

As before, numerous violations occurred in the application of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments. For example, German citizen Valery Zukkau was fined under Article 5.26 Part 5 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Conducting missionary activities in violation of the requirements of the legislation on freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and religious associations by a foreign citizen”) in Buryatia for a conversation with people who were not Baptists, even though Zukkau did not urge them to join the Baptist church – his interlocutors expressed a desire to attend the service at their own initiative. D. Berdnikov, a resident of the Bryansk Region who has Group 2 Disability, was fined five thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for creating a religious group without notifying the relevant authorities, even though he was not the group’s organizer, but simply attended the Sunday services in the house of one of his co-religionists at his invitation, along with other believers.

However, the Tver authorities went farther than anyone else, fining a citizen of Azerbaijan 100 thousand rubles for “illegal” missionary work. He represented Unity, a community cultural education organization, which was not at all religious. Nevertheless, he was also found guilty under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.


Other Forms of Discrimination

The facts of police interfering in the activities of religious organizations and disrupting services were reported repeatedly throughout the year. For example, in Orekhovo-Zuevo of the Moscow Region, police and FSB officers disrupted a Protestant service and searched the premises of the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals). Passports were confiscated from those present at the service, and the believers were taken to a police station for interrogation. Once there, according to the detainees, the police threatened to plant drugs or extremist literature on them.

In Nizhny Novgorod, representatives of the security forces checked the documents of Muslims on the territory of the Cathedral Mosque under the pretext of preventing foreign citizens from violating the rules for staying in Russia. These actions provoked outrage among the believers, some of whom regarded them as an insult to religious feelings.


For the first time in many years, there was a complaint about the obstacles in religious observance from Jewish prisoners. Danil Beglets, convicted in “the Moscow Case” and serving time in the Settlement Colony No. 7 in the Oryol region, complained that the colony administration forces Jewish prisoners to work on Shabbat. Following the request by seven prisoners to postpone their shift to another day, the administration encouraged other prisoners to bully those who were refusing to work.

Shortly after this complaint was made public, Beglets was released on parole by court order. It took the intervention of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (Federatsiya Yevreyskikh Obshchin Rossii, FEOR) to allow the remaining six Jewish prisoners to observe the Sabbath.


The senior priest of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Mikhail Iosilevich, did not succeed in obtaining the right to have his passport photo taken with a colander on his head, as customary for the clergy of this religious movement. The Sovetsky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod refused to satisfy the claim against the regional Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Ministry of Internal Affairs believes that even the fact that the plaintiff belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not make kitchen utensils a headdress. The court also took into account that, according to the teachings of this church, believers who have violated the prohibition to appear in front of strangers without a headdress can be forgiven by appealing to the church.


Pressure on theological educational institutions continued – primarily on the Protestant ones, but others as well. In February, the Moscow Arbitration Court canceled the license for educational activities of the Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Christians-Baptists based on the claim by Rosobrnadzor (Federal Service for the Supervision of Education and Science), but, in May, the seminary established a subsidiary organization and received a new license for it.


Inspections of Protestant seminaries continued in the regions as well. For example, in December, Rosobrnadzor issued an order to the Tyumen Biblical Seminary of Christians of the Evangelical Faith to eliminate a number of violations, including the absence of organized food service for students and conditions for their sports and health education – even though the seminary held no face-to-face classes since 2018, first due to the recertification requirements, then due to the anti-epidemic restrictions. The most absurd requirement was the obligation to adopt normative acts regulating the relations between the educational institution and the parents (legal representatives) of minor students, although the seminary has not a single minor among its students. Since the seminary obviously could not eliminate these violations, a report was compiled against Yevgeny Shestakov, the rector of the seminary, under Article 19.5 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Failure to comply within the prescribed time limit with the legal order of the body exercising state supervision to eliminate violations of the law”) in March 2021, and admissions to the seminary were suspended.


The licenses were suspended for educational activities of the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Islamic Institute. According to the vice-rector of the latter, Timur Fakhretdinov, orders to eliminate the identified violations were issued to the university in March and June 2019. Rosobrnadzor’s claims pointed out the absence of a sanitary and epidemiological report on the building's compliance with the sanitary standards as well as the absence of scholars to implement educational programs in the sphere of “Theology.” These violations were eliminated, and the university notified Rosobrnadzor about its compliance with the instructions. The only violation that the university was unable to eliminate was ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities. Rosobrnadzor issued a third order to eliminate violations in absentia, based on the results of an audit conducted a year ago, and suspended the educational license.

Favorable Resolutions

From time to time, religious organizations managed to successfully defend their rights, including in court.

For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rostov Region managed to appeal in the third instance a fine of 400 thousand rubles, issued in October 2019 under Article 18.9 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Failure of the inviting party to ensure that the invited foreign citizen observes the regime of stay in the Russian Federation”). The charges were based on the deportation from Russia, in March 2019, of US citizen David Udo Gaag, who arrived at the invitation of the church. The Arbitration Court of the North Caucasus Federal District declared illegal and revoked the decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to impose a fine since the report on the offense did not indicate exactly what legislative measures the church should have taken, and provided no reference to the normative act that the church had violated.

Eduard Grabovenko, a Bishop of the Russian Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals) managed to get the case against him under Article 5.26 Part 4 of the Code of Administrative Offenses closed. The charge was based on the video of the Sunday school in the New Testament church, released by the community before Easter. It was a video lesson in which a teacher, talking about the sufferings of Christ, pricked a doll named Seryozha with an iron nail to demonstrate the pain the Savior had felt. The video caused outrage among social network users. The police filed a lawsuit not against a religious organization, but personally against Grabovenko, who was not involved in the creation of the video or its publication. In August, the magistrate's court closed the case for lack of corpus delicti.

On December 16, 2020, the Judicial Collegium for Administrative Cases of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation revoked the rulings of the three lower courts on recognizing as lawful the refusal of the Federal Penitentiary Service to enter into a cooperation agreement with the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (Pentecostals).

The Union, whose interests were represented by lawyers of the Slavic Legal Center Vladimir Ryakhovsky and Sergey Chugunov, appealed the decision of the Zamoskvoretsky District Court of Moscow, the appellate ruling of the Moscow City Court, and the ruling of the Second Cassation Court of General Jurisdiction. For several years the Federal Penitentiary Service was refusing to enter an agreement with the Pentecostals under various pretexts. The Supreme Court pointed out the discriminatory nature of such refusals and returned the case to the court of the first instance for a re-trial.

In all the reported conflicts related to the fact of Muslim women wearing headscarves in educational institutions, an acceptable solution was found without any court intervention. Thus, in July, a student of the Sverdlovsk Regional Medical College appealed to the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan with a complaint about the ban against wearing a headscarf in her educational institution. As soon as this complaint was made public, the college management said that the information was not accurate, and there was no ban on hijabs or other forms of discrimination based on ethnicity or religion, but all students were required to wear a medical gown and cap.


In November, the parents of a seventh-grade secondary school student in the village of Stolbishche in Laishevsky District of Tatarstan appealed to the prosecutor's office and the district department of education with a complaint against the school director and teachers, who had forbidden the girl from wearing a headscarf to school. Immediately after the parents' complaint, the headmaster apologized to the girl and her family and allowed them to “break the rules” and continue attending school wearing a headscarf. The parents withdrew the complaint.

Only Alina Navruzova, a student of the Omsk Medical College, had to go to court, defending her right to attend classes wearing a headscarf. The Kirovsky district court refused to satisfy her claim against the administration of her educational institution, and Navruzova tried to appeal this decision in the regional court. However, even before the complaint was considered, the college management allowed female students to wear headscarves on the condition that they were white.


Religious Organizations amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic and the anti-epidemic measures taken by the authorities could not but affect religious organizations. The pandemic and the measures to combat it did not fundamentally affect the situation with respect to freedom of religion, but religious organizations, like the entire society, had to adapt to an unusual situation and, build relationships with their lay followers, the authorities, and the rest of society under the new conditions.

In the spring, with the initial introduction of anti-epidemic measures, the authorities in various regions recommended that religious organizations observe sanitary precautions, limit the number of those present at services, or completely close churches for parishioners and organize online services. Since some of these restrictions required a change in the worship rituals (for example, the use of disposable tableware in church sacraments), most religious organizations perceived them negatively as the state intervention in their internal affairs.

However, only Russian Orthodox Church organizations have publicly opposed the imposed restrictions, whether on the grassroots or the official level. In particular, the resolution of the St. Petersburg government on additional measures to counter the spread of coronavirus infection, published on March 26, which explicitly mentioned a ban on visiting “temples and other religious institutions, except for ministers and staff,” caused unanimous indignation among the Orthodox. For comparison: a similar resolution by the Moscow government proposed the same measure only as a recommendation. The Legal Department of the Moscow Patriarchate declared the demand of the St. Petersburg government a violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion since this right could only be limited by federal law. The Forty Times Forty (Sorok Sorokov) Movement urged Orthodox Christians not to obey this decree and declared their readiness to help those wishing to attend churches, as well as to act as a coordinator of the actions for believers, who want to “look for an opportunity to celebrate Liturgy on the street or in the woods.”

Several bishops made harsh statements about the secular authorities. In particular, Metropolitan Longin (Korchagin) of Saratov and Volsk compared the actions of officials who restricted access to churches with the Soviet-era persecutions, and Bishop Euthymius (Dubinov) of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church publicly called for ignoring the orders of the authorities and come to pray in churches “for the plague to go away.” The Syktyvkar diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church even threatened to challenge in court the legality of the order issued by the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection (Rospotrebnadzor) of the republic that prohibited religious organizations from holding mass events during the epidemic.

It is worth noting that some restrictions imposed by the authorities were considered excessive and unlawful not only by religious organizations but also by some secular experts. Thus, the Expert Council of the State Duma Committee for the Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Associations, in its report published on April 20, indicated that religious services cannot be classified as cultural, leisure, or sports events, and, therefore, the effect of regulations that prohibited attending mass activities should not apply to worship. The actual ban on visiting churches, even when called a “temporary suspension,” “cannot be established by the state authorities of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation.”

The Presidential Council for Human Rights gave a similar assessment to the actions of the authorities. Its report of July 8 classifies as a restriction of the right to freedom of conscience and religion not only the orders of the regional authorities to prohibit or restrict the visits of believers to churches, but also the orders of the chief sanitary doctors of several federal subjects to use disposable spoons for the sacrament. Such regulations, the report says, “grossly violate the constitutional principle of non-interference by the state in the activities of religious associations, thereby encroaching on the autonomy of religious associations in the matters of intra-confessional rules for the performance of religious rites.[11]]

The actions of the officials and the police who monitored the observance of anti-epidemic regulations by religious organizations were by no means always consistent. Many churches held the Easter night services, despite the restrictions imposed, and the police freely admitted parishioners into the churches. At the same time, a number of religious organizations faced administrative responsibility for permitting their followers to attend.

For example, Bishop Iriney (Tafuni) of Orsk in the Orenburg Region was fined 15 thousand rubles, and the Mikhailo-Arkhangelsk Parish in Beregovaya village of the Kemerovo Region – 100 thousand under Article 6.3 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Violation of the Law in the Area of Securing the Sanitary-and-Epidemiological Well-Being of the Population”) for the presence of worshippers at their Easter services.

Artemy Skripkin, a former priest of the Tikhvin diocese, was fined 10 thousand rubles under Article 20.2.2 Part 1 of the Administrative Code (“Organizing a non-public event that entails mass simultaneous presence and (or) movement of citizens in public places, if the massive simultaneous presence and (or) movement of citizens in public places led to a violation of public order or sanitary standards”) in St. Petersburg.

The presence of lay people at religious services is not the only thing for which believers and religious organizations were punished, and the legitimacy of these punishments was not always obvious. It is known that Kiemiddin Saidov, the owner of a booth in Sennoy Market in St. Petersburg, was fined 1,000 rubles under Article 20.6.1 Part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Failure to Meet the Demands of Norms and Rules Regarding Prevention and Liquidation of Emergency Situations”) for giving out food to those in need during Ramadan.


In Moscow, the police detained a chorister of the Epiphany Church in Kitai-Gorod on her way to the service, despite the fact that clergy and employees of religious organizations were officially allowed to visit their churches, and the chorister presented a temple employee certificate. One of the police officers responded by saying that he was not interested in the internal documents of religious organizations, and “the temple is not included on the list of objects that are allowed to operate under the quarantine.” The senior priest of the temple received a notification about the impermissibility of violating the regime of self-isolation in connection with the incident.

But in general, it can be said that in the spring and summer, religious organizations and the authorities managed to reach a compromise, develop acceptable forms of activity for religious organizations in the context of anti-epidemic restrictions and find a balance between freedom of religion and public safety. This can be confirmed by the fact that the introduction of the necessary restrictions during the “second wave” proceeded without much protest from religious organizations.


Notably, life under quarantine also affected the internal structure of religious organizations and revealed their internal contradictions. This is true, first of all, for the Russian Orthodox Church, since only members of this particular organization openly protested against the imposed restrictions, and these protests were directed not only against the secular authorities but de facto also against the position of Patriarch Kirill. In March, in solidarity with the secular authorities, he urged the flock to pray at home and refrain from attending church services, and in April, he issued an order making the clergy responsible in cases of non-compliance with the anti-epidemic measures including possibly bringing them to trial in a church court.

However, this unequivocally expressed position did not stop disaffected Orthodox Christians, and some of them continued to oppose the patriarch publicly. This was done most radically by Sergiy (Romanov), the spiritual father of the Sredneuralsk Women's Monastery. On April 25, in his sermon, which was widely disseminated on video, he explicitly called on the faithful to ignore the orders of the secular authorities and the church hierarchy regarding the anti-epidemic measures and to attend churches. Soon after, the diocese banned Father Sergiy from preaching in public. Since he ignored this prohibition, he was forbidden to perform church services on May 26, and the ecclesiastical court of the Yekaterinburg Diocese defrocked him on July 3. In September, eight of his associates were defrocked, and he was excommunicated by the diocesan court. Moreover, the diocese went to court to seek ownership of the Sredneuralsk Women's Monastery complex built by Sergiy.

Sergiy is a prominent figure in the “tsar worshipper” movement oppositional to the Patriarch’s office, who played an important role in the restoration of the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion-Bearers at Ganina Yama, so his sermon attracted the media and law enforcement attention. On July 7, the magistrate's court of the Verkhnyaya Pyshma Judicial District fined Sergiy 90 thousand rubles under Article 13.15 Part 9 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Distribution in the media, as well as via information and telecommunication networks of deliberately inaccurate socially significant information under the guise of reliable messages”) for “fake news about the coronavirus” contained in the aforementioned sermon. Given that the sermon was also clearly anti-Semitic, the former priest was soon found guilty under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Incitement to hatred”) and fined 18 thousand rubles. Later, his closest assistant Vsevolod Moguchev, who published the sermons of the banned schema-hegumen on his YouTube channel, was also brought to administrative responsibility.

In December, after the appearance of a video recording of one of the ex-priest's sermons, in which he called on his supporters to “die for Russia,” OMON and the National Guard of the Russian Federation (Rosgvardia) searched the territory of the Sredneuralsky monastery, detained Sergiy and took him to Moscow. Later, three criminal cases were initiated against him: under Article 148 Part 3 (“Violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion”), Article 330 (“Arbitrariness”), and Article 1101 Part 3 (“Incitement to suicide”) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The former priest himself was placed under arrest, the term of which has already been extended several times.

Summarizing this part of the report, we can say that the anti-epidemic measures taken to date do not, in and of themselves, restrict freedom of conscience and religion. However, in the event of law enforcement abuse, which we have already observed more than once, these restrictions can become another repressive tool that can be used to restrict various freedoms, including the freedom of conscience.

As an example of such abuse, we can look at the November raid on Protestant communities, conducted by the police and prosecutors in Bryansk to check the extent of their compliance with the anti-epidemic measures. In addition to the selective character of such an audit (after all, the raid did not include other confessions), its format also attracted attention – the inspectors were accompanied by journalists, thus indicating a demonstrative action directed against Protestant churches.


Protecting the Feelings of Believers

Protection from the Top

As in the previous year, criminal prosecutions for insulting religious feelings were not too active.

In 2020, we became aware of one verdict under Article 148 Part 1 of the Criminal Code (“Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers”). It was issued to a resident of Voronezh, whom the Komintern District Court found guilty not only under this article but also under Article 242.1 Part 2 paragraph “d” of the Criminal Code (“Distribution of child pornography on the Internet.”) The charge under Article 148 are related to the publication on his VKontakte page of a certain image of “naked saints.”

Investigations were completed in two more cases of insult to religious feelings. A Chita resident, charged under Article 148 Part 2 of (“Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers, committed in places specially designated for worship”) for the publication of a video in which the author of the video lights a cigarette in the cathedral from a church candle; the verdict in this case was issued in 2021. The court sentenced the young man to 120 hours of community service. Another case – a resident of Kiselevsk in the Kemerovo Region, accused under Part 1 of the same article for a comment insulting Muslims and Islam – went to court, but we do not know the result.

Few new cases have been initiated under this article. In the Oryol Region, a case was opened against a resident of Verkhovsky District under Article 148 Part 1 for posting a comment. The military investigation department of the Kaliningrad Garrison opened a case under the same article against two Baltic Fleet servicemen, who washed their shoes in a holy spring of a chapel in Kaliningrad. One defendant apologized to believers, explaining that he had no malicious intent, he simply “did not know this water was so serious.”

There was also one known case of administrative sanctions imposed for insulting religious feelings. A Surgut resident was fined 30 thousand rubles under Article 5.26 Part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“Intentional public desecration of religious or liturgical symbols and attributes”) for the VKontakte publication of “about ten images connected to religious themes in one way or another,” mostly of satirical nature.[12]


Protection from Below

Throughout the past year, believers, mostly Russian Orthodox, claimed from time to time that their religious feelings were being insulted. However, we are not aware of any cases when violent means were employed to protect the feelings, and there were almost no public protests, probably due to quarantine restrictions.

The only exception was a protest against the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo magazine and French policy in general, held in October without a permit by a group of Muslims outside the French embassy in Moscow. Several dozen people were holding placards, shouting slogans against Emmanuel Macron and shouting “Allahu Akbar.” In February 2021, a case was opened against one of the participants in this action under Article 280 of the Criminal Code (“Public calls for carrying out extremist activities”).

Often, believers limited themselves to publicly stating that an event offended their feelings and took no other steps to punish the perpetrators. For example, Orthodox Christians in Moscow were outraged by the appearance in the Moscow metro of videos about the need to comply with anti-epidemic measures containing a slogan “Will Prayer Not Help?” Believers who discussed this video on social networks wanted the Moscow metro to face responsibility, but the matter did not progress any further.

In May, Muslims in Makhachkala were offended by the fact of broadcasting war songs from minarets. At the initiative of the regional Ministry of Emergency Situations, in order to alert people about emergencies, loudspeakers were installed at various facilities, including minarets. Then, on Victory Day, it was decided to broadcast war songs through the loudspeakers. The authorities did not take into account the fact that some of them were located at religious sites, and did not coordinate their actions with the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims. The Ministry of Emergency Situations admitted their mistake and noted that at least the songs were not played during the religious services.

The Chelyabinsk Cossacks, who found Sergei Shnurov's video “i_$uss” offensive, gathered near the Chelyabinsk World Trade Center building (at the time when artist and the Growth Party leader Boris Titov was meeting there with the party members) to find out whether Shnurov was the Antichrist. The Cossacks could not get inside, since they were not included on the lists of invitees, and decided not to break through by force.

At least twice, the indignation of believers was directed at food establishments. The Yekaterinburg Cossacks interpreted the Possessed Gastrobar of Temptations, a new café in Yekaterinburg, as an insult to the feelings of believers. Ataman Oleg Senenko of Gorny Shchit Cossack village reproached the registration authorities for allowing the use of such a name and thus pushing believers towards a radical reaction: “The state itself provokes a conflict. Molotov cocktails can fly; terrible things can happen. There are a lot of Orthodox fanatics, who can simply set fire to it.” [13] Fortunately, nobody was ready to fulfill the ataman’s prediction.

In St. Petersburg, the Forty Times Forty movement was outraged by the interior of GODS, a new café that Orthodox activists considered blasphemous: “A crown of thorns around a naked woman on the façade, a neon cross carried by a naked man of antiquity with the inscription “a sin will find you,” a naked half-woman/half-man with angel wings over the bar, bartender boys wearing a uniform resembling the robes of Western priests… – this is not a horror movie. It is a blasphemous cafe opened today in St. Petersburg under the name of “GOD”.”(the movement representatives cited the café’s name incorrectly – Ed.)[14] State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov shared the indignation of the Forty Times Forty movement and called for the cafe to be closed, but it was still in business at the time of writing this report.

Forty Times Forty organized a collection of signatures demanding to deprive TV show host Ivan Urgant of Russian citizenship. His show Evening Urgant on January 7 included a collage depicting the birth of actor Nicolas Cage, and baby Cage in a manger surrounded by directors Nikita Mikhalkov, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg was regarded by the Orthodox as a mockery of Christ. The host humorously apologized, asking the authors of the petition to “withdraw their curses,” and reminded the audience that the purpose of his show was entertainment, and the topic of religion should not be taboo.

Some offended believers who complained about insults to their religious feelings turned to various authorities but did not always receive the desired response.

In North Ossetia, lawyer Ruslan Kaloev asked the prosecutor's office to check whether the exhibition of works by sculptor Vladimir Soskiev in the village of Nogkau “insults the feelings of adherents of the traditional Ossetian faith, Islam and Christianity,” but many residents of the republic, including Gala Tebieva (the head of the North Caucasian branch of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts) spoke in defense of the exhibition.

In April, Sergei Gavrilov, the head of the State Duma Committee for the Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Associations, asked the General Prosecutor's Office to check the series Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes airing on the Russia-1 TV channel for signs of insulting religious feelings, and also demanded that the Ministry of Culture “stop funding films that slander the country's history, split the society and insult believers, including leaders of religious organizations.” The appeal was based on the indignation of Muslims, who suspected that one of the “indecent” scenes of the film was filmed in a mosque. The deputy was outraged by the fact that the film used the names of the modern muftis as the names of the Soviet persecution victims.

The ministry said that they did not finance the series; the reaction of the prosecutor's office is unknown. The filmmakers explained that they never intended to offend the believers, and actor Sergei Makovetsky, who played one of the main roles in the series, reminded that “among other things, this is just a movie.”

The already mentioned Forty Times Forty ordered a linguistic and culturological expert examination to assess whether the seat upholstery of Moscow public transport, which depicts a cityscape including church domes with crosses, was offensive to the feelings of believers. Expert Tatiana Troitskaya concluded that the use of such upholstery creates “an everyday situation, in which the image of the cross is trampled upon since it is positioned on the seat of a passenger transport.” This conclusion was sent to the Moscow government, but no reaction has been reported so far.


In some cases, those who complained about insulting religious feelings were able to get a positive reaction from the authorities or organizers of the cultural events that caused their concern. Thus, a report under Article 20.6 (“Failure to Meet the Demands of Norms and Rules Regarding Prevention and Liquidation of Emergency Situations “) was compiled against a social network user who published a video, in which she dances with Kul-Sharif Mosque of Kazan in the background, causing outrage among Muslims. The dancer apologized saying that she had no intention of offending Muslims.

After the inhabitants of Apatity complained that the Maslenitsa celebration in the city included the burning of scarecrows whose frames had the form of crosses, the city administration apologized to those who felt offended, and warned the holiday organizers about the impermissibility of such “violations.” It must be noted that the administration did not specify the form the scarecrow frames should have in order not to offend anyone.

In response to the complaints of believers, who viewed Ivan Chetverikov's graffiti depicting a multi-colored woman with a baby and halos above their heads as an insult to the Mother of God, the organizers of the Street Art festival in Krasnoyarsk asked the artist to paint over the halos.

Rappers Osobov and Slim removed their video “Enjoy Your Bath” from social networks after the Call of the People movement appealed to a prosecutor's office with a request to initiate a case against them under Article 148 of the Criminal Code. According to the complaint, the video, in which the priest appears “in the back seat of an expensive car among ladies of easy virtue” with a wad of money and a pistol, “discredits the Russian Orthodox Church, offends the feelings of believers and undermines trust in the church.”


It is worth noting that, on several occasions, insulted believers complained about the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In particular, social network users expressed their discontent regarding the burning of the wooden bell tower of the 19th century Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Okishino village of Lyskovsky District in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The diocese had initiated the burning and had to explain its actions to the indignant public. The diocese referred to a difficult financial situation that caused them to decide on dismantling and burning, rather than restoring, the bell tower, having coordinated all their actions with local residents, the authorities, and the fire department. Roman Kiyanov, a spokesman for the Lyskovsky Diocese, explained that this method of destroying the bell tower was chosen specifically in order to prevent trampling upon the shrine. However, many believers felt that the actions of the diocese were sacrilegious.

An extensive public discussion was caused by the mosaics that decorated the walls of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, built in the Patriot Park near Moscow as the main temple of the Russian Armed Forces, and depicted a number of active and deceased political figures including Vladimir Putin and Stalin.

Many believers including well-known public figures signed an open letter to the patriarch, which said that “the very appearance of the portrait of I.V. Stalin in the temple of God, in a completely positive and glorifying context, will be a difficult temptation for many believers in Russia and other countries. Stalin was the leader of a political party that professed militant atheism and launched massive anti-church repressions. During the years of his reign – and with his undeniable permission – many innocent people, including bishops, priests and laymen of the Russian Orthodox Church, were subjected to torture and death, and most churches and monasteries were either destroyed or closed. Many of the victims of Stalin's persecution were canonized and revered as new martyrs and confessors of the Russian Church. Therefore, a portrait of Stalin in an Orthodox church would be a manifestation of gross disregard for Orthodox Christians, who proved their faithfulness to Christ and endured severe torment and death for Him.”[15]

After numerous discussions, the image of Stalin, as well as the image of Putin (who said that it was too early to appraise his work by placing his image in a church) were removed on the eve of the temple’s consecration.


Insufficient Protection against Defamation and Attacks

Violence and Vandalism

As in the previous year, we are not aware of any attacks motivated by religious hatred in 2019.

Clerics or staff of religious organizations were victims in several incidents during the year, but all the episodes were caused by non-religious conflicts. For example, Izgiyahu Pashayev, the chairman of the Jewish community in Buinaksk, died after a beating that happened as a result of a domestic conflict. In the village of Konstantinovo of Sergiev Posadsky District in the Moscow Region, Archpriest Mikhail Lupa was beaten by teenagers he had reprimanded for their overly loud music. In Moscow, a man entered the altar of St. Nicholas Church on Bakuninskaya Street and lightly wounded two altar wardens. Presumably, the attacker was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In Novosibirsk, a hooligan armed with a knife also tried to enter a temple but was detained by Rosgvardia officers. In this case, the mental health of the attacker is in doubt.


Religious vandalism has declined slightly once again. Orthodox objects were attacked by vandals most frequently, but we still know less of such cases than a year earlier (eight versus 11 in 2019).

There were three incidents of arson. In the Altai Republic, the Mikhailovskaya chapel was set on fire; local shaman Sergei Tuzovsky was found guilty of the arson. In the village of Uzyan in Bashkiria, unknown persons set fire to a prayer cross. The act of vandalism immediately followed the appearance of a YouTube video of a local activist Ramilya Saitova, in which she called for convening a people’s gathering (yiyin), to discuss, among other issues, the issue of “demolishing all the crosses in the Urals.” Shortly before that, a local resident tried to challenge the legality of the installation of the cross. In St. Petersburg, a vandal with a Molotov cocktail tried to set fire to the Peter and Paul Church in Vesely settlement of Krasnogvardeisky District. The attempt was unsuccessful – the temple was not damaged, and the arsonist was arrested.

In other cases, vandals painted graffiti on Orthodox sites. In Voronezh, a vandal painted a swastika on tombstones near the Temple of Prophet Samuel and tried to attack a passerby woman for taking his photo. In Sarov of the Nizhny Novgorod Region, unknown persons left an inscription “There is no god” on the church building. In St. Petersburg, a vandal wrote “There is no god, there is only money” and “COVID-19 is our new Jesus” on the wall of the Annunciation Church on the 8th line of Vasilievsky Island. In Vologda, two vandals painted a swastika on the pedestal of a monument to Lenin and unspecified “forbidden symbols” on the Vladimir Chapel building. In Umba of the Murmansk Region, two girls painted offensive inscriptions and images on a temple wall and painted over an icon over the temple entrance.

Vandals attacked Jewish objects three times (vs. five times in 2019). In one case it was arson; in two other cases objects were broken. In April, unidentified persons set fire to the building of the Jewish cultural center and the Northern Star Synagogue in Arkhangelsk, causing damage to the entrance, broken glass, and smoke damage in the hallway. This synagogue was already been attacked by vandals in 2015 and 2016. In St. Petersburg, vandals damaged 30 gravestones in the Jewish section of the Cemetery in Memory of the Victims of January 9th. In Moscow, a drunken lawbreaker tried to enter the premises of the Shamir Jewish community shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Having failed to gain entry, he threw a chanukiah off the porch, tore off the plaque with the name of the organization, broke the mailbox, and knocked the license plate off the rabbi's official car.

We also know of three attacks against pagan objects (vs. none in 2019). A ritual Khakassian hitching post (sarchyn) was burned in the Askiz District of Khakassia. In Kabardino-Balkaria, near the road from Kislovodsk to Dzhily-su, vandals knocked down a group of three megalithic structures – menhirs. In the Kaluga Region, a temple organized by the Union of Slavic Communities of the Slavic Native Belief was destroyed and a statue toppled.

Muslim objects were damaged by vandals at least twice. In Elektrogorsk of the Moscow Region, vandals knocked down a tile with a quote from the Quran off a Muslim cultural center building, and about ten graves were destroyed in a Muslim cemetery in Surgut.

A building belonging to Protestants was damaged in at least one case. In St. Petersburg – an unknown person set some cans with flammable liquid on fire and threw them at the window of a Baptist church. The window was broken, but no fire occurred.


Insufficient Protection of Religious Minorities

As before, defamatory materials about religious organizations continued to appear in mass media, most often targeting Protestant communities and new religious movements. These materials were published by both regional and federal media, and the number of such publications seems to have increased.

The surge in “anti-sectarian” publications was partly related to the coronavirus epidemic. In April, the Bryansk media, followed by several federal media outlets including the Russia-1 TV channel, reported an outbreak of the disease among the parishioners of the Revival Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith in Bryansk. The believers were de facto accused of intentionally infecting others, while many media outlets incorrectly indicated the confessional affiliation of those who got sick: some misidentified them as Baptists. Alexander Bogomaz, the governor of the Bryansk Region, was among those spreading this information, having confused the two denominations.

Russian Protestant leaders had to publicly express their outrage at the defamation. Pastor of the Revival Church Mikhail Biryukov appealed to the public calling on them to stop the slander against his church. He said that he and his parishioners began to receive threats following these publications. Senior presbyter Yevgeny Voronin of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the Bryansk region publicly explained that the information was inaccurate and, at the time of these publications, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases among the Bryansk Baptists. The chairman of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, Pyotr Mitskevich, sent appeals to V. Putin, A. Bogomaz, the leadership of Russia-1 TV Channel and St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, asking for protection of believers from defamation. He linked the above-mentioned attempt at burning a Baptist church in St. Petersburg to the unfair accusations against Baptists in the media. According to him, “in the current difficult social environment, the dissemination of inaccurate information incites hatred and religious intolerance in society.”[16]

The pandemic was not the only context in which defamatory materials related to Protestant organizations appeared in the media. The fire in a house belonging to the Rassvet Social Assistance Center in Kaliningrad, which killed three people in October, caused a wave of “anti-sectarian” publications in the region, since the House of Life Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith was the founder of the center. For example, the Novye Kolesa newspaper published a full set of “anti-sectarian” clichés: Pentecostals are called “just a sect,” Alexander Dvorkin is cited as an expert, church leaders are accused of using the “slave labor” of people who turned to Rassvet for assistance, and a fire, in which human lives were lost, is described by the phrase, “The sect openly recruits adepts, and they proceed straight to the morgue.”[17]

The Omsk regional television in December showed a story under the headline “Omsk Resident Hiding from Justice in a Baptist Religious Association after Stabbing Another Man,” although, as follows from the story, the criminal had nothing to do with the Baptist church – after committing the crime, he enrolled in a rehabilitation center created by the Baptists, which his relatives had long been recommending, to get treatment for alcoholism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced defamation as well. In May, the website, reporting on the arrest of two foreign citizens in Kurgan for violating the regime of self-isolation, mentioned that they were “Mormons,” and, on this basis, accused them of collecting information about the dead Russians and transferring this information to foreign special services. Representatives of the religious organization demanded the refutation of the false information, explaining that the detainees were indeed foreign citizens and church members, but collected no information about the deceased and were detained when they went food shopping. We must add that another local periodical, Vecherny Courrier, which also published information about the detained missionaries, went even further and said that they belonged to a “Masonic sect.”

NTV media company, talking about the searches conducted in the home of Mikhail Iosilevich, the leader of the local Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, called the organization “a dubious movement,” its leader “the senior priest of a dubious temple,” and mentioned Iosilevich’s “spacious three-bedroom in the very center of Nizhny Novgorod” and “the passport of an Israeli citizen” as “incriminating” details.

Anti-Muslim materials also appeared periodically in the regional media. For example, the All‑Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company in at least two regions ran the episodes “exposing” the links between some Muslims and the Turkish religious movement Süleymancılar (“Suleymanji”). After this story appeared on the Mari El TV channel, two of its central characters Rafael Safin and Farit Shageev, the former imams of two mosques in the Zvenigovsky district, filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office. The journalists accused them of adherence to the Süleymancılar Jamaat, ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the intention to “build a caliphate in a secular state.” The imams regarded such accusations as slander and an insult to their religious feelings and argued that the TV materials in question were the reason they lost their positions as imams.[18]

Lotos, the Astrakhan branch of All‑Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, accused a 32-year-old Turkish citizen, charged with “illegal” missionary work, of links with Süleymancılar and “sectarianism.”


As in previous years, some religious organizations managed to get the defamatory materials publicly denounced. For example, the Moscow Church of Scientology secured the decision of the Public Press Complaints Collegium against Eduard Petrov's 2018 investigation “The Formula of Successful Deception,” aired again on the Russia-24 TV channel in January 2020. The collegium ruled that the TV material was not a journalistic investigation but a propaganda attack that used manipulative techniques. According to the collegium, the material, while “not inciting interreligious strife, since it does not set different religions against each other,” nevertheless promotes the incitement of mistrust, suspicion, and hostility towards Scientologists.

The Public Press Complaints Collegium issued another decision on the complaint of Jehovah's Witness Andrey Krivosheev against the Interfax publication “The Prosecutor General's Office Linked the Increase in Detected Extremist Crimes in the Russian Federation with Jehovah's Witnesses” dated June 17, 2020. The claimant believed that the connection between the increase in the number of extremist crimes and the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses, as noted by Interfax, contains “false information about a religious organization banned in Russia and forms a negative image of the followers of this teaching.” In this case, the collegium ruled that the publication was not biased, contained no signs of offending religious feelings, and professional journalistic ethics were not violated during the preparation and editing of this material. However, the collegium reminded that journalists specializing in covering the activities of religious organizations should “be particularly scrupulous when covering any aspect of the exercise of freedom of conscience.”


As in the previous year, the “anti-sectarian” activity of public activists was low with no noticeable actions in 2020.

We know of isolated cases of public protests against followers of other religions. For example, residents of the Moscow district of Novogireevo called the police after seeing five couriers of Yandex. Food and Delivery Club perform namaz on a vacant lot behind McDonald's. The police officers who responded to the call, fortunately, did not see the fact of performing namaz as an offense.

Two residents of Veliky Novgorod interpreted the installation in a city courtyard of a Perun statue carved by a local craftsman from a fallen birch tree as “turning the courtyard into a pagan temple” and contacted various authorities from the city administration committee on urban management to the prosecutor's office expressing their indignation. None of the inspections organized upon request of the two women revealed any violations during the installation of the statue, and local residents confirmed that they supported the courtyard decoration.

[1] Our work on this topic is supported by the Netherlands and 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. The author of the report is one of SOVA Center founders. 
[2] Olga Sibireva. Freedom of Conscience in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2019 // SOVA Center. 2020. 19 March. ( 
[3] Maria Kravchenko. Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremism Legislation in Russia in 2020 // SOVA Center. 2021. 19 April (
[4]Vladyka Dimitri: I'm not going to ask the entire Transbaikalia whether to build a temple here or not // 2020. 12 September ( 
[5] The Annunciation Church of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, where the museum is located, will not be fully transferred to the ROC – Smolny // Interfax-Religion. 2020. 15 December ( 
[6] “We have every right to do so." How the church takes over the buildings of educational institutions and in which regions they are not transferred // 7x7. 2020.20 November // 7х7. 2020. 20 November (
[7] More in: Maria Kravchenko, Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremist Legislation in Russia in 2020.
[8] EU Statement on the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation and allegations of torture and ill-treatment // Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. 2020. 12 March.
[9] Members of a religious association detained in Krasnoyarsk Krai // Official website of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. 2020. 22 September ( 
[10] "This is the place of salvation." L. Savitskaya. The FSB fights against the “non-remembering” in Pskov // Sever.Realii. 2020. 16 October (
[11] Report of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights: "Lessons of the Epidemic in Respect for Human and Civil Rights and Freedoms" // Official site of the HRC. 2020. 17 July ( 
[12] More in: Maria Kravchenko. Inappropriate Enforcement of Anti-Extremism Legislation in Russia in 2020.
[13] Cossacks threatened a bar in Yekaterinburg with Molotov cocktails // ANews.2020. 21 сентября (
[14] "This is not a horror movie": activists took up arms against a "blasphemous" cafe on Rubinstein Street // 2020. 25 February ( 
[15] Clericalists and monarchists ask the patriarch to remove Stalin from the temple // NG-Religions. 2020.3 May ( 
[16] Appeal to the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin // Website of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. 2020.9 April ( 
[17] O. Ramirez, Human trafficking in Kaliningrad. The head of the city, Andrei Kropotkin, protects the slave owners // Novye Kolesa. 2020. 29 October ( 
[18] More in: K. Jamal, Imams of two mosques were removed from their posts under “Yarovaya’s Law" and accused of adherence to Suleymancilar // Idel.Realii. 2020. 3 March (