Russia’s law on offending religious feelings

Helen Haft examines the case of a blogger prosecuted after an online argument and its implications for Russian free speech.

In 2014, a Russian blogger Viktor Krasnov, was involved in a minor dispute with two users of the Russian social networking site Vkontakte.  Over the course of the argument he wrote “there is no God” and “the Bible is a collection of Jewish fairytales.” In late 2015, in accordance with article 148 of Russia’s legal code, Krasnov was charged with “publicly offending the feelings of religious believers”, which carries a sentence of up to 1 year in prison. In March 2016, the trial against Krasnov officially began in Stavropol, Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) lobbied for the law against “publicly offending the feelings of believers,” which was codified in 2013 in the aftermath of Pussy Riot’s “punk-prayer” performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. After it was passed, this law was used as a threat, but was not formally applied until March 2016, making Krasnov the inaugural case.

Following the debacle on Vkontakte, the two participants involved in the argument, both Orthodox Christians, filed a police report claiming “moral damages” from Krasnov’s comments.  А representative of the Stavropol Commission against Extremism, a government structure established to deal with crime, terrorism and other forms of “extremism” broadly defined, sought out Krasnov’s mother’s boss, telling him she should be fired because her “son is an extremist.”  Since “nobody in their right mind would write something against Russian Orthodoxy,” Krasnov was sent to a psychiatric ward, where he spent time in the company of а cannibal. Ultimately he was declared mentally sound and fit to stand trial.

Krasnov maintained his innocence.  He claimed that he had no intention of offending the feelings of Orthodox Christians and pointed to the fact that there is no mention of Russian Orthodoxy or of a Christian god in his comments.  His lawyer, Andrei Sobyanin of Agora, an international human-rights organization, itself under serious pressure from the Russian government, defended his client’s constitutional right to be an atheist.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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