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.

The case

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.

Author opinion

Despite the Russian Constitution’s clearly stated commitment to separation of Church and State, the Russian Orthodox Church came to play an integral role in Russian politics and society in the 25 years since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. A symbiotic relationship existed between the two entities, with the Church pressuring the government to promote its agenda, and vice-versa. The case against Viktor Krasnov should thus be viewed in light of this mutually beneficial relationship; as simultaneously a religious freedom and freedom of speech case, risking a precedent that would jeopardise the rights of atheists and non-Orthodox believers, as well as severely limit freedom of expression in all realms.

The conditions surrounding Krasnov’s case were murky.  It is unclear whether those who accused him were acting on their own accord, or why Krasnov, an unknown blogger from Stavropol found himself at the centre of this case. However, the message is clear. If an anonymous blogger could be sought out and tried for innocuous comments, then this could happen to anyone.  The tactics of intimidation used against him and his family, and the use of psychiatry as a punishment, was a disturbing harkening back to Soviet policy against dissidents.

Though Krasnov was the first person to be officially prosecuted under article 148, the regulation was consistently employed as a measure of intimidation. On the basis of the law, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan (a film critical of both the ROC and government) was almost banned in Russia. In addition, the law was used to justify acts of Orthodox extremism. In August of 2015, Russian Orthodox “activist” Dmitry Enteo raided an art exhibition in central Moscow.  Enteo destroyed a prominent Soviet avant-garde artist’s religiously themed sculptures, on the grounds that the display offended his feelings as a believer. This resulted in a mere 10-day prison sentence. The administrative leniency towards those who cite the vague law to justify gross misconduct and suppression of legitimate forms of speech, condones lone-wolves who see it as their duty to “protect” Russian Orthodoxy, and reinforces the implicit idea that Orthodoxy is Russia’s official religion. It also serves to contextualize the Krasnov trial.

The Krasnov case illustrated how much had changed in the four years after the Pussy Riot scandal. The church's persecution of Pussy Riot, and the public support it garnered against them, set the stage for the passage of article 148, and the subsequent rise in Orthodox fanaticism. However, in stark contrast to its handling of Pussy Riot, the church was largely silent on Krasnov, with some members even coming to his defence. This silence was significant. While this could have been an attempt to create the appearance that external forces were not at work, it is entirely possible that the church and Kremlin genuinely had no hand in this case.  This would arguably be more unsettling.  In 2012, the church needed to actively push for Pussy Riot’s prosecution and imprisonment, but this case reveals the extent to which others were prepared to do the church’s bidding.  Russian Orthodoxy was now ingrained in Russian legislation.

- Helen Haft

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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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