During the Soviet era, Communist authorities propagated a rigid form of atheism, while persecuting believers to varying degrees in different eras. These days in Russia, the opposite is the case: the state is upholding strict Orthodox Christian doctrines, while using the judicial system to muzzle non-believers and religious dissenters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long made common cause with an increasingly militant Russian Orthodox Church in defense of “traditional values,” both at home and abroad. In buttressing church doctrine, as interpreted by the Moscow Patriarchate’s leadership, representatives of the Russian government have stepped up enforcement of a 2013 law that makes it a crime to engage in “public acts expressing manifest disrespect for society, and carried out with the goal of insulting the feelings of religious believers.”
In February, the issue began receiving some long overdue attention in the American press. Writing for Politico, Marc Bennetts described police raids seemingly carried out in retaliation against people who had successfully opposed the construction of a new Russian Orthodox church in a popular Moscow park. The piece also touched on the cases of Viktor Krasnov, who was dragged into court for declaring “there is no God” in an online debate, and Ruslan Sokolovsky, who is now on trial over a provocative YouTube video he made that features him playing the popular cell phone game Pokémon GO in a church.
Amendments to Article 148 of the criminal code, ostensibly punishing words and acts deemed offensive to religious believers, were adopted in response to a protest staged by the punk rock group Pussy Riot in early 2012 at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
Back in 2013, when the amendments were being debated, one of my Russian friends posted a Facebook update that asked; “Who will protect my feelings as an atheist?” The way the law is being enforced by Putin’s administration provides a clear answer: the rights of non-believers, as well as liberal believers, are not being protected. The case of Sergei Chapnin underscores the vulnerability of dissenting believers. Chapnin was fired from his role as managing editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate for criticizing the Orthodox Church’s leadership for taking on the role of a “church of empire.”
Laws like Article 148 in Russia’s criminal code make societies less open, and are a step in the direction of what liberal theorists call tyranny of the majority.
When Article 148 was amended, I wrote an analysis piece noting that many democratic countries have some sort of law against giving offense to religious believers’ feelings, or blasphemy. But in retrospect, I should have given more attention to a crucial distinction: some of these laws, like Germany’s, are designed to protect religious minorities; Russia’s law, on the other hand, is now clearly being used to protect the majority against criticism from minorities.
Another worthwhile read on this situation is an academic article written by my friend and colleague, Russian sociologist Dmitry Uzlaner, titled The Pussy Riot Case and the Peculiarities of Russian Post-Secularism.
Uzlaner asserts “the boundary that separates the religious and sacred from the secular and profane is now in flux” in Russia. Where the new frontiers are set is still not entirely settled, but the Russian state, which now fashions itself as the champion of “traditional values,” has become the arbiter of that boundary.
Christopher Stroop is an analyst who specializes in religious affairs in Eurasia. He is currently a Provost's Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of South Florida. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University in modern Russian history and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities.