Continued Controversy Over Russia’s “Anti-Blasphemy” Laws

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On Tuesday, May 21, the Russian Federation’s State Duma overwhelmingly approved the second reading of the controversial “anti-blasphemy” legislation.  In the revised edition, the law would make it illegal to “intentionally or to publicly offend religious sensibilities” or “desecrate religious sites and paraphernalia.”  The former is punishable by a one-year prison sentence and the latter up to three. The Duma will hear a third and final reading in the next week.  If approved, it goes to President Putin for a final signature.

Although the second reading was passed with a landslide vote of 304 to 4, the proposed law has caused considerable controversy. Proponents, like United Russia party member Mikhail Markelov, stress that the law is necessary to protect the religious freedom and only “punish public acts that obviously go out of their way to insult a religion.”

However, opponents are not convinced. Fair Russia party member Sergey Mironov said “We are still not sure that it can be stretched to indict many Russians, even those who did not set out to offend anyone.”  Legal adviser Henry Reznik called the law “legally meaningless” or “rubber band.”  It could stretch to meet the needs of those in power.  Human Rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva  called it “another repressive law.”

A recently released report by the United States state department supports the opponents’ fears, noting that in other countries “the laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas.” (Myers, The New York Times, May 20, 2013)  The Russian Foreign Ministry publicly dismissed the U.S. report’s claims.

The Russian “anti-blasphemy” legislation was born out of the 2012 arrest of the activist/punk band Pussy Riot.  Their story was featured on March 24 2013 on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

In summary, five members of Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, stood up on the pulpit, and performed a punk-style hymn that prayed for the overthrow of Vladamir Putin. Three of the women were arrested, charged with “hooliganism” and given a two year sentence. One has since been released and the other two remain in jail today.

When the women were detained, the State struggled to find a law by which to charge them.  After digging up the “hooligan” charge, Putin’s administration felt that Russia needed better laws to deal with religion-specific cases. Currently, there are no punishments written into the Criminal Code to handle such situations.

Russians have had a long history of cultural and political secularism. Under Soviet rule, religious practice was significantly suppressed – even the Russian Orthodoxy. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev relaxed that strangle-hold and many citizens had hopes of experiencing greater spiritual freedom.

Geraldine Fagan

Geraldine Fagan

However, Russia retained that strong sense of secular nationalism.  As journalist Geraldine Fagan tells The Economist, 80-90% of the current Russian population identifies as Russian Orthodox but only 2-3% actually attend Church. Many identify out of loyalty to Russian culture, country and tradition rather than out of any honest expression of religiosity.

Russia’s relationship with religion has indeed shifted but not necessarily in the way predicted. Fagan said:

[the] hopes that the end of Communism would herald an era of religious freedom in Russia were short-lived.  [Today] Religious minorities face a tough lot.

The four majority religions are Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Any religious organizations that affiliate with these faiths can register for state benefits and protections if they meet a set of criteria.  For example, the organization must be in existence for a set period of time and not have distinct western origins.  Organizations over 100 years old qualify as part of Russian heritage.

If such an organization lies outside of the major religions, the group must undergo evaluation by a public, non-profit state-selected panel of experts comprised mostly of conservative Russian Orthodox practitioners. Gwiddon, the National Coordinator for the Pagan Federation International –  Russia explains:

There is no way to appeal a ruling or to present a defense. Quite often, the panel experts have very limited knowledge of the religion they’re discussing and use clerical rhetoric and the Bible, as the reasoning behind their decisions. 

Although not speaking about Paganism, Geraldine Fagan echoes the same concerns for all minority faiths in Russia. The current trends in religious law appear to favor the political and social position of the Russian Orthodox Church. As Fagan suggests, it’s more an expression of Russian nationalism than spiritualism.


What does all this mean for Russian Pagans? As noted by Gwiddon, the Russian Pagan community, a very diverse community itself, is rarely a target for bigotry and harassment. He remarked:

Most Russians never think about Paganism, apart, perhaps from reading a few juicy stories about skinny-dipping on Kupalo night… The perception of most people of paganism is rather positive. They view it as a form of folk tradition, village customs, etc. … Upon hearing about paganism the majority of Russians tend to shrug it off and say “okay, whatever floats your boat”.  [Although] there is a tiny minority of fundamentalist Christian activists, who actively tried campaigning against pagans, but their efforts always end up in failure.

Are Pagans concerned that they may lose that relatively comfortable social position if the anti-blasphemy laws pass and cause the predictable rise in religious tension?  Or, could these new laws strengthen their ability to fight those rare cases of discrimination?  The Pagan Federation International – Russia has been closely following the case. Gwiddon says that most Pagans believe the law to be a mixed blessing:

This proposed bill will not change much either in the perception of Paganism in the public’s eye, nor in the attitude of Pagans towards the society. No one is going to go back into the closet, on the contrary, there are some Pagans, who feel, that this is a good opportunity to claim protection of pagan beliefs and practices…

[The situation is complex.]  One positive [result coming out of] this new bill is that several pagan organizations decided to officially register with the local authorities in order to enable the creation of a state-registered religious organizations some time down the road.  If a Pagan belongs to a registered religious group, it will be more difficult for the authorities to argue that their beliefs are not a religion. Moscow House of Wiccans, a public Wiccan group in Moscow, recently filed notices of registration with Moscow authorities, for example.  

[In general] Pagans are not thrilled about the new bill since the existing legislation covers any actual damages against persons and property quite well.  [But] Pagans are taking a wait-and-see approach as to how this legislation is going to be used. [They] do not see the bill as a significant threat. Things will stay pretty much as they are, although it may become more difficult to offer constructive criticism of the Church.


Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

The current Russian administration is following in a long history of heralding Russian tradition and culture above all. In that light, supporting the Russian Orthodox Church is no different than the support given to any Russian folk tradition – even those of a magickal nature. If used responsibly, these “anti-blasphemy” laws could open the door to a greater recognition of religion and spirituality in Russian life. Pagans could benefit from its protection. However, at the same time, the Russian Federation could be dangerously close to blurring the lines between religion and government. Moreover, if the Church does become more powerful, will there be a steady increase in religious discrimination against non-Christians – in particularly Russian Pagans?

As Gwiddon said, we can only wait and see.