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Ksenia Sobchak's Bearded Priest Post Sparks Probe In Russia

Ksenia Sobchak dressed up like a priest -- complete with a flowing, fake gray beard -- in a photograph posted on Instagram in April.

MOSCOW -- Is wearing a fake beard and a priest's robe an insult to the "religious feelings" of Russian Orthodox believers?

State investigators are on the case, checking whether prominent socialite, journalist, and government critic Ksenia Sobchak violated the law when she dressed up like a priest -- complete with a flowing, fake gray beard -- in a photograph posted on Instagram in April.

The inquiry will be a test of controversial blasphemy legislation passed following the jailing of three women from punk protest group Pussy Riot for an impromptu performance mocking Vladimir Putin and his close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

It comes amid a wave of conservative invective that critics say Putin has encouraged in order to demonize the West and discredit liberal opponents, and followed a renewed furor in Russia over the gay-friendly Eurovision Song Contest and last year's winner, the bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst.

At this stage, the authorities have not opened a formal investigation into Sobchak's attire.

But a photograph posted on Facebook on May 30 by a lawyer from Russia's Kirov Oblast, Yaroslav Mikhailov, showed a document confirming that the Investigative Committee would look into the complaint he filed over Sobchak's Instagram post.

"Sobchak has gone beyond the boundaries of the permissible and has insulted the feelings of believers," Mikhailov said on Facebook.

Sobchak apparently donned the robe and beard to advertise an article she was working on, presumably about religious issues. In a caption on her photograph on Instagram, Sobchak wrote that she and another journalist were "preparing an amazing report for Snob," a highbrow Russian magazine. "Guess what it's about."

Commenting on the state inquiry on Twitter on May 31, Sobchak wrote: #MoreThenHell (БольшеАда)

If prosecuted and convicted of offending religious feelings, Sobchak could face a fine of up to 300,000 rubles, community service, or a year in jail.

The blasphemy law was initiated after Pussy Riot's "punk protest" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012.

Putin signed it in June 2013, a year into a third presidential term during which he has talked up "traditional values" and cast the conservative Russian Orthodox Church as a guiding force for a country challenged by a morally decadent West.

The church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill, have depicted signs of what the church considers nontraditional gender roles and sexual orientation -- from cross-dressing to homosexuality -- as unnatural phenomena that pose a threat to Russia.

Ahead of the Eurovision final last month, Kirill expressed concern that if the Russian entry were to win, next year "all those bearded singers who impose that which is repulsive to our culture will come to Russia."

Some people who spoke out in defense of Sobchak on social media suggested the probe showed that the government and church are too closely linked. "Have they completely forgotten that we live in a secular state?" a user named Victoria said on Twitter, referring to an article of the Russian Constitution.

Another Twitter user, Yevgeny Polyakov, asked, "And can the 'believers' prove in court that they are believers?"