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Holy Slight: How Russia Prosecutes For 'Insulting Religious Feelings'

  • Carl Schreck

Russian blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky's arrest for playing Pokemon Go on his phone in a church is the best-known case, but hardly the only one.

Lighting a cigarette with a church candle, using a religious icon as a paintbrush, and beheading a rooster on an Orthodox shroud to hex Ukraine's president are all acts that can lead to prison time in Russia.

Ever since President Vladimir Putin signed a 2013 law criminalizing "public actions" that "clearly disrespect society" and are aimed at "insulting believers' religious feelings," such behavior and other acts have resulted in people being charged with felony crimes.

More than three years after the controversial law came into effect, only a handful of Russians have been prosecuted under the statute, which critics say is being used to stifle constitutionally protected expression. But convictions have trended upward under the law, one of several initiatives in Putin's third term widely seen as aimed at shoring up support from conservative elements in Russian society.

According to official data from Russia's Supreme Court, there was one such conviction in 2014, two in 2015, and six convictions as well as one cased of forced psychiatric care in 2016.

With more than four months left until the end of the year, four people have already been convicted in 2017, according to the respected Moscow-based Sova Center, which monitors the use and abuse of antiextremism laws in Russia. And other criminal investigations appear to be ongoing, according to public records.

None of these convictions have resulted in actual prison time, though the law allows for imprisonment of up to three years. Instead, those convicted have largely been slapped with fines. The most famous case -- that of Ruslan Sokolovsky, known as the "Pokemon Go Blogger" -- led to a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence.

After that conviction, prominent Russian journalist and atheist Vladimir Pozner asked on state television if propagating his views on religion is now illegal in Russia.

Here's a look at how the Russian authorities have cracked down on alleged insults to "religious feelings" under the law, which was enacted in the wake of the 2012 conviction of two members of the Pussy Riot collective for their performance-art piece in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Pokemon Go

Name: Ruslan Sokolovsky
Age: 22
Place: Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk region

Sokolovsky was found guilty in May both of hate speech and insulting religious believers' feelings. A popular blogger, Sokolovsky was prosecuted for a series of YouTube videos peppered with profanity in which he mocked and ridiculed both Christianity and Islam. The case grabbed headlines worldwide, in large part because one of the videos showed him playing Pokemon Go in a Russian Orthodox church.

Sokolovsky was arrested in September 2016, and the Yekaterinburg court handed him a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence -- meaning he was not sent to prison -- that was later reduced. He has also been added to an official list of "terrorists and extremists" maintained by Russia's Federal Financial Monitoring Service.

Ruslan Sokolovsky attends a court hearing in Yekaterinburg in May.
Ruslan Sokolovsky attends a court hearing in Yekaterinburg in May.

The verdict cited a litany of alleged offenses, including that Sokolovsky insulted believers by calling Jesus Christ a "rare Pokemon." Reading out the verdict, the judge said an analysis showed that Sokolovsky offended "the feelings of followers of Christianity and Islam by denying the existence of God and denying the existence of the founders of Christianity and Islam, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad."

Sokolovsky's prosecution and conviction triggered denunciations from Russian and international rights watchdogs.

'Evil Christ'

Name: Sergei Lazarov
Age: 29
Place: Orenburg, Orenburg region

Lazarov, a writer and a poet, was convicted and fined 35,000 rubles ($584) in February 2016 after being found guilty of posting an essay -- by a different author -- about portrayals of Jesus Christ in Byzantine icons at St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt's Sinai.

The essay, published in 2013 under the headline Evil Christ, explores the theology of the ancient Gnostics and uses words such as "tyrant" and "murderer" to describe the demiurge -- in Gnostic beliefs, the fallible creator of the physical world sometimes associated with God of the Old Testament.

Court documents from Lazarov's case seen by RFE/RL state that "police officers detected an insult of believers' feelings." The judge who rejected Lazarov's appeal cited "expert" analysis stating, in part, that the essay's author "expressed his viewpoint tendentiously with regards to the Jewish and Christian religion" and that the text showed "signs of psychological influence on readers." While Lazarov's appeal of his conviction was rejected, he was not forced to pay the fine because the statute of limitations had expired.

Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Sova Center told RFE/RL that Lazarov "was convicted of heresy -- in the strictest sense of that word."

See The Light

Name: Unknown
Age: 22
Place: Belgorod, Belgorod region

In May, a 22-year-old woman was found guilty of offending religious believers' feelings by posting public photographs on Russia's popular social-media site VKontakte purportedly showing her lighting a cigarette from a burning candle in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in central Belgorod.

Placing beeswax candles before icons is an important and often somber, reflective tradition in Orthodox worship. Prosecutors said the young woman, whose name has not been released, posted the photographs in question three times over an 11-month period beginning in June 2015. "Such actions demonstrate a clear disrespect to society and believers, and insults their religious feelings," prosecutors said.

They added that a Belgorod court fined the woman 15,000 rubles ($250) after taking into account "mitigating circumstances." A spokeswoman for regional prosecutors, Yelena Kozyreva, declined to identify the woman, telling RFE/RL that "a decision was made not to release her name." The photographs in question could not be immediately located.

Also in May, authorities in the Siberian region of Kemerovo said they, too, were investigating a social-media post showing a woman lighting a cigarette from an Orthodox church candle.

A state TV news anchor reporting on the incident said posting such photographs would result in a criminal case "in almost any country in the world." The report said the individual who posted the image may be in Kyiv and suggested the photograph could be part of a Ukrainian "propaganda" campaign.

Rooster With Its Head Cut Off

Name: Anton Simakov
Age: 32
Place: Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk region

Not even riding the Kremlin's political winds helped Simakov, an eccentric self-described "voodoo magician" caught up in one of the stranger cases involving Russia's "religious feelings" law. Simakov was charged under the statute for a stunt in which he cut the head off of a rooster atop an Orthodox shroud.

The ceremony, which Simakov said was aimed at placing a curse on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, was performed in October 2014 following Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and amid the war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. (The video is still available on the YouTube channel of Russia's state-run RT network -- warning, graphic content.)

The case against Simakov was opened following a complaint from a self-described "Russian patriot" journalist who gave testimony against Sokolovsky, the "Pokemon Go" blogger. Local prosecutors in February 2016 asked a court to place Simakov under forced psychiatric care.

The court found Simakov guilty and granted the prosecutors' request. He was released from psychiatric care in January, according to local media reports.

Middle Finger To Jesus

Name: Maksim Vorobyov
Age: 26
Place: Yoshkar-Ola, Mari El Republic

Vorobyov was convicted in August 2016 for a post he made on his page on VKontakte over a three-day period in September 2014, according to regional prosecutors. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service. According to a copy of the verdict posted online at Rospravosudie.com, the images featured an Orthodox cross embellished with profanity, and a scene from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that included a man "with a smile on his face" and his middle finger extended upward. The verdict quoted an "expert" as saying that the images featured "nods to Satanic views."

Vorobyov had previously been convicted of hate speech for VKontakte posts advocating "the extermination of the Jewish ethnic group and the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia," prosecutors said in a statement.

He was also convicted of hate speech in a separate case for a poem he published that allegedly encouraged violence based on religious beliefs, according to prosecutors.

Going Medieval

Name: Viktor Nochevnov
Age: 32
Place: Sochi, Krasnodar Krai

In a verdict that referenced a medieval synod, Nochevnov was convicted in early August for reposting several images mocking Jesus Christ on his account on VKontakte. He avoided prison but was ordered to pay a 50,000-ruble ($834) fine. The images, which have been seen by RFE/RL, include an illustration of Jesus's face photoshopped onto the body of a man wearing a Nazi SS uniform. The caption is a play on a traditional phrase spoken by Russian Orthodox believers on Easter.

Viktor Nochevnov
Viktor Nochevnov

Another image is an illustration of Jesus on the cross being carried by followers. A sign above his head reads "Let's go!" -- an apparent reference to the phrase Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin uttered as he took off to become the first human in orbit in 1961.

Russian opposition figure Leonid Gozman later published on his Facebook page several other images Nochevnov was convicted for, including one of Jesus playing an electric guitar.

In its verdict, the Sochi court included testimony from a local Russian Orthodox Church official who quoted a proclamation by a synod of Christian bishops in A.D. 787 stating that the "veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype." The reference was part of the church official's explanation of why the images posted by Nochevnov were offensive. Nochevnov told RFE/RL that he was doing "fine" after his conviction. "I can walk down the street at night without any problems. It's just that I can't scrounge up 50,000 [rubles]," he said.

'There Is No God!'

Name: Viktor Krasnov
Age: 39
Place: Stavropol, Stavropol Krai

Krasnov, a blacksmith and heavy-metal fan, was charged in 2015 in connection with a heated argument in the comments section of a post on VKontakte. In the exchange, Krasnov ridiculed the Bible as "bullshit" and a "bunch of Jewish fairy tales." He also wrote, "There is no God!" Two individuals he was arguing with complained to the authorities and investigators later determined that his public comments were aimed at "insulting the religious feelings of believers."

An avowed atheist, Krasnov refused to admit guilt in the case, which was sent to court in November 2015 but was temporarily halted the following year. The case resumed in January 2017 but was dropped by prosecutors who said the statute of limitations had run out.

Krasnov told numerous Russian media outlets that he was forced into a mental-health facility to undergo psychiatric evaluation for a month in connection with the investigation. The lawyer who represented him, Andrei Sabinin, told RFE/RL that the court ordered his mental evaluation at the request of investigators. Krasnov told RFE/RL in a March 2016 interview: "I simply don't understand what 'believers' feelings' are. And nobody understands this, even the judges -- that was clear. It's not written anywhere in the constitution or in the laws, and no one can give a definition of what it is. How I can insult something that doesn't exist, I have no idea."

Icon Paintbrush

Name: Unknown
Age: 21
Place: Angarsk, Irkutsk region

Investigators in the Siberian region said in July that a criminal case had been opened against a young local resident suspected of posting content on VKontakte that was insulting to religious believers' feelings. The statement released by the regional branch of Russia's powerful Investigative Committee gave few details about the nature of the content and the suspect has not been publicly identified.

But a representative for the regional branch was quoted by the local news portal Tayga.info as saying that the investigation centered around a video showing an Orthodox icon being used to "paint a wall." Prosecutors added in their statement that the man had previously been convicted of hate speech.

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