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Sacrificial roosters and offended feelings

What do a film about a Tsar’s mistress, Pussy Riot, the opera Tannhäuser, voodoo magic, and bloggers from Bryansk have in common? They’ve all “offended the feelings of believers”… RU

The damage to Yekaterinburg’s Kosmos cinema building after the attack on 4 September. Photo (c): Pavel Lisytsin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

One day, Denis Murashov decided to hold his own form of protest. On 4 September, this 39-year rammed a jeep filled with gas cylinders straight into Ekaterinburg’s Kosmos cinema. The building burst into flames, but didn’t burn down completely. 

Murashov, a native of the small town of Irbit in the Sverdlovsk Region, was a devout Orthodox Christian and was incensed by the release of “Matilda” — a film by director Alexei Uchitel about the last Russian Tsar, who is considered a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church. Social media anointed him the “cinema-jihadist”, drawing parallels with the methods of extremist Islamist terrorists. Several days before Murashov’s attack on the cinema, unknown persons had thrown Molotov cocktails into Uchitel’s studio in St Petersburg. One week later in Moscow, two cars were set ablaze outside the offices of Konstantin Dobrynin, the director’s lawyer. Flyers were left scattered about the floor, reading “burn for Matilda!”

So it was that the historical melodrama about the young Nicholas II’s affair with the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya inflamed the passions of religious believers — even before it hit the screen. 

“Cinemas will burn, and people may even get hurt”

Attention was first drawn to the director’s work by Natalia Poklonskaya, former prosecutor general of Crimea and currently a Duma deputy for United Russia. Poklonskaya had repeatedly appealed to the federal prosecutor general’s office to investigate the funding and screenplay of the film and order a full examination of the three-minute trailer. Poklonskaya even tried to sue Uchitel’s studio on behalf of the the widow of Nicholas II’s nephew. 

Experts who rallied behind Poklonskaya concluded that one could insult the feelings of the faithful by more than disrespecting religious objects and holy places. The insult can now be done by insulting individuals “revered by religious believers, and whose authority is inseparable to that of the religious organisation as a whole (for example, individual clergymen today or holy people who have since passed away).” 

Tsar Nicholas II was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church for having died a martyr’s death. Martyrdom, as Orthodox Christians see it, washes away the sins of the past — therefore, any image of the young king’s personal life should not besmirch that of the martyr Nicholas II. However, neither the investigation commissioned by Poklonskaya, nor her appeal to the prosecutor’s office had any effect — and the film was not deprived of its licence. Offended believers then decided to take more radical steps. 

lead Natalia Poklonskaya, United Russia Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea. Photo CC-by-4.0: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

In January, Russian cinemas started to receive letters demanding that they cancel screenings of the film. The authors were from “Christian State — Holy Rus’”, an unregistered, ultra-conservative Orthodox Christian organisation. They threatened that if Matilda was released, “cinemas will burn, and people may even get hurt.” Six months later, the Orthodox activists began to take direct action.

These days, religious activists in Russia ever more fervently oppose works of art which make any allusion to the church

Once the film started showing at cinemas, a wave of emergency evacuations swept across Russia. In tens of cities, anonymous telephone calls were made to airports, railway stations, and shopping centres warning of explosive devices in the immediate vicinity. Leader of “Christian State,” Alexander Kalinin, once convicted for murder, robbery, and forgery of documents, drew a connection between these telephone calls and offended religious believers. The state investigative committee instead believed Islamic State to be responsible. Two weeks later, Kalinin was arrested regardless — a case was brought against him under article 179 of Russia’s criminal code (on fraud, or more formally “coercion to conclude a transaction or refusal to conclude it”). 

The attempt to disrupt the screening of Matilda is by no means an isolated case. These days, religious activists in Russia ever more fervently oppose works of art which make any allusion to the church. In recent years, their anger has become a growing trend. 

Praying punks and offended feelings

Russia’s law “on protecting the feelings of religious believers” (article 148) appeared in the criminal code hot on the heels of Pussy Riot’s scandalous “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Three members of the group were convicted of hooliganism; the court saw in their performance a “gross violation of public order, expressing obvious disrespect to society at large”, which had been “committed by a group of persons by prior arrangement” (article 213, section 2).

With support from on high, the most conservative figures in the government and Orthodox Church, as well as journalists from official media outlets, started murmuring about “blasphemy” and “sacrilege”. These ghastly words should have had no legal weight — they may as well have been sorcerers’ spells from far-flung islands. After all, Russia is still de jure a secular state.

Pussy Riot’s call “Mother of God, drive Putin away” rang out against the backdrop of the violent events of 2011-2012. Those years saw the rise of the movement for fair elections, mass protests on Sakharov street and Bolotnaya square, as well as the Occupy Abai demonstrations.

Pussy Riot, now notorious in Russia for their “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Photo CC: Igor Mukhin / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Putin needed these things to be swept under the carpet. Dissenters and members of the opposition were torn apart by the pro-Kremlin media, criminal cases were brought against the protesters on Bolotnaya, and fines for holding public protests increased. When it came to defending the regime’s ideological allies, the stakes had become a lot higher.

According to article 148 of Russia’s earlier (1996) criminal code, you’d end up with a fine, correctional labour, and perhaps be detained for up to three months. The amended version, which came into force in June 2013, significantly increased the fines. It now included the possibility of a real prison term of up to a year. These days, the law refers not only to obstructing religious observances, but also mentions insulting the feelings of believers. These provisions are quite vague — exactly what level [of offence] leads to a jail sentence? How exactly does one define “offending religious beliefs”? 

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova centre for information and analysis, was frank about the amended law. “Such laws are adopted for two reasons,” he said. “An ideological shift towards traditional values is one factor; another is the inertia in the new norm of adopting repressive laws.” 

“The authorities aren’t really interested in anybody’s feelings — the topic forms part of a wider ideology of ‘traditional values’. It’s an ideology which engenders repression” 

“The authorities aren’t really interested in anybody’s feelings — the topic forms part of a wider ideology of ‘traditional values’. It’s an ideology which engenders repression, and such repression is supported by newly-charged ideological commitments” — concluded Verkhovsky. 

Andrei Sabinin, lawyer of the human rights centre Agora, agrees with Verkhovsky’s assessment: “In all honesty, I don’t see a particularly concerned attitude from the authorities when it comes to protecting the feelings of religious believers. They just rolled out a new mechanism for law enforcement which cannot but react to certain perceived challenges, no matter how absurd they actually are.” 

Sabinin believes that there are more than enough administrative and legal provisions — including, for example, fines — to allow the state to effectively react to inappropriate behaviour towards religious relics, rituals, or sites. Hypothetical “feelings” are another matter. “If we’re talking about statements or artistic expression, then that’s a different matter — and they cannot possibly result in a criminal case,” Sabinin says. 

Kicking the Buddha

For most Russians, Buddhism is almost a synonym for contemplative tranquility. But in the Republic of Kalmykia in the country’s south, it’s the traditional religion of the ethnic majority. In April 2016 Said Osmanov, a sportsman from Dagestan, arrived in Kalmykia’s capital Elista with a team of athletes to attend a wrestling competition. Osmanov slipped into a Buddhist temple, where he urinated and demonstrated the strength of his kick on a statue of the Buddha. 

The fighter’s friends soon put a video recording of the event online. Before too long, a crowd of angry Kalmyks gathered outside the hotel where the athletes were staying, and threatened to take matters into their own hands. As Kalmykia borders mountainous, Muslim-majority Dagestan to the south, a regional conflict seemed in the making. High-profile politicians from both autonomous republics urgently issued a joint statement condemning the antics of the now-arrested fighter. 

The Dagestani athlete Osmanov kicks a statue of the Buddha while on a visit to Kalmykia. Image still via YouTube. Some rights reserved.

A criminal case was opened according to article 148, and article 282 (on inciting hatred or enmity). Osmanov was handed a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment with a one year probation period. The sentence was a compromise between Buddhist Kalmyks and Muslim Dagestanis. Some media in Dagestan even reported Osmanov’s trial through the lens of “the Kalmyks have got it in for us”. 

Osmanov is not the only person who ran afoul of the law due to desecrating the holy relics of other faiths. Last summer in the village of Staraya Malinovka in the Kirov region, two local residents were sentenced to correctional labour for attaching a homemade scarecrow to a cross used for public worship. The court even took into account the repentance of the accused.

When magicians offend 

A special case is that of Anton Simakov from Ekaterinburg, who in 2014 tried to murder Petro Poroshenko with the help of Voodoo ceremonies. Thankfully, the Ukrainian president’s health was not affected, nor was he heard to complain about any curses. 

Meanwhile, scandalous journalist Maxim Rumyantsev had filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office to raise his concern that many “enemies of Russia” were hiding among the ranks of journalists and members of the opposition.

Rumyantsev also added that his feelings had been insulted upon watching an online video of Simakov’s voodoo rituals, in which the master magician laid out objects used in Orthodox Christian worship alongside a sacrificial rooster. A court hearing ensued, and Simakov was sent to a psychiatric clinic for compulsory treatment. The magician recovered and was released, eventually becoming a successful artist. 

These initiatives are usually the doing of those with the most sensitive temperaments — Cossacks and other “Orthodox activists”

Alongside disrespect to holy objects or places, there are other acts which can technically fall under article 148. Firstly, some believers might be offended by the “incorrect” portrayal of sacred objects or revered figures in works of art. While such outrage rarely leads to the punishment of artists or criminal cases being brought against them, investigations ordered by the prosecutor’s office and associated legal red tape can create their own problems. These initiatives are usually the doing of those with the most sensitive temperaments — Cossacks and other “Orthodox activists”. 

A protest for freedom of artistic expression on Lenin Square in Novosibirsk. Photo (c): Alexander Kryazhev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In 2014, the director Timofei Kulyabin of the Novosibirsk State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet decided to stage Wagner’s famous opera, Tannhäuser. The performance was met with wide, and deserving, acclaim on the part of critics and spectators alike — but it also incensed the local Russian Orthodox diocese. The plot of Tannhäuser features an “improper” depiction of Jesus Christ, and all sorts of events take place against the backdrop of a cross on stage — a setting all too unacceptable to the ever-watchful diocese and its priests. The investigative committee closed the case due to lack of clear evidence of a crime — but the scandal led to the dismissal of theatre director Boris Mezdrich.

In the spring of that same year, a tour by the Polish heavy metal band Behemoth ended in brawls with “activists of the Russian Orthodox Church” (people more reminiscent of far-right football hooligans). The fight broke out at the entrance to a club in Novosibirsk. The complaints of the “Orthodox activists” were more of an ultimatum: the governor of Khabarovsk, they declared, would be a “coward” if he “failed to speak up for Russia and the very foundations [of the nation].” 

“Death, violence, sexual perversion and cannibalism” 

That autumn, a tour by the American death metal band Cannibal Corpse was obstructed by the police and state narcotics bureau, and resulted in mass, violent detentions of members of the audience in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Ufa. Once more, these raids were provoked by activists of the “Orthodox Union”, who had complained to the investigative committee about both bands on the basis that they propagandised “death, violence, sexual perversion and cannibalism.” 

Criminal cases on the basis of article 148 were soon being filed left, right, and centre — and with great enthusiasm. In some instances, they were provoked by disrespectful or even just critical online statements about religious belief. 

In the autumn of 2014, Viktor Krasnov from Stavropol got into a heated discussion on social media, in which he stated that “there’s no such thing as God” and that “the Bible is a collection of Jewish fairy tales”. Two of Krasnov’s opponents complained to the police. They had been insulted not only by the obscene language he used in their debate, but also by the anti-religious content of his messages.

The case was brought to court and was widely publicised — and eventually alarmed the public at large. The injured parties — the two insulted religious believers — did not turn up at court for so long that while as case dragged on, they graduated from their law courses at university and became police officers. And so the case of Viktor Krasnov, who never admitted his guilt, was eventually closed after the statute of limitations expired. 

The blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky, accused of “offending the feelings of religious believers” in court, May 2017. Photo (c): Pavel Lisytsin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Upon hearing of religious extremists’ attack on the editors of Charlie Hebdo, the 22-year old video blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky from Ekaterinburg made a series of satirical recordings about religion for his YouTube channel. A number of personal threats followed, so the young blogger decided to combine business with pleasure by venting his rage at fundamentalists and clericalists. He began to address religion even more frequently in his videos — it was a popular topic, and always brought thousands of views (and, therefore, advertising revenue).

Sokolovsky had already touched a nerve with religious believers by the time he uploaded his most famous video — of his attempt to hunt for Pokemon using “Pokemon Go!” in Ekaterinburg’s Church of All Saints. The faithful eventually filed a criminal case against Sokolovsky. The investigative committee identified nine video clips which, in their opinion, were deliberately aimed at insulting the feelings of religious believers and inciting hatred towards them and denigrating their human dignity. The prosecution also alleged that Sokolovsky had illegally acquired a “spy-pen” with hidden webcam for making his video clips. 

For Sokolov, libertarian atheist, the internet was a space of free expression and easy money. In his last speech before court, the young blogger said that his case featured no victims, no violence, no calls to violence, nor calls to offend or denigrate religious believers. In his case, much like other criminal cases on offending religious believers, a large role had to be played by “experts” who could establish exactly what could reasonably be considered offensive. 

On 11 May 2017, the court found Sokolovsky guilty on all counts and sentenced him to 3.5 years’ imprisonment with a three year probation period. The prosecutor’s office went further, and demanded 3.5 years’ imprisonment in a prison colony with no chance of probation. Such “lenient” sentences are given in Russia when attempts to get a clear verdict of guilt are hampered by either lack of evidence or negative public opinion.

The prosecutor demanded 3.5 years’ imprisonment for Sokolovsky. Such “lenient” sentences are given when attempts to get a clear verdict are hampered by lack of evidence

Nikolai Vitkevich could become the latest hero in yet another criminal case involving article 148. In addition to his website about martial arts, Vitkevich, a businessman, blogger, and sports journalist, maintains a personal blog in which he criticises local government officials. In the summer of 2016, the blogger criticised the closing of several streets in Bryansk for an Orthodox Christian religious procession — accusing the city’s mayor of “demonstrable violations of the Russian constitution.”

Alexander Turykin — a local “patriot” and former bureaucrat who was also an activist for the ultranationalist National Liberation Movement stood behind the complaint — filed a complaint against Vitkevich.

When the prosecutor’s office analysed the language of Vitkevich’s blog post, he was found to have insulted the feelings of religious believers. 

This was hardly the first attempt by the authorities to sue Vitkevich — on account of his fighting litigation with two former governors of Bryansk and a fine for a brawl with a prosecutor among other scandals. Simply put, Vitkevich had investigated and criticised the authorities, so the local administration responded to him in kind. 

FSB vs. “fuck” 

On the dawn of 8 April 2017, the local anarchists in the city of Irkutsk welcomed a whole load of uninvited guests — namely, members of the FSB, rapid-response police force, investigative committee and counter-extremism centre. Detentions and interrogations were conducted with threats and violence. Several anarchists disappeared, only to resurface in prison colonies in the middle of nowhere. One can only imagine the surprise of the Irkutsk anarchists at discovering that the special operation had been provoked by a single photo on VKontakte, the popular Russian social network — the word “fuck” written on the wall of a church. The photograph had been taken by the anarchist Dmitry Litvin and published on his profile some two years earlier. 

Dmitry Litvin, from his personal profile on VKontakte. Some rights reserved.

These days, Litvin can’t even give comments to the press due to his signing a non-disclosure agreement on the case materials. His comrades Valeria Eltarenko, Igor Martynyuk and Sofia Mikityuk acted as witnesses, and are all convinced that article 148 was simply used as a pretext to conduct searches, confiscating cameras and computers — and preventing the anarchists from participating in the “Dissenters’ Council” which was planned to take place on 9 April.

The witnesses were questioned about their own activism, and last but not least about Litvin’s views on religion. One of the security service officers searching Eltarenko even remarked that “you must understand, that photo is key— now, everything we’re doing is legal!” At the first meetings held in summer 2017 on the case, the anarchists persistently but unsuccessfully demanded that the searches of their homes be recognised as illegal

Blasphemy-busters go global 

Persecution of those who commit “crimes against the feelings of religious believers” is a very specific legal phenomenon. The emergence of article 148 and how it is applied cannot be understood without social context. In Russia, almost everybody who is prosecuted under the law gets entangled in a bigger political game. Even the trial of Dagestani fighter Osmanov, who desecrated the statue of the Buddha in Kalmykia, caused yet another reason for enmity between two neighbouring republics. In this case, the court found Osmanov guilty, but handed down a very mild sentence. 

Russia is a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country, which requires the authorities to be sensitive to any conflicts in the making

Russia is a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country, which requires the authorities to be sensitive to any conflicts in the making. At the same time, the Kremlin simply cannot turn away from its useful alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. After all, during the trial of Sokolovsky, the prosecutor did not forget to point out the accused’s negative attitudes towards “Putin, Russia, and the Constitution” as discrediting factors. 

Unsurprisingly, articles 148 and 282 (on “extremism”) frequently go hand in hand. In addition to proving a “desire by the accused to offend the feelings of religious believers”, investigators also search for evidence online of “incitement to hatred and enmity against the dignity of a specific social group” (that is, a particular religious confession). Nevertheless, Alexander Verkhovsky believes that the “article on the feelings of religious believers cannot be as widely applied as the article on extremism: its scope for use is much narrower, and can only be expanded if there is a significant ideological change in the authorities’ governance.” 

A study by the Sova Centre dedicates an entire chapter to the jurisprudence of Russia’s battle to “combat blasphemy”. Laws like Russia’s article 148 can be found in the criminal codes of most countries — in some cases, the right to freedom of conscience and religious expression is protected, while in others a penalty is outlined for the desecration of holy objects or sites. In some cases, there’s even a provision, from the very mists of time, against insulting the person of God himself — though that practice is gradually fading away, and sentences for that particular crime are quite rare. 

In Russia meanwhile, traditional values are cultivated, if not imposed, from on high. Russia’s believers then pick up on their cues, become dutifully “offended,” and go about their “activism” from there.

Translated by Maxim Edwards 


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