Pussy Riot
Seven members of the Pussy Riot collective, photographed by Igor Mukhin. Two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, remain imprisoned in Russian penal colonies

What the law says

  • Pre-approved Article 243 of the Russian Penal Code:

1. Public insult or humiliation of worship or other religious rites or religious groups who practice religions that are an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia, as well as an affront to the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens, shall be punished by a fine of up to 300,000 rubles, or by community service for a term of up to two hundred hours, or imprisonment for up to three years.

2. Desecration of religious objects or objects of religious worship (or pilgrimage), spaces allocated for the services or other religious rites and religious groups who profess religions that are an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia, as well as damage and/or destruction of such items, are punishable by a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 rubles, or by community service for a term of up to four hundred hours, or imprisonment for up to five years. "

  • Article 13 of the Russian Constitution:

1. In the Russian Federation ideological diversity shall be recognized.

2. No ideology may be established as state or obligatory one.

  • Article 29(1) of the Russian Constitution:

Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech.

How the law is used

Russia is not known for embracing liberal democracy or a transparent legal system. The power of the giant state is held tightly by the ruling United Russia party, and especially the forever youthful, all-action President Vladimir Putin. President Putin is currently on his third term in office. Before the fall of communism in 1991, Russia (or the Soviet Union) was an oppressively secular country. The current Russian constitution stipulates the separation of church and state, but recently the relationship between the government and the Orthodox Church has grown closer. During Putin’s election campaign, the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, heavily supported Mr. Putin, even calling him a “miracle from God”. Putin overwhelmingly won the elections in March 2012. In late 2011, the Patriarch was granted official residence in the Kremlin, which the Church had lost in 1917. There has also been criticism for expensive gifts received by the Patriarch. Different government authorities, including former President and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have denied that the increasing ties with the Orthodox Church influence Kremlin politics. However, a new blasphemy law, which has now been pre-approved, seems to suggest otherwise.

A 2012 study of religious adherence in Russia confirmed the majority position of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church in the country; 41% of the state’s 141 million inhabitants declared a belief in the Church teachings. Interestingly, however, the next largest categories were “Spiritual, but not religious” polling 25%, and “Atheist” at 13%. Islam was the second largest actual belief, with 4.7% adherence. In light of these results, it may come as a surprise that in April this year the State Duma approved a first reading of a new blasphemy law, which will considerably tighten the punishments for this crime. The new law is set to protect the feelings of people who belong to religious groups that are “an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia”, i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Unsurprisingly, the new law has raised considerable concern among secular observers, as well as those from religious minorities who will not be protected by the legislation. Notable here is that a similar, but less strict, blasphemy law already existed. It seems, therefore, that the new legislation was inspired by events that both the government and the Church wish to avoid in the future.

The new law has clearly been created in the aftermath of the case of the punk band Pussy Riot. Three band members were arrested in February 2012 for performing an anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, the country’s main Orthodox Church. While it is not unusual for Russian activists opposing the establishment to end up in prison, this time the charges laid on the accused were out of the ordinary. Three band members were put on trial for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were subsequently sentenced for “deliberately insulting the Orthodox religion and attempting to incite religious hatred” (Samutsevich was later released). Orthodox authorities agreed with the conviction so strongly that a priest, who had publicised an article apologising to Pussy Riot for the actions of “a section of the Orthodox community”, was suspended from his post in January. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are currently serving their hard labour terms in remote prison camps.

But was the protest an act of religious hatred? The performance, in which the band called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out”, featured obscene lyrics and lewd gestures common in punk. Such antics are certainly not common in a church, even if the song was called “Punk Prayer”, and may have offended worshipers who witnessed it. However, the band members have stated that they were not intentionally committing blasphemy, arguing that their performance was intended to criticise Putin’s politics, and the use of Orthodox Church as a “weapon in a dirty election campaign”, making the church a suitable venue to express their opinions. Whether or not one feels that a church is an appropriate setting for a political demonstration, the Russian constitution ensures the freedom of speech and opinion. As is well known though, this freedom is commonly denied for any Kremlin-critics. Imprisoning the band members for invented religious hatred charges is a troublingly novel way for the government to curb demonstrations. The stricter new blasphemy law will deter future protests, while allowing the authorities to persecute political opponents under the guise of protecting Russia’s heritage.

Some commentators have also expressed concerns that the new law will not only be used to administer arbitrary punishments, but to undermine human rights and science. The Russian government is known for its conservative politics. Earlier this year, the Duma passed a first reading of a law that will ban “promoting homosexuality among the youth”. Some fear that the new blasphemy law will be used to push for similar agendas, for example to prevent the teaching of evolution. The Church’s conservative views were not hidden either on the day the new law passed its first round in the Duma: Patriarch Kirill spoke against feminism in a manner fitting for the Pussy Riot–inspired legislation. According to the Patriarch, feminism is destructive and dangerous, because by driving women away from their intended roles as the “guardians of family life”, it may destroy everything; even the motherland.

The new blasphemy law will certainly deter Pussy Riot -like incidents, and give the Kremlin new ways to punish those considered overly critical. It also benefits the Orthodox Church: the tight bonds of the Church and the government ensure that any offence taken by the Church will be also considered important by the authorities. It is not likely that Russia is about to reverse the separation of church and state, but the mutually beneficial relationship of the two may spell difficult times for human rights, democracy and secularism in the country.

What you can do

The Pussy Riot convictions were condemned by human rights activists in the country, and attracted a lot of negative international attention. Amnesty International’s Pussy Riot site features an interactive supporters’ map and a petition.

FreePussyRiot.org gives up-to-date information on the imprisoned band members, and lists actions you can take part in.

Previously in the series: Tunisia, Bangladesh