By Paul Goble
“Under the guise of the defense of traditional values,” Aleksandr Soldatov says, the Putin regime is reviving “the worst traditions of the times of militant godlessness,” with only these differences: it claims to be attacking extremism rather than faith as such, and it often is guided by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Most coverage of discrimination and repression against religious groups in the Russian Federation focuses on one or another denomination, detailing what the authorities are doing about it rather than considering how their approach to one religion in fact is part of a broader pattern.
Soldatov, a specialist on religious life in Russia, represents an exception to this pattern. In a new article, he considers how various groups of believers are being subject to persecution and repression in Russia today, a survey that highlight the commonalities of the state’s efforts rather than their distinctiveness (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/09/13/v-missionerskoi-oppozitsii).
Among the groups whose repression has attracted the greatest notice are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since April 2017, all of their 396 religious organizations have been declared extremist and liquidated; 540 individual Witnesses have been accused of crimes; and almost 200 have been sentenced.
Given that there were an estimated 178,000 Witnesses in Russia in 2017, that means that fewer than one percent of them have been victimized directly by the security services and prosecutorial authorities. But that has been enough to prompt even Vladimir Putin to suggest this campaign should be ended, although his comments in that respect have not been honored.
The Pentecostals are a second category of religious organizations subject to harassment and persecution. The ROC MP doesn’t like them and considers them “totalitarian.” But it can’t carry out campaigns against them easily because the Kremlin continues to interact with Bishop Sergey Rakhovsky, the head of the Pentecostal umbrella organization in Russia.
As a result, no Pentecostal leader has yet been given a real jail term, as opposed to a suspended one. Instead, officials have focused on confiscating the churches they maintain and occasionally harassing them for maintaining underground churches must as was the case in Soviet times.
According to the Memorial human rights organization, “the most repressed category [of religious believers] in present-day Russia are Muslims.” Those who are members of Islamist groups are charged and convicted on that basis alone rather than by their actions, and Muslim mosques outside of traditional Muslim areas are subject to harassment on a regular basis.
Among the denominations that the ROC MP and the Russian State are most opposed to and most willing to bring down the power of the state on are those Orthodox denominations which deviate in any way “from ‘the general line’” both religious and secular as far as the Kremlin and the Patriarchate are concerned.
Among the most significant of these groups are the so-called “totalitarian sects,” a term that has no definition in Russian law but is regularly used against groups like the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, the True Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
As one can imagine, the ROC MP “has not remained on the side of this trend and has composed an official list of ‘false-witnesses including splitters’ which supposedly are carrying out ‘illegal activity.’” In at least some cases, then, today’s secular Russian state appears to be taking its lead from the ROC MP.