Russian rights advocates worry about growing restrictions


Human Rights in Russia, 23 March 2016


On 22 March 2016, in Moscow, the SOVA Center for News and Analysis presented its annual report "Problems in the exercise of freedom of conscience in Russia," for 2015


Participants in the event included the author of the report, sociologist of religion and expert of SOVA, Olga Sibireva; director of this non-commercial organization, Alexander Verkhovsky; and religious studies scholar and docent of the Center for the Study of Religions of the Russian State Humanities University Boris Falikov.


As the report notes, tension has been growing between protectors of believers' feelings and the active portion of civil society that is defending its right to secularity. Moreover, the latter has demonstrated the capacity for self-organization, which in some cases has produced positive results.


"This has not been provoked by an anti-Orthodox mood of the population, especially in Moscow, but it occurs within the framework of the struggle with illegal construction as a whole. The population is protesting against construction in green zones. But since Orthodox churches, for some reason, very often are being built just there, citizens oppose this," Olga Sivireva explained.


As an example of such self-organization by society, the expert cited the story of the Torfianka Park in Moscow. Its defenders managed to get a change in the construction of a Russian Orthodox church to a different site and for more than six months they restrained attempts of Orthodox activists to get around this court decision.


"The current conflict is important because the supporters of construction there have used force despite the fact that there was a court decision concerning the transfer of this parcel," Olga Sibireva explained.


The persons who called themselves "Orthodox believers" began acting very aggressively. This was facilitated by the absence of an effective resistance to them on the part of the authorities and the participation in such actions of some prominent church officials, according to SOVA in its report.


Yet another point of tension to which the report points is the conflict over artistic productions and the interference of the RPTs in the activity of cultural institutions. There were attacks by Orthodox activists on exhibits and attempts were made to prevent performances and other cultural events. Thus, in the opinion of Olga Sibireva, there is significance in the removal from office of the director of the Novosibirsk theatre of opera and ballet Boris Mezdurich, after the uproar over the opera Tanhauser.


"The most sensitive as before are the Orthodox believers, because it is with their activity that all these conflicts are connected. These were the pogrom in the Manezh and the prosecutorial examination of the Moscow theaters," the specialist also explained.


Alexander Verkhovsky called attention to the fact that the RPTs is trying to advance some of its ideas in the area of state policy, advancing their status thereby. "It is trying to develop the field in which it has a chance to play a key role," the expert noted.


In addition, the director of the SOVA center touched on issues of legislative innovations and law enforcement practices, that also are covered in the report.


"If one considers legislative initiatives which have already occurred, then it is quite obvious or at least suspected that there is an intent to struggle against some Islamist activity, which really represents a threat. But nevertheless this is done in such a way that affects a much greater circle of people, including non-Muslims altogether," Alexander Verkhovsky reported.


In Russia the zone of risk includes several religions, for example Muslims, who, in Alexander Verkhovsky's opinion, are connected to shortcomings in the antiextremist and antiterroristic policies. SOVA is disturbed by the intensification of "antisectarian" struggle, both on the level of rhetoric and on the legislative level. How dangerous this can be is evident in the example of the campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses that has gone on for several years, as the result of which their organizations are banned as extremist.

There still is a great number of attacks on representatives of this organization and their houses of worship.


As regards law enforcement, according to SOVA's information there are cases where civil and criminal cases have been opened actually on the initiative of representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some verdicts, according the Alexander Verkhovsky, "evoke serious doubts about the secularity of jurisprudence" and "antiextremist legislation nowadays is the most powerful instrument of pressure and restriction of freedom of conscience."


In his turn, Boris Falikov shared his impressions about the interactions of secular and religious culture in soviet and post-soviet societies. As one example that the religious scholar explained in detail there also is the story of the opera Tanhauser.


"Soviet ideology not only gave birth to secular religion and forced people to feel awe before their own pseudo-sacral symbolism which has now led to religious and cultural fetishism. It also fostered in the masses an aggressive ignorance regarding all that is anti-soviet. Now this ignorance is displayed in the form of offending religious feelings and moral indignation against those artists who supposedly are insufficiently respectful toward religion," Boris Falikov thinks. (tr. by PDS, posted 23 March 2016)

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