by Mikhail Mendeleev
Ekspress khronika, 25 July 1997 (full text)

Religious freedom still exists. On 22 July the president of Russia rejected the federal law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations."

The political passions surrounding the new draft law adopted by the State Duma of Russia and confirmed by the Federation Council have not quieted down. As should be expected, their greatest intensity came at the time when the fate of the law was in the hands of Russia's President Boris Yeltsin. On 21 July, the day before the president rejected the law, there was a press conference in the Russian-American Information Press Center in Moscow titled "The new federal law on freedom of conscience and human rights." Representatives of several Christian confessions took part in it whose adherence to traditional and respected religions of Russia the deputies would be hard put to place in doubt. Among the participants of the press conference were the president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of the Russian federation Peter Konovalchik, the president of the Association of Churches of Christian Adventists of the Seventh-day Yakov Kulakov, a representative of the Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith (Pentecostalists), pastor of the Lutheran church of the Holy Trinity in Moscow Oleg Sevostianov, as well as leaders of several Russian Orthodox churches which do not recognize the Moscow patriarchate. Only extraordinary circumstances could bring these people to the same table. Each of them leads their believers along a distinct path to God and these paths intersect in our sinful world only in exceptional cases.

The new law was just such an exceptional case. All speakers were unanimous in their rejection of the product of the imagination of the Russian deputies. As the director of the Christian Juridical Center, Vladimir Riakovsky said, the new law is an act of disrespect, more precisely of vandalism, with regard to the Russian constitution. And on whose part? That of the supreme organ of the legislative authority, whose chief responsibility is to preserve the constitution and to act in strict conformity with it.

The law on freedom of conscience clearly contradicts articles 14 and 19 of the Russian constitution (on equality of citizens and religions before the law) and does not conform to many international obligations of Russia in the area of human rights. Its enacement would disrupt interconfessional peace and deprive Russian of the right freely to profess any religion or none at all. Under such circumstances several religions would have to put to use the wealth of experiences they have not forgotten about the underground. And emigration for religious reasons would probably revive. The law on freedom of conscience ties religious faith to a person's ethnic roots. Its creators apparently consider that a Russian should be Orthodox (and at the same time only in the bosom of the Moscow patriarchate), a Tatar should be Muslim, and a Jew should be of the Jewish religion. In adopting the draft law the deputies, whether consciously or unconsciously, delivered a blow to national concort for which President Yeltsin has called many times. They apparently decided to lay another mine that would blow up democracy.

All press conference participants posed the question: how could the deputies adopt such a law? Or did they vote for it without have read it?

The word "conspiracy" was not spoken by anyone, because they used more objective wording. Nevertheless one can understand from the speeches that the leadership of the Moscow patriarchate, whose long and fruitful cooperation with the KGB is well known, decided to avoid competition and increase the numbers of its parishioners with the help of powerful agencies which will implement the new religious order.

The Reds and Browns have criticized the current religious legislation for a long time, which at the very least provides freedom of conscience in the country. In the end talk about Orthodoxy as the "soul of the Russian people" and the "guardian of the Russian state" impelled the working out of the new law on freedom of conscience which, introducing several restriction of religious freedom, completely abandoned democracy and constitutional standards. The development of the law was supervised by the vice chair of the Duma committee on public association and religious organizations, Valery Borshchev. After much discussion (with the participation of representatives of various confessions, attorneys, and religious scholars) the duma adopted on first reading the proposed draft of the law, despite sharp criticism from adherents of the Moscow patriarchate.

Then the president of the same committee, the communist Viktor Zorkaltsev, seized the initiative. He was the former first secretary of the Tomsk regional committee of the CPSU, one of the founders of the CP of the Russian federation, and currently the second person in the party after Gennady Ziuganov. He is the one who handled the further "work" on the draft. There is reason to suggest that in regard to the new draft the duma communists and supporters of Zhirinovsky and the patriarchate reached a confidential agreement. It is quite likely also that the patrichate promised Ziuganov and Zhirinovsky to serve them as faithfully as it served Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Andropov.

The subsequent legislative process began to unfold like a detective scenario. The last time the working group met on the draft under the presidency of Borshchev in the State Duma was on 25 December of last year. Over the next five months no work at all was conducted on the draft. Apparently Russian society was supposed to forget about the new law on freedom of conscience.

At the beginning of June of this year rumors began to circulate in the halls of the duma that Zorkaltsev was holding new discussions on the draft law in a "close circly and in secret." Numbered copies of the draft were circulated by Zorkaltsev personally to specially infoted persons (among whom was not even the vice chair of the committee Borshchev), and then he personally collected these copies and recounted them. The communist took these measures in order that, as he expressed it, "the draft of the law would not get to the American embassy." The text of the draft was circulated only among a close circle of representatives of "traditional confessions."

On 18 June, presenting the draft to the deputies of the State Dume for discussion on second reading, Zorkaltsev proposed that several changes and additions be introduced into the text of the document, which had been proposed to the committee after the adoption of the draft on first reading. At that time at the press conferrence in the State Duma the director of the Institute of Religion and Law, Anatoly Pchelentsev, declared: "Esteemed Viktor Ilich Zorkaltsev has deceived the deputies, to put it mildly. The draft he presented for second reading fundamentally differs from the draft law adopted by the duma on first reading. The basic conception of the law has been changed."

Discussion of the law on freedom of conscience at the second reading and the voting on it took all of 33 minutes, 8 seconds, according to the minutes. Yea votes were cast by an overwhelming majority of deputies--337, with 5 against and one abstention. On 23 July on third reading the draft was adopted more quickly, in one minute, thirty-seven seconds. And ten days later the Federation Council easily approved it.

In rejecting the draft law, the president made reference to the constitution. It is possible that he was afraid of the complications in relations with democratic countries which had expressed concern about freedom of conscience in Russia. Did this matter to the Russian lawmakers? Or did the patriarchal lobby and intellectual weakness of those who enjoy flirtation with divinity gain the upper hand?


On 22 July, having rejected the law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations," President Yeltsin considered it necessary to explain to the citizens of his country (or more likely he wanted to reach a foreign audience). According to the president's press service, Yeltsin declared, inter alia: "This was a difficult decision. The law was supported by 370 deputies of the State Duma, the Russian Orthodox church, and a dozen other basic religious organizations of Russia. There is no doubt that a law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations" really is necessary in order to erect barriers in the path of the radical sects that have penetrated our country and caused great harm to the health and psyches of citizens of our country. However, many provisions of the law infringe upon constitutional rights and freedoms of individual and citizen, establish inequality of various confessions, and violate international obligations that Russia has undertaken. Signing the law as its ws adopted by the State Duma would inevitably lead to the isolation of traditional Russian confessions. And most important it could become the cause of conflicts on religious bases within the country. Several deputies and public leaders have talked about this. Critical comments have also come from abroad. . . . The tense situation arising in connection with the adoption of this law has been the consequence of the low quality of the work of all branches of the state, the State Duma, the government, and the administration of the president. It is quite obvious that the exercise of mutual interactions among them must be perfected. This lesson must not pass in vain."

As regards the "low quality of work," that, of course, is true. Even the text of the presidential statement to the citizens of Russia contains a factual error: the draft was not supported by 370 deputies of the State Duma. According to official minutes, the largest number of deputies voting for the law was on 18 June, when it was adopted on second reading. At that time 337 lawmakers voted to restrict freedom of conscience in Russia.

But that is not the most important thing. Much of the president's statement evokes, at least, misunderstanding. About which "radical sects bringing great harm to health and psyche" of Russians was Yeltsin speaking? And what has this to do with a law "On Freedom of Conscience" when in such a case the issue should concern the criminal code? Really, does the president not understand that a law on freedom of conscience is a law specifically about freedom and not about "hopeful barriers on the path of intrusion," such as he wants.

The struggle for freedom of conscience in Russia has not ended with the presidential veto. The deputies, who have fallen in love with the Moscow patriarchate, and with "tradition" and "the integral part," etc., will try either to override the veto of make insignificant changes in the law, while retaining its prohibitive and discriminatory character.

Russian text: Kommunisty zaigrivaiut c tserkoviu