The Kremlin has brought in a raft of laws on religion that Russian Pagans fear could impact their community. The legislation, which came into force July 20, was rushed through parliament underthe banner of combating religious extremism.
According to Russian Pagan and activist Gwiddon, the move is “a package of changes to deal with several different laws which are anti-terrorism measures.” He added: “It increases penalties for terrorist action, it puts responsibility on friends and family to report terrorist action, otherwise there is a criminal sentence.”
The laws include making social media and mobile phone companies store all communications for six months, and a summary of each communication for three years. As this is the first move of its kind, it is unknown whether or not it is actually possible to store such a massive amount of data.
The legislation also requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice and to inform the government of the nature of their group, their leaders and members, including civil names and addresses, and where rituals are performed. In addition, groups need to declare in writing that they will uphold Russian values, which includes agreeing with the military draft, upholding the law, and supporting family values. Of the latter, Gwiddon stated, “You have to write that one down, or else you will get problems.”
For pagans, the main impact comes in the form of what is being defined as “missionary activity.” This makes expressing religious or spiritual thought to a non-member of your group an administrative injustice. It can also cover online activity and violations carry a fine of 50,000 roubles.
Gwiddon said, “Over the past 10 years there have been increasing ties between the State and the Church, the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Even though our constitution is completely secular, we’ve seen an erosion of that concept in the past few years.”
Russian Orthodox is the official religion, and the Church has enjoyed a boom in governmental support over the past decade. Gwiddon explained, “The Church has become the ideological ministry, the ministry of thought so to speak. They promote governmental agendas and they criticise what the government wants them too.”
He went on to say, “The government uses the Church as the glue to bind society together. This came about intentionally as the government tried to find out what it means to be Russian now, what is our national identity now. They arrived at this idea, as we had so many years of Communism and before that monarchy and empire, and, as all that has gone, they think, ‘We have nothing left but the Church’. About 65 per cent of the people belong to it, not an overwhelming majority but it’s still many.”
According to Gwiddon, the new laws were established to combat all forms of religious extremism, such as radical Islamic groups and also groups like the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement.
He said: “They are trying to fight terrorism that is influenced by militant religious rhetoric. The law is there to prevent fanaticism in young people. They also want to fight cults and sects which they believe are damaging and destroying people’s lives, by giving away their money, being mind- controlled by these foreign and unusual cults.
“This change is not just to fight terrorism, but to protect citizens from dangerous cults. The government views such groups, such as the Hare Krishnas, with suspicion and are concerned.”
In fact, the first person to be prosecuted under the new legislation was a supporter of the Hare Krishna movement. Moscow was keen to demonstrate this new law in action and, on July 27, a man from southern Russia was prosecuted for handing out leaflets about the Hare Krishna group that he supports. Someone filed a complaint to the police.
It was later shown that the man was not an official member of this group, but only supported it. However, expressing such thoughts publicly, is considered proselytizing, which is forbidden.
Gwiddon said, “That’s what happens in Russia, a new law comes in and they try it out with show trials to indicate who is being punished and what for.”
The part of the law pertaining to “missionary activity” is what is so concerning for most Russian Pagans. The new laws are vague and open-ended, leaving them wide open for a variety of interpretations – especially as they also cover online activity. Gwiddon explained, “If you speak to your friend on a train, say, about a religious topic and someone overhears you, according to the new law that is an administrative violation and you can be fined 50,000 roubles. You won’t go to jail for it, but it’s a hefty fine, given that the average Russian wage is 30,250 roubles a month.”
Sharing images of deities over Facebook, for example, could also be regarded as proselyting. And, it is unknown as of yet if this law will be applied retroactively to social media.
This crackdown extends to private homes as well as public arenas and venues. Missionary activity has to be confined to a temple or a church, or lands belonging to them and are legally registered, or to cemeteries, morgues and other such sites where religious activities may occur. This is to prevent door-to-door proselytising, as performed by groups including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Any sort of worship in public places is banned. This has obvious implications for public rituals, even solo affairs, as any such activity is now subject to the same 50,000 rouble fine. It is not even possible to hold group rituals in your own home, as it is not a designated place for religious worship. Under Russian law, you can own a piece of property personally but you cannot transform into a church or religious building unless you transfer it out of the realm of private dwelling and into the realm of religious dwelling.
The irony is that, although the Kremlin is keen to strengthen the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, few Russians actively practice the faith. Gwiddon said: “In our last National Census in 2011, only 65 per cent of Russians regarded themselves as Russian Orthodox, only 5 per cent of those attend Church services regularly and only 4 per cent have read the Bible. We are not a religious people, we are like Spain – where everyone is Catholic but no one goes to mass.”
The Russian Orthodox Church seems perturbed by the rise of Paganism among the young, echoing a trend across the Slavic nations. “These younger and more energetic group of people are not prepared to conform to an ideology which is about being meek and turning the other cheek,” explained Gwiddon. “They are attracted to Paganism partly because it is more fun. The young men in particular want something more manly and many are attracted to the old Slavic gods or Asatru, where the hero thing is going.”
Gwiddon points to neighbouring Lithuania as an example of Paganism being more readily accepted by the authorities. He said, “Lithuania has Romuva – it is a reconstruction of their old faith. But some say it is a continuation. The Romuva are supported by the Lithuanian government. Instead of going to the Catholic church exclusively, they have looked at different options of what it means to be Lithuanian today and they picked up Paganism as one part of the spectrum.
“They have said, ‘This is a flavour of what it means to be Lithuanian’. They use taxpayer money to support them and help build temples in some way at least, even though the majority of Lithuanians are Catholic. In Russia, they have gone for the majority and the rhetoric is that Pagans are the bad sheep and we are lost and can still come back to the flock.”
Gwiddon added, “At the moment the law is very vague and open to interpretation. It is impossible to know how it will be implemented yet.”