Click here to view the report Inventing Extremists: The Impact of Russian Anti-Extremism Policies on Freedom of Religion or Belief
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioned this report to examine Russian anti-extremist legislation, corresponding law enforcement practices, and their effects on freedom of religion or belief from 2011 to 2017. The research is focused on how the very regulations that ostensibly protect people and organizations from religious intolerance are instead used to sanction people and organizations for activity or speech based on their religious belief or lack thereof.
Vague and problematic definitions of “extremism” in Russian law give the authorities wide latitude to interfere in peaceful religious observance and persecute believers. Although many of these legal tools have existed for a decade, the Russian government has only recently begun to wield them in sustained campaigns designed to punish or exclude “non-traditional” religions and religious movements, sometimes in concert with the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, which functions as a de facto state church. However, the overly broad laws also give rise to a gamut of absurd and contradictory prohibitions and prosecutions that demonstrate the fundamental ambiguity of the government’s official definition of extremism.
The legal tools include the placement of print and audiovisual media on a federal list of banned materials, the banning of religious communities as extremist, the imposition of fines and short-term detention under the Administrative Code, and multi-year terms of imprisonment under the Criminal Code. Reflecting the arbitrary and opaque nature of the anti-extremism legislation, additions to the banned materials list occur with no input from authors or publishers and are simply based on opinions written by “experts” affiliated with law enforcement agencies. These written opinions are then rubber-stamped by courts. Such measures may be used individually or in concert to build a wider case for delegitimizing an entire community, as in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were first the subject of literature bans, then fines and raids, and later a Ministry of Justice motion to ban them in their entirety.
The main targets of Russia’s anti-extremism policies have typically been Muslims, ranging from fundamentalist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir to the missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat to readers of the texts of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. Since a wave of anti-government protests in 2011, however, the Russian government has engaged in a wider ranging crackdown on non-Muslim denominations, including those whom the Russian Orthodox Church has traditionally disapproved of, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and breakaway Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church.
In addition to targeted campaigns, the open-ended character of the extremism legislation and spin-off prohibitions regarding “missionary activity” and “insulting the feelings of believers” is such that excessive fines and absurd bans have led to backlash. For example, courts have been forced to reverse decisions about the extremist materials list after adding the Bhagavad Gita and collections of Qur’anic verses created an international uproar. In this climate, atheistic statements on an online bulletin board or lectures on yoga have been enough to attract prosecutorial attention, while controversial art exhibitions have been the subject of investigations.
Overall, the policies of the Russian government in the religious sphere are part of a wider process of establishing ideological control over society, reflecting the regime’s fears about unresolved social and economic problems that have accumulated over the last several decades. Insofar as the current Russian government emerged from the security services and wields them to enforce its authority, officials attempt to resolve all issues with new repressive legal regulations and fear-inspiring tactics.