After Pussy Riot: Russia strengthens anti-blasphemy laws

The relationship between politics and religion is interesting. Russia is an example of a country where attitudes toward religion have gone from one extreme to another. For much of the 20th century the country under Soviet rule actively sought to eliminate religion. Religion was a threat to the power structure of the country at the time. Things changed in the 1990s, and modern Russia now has laws guaranteeing religious freedom. The politics in the country changed and now the church, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, enjoys significant influence on Russian politics. 

An example of this is the Pussy Riot case, as reported by Atheist Alliance International in August 2012. This brought to international attention how powerful the Russian Orthodox Church really is and how strongly dissent is still dealt with in Russia. That case relates to the actions of five women of the Pussy Riot collective, who performed a protest piece in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Three of the women were arrested, charged and convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. As reported by RAPSI News one of the convicted three, Samutsevich, has since had her sentence reduced to probation

There was much criticism at the time from the international community regarding the harshness of the sentences handed out to the convicted women. However, the reaction from Russian MPs since then has not favoured the support of free-speech, but rather to seek harsher anti-blasphemy laws. Laws were then proposed setting fines and long jail sentences for those who insult religious feelings. Critics at the time warned that under the proposed laws the teaching of evolution or the Big Bang theory could be considered as insulting to believers and punishable under the proposed laws.

There have since been three readings of the proposed laws, and the state of Duma, part of the Russian Confederation, has passed an anti-blasphemy bill, which introduces fines of up to 500,000 roubles ($15,430) and the possibility of prison sentences of up to three years for “offending the feelings of religious believers.”   

The new laws have been heavily criticized by human rights advocates. Veteran activist Lev Ponomaryov stated that “It's a step back from the secular nature of Russia recognized by the Constitution”, commenting also that the bill introduces terms, such as ‘feelings’, which are illegal. Ponomaryov and others also fear that the new law may be used for political purposes and will put pressure on free speech.

Indeed, and that is the crux of the matter. For while the country has changed from being officially atheist (under communism) to its modern stance of supporting religious belief, one thing that has not changed is intolerance of dissent. The new anti-blasphemy laws show that free speech is not guaranteed in Russia, as much now as it was last century.