Last June, a Russian court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness, Andrew Stupnikov, to six years in prison. He previously spent nearly eight months in detention and four months under house arrest. The same day of Stupnikov’s sentencing, another Russian court sentenced four other Jehovah’s Witnesses to 3-5 years in prison. These cases have been prosecuted under counter-terrorism laws.
What could the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a tiny religious community in Russia, have done to earn such ire from Moscow? Why is it that the Russian government has formally labeled each of these individuals as “extremists” and therefore a threat to the state? Russia has designated the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist cult and therefore a menace to Russian families and the Russian state. This is a bad omen for all religious minorities in Russia.
The Russian Constitution holds that religious convictions may be held freely and must be treated equally by the state. However, the court’s ruling against Stupnikov asserted that, although the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religious belief, this fundamental right is inherently limited by other rights, namely the “establishment of civil peace and accord” found in the preamble of the Constitution itself. Apparently, the very presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia threatens “civil peace and accord.” As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses within the country have been imprisoned and, in some cases, brutally beaten.
Newsweek reported earlier this year that a Russian court convicted Valentina Baranovskaya (69) and her son Roman Baranovskaya (46) for their involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses, sentencing them to two and six years in prison, respectively. Their homes were subsequently raided, and items such as personal records, Bibles, and electronic devices were confiscated. This is just 1 of more than 1,000 homes that have been raided since a major 2017 Supreme Court ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fifty-two Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently serving time in prison for their religious beliefs and practices.
The bullying of a tiny minority sends a loud message to other religious minorities, most notably evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, and others. Fines, confiscation, and even imprisonment are possible penalties for evangelism or hosting a foreign religious speaker. Recognizing the severity of the situation, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on the U.S. government to list Russia as a “country of particular concern” (CPC), a designation that can result in formal sanctions and other punitive actions.
The ever-increasing religious persecution by the Russian government has caught the attention of governments worldwide. In February 2021, the U.S. Department of State released a statement via their spokesperson, Ned Price, urging Russia to lift the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and to respect the right of free exercise of religion. Since the release of this statement, other religious groups have spoken out about the intensifying persecution in Russia. One example is Russia’s Old Believers, an Orthodox Christian group that separated from the mainline Russian Orthodox Church in 1666. The Old Believers have called on the Russian Government change course, emphasizing that “Freedom of religion is one of the inalienable rights of the person, which humanity has conquered over the course of many years.” Furthermore, the Old Believers called attention to the inevitable civil unrest to which religious repression so often gives rise, as evidenced through their own experience with the czarist and Bolshevik regimes. Civil aggression, they argued, could be avoided “if the authorities adhere to the principle of freedom of conscience and religious confession.”
The persecution the Old Believers referenced occurred during the Czarist Russian regime at the beginning of the twentieth century when the government restricted all expressions of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy, the church of the state. Among the religious groups afflicted were Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Old Believers. The Russian government justified its extensive measures of religious intolerance against Christians outside of Russian Orthodoxy and people of other faiths through an ideological amalgam of xenophobia, nationalism, and Orthodox triumphalism. The respective ruler at the time, Nicholas II, the last Russian czar, lived in great fear that non-Orthodox expressions of faith would undermine the viability of the Russian nation. As a result of rampant government corruption, costly economic regression, and the de-establishment of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, moderates, and Russian radicals joined forces with the intention of overthrowing the Russian czar, a movement known today as the February Revolution (1917).
Nicholas II abdicated the throne four days later leading to the establishment of a provisional government through the Duma advocating for liberal programs such as freedom of speech and equality before the law. Shortly thereafter, leftist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin launched the Bolshevik Revolution, resulting in the world’s first Communist state. A new quasi-religious orthodoxy took hold, that of radical, atheistic Communism. It demanded even more ideological adherence than its predecessor through imprisoning, torturing, and executing those who refused Communist orthodoxy.
In short, Russian history is has been plagued with religious intolerance, which has taken many forms: anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice, and anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiments. These forms of intolerance have typically been justified under an ideology of national unity, whether rooted in Russian Orthodoxy or Soviet Communism.
The heavy-handed actions of Moscow today, which uses counter-terrorism laws against both religion-inspired terrorists and pacifistic Jehovah’s Witnesses, are violations of the Russian Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees as well as key provisions of international law found in the aspirational Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legally binding International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
Is there hope for change in Russia? If Russian citizens identify with their neighbors as fellow citizens, regardless of faith background, then there is hope for the kind of pluralism and tolerance that can foster genuine religious freedom. Returning to the wisdom of the Old Believers: Russians can conquer old forms of intolerance by recognizing the inalienable rights of all people.
Dani Wassell is a student at Baylor University and worked as an RFI intern during the Spring semester of 2021.