The Russian government has demonstrated a clear preference towards the Russian Orthodox Church in recent years, and suppressed secularist protest advocating church-state separation through overzealous use of “religious hatred” laws. A new blasphemy law was signed into law as recently as 2013.

In July 2013 a blasphemy law came into force that sets fines as punishment which account up to US$ 15,000 and jail terms of up to 3 years for “offending religious feelings” or  “intentional” and “public” displays that cause “offence to religious sensibilities”.

Members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, on trial in 2012

Members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, on trial in 2012

The new blasphemy law came on the back of the Pussy Riot trial and may be regarded as part of a wider legal and extralegal crackdown on dissent, opposition, NGOs and human rights advocacy.

On August 17, 2012, three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, a feminist group that spreads its freethinking message, and church-state separation protest, through punk rock and performance art, were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years hard labor.

Their offense was to stage an impromptu protest performance (which was itself disrupted after only a few moments) called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The Russian authorities were widely condemned by human rights organisations around the world for overzealous prosecution and harsh sentencing of Pussy Riot.

The judge stated during sentencing, that: because Christianity (in her view!) dissents from the principle of women’s equality, whereas the were explicitly promoting feminist values, therefore she accepted the prosecution’s claim that the performance was motivated by “religious hatred”. After 21 months in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released on December 23, 2013 after the Duma approved an amnesty.  On 6 March 2014, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were assaulted and injured in Nizhny Novgorod.

Also in protest at creeping clericalism, in 2010 a Russian atheist organization Zdravomyslie (“Good Sense Foundation”) tried to erect a series of billboards quoting the Russian constitution. The Moscow city authorities turned down the  application. Ten billboards in Moscow would have shown the quote: “Religious associations are separate from the state and equal before the law. – Constitution of Russia”. But the Moscow city committee sent a letter that the request has been declined. “In this way, the current Moscow leaders are continuing the old policy of merging state government with religious institutions, setting the abstract “feelings of believers” against the letter and spirit of the nation’s founding law,” said the foundation.