MOSCOW — When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned to Earth after becoming the first person to travel into outer space in 1961, the then-officially atheist Kremlin heralded his historic journey as “proof” of the non-existence of God.
Fast-forward to today’s Russia and such pro-atheist sentiments could land you behind bars.
In a court case now underway in southern Russia, 38-year-old blogger Viktor Krasnov faces up to a year in prison after writing, “There is no God” on VKontakte, the Facebook of the former Soviet states. In a heated online exchange that took place in October 2014, Mr. Krasnov also described the Bible as a “collection of Jewish fairy tales.”
Mr. Krasnov’s apartment in Stavropol, a small city some 850 miles from Moscow, was subsequently raided by police officers, and he was forced to undergo a monthlong examination in a local psychiatric ward. When he was found fit to stand trial, he was charged under a controversial law that makes it a crime to “insult the feelings” of religious believers. His case finally came to court earlier this year, and the next hearing is set for April 12.
The Russian Orthodox Church has not publicly commented on the charges, but some see the court clash venturing into dangerous legal territory, as well as a symbol of the uncomfortably close ties between the Kremlin and the country’s dominant faith.
“This case could set a precedent,” Mr. Krasnov’s lawyer, Andrei Sabinin, told The Washington Times. “It could become accepted that it is forbidden to publicly deny the existence of God.”
The law used to charge Mr. Krasnov was approved in June 2013 by President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of a high-profile protest in Moscow’s biggest cathedral by feminist activists — including the now-famous punk rock bank Pussy Riot — over close ties between the Kremlin and the powerful Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, had earlier angered opposition activists when he described Mr. Putin’s long rule as a “miracle of God.”
Amnesty International, the human rights organization, says the law on religious belief demonstrates “the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Russia.” It has joined other human rights organizations in urging Mr. Putin to scrap the law, which has been used to charge a number of other people since its introduction. The first conviction came in November, when a man in northern Russia’s Arkhangelsk oblast was sentenced to 120 hours of community labor after posting “insulting” online material about Orthodox Christianity.
The Kremlin’s eagerness to defend Christianity highlights a remarkable transformation in attitudes here just in the past three decades. During the Soviet era, millions of Christians were persecuted for their faith, while thousands of churches were destroyed. Those that survived were often turned into warehouses, garages or even museums celebrating atheism. One Soviet school textbook printed in the 1950s called Christianity a “perverse reflection of the world.”
While under a third of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox in the fight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, today over 70 percent of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox Christians, according to a 2014 Pew survey.
“The Orthodox revival gave Russians an identity after the years of uncertainty that followed the fall of the Soviet Union,” the U.S.-based private intelligence company Stratfor wrote in an analysis last month. “The Kremlin has used this to its advantage, so effectively portraying support for Putin’s government as a religious duty that the church is now seen as part of the state apparatus.”
Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, attends church services and portrays himself as a staunch defender of “Christian values.” In return, the Orthodox Church frequently issues public statements of support for Kremlin policies. Most recently, a church spokesman described Russia’s military campaign in Syria part of a “holy battle” against international terrorism.
Yet despite the Orthodox Church’s political clout, the church has found itself embroiled in a number of disputes in recent months, triggering what the Moscow-based Sova think tank describes as a slow but steady rise in anti-church sentiments across Russia. “It does not mean that we have an anti-church movement, but such tendencies are increasing,” Sova’s director, Alexander Verkhovsky, told The Moscow Times after the release of a report in March.
The report came shortly after Patriarch Kirill had angered liberal Russians by describing human rights as a “global heresy” that he said was “tearing mankind away from God.” The patriarch also said many Christians erroneously considered human rights “more important than the word of God.”
The patriarch’s “aggressive anti-humanism has not been met with resistance by Russian officials,” wrote Kirill Martinov, a columnist for the opposition-friendly Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “And it’s clear why: An ideological battle against human rights is absolutely in line with the practices of our current government.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has also found itself involved in direct confrontation with ordinary Russians, including churchgoers, over its aggressive campaign of church construction. Protests, largely coordinated online, have been held across Moscow against plans to erect some 200 new churches, often on existing parkland or other green spaces.
In a rare victory for protesters in Mr. Putin’s Russia, a number of construction projects have since been put on hold.
Echoing arguments Mr. Putin has used against his domestic critics, Orthodox Christian activists have charged that anti-construction protesters are funded by Western countries as part of a campaign to undermine Russia’s “moral foundations.” These same radical Orthodox activists made the news last year when they attacked what they said was a “blasphemous” modern art exhibition at a gallery near Red Square.
Discontent has also been brewing within the Orthodox Church itself. In December, Vsevolod Chaplin, a prominent church spokesman, was dismissed from his post after an apparent falling out with Patriarch Kirill, his longtime patron.
Mr. Chaplin, known for his outspoken anti-Western views, lost his job after a series of comments criticizing Mr. Putin’s failure to tackle Russia’s rising wealth inequality — the highest in the world — and calling repeatedly for an even greater role for the Orthodox Church in policymaking. He also slammed what he said was the Kremlin’s failure to offer more support to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Since his dismissal, Mr. Chaplin had spoken out against what he says are the “authoritarian” tendencies of Vyacheslav Volodin, Mr. Putin’s chief domestic policy adviser.
In an interview Friday with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Mr. Chaplin said the suppression of voices within the Orthodox Church is itself a throwback to the bad old days.
“A lot has remained from Soviet times when priests were too afraid to speak frankly to the people in power, to criticize them,” he said. “This whole phenomenon is in the spirit not even of yesterday but of the day before yesterday. It cannot go on for long.”