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It’s amazing to think how a state who formally supported atheism as a statutory worldview has now got into bed with the church. The Russian Orthodox Church is certainly pulling the strings in the ex-Soviet state. Now, a Russian woman is facing five years in jail, for posting memes insulting religion. This seems insane.

As Newsweek reports:

A woman in Russia has gone on trial for “insulting” religious believers by posting memes on social media.

Maria Motuznaya, 23, was charged with offending the feelings of religious believers and “inciting” racial hatred after two women complained about images she posted on the Russian social networking site VKontakte, Radio Free Europe reported. Police then moved to search her home in May.

The woman’s trial began Monday in the city of Barnaul, the capital of federal subject Altai Krai in Siberia. If convicted of the charges against her, Motuznaya faces up to five years in prison.

At least one other person has been charged in Barnaul in recent months for inciting hatred and offending religious sensibilities. Last month, Radio Free Europe reported that 19-year-old Daniil Markin faced up to five years in prison for sharing memes that compared iconic Game of Thrones character Jon Snow to the Biblical Jesus.

Markin told the news outlet that the Federal Financial Monitoring Service has placed him on its blacklist of “terrorists and extremists,” making it impossible to access banking services.

“On top of that, if I want to get a job, of course no one would hire me,” Markin explained. “I don’t have any way to use financial resources except cash. That’s a big problem when you need to send someone money.”

Another man in Siberia, 38-year-old Andrei Shasherin, was also reportedly under criminal investigation for images he shared on social media deemed to be offensive to religious believers. He also criticized Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for wearing an expensive wristwatch and then having it clumsily photoshopped out of an image.

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial law that criminalized “public actions” that “clearly disrespect society” and are aimed at “insulting believers’ religious feelings.” As a result, simple actions deemed disrespectful to religion have led to felony charges for numerous Russians.

If you want a fascinating read and insight into the integration of evangelical Christianity and Russian political society, then read the New Humanist’s excellent “From here to eternity“, which includes:

Alexander Kalinin, a 33-year-old Siberian with piercing pale eyes and a bushy brown beard that wouldn’t look out of place on an Old Testament prophet, is a man on a mission. The head of Christian State–Holy Rus, a radical Russian Orthodox Christian movement, Kalinin and his followers seek to establish by any means necessary “the rule of Christ’s law” in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“All this is coming to an end,” Kalinin tells me, when I meet him in a central Moscow café, gesturing contemptuously in the vague direction of the New Arbat, the neon-lit road that leads directly to the Kremlin. “God willing.”

Christian State–Holy Rus is just one of a number of similar religious groups in Russia, where the fortunes of Orthodox Christianity, once brutally suppressed by the Soviet authorities, have undergone a dramatic state-sponsored revival over the past two and a half decades. But Kalinin’s movement, which only rose to national prominence this year, is one of the most, if not the most extreme.

In January, Christian State–Holy Rus sent letters to hundreds of cinemas across Russia warning of violent retribution if a “blasphemous” film about Nicholas II, the last tsar, made it to the big screen. “Cinemas will start to burn,” the letters read. “Those who love God and the people so much that they are ready to go to prison, or even face death, will begin to act.”

The film in question is Matilda, a big budget production about a romance between the young Nicholas and Matilda Kschessinska, a teenage prima ballerina at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Nicholas II was executed alongside his entire family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918, and canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Although the romance depicted in Matilda was over by the time of Nicholas II’s engagement to the future tsarina, Alix of Hesse, and before he ascended to the throne in 1894, Christian State–Holy Rus and other Russian Orthodox Christians say the film is sacrilegious because it portrays the last tsar in erotic scenes.

“If they spit at my church, humiliate my faith, and everything that is holy, then by the law of God, I am forbidden to tolerate this,” Kalinin tells me.

“People will call you ‘Christian terrorists,’” I counter.

Kalinin shrugs. “That’s fine. Let them.”

One of Kalinin’s followers, a 30-something man named Yury Lomov, has accompanied the Christian State–Holy Rus leader to the interview, and he nods in silent agreement. Kalinin says the core of his movement is made up of around 50 diehard activists, plus thousands of supporters across the country, including “very rich” anonymous patrons. Christian State–Holy Rus also runs “military-patriotic” camps in the countryside near Moscow.

Kalinin insists, however, that the letters, which were reported on widely by Russian media, were in fact a desperate attempt to save lives. “I’m not intending to burn anyone myself,” he says. “But I know hundreds of people, our people, who are ready to incinerate everyone. People are angry. They will not tolerate this film.”

It continues:

The social and religious conservatism driving these religious radicals was granted the status of Russia’s unofficial ideology in 2012, after mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow. In a keynote speech to parliament after the protests had been quelled, Putin declared that a strict adherence to “traditional values” was the only way to prevent Russia and the world from slipping into what he called “chaotic darkness”. In a separate speech, he also accused Western countries of betraying their Christian roots and pursuing polices that “place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”

Some Russian analysts, such as Maria Lipman, editor of Counterpoint journal, believe Putin’s conservative shift was a deliberate attempt to “neutralise” liberal Russians who had dared challenge his long rule by associating them with “Western immorality and decadence”. After Russia was again rocked by massive opposition protests this March, Putin turned once more to the Orthodox Church in a bid to shore up his support. In late May, during a highly publicised visit to a Moscow cathedral, he kissed a golden ark said to contain the rib of St Nicholas. Just days later he took part in the consecration of a new church.

Perhaps the biggest boost to Russia’s Orthodox Christian movements came in June 2013, when Putin approved a law that made it a crime to “offend the feelings of religious believers”. The law stipulates up to a year in jail for “insulting” acts that occur outside a place of worship. Those that happen inside are punishable by up to three years behind bars. So far, the law has been used almost exclusively to prosecute those who “insult” Orthodox Christianity. Around 80 per cent of Russia’s population say they back the law on religious belief, according to the VTsIom state pollster. For a country where a public belief in God was once punishable by death or imprisonment, the law represents a startling development.

“If Russia continues down this road, by 2030 Russia will be like mediaeval Spain, where the Inquisition persecuted non-believers and heretics,” Alexei Bushmakov, a defence lawyer involved in one of the first trials on insulting religious believers, tells me. “It’s terrifying to think what will happen if people are deprived of the right to choose what to believe and what not to believe in.”

While no one has yet been sentenced to jail under the law, the Russian authorities have used it to justify police raids and hold people in custody for extended periods. The first person to be charged was Viktor Krasnov, a 38-year-old man from Stavropol in southern Russia. In October 2014, during a heated online dispute with two Orthodox Christians, Krasnov wrote, “There is no God.” His apartment was subsequently raided by police and a judge ordered him to spend a month in a psychiatric ward to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial. “No one in their right mind would write anything against Orthodox Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church,” the judge explained. Psychiatrists ruled him sane, but the case against Krasnov was closed in February when the statute of limitations expired.

In another highly publicised case, state prosecutors requested over three years behind bars for Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 22-year-old video blogger from Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth biggest city. Sokolovsky’s crime? He had posted online footage of himself playing Pokemon Go in a cathedral. “I didn’t catch the rarest Pokemon of all – Jesus,” Sokolovsky said at the end of the YouTube clip. “But, hey, what can I do? They say he doesn’t even exist!” Sokolovsky posted the provocative video after state television warned Russians that anyone caught hunting for the augmented reality creatures in church could face jail time. “This is nonsense. Who can be offended by someone walking around a church with a smartphone?” Sokolovsky asked in his video. He was held in a pre-trial detention facility for almost six months, where he says he was threatened with rape by Orthodox Christian inmates. A court handed him a three-year suspended prison sentence in May.

“Forgiveness is a very tricky thing,” Kipshidze, the Orthodox Church spokesman told me, when I asked him to comment on Sokolovsky’s case. “Of course, we should follow Christ’s examples. However, in all societies, laws are applicable.”

A further sign of the rising influence of Orthodox Christianity came last year, when Putin appointed Olga Vasilyeva, a religious scholar with deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, as education minister. Another worrying development for Russia’s liberals was the appointment, also last year, of Anna Kuznetsova, another devout Orthodox believer, as Russia’s top official for child rights. Kuznetsova had previously said that wombs have memories, and that if a woman has more than one sexual partner, she will give birth to children with loose morals.

What seems to be growing in popularity is this idea that America and its Christianity is more morally corrupt than the Russian variety.

The view that Russia is a beacon of Christian morality is widely shared by Orthodox radicals, who believe that Western countries are the modern-day equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. “It’s terrible. There aren’t enough women in Germany, so men rape dogs,” a middle-aged Kremlin supporter told journalists recently in a clip that went viral. “You walk along the streets, and the dogs are howling everywhere because they are being raped.”

It’s a nightmarish vision of Europe that has been inspired by sensational and frequently dishonest state television reports that paint a lurid picture of the West as a place where incest, the sexual abuse of children, and all manner of sexual perversions are the norm. Russian state television also depicts European countries as swamped by sexually violent Muslim migrants who are condoned by politically correct politicians.

“Russia is the last stronghold of humankind on this planet,” Andrei Kormukhin, the 44-year-old leader of Sorok Sorokov, tells me when we meet in central Moscow. “What is happening right now in Europe is a nightmare. Europe has rejected Christian values. Any sin is acceptable now in Europe – zoophilia, incest and paedophilia. As a result Europe will stagnate and die out.” His expression as he says this suggests that he relishes the prospect.

Perhaps this underpins part of Russia’s massive issue that it has with the European Union – it’s not just geopolitical, it’s moral and theological. For a hundred years, religion has been simmering under the radar, ready to quickly boil up and bubble over. This is what is happening now. The bubbles are caustic, though.

Russia is truly entering a new phase in its history and identity, and it’s not nice at all.

Finally, what about freely coming to love God?

Kalinin, the Christian State–Holy Rus leader, puts it more simply. “We have to force people to love Christ’s ideology,” he tells me, as we prepare to go our separate ways. “To love one another, not to kill, not to steal, and so on. Only then can people know and love God.”

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...