Crimes and punishments
As Russia silences political dissidents, religious minorities—including evangelicals—find ways to grow during a chill
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When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny boarded a plane bound for Moscow, he knew he was also a man bound for prison.
Before his flight on Jan. 17, the political dissident had spent five months in Germany, recovering from a near-fatal poisoning he blamed on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin denied the accusation, but Navalny posted a video that he said revealed a Russian intelligence officer explaining how an operative broke into Navalny’s hotel room in Siberia and laced his boxer shorts with poison.
Navalny knew what happened next: During a flight across Russia last August, he fell critically ill and collapsed. Russian authorities allowed a medical team to airlift him to a hospital in Berlin.
German officials said Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade, chemical nerve agent developed during the Soviet era. After a grueling recovery, Navalny announced he would return to Russia, where authorities announced they would arrest him.
Russian police said Navalny had violated his parole connected to a conviction for embezzlement—a charge that outside observers deemed politically motivated. Navalny noted he couldn’t report for parole while he was in a coma.
Navalny knew authorities didn’t want him to return: His freedom from Russia would mean the Kremlin’s freedom from Navalny’s decade-long political opposition and his withering criticisms of Putin’s 20-year grip on power.
But on a frigid January night, Navalny and his wife, Yulia, landed in Moscow as journalists livestreamed the famous couple’s arrival. Police waited for Navalny on the other side of passport control, as Navalny told reporters: “This is the best day of my life in five months. … This is my home.” He kissed his wife before police led him away. Two weeks later, a judge sentenced Navalny to 2½ years in prison.
During the same month, a separate case drew less attention but a harsher punishment: In the southern region of Krasnodar, a judge sentenced 63-year-old Alexander Ivshin to 7½ years in prison. Ivshin’s crime, according to the court: He organized online religious studies with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Indeed, even as Navalny’s high-profile return and quick imprisonment sparked the largest street protests in Russia in a decade, Russian authorities in some regions continued a less noticed effort to silence or stifle religious minorities they view as a potential threat.
Jehovah’s Witnesses often suffer most under Russia’s outright ban on their organization, but evangelicals say recent laws have posed challenges for them too. Vitaly Vlasenko, the ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance, says a slate of confusing restrictions leave some evangelicals unsure about what’s permissible and what’s forbidden in a land where evangelicals make up less than 2 percent of the population.
But Vlasenko says he and other evangelicals are committed to the country that is often perplexed by them: “We are not leaving for a better life. … Remember, we are Russians.”
FOR NAVALNY, pressing for a better government has been central to his political activism for over a decade. After maintaining a blog about Russian corruption, he started an online media organization aimed at exposing abuse of power.
In 2018 Navalny attempted to run in the country’s presidential election, but Russian officials said an embezzlement conviction barred him from participating. A year earlier, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Navalny’s embezzlement trial had been arbitrary and unfair.
Navalny’s supporters are vocal, and thousands of demonstrators turned out in cities across Russia after his January detention. Police arrested some 10,000 demonstrators, in some cases saying the protests were unauthorized. Footage of Russian police clashing with demonstrators shocked some Russians watching the crackdown online.
But Navalny remains a controversial figure in Russia, with only about 20 percent of the population expressing support for him in a survey late last year. Meanwhile, a majority of Russians still support Putin, despite a stagnating economy and ongoing corruption allegations.
Leon Aron, a Moscow-born scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., says many Russians remember the chaos and impoverishment that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
After the situation improved and Putin came to power in 2000, Aron says, some Russians grew wary of losing a sense of stability they didn’t have during those difficult years. Navalny may represent a source of uncertainty for Russians unsure of what he would do with political power.
In a country with state-controlled media, others may be uneasy with the provocative language Navalny uses to criticize Putin and other officials he calls “crooks and thieves.” From his perch in a glass cage during his February trial, a defiant Navalny taunted Putin, saying the president would be remembered as “Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.”
Criticizing the government can be costly. Columbia Journalism Review noted investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004, only to be gunned down in 2006. Authorities arrested Ivan Golunov, another investigative reporter, in 2019 on drug charges they eventually dropped. Late last year, secret police detained journalist Ivan Safronov on treason charges they linked to his past reporting.
The harsh government crackdown on protesters in February suggests Navalny strikes a nerve with the Kremlin, and a constitutional referendum passed last summer could extend Putin’s presidency until at least 2036—if he keeps winning elections.
If he held power that long, the tenure would make Putin, 68, the longest-running leader in modern Russian history. Aron says he expects the Russian government to continue suppressing political opposition, and he predicts “a relentless tightening of the screws.”
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES have no political ambitions, but they remain the target of political aggressions. Days after Navalny’s sentencing on Feb. 2, Russian police raided 16 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow.
The Feb. 10 operation was a fraction of the 1,000-plus raids that agents have conducted across Russia since 2017, when a court dissolved the group’s legal standing and accused it of extremism.
It’s an irony for a religious organization that eschews politics and declines to participate in military service. But the organization’s apolitical stance likely fuels Russian suspicions that the group is a threat to the state, even as the organization has long faced repression in the country.
Maria Kravchenko of the SOVA Center, a Moscow-based think tank, described the raids in a report for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF): Police frightened families by breaking into houses and apartments in the early morning, searching for banned literature and electronic communications.
Before the court ruling in 2017, Kravchenko says, police would burst into religious gatherings “wearing masks and brandishing their automatic weapons, when children, women, and elderly people were present.”
But members of the group continue to find ways to practice their religion despite not having legal protection as an organization. Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the organization’s headquarters in the United States, says since 2017 authorities have raided over 1,300 homes and filed charges against over 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses. The oldest is a 90-year-old woman.
Though many receive fines, nearly 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison, and 27 are under house arrest. Some have reportedly faced torture. In late February, a court in southern Siberia sentenced Valentina Baranovskaya, 69, to two years in prison for participating in a banned organization. The judge sentenced her 44-year-old son, Roman Baranovsky, to six years.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told The Moscow Times: “Modern Russia in terms of the level of unmotivated religious persecution is approaching the Soviet Union.”
IN A REPORT LAST YEAR, USCIRF cited Russia’s campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses as one of its reasons for recommending the U.S. State Department designate Russia a country of particular concern for religious freedom.
But problems extend to other religious groups as well.
In 2016 the Russian government passed a law it said would take aim at religious extremism and terrorist activities. The government leveraged the law to dissolve the legal status of Jehovah’s Witnesses a year later, but the legislation has created pressures for evangelicals as well.
Some 72 percent of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, though regular church attendance remains scant among the population. Many see identifying as Russian Orthodox as a core part of Russian identity, making outside religious groups subject to suspicion.
USCIRF noted: “The Russian government views independent religious activity as threatening social and political stability and its own control, while simultaneously cultivating relationships with the country’s so-called ‘traditional’ religions.”
Suspicion of evangelicals goes back more than a century. Vlasenko, the ambassador for the Russian Evangelical Alliance, says when he was growing up as a Baptist in Russia, friends at school teased him by saying he was an American spy.
“They thought because you are not Russian Orthodox, you are not Russian,” he said. “From a young age, I was trying to explain that Baptists are good citizens and good believers.”
Following an unprecedented period of religious freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, restrictions on religious groups slowly tightened again.
The 2016 law limited certain forms of religious activity to church gatherings in registered church buildings. Vlasenko says those rules are confusing for some Christians who meet in homes for social gatherings, but then might pray or sing hymns together. They wonder what activity is allowed.
Vlasenko and other Christians said they feel free to talk to outsiders about the gospel, but the law does create restrictions on inviting them to church. Public evangelism events are banned without government permission. Foreigners aren’t allowed to preach and teach in public church settings without government permission.
Mark Elliott, the editor emeritus of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, says the confusing 2016 law is part of a pattern of the Russian government passing laws that could be interpreted or applied in multiple ways.
He notes a case where authorities took to court a Protestant congregation because it did not advertise the name of the church on the outside wall. In another case, officials pursued a different congregation because it did display its name.
Much of the legal action against evangelicals involves officials levying fines for minor offenses, but the psychological pressure can be especially difficult for small churches with few resources to pay fines or hire lawyers.
An American living in Russia told WORLD the small church he attends has faced small hassles, and the law creates more uncertainty than legal action. “A lot of things in Russia are about creating self-censorship,” he says. “To get people to be quiet on their own without the government having to do anything.” (WORLD agreed not to identify the American to protect his job and legal status in the country.)
When a visitor came to the small church he attends, he decided not to teach his prepared Sunday school lesson, since the 2016 law restricts foreigners from teaching or preaching in church without government permission. “It plays on your psyche,” he says. “What if someone comes that you don’t know?”
Evgeny Bakhmutsky is pastor of Russian Bible Church, a Baptist congregation in Moscow with some 500 congregants. Bakhmutsky says he’s developed a good relationship with local authorities, so his church has faced few legal problems.
He says churches and evangelicals often face more social and cultural challenges than legal ones: He knows of cases where seven or eight evangelical congregations share a single building over the course of a weekend—not because renting is expensive, but because some landlords are hesitant to lease space to Protestants.
While his church has faced few hurdles, he acknowledges religious liberty is shrinking, and he’s publicly spoken out against the crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Even if we do believe that their doctrine is quite wrong, they still have freedom to express their conscience.”
His own ancestors’ history with severe persecution offers perspective: His great-grandfather was executed for his Christian faith. His grandfather was exiled to Siberia. Over the next decades, Russian officials killed millions of Christians, along with other perceived enemies. Bakhmutsky says even under heavy persecution from the Soviet regime, believers in Siberia grew stronger.
“You can borrow wisdom from past generations,” he says. “Even if things get harder, we will survive.”
For now, he’s encouraged at the opportunities his church has to share the gospel. He says some with Russian Orthodox backgrounds have asked, “Why have I never heard about the cross?” Despite their lifetime, cultural connection to the Orthodox Church, Bakhmutsky says, many are hearing the gospel for the first time.
That makes the pastor want to “maximize the time of freedom. … On the one hand there are obstacles, but on the other, there are so many opportunities.”
When it comes to politics, Bakhmutsky says he has people in his church who are pro-Navalny and anti-Navalny. The divide tends to split along age lines, with older members gravitating toward Putin, often for a sense of stability. The president’s opposition to gay marriage also makes him popular among many Protestants.
Bakhmutsky says people are talking about politics now more than usual, but he encourages his congregants not to allow politics to divide them or to dissuade them from the greater importance of spiritual realities. “It’s about spiritual awakening,” he says. “It’s about transformation of hearts—not just power and politics.”
IN A COURTROOM on Feb. 20, Navalny smiled and flashed a victory sign before a judge denied the appeal of his prison sentence. Navalny skewered Putin in what was likely his last public appearance for some time.
(A few days later, Valentina Baranov-skaya became the first woman sentenced to prison by a Russian court for her connection to Jehovah’s Witnesses—a fresh reminder that political opposition isn’t the government’s only target.)
Navalny has spoken more about politics than religion, but during his last courtroom appearance, he said he had turned from atheism to belief in God. He said a particular verse from the Bible has helped him press on: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
—WORLD has updated this story to correct the spelling of Roman Baranovsky’s name.
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