Religious Liberty in the Russian Federation: Church Between State and Society

For the past decade, extremism laws have been the biggest threat to religious freedom in Russia.[1] Those freedoms deteriorated further with the implementation of the 2016 amendments. Here’s a brief history and outline of the exact problems for believers in Russia living under the new law.

Religious Liberty 1991–2015: An Introduction

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, religion replaced the philosophy of scientific atheism and Marxism-Leninism, and it marked the beginning of spiritual revival in Russia.[2] Millions of copies of the Bible were distributed, new local parishes were established, and seminaries and Bible colleges opened to accommodate the training of future pastors. A formerly homogeneous society with dominating atheistic ideology gradually developed into a democratic society that accepted the existence of religious and cultural differences. It felt like a fulfillment of the promise given on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:6–8).

Then, in 1997, the previous version of the law, known as On the Freedom of Consciences and Religious Associations (1990), was replaced with a new addition.[3] According to the new addition, a privileged position was given to three traditional Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—and, especially, to The Russian Orthodox Church.[4] Other religious groups in Russia could only engage in public life and provide religious training if competent Orthodox church authorities approved the curriculum.[5]

However, in spite of the challenges, even Protestants, who were regarded as heretics and sectarians to the historical tradition of Orthodox Christianity, continued to perform worship services and be actively engaged in the public life of the Russian society. In fact, since the year 2000, among all religious groups in Russia, Protestants have become the most influential group involved in social work.[6]

Changes Implemented in 2016

On July 7, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new bill, known as the Yarovaya Law, into existence.[7] The new amendments significantly limit the sphere of fundamental human rights and freedoms previously enjoyed by citizens, legal residents, and tourists visiting the Russian Federation. The law creates certain ethical problems for believers, particularly with the following points:

  • the new law makes it a crime not to report information about extremist threats and other violations;
  • requires telephone and Internet providers to store the content of telephone conversations and assist authorities to break into encrypted messages;
  • increases the criminal penalty for extremism (including extremist messages on social media) from four to eight years imprisonment;
  • decreases the age for criminal responsibility to fourteen years;
  • increases fines for extremist activity to $780 USD for individuals and $15,000 USD for organizations (average monthly wages in July 2016 were approximately $566 USD);[8]
  • proselytizing, preaching, praying, or disseminating religious materials outside of “specially designated places” is considered a punishable crime.[9]

The Results

The implementation of the new law, which is alarmingly similar to the 1929 Soviet/Stalin’s law on religion,[10] presents Russian believers with a very important choice: to obey God or these new laws.[11] For instance, it is illegal for a Russian believer to hold a home group meeting and speak about his or her faith, since personal living space is not an officially registered and approved public place for worship.

All participants of such a meeting and all who knew about it—even the telephone/Internet provider used by a believer to make phone calls/send emails with invitations—will be charged with participating in an extremist activity or failing to report an extremist activity. The punishment could be a fine of $780 USD for individuals and $15,000 USD for organizations or imprisonment to a maximum of eight-year term.  

Therefore, the new law is a particular difficulty for evangelicals who are actively involved in sharing their faith, because it:

Empties Christian faith of its core components.

Orthodox Christianity in Russia melds politics and history, but it does not allow room for the real expression of Christian faith. In its institutional form, it is a very political entity.[12] Biblical faith, then, is considered a form of extremism. Christians simply are not able to live the basic tenets of their faith, including evangelism.

Creates double standards in religious treatment.

All fines and legal punishments issued under the new law target mainly Protestants who desire to reach out to unchurched people. These legal changes prohibit open evangelism. The new law already has its first victims. As of August 26, 2016—seven weeks after the implementation of the new law—seven individuals were convicted.[13]

Creates duality within Christian faith.

Christians in Russia must determine how to exist in the public square and in private. They must wrestle with how to respond to the laws as both good citizens and good Christians. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God taught Israel to pray for the well-being of the city while not confirming to the ways of the city (Jer. 29). Likewise, a Russian believer must develop a personal ethical understanding of how to conform to the legal obligation of the new anti-extremism law while continuing to share the faith.

The door for evangelism in Russia is still open and the region needs our prayer and support.

  • Please pray for the region and the church in Eurasia.
  • Use your social networks to create awareness about the religious freedom situation in Russia.
  • Support organizations and individuals working in the region.

Vitaliy V. Proshak has studied theology, religious studies, sociology, and law in Ukraine and The Netherlands and is a researcher on the questions of religious liberty, equality, and non-discrimination in Eurasia. He serves as advisor within the Religious Freedom Initiative of Mission Eurasia. His last publication includes a report on religious freedom in Central Asia, and he has edited an 800-page volume on religion, state, society, and identity in Ukraine.

[1] Victoria Arnold, Russia: “Extremism” religious freedom survey, September 2016, Forum 18, 13-09-2016, (accessed on 06-11-2016), available online at <>

[2] Gracienne Lauwers, The Impact of the European Convention on Human Rights on the Right to Education in Russia: 1992-2004 (The Netherlands, Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2005), 67; Vitaliy V. Proshak, Models of Religious Education in Public Secondary Schools within European Research Context: The examples of France, Russia, and The Netherlands, “Theological Reflections” – Euro-Asian Journal of Theology, No. 11, 2010:14.

[3] Federal Law of the Russian Federation No. 125-FZ, On the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, 26 September 1997, available online at <>

[4] Lauwers, 2005, 78; Proshak, 2010, 15.

[5] Lauwers, 2005, 79; Proshak, 2010, 15.

[6] Roman Lunkin, Reaction of Russian Churches on Ukrainian Crisis: A Prophecy of Democracy, in “Religion, State, Society, and Identity in Transition: Ukraine”, Rob van der Laarse, Mykhailo N. Cherenkov, Vitaliy V. Proshak, and Tetiana Mykhalchuk, eds (Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2015), 435–436.

[7] Federal Law of the Russian Federation No. 374-FZ, On Amending the Federal Law “On Combating Terrorism” and Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation to establish additional measures to counter terrorism and ensure public safety, 6 July 2016, available online in Russian at <>

[8] Russia Average Monthly Wages, Trading Economics, n.d., (accessed on 06-11-2016), available online at <>

[9] Evgenia Melnikova, Yarovaya Law: The Death of the Russian Constitution, “The World Post”, 11-07-2016, (accessed on 06-11-2016), available online at <>

[10] Resolution of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR, On Religious Associations, 8 April 1929, available online in Russian <>

[11] Sergey Rakhuba, Official Statement on New Russian Law, Mission Eurasia, 20 July 2016, (accessed on 05-11-2016), available online at <>

[12] Shkil Svitlana, Contemporary Criticism of Orthodox Christianity in Russian Federation, Journal “Skhid”, No. 6 (138), September 2015: 60-64.

[13] Victoria Arnold, Russia: Punishments under anti-sharing beliefs changes begin, Forum 18, 26-08-2016, (accessed on 06-11-2016), available online at <>