Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part III: Conclusions

This is the third post in a series reviewing the effects of the Yarovaya Laws on the Church and specifically missionary work in Russia. Part I was a general introduction and Part II was a statutory analysis. The conclusions that I draw from that analysis follow.

The Effects of the Law in Plain English

First, understand this that the law disallows Russian citizens from performing missionary work in their own home. It is so vague that it probably outlaws missionary work online, including on social media or in private chat rooms. This is devastating.

Second, it is completely unnecessary to outlaw missionary work in order to protect against terrorism. The law is clearly designed to be applied much more broadly than against ISIS’ recruiting efforts. In fact, there are already a variety of laws that would make such efforts illegal, from prohibitions on incitement to hatred to simple criminal conspiracy to commit crimes. What additional value the restrictions on missionary work provides is completely unclear, and we can assume that is intentional because, in fact, it has very little to do with terrorism.

Third, this packet of laws needs to be understood in its context. Over the last four years, the Russian government has increasingly promoted social controls that limit the rights of its citizens in a variety of contexts. The courts have provided no resistance to this trend, the edicts of the Constitution notwithstanding. There is little chance that international law can come to the rescue because the Constitutional Court has indicated that it is on its way to judicially annulling Russia’s commitments to international human rights law.

I intend to expand these points in later posts, as well as discuss some of the saddening changes to Russian law which preceded the missionary restrictions.

A More Personal Take – Are Russian Mormons Likely to be Affected by the Law?

After years now of steadily increasing repressive measures, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I have to admit, when I first read the sweeping provisions of the statute, it took my breath away. If past changes to Russian criminal and administrative law have challenged the rights foundations laid down in the Russian Constitution, these measures seem to herald a full-throated return to Soviet criminal law practices.[1]

To that end, make no mistake: Mormons will likely be considered “undesirable” sooner rather than later. Large portions of Russian society fail to distinguish between religious groups like Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientology. Many clump Lutherans and Baptists in with the aforementioned groups and call us all cults (“sekty”, perhaps best understood in the traditional French sense of illegitimate break-off groups from true Christianity – which is, in the Russian case, Russian Orthodoxy). During my mission in 2006-2008, there was a TV “exposé” of Mormonism about every six months. That was when things were relatively more liberal. Remember that in 2012, ultra-nationalist youth groups protested in front of Mormon meeting houses. This level of public harassment appears to rarely occur, thankfully, but Russian Mormons can testify to the degree of animosity in general society.

As an indication of where this all is headed, consider that literature distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses have been labeled extremist. Recently, the Church of Scientology in Moscow was liquidated by court order. You might say that the LDS Church has too many differences from two other organizations to warrant a valid comparison. There are real differences, not only in doctrine, but in legal strategy. While the Church of Scientology has a reputation of being much more willing to push the edges of the law than the LDS Church (which is constitutionally averse to operating in anything less than a pristine legal manner) and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not recognize earthly authority beyond that which is necessary to do their work as compared to the 12th Article of Faith, these distinctions may not matter in the long run if the point of this law is actually to suppress “foreign” influence and institutions, even if those institutions (like the Church) are actually Russian in makeup.

Unfortunately, by appearances, suppression is precisely the point of the legislation.

What More Could Be Done?

In its statement, the Church quoted the 12th Article of Faith and promised to “honor, sustain, and obey the law” while still recognizing that the law will have impacts on missionary work. The Church also joined in a day of fasting along with other protestant and minority religious groups across Russia.

There is very little else the Church could or should do otherwise in context of the law. As mentioned above, the Church is a scrupulous keeper of the law, which is part of why some of these changes will have little effect on non-Russian missionaries in the country. In a country where there are considerably less Mormons than live in Rexburg, Idaho, it’s not as if the Church would carry a lot of electoral clout even in a country where elections were vaguely free and fair.[2]

In the U.S., we might have said that this law needs the courts to intervene and declare the law unconstitutional. The law is almost certainly unconstitutional, but there are at least two problems with relying on the courts. First, the Constitutional Court has more or less abandoned its mandate to defend the rights included in the Russian Constitution. Second, international human rights courts like the European Court of Human Rights are finding direct resistance from the Constitutional Court in attempting to enforce international and Russian human rights law. At the risk of self-promotion, I’ll say that I have written in some detail on both points elsewhere using the so-called “gay propaganda” law as a test case. Although I am likely to return to those issues in detail later, suffice it to say that Russian courts aren’t up to the job of protecting the rights of ordinary Russians, let alone of Russian Mormons.

So, absent an electoral voice or the protection of the courts, it is likely that the Church’s quiet, steady response is not only the wise thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.

But imagine what it would be like to have these laws passed in your country. Russian Mormons are rightfully frightened about what effect this will have on their lives – their friendships, their livelihoods, and the practice of their faith – what’s coming next.

I have some thoughts about what lessons this situation should teach us about the true meaning of religious freedom, and the vital importance of standing up for the rights of other unpopular minorities before things get this far, but I’ll mostly save those for another time.[3]

Instead, I’ll offer two perhaps contradictory closing thoughts. First, watching the steady erosion of civil liberties in Russia filled me with dread that something like this would happen eventually. It is well to remember that civil society protects all of us in a liberal democracy, and that attacks against the rights of one are attacks against the rights of all. That is a call to responsibility for people of conscience. Second, the first LDS temple in Germany was in the communist DDR, not in the liberal BRD. Just because these laws suggest that the government is increasingly willing to crack down, that doesn’t mean that Russian Mormons will find no way to survive, or even thrive. Perhaps that memory can be a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak period for Russian Mormons.

[1] Now the disturbing ideas proposed this spring in Russia’s business daily Kommersant by Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin to quit this phony liberalism and return to Soviet police practices look less like the ravings of an isolated politician and more like a trial balloon.

[2] Russian elections, never the model of democratic ideals, have suffered greatly since 2011, when widespread vote monitoring demonstrated gross manipulation of the vote in parliamentary elections. But even if that were not the case, the Church is the definition of what we would call in U.S. law an “insular minority,” the type that needs special judicial protection because democratic forces have a tendency to run roughshod over them and they’ll never get a fair representation in the legislative branch.

[3] It seems to me that if Mormons had been better taught to stand in solidarity with other potentially persecuted groups, be they other faiths, or LGBT Russians, or liberals and Ukrainians, perhaps the situation might have been different. Or maybe not – maybe that would have just made the Church an earlier target. Maybe, in Solzhenitsyn’s observation as he was dragged off to KGB headquarters as a “traitor” during WWII, there just weren’t enough people in the subway station to make outright dissent worthwhile. The question of the appropriate level of suffering for Christ’s sake is much deeper than I can treat in a footnote, so I’ll let it rest here.



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