Russian Extremism Report: Playgrounds and Pokémon

In the “Seriously?!?” bin, file this story: the Yarovaya Laws are being used to put pressure on minority religious groups under dubious pretenses. A Baptist ministry in Noyabrsk (northern Siberia) had its playground closed and was fined 5000 rubles for holding a “children’s camp” there and practicing missionary work in the camp. The church says it was just having an interfaith dialog meeting and that the kids of the participants were playing on the playground. To make the charges here — missionary work is allowed in houses of worship, and the kids weren’t having any lessons given to them — the authorities cited religious literature that the Baptists were sharing with the interfaith group, which was fine, but was… er… not properly being distributed. Right. That’s it.

The article I cited as a source suggests that there might be some one-up-manship going on between the city administration and the prosecutor, which is why the original fine was turned into illegal proselyting charge.

I am, of course, shocked, shocked, that the Yarovaya laws are being used as pretext to harass religious minorities for political gain.

In the same file, the story (EN RU) of a young, aggressive, internet-famous atheist name Ruslan Sokolovsky charged in Ekaterinburg under the “feelings of religious believers” law.[1] His offense: playing Pokémon Go in a church and posting the video on YouTube with some derogatory commentary — for example, that he didn’t catch the rarest Pokémon of all, Jesus. “The rumor is that he doesn’t exist.”

So, for that he could face five years in jail. (As I understand it, he is technically being charged for the YouTube video, not playing Pokémon in the church.)

Right-liberal Russian nationalist (and Orthodox) Alexei Navalny came (somewhat surprisingly) to Sokolovsky’s defense with basically the whole argument: Pokémon aren’t real, so there’s no need to protect God from them. (Or Sokolovsky’s atheism, for that matter.) It should be clear at this point that prosecutions of this type are both (a) legal and (b) completely ridiculous.

Keeping the theme of my blog in mind, what does persecution of Baptists and the prosecution of atheists have to do with Mormons in Russia? I mentioned in an earlier post that in the early stages of the process of the reconstruction of the Russian security services, the targets were minorities like LGBTQ Russians and “weirdos” like Pussy Riot — so what do Mormons have to fear? Then, of course, came the Yarovaya Laws on missionary work. Suddenly, Mormons cared about what the Russian government was up to, but by then, it was a little late.

I think the general lesson is clear: an attack on the rights of anyone is an attack on the rights of everyone. [2]

This is a practical argument about the nature of a healthy civil society that I would make to anyone. But this being a religious-themed blog, let me go one step further and say that it follows from the Gospel of Jesus Christ [3] that we should actively seek to support and defend the rights of all people, regardless of whether there is a reciprocal relationship between us, whether or not they’re like us, and whether or not they even like us. In times like these, such a responsibility is really tough. I won’t pretend I know exactly how it should be brought into practice for the Church as a whole, let alone for individuals, but it seems clear that we no longer have the luxury (if we ever did) of standing idly by while God’s children are treated badly.


[1] The law was created after they couldn’t prosecute Pussy Riot the way they wanted to — it’s a long story, I’ll bend your ear about it some time soon.

[2] Happily, the Church’s support for Syrian refugees seems to have taken this lesson to heart in wonderful ways.

[3] This is a contestable statement, sure, and its application is uncertain (and probably idiosyncratic), but it seems clear to me that is a very reasonable way to understand the imperatives of the Gospel. (I’m resisting a somewhat juvenile urge to prooftext my point.)

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