Russia is not the bastion of traditionalism and religious freedom that the Putin regime claims it to be. Despite a weekly religious service attendance rate of 7%, on-demand state-funded abortions until the 12th week, and appalling rates of corruption, the Kremlin has maintained a steady stream of propaganda claiming that Russia is defending traditional and Christian values from Western degeneracy. This appeal has fallen upon receptive ears among conservative and religious individuals around the world.
However, the Kremlin’s policies within Russia and within the occupied Ukrainian territories reveal a different picture. In reality, Vladimir Putin uses religion to manipulate foreign and domestic audiences while engaging in religious persecution.
Religion as an arm of the state
To understand why Russia engages in religious persecution, it is important to understand the Kremlin’s religious policy. Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church and other approved religions became tools of state policy. According to Putin, there are four traditional and “exclusively Patriotic” religions, Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Since 2012, when the Kremlin started incorporating religious and conservative messages into the government’s rhetoric, these institutions were showered with financial and political benefits due to their close ties with the regime.
Those who fell outside these four patriotic religions’ freedoms were subject to anti-missionary laws and state surveillance, which eroded their ability to practice their religion openly. This tactical choice targets independent religious activity outside of the Kremlin’s control and allows the regime to prosecute religious groups through incredibly vague laws. Notable groups target under these laws include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Evangelicals. Indeed, according to a 2019 report, Evangelicals were the group most penalized under the anti-missionary laws. For example, the Kremlin forced a Russian Christian radio station to relocate from Moscow, Russia to Odesa, Ukraine. In 2022, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended labeling Russia as a country of particular concern “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Religion in occupied Ukraine prior to 2022
As part of its imperial policy, Russia exported its own cooptation of religion as a tool of control to the occupied Ukrainian territories of Luhansk, Donbas, and Crimea following the outbreak of war in 2013. The religious freedom organization, Forum 18, reported that out of the 203 religious organizations registered with the Russian authorities in the occupied Luhansk region, nearly 95% of them belonged to Russian Orthodox communities under the Moscow Patriarchate. Not a single non-Russian Orthodox, Protestant, or Jehovah’s Witnesses group was allowed to register. Additionally, in Crimea, only a third of the religious communities were officially registered by occupation authorities out of the 1,156 recognized under Ukrainian law. The Crimean authorities refused to register applications from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine or the many mosques belonging to the native Crimean Tatar community. The refusal to register these groups is tantamount to a ban because, without Kremlin approval, these groups cannot operate openly. One pastor from the occupied Donbas said that his congregation went underground, like in Soviet times.
The consequences for these communities were devastating. In Donbas, the occupation authorities banned and destroyed various works of Protestant literature including an 1820 Baptist translation of the Gospel of John and Born to Die by Billy Graham. According to the Russian occupation authorities, these books contained “extreme content” and the General Prosecutor’s Office stated these books “violate rights, freedoms and legal interests” of others. A U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Ukraine recorded that Protestant religious leaders considered the actions of the occupation authorities in Donbas and Luhansk as an attempt to undermine the strong pre-war Protestant population in those regions. Additionally, the authorities prevented Catholic priests from living in the occupied territories, and in Crimea, home to the Muslim Crimean Tatar, believers are systematically targeted under the guise of countering religious extremism.
Invasion and subjugation
Kremlin-directed religious persecution only increased following the February 2022 invasion. American pre-war intelligence indicated religious minorities were one of the vulnerable populations that Russian authorities planned to target — a charge vindicated by subsequent events. According to Dr. Maksym Vasin, Executive Director of Kyiv-based Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF), “The Russian military purposefully attacked, illegally imprisoned, interrogated, or captured at least 50 Ukrainian religious figures. However, this number may be several times higher” and “at least 500 churches and religious sites were destroyed in Ukraine during the year of the full-scale Russian invasion.” A report published by the IRF in September 2022 documents multiple cases where religious leaders were detained by Russian authorities, subjected to violent torture, and threatened with execution. The report also documented how Catholic, Non-Moscow affiliated Orthodox churches, and Protestant churches were deliberately attacked and vandalized, with religious materials destroyed by Russian-aligned forces. Further, Catholic priests in Berdiansk were arrested by the Russian authorities for alleged “subversive” and “guerilla” activities, charges the Donetsk Exarchate vigorously denies.
Given the genocidal policies undertaken by occupying Russian forces and the denial of the existence of the Ukrainian nation, the persecution of Ukrainian religious communities is not surprising. According to Dr. Vasin, “Russian military and FSB agents (successors of the KGB) seem to enjoy torturing and ruling over the lives of captured Ukrainian religious figures. Evangelical Christians slandered as “sectarians” and “American spies” especially suffer from targeted Russian repression. Religious leaders and other public figures who manifest Ukrainian identity are also brutally treated.”
The disdain for Ukrainian religious figures is visible in the rhetoric of occupation authorities. Artem Charlai, the head of the Department for Religious Issues in occupied Zaporizhzya, said in an interview that under the Ukrainian Government, “Complete freedom was given to the most dangerous religious organizations, sectarian, totalitarian sects.” According to him, it was necessary to stop their “extremist antics.” When asked to identify these sects, he singled out Charismatics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims affiliated with the Crimean Mejlis. He later claimed that these groups coordinated with Western intelligence agencies, a ridiculous claim which was commonly used by the Soviet authorities. Likewise, the Former Assistant Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Aleksey Pavlov, went even further by writing that Russia needed to “desatanize” Ukraine. According to Pavlov, these sects are part of a conspiracy to force Ukrainians to abandon their century-old traditions. Traditions that are conveniently controlled and defined by the Kremlin.
These instances might seem like minor issues in a war that has displaced millions of Ukrainians and killed at least 7,000 civilians since the start of the war. However, they illustrate that Russia’s ideological rhetoric does not conform to the regime’s actions. Individuals of faith who admire Putin for his supposed defense of Christian or traditional values should realize their faith community would likely not be allowed to operate freely in any Russian-occupied territory. Further, these admirers would likely be subject to the war’s arbitrary violence which was described by the Russian Patriarch of Moscow as a holy war and a war that can reward participants with the remission of sins.
If you shall know them by their fruit, then the Putin regime is rotten. A regime that’s threatened by Baptist bible translations and Billy Graham tracts should be disdained, not admired. It’s a regime that perceives religious freedom as a threat because it undermines its control over society. In the end, Putin’s rhetorical argument about defending traditional values is a veil designed to mask Russian imperial ambitions, consolidate power through religious persecution, hide the flaws within the regime, and justify its actions on the international stage. Individuals who believe in traditional values should not follow the lead of a charlatan.
Justin Roy is a Program Officer with the International Republican Insitute (IRI) who holds a Master’s in history from the University of San Diego. Previously, he worked with a humanitarian organization in Greece and Croatia during the European Refugee Crisis and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Finally, he has written for multiple outlets, including Providence, The Federalist, and The National Interest.