Last Updated 24 October 2023

The Russian Federation is the world’s largest country by land area. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has struggled to maintain its commitments to human rights conventions and its Constitution. The Russian Federation is a multi-religious nation, with roughly 71% of the population identifying as Orthodox Christian and roughly 5% following Islam, mainly the Sufi sect. An estimated 15% of the population are non-religious.1

Numerous instances of human rights abuses have been documented, both prior to and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in 2022). A noteworthy development is the increasing prevalence of clericalism as a mechanism for social control. Furthermore, over the course of the war, the relationship between the State and the Orthodox Church has deepened. In tandem, there has been an increase in pro-religious rhetoric and legislation.

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Constitution and government

The Constitution of the Russian Federation2 promotes the principle of state secularism (neutrality in terms of belief) (Article 14). However, amendments to the Constitution, passed into law through presidential decree on 4 July 2020, describe a “belief in God” as a core national value.3;  According to a Constitutional Court ruling, the amendment’s reference to God does not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but serves to emphasize the significant socio-cultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.4

The Constitution provides for the separation of powers between a legislative, an executive and a judicial branch, which is independent (Article 10). However, in practice, the power of the State is heavily centered on the role of the President. The constitutional amendment package passed in 2020 also enables President Vladimir Putin to reset his term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to seek re-election when his current six-year term expires in 2024, and again in 2030.

The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, and specifically recognizes the “special role” of the Russian Orthodox Church.5

The Russian government has demonstrated a clear preference towards the Russian Orthodox Church. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a large upsurge in religious

The President

According to Article 4 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the President is the Head of State, guarantor of the Constitution, human and civil rights and freedoms. They take measures in order to protect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, ensure coordinated functioning of public authorities, and determine the main goals of domestic and foreign policy, while acting as Commander-in-Chief. The president addresses citizenship issues, gives national awards, and grants pardons. Numerous federal ministries, services and agencies work under direct supervision of the President of the Russian Federation.

In spring 2016, the National Guard of the Russian Federation was created and appointed a federal executive body. The members of the National Guard not only have the right to check documents, personal belongings and transport, but are authorized to use physical force and firearms against suspects without warning, in situations where a delay “threatens somebody’s life and has staggering implications”. The Guard reports to the President of the Russian Federation. The Guard has subsequently been used in the suppression of protest activities, alongside police forces.

The President has a predominant role across the State system, having the authority to dissolve the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia), and control of all government branches. Russia has a presidential government with a pronounced imbalance of power, coupled with authoritarian tendencies under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who has held the presidency since 2000, except for the period from 2008 to 2012 when he served Prime Minister.

Legislative authorities violating secularism

At the federal level, the legislative branch consists of the State Duma and the Federation Council. The legislative branch provides the foundation for the executive and judicial branches, shaping the framework of both society and government.

The violation of the constitutionally guaranteed principle of secularism by legislative authorities, coupled with a low level of legal awareness, has given rise to flawed legislation and human rights abuses. Respect for the freedom of conscience, religion or belief has declined under Vladimir Putin’s regime, often with the implicit approval or to the advantage of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). State-run religious organizations (called “traditional”) are often used to legitimize unconstitutional initiatives. Relations between the legislative body of the secular state and religious organizations remain exceptionally close. Both parties engage in joint events, such as Christmas Parliamentary Meetings, held in the premises of the State Duma, and attended by the deputies and ROC representatives.

On 14 December 2016, at the plenary meeting of the State Duma, the deputies unanimously decided to create a new Committee on Development of Civil Society and Civic and Religious Associations, as well as to appoint Sergei Gavrilov as chairman of the Committee. In 2019, Gavrilov stated that faith and the traditional spiritual values are what unite Russian

On 26 January 2017, in the course of Christmas Parliamentary Meetings, the above mentioned committee, in cooperation with the Synodal Department for Media and Public Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, held a roundtable meeting on the topic “Religion. Society. State.” While First Deputy Chairman of the Committee, Ivan Suharev, pointed out the necessity of regulating activities of “pseudo-religious” organizations and associations, the Chairman Sergei Gavrilov emphasized “joint constructive activities” between the government and “traditional” Russian churches.

Religious organizations are awarded additional benefits, including exemptions from VAT and from income tax on profits generated from economic activities. Exemptions from property tax are granted to religious organizations that use their property for religious


Under Russian domestic law, provisions pertaining to the criminalization of “extremist” speech are contained in several legislative acts, including: the Law on Counteraction to Terrorism, the Law on Combating Extremist Activity, the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences.9

In 2016, President Putin adopted the ‘Yarovaya law’, ostensibly aimed at tightening measures in the fight against terrorism. The law fails to adequately define the term “extremism” thereby enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.10;

Religious groups are required to obtain official permits. Activities such as prayer meetings are prohibited from taking place anywhere except for officially recognized religious

In 2019, the Russian government also continued to use its anti-extremism law to prosecute Muslims—particularly adherents of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat and readers of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi—and Scientologists for peaceful religious activity.12

In July 2020, Russian lawmakers proposed further changes to anti-extremism legislation with a view to suppressing opposition to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.13 Various amendments to the legislation were made that month to tackle this in other


On 11 June 2022, President Putin signed into law two bills passed by parliament: the first, removing the country from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, thereby revoking citizens’ entitlement to take cases of violations of FoRB, among other human rights, to the court in Strasbourg; and a second bill, retroactively set the date of applicability of the first bill to 15 March. Therefore, any rulings delivered by the Court after this date would not be implemented.15

Education and children’s rights

The curriculum includes a mandatory course on the Fundamentals of Religious Culture and Secular Ethics, and is described as cultural rather than theological. Students are allowed to choose one of six core modules, which includes modules on the fundamentals of the culture of various religions and a module on secular ethics. The Fundamentals of Secular Ethics course is reported to be the most frequently selected,)6%2C%20has%20been%20included.; A federal law guarantees that religious educational establishments can receive

Family, community and society


Constitutional amendments passed into law on 4 July 2020, reinforce the State’s anti-LGBTI+ stance by barring the possibility of same-sex marriage.18 The amendments followed a homophobic advertising campaign launched by Patriot Media Group to sway voters into voting in favor of the constitutional amendments. The advert, set in 2035, showed two gay men in the process of adopting a child. A concerned and upset looking boy asks where his mother is, and the orphanage workers also look on with concern. The new mother, an effeminate male actor wearing eyeliner, gets out of the car. A voice in the background then asks viewers “Is this the Russia you choose?”. The voice then says, “Decide the future of your country and vote for the constitutional amendments”;

Additionally, Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over a draft bill that was considered by Parliament in 2020 that would have significantly negatively affected the rights of LGBTI+ people.20 In October 2020, this draft was dismissed on the notion that the changes would overemphasize the rights of others such as LGBTI+ rights at the expense of

Under Russia’s current laws, individuals do not have the right to change their legal gender.22 Until changes in the law in 2023,23 individuals had been able to change their legal gender by taking steps that include a psychiatric evaluation and medical procedures. The law outlaws trans healthcare, dissolves marriages of transgender people, places a ban on changing gender markers in official documents, and prevents trans people from adopting or taking guardianship of children.24 Safeguarding the country’s “traditional family values” has been reported as the key impetus for changing the law, with some lawmakers reportedly describing gender transitioning as “pure satanism”.25

Members of the LGBTI+ community have long faced harassment and The adoption of the federal law “against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” led to a huge spread of homophobic violence. Violating the law is punishable by a range of fines. Homophobic crimes count a high number of murders, grave physical violence. Foreigners who violate the law are subject to fines, up to 15 days in detention and deportation. In Russia, gangs have been emboldened to target, harass, assault, and, in some instances, take the lives of individuals within the LGBTI+

Radical groups justify homophobic attacks by equating homosexuality with pedophilia. In January 2014, before the opening of the winter Olympic games in Sochi, President Putin said that, “gay people are welcome in Sochi but they should leave children in peace”. Human Rights Watch said: “Such a chilling and wrongheaded message about LGBT people from Russia’s head of state is irresponsible and extremely dangerous.”

Religious tension

Muslims are the second largest religious group in Russia and profound tensions exist between Muslims and Russian Orthodox adherents. Ethnic Muslims account for approximately 25 million of Russia’s population.29;

Muslim leaders in Russia say that attempts to build more mosques in Moscow have been rejected or blocked by local officials who fear angering the ethnic Russians in the capital. For many ethnic Russians, the thought of becoming a minority in their home country is inconceivable, and nationalist sentiments are rising significantly. Attacks on mosques have been

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, ethnic Tatar Muslims have faced considerable persecution, including being denied work, their language, their newspapers, and accused of extremism.31 In 2019, the authorities conducted mass arrests of politically active Crimean Tatars, whom they accused of membership in the banned Islamic Party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Many face lengthy prison sentences.32

Reports also indicate that the state has sought to impose its own interpretation of what constitutes “traditional” Islam, which is seen as an inherent part of Russian culture. Anything which is not considered “traditional” is reportedly considered “extremist”.33

Foreign enemies

In 2012, the Russian government adopted a law mandating that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice if their activities can be classified as political and they receive foreign funding. Since the scope of the definition of “political activity” is broad, it can be extended to all advocacy activities and human rights

Ukraine conflict

In November 2013, a wave of demonstrations in neighboring Ukraine began. Protesters demanded closer European integration, following the suspension of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, in order to seek closer economic relations with Russia. Pro-Russian counter-protests began and the political crisis escalated. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in March 2014.

On 28 June 2019, occupation authorities seized and closed the Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga in Simferopol, the main cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in Crimea. Members reported to USCIRF that, since the occupation, the OCU has faced systematic persecution for its perceived ties to Ukrainian nationalism, including the confiscation of church property and the harassment of clergy and congregants. On 6 November 2019, a court in the western Crimean city of Yevpatoriya ordered the destruction of an OCU chapel.35

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, in clear violation of international law. This has caused an escalating humanitarian crisis, gross and systematic human rights abuses on a massive scale.36 The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has offered moral backing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.37; He has incited religious propaganda to legitimize Russian aggression, and has claimed the war is necessary to defend Russian “traditional values” from “harmful gender and LGBTI+ ideology”.38;;

Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values

The Russian authorities use a range of laws passed since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012 to exert control over the dissemination of information, both online and offline, stifling free expression in the country.39 According to PEN International,

“From recently introduced legislation that criminalises legitimate criticism of the government, to state-run media which act as propaganda tools, to libraries targeted for holding ‘extremist materials’, the space for free expression, civil society and dissent is shrinking fast in Russia.”

Media freedom

With few exceptions, Russian authorities or their affiliates own most media outlets, rendering them as conduits for state messaging/propaganda. Independent journalists experience significant pressure – legal, physical and economic – discouraging them from contradicting the official line or providing coverage of critical viewpoints.


In 2013, President Putin signed a law amending the Federal Penal Code and incorporating a ‘blasphemy’ clause in part as a response to the Pussy Riot case in 2012.40 The President’s Office stated that the law “introduces liability for public action that shows clear and obvious disrespect for society and intent to offend religious believers’ feelings.”41

If convicted of offending religious believers, one can be sentenced to fines, corrective work, or imprisonment for up to a year, and up to three years if the crime is committed in a place of worship.

Article 148 of the Penal Code42 states (unofficial translation):

  1. Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to offend the religious feelings of believers shall be punishable by a fine in an amount of up to three hundred thousand rubles, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of up to two years, or by compulsory works for a term of up to two hundred and forty hours, or by compulsory labor for a term of up to one year, or by imprisonment for the same term.
  2. The acts provided for in the first part of this article, committed in places specially designated for conducting divine services, other religious rites and ceremonies, shall be punishable by a fine in an amount of up to 500 thousand rubles, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of up to three years, or by compulsory works for a term of up to four hundred and eighty hours, or by compulsory labor for a term of up to three years, or by imprisonment for the same term with restriction of liberty for up to one year or without it.

Since the ‘blasphemy’ law was introduced seven years ago, there have been 19 prosecutions under Article 148, 12 of which resulted in a conviction.43

Research shows that since the ‘blasphemy’ law was introduced in 2013, media and journalists tend to self-censor as they zealously avoid writing about religion due to the clause’s imprecise and unclear wording.44

Highlighted cases

In February 2019, Russian stand-up comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov made jokes about Jesus, the Virgin Mary, 45 the Russian Orthodox Church46 and President Vladimir Putin’s supporters. A video of his act was uploaded on YouTube. A year later, after watching the video, an individual filed a complaint with the authorities alleging that Dolgopolov had “offended the feelings of religious believers”.47 In January 2020, the venue where Dolgopolov had performed was asked by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for information about the performance. Dolgopolov received news that the local police had opened an investigation into him under Article 148 of the Penal Code, the country’s ‘blasphemy’ provision. Fearing for his safety, Dolgopolov fled the country but has since returned to Russia.

On 17 August 2012, three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years hard labor. Pussy riot is a feminist punk rock group with a freethinking message including being in favor of church-state separation. Their offense was to stage an impromptu protest performance (which was itself disrupted after only a few moments) called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The Russian authorities were widely condemned by human rights organizations around the world for overzealous prosecution and harsh sentencing of the Pussy Riot singers. The judge cited what she regarded as Christianity’s dissent from the principles of women’s equality (contra the band’s explicit feminist values) to back the prosecution claim that the performance was motivated by “religious hatred”. After 21 months in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released on December 23, 2013 after the Duma approved an amnesty. On 6 March 2014, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were assaulted and injured by youths in Nizhny Novgorod.

Ruslan Sokolovsky, an atheist blogger, faced a possible seven and a half year prison term for playing Pokémon Go in a church. He was convicted in May 2017 and handed a three and half year suspended sentence. The 22-year-old blogger had been held in pre-trial detention since October 2016, after he released a video of himself playing Pokémon Go in a church in Yekaterinburg, central Russia, that August. In the video he explains that a recent news report in Russia highlighted the apparent risks of playing the popular augmented reality video game in churches. However, in the video Sokolovsky discusses his disbelief that such actions would be prosecuted, and decides to test it by filming himself. He said of the threat of prosecution, “for me this is total bullshit, because who can ever be offended by you walking around a church with your smartphone?”


“The public perception of atheism has been transformed in Russia, from the dominant ideology of the Soviet Union, into something that is considered indecent for intellectual people. The common perception is that humanism is wrong, dangerous or anti-spiritual.”
— Anonymous Russian humanist


1, 4, 5, 15
12, 32, 35
22, 25
43, 46, 47

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