Under Vladimir Putin, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state is the closest it has been since the Tsarist period. Suffering as a result are non-Orthodox Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the Russian population and comprise a wide range of Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whereas persecution is not as overt as it is in China or Saudi Arabia, national, regional, and local governments in Russia nevertheless strongly curtail religious freedom. The main objective is to curb the growing numbers and vitality of evangelicals and the support from the West that some enjoy.
One unsettling form of repression is the political uncertainty that comes in the form of selective and uneven protection of Christian communities. A 1997 law made church registration difficult and clamped down on missionary activity, and a 2012 law restricted the receipt of foreign funds. Such legislation is used to prohibit and prosecute religious activities. For instance, in April 2015, a Baptist pastor in Crimea was jailed for street evangelization and released after three days. He was one among many across the country who have been harassed. Other forms of repression consist of state harassment and public vilification of certain churches. A final set of challenges is the state’s inordinate provision of financial and legal support to the Russian Orthodox Church, a pillar of national identity, which amounts to a form of discrimination against small non-Orthodox churches who lack this funding source.
Most responses of minority Christian churches to these challenges fall in the category of association. For instance, they have formed umbrella organizations to raise their voices jointly on legal and political issues, especially issues involving their religious freedom. They have also engaged heavily in social services ranging from homeless shelters to outreach to alcoholics, drug addicts, and at-risk youth, which improves their reputation in society and helps them to forge links with the larger community and local governments. Finally, these churches offer their political support for particular causes—mostly socially conservative ones, such as those concerning the family—that demonstrate their patriotism and their loyalty to President Putin’s government. They are keen to demonstrate that they are not tentacles of the West, a charge commonly laid on them by nationalistic Russians. In some cases, churches take up a more survivalist response of “going underground” and meeting in secret.