Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin village

Feb 6, 2014

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment — Feb. 6, 2014

     Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than $50 billion — more than all previous Winter Games combined — to unveil a “new Russia” at the Sochi Olympics.

     But Sochi’s shiny new infrastructure is little more than a Potemkin village, an extravagant ruse designed to deceive the world about the true nature of Putin’s police state.

     Much to Putin’s dismay, media coverage leading up to the Games has focused on the corruption, repression and security concerns that threaten to make the most costly Games the most unsavory since the Berlin Olympics in 1936. 

     Putin’s “new Russia,” it turns out, looks very much like the old Russia that denied freedom of expression, religious liberty and other human rights under both the Tsars and Soviets. 

     Consider, for example, two repressive measures Putin signed into law on the same day last June.

     The better known of the two is the so-called “gay propaganda” law that has been widely condemned as a violation of free speech and freedom of assembly. Under the guise of protecting children from information about homosexuality, the law stigmatizes and silences LGBT Russians by preventing free speech, public gatherings and distribution of literature.

     Since the bill’s enactment, harassment and violence directed at LGBT people has escalated in cities across Russia. 

     The second bill got fewer headlines, but it also raises alarms about the deterioration of freedom in Putin’s Russia.

     Prompted by the punk band Pussy Riot’s protest in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012, the Duma passed a law criminalizing insulting people’s “religious feelings” in public. As a result, anyone who dares offend the sensibilities of the faithful (and this usually means Russian Orthodox believers) could face 3 years imprisonment and a stiff fine.

     The “gay propaganda” and “blasphemy” bills are the latest in a series of Russian laws passed in recent years limiting freedom of expression and belief while protecting the power and privilege of the Russian Orthodox Church.

     According to a 2012 report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a law banning unauthorized public gatherings has been used against minority religious communities, including a Protestant pastor fined for holding a religious service. Another law intended to counter “extremism” has been used to ban religious texts and treat as criminals people who prepare, store or distribute banned texts.

     Evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and other groups in Russia have suffered discrimination and harassment under these and similar laws.

     On paper, the 1993 Russian Constitution bars establishment of religion, recognizes all religions as equal before the law, and guarantees freedom of speech and religion. In practice, however, Putin’s government has an unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, an entanglement of church and state that contributes to repression of LGBT people and minority faiths.

     Over the next few weeks, Putin will get his $50-billion moment in the sun. But we shouldn’t let the Olympic hype obscure the ugly truth about Putin’s rule.

     At the Sochi Games, all that glitters is not gold.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: chaynes@newseum.org.