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Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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