Scientology has operated in Russia for over 20 years and in all likelihood, will continue operating there in one form or another for many more years to come. However, recent developments have caused me to look more deeply into what is going on there and how the Russian government has chosen to deal with what they clearly consider the Scientology threat. Watching a somewhat totalitarian government regime deal with an authoritarian destructive cult should be entertaining, but unfortunately that is not the case. The way things are going in Russia now, it appears they are falling right back into Stalinist thought policing which will only mean more trouble for everyone.
Let’s look at how this began. When the Iron Curtain came down due to events throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, Russia’s borders opened up and new religious movements and destructive cults flooded in, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church as well as Scientology.
They were aided in this in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachov signed the “Law of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on Freedom of Worship. ” This new law stated that freedom of worship “…shall include the right of each and every citizen to freely select, possess, and disseminate religious and atheist beliefs, to confess any faith or no faith, and to act in accordance with his or her beliefs, while observing the laws of the state.” This was much needed in Russia to allow for freedom of religious belief, but with that freedom also comes the freedom to be deceived and cheated by those who use religion for their own nefarious ends. Unfortunately, when you open the door to the good, you can also let the bad slip in too.
According to information from Professor Alexander Dvorkin in Moscow, Scientology started by first opening Narconon programs and official Dianetics centers in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1990. Concurrently, Scientologists worked quickly to infiltrate a number of private and government centers using its WISE business administration program, appearing to give reconstruction and administrative help to businesses which were now rapidly converting to a capitalistic model. Of course, this didn’t prevent and may have actually caused a number of these businesses to go bankrupt. They also got into national health care, with their pseudoscientific Purification Program sold as a solution to radiation and toxic poisoning but which has not been proven to have any medical benefit whatsoever.
However, Russia’s open borders and the free flow of information from the West also led to the truth about these destructive cults also getting to the right ears and action started being taken to curb their wave of Russian expansion. Within two years, the free ride was over and the challenges to Scientology began.
An August 1997 Russian news article quoted prosecutor Viktor Navarnov, who had been looking into the spread of destructive cults and what he said indicates that they had nailed the problem exactly.
“…the belief system of totalitarian sects is intended to achieve a complete transformation of people’s system of moral values, which is achieved by overt psychological manipulation of the consciousness of a person in the form of sermons, rituals, and the like. In analyzing video tapes and printed materials they have identified psychological techniques to achieve intellectual and emotional influence that is aimed at a social and economic reorientation, change of standards of values, and retention in the religious organization…. All of them are characterized by an internal hierarchy, subordination of the rank and file to the leadership, and total control over the personal life of the adherents.”
Despite lawsuits and a lot of work on the part of the destructive cults to stop it from happening, on September 19, 1997, Boris Yeltsin signed the “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations” which greatly modified the earlier 1990 law and put massive restrictions on new religious groups opening and operating in Russia. For example, no religious organization may function until they have been registered with the government for 15 years unless it affiliates with an existing association. It appears to me and others that the basic purpose of this law was to secure the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had correctly felt threatened by the rise of so many new religious groups. Basically, this put religion back under the iron hand of government regulation just as it had been under the Soviet regimes.
As is Scientology’s way, they fought these new regulations tooth and claw in court, continuing to practice Scientology as they saw fit and ignoring any efforts to curb their activities or stop their expansion. They applied and re-applied for religious status with Russia’s Ministry of Justice, the organization named to register new religious groups. Scientology was continually denied acceptance.
Finally, ten years later in April 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia for repeatedly refusing to consider the Moscow Church of Scientology’s application for religious recognition. They did not order Russia to give Scientology its religious status but instead used more ambiguous language, telling them to “correct” the situation but Russia did have to pay Scientology’s court costs.
That ruling did not deter Russia’s courts in the slightest. In July 2007, the St. Petersburg City Court ordered that the city’s Scientology center be closed for violating its charter by engaging in unlicensed health care services. The same happened to the Scientology center in Samara a year later.
Another European Court of Human Rights ruling in September 2009, which could not be appealed, stated that Russia could not ban Scientology simply because it had not operated long enough in the country, basically striking at one of the key regulations of the 1997 Religious Associations Law.
The State Duma did eventually adopt this ruling into their law by repealing the requirment of proof that a religious group has existed for 15 years to obtain state registration as a religious organization. However, this Human Rights Court decision did not stop the Russian courts from continuing to prosecute Scientology and two months later, the court closed the Dianetics Center in Naberezhnye Chelny.
Concurrently, the city of Surgut had been working for years to get Scientology’s literature banned. This all started in March 2008 when several boxes of Scientology’s Basics Books arrived and customs officials thought they looked commercial in nature (which they are) and that customs fees should be paid on them. Rather than forward the books to their recipients, they were instead sent to Khanty-Mansiysk for review and came to the attention of Archpriest Nikolay Matviychuk and Galina Vydrina, an adviser on religious policy. Galina is an avid opponent of religious sects and cults, a woman who has extremely strong views against anything not Russian Orthodoxy and she quickly identified the material as being connected with a destructive cult.
Because Surgut is considered the oil and gas capital of Russia, the last thing the customs office wanted was something considered a threat to state and economic security to be spread to that region. The book’s receipients were notified that the Scientology materials were extremist and the transport prosecutor’s office began the process with the Surgut City Court of having the Scientology books officially listed as such. There were various delays but eventually this landed in front of a judge and Galina Vydrina again appeared on the scene to push through her initial assessment that Scientology was a destructive cult and its materials extremist.
On March 26, 2010, the Surgut City Court issued a decision recognizing Scientology literature as extremist. It should be noted that no one from the Church of Scientology or any dissenting voices were allowed to be part of the court proceedings.
In the press release, the fundamental reason for which the literature was ruled extremist is stated that it “undermines the traditional spiritual foundations of the lives of citizens of the Russian federation.” The court also acknowledged that the works of Hubbard contain “ideas justifying violence, in general, and in particular, any means of opposing critics of Scientology.” The press release did not provide any specific quotations or references from the literature.
Immediately following the decision and despite the fact that it had not yet taken effect legally, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation added these materials to the official list of extremist banned books. Law enforcement agencies then went on the hunt for these materials across the country, conducting searches and raids, unsealing materials at customs and calling citizens to administrative proceedings.
However, within just six months, on October 12, 2010, the Khanty-Mansi district court overturned the Surgut City Court decision. The City Prosecutor on the case later acknowledged in an interview that he did not read the materials and relied on expert analysis. The expert, anti-cult specialist Evgeny Volkov, had not answered the court’s questions during the case but instead had issued a summary of his ideas, reportedly without even browsing through half of the materials submitted for analysis. The court as well did not familiarize itself with the materials by Ron Hubbard. The entire judicial process lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Similar actions took place in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2011 and 2012, with the Russian government instigating criminal charges against the Denmark-based Scientology publications facility, New Era Publications, where all these Scientology books originated from.
As of today, seven Scientology items remain on the banned extremist materials list, most of it Scientology’s administrative policy materials and the PTS/SP Course pack and lectures.
Prosecution against Scientology continued to roll forward. An unlicensed Scientology school was closed and in October 2011, the raids on the Church of Scientology of Moscow began. In June 2012, a WISE personnel training company fell under criminal investigation in Kaliningrad for engaging in educational activities without a license. The government did not miss the WISE group’s association with the Church of Scientology as a feeder line to gain new converts.
In October 2012, Scientology in Kazakhstan was denied recognition as a religious organization.
In June of 2013, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the Justice Ministry’s right to review religous groups to determine whether they meet the regulatory definitions required to be sanctioned as official, and specifically the Church of Scientology, which had been fighting this on the grounds it was arbitrarily interfering in religious practice.
Soon after, on August 20, 2013, the Russian court affirmed the Justice Ministry’s decision that Scientology is not a religion based on specific details of the 1997 Religious Associations Law including the fact that Scientology is a trademarked term – meaning it cannot be used by third parties, which violates the Russian Constitution – and that the Moscow Church was paying rent for the Church of Scientology of St Petersburg, meaning it was operating outside its territorial range of operation according to its own charter.
A year later, the St Petersburg church was raided and Russian authorities reported they were investigating a large scale fraud by the construction company “Olimp” whose directors were Scientologists. Reportedly, they had bilked 9 million rubbles from investors. That’s about $140,000 and it was used to pay for Scientology courses and donations to Scientology’s volunteer ministers instead.
More raids and protests continued through 2015 in Moscow and St Petersburg. In August, Russian authorities seized recording and video equipment from the Moscow org, now going after the fact that Scientology records its counselling sessions on video and keeps extensive written notes of these sessions, which could be used for blackmail purposes against Scientologists.
On November 23, 2015, the Moscow City Court liquidated the Metropolitan Church of Scientology and gave them six months to close up shop. Raids continued and news revealed that it was not just in St Petersburg, but also in Moscow that a Scientologist was engaged in outright fraud, selling apartments that didn’t exist to over a hundred victims and then spending the money on Scientology.
Finally, just a week ago on June 21, 2016, Russian police raided 14 Scientology locations in Moscow and St Petersburg. In their searches, they found an illegal semi-automatic pistol and 20 million rubles in cash (about $311,000 dollars) while investigating money laundering, financial fraud and that Scientology is really just a business disgusied as a religion.
And on the heels of that, Russia is now passing a new set of restrictive laws targeting free speech and privacy in an effort to stop terrorism. It’s called the”Yarovaya law” after Irina Yarovaya, who wrote the bill in response to the October bombing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt that killed 224, but Edward Snowden refers to it more correctly as the Big Brother Bill. It makes it a crime to publish anything online that could be interpreted as inciting or approving of terrorism, demands that all telecommunications companies and internet providers store records of all calls and text messages for six months and metadata for up to three years for government review, inspect all postal packages to ensure nothing illegal is being shipped, keys to all data encryption technology will have to be given to the Federal Security Service so they can decipher any messages sent by any users, anyone not part of an approved religious organization cannot engage in anything construed as missionary work and all missionary work of any kind by any religious group will only be allowed in specially designated areas and the age of criminal liability has now been lowered to only 14 years old for up to 32 different criminal code articles. In short, this is the kind of legislation that falls just short of total authoritarian control over all the major communication channels of a society, rendering its citzens powerless to fight back in any way.
Alright, so there’s a lot of history there and I wanted to give an honest perspective on what is happening. Anyone who watches my channel knows that I am no fan of Scientology and I am not at all interested in it succeeding anywhere at any time. However, I’m a much bigger fan of human and civil rights and in this case, some comment is necessary.
What we see in Russia is a totalitarian approach to getting rid of Scientology, which makes it all the more difficult to watch because we want to support them despite their Big Brother approach. In the case of Scientology, the Russian government is absolutely right. Russian authorities had Scientology dead-to-rights all the way back in 1997 when they first looked into what this group is all about and they nailed it as a destructive cult which operates under the guise of religious cloaking. They decided to go after it and through threats, intimidation, censorship and prosecution they have proceeded to do so for the last 20 years.
They should continue their relentless legal prosecution of Scientology for actual crimes that Scientologists commit. Criminals deserve to be prosecuted. But censorship and thought policing should not be part of that picture. Not every Scientologist is a criminal and the truth is, most Scientologists are victims, not perpetrators.
Russia’s tradition of brutal persecution of those who go against the state and its dictators is a history of undeserved violence and death. History has taught us a lesson over and over and over which every single dictator refuses to learn: that the human spirit and our need for independence is not something that can or ever will be constrained or controlled for very long.
I doubt that everything that Russia is doing right now is intended to bring about a 1984 society on purpose. Maybe Irina Yarovaya and Vladimir Putin are really good people who are doing what they think is their best in a bad situation. Even if that’s true, given their cultural and educational backgrounds, their thinking is right in the grand tradition of Stalin and his Glavlit state censorship office.
Unfortunately, both in Russia and here in the United States, more often than not we agree with having our rights taken away from us in the name of safety and security such as when we cheered the passing of the Patriot Act after 9/11. In order for our society to operate at all, we need regulations but when we take it too far, when we take away our very right to speak or think or believe what we want, we ruin our ability to stop that kind of madness and we actually shackle ourselves in chains we allowed to be put on us by our would-be oppressors.
We can watch and cheer as Scientology takes a well-deserved beating in Russia, and it certainly does feel good as an ex-Scientologist to see some of what is going on there. But the truth is that what we are watching in Russia is actually an attack on basic human rights and liberties which should not be supported or enjoyed.
Remember, it’s all fun and games until they come knocking on your door. And then, it’s too late.
Thank you for watching.