Currently, Jehovah's Witnesses are banned from meeting or preaching in Russia due to accusations of religious extremism. Jehovah's Witnesses are known for being pacifists (they refuse military service, strive to be politically neutral, oppose violence, and practice religious tolerance). This makes me wonder how the Russian Federation defines "extremism."

I've heard that Russia's laws regarding religious extremism are fairly ambiguous, and aren't strictly designed for preventing terrorism. What exactly are those laws, and how are they being applied in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses?

Update: The United States has recently published the following statement on Jehovah's Witnesses: "Desist from targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses with ‘anti-extremism’ laws and forced conscription."

Update 2: The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses on June 7th, 2022 and made the subsequent statement in a press release: "The court found that the definition of ‘extremism’ was overly broad in Russian law and had been misused for the prosecution of believers or religious ministers on the basis of the content of their beliefs alone."

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    Note that discussion of the rights and wrongs of JW is not constructive. Comments should suggest improvements to the question.
    – James K
    Jul 23, 2017 at 13:47
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    To some world views, pacifism is an extremist position. The wording of this question suggests Russia shouldn't see anything amiss, but the JW's vocal opposition of certain political stances and especially refusal to fulfill the expectations on on all citizens to serve their country militarily when called upon is quite understandably viewable as an extreme religious position. I'm not trying to defend the ban, but it's really not that surprising.
    – Caleb
    Jul 24, 2017 at 13:46
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    @Caleb Right, JWs receive a significant amount of criticism for some of their beliefs. The purpose of my question is to determine if Russia defines extremism in terms of having unpopular ideas, or if it defines extremism in terms of the danger it presents to human lives.
    – 4castle
    Jul 24, 2017 at 14:27

1 Answer 1


The laws on "extremism" (first brought in in 2002, then amended in 2006 and 2007) are defined in the "The Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity". However, it is up to the courts to interpret the law (except that swastikas are considered extremist without further interpretation). The law distinguishes between extremist activity (eg drawing a swastika on a wall) and encouraging extremist activity (publicly telling someone to draw a swastika) and punishes the latter considerably more harshly.

A translation of the full definition of extremism can be found in a briefing prepared for the EU by "SOVA Center for Information and Analysis" a Moscow-based Russian nonprofit organization that campaigns on racism and the misuse of extremism legislation, and which can be seen as having an "anti-Putin" stance.

The particular lines that affect Jehovah witnesses are

incitement to social, racial, ethnic or religious hatred;

propaganda of exclusiveness, superiority or inferiority of an individual based on his/her social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic identity, or his/her attitude to religion;

violation of rights, liberties and legitimate interests of an individual and citizen subject to his/her social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic identity or attitude to religion;

"Hatred" is also translated as "discord" in some sources. (I'm not a Russian speaker so can't comment on the nuance of the original.)

It is the role of the court to interpret these lines in the context of the activities of a particular group. The courts in Russia have on several occasions decided that the activities of the Jehovah Witnesses in Russia meet some or all of these criteria for being "extremist". The particular point that the court noted was that the evangelical activities of the church: going door to door and handing out evangelical literature was decided to "incite religious hatred".

The basic attitude taken by the court is that Jehovah Witnesses are a "cult" whose activities cause "serious public danger". And it is a reflection of this attitude that leads to the decision to liquidate the organisation as "extremist"

For the sake of clarity, I'm not arguing that the court was correct here or that the law is a good law. Nor am I arguing that JW are theologically "right", that would be off topic. I'm also aware that swastikas have a long noble history before the Nazis. I'm only attempting to answer the questions "What exactly are those laws, and how are they being applied"

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    It should be noted that the courts in Russia are completely intertwined with the executive so in reality it's Kremlin that decides all the major extremism cases. Jul 23, 2017 at 12:05
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    Rhetorical question, regarding "religious superiority": wouldn't a member of any religion normally feel (to at least some degree) that their religion is "more correct" because otherwise it would be pointless to be in the religion they are in?
    – user100487
    Jul 23, 2017 at 14:10
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    Anyway, what I am more interested in is that it seems in Russia they do not need to prove that JWs activities cause "serious public danger". I am just saying this because I do not see how an organization that refuses military service and opposes violence (taken from OPs question) would cause public danger. Looking at the aggressive anti-gov demonstrations or terror attacks there has been in Russia because of various court rulings or wars against Islamic parts of the country, yet nothing such have been organized by JWs.
    – user100487
    Jul 23, 2017 at 14:17
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    Maybe their attitude towards blood transfusions is enough to earn them the status of "extremist". There is also an issue with the influence of the Orthodox church, which sees everyone except for Catholics and Muslims as sects.
    – user5628
    Jul 23, 2017 at 19:24
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    @Magicsowon Concerning taking blood transfusions, that's a personal medical choice protected by law. It's also become less of an issue lately with the success of bloodless medical techniques.
    – 4castle
    Jul 24, 2017 at 3:56

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