Last summer, Ruslan Sokolovsky entered the imposing Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, a city about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox church holds special meaning for some, because it was supposedly built on the site where the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, was murdered along with his family.
But Sokolovsky wasn't there to worship or pay tribute to Russian history. Instead, the blogger wandered through the gilded rooms of the church, his eyes and fingers glued to his smartphone. He was playing “Pokémon Go,” the app that allows users to “catch 'em all” using augmented reality.
“But, you know, I didn't catch the rarest Pokémon that you could find there — Jesus,” Sokolovsky, an outspoken atheist, said at the end of a video he recorded that day. “They said it doesn't even exist, so I'm not really surprised.”
At the time, Pokémon Go was experiencing an unprecedented craze that would ultimately die down in a matter of weeks. However, the consequences for Sokolovsky would last long after he fired up the app on his phone last summer — and posted the video of his Pokémon Go-playing venture inside the church to YouTube.
After Russian officials discovered the footage, Sokolovsky was detained last fall and charged with inciting religious hatred. On Friday, the last day of the trial, prosecutors in Russia requested a sentence of 3½ years in prison for Sokolovsky.
Sokolovsky, now 22, protested that his potential punishment outweighed the crime.
“I may be an idiot, but I am by no means an extremist,” said Sokolovsky in a statement, according to the Russian news site Meduza. He compared his suggested prison sentence, for joking about the Orthodox Church, to those who had been imprisoned for decades under Joseph Stalin for joking about communism.
“For me, this is savagery and barbarism,” Sokolovsky's statement continued, according to Meduza. “I do not understand how this is at all possible. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is quite possible indeed.”
He wasn't the only one who drew comparisons between the harsh suggested prison sentence and Stalin's Russia. While prosecutors and others have justified Sokolovsky's arrest under a new law that prevents the “violation of the right to freedom of conscience and belief,” others have blasted the potential punishment — and the law — as a restriction on free speech.
“Previously #Russia jailed people for mocking Communism/Stalin, now for mocking Orthodoxy,” Moscow Times reporter Matthew Kupfer tweeted.
The human rights group Amnesty International called Sokolovsky a “prisoner of conscience” and criticized the Russian government for detaining the blogger “solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”
The charge against Sokolovsky, inciting religious hatred, is the same offense under which two women from the punk-rock collective Pussy Riot were imprisoned for two years, according to the Associated Press. The group had staged a protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin at an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in 2012. Shortly afterward, two members were arrested on charges of hooliganism.
The following year, the Russian parliament passed a law based upon the Pussy Riot incident that criminalized activities that “insult the feelings of believers.” If charged, defendants face up to three years in jail, and at least six men stood trial last year under this charge, according to Amnesty International.
Sokolovsky's critics say it is under this law that Sokolovsky's arrest was justified.
“The problem is that did it on purpose, even though there were no Pokémon there,” a priest in the Yekaterinburg diocese told Global News last fall. “But it did not matter. It was a reason to insult.”
A judge will issue a final verdict in Sokolovsky's case May 11, according to the Associated Press.
As The Post's Yanan Wang reported last September, at the time, Russia was not the only country struggling to manage the Pokémon Go craze inside certain revered locations:
In India, a high court in the state of Gujarat sent notices … that it decided to hear a complaint alleging that the augmented reality game tramples “religious sentiments” by depicting Pokémon characters in temples and other places of worship, including showing egg-shaped Pokémon figures in some Hindu sites where non-vegetarian food is banned.
And stateside, the Holocaust Museum in Washington was dismayed when it discovered it was a “PokeStop” in the game, a hub where players could fill up on required items like “PokeBalls” and “Potions.” Museum officials were forced to publicly urge people to stop catching virtual monsters inside its halls.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum's communications director, told The Washington Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”