TAGANROG, RUSSIA — Alexey Koptev’s transformation from a respected Soviet factory foreman to suspected extremist began in 1992 when two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on his front door to ask whether he kept a Bible at home.
The visit sparked a religious revival in Koptev and his wife, Lyubov, and they converted two years later in a seaside baptism. In 2011, Koptev became the target of an undercover police sting because of his ties to the sect, which now shares the same legal status in this city as the Islamic State or the neo-Nazi National Socialist Society.
In one of Russia’s largest anti-extremism trials in recent memory, a city judge in this small port almost 600 miles south of Moscow will decide Friday whether to convict 71-year-old Koptev and 15 co-defendants for trying to revive the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Taganrog.
Koptev, as a senior member of the congregation, faces a possible six years in prison.
“Why me? Who did nothing illegal, who read nothing illegal, why was I secretly filmed and listened to?” he asked.
Officially, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned from Taganrog in 2009 for inciting religious hatred by “propagating the exclusivity and supremacy” of their religion, a charge that defense lawyers say every major religion is guilty of. Unofficially, the case is a potent example of the bizarre and byzantine forms that anti-extremism legislation, primarily meant for violent nationalist and religious groups, can take in lower courts here.
“The only reason I can think it is happening there, in Taganrog, and not somewhere else, is because of somebody’s personal grudge,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which monitors extremist groups and anti-extremism legislation in Russia.
Koptev, a retiree with grandchildren and nagging health problems from 38 years at the city’s boiler equipment factory, laughed as he pointed to a group portrait of the defendants on the wall: “Here are the extremists.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are bound to follow the law, he said, unless it conflicts with God’s law.
“We’ll keep doing what we do,” Koptev said at his two-story home, which sits in Taganrog’s handsome old town just blocks from the birthplace of playwright Anton Chekhov.
“We will keep preaching,” his wife added. “It’s faith.”
The trial is regarded as a bellwether for other Russian cities that may launch similar prosecutions. But it is also part of a wave of regional activism in Russia, in which local courts have so aggressively banned religious texts they deem extremist that the Kremlin has had to intervene.
“This is coming from the ground up,” said Geraldine Fagan, author of “Believing in Russia — Religious Policy After Communism.” “It’s very easy for a minor court, in just part of a small town, to rustle up a few so-called experts who may not particularly like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and get them to write a report that their literature is extremist.”
Russia’s anti-extremism legislation, enacted in 2002 under President Vladimir Putin and then extended to nonviolent groups in 2007, was touted as a way to prevent terrorist attacks and ultranationalist violence.
But it has also become grist for absurd and often worrying headlines from the Russian hinterlands. One famous case in 2011 in the city of Tomsk put a translation and commentary of the Bhagavad Gita used by the Hare Krishnas on trial (it was later acquitted), sparking protests in India. Recently, police have mined social media for evidence, and bloggers have been tried for sharing online posts.
Often, the targets are Muslims, some of whom, like followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, are not tied to terrorism.
“In the last two years, we’ve had a twofold increase in these kinds of cases,” said Verkhovsky, adding that the rise was also tied to the conflict with Ukraine.
Russia’s quickly expanding register of extremist materials, which in the past four years grew from 1,000 entries to more than 3,000, has even prompted a federal pushback.
Putin last month submitted a remarkable bill to parliament that “grants immunity” from extremism rulings to four foundational religious texts: the Bible, the Koran, the Jewish Tanakh and the Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur.
The bill followed a September court decision in Russia’s Far East that banned the Islamic text “Supplications to God,” which includes quotes from the Koran. The ban prompted a sharp rebuke from Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the republic of Chechnya and a self-styled spokesman for Russia’s Muslim community.
“I and my comrades in arms, reading the Koran, defended Russia’s integrity, fought and continue to fight against international terrorism,” Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, wrote on his preferred soapbox, Instagram. “I demand strict punishment for these instigators.”
Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses have no prominently placed allies, and their religious practice of public proselytizing on city streets and doorsteps and by telephone has earned them the reputation of being a public nuisance.
“I remember the calls,” said Marina Ageyeva, who coordinates public events with religious, ethnic and cultural organizations for the Taganrog city administration. “Lots of requests to protect residents from the annoyance of these people because they constantly wander around the city, bother people at home and try to start conversations that nobody wants to have.”
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the trial, but the case files, which fill 89 volumes, show the extent of the investigation. During the inquiry, police informants posing as parishioners took hidden-camera footage of the services, and defendants say an investigator offered to drop the charges if they renounced their membership in the sect.
A 2014 verdict that called for probationary sentences but no jail time was overturned by a higher court, and a new trial began in January.
“I call this ‘Season 2,’ ” said Kirill Kravchenko, who left his jewelry-trading job because the court banned him from traveling. Now, he gives crash courses in singing to amateur crooners, many hoping to make an impression at a wedding or business party.
“At least I get to see him more, even if it’s in the courtroom,” said his mother, Tatyana, who is also on trial. Both face fines.
Nikolay Trotsyuk, an elder in the congregation who also faces a possible six years in prison, was born to Jehovah’s Witnesses in western Ukraine and recalls holding clandestine prayer services at home with the windows covered in heavy black cloth. In 1978, he was sentenced to three years for refusing military service in the Soviet Union. Soviet police last searched his home in 1984, he recalled, after which the neighbors wanted to evict him and his wife.
Then came an easing under perestroika that continued into the 1990s.
His son, daughter and son-in-law are also on trial.
“It was calm,” he said, “until everything turned around, and they started treating us again like they did during the Soviet Union.”