MOSCOW — When is being convicted of inciting hatred considered getting off easy?
It is when you’re Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 22-year-old atheist blogger who received a suspended sentence of 3½ years Thursday after posting a video of himself playing “Pokémon Go” in a renowned Russian cathedral.
In delivering the verdict, a judge in Yekaterinburg, Russia, said that Sokolovsky had insulted the feelings of Christians and Muslims by “attributing to Jesus Christ the qualities of a reanimated zombie,” among other offenses.
That’s what you get for posting a profanity-laced YouTube video of yourself playing an altered reality game that involves catching virtual monsters using your iPhone camera in one of Russia’s holiest places, as Sokolovsky did in August. The Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, is built on the site where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
The verdict is in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision for his country as a bastion of conservative values, aligned with the vision of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Sokolovsky was convicted of violating a Russian law against incitement of hatred that has been used to prosecute government critics, and a four-year-old “blasphemy law” that was used to prosecute members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot after the group staged a protest against Putin at an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in 2012.
So why did Sokolovsky’s attorney call this “a victory” and his supporters — including Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who tweeted “Yes. Hurrah. Great.” — cheer the judge’s decision?
Because Judge Yekaterina Shoponyak could’ve done much worse. Prosecutors had asked for a 3½ year jail sentence. And in today’s Russia, what the prosecution wants is usually what the prosecution gets.
“We must understand that a suspended sentence today means acknowledgment of innocence,” said Nikolai Lyaskin, an opposition activist.
“A suspended sentence for Sokolovsky, who did not commit any crime, is better than a real sentence for Sokolovsky, who did not commit any crime,” tweeted the country’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who received a suspended sentence earlier this year for a crime he says he did not commit.
Sokolovsky expressed guarded relief.
“Of course, I am happy that they haven’t put me in prison, and of course I am happy that I got a suspended sentence and that I will have at least some opportunity to do things that are interesting for me and that might be useful both for me and for the society,” he was quoted as saying by Mediazona, a site founded by two Pussy Riot members.
He said he had packed books, clothes and sundries in case he was going to prison, because “you never know with the Russian law enforcement system,” according to Mediazona.
“Well, if I start making videos now, they will definitely catch me and send me to prison. So I’ll wait and be calm and quiet, and then we’ll see what will happen.”
In the YouTube video, Sokolovsky dismisses warnings in the Russian media at the time that playing the game, which had a wild run of popularity last summer, could result in prison time.
The video (warning: contains profanity) shows Sokolovsky playing the game in front of lit candles to a soundtrack that alternates between the Pokémon Go theme song, an Orthodox prayer and Orthodox music with a vulgar text. At the end of the clip, Sokolovsky notes that he failed to catch “the rarest Pokémon that you could find there — Jesus.”
“They say it doesn’t even exist,” he says with a shrug. “So I’m not really surprised.”
During their investigation, prosecutors added 16 other videos as evidence. In her verdict, Shoponyak said that Sokolovsky had “formed a negative image of believers,” “denied the existence of Jesus and the prophet Mohammad,” denied “the existence of God,” and “placed Jesus Christ in the bestiary of Japanese mythology,” according to the Yekaterinburg-based news site Znak.com.
The church denied that it had a hand in the legal case.
“Although the case against the blogger Sokolovsky is not over yet and the judgment in this case has yet to come into effect, we are against attempts to regard this legal process as the church’s trial against this blogger,” Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy head of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society, told Interfax on Thursday.
The judge’s findings brought condemnation from Amnesty International, who decried the verdict as “another assault on freedom of expression,” coming after Russian authorities last month banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group.
“With Sokolovsky’s conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country’s grotesque ‘blasphemy’ law,” Amnesty International said in a statement Thursday. “Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia.”
The organization said that Sokolovsky’s arrest and trial have resulted “in worrying self-censorship by media outlets” and cited as an example the decision of a Russian cable TV network not to air an episode of “The Simpsons” that poked fun at the Pokémon Go church case.
But Alexander Kurennoi, a spokesman for the Russian general prosecutor’s office, told a Russian radio station that Thursday’s decision is “a balanced one” and that Sokolovsky is being punished “not for hunting so-called Pokémons” but for the “extremist messages” in his video.
Russia is not the only country that tried to limit the Pokémon Go craze after the game was introduced last summer.
A court in India said the game “tramples religious sentiments.”
The Holocaust Museum in Washington also publicly urged people to stop catching virtual monsters inside its halls.
Natalya Abbakumova in Moscow and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.