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In Putin’s Russia, even playing Pokémon Go can be a crime

Russian blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky receives a suspended 3.5-year sentence for playing the game in a church on video.

Pokémon Go, it turns out, is no game in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Ruslan Sokolovsky discovered that the hard way this week when he received a 3.5-year suspended sentence for testing the limits of Russian tolerance for pranks and church mockery — and, yes, video games.

Back in August, the 22-year-old atheist blogger had cheekily filmed himself playing Pokémon Go, the viral game where animated monsters are “captured” on mobile phones — inside the Church of All Saints, a famous Russian cathedral supposedly built on the spot where the family of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was killed. He then posted the obscenity-filled video to YouTube.

After Sokolovsky uploaded his video — which, as of now, has amassed more than 2 million views — the Russian media ran with the story. They called him “mentally ill” and said the video was an insult to believers.

Sokolovsky did it as a provocation: He’d heard on the news that playing the game in a church could lead to up to three years jail time and a massive fine. “For me this is total bullshit,” he says in the original video, “because who can ever be offended by you walking around a church with your smartphone?”

Turns out the Russian state could be, and was, offended by exactly that. The game and subsequent video led to Sokolovsky’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction on charges of incitement of hatred and insult to the religious feelings of believers.

The judge issued the verdict in the city of Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles from Moscow in the center of the country. Sokolovsky, the judge ruled, was guilty of insulting believers by “attributing to Jesus Christ the qualities of a reanimated zombie.”

That accusation referred to Sokolovsky’s final line of the video, in which he jokes, “But you know, I didn’t catch the rarest Pokémon that you could find there: Jesus. But I couldn’t help it. They say it doesn’t even exist.”

You can watch Sokolovsky’s video below (in Russian with English subtitles):

Sokolovsky may be a prankster, but his punishment is not funny

Sokolovsky was evidently inspired by the satirists at the controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. But Russia is not France, and blasphemy laws under Putin couldn’t be more different from those in Paris.

The Russian state prosecuted Sokolovsky under a relatively new “blasphemy” law that was first levied against the punk-rock provocateurs Pussy Riot, who were arrested in 2012 for an anti-government protest, also held in a cathedral.

During his tenure, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to centralize the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian life, harnessing its conservative and staunchly nationalistic message to further solidify his vision of Russia as a stronghold of conservative values.

The church, once again, has become synonymous with the state — to challenge one is to challenge the other. That meant Sokolovsky wasn’t just sticking it to stuffy old church leaders — he was directly provoking Putin, thumbing his nose at the state while playing his game.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement last night in support of Sokolovsky. So did Amnesty International, which called the whole case a “show trial.”

“It’s a relief that Sokolovsky is not behind bars, but the fact that he was prosecuted and convicted remains a prime example of the Russian authorities using vague and broad anti-extremist laws to stifle free speech and promote self-censorship,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a statement on HRW’s website.

“Sokolovsky’s actions may have offended some or indeed many, but they present no public danger and criminal sanctions against him are groundless incursions on the right to free expression,” Gorbunova said.

As part of Sokolovsky’s sentencing, the court ordered him to remove other videos deemed offensive by the court from his website. His lawyer told the press the entire case was meant to “frighten and intimidate.”

“Criminal prosecution of bloggers and others for peacefully expressing their views shrinks the already limited space for public debate,” Human Rights Watch’s Gorbunova said in a statement also on the organization’s site.

Amnesty International’s Russia director, Sergei Nikitin, added, “With Sokolovsky’s conviction, the Russian authorities send a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge the country’s grotesque ‘blasphemy’ law. Make no mistake, this is neither piety nor a genuine effort to protect the freedom of religion in Russia — especially coming after the authorities only last month banned Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is another assault on freedom of expression.”

Yet some are calling it a victory.

“We must understand that a suspended sentence today means acknowledgment of innocence,” Russian opposition activist Nikolai Lyaskin tweeted.

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