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Does Russia have an 'Orthodox Taliban' problem?

Following an arson attack on a movie theater in Yekaterinburg, protests over a controversial film could turn violent. Some fear the rise of "orthodox extremism," but the Russian government appears unconcerned.

Russian State Duma member Natalia Poklonskaya took part in a procession honoring Czar Nicholas II in July (picture-alliance/Tass/Donat Sorokin)

Russian State Duma member Natalia Poklonskaya took part in a procession honoring Czar Nicholas II in July

Konstantin Dobrynin doesn't mince words. "A fundamentalist religious terrorist organization is forming in front of our eyes. This group has nothing to do with either Russian traditions, nor true orthodoxy," Dobrynin, the lawyer for Russian film director Alexei Uchitel, wrote on Facebook. He called on the state and the Russian Orthodox Church to condemn this "extremist front."

His message was prompted by an incident earlier this week in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city. Surveillance videos show how a van rammed into the front door of the Kosmos movie theater. The driver got out and seemed to purposely set the vehicle alight. Reports say there were gas canisters in the van, but they did not explode, nor were there any serious injuries from the fire.

The alleged arsonist is reported to be a mentally ill man from a nearby city. If convicted of arson, he faces up to five years in prison. No details have yet emerged about investigations into an extremist background.

Parallels with jihadist attacks

The incident calls to mind the deadly attacks involving vehicles being carried out by jihadists in Europe. The mayor of Yekaterinburg, Leonid Rojsman, called it a "terrorist attack" on Twitter, suggesting a connection with protests about Uchitel's new film, "Matilda", which depicts an affair between the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and a young ballerina. Local media have released video footage showing the alleged arsonist taking part in one such protest.

Czar Nicholas II (Getty Images/AFP/A. Isakovic)

Czar Nicholas II is considered a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church

"Matilda" isn't slated for release in Russian cinemas until the end of October, but it has been inspiring protests for months. The unofficial head of the protest movement is Russian parliamentarian Natalia Poklonskaya. She says the film is an insult to the last czar, considered a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Kosmos movie theater is located next to an Orthodox cathedral built on the spot where Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The fire in Yekaterinburg happened just days after an unknown suspect threw Molotov cocktails into a studio used by Uchitel. The perpetrator has still not been found.

Religious protests on the rise

Some Russians say the incidents surrounding the release of Uchitel's film are the work of an "Orthodox Taliban." There has been an increase in cases where people who describe themselves as "Orthodox activists" protest against artists, even threatening to use violence. In 2014, a newspaper in Yekaterinburg warned of growing religious censorship in Russia. The article was a response to canceled concerts by Western heavy metal bands, and protests against plays or exhibitions with some connection to Jesus. Those incidents came after 2013 legislation introducing prison sentences for "offending religious sentiments."

The year 2015 saw a spike in such incidents. Russia's culture minister fired the director of a Siberian theater whose staging of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" offended the Russian Orthodox Church. In Moscow, members of an Orthodox splinter group called "God's Will" destroyed sculptures at a modern art exhibition. And in St. Petersburg, a statue of Mephisto on the facade of an historic house was demolished.

The premier of Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk (picture alliance/RIA Novosti/Kryazhev)

The production of Wagner's 'Tannhäuser' opera in Novosibirsk was halted after numerous protests in 2015

False comparison

Nikolai Mitrokhin, an expert on orthodoxy at the University of Bremen, says the controversy surrounding the movie "Matilda" is part of a bigger trend. "It's a continuation of what has been happening in Russia over the past 20 years with immunity for actions by extremists who use the Orthodox faith to justify their behavior," Mitrokhin told DW. He estimates there to be several thousand Orthodox extremists who are organized in various splinter groups.

"The movie 'Matilda' has angered a large group of monarchists," Mitrokhin said. "They idolize the czar's family, and are very sensitive to even a hint of slander."

But he says that it's misleading to compare these people with the radical Islamist Taliban or the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS). "The Taliban and IS are centralist organizations that have a large following," Mitrokhin said. "In Russia, this movement has only marginal support in the population, they are not well structured, and have no leader."

Joachim Willems, an expert on religion in Russia at the University of Oldenburg, concurs with Mitrokhin. "IS has occupied large parts of various states in the Middle East, building up state-like structures with taxes and schools. This is not comparable with what is happening in Russia," Willems told DW.

"The problem is that the Church's leadership distances itself from violence on the one hand, but on the other, both religious and political leaders make it clear that the ideas that take the form of violent protest are actually in their own interest, " he added.

The Orthodox Church in Yekaterinburg has condemned the arson attack and criticized those attempting to connect the incident and the anger over the film "Matilda" with the Orthodox population.

Mitrokhin says impunity that's long been to granted so-called Orthodox activists is the reason for the increasing violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin is convinced that the Church will be a massive source of support for him, "but this is an illusion," said Mitrokhin. The dangerous consequence is that "many believe they can get away with anything."

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