#Footnotes is Rachelle Riddle's weekly explainer column about what's going on beneath the surface of the world of gaming.
Who knew Pokémon GO could be so controversial? Russia is already pretty famous for its harshly conservative laws and banning media that goes against it. Pokémon GO is also no stranger to being restricted in entire countries.
But inciting religious hatred and causing jail-time is a new one.
Russia Has Some Draconian Religious Laws
Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested last year after he posted a video of him playing the newly released Pokémon GO in a Russian church. On the surface, it looks like a young Russian man was simply playing #PokemonGO where he shouldn't have.
When you look deeper, it was just the perfect opportunity to call into question the Draconian religious laws in Russia.
Russia passed a religious law in 2013 after the band Pussy Riot performed in a Moscow church. The law, Article 148, criminalizes activities that "insult the feelings of believers." Since Pokémon GO was extremely popular when it launched and promoted visiting landmarks, Russian news anchors made a point to advise people against playing the game in the churches.
Ruslan Sokolovsky is an atheist and decided to make a point with the game regarding the harsh laws.
The Original Video Is Pretty Innocent
He chose to visit the Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, famous for being built on the site of the murders of the Russian imperial family and commemorating their sainthood. Sokolovsky recorded himself playing Pokémon GO inside the church, wandering around looking for Pokémon.
He offered tips about how if you're losing you might as well do it with dignity while listening to Orthodox music and that using incense helped him catch more Pokémon than would normally have been available.
He lamented that he didn't catch "the rarest Pokémon that you could find there — Jesus."
If He Didn't Post The Video, He Would Have Been Fine
The church was actually the site of a gym, hinting that other players have also been there. The church being a Pokémon gym isn't unique or even explicitly intended, as Niantic built the #Pokemon database from user-submitted locations.
Sokolovsky knew full well what he was doing, as well as the consequences. In the video he posted afterward, he included a news clip detailing fines and jail-time for such a stunt and plainly stated that he didn't think there was anything inherently wrong with playing Pokémon GO there.
Several weeks after posting the video on YouTube, the Ministry of the Interior happened upon the video through a web monitoring program, which was then sent to Centre for Combating Extremism for review.
A 3.5 Year Sentence For A Joke That Got Wildly Out Of Hand
Sokolovsky was arrested in September of last year at his home and his recording equipment was confiscated, including a pen with a camera that he claimed wasn't his. He's been under house arrest since the initial charges and he was prohibited from using the internet, using his phone, or communicating with anyone except investigators and his lawyer. For simply offending religious beliefs, that's a pretty harsh restriction.
Charges against Sokolovsky:
- Inciting hatred or enmity and insulting human dignity
- Public actions expressing clear disrespect to society with the aim to insult religious feelings of believers committed in places for religious worship
- Illegally possessing a camera pen for covert filming
Amnesty International had condemned the arrest, accusing the law of being another means for the government to crack down on dissenting opinions. The trial started in March 2017, six months after Sokolovsky's arrest, and has just concluded. Prosecutors recommended the maximum sentence for prison, 3.5 years, arguing that a lesser sentence would only encourage more acts of defiance and "give rise to a sense of impunity."
Sokolovsky decried the recommended sentence, comparing the extremism of the sentence versus his minor offense with the terror perpetrated under Joseph Stalin and communist Soviet Union.
"I may be an idiot, but I am by no means an extremist. A long time ago, people were imprisoned in camps and for longer terms – not for 3.5 years, but for decades – because they [foully] joked, for example, about communism and about Stalin. Now it turns out that they want to imprison me for 3.5 years [in real terms] because [I] obscenely joked about Orthodoxy and about Patriarch Kirill. For me, this is savagery and barbarism. I do not understand how this is at all possible. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is quite possible indeed."
The final verdict is set for May 11.
Read more about government censorship in games: