In front of the Moscow Art Theater, a severed pig's head sat in silent protest, the words "To Tabakov" scrawled in black ink across its clammy forehead. Around the shrine, on April 1, 2015, Dmitry Enteo and the members of God's Will, his Russian Orthodox activist group, shouted anti-blasphemy slogans and theatrically crossed themselves. It's unclear whether the target of their ire, artistic director Oleg Tabakov, was present that day, but nonetheless, the group certainly achieved its goal of expressing disgust at the man's decision to stage Oscar Wilde's play An Ideal Husband. As the spokesperson for God's Will, Enteo—a slight man with a high forehead, a perennial self-satisfied smirk, and large, expressive eyes ripped straight out of a Pushkin verse—is no stranger to fomenting public chaos.
The Orthodox religious views he and the others share have led them to denounce any art that smacks of Satanism, homosexuality, or cultural deviance. His actions are typically showy and over-the-top; in addition to throwing pig heads and interrupting theater performances, some of his more colorful transgressions include tossing eggs at members of Marilyn Manson's band before a 2014 performance in Moscow, allegedly vandalizing an art show for showing "pornographic" images of Jesus Christ, staging a "missionary flashmob" in the capital's Darwin museum, and reportedly assaulting LGBTQ activists and Pussy Riot supporters.
Born Dmitry Tsorionov, Enteo participates in a burgeoning new wave of activism headed by young Orthodox religious fanatics: With a moral worldview of the 19th century, they attempt to spread their message using the technology of the 21st century. Their movement first gained notoriety in 2012, when Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot ignited a media firestorm after police arrested three of its members for performing the song "Punk Prayer" on the steps of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. In 2013, following Pussy Riot's protest action, Orthodox activists pressured lawmakers to set an example and strengthen the official penalty for sacrilege. As a result, legislators amended the Russian criminal code to add Article 148, which classifies "public actions, expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers," as a federal crime; in other words, it outlaws blasphemy.
Today, Article 148 proved useful to Orthodox activists like Enteo, who is in large part responsible for shifting the hard right's focus away from operas and art shows to more populist art forms, like the perceived blasphemers in Western heavy-metal and hard-rock bands. With the law on their side, these young religious fanatics have made a habit of intimidating promoters, showing up to protest concerts, phoning in bomb threats, and threatening to call the Federal Migration Service to tamper with musicians' visas, all in service of their goal to rid Russia of these "satanic" elements.
On August 26, 2016, Orthodox activists sent a statement to the Russian police urging them to permanently ban American death-metal icons Incantation, Austrian black/death metallers Belphegor, and American dark-folk act King Dude, insisting that the bands promote Satanism and blasphemy. While Incantation seemed to have little trouble at its Russia dates, protesters appeared outside its Moscow show, and band members complained of being prohibited from saying their "blasphemous" song titles onstage, a provision that King Dude also encountered on a more recent run. "I am clearly not a Satanist," says King Dude's TJ Cowgill. But "I am a Luciferian, as I've said for many years now. I am in no way anti-Christian, and in that same regard, I am definitely not anti-Satanist."
Enteo denied our request for an interview, but that's not to say he doesn't relish attention. "Thank God!" he tweeted after an anonymous bomb threat canceled a Marilyn Manson concert in 2014. After another Manson show, in Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city, was also canceled, Enteo told NBC News, "We cannot allow for something like that [a Manson performance] to happen again." Twitter appears to be Enteo's favorite social medium; in his bio, he aligns himself with the "God's Will movement, orthodox christian, right-wing, conservative, pro-life, pro-family, pro-gun, creationism, anti-communism, fusionism" and broadcasts his views on religion and politics, his admiration for failed presidential candidate Ted Cruz, and his own exploits to more than 50,000 followers. With his social-media acumen, millennial flair for spectacle, and almost pathological craving for attention, he's like an ultra pious Russian equivalent of Milo Yiannopoulos.
In 2014, Enteo also targeted American death-metal legends Cannibal Corpse, which had eight shows booked across Russia for an October tour. Enteo told Ria.ru that "we send mass requests to the prosecutor, the description of what is happening at the concerts of the group, the texts of their songs, which describe in detail the rape and murder of children." He went on to note, "At first, we will try to resolve this issue with the help of law enforcement agencies. If it does not work, [there] may be rallies, prayer meetings—mass protest in different forms."
Ultimately, three shows were canceled. Cannibal Corpse explained its understanding of the circumstances in a statement, writing, "In Ufa the power was turned off shortly before the show (we were told because the venue was late on rent), and in Moscow and St. Petersburg we were told that we did not have the correct visas and that if we attempted to perform the concert would be stopped by police and we would be detained and deported (prior to the tour we had been told that we did have the correct visas and that all of our paperwork was in order). Our show in Nizhny Novgorod also had problems. In that city we performed half of our set before being stopped by police. We were told the police needed to search the venue for drugs and that the show had to be terminated."
These Cannibal Corpse cancelations came on the heels of a similar incident concerning Polish death metallers Behemoth. Religious protesters in Moscow sent the city mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, a letter condemning the group's concert program, writing that it "insulted the feelings of believers," and officials detained and then expelled the band from the country. On May 21, once Behemoth arrived at a club in Yekaterinburg, the police took the band members to the migration office, where they learned they did not have the proper visa for a live performance. Ultimately, Behemoth was fined 2,000 rubles (about $30) and deported after playing only four of 13 scheduled concerts in the country.
More recently, another extremist mouthpiece, Anatoly Artyukh, has jumped into the fray, using a more confrontational and even violent approach. Both he and Erteo are notoriously attention-hungry and have made very public appearances to spread their rhetoric and gloat about their successes in repressing Western metal bands. Our requests for interviews with Artyukh were not returned, but we know that the 55-year-old musician and former businessman heads up the St. Petersburg branch of Narodny Sobor (the "people's council"), a nationalist group closely allied with the Russian Orthodox Church, and has made his bones by stirring up hate against the LGBTQ community; he's lobbied to classify homosexuality and transgenderism as psychological disorders, distributed anti-gay literature to schoolchildren, and even created a ballet that condemns gays, abortion, and women without children.
Artyukh made headlines this past April when he spat in the face of an Austrian heavy-metal musician, Belphegor vocalist Helmuth Lehner, as the band arrived at the St. Petersburg airport to kick off its planned Russian tour. A video capturing the incident clearly shows Artyukh, a big man with a dark parka and hardened features, explaining his motivation—calling the band "perverts," "gays," and "Satanists" and promising "to do everything [he] can" to prevent "this freak show"—while citing Article 282 of the Russian criminal code, which prohibits "incitement to hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity." After interrogating a hapless fan who'd been waiting at the gates to meet Belphegor, Artyukh strode up to the band members themselves and spat in Lehner's face; Lehner spat back and called for security. Artyukh continued to verbally harass him and his companions, including the American death-metal band Nile, and he threatened to have Belphegor's concert canceled. Artyukh and his henchmen closely followed the bands out of the airport, clearly begging for a fight; tensions came to a head after Artyukh struck Nile frontman Karl Sanders's arm.
Video of the incident, which was posted on YouTube, is uncomfortable to watch, and the result was even messier— Belphegor's St. Petersburg concert was canceled hours before stage time, and its Moscow concert devolved into farce, as the band was ordered to remove its backdrop and stage props, and Lehner was ordered not to sing on the track "Lucifer Incestus"; the sound engineer ended up muting the vocals for the rest of the show due to the band's lyrical content, and once the guys got offstage, they learned that their next two shows, in Ekaterinburg and Krasnodar, had been canceled too.
"Of course Belphegor will return to Russia," Lehner claims, though it remains unclear whether criminal charges will be brought against the band and succeed in barring it and similar acts from the country.
"The thing is," Lehner says, "I don't see Belphegor nor me as the victim. We did something right to piss those kinds of people off."
While it appears that Enteo, Artyukh, and their ilk primarily concern themselves with big-name artists—the better to draw attention to their cause—another recent incident shows how they've taken a passing interest in the local underground-metal scene. In April, Polish band Batuskha was forced to cancel two shows, stating in an email, "We had all the approvals and 'green light' from the Russian Police, immigration control and responsible officials. Unfortunately we received threats from extremists affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church stating that they will beat up and even kill people attending both shows. Since it's beyond our control and we are not able to assure that the concerts will be 100% safe for both the audience and us we are forced to cancel both of them immediately."
Local promoters have also been targeted.An American metal band (that spoke under the condition of anonymity to ensure the safety of the Russian promoter who put on its Moscow and St. Petersburg dates) arrived to play its first show, only to find that the promoter had been asked to sign a document declaring that the band wouldn't be endorsing anything blasphemous. It was also rumored that Orthodox-affiliated plainclothes policemen—"out of place older guys in white button-up shirts"—were seen lurking around the band's Moscow gig, but fortunately, none of them ran into any further trouble. The band seemed unruffled by the experience, though, commenting, "[We've] played Russia a few times already, and, yes, the first time [we] went there I was very aware of bands having some trouble there. It didn't make [us] not want to go to Russia; in fact, [we] would say that it had the complete opposite effect."
Perhaps that's the best way to approach a group of shadowy extremists who operate under a Russified version of the Westboro Baptist Church model—taking their wailing and gnashing of teeth in stride, and refusing to back down. For all the activists' bluster and the foreign bands' headaches, it's homegrown Russian metalheads who ultimately suffer, and while these Orthodox extremists have yet to fully focus their hatred on local scenes as they have with Western bands, Andrei P. of Novosibirsk-based funeral-doom band Station Dysthymia told us that people are still nervous about the possibility.
"The really uneasy part [is] that whenever you play or plan to attend a gig," says Andrei, "you're now always worried that someone's gonna show up to shit on your parade."
"I am Russian, I love my people and my country," he continues, "and that's why I think we need to fight against shit like this, be it related to music or anything else. I am not against religious people, but I think that just as I have no business telling them how to live their life, they also have no business imposing their beliefs on other people."
Photos by Anthony Tafuro Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; follow her on Twitter.