Russia has a long history of, shall we say, uneasy relations with Protestant Christians. This neither began nor ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. The idea appears to be widespread that non-Russian Orthodox groups are "cults" and that their attempts to make converts are ipso facto illicit. See the brief paragraph on religious freedom in Russia here. See also this article from 1998.
It appears that the new legislation is worded deliberately vaguely. It is not (I gather) so much that the legislation explicitly says that ordinary conversation in which one promotes one's own faith is prohibited without prior government permission but rather that the legislation has that as an effect, given the vague, broad definition of "missionary activity."
The positively-inclined TASS reports that the legislation outlaws "missionary activity" by groups "whose aims contradict the law," activities that "violate public security and order," "creat[e] obstructions to getting mandatory education," that involve "coercion into ruining families," or "persuasion of individuals to refuse to perform their legally mandatory civic duties."
If you don't find these sweeping phrases ominous, then you have a tin ear for totalitarianism. I conclude based on previous conversations (with those sympathetic to such legislation, by the way) that "coercion into ruining families" is code for children's clubs and ministries that might (heaven forfend) include the children of families who do not already belong to the religious group in question. For that matter, such a phrase could be aimed at any religious group that attempts to evangelize individuals, including adults. (Anybody remember Jesus' words about not bringing peace but a sword?) I can't help wondering if the bit about "mandatory education" indicates that there is a nascent home-schooling movement in Russia. If so, then your religious organization had better not engage in "missionary activity" that promotes it.
In general, this wording is extremely bad and would allow the state to forbid "missionary activity" by any group it did not approve of.
Says the Barnabas Fund,
The new law will require any sharing of the Christian faith – even a casual conversation – to have prior authorisation from the state. This includes something as basic as an emailed invitation for a friend to attend church. Even in a private home, worship and prayer will only be allowed if there are no unbelievers present.
There are also restrictions on the extent to which churches can have contact with foreigners; for example, any non-Russian citizen attending a church service would be required to have a work visa or face a fine and expulsion from Russia.
If passed, the extent that this law is implemented will depend on local authorities. However, the bill is vaguely worded and, with a heavily politicised judiciary, could lead to a situation similar to that faced by Christians in the Communist era.
Russia has never really understood religious freedom, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church itself prefers to live in and encourage a monopolistic society in which all other religious groups, including Christian groups, are regarded with suspicion and contempt and in which this perception is enforced by laws that restrict their abilities to promote and spread their own versions of Christianity.
I make no claim to the effect that a government must be "religiously neutral" in some absolute sense. Obviously, Baal worship with sacrifice of children can and should be illegal. But outlawing the propagation even of heresies such as Jehovah's Witnesses (a group particularly targeted in Russia) is, frankly, ridiculous and bad law. And as for outlawing Baptist vacation Bible school because it "targets" children (a topic on which we had a lively debate some years ago here at W4), I have absolutely no patience with such an idea. While formalizing the concept is admittedly not an exact science, there is such a thing as reasonable religious flexibility and freedom as far as purely religious tenets are concerned. Nobody should be fined for "missionary activity" per se, nor should such activity have to be licensed by the state. Yes, even if it's missionary activity for a theological falsehood.
And it is sheer xenophobia of the most blatant sort for Russia to try to outlaw having a foreigner (gasp) speak to a church or religious body without a work permit. Could such a foreigner be an imam recruiting for terrorist activities? Sure, but if that's who he is, and if you have good evidence that he's a terrorist recruiter, then don't let him into the country in the first place. You may notice that t-e-r-r-o-r-i-s-t i-m-a-m is not the same as B-a-p-t-i-s-t m-i-s-s-i-o-n-a-r-y, even if both happen to be foreigners.
May God give strength and courage to Christians who (unless Putin decides not to sign it) will be victims of persecution under these regressive, oppressive new laws.