Sacrilege or performance art? Should it be applauded as a bold statement on the role of the church in Russian life or condemned as petty hooliganism and self-promotion?
In late February masked members of the self-proclaimed “feminist punk-rock band,” which goes by the name Pussy Riot, burst into Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow’s main diocesan church, and performed their “punk prayer,” a song called “Holy Virgin, Chase Putin Away!” This was the group’s best publicized show, following previous impromptu performances on Red Square and from the roof of a prison. Radical, obscenity-laced lyrics and radical causes – like defending LGBT rights or supporting abortion – create the Molotov cocktail that is Pussy Riot. Those few minutes in the Cathedral ignited flaming passions throughout Russia and propelled the obscure radical art activists to nationwide fame. Or notoriety, depending on how you look at it.
Two members of the group were eventually detained by the police, accused of “a premeditated hooligan act based on religious hatred.” They are in custody and facing a possible prison term of seven years. The fate of two young mothers, Anastasia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, has split society into those who side with the police and the believers, most of whom were shocked and offended, and those who consider this a case of government repression on behalf of its ally, the Russian Orthodox Church. Cries of “Blasphemy should be punished!” on one side are met with “Down with clericalism!” on the other. Both sides look bad.
Nearly 80 per cent of Russian grown ups claim to be Orthodox, although no more than 10 per cent regularly attend church services and partake in communion, reflecting the perception of Orthodox Christianity as a substitute for cultural and national identity rather than a religious faith. But it allows the church to claim it represents the majority, while a growing number of secular intellectuals, mostly young and radical, say that the believers represent a minority trying to impose its views on a rather agnostic country.
The situation probably would have been less acute if not for the fact that Patriarch Kirill, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, openly supported Vladimir Putin’s bid for the presidency. In the charged political atmosphere of Russia’s two capitals, the detention of the two women led to accusations of a “witch hunt” and the merger of church and state. The fact the Vladimir Putin’s press-secretary Dmitry Peskov called the Pussy Riot act “disgusting” provoked suspicions of direct involvement of the Kremlin in the issue.
The church hierarchy failed to react to what happened on time, and when it did it failed to speak with one voice. Several prominent priests, the patriarchate’s spokesmen, and assorted Orthodox lay activists voiced diametrically opposed views, from calls to give the performers maximum terms to suggestions that the musicians should be forgiven and the patriarch should intercede with authorities on behalf of the detained and ask to close the case out of Christian compassion and according to Christ’s teachings.
Several conservative members of the Orthodox laity went much further – in their blogs they have demanded that Pussy Riot should be punished severely. Their names and addresses were leaked to the web, with incitement “to teach the heretics a lesson.”
At the same time a large group of Orthodox believers signed a petition asking Patriarch Kirill for clemency and forgiveness. In the end this initiative was politely disregarded. A statement by the patriarch’s press-chief Vladimir Legoida urged the authorities not to imprison the accused, but also hinted that some form of punishment is needed and refrained from saying that the primate would forgive the trespassers.
Pussy Riot’s supporters include a large number of prominent art personalities, journalists and political activists. Many of them (though not all) see Christianity as – at best - a refuge for losers and outmoded eccentrics or – at worst - a repressive force to be fought and vanquished. They seem to be utterly unable to comprehend how anyone could be genuinely offended by a bunch of people breaking into a church and shouting obscenities from the altar in front of believers and priests. The group’s supporters’ are now challenging the church to show Christian forgiveness without as much as saying sorry. This is disingenuous of people who only seem to be radical when it’s safe, and call on their opponents to show the same virtues that they are ready to ridicule when the environment becomes more menacing.
There are no winners in this situation. The church is a loser regardless of the fate of the two young mothers now in pre-trial detention. It is seen as insufficiently resolute by the conservative laity and insufficiently merciful – and too reliant on the powers of the state - by more tolerant, younger believers. Ultimately, all of them see the church hierarchy as weak and lacking in independence and clarity of vision.
Opposition intellectuals lose because instead of allaying Orthodox fears that the democratic movement is hostile to religion and religious people, they have strengthened this stereotype, which gives them opponents instead of supporters. They hand the authorities a great chance to portray them as rootless dogmatists, divorced from Russian reality and oblivious to its spiritual roots.
If anyone needed a reminder that Russia is a nation split many times in many different directions, the story of the “punk prayer” in a Moscow church is one.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.