Public enemy no. 1: "Pussy Riot"
Those Americans who thoughtlessly disseminate the conservative “myth of the separation of Church and State” might want to pause for a moment and consider what’s going on in Russia these days. In that formerly communist country the Orthodox Church and the authoritarian State of Vladimir Putin are not only joined at the hip, they are also lashing out at anyone who challenges their supremacy – even twenty-something punksters with the balls to call them out on their hypocrisy.
“Pussy Riot” is a self-proclaimed punk rock collective based in Moscow. The group of ten or so women sees itself as an offshoot of the 1990s Riot Grrrl Movement and claims inspiration from such diverse thinkers as Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Kate Millett, and sexologist Igor Kon.
The group first went public during the presidential election in October of 2011, when it launched a number of public demonstrations in Moscow subway stations and particularly on Red Square, all aimed at Vladimir Putin and Russia’s oppressive style of government. There, decked out in wild costumes and with covered faces, they made the following statement:
We recall the events of 1968. The same power structures as under Brezhnev still rule the country. They have not disappeared. Only the forms of authoritarianism, of control, and of state terror have changed. (…) Even today, our rulers regard citizens in Russia as mentally ill persons who are unable to make decisions on their own.
On February 21, 2012, the group entered the vast Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Stepping onto the ambo, a sacred platform in the nave which is regarded as particularly holy since a reliquary there contains a scrap of Christ’s robe, they stood in front of the altar and sang a “punk prayer” against President Putin. In the prayer, entitled “Holy Shit,” they called upon “the Sacred Virgin” to become a feminist and “cast Putin out.” They were promptly removed. In March three of them were arrested and formally charged with “hooliganism” in accordance with Section 213 of the Russian criminal code. If convicted they face up to seven years in prison.
Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared their demonstration to be “blasphemous” and an attack on both the Church itself and on Russia’s (Christian) national identity. He further stated that Pussy Riot’s behavior had led to the increased vandalism of church property around the country. On April 22 of this year, tens of thousands of the faithful assembled in front of the cathedral to show their support – for the Patriarch, not for Pussy Riot.
The Riot Grrrl-style protest, silly in the extreme, was apparently aimed not only at the Church's tsarist-style collusion with the government but particularly at Putin's macho personality cult and the growing sexism of Russian society. The former KGB officer enjoys being photographed with his shirt off and hunting tigers in Siberia. Some observers believe that Putin is taking the affront very seriously indeed.
Since their arrest, the women have attracted support from Amnesty International, which argues that
Even if the three arrested women did take part in the protest, the severity of the response of the Russian authorities – the detention on the serious criminal charge of hooliganism – would not be a justifiable response to the peaceful – if, to many, offensive – expression of their political beliefs. They would therefore be prisoners of conscience.
The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that freedom of expression applies not only to inoffensive ideas, “but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.
Even if the action was calculated to shock and was known to be likely to cause offence, the activists left the Cathedral when requested to do so and caused no damage. The entire action lasted only a few minutes and caused only minimal disruption to those using the Cathedral for other, notably religious, purposes.
The Russian Union for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, a Russian human rights organization, has declared the women to be political prisoners. The group has also been attracting support from some Orthodox Church members who are dismayed at the Patriarch’s heavy-handedness against what they view as a disrespectful but ultimately harmless prank.
Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias
Patriarch Kirill, who rose up the ranks of the Russian Church during the Brezhnev era, is open about his support for the authoritarian Putin, whom he believes is divinely guided. "What were the 2000s then?" he asked in a speech last February. "Through a miracle of God, with the active participation of the country's leadership, we managed to exit this horrible, systemic crisis." Putin's critics, he said, are emitting "ear-piercing shrieks."
Despite the protests on their behalf, the three women - Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Irina Loktina, two of whom have small children at home – are going on trial. As reported by the Moscow Times this morning, the women were served with a 2,800 page indictment yesterday in preparation for the trial, which begins on Monday. Their lawyers argue that two working days aren’t enough to wade through the material and come up with an adequate defense. According to lawyer Mark Feigin, “The government is trying to avoid a scandal by closing the case and sending the girls to prison by mid-August.” The women have begun a hunger strike to protest their treatment.
In the meantime, 100 prominent Russian cultural figures have signed a petition to the government calling on it to release the women. This week, the European Court of Human Rights has registered a formal complaint with the Kremlin.
According to Russian legal experts, the standard punishment for a prank like this would be a $15 fine and not seven years in a Russian penitentiary.
As for the Orthodox Church, it is unrepentant. “The Devil has laughed at all of us,” Patriarch Kirill spelled it out during a liturgy last spring. “We have no future if we allow mocking in front of great shrines, and if some see such mocking as some sort of valor, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.”
At least in America we’ve still got a “myth” of the separation of Church and State. Thank heaven for small blessings, is all I can say.