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Putin’s Religious War Against Pussy Riot
The pretrial hearings in the case of Pussy Riot, a Russian female punk band, are held behind closed doors in a Moscow court. Police have cordoned off not only the courthouse itself but also the street outside to keep the band’s supporters from even coming close to the building. Any attempt to hold a sign or chant is stopped; policemen grab the offenders and throw them into avtozaks (police buses). The three band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, twenty-three; Maria Alekhina, twenty-four; and Ekaterina Samutsevich, twenty-nine—Nadia, Masha, and Katya—are being prosecuted for an unsanctioned “punk-prayer” called “Our Lady, chase Putin out.” The women managed to perform for about thirty seconds in the Moscow Christ the Savior Cathedral before the church’s security guards kicked them out. A music video using the footage shot in the cathedral was distributed on the Web. For that, the three women have been kept in pretrial detention since March; on Friday last week, the judge extended their incarceration for six more months, and yesterday their trial was scheduled for July 30th. They are facing up to seven years in prison.
The prosecution of the Pussy Riot women is more than an act of absurd injustice and cruelty; it is a sign that the Russian state is increasingly lashing out against those citizens it sees as overly modernized. Vladimir Putin has often said that modernization is the goal of his regime, but its policy is increasingly slipping toward something egregiously anti-modern, obscurantist, even medieval. The Pussy Riot case is a telling illustration of Putin’s political crackdown—and of his increasing reliance on the Russian Orthodox Church as a resort of the most conservative societal forces.
Before their arrest, Tolokonnikova was a student of philosophy; Alekhina studied journalism and creative writing and was engaged in religious charities and environmental causes. Samutsevich, the oldest of the three, has a degree in computer programming. They are members of a larger group that also goes by the name Pussy Riot—they use a transliterated version of the English words—that combines radical performance with leftist ideas ranging broadly from anti-authoritarianism to feminism; the group cites figures such as Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva among their many sources of inspiration, as well as the American punk-rock band Bikini Kill and the riot-grrrl movement of the nineties. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are mothers of young children whom they have not seen since their arrest.
Technically, the three women are prosecuted for hooliganism; a more appropriate definition of their offense would be contempt of high authority. The Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” was blatantly disrespectful of both Putin and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The secular and the clerical leaders share a sense of mutual loyalty. Each of them presides over a heavily centralized, hierarchical power realm; both are intolerant to those challenging their authority.
“The regime is demonstrating an attempt to evolve toward religious fundamentalism,” wrote Nikolai Svanidze, a prominent media figure. He referred to this trend as “a little bit of Iran” in Russia. Piety and faith for their own sake do not appear to be Putin’s concern, however. Instead, the government is drawing on the traditionalist and anti-western attitudes of the Russian Orthodox Church as a way of cracking down on the regime’s liberal opponents.
Leading members of the Orthodox clergy promptly condemned the Pussy Riot performance as blasphemy and sacrilege. Tellingly, the formal, supposedly secular indictment also drew on clerical language, citing “sacrilegious humiliation of the age-old principles aimed at inflicting even deeper wounds to Orthodox Christians”; “deep offense and humiliation of the religious guides of the believers”; “chaotically waving arms and legs, dancing and hopping… all with a goal to cause a negative, even more insulting resonance in the feelings and souls of the believers”; “desecrating the cathedral, and offending the feelings of believers.”
According to prosecution, there were about a dozen “injured parties,” most of them security guards who happened to be on duty in the cathedral during the seconds that the “blasphemous act” lasted, plus a sacristan and a candle-keeper. Two lawyers representing one of the security guards claim that their client, Vladimir Potan’kin, was so deeply emotionally wounded that he is now suffering from sleeping problems. In an interview with a Russian newspaper last week, Potan’kin’s lawyers called Pussy Riot a “criminal conspiracy”: “Lurching behind [Pussy Riot] are the real enemies of our state and of the Orthodox Christianity; those who instigated this multipurpose provocation are hiding behind Tolokonnikova’s group, and [there are also others] hiding behind those who are hiding behind them.”
The conspiracy, according to the two lawyers, is global and overwhelming. In an interview, one said that the incident could “soon escalate into events comparable to the explosion of the twin towers on September 11th in America… It was proven that the act had been committed not by the American government or by the C.I.A. but by forces above them. For instance, all the employees of the shopping center”—the lawyer referred to the W.T.C. as torgovy tsentr, the Russian for “mall”—had been informed through secret masonic channels that they should not report to work on September 11th.” When the interviewer asked, “Do you mean that the Pussy Riot act and the terrorist attack in the U.S. were organized by the same people?,” the lawyers responded, “In the first instance it was a satanic group, and in the second it was the global government. But at the highest level both are connected—by Satan.” Who else?
The supposedly satanic schemes executed by Pussy Riot nevertheless have to be punished by a secular court. In a language worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, one of them said, “This is what mercy is about. They should redeem their guilt here, on earth, by repentance and humility.” In the courtroom hearing last Friday, Potan’kin’s lawyers spoke in much the same terms. If the judge thought it was inappropriate courtroom language she didn’t say so.
The case of Pussy Riot has polarized Russian society, much like the Dreyfus affair (to which it has been compared) did in the late eighteen-nineties and early twentieth century in France. Over two hundred prominent Russian culture and arts figures signed a letter expressing their outrage over the travesty of justice. Over forty-one thousand rank-and-file Russians have added their signatures. Those defending Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, and Samutsevich include believers and nonbelievers. Even among the Russian clergy there are those who raised their voices calling for mercy.
But liberal priests are very few and are only found at low levels of the hierarchy. The top clergy are prominent members of the political élite, and the church and state are deeply engaged in mutually beneficial relations. Late last year, a new law handed over vast real estate to religious organizations (the Russian Orthodox church is of course the major benefactor), and Putin has promised government funding for religious schools. In return, the highest-ranking clerics have staunchly supported the government leadership and its policies.
The Russian Orthodox priesthood is, on the whole, deeply conservative, with strong xenophobic and anti-western streaks. Over the past years, the top clergy mostly kept those forces quiet, so as not to compromise the state and its modernization rhetoric. But as the government set out to quash the anti-government activists, it has found the social conservatism to be useful. The end Putin seeks is to consolidate the support of the conservative majority and neutralize the modernized ones. Polarization through aggression and xenophobia is the means. And that was the trap that caught Pussy Riot.
Photograph by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty.
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This was something I had seen…
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