Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punks vs. Putin

I spent most of my free time last month reading and writing about the Pussy Riot trial. With my background as a Soviet intelligence analyst and an Orthodox seminarian, I am probably as qualified as anyone to undertake an analysis of the incident.

Most media treatments have molded the story into a standard good-guys-vs.-bad-guys formula, which can take two possible forms:

1) Brave, hip, smart, artsy young women find a provocative way to make their protest heard against a corrupt, authoritarian regime – and the church leaders in cahoots with it – who respond by subjecting the young activists to a show trial in a kangaroo court on trumped-up charges.

2) Russian officials employ the only legal means at their disposal to respond to the offended Orthodox piety and national pride of ordinary Russians, who were shocked and outraged at the abuse of Moscow’s main cathedral by provocatively clad, obscenity-spewing, self-promoting “performance artists” dedicated to undermining traditional values and institutions in the name of individualism, secularism, feminism, sexual freedom, and “the revolution”.

These two narratives, between them, convey most of the facts of the story, along with large helpings of the sort of wishful thinking that insists on seeing the enemies of one’s enemies as good guys in white hats. But, for an American conservative who believes in things like rule of law, freedom of expression (including religious expression), and traditional values, the current situation in Russia is not producing anyone we might consider a good guy in a comprehensive sense. But I think it is clear that, in this instance, one side is more wrong than the other.

Punk Prayer: A Tale of Two Cathedrals

On February 21, members and friends of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot entered Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow at a time when the cathedral was open to visitors but no services were taking place and few people were present. The band members crossed a rail restricting access to the area in front of the iconostasis, ascended the steps to the solea, donned their trademark balaclavas, and began an a capalla performance of their punk prayer, “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away”, with choreographed punches, kicks, and prostrations. Almost immediately, church staffers sprang into action, harassing the cameraman and converging on the four performers on the solea to disrupt the performance and escort them away. The performance lasted just 41 seconds.

The subsequent video also incorporated footage from a louder, more elaborate performance shot two days earlier at Moscow’s Elokhovsky Theophany Cathedral. The scenes in the video that show the girls playing guitars in a candlelit church come from this earlier performance.

The two cathedrals have contrasting histories. Elokhovsky Cathedral was the largest church in Moscow to survive the Soviet era, and it served as the patriarch’s cathedral during those years. Christ the Savior Cathedral, the tallest Orthodox Church in the world, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s. It has the peculiar status of being owned by the city of Moscow, not by the Orthodox Church.

How many members of PR participated in the two performances? Press accounts say five PR members were involved at Christ the Savior Cathedral, though only four appeared in the video and only three were arrested. The Moscow Times reported on August 26 that the band had announced via Twitter that the other two participants had successfully fled Russia after Interfax reported the previous week that the police were still looking for them. Five band members appeared in the scenes from Elokhovsky Cathedral, all of whom were dressed differently than the ones at Christ the Savior. While these appear to be five different members, they could be the same five girls in different costumes. Wikipedia reports that the band consists of approximately 12 members.

One might wonder how the cathedral staff could have reacted so quickly to the band’s intrusion. A year earlier, in response to an interviewer’s question about the cathedral’s staff, the senior priest of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior said, “A great many people have come and gone through the Cathedral. Only those who remain dedicated to the Cathedral and their work, because our work is not easy, especially for those who stand by the candle holders or work in the icon shop. People come to the Cathedral not only to pray, but to provoke others, there are disgruntled people, too. One needs to possess tact, patience, Christian love, knowledge.


Some early press descriptions stated that the performance at Christ the Savior took place “on the altar”. It appears that some reporters simply parroted what they were told without understanding what this phrase means – otherwise, one might expect that they would have translated the phrase into standard English and/or critiqued the truthfulness of the statement. While most English-speaking Christians hearing that phrase would imagine the girls dancing on top of the altar table, some Orthodox say “on the altar” where Catholics (and other Orthodox) would say “in the sanctuary”. (The latter phrase has its own problems, however, since many American Protestants have expanded the term “sanctuary” to encompass the entire church, including the nave. Therefore, Orthodox who are more familiar with Protestant than with Catholic usage of “sanctuary” tend to avoid the term.) In any case, the PR members were clearly performing on the solea, not in the altar/sanctuary. In the video one can clearly see the holy doors of the iconostasis behind them, securely closed. There was no intrusion into the sanctuary. Talk of “desecration” was even less apt than of dancing “on the altar”. I would surmise that both of these descriptions were perpetrated by opponents of PR seeking to magnify the shock of what the girls had done.

I have no doubt that the shock was sincere, at least on the part of that minority of Russians who are devout Orthodox Christians. (Many Orthodox Russians are not so devout: only 10% of those who identify themselves as Orthodox actually attend church services, and 30% do not even believe in God.) The image of Christ the Savior Cathedral is familiar to all the Orthodox of Russia – even ones who have never personally set foot in the cathedral – because it has been the venue for major events in the life of the church and the nation, such as the funeral of Patriarch Alexy II and the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill, which were broadcast nationally. To see the same site used in a profane way might have caused cognitive dissonance. But, of course, that was just what the band intended. It could not have achieved its purpose without that kind of shock.

While PR’s protest would have been shocking to any devout Russian Orthodox worshiper, one should understand that most devout Russian Orthodox worshipers are alert for opportunities to take offense against any behavior deemed “disrespectful” – a term that encompasses just about anything contrary to Russian custom as interpreted by its local, usually self-appointed, enforcers. In liturgics class I was warned that, when visiting a Russian church, if I so much as put my hands in my pockets or clasped my hands behind my back (both considered by Russians to be disrespectful stances) I could expect to be smacked without warning by a babushka.

I have also seen assertions that the girls’ mere attire was shocking and offensive. This claim should be taken with a shaker of salt. Their bright, colorful costumes might have been politically provocative, but they were not indecent. In fact, they were among the more modestly dressed 20-something women I have seen in a Russian church. Legalistic Russians are very insistent that women wear headcoverings and dresses or skirts in church (pants are considered disrespectful). It is not unusual to see young women at Russian churches in the U.S. wearing headscarves the size of a small table cloth along with tight mini-skirts, completely oblivious to the irony of their ensembles. The young ladies in the video, wearing dresses, tights, and balaclavas, were in compliance with the letter of the rule, and not much skin was showing, apart from their arms.

State and Church in Putin’s Russia

Like a black hole, President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin warps the space of the Russian galaxy, bringing everything into orbit around himself. As the only decider of consequence in today’s Russia, Putin himself has become the main issue in every arena. Everyone who has previously presented a serious threat to Putin’s siloviki regime is either dead, behind bars, or in exile. So it should come as no surprise that the Orthodox Church has opted against speaking truth to power and instead cozied up to the regime. This accommodation comes easily to a church long accustomed to the privileged yet compromised status of being the de facto Established Church of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. Among the benefits of the Orthodox Church’s ties to the Kremlin are funds for the repair of churches and privileged access to the means of communication and education. The Church has successfully used its political clout to lobby for restrictions on abortion and prohibition of pro-homosexual propaganda.

Putin, for his part, has at times been rumored to be a practicing Orthodox Christian who makes his confession and receives communion regularly. (His spiritual advisor is reportedly Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery.) While the rumors are credible, they are also intermittent and inconsistent, leaving an impression that Putin’s Christian practice is likewise.

Furthermore, Putin has a reputation as a supporter of traditional values and traditional religions. Such stances are popular with the same segments of Russian society who are likely to support Putin anyway. With Putin’s support waning elsewhere, he is now relying even more on his Orthodox nationalist allies. This allows him to strike a popular pose of virtue while depicting his political opponents as advocates of decadent Western liberalism, which can be assumed to include consumer culture, gay rights, and American hegemony.

Yet Putin and his cronies govern Russia like a crime syndicate, controlling markets, collecting protection payments, and murdering or jailing anyone who gets in the way. Putin is Orthodox like Don Corleone was Catholic: He is a devout Christian when it is convenient and when it helps to promote his image of “respectability”, but he doesn’t let it interfere with “business”.

On February 8, 2012, less than a month before the presidential election, Putin met with a number of religious leaders at Danilov Monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. Besides Patriarch Kirill and other Orthodox bishops, the meeting was attended by Jewish leaders, including Russia’s chief rabbi, four Islamic muftis, a Buddhist lama, an Armenian bishop, and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches, who all sang Putin’s praises. Describing Putin’s previous two terms as president, Kirill said, “Through a miracle of God, with the active participation of the country’s leadership, we managed to exit this horrible, systemic crisis. I should say it openly as a patriarch who must only tell the truth, not paying attention to the political situation or propaganda, you personally played a massive role in correcting this crooked twist of our history.” Kirill went on to criticize those who had protested against Putin the previous weekend. He was joined in his praise of Putin by the chief rabbi and the muftis. The resulting picture was one of a neo-symphonia between the religious establishment and the political establishment – doubtless just as Putin intended.

Agent Mikhailov

Much has been made of Patriarch Kirill’s KGB connections, sometimes even describing him as a colleague of Putin’s from the old days. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the Orthodox Church’s relationship with the KGB. An important brief in the KGB’s portfolio was the control of religion, which it accomplished by various means, including infiltration, intimidation, manipulation of weak religious officials, and controlling the selection and promotion of religious leaders. Back in the Soviet days, 90% of the Orthodox bishops reported to KGB handlers. The other 10% did not get promoted. So it is safe to say that any archbishop, metropolitan, or patriarch – or anyone on track to ascend to those offices – was cooperating with the KGB. There can be little doubt that Kirill, who was promoted to archbishop at age 30, was reporting to someone from the KGB.

That is not, however, the same as being an officer of the KGB. The Soviet state had various ways of eliciting cooperation from those who were weak or ambitious – that is, just about everyone – and the clergy were not immune. Therefore, to depict Kirill (or his immediate predecessor, Patriarch Alexy II) as if he were an undercover officer of the KGB working full-time as a church spy is incorrect. He was an ambitious young man doing what it took to have a successful career in the Russian Church at that time.

The Church’s very election of Kirill as patriarch in 2009 has been plausibly depicted as a show of backbone. It was well known that Putin would have preferred the more malleable Metropolitan Kliment to the strong-willed Kirill, despite Kirill’s agreement with Putin on most issues of consequence. Putin prefers obedient puppets to competent colleagues. (Aside: This points to a major weakness of Putinist political economy. With Russia functioning essentially as a unified conglomerate, its ability to function is constrained by the scope of control of the chief executive, who is not one for delegation. If you’ve read Ronald Coase’s seminal article, “The Nature of the Firm,” this will be clear.)

Prank Rock

The band Pussy Riot is an offshoot of the larger protest-art collective known as Voina (“War”), whose actions have ranged from symbolic pranks and unannounced public performances to vandalism, particularly targeting the police and the courts. With anarchist tendencies, the group’s members have eschewed traditional paying jobs, preferring to live by begging and stealing. Some of Voina’s more notorious performances have involved public sex. In 2009 the group underwent a schism. The remnants of the original Voina continue to operate underground in St. Petersburg, while a new faction operates in Moscow. Pussy Riot began as a project of the Moscow faction of Voina.

Pussy Riot is the band’s actual name – two English words written in Latin characters. Even in a Russian-language context, the band’s name is always written this way. I think we can tentatively draw some inferences from this. The name is an explicit reference to the American punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, which PR claims as an inspiration. It also incorporates the band’s recurring theme of liberation from conventional sexual morality. But most Russians would not be aware of this – nor could they even understand the name without help. One Russian woman who thought she had figured out the scandalous nature of the name reported, assuming the air of an enlightened person sharing secret knowledge, “I know what it means. I looked it up. It means pus.” One can only imagine the cluelessness of the masses who did not look it up. (The name has been translated into Russian as a phrase that means “uprising of the vagina”, which is too literal and formal to capture the connotations of the name.) I think the choice of English slang for their name suggests that PR was not looking for its audience among the Russian masses, but among the English-speaking urban intelligentsia, and perhaps among foreigners, especially Americans. They might also have surmised that their band’s name would be frequently abbreviated in the English-language media and considered PR an apt alternative name for the band, given their hunger for media attention.

The band’s leaders are leftist/anarchist intellectuals drawing on a number of threads of Russian intellectual tradition. Besides various such traditions cited in the band members’ closing statements, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova compared her group to more popular Russian traditions: “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even holy fools. We didn’t mean any harm.” The skomorokhi were traveling minstrels of medieval Russia with a reputation for unruliness.

The recurring themes of the band’s lyrics are opposition to Putinist authoritarianism and promotion of feminism. But the band’s larger agenda is more scary: “freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system”, as described by Russia analyst Vadim Nikitin. This is, more or less, the agenda we conservatives fear is being imposed by stealth in the U.S. by the Obama administration. Is there any reason, then, for a conservative American Christian, to support Pussy Riot against Putin?


Nikitin asserts, “Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics. Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism.”

I could not disagree more. It is precisely because PR is “blameless” (more or less) and the government “clearly guilty” that any honest person who believes in the rule of law must side with PR in their current circumstances, even while opposing them in most of their other provocations and in their broader agenda. (John O’Sullivan arrived at a similar conclusion in his NRO reflection.)

While the band should perhaps have been prosecuted and fined for trespassing in the cathedrals – and in numerous previous events – neither the church nor the government showed much concern for the band’s impious acts until the resulting video went viral, embarrassing both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin. The motivation for the girls’ imprisonment and prosecution was clearly that they had finally drawn blood in their ongoing propaganda war against the regime. The formal charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” was transparently trumped up, not corresponding in any way to the evidence in the case. The resulting show trial was a procedural travesty. These flagrant violations of truth and justice were intended to convey the message that the regime stands above the law. The regime cannot accept a single loss of face because it fears the consequences of any cracks in its fa├žade of absolute power.

The Russian Orthodox Church has often permitted itself to be used for political and nationalistic purposes. (The same could be said of most other national churches.) When a church lowers itself in such a way, it loses its claim to stand above criticism. It can no longer play the role of neutral arbiter, having become a tool of one faction or ideology. Kirill’s de facto endorsement of Putin opened the Church to legitimate attack.

Even without that endorsement, Christ the Savior Cathedral was in a questionable position. It is the property of the Moscow government, which operates business ventures on the premises. Moreover, the cathedral has frequently been abused by Putin as a backdrop for his political theater – the setting where he demonstrates his support for the Orthodox Church and vice versa, reinforcing the image of a monolithic holy Russian power structure – an implicit assertion of a neo-symphonia, with Putin in the role of emperor.

Pussy Riot’s performance art parodied Putin’s abuse of the cathedral and attempted to reclaim that venue from the regime. If Putin can no longer put on his political show at the cathedral without evoking images of PR’s “concert”, he will have lost his ownership of that setting, and PR will have succeeded in cleansing the temple.

I think our Lord’s harassment of the moneychangers might reasonably be characterized as an episode of performance art. And I suspect that the Sadducees might have categorized his performance as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The Moscow Patriarchate is now playing the Sadducee role to Putin’s Pontius Pilate, and I as a Christian cannot stand with it in this compromised position.


Michael Fraley said...

I love the quote from the senior priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral. So apt, not only to those within the walls, but also without. The full interview is worth reading as well. Thank you.

Arimathean said...

I just came across this RFE/RL article from ten years ago, which provides some context, as well as Russian popular reactions to the Pussy Riot event: