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A protest founded on the Gospels

24 August 2012

Pussy Riot has unnerved Church and State, with good cause, says Paul Vallely 

IT seemed cynical of the Russian Orthodox Church to wait until after sentence had been passed to ask for clemency for the protesters from Pussy Riot (News, 10 August; Comment, 3 August). Earlier, Patriarch Kirill had demanded the most severe punishment possible for the women, who had performed a parody prayer in the main cathedral in Moscow, asking the Virgin Mary to drive President Vladimir Putin from their native land.

Pussy Riot is not an English translation. The band has no Russian name. The fact that the women protesters chose an English name - and one that left most of their fellow Russians bewildered - tells you something about the intent of these artistes provocateurs. Nor was their choice of venue a coincidence. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was built to honour those who died defending Russian freedom against Napoleon in 1812. It is a reconstruction of a cathedral that was destroyed during the Soviet persecutions, when churches were routinely desecrated with obscene songs.

Pussy Riot chose the cathedral because the venues for their previous protests - outside a prison and in Red Square - had not created waves. A song near the Kremlin about "Putin who is pissing his pants" brought them only a brief arrest, and no worldwide attention. A punk prayer before the iconostasis, the holiest public place in an Orthodox church, with a chorus of "Holy shit, shit, Lord's shit!", was calculated to outrage.

But, if there is something adolescent about Pussy Riot's scatological language, its message is more profound, as its members' closing statements in court reveal. The corrupt relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Putin state is not news. The Church's head, Patriarch Kirill, a former KGB agent, has called Mr Putin a "miracle from God", and backed his re-election. He pronounced that "Orthodox Christians do not attend [protest] rallies." In return, Mr Putin has made decisions on property and religious schools that benefit the Church. Last year, the Patriarch was granted official residence in the Kremlin, restoring the Church-State intimacy of Imperial Russia.

"Our Church does not consider itself an enemy of the State," a leading Orthodox official, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, said recently. "The Western idea that the State and the Church should be slight rivals and slight enemies is both bizarre and incorrect from an Orthodox point of view." This does little, however, to address reservations about the material venality of the Patriarch, with his $30,000 Breguet watch and his recent lawsuit claiming that dust from a neighbour's building work had done 20 million roubles-worth of damage to his grand flat.

Both sides have used the Church to add legitimacy to the Putin state. All three women cited the Gospels to criticise this. Pussy Riot was trying, Yekaterina Samutsevich said, to "unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia." Christianity is about a search for truth "and a constant overcoming of . . . what you were earlier," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said. Among Orthodox leaders, Marya Alyokhina lamented, "the Gospels are no longer understood as revelation," but as a collection of quotations that can be manipulated for their own purposes.

Such statements may not have been as shocking as the yurodstvo, the holy foolishness, of their violent song. But they may explain why, as the trial progressed, there was a distinct softening in attitude to the women in Russian public-opinion polls - and why both Church and State have been so unnerved.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.


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