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,
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
Paul Vallely is associate editor
of The Independent.