March 29, 2012

Putin, Punk Rock and Russian Orthodoxy

Leonid Bershidsky
March 28, 2012

It took slightly more than a month for Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to react to the “punk service” held on Feb. 21 in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior by a group calling itself Pussy Riot.

Members of the radical feminist band choose all sorts of unlikely locations to play shrill protest songs with a hardcore punk sound: A subway station, a posh boutique, Red Square, the roof of a detention center. The performances are filmed, edited, overlaid with a studio-recorded soundtrack and published on YouTube.

This time they arguably went too far. In the majestic cathedral where the Patriarch himself holds services on major holidays, several young women got into the ambo area where only priests are allowed. Wearing their trademark brightly-colored balaclavas and tights, they danced, genuflected, crossed themselves and chanted: “Virgin Mary, please chase away Putin.” Two of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were detained after the performance and faced charges of “group hooliganism,” carrying a possible sentence of two to seven years in prison.

The church's immediate reaction was in the spirit of Christian charity. “Had I been the senior priest of that church, I would have fed them some pancakes and invited them to come back for a prayer of repentance,” well-known missionary Deacon Andrei Kurayev wrote in his blog. “This is, of course, an outrage, but a legal one during maslenitsa [the Russian Mardi Gras], a time of clowning and playacting.... In the time of Peter the Great foolishness of this kind was the order of things, or rather part of the maslenitsa lack of order.”

Almost immediately, true believers heaped invective on Kurayev. He quoted a letter he received from the head of a Christian foundation saying he would burn in hell with “those bitches.” Father Vsevolod Chaplin, official spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, called on Kurayev to repent.

Orthodox believers and priests filled the social networks with strong words of indignation. Father Vitaly Utkin, a well-known church conservative, cited a 17th century Russian law prescribing the death penalty for sacrilege. Many agreed with him, and others called for the harshest punishment possible under modern law. Vasily Boiko, owner of a milk business and a vast amount of land outside Moscow, offered a reward of 50,000 rubles ($1700) for the name of each participant in the Feb. 21 performance, so he could hand all of them over to the police.

There were other voices, too. Lidia Moniava, head of a Christian charity organization helping hospices, wrote the Patriarch a letter condemning the “punk service” but calling for mercy for Pussy Riot members. “Your Holiness, we ask you to show a Christian attitude and call on the court to close the criminal case,” Moniava wrote. Several thousand people signed her petition.

President-elect Vladimir Putin saw fit to apologize to churchgoers and priests for what Pussy Riot perpetrated. His apology was neutrally worded, but the two detained women remain in jail pending trial despite the fact that they both have small children. A poll of 1633 Russians in 130 cities, taken by the Levada Center in mid-March, showed that 46 percent of those who had heard of the “punk service” believed two to seven years in prison to be a proper punishment for the women. Only 35 percent considered it too harsh.

The Patriarch could have ended the whole affair by calling for clemency, but in a sermon he delivered on March 24, he weighed in on the hardliners' side. “There are those who would justify and minimize this sacrilege, who would try to present it as some kind of funny joke, and it makes me sad, it makes my heart bleed with sorrow that among these people there are those who call themselves orthodox Christians,” he said.

Patriarch Kirill might have had a personal motive in slamming the women in his sermon. Pussy Riot's Feb. 21 “prayer” had a message for him, denouncing the church leadership's close ties to the Kremlin. According to the lyrics the women chanted, Kirill “believes in Putin, though the bastard ought to believe in God.”

Few Russian judges would dare be lenient after the Patriarch's angry sermon. A very recent case involving Kirill shows that the courts have a special regard for him. In an ongoing battle made public by the news site Rosbalt, a Moscow court ordered former health minister, practicing surgeon and Orthodox priest Yuri Shevchenko to pay an astronomical 20 million rubles ($690,000) to the keeper of an apartment owned by Kirill. Shevchenko's transgression, according to the lawsuit: Dust from the renovation of his apartment had drifted upstairs and ruined expensive books, furniture and carpets in the Patriarch's flat, which is located in one of Moscow's most prestigious buildings, the House on the Embankment, across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. By court order, Shevchenko's apartment will be sold unless he pays up.

The Patriarchate has declined to comment on the affair. A spokesman said it was “unethical” to discuss Kirill's private life.

The dust case offers a clear indication of church leaders' true power in Russia. Officially, the constitution denies the church the status of a branch of government, which it enjoyed before the 1917 revolution. In fact, the church is a pillar of the state. Kirill openly backed Putin in the recent election, and the Patriarch's support meant a lot for the winner, who based his strategy on appealing to the most conservative part of Russian society.

To liberals, Kirill, with his taste for expensive watches, cars and other goodies, is another corrupt official of the Putin regime. The Pussy Riot members who remain at liberty have posted a reply to the Patriarch's sermon in their blog, saying that their performance had been a prayer, not a sacrilege: “Like millions of Christians, we are deeply saddened by the fact that you have allowed the church to become the tool of dirty electioneering, calling on believers to vote for a man whose actions are far removed from God's truth.”

It is unlikely that Patriarch Kirill will allow himself to be drawn into a discussion with “blasphemers.” He has spoken, and the two arrested women will now face an uphill battle to avoid a heavy prison sentence for a couple of minutes' prancing in front of a church altar. Putin has won the presidency, and the darker, traditional side of Russia is again ascendant.