Pussy Riot and the Church

Church, Pop Culture

Last week the Khamovnicheskiy district court in Moscow announced its decision on the Pussy Riot case – two years of prison for the three accused, i.e. a year less compared to what the state prosecutor had asked for. Three members of the feminist punk collective Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested in March earlier this year, and were held under arrest for five months of the investigation period – a court decision vehemently criticized by the supporters of the Pussy Riot, as well as by the professionals who underline the necessity to adhere to reasonable rules of judicial process.

The alleged crime of Pussy Riot took place on February 21, in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow. On that day Pussy Riot attempted to perform a prayer in a form of a punk song in what is conventionally called the main Russian Orthodox cathedral (despite its legal belonging to the Mayor’s office, not the Moscow Patriarchate) while being dressed in colorful dresses and stockings, with their faces covered. They were escorted out of the cathedral by the security less then two minutes after they began to sing. These details are important, as the girls were essentially accused of inciting religious hatred, violating the centuries-long Russian Orthodox traditions, and offending the feelings of the believers to an extent that they suffered shock so deep it made them incapable of work – all by inappropriate appearance and behavior in the sacred space of a church.

The prosecution has built its case on the premise that the chief motive of the performance was hatred towards Orthodox Christianity and the community of believers. Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich repeatedly denied it, and maintained throughout that they were guided by the desperate wish to attract the Russian Church’s attention to its problems: too close symbiosis with state power, too active involvement in political life and party politics, and general lack of ‘Christian spirit’ in its hierarchy. The prosecution presented the case as an instance of religious hatred, and the judge readily accepted this interpretation. Thus leaving out the political message, so clearly contained in the lines of the punk-prayer “Mother of God, drive Putin away”. The accused and their lawyers were outraged by this purposeful blindness, but the girls nevertheless apologized to all Christians who felt that their faith has been offended.

Ever since the arrest, which was widely publicized in media, Russian public opinion has been divided over what has actually happened, whether and how it should be punished, and what does it mean for Russia. There are way too many things that are wrong about this story to enumerate them all here. Sadly, some of them come as no surprise to people in Russia – lack of justice, absence of independent judiciary, and incredible political power of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch – these issues have been on the agenda for years. Potential consequences of the whole affair for the Russian society are many, and they don’t look good: further division of society which is already polarized more than it has ever been in the past decade, rise of radical anti-Church feelings, and as a response further movement of the Church towards the safety of state protection, and flirting with Russian nationalism. We may hope though that the performance of these young and radical punk feminists has not just opened the Pandora’s box, but will also lead to a profound discussion inside the Russian Church, and in the general public about the role and place of the Church and religion in contemporary life, and are the ways to reform the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Dr. Maria Falina is a post-doctoral fellow at the History Department, Central European University, Budapest. She has previously taught in Budapest and Moscow. Her fields of academic interest include modern and contemporary East European history, intellectual history, religious studies and nationalism. She has published on clerical fascism, nationalization of religion in the Balkans, and political dimensions of East Orthodox Christianity. Her current research project focuses on the comparative history of religious communities in Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century. She is also a member of the research project “Negotiating Modernity: History of Modern Political Thought in East-Central Europe” funded by ERC.

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