The ongoing trial of Russia’s feminist/punk provocateurs Pussy Riot is now approaching its denouement.
The three women face the prospect of seven years imprisonment for engaging in ‘hooliganism’ and having ‘ insulted in a sacrilegious manner the centuries-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church’. These charges stem from the ‘punk performance’ in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral on 21 February, where they sang and danced in their trademark ‘superhero’ balaclavas on the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and ‘throw Putin out.’
To say that Pussy Riot were pushing the boundaries with this performance would be something of an understatement, and there are few – if any countries – where such activity would not lead to arrest – or worse.
But the severity of the state’s response is the latest in a series of episodes in which vague and overarching notions of ‘extremism’ have been used by the KGB/Mafia state of would-be president-for-life Vladimir Putin as a justification for exemplary acts of cultural and political repression.
This authoritarian drift has frequently had a religious component that is on the surface surprising, coming from a former KGB functionary. In 2002 the Russian government enacted a law ‘On Combating Extremist Activity,’ which followed the broad template of post 9/11 antiterrorism legislation introduced by Western governments in enabling the state to take action against groups and individuals engaged in action deemed prejudicial to state security.
The new law was not only concerned with combating ‘terrorism’, however; it also included a broad array of offenses that included ‘the humiliation of national dignity; inciting racial, ethnic or religious discord, as well as social discord, connected with violence or appeals to violence.’
In practice this legislation has been used against members of Russia’s pagan Mari people, against Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchist anti-fascists, and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which was closed down in 2006 after its director was found guilty of inciting racial and ethnic enmity.
Charges of ‘extremism’ have also been leveled at artists and cultural activists who have focused on religion in their work, including a number of artists who have used imagery relating to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2010, Andrei Efofeev and Yuri Samodoruv, the curator and director of Moscow;s Sakharov Institute, were given hefty fines for ‘debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred’ after holding an exhibition of ‘Forbidden Art’ works that included images like these:
Samodoruv had previously been convicted for staging an exhibition in 2003 entitled ‘Caution! Religion!’ which contained this image:
This iconography was certainly provocative and even offensive. But the state’s punitive response to such activity owes more to Putin’s new determination to use Russian Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism than to any concern with the religious sensibilities of devout Russians.
On 8 Feb, in the midst of his re-election, Putin visited St Daniel Monastery in Moscow, where Patriach Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church described his time in office as a ‘godly miracle’ that had saved Russia from the economic disasters of the 1990s. In return Putin called for a revisiting of the ‘primitive notion of a separation between church and state’ and pledged $120 million towards the construction of Orthodox Churches.
Pussy Riot challenged this new relationship in a performance that simultaneously criticized the patriarchy of the Church, the authoritarianism of Putin himself, while appealing to the Virgin in her traditional role as the protector of Russia to get rid of Putin.
One of the defendants, 21-year-old Nadehzda Tolokonnikova, has expressed regret at what she calls an ‘ethical error’ in offending the sensibilities of churchgoers. She nevertheless insists that the group’s ‘punk performance’ was intended to highlight the public support given to Putin’s authoritarian and antifeminist course’ by Patriarch Kirill, declaring that
‘We, like many of our compatriots, find unpleasant the insidiousness, deceit, venality, hypocrisy, acquisitiveness and lawlessness with which our current leadership and authorities are sinning.’
Putin has publicly called for the court to show leniency towards the three defendants – something that may owe more to a strategic desire to cultivate a certain public image internationally than to a commitment to freedom of expression.
But leniency is definitely required. For Pussy Riot may have been offensive and provocative, but their intentions were serious and even noble, and they should not become exemplary scapegoats in the dark alliance between the former KGB man and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Nor is the new post-Soviet political role of the Russian Orthodox Church limited to Putin and the state itself. Russian Orthodoxy has also begun to reprise its older pre-Soviet role as a bastion of reaction and Russian chauvinism, with links to far-right extremists and ultra-nationalists such as Aleksandr Dugin, leader of the International Eurasian Movement – a self-professed admirer of the Nazi luminaries such as SS-Obergruppenführer (General)Reinhard Heydrich, and host of a tv programme broadcast by the Russian Orthodox cable channel.
The far-right is a rising and dangerous political force in Russia, fuelled by a mixture of of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Nazism, anti-Muslim sentiment- and a strong dose of Russian chauvinism with the Church as the symbolic core of the Russian nation.
These were the forces that Pussy Riot attacked with the recklessness and audacity of youth.
We need more superheroes like them.
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