In graphic lyrics, the punk rock performers named Russia’s Patriarch Kirill as an extoller and defender of unlawful actions of the existing government. Video footage of the “punk prayer” quickly went viral, fully occupying social networks and media in a matter of days. Millions of people on the Internet heard and saw the feminist punk rock group staging musical protests against the current Russian leadership. Earlier, in January, the group had staged yet another protest in front of the Kremlin on Red Square. They dedicated a punk-hymn to Vladimir Putin, graphically mocking what they imagined his scared reaction was to the mass protests. Their Red Square performance briefly landed group members in police custody. After questioning, most got off with administrative fines.
The girls might have escaped a long-term sentence that first time in January, but their performance in Moscow’s cathedral in February may well extract a higher price. In early March, Russian law enforcers arrested two of them – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. Charged with hooliganism, they face up to seven years imprisonment. Later that same month, a third member of the group – Yekaterina Samutsevich – was also arrested on the same charges.Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the Head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for Church and Society, hailed the arrests. The cleric also appealed to the government to toughen punishment for the punk performers’ offense of religious sentiments: “We cannot and will not live in a state where such acts are possible. We are talking here about deeds that could seriously inflame the situation in our country. We need to make this a criminal matter.” Vladimir Putin’s spokesman condemned the band’s action and supported the idea of their criminal prosecution. A draft law that would increase the sentence for blasphemy up to fifteen years imprisonment was promptly proposed to the Duma.
Human rights watchdogs declared court proceedings against the punk rock singers to be politically motivated – aimed at silencing the popular anti-government musical band, not at protecting religious sentiments. The singers, arrested on the eve of the presidential elections, declared themselves to be the ruling regime’s latest political prisoners. Ironically, the Russian Orthodox Church declared that same day as a “forgiveness” day before the start of the Great Fast.
After their arrest, Pussy Riot garnered support from around the word, even among Christian Orthodox believers. Petitions were drawn up and signed by thousands of supporters. One Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, spoke publicly against prosecution of band members. He proclaimed the real threat to be Putin, not the punk rock band, whose action he labeled as “idiotic.” Protesters organized an opposition rally in support of Pussy Riot and carried placards bearing such inscriptions as “Pussy vs. Putin” and “Pussy Riot for the Eurovision,” among other slogans.
The Patriarchate of Russia refused to back off its demands that the girls be prosecuted, but it toned down its rhetoric and advanced a historically familiar argument. Several hierarchs of the Russian Patriarchate announced that the Church had already absolved the girls, yet could not meddle in the investigation because the Church and the state are separate. That argument is chillingly reminiscent of the Latin phrase debita animadversione puniendum – “to be duly punished” – used by the Holy Inquisition when it surrendered each “heretic” to secular judgment after exhausting every effort to bring the sinner back into the bosom of the Church. With that phrase, the Inquisition absolved itself of any direct responsibility for the harsh punishment subsequently meted out by the government. That is exactly how the Russian Patriarchate tried to wash its hands of this case.
However, many among the clergy and congregation are speaking out in disagreement with the official Patriarchate position. One of them is Andrei Kuraev, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy and a popular missionary who has regularly denounced calls for violence by aggressive believers. Deacon Kuraev condemned the band’s actions, but also said: “If I were one of the guards of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, I would have treated the girls with pancakes and tea first and then called them for repentance.” The Metropolitan Agafangel – after watching TV debates between Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and news anchor Kseniya Sobchak, in which the former justified the arrest of Pussy Riot members – observed that “Kseniya Sobchak is closer to the Christ than Father Vsevolod.”The issue of blasphemy was quite a hot issue two years ago in Georgia as well. No one intruded at that time into the Georgian religious sphere, yet the Georgian Patriarchate as ardently demanded then as the Russian Patriarchate is demanding now that offense of religious feelings be prohibited. It is noteworthy that, although fully merged with the state system, the Russian Orthodox Church displays more pluralism than the Georgian Patriarchate. Two years ago, when Orthodox fundamentalists threatened Erekle Deisadze – the young author of a book entitled “Saidumlo Siroba” (a Georgian wordplay on the Last Supper widely translated into English as “Holy Crap”) – none of the clergy stepped in with any official statement in defense of him. In Russia, however, a segment of Orthodox Christian believers started drawing up petitions for the release of Pussy Riot members.
A ban on blasphemy is still high on the agenda of the Georgian Patriarchate: “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man.” Such demands produce absurd results. It is clear that believers venerate relics and are offended by those who treat them disrespectfully. Yet, if such a law were adopted in Georgia, it would have to apply to any confession. For example, what if there were a Church of Flying Spaghetti that declared eating spaghetti in public places was an offense of its religious followers? No matter how absurd that demand may sound, no state or any army of theologists has ever devised a democratic test capable of measuring what constitutes an offense of religious beliefs. How then to punish “blasphemy” against a Christian who sees a caricature of the Holy Mother or a follower of the Church of Flying Spaghetti who comes across people eating huge bowls of pasta in a pizzeria? That point was made by Deacon Andrei Kuraev in connection with toughening the Russian blasphemy law: “Just imagine a person who after the adoption of that law will say ‘I declare my aunt a goddess and savior of mankind and therefore, whoever, Aunt forbid, leers at her, he/she will deliver me a deadly offense and will be a blasphemer’!”
There is another, no less important issue here as well. When a state is given power to accuse its citizens of offending others on the ground of blasphemy, there is always the risk that it will abuse that lever for its own political purposes. Russia is a prime example of a state with a strong inclination to apply such laws to silence critics of the state.
In addition to the legal aspect, there is also the moral mission of the Church. If the Church strives to “catch men,” which means taking responsibility for saving and converting sinners, how can it hope to achieve that result by preaching aggressive rhetoric devoid of any love for humanity? When the Church demonizes people, even those who engage in offensive behavior, it relinquishes its role as humanity’s chance for salvation. Such intolerance runs counter to the preaching of Christ and is anathema to the Church’s professed role in society. Instead, the Church’s intolerance contributes to the creation of secular saints and further deepens negative sentiments toward the Church. That is what is happening now in Russia.
In support of Pussy Riot, “icons” have already been created. Displayed on light-boxes in Moscow streets, these new icons depict a woman with aureole holding a newborn girl in her hands. That crude caricature of the Holy Mother and infant Jesus bears the inscription “Freedom to Pussy Riot.” Had it not been for the aggressive reaction of the Russian Church to the feminist band’s performance, this story would likely have already played itself out. Instead, the Church has managed to prolong the offense to many more believers. The Church would have been wiser to heed Deacon Andrei Kuraev’s suggestion to serve the girls pancakes and tea rather than secular sainthood.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 92, published 19 March 2012.