For God and Putin

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

After years of repression under Communist rule, the Orthodox Church is back at the heart of Russian politics.

"The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere," says Ivan Ostrakovsky, the leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who have taken to patrolling the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses. "We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology," he tells me. "The police can't cope with the attacks ... crosses have been chopped down, there's been graffiti on church walls."

There is something of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Ostrakovsky's fervor. Like the disgruntled main character of Scorsese's epic film Taxi Driver, the vigilante sees himself in a fight against cultural degradation. "When I came back from serving in the Chechen War, I found my country full of dirt," he says. "Prostitution, drugs, Satanists. But now, religion is on the rise."

A few years ago, Ostrakovsky and his vigilantes seemed like marginal curiosities in Russia, burning copies of the Harry Potter books in protest of "witchcraft." But as Vladimir Putin's third presidential term comes into focus, the cross-wearing thugs are now right in line with the ideology emanating from the Kremlin--and from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. After near extermination under Communist rule, the church and religion are back at the heart of the country's politics. And they have been critical in helping Putin recast the liberal opposition's fight against state corruption and alleged electoral fraud into a script of "foreign devils" versus "Holy Russia."

Since Putin's reelection, a parade of priests have been loudly denouncing forces aligned against the president. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, took to TV to say that "liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse." On another occasion, he called Putin's rule "a miracle." And Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov has warned in a media interview that "one needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan."

The recent Pussy Riot trial, in which three female activists were given two-year sentences for performing a "blasphemous" punk prayer in Moscow's central cathedral--which asked the "mother of God to rid Russia of Putin"--has been a godsend for the Kremlin as it seeks to whip up nationalist fervor. The sentence was condemned in the West, with everyone from human-rights groups to Paul McCartney and Madonna supporting the "Pussies." But inside the country, it has been used by the radical right to reinforce the idea of a Russia under attack. "The puppets are having their strings pulled," wrote the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, speculating the Pussies were following U.S. orders and that the U.S. State Department's support of LGBT rights was a ruse to undermine Russia's spiritual foundations. Russia's foreign ministry went so far as to say that Western criticism of the Pussy Riot trial was evidence that Russia espouses "Christian values" forgotten in the "postmodern West."

"People are wrong when they think Christ said 'forgive everybody,'?" declared Mikhail Leontiev, Russia's premier political TV personality, speaking on the trial during his primetime show. "You have no right to forgive enemies of the Fatherland and enemies of God." When Alexander Bosykh, a religious-nationalist aide to the deputy P.M., was photographed punching a female Pussy Riot protester, he responded: "You only turn the other cheek to people you know. I don't know her so I hit her."

In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, a recent incident captured the darkening mood. A gang of men with shaved heads kicked and punched a demonstrator who was protesting the Pussy Riot sentence. When detained by the police, the men trotted out the national-religious rhetoric: "He insulted our sacred, holy things," the men said. "We work out together at the gym . …