Magazine article Reason

Putin Goes to Church: Russia's Unholy New Alliance between Orthodox and State

Magazine article Reason

Putin Goes to Church: Russia's Unholy New Alliance between Orthodox and State

Article excerpt

THE BIGGEST news story out of Russia in 2012 was not Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in May. It was the trial of three young women from the guerrilla-girl punk band Pussy Riot, charged with "hate-motivated hooliganism" for a protest performance in a Moscow church. The women's offense was a brief song-and-dance act at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, opening with a prayer chant of "Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin." On August 17, after a nonjury trial in which the judge blatantly favored the prosecution, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekatcrina Samutsevich were found guilty and handed two-year prison sentences. In October, two of the women were transported to remote penal colonies.

The prosecution, which was condemned by figures ranging from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Icelandic singer Bjork to Polish former president and dissident Lech Walesa, became an international symbol of the Kremlin's heavy-handed approach to dissent and artistic freedom. Yet at its core, the Pussy Riot case was also about the unholy union of organized religion and authoritarian state in modern-day Russia.

Pussy Riot's protest song was about not just Putin but also the cozy ties between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church under the leadership of the pro-Putin Patriarch Kirill. The indictment against the punk rockers accused them not only of demeaning the beliefs of Orthodox Christians but of "belittl[ing] the spiritual foundations of the state."

The case looked and felt like something out of the Dark Ages. The state-run Rossiya television channel repeatedly referred to the women as "blasphemers," while a co-founder of the semi-official pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi warned that the decline of harsh blasphemy laws throughout Europe had set the continent on a path to destructive liberalism. During the trial, the judge deemed it relevant that the Pussy Rioters had violated rules established by an eighth-century church council. Outside the courtroom, the lawyer for one of the prosecution witnesses told a newspaper, with no trace of humor, that the group's actions stemmed from Satan himself.

Are these developments harbingers of a new Russian theocracy? While some of the religious zealotry underlying the scandal was undoubtedly genuine, the prosecution was mostly a loud display of pretend medievalism--political theater performed by Jesus-loving Stalinists, KGB clerics, and Christian soldiers who dabble in soft porn. As Novaya Gazeta columnist Andrei Kolesnikov has pointed out, religion's true role in contemporary Russia is perhaps best summed up by none other than Karl Marx, who in his 1852 pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte described it as "the domination of the priests as an instrument of government."

'A Land Watched Over By God'

The irony should not be lost on anyone who remembers the extent to which Soviet evildoing was chalked up to godlessness by many in the West, especially Americans. "Communism's attempt to make man stand alone without God" was a central theme of Ronald Reagan's famous "Evil Empire" speech in 1983; three decades earlier, the addition of "under God" to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance was at least partly motivated by a desire to differentiate God-fearing America from the atheistic USSR.

The Soviets certainly earned their godless reputation. In 1918 Soviet Russia became the world's first atheist state, and its rulers launched a ruthless, sustained attack on religion. Thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were killed, and many more were imprisoned. Churches were sacked, converted to warehouses and social clubs, or razed. (The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished in 1931, was the most famous casualty; the present building, the scene of Pussy Riot's crime, is a 1990s reconstruction.) Later, physical violence gave way to an aggressive propaganda war against faith.

The persecution eased after Hitler's 1941 invasion. …

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