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Pussy Riot: what the Church really said – and what others made of it

By Blog Admin, on 9 November 2012

The Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the Pussy Riot case has been more complex than many realise, argues Katja Richters

Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow - Denis Bochkarev

Pussy Riot on Red Square Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia

Since the beginning of the year, much has been said and written about the members of Pussy Riot who were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after having performed a so-called punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. Their trial was generally seen as politically motivated and Amnesty International declared the accused prisoners of conscience. In August 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but Samutsevich’s prison term was later suspended upon appeal.

 As their ‘crime’ was committed inside one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most high-profile cathedrals the Church and its official representatives were dragged into the debate. Questions about the Orthodox hierarchy’s take on the matter and its relationship with the state were widely discussed in both Russian and international media. They were reinforced by the indictment and the verdict which highlighted the damage that the punk prayer had allegedly caused amongst the Orthodox.

 One line of reporting suggested that the Church had adopted a very strict attitude towards the incident. Given the obviously offensive and arguably blasphemous lyrics contained in the punk prayer, these reports are quite credible. But they only tell half of the story. In fact, it was mainly one cleric, the Church’s head of the Department for Relations with Society, Vsevolod Chaplin, who took a particularly tough approach to the case.

 It was he who lobbied for those who took part in the performance to be jailed and called for criminal rather than administrative charges against the three women. The New York Times quoted him as saying that the punk prayer should be classified as “extremist,” which, according to Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code carry an even harsher sentence than the type of hooliganism for which the band was eventually convicted.

 In contrast to this, however, the well-known Russian Orthodox publicist and Professor of Theology at the Moscow Spiritual Academy and Seminary, Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev said that the Church should treat the punk prayer as a joke. In his LiveJournal blog, he wrote that maslenitsa [carnival] was ‘a time of buffoonery’ and explained that acts like it would have been considered normal during Peter the Great’s reign.  Elsewhere, he spoke out against the charges and recommended that a cleric should have invited the performers for pancakes and mead, as is customary during maslenitsa. They should subsequently have been asked to repent in the Cathedral on the Day of Forgiveness, said Kuraev. The Day of Forgiveness marks the end of the carnival season and precedes the beginning of the Great Lent,  40 days before Easter. Kuraev thus took a position diametrically opposed to the hardline stance of Vsevolod Chaplin.

 In addition to this, the head of the Church’s Information Department, Vladimir Legoida, published a number of comments regarding the Pussy Riot trial on the Church’s official website. He underlined that although the Orthodox establishment was offended by the punk prayer, it intended to take an absolutely neutral approach to the hooliganism trial. But he also mentioned that he personally did not think that the three women should be held in custody and that the Church would probably lobby for a reduction in sentence if the court delivered a particularly strict verdict. His words can be understood as an indirect call for their release and for the judge to consider a suspended sentence. This shows that it is virtually impossible for the Church to remain absolutely neutral on this issue due to its status as one of the injured parties.

 This official reluctance to become more actively involved in the lawsuit combined with the very different opinions of Chaplin and Kuraev presented a confusing and contradictory image to the public. It is therefore not surprising that the media portrayal of the Church’s stance was somewhat imprecise. What’s more, this lack of clarity created a vacuum which the court – under pressure from the Kremlin – tapped into. At the trial the Church and the Russian Orthodox community were consequently presented as victims which the state needed to protect.

 Interestingly, only the defence drew attention to the political connotations of Pussy Riot’s actions in the Cathedral, but this line of argument was rejected by the presiding judge. This, together with the indictment and the final verdict, created the impression that the court was more concerned with the punk prayer’s religious implications than its political ones and that breaching Orthodox norms constitutes a criminal offence. But this is not the case. As Russia’s 1993 constitution stipulates in Article 14 it is a secular country meaning that the state does not and should not enforce religious rules.

 It was, however, in the court’s and the Kremlin’s interest to put a religious spin on the case as it allowed them to present themselves as defenders of the Orthodox community, which according to some estimates amounts to 80% of the Russian population. This must have helped divert public attention from the political motive at the root of the Pussy Riot trial: reining in part of the growing opposition movement. So, in this instance, the secular authorities have used the Church for their own purposes. But this does not mean that this is the norm in post-Soviet Russia. In fact, I would argue that this blatant use of the Orthodox religion probably surprised the Church itself. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the future relations between the Orthodox hierarchy and the Kremlin.

 Katja Richters is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Erfurt. She completed a PhD on the political culture of the Russia Orthodox Church at SSEES in 2009 and is currently researching the Orthodox churches in post-communist Ukraine and the impact which Patriarch Kirill’s frequent visits to the country have had on them.

 Her book on the Post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church: Politics, Culture and Greater Russia has just been published by Routledge and will be launched at an event at SSEES on 12 November.  The event is free and open to all, including members of the public, and no registration is needed. For further details please contact Seth Graham.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.