Pussy Rioting Russian Orthodoxy

Over at The New Republic, Julia Ioffe reports on the high farce that is the Pussy Riot trial. The indictment is a thing of inquisitorial beauty:

The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.

As Spiegel reports, Putin isn’t simply tamping down on political dissent — he has close ties to the Russian Orthodox establishment and must minister to their sacred sensibilities. Here is the performance in which Pussy Riot punkfully implores the virgin to rescue Mother Russia from Papa Bear Putin:

While some may have their doubts about Pussy Riot’s intent, and the western construction of that intent, this excerpt from Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement should put some of those doubts to rest:

The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia].

Why did Putin feel the need to exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics? After all, he could have employed his own, far more secular tools of power—for example, national corporations, or his menacing police system, or his own obedient judiciary system. It may be that the tough, failed policies of Putin’s government, the incident with the submarine Kursk, the bombings of civilians in broad daylight, and other unpleasant moments in his political career forced him to ponder the fact that it was high time to resign; otherwise, the citizens of Russia would help him do this.

Apparently, it was then that he felt the need for more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm. It was here that the need arose to make use of the aesthetics of the Orthodox religion, historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.

How did he succeed in doing this? After all, we still have a secular state, and shouldn’t any intersection of the religious and political spheres be dealt with severely by our vigilant and critically minded society? Here, apparently, the authorities took advantage of a certain deficit of Orthodox aesthetics in Soviet times, when the Orthodox religion had the aura of a lost history, of something crushed and damaged by the Soviet totalitarian regime, and was thus an opposition culture. The authorities decided to appropriate this historical effect of loss and present their new political project to restore Russia’s lost spiritual values, a project which has little to do with a genuine concern for preservation of Russian Orthodoxy’s history and culture.

It was also fairly logical that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long had a mystical connection with power, emerged as this project’s principal executor in the media. Moreover, it was also agreed that the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike the Soviet era, when the church opposed, above all, the crudeness of the authorities towards history itself, should also confront all baleful manifestations of contemporary mass culture, with its concept of diversity and tolerance.

It doesn’t get much better than that — Samutsevich sounds like a right proper student of Rosseau and Foucault.

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2 thoughts on “Pussy Rioting Russian Orthodoxy

  1. Steve Hayes

    Some of the Western reactions, however, amount to cultural imperialism, and I’ve lost all respect for Amnesty International because of their distortions, outright lies and hate speech.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure if it is cultural imperialism but I think the Spiegel reporter made some good points towards the end of his article. He implied there was a double standard at work, and when thinking about this possibility, I asked myself what would have happened if an American equivalent of Pussy Riot had done something similar in Washington’s National Cathedral, or if an Italian punk band had done this in St. Peter’s Basilica. Even if these hypothetical actions amounted to political protest, the West probably wouldn’t be united in lauding similar displays. It’s the connection to Putin’s authoritarianism, and the West’s (cultural imperial?) disdain for anything other than liberal democracy, that sanctifies Pussy Riot’s protest in Western eyes.

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