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Pussy Riot and Cyber-Orthodoxy

Traditionally, Russian Orthodoxy has been associated with being a rigid structure. Today, however, its members are far from what we could call a monolith. 

August 2, 2012 - Jacek Borkowicz - Articles and Commentary

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This article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe issue 3(IV)/2012.

What really happened on February 21st 2012 at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour? Was it an anti-Christian demonstration or an unconventional protest against the political regime? This question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. A group of young women from a punk band called Pussy Riot dressed-up in masks and gaudy clothes tricked their way into the most important church in Russian Eastern Orthodoxy, Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They got in when there were no churchgoers in the church, although it wasn’t the churchgoers that the band cared about most; it was the cameraman, who accompanied them into the church. The members of the band danced and sang a song in front of the altar, which they call punk moleben, a punk intersession prayer. The song by no means resembled a religious hymn, although its chorus did consist of a call to the Virgin Mary to “chase” the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who at the time was getting ready for the final stage of the presidential elections, away from the Kremlin.

A major scandal erupted. The three participants of the event were arrested and are now facing seven years imprisonment for religious insult and hooliganism.

A seemingly trivial blunder

The slogans which were shouted in front of the altar, despite their anti-Putin elements, were typical postulates of modern Western feminism discourse: a woman’s freedom to choose abortion and equal treatment of the sexes. All of this has been heard many times in the West where anti-church feminist events are nothing new. In Russia, however, they carry very different associations which are additionally reinforced by historical memories. In the 1920s similar “events”, although called something different back then, combined with parodies of Orthodox rituals were quite common in Eastern Orthodox churches. They were organised by the Union of Belligerent Atheists, a social organisation, strongly supported by the communist regime in power. For the Bolsheviks, Eastern Orthodoxy was the central front in its war against religion as it wasn’t only the denomination of the majority of Russians, but also the ideological base of the old tsarist system. The victim of this war was Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour itself: in 1931 it was blown up on Stalin’s order. Its reconstruction after the collapse of the Soviet Union entailed a great deal of resources and today it is regarded as a symbol of a revived and triumphing Russian Eastern Orthodoxy.

And this is where the similarities end. Indeed, the members of the band did storm into the church and did use swear words while suggestively dancing in front of the altar. This, in itself, could be regarded as blasphemy. But the intention of their performance was not blasphemy. The message they were trying to convey was a radical rejection of Putin’s system of power and the hierarchy of the Church. “Gundyay, you bitch (Gundyayev is the birth surname of the Orthodox patriarch, Kirill – author’s note), you’d better believe in God, not Putin!” Pussy Riot shouted. It is worth noting that the rebuilt Moscow church is not a religious destination for many Russian Orthodox, but rather a place of official celebrations attended not only by the patriarch but also by both presidents: Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. The choice of the term punk moleben was also not a coincidence: February 21st 2011 was the Orthodox Shrove Tuesday, a day when, based on the old tradition, crazy horseplay is allowed in churches. This seemingly trivial blunder has, in a tense political situation, become a mirror reflecting Russian society today.

The first reactions of the Church were quite moderate in their tone. “If they came across me, I would have fed them, touched their heads and explained to them that they had gone too far,” said Father Andrey Kuraev, an Orthodox deacon. However, distraught churchgoers and representatives of the church hierarchy quite quickly called Kuraev back to order. Vsevolod Chaplin, who is responsible for the Church’s relations with society in the patriarchate, even suggested that the band members should be charged with hate crimes. It did not take long before action was taken: the main suspects participating in the event were arrested. Chaplin, the grey eminence and the main ideologue of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church, is perceived as a political hard-liner. This believer in strong Russia (he became famous for praising Joseph Stalin and his public support of the government’s military programme) is against the liberal tendencies of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is distrustful of the Russian intelligentsia whose members he considers to be Russophobic. Unquestionably, his influence on Patriarch Kirill is quite strong.

Moderate reformer

And what about the patriarch himself? He is, without a doubt, an interesting personality. Three years after he had become head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was in a state of political stagnation. One could even say that under the leadership of his predecessor, Alexy II, Russia’s Eastern Orthodox Church fell victim to its own delusions of grandeur. In addition, the lack of flexibility in external relations, and hence conflict not only with Rome but also with Constantinople and Kyiv, meaning the sister capitals of Eastern Orthodoxy, led it to international isolation. In relations with society, the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church has been significantly weakened by a lack of serious interest in the missionary work and an overt dependence on the corrupt system of state power.

In this context, Kirill has visibly supported the line of moderate, self-limiting reforms within the Eastern Orthodox Church. His first trip abroad was a visit to the patriarch of Constantinople. In relations with the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, after the openly cold relations between his predecessor and John Paul II, the Russian patriarch declares to be a supporter fighting for the protection of common values in an increasingly secular world. At the same time, he is a steadfast defender of the principle of the canonical territory of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Also equally interesting is his relations with Kyiv, the capital of independent Ukraine and the centre of divisions within Eastern Orthodoxy of the Byzantine observance. Kyiv is host to two competing centres of Eastern Orthodoxy (one, pro-Moscow and the other, independent Ukrainian and “autocephalous”) as well as Ukrainian Greek Catholics. Kirill did not scold the disobedient metropolis, like Alexy II did, but rather implements the unusual idea of showing appreciation and respect towards Kyiv (Mother of Russian Churches) while trying to tie it to Moscow. In the three years of his rule, he has managed to win over the ecumenical initiative of the Greek Catholics and initiate talks that will yoke together the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Moscow’s patriarchate.  

With respect to internal politics, since the increase in tensions before the last elections to the Duma and the presidential election, the patriarch supports the “correction” of the government’s line, which includes some of the opposition’s ideas (abandoning political repression and fighting corruption). In December 2011 Kirill said at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: “We have no title to one more division. We don’t have such a title because of the blood that was sacrificed in the 20th century.” A similar tone characterised the patriarch’s Christmas speech delivered in January 2012. However, at the key moment of the anti-Putin demonstrations, Kirill criticised the demonstrators for being led by “a human and not a divine law”. In the very same speech he referred to the last 20 years of Putin’s rule as a “miracle”. This speech was, in part, finally received as support for the government. It is more probable that the patriarch is searching for a golden middle which would allow him to take on the role of mediator between Putin’s power system and the opposition in the future, balancing the Kremlin and demonstrators on the streets.

Putin himself seems quite pleased with Kirill’s pro-government gestures. There is seemingly more to it than a Byzantine-like flair for complements. For Putin, the former KGB operative, security is and always will be a very highly ranked value on the list of political priorities. Russia’s president genuinely appreciates the political style of the patriarch whose main guidance is ensuring social order. Kirill’s limited reformism is most noticeable in the way he manages the Church. The patriarch is a supporter of the moderate reform of the liturgy (which will strengthen the position of the Russian language and culture in the Byzantine liturgy) and proposes strengthening the role of laymen in church councils and the religious media. Kirill’s vision is undoubtedly a strong church in a strong state. However, he also seems to be aware that too much dependence on the government would push the Russian Eastern Orthodoxy into the trap of caesaropapism, just like before 1917. A few months after becoming patriarch, Kirill criticised the strong social inequalities which characterise Russia and claimed that one of the reasons for the Church’s fall in Bolshevik times was its indifference to social issues. Today’s state-church relations in Russia are governed by the “Chaplin doctrine”; some time ago Chaplin said that although the Church is separate from the state it cannot be separated from society. On a different occasion, he said that social morale is of lesser importance today than full churches. These are all new elements of the official language of Russian Eastern Orthodoxy.

There are even some signals that the Eastern Orthodox Church is testing the waters with the Kremlin about the possibility of establishing an Eastern Orthodox party, an equivalent to the Western Christian Democrats. Such a party would include wide groups of believers with the exception of extremists, from both the left and right.

The 1943 syndrome

It is quite clear that all these liberalising moves, however moderate and selective, are meant to serve a higher purpose: to strengthen the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a strong state. In Kirill’s view and in the view of his ideologue, Chaplin, there is little room for any influential liberal ideas to emerge. Let alone a radical social movement.

This mental barrier that exists in the minds of the leaders of today’s Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in events from the past and related to the September 1943 syndrome. This refers to the time when Joseph Stalin ordered a gathering of all living Orthodox bishops. After over a decade of intense fighting with religion and the shutting down of churches, and quarter of a century of physical extermination of the clergy and believers, the Russian Orthodox Church was drawing its last breath. This barrier was actually built from within by actions of a movement called the Living Church (whose supporters are commonly known as “restorers”; obnovlentsy in Russian). In fact, the Living Church movement was supported by the communist non-canonical Eastern Orthodox community, whose activities were primarily aimed at undermining the position of the real church hierarchy. Stalin, who desperately needed cannon fodder on the German front, was aware of how strongly attached to the Eastern Orthodox Church the Russian peasants, his future recruits, were. Hence, when he met the bishops in 1943, he put forward the idea of an armistice with the Eastern Orthodox Church, in exchange for the clergy’s support of the fight for a common homeland. An agreement between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Russian state was then concluded, and with the exception of the period of Nikita Khrushchev’s rule, the provisions of this agreement have remained in place ever since.

This agreement meant the end of the Living Church with Stalin chasing away his former favourites. However, the memory of the Living Church is vivid today. The “restorers” are, hence, seen as a repellent and a label which can be used against an enemy when needed. Any voice within the Eastern Orthodox Church which brings up social or moral issues in any sort of way, is subject to the accusation of being a “restorer”. Such allegations were made against Father Aleksandr Men, a pious theologian and martyr. And today they are even being directed towards Kirill, the moderate patriarch.

Together with the fear of being labelled a restorer, the patriarch seems to have another “historical” complex: the patriarch himself feels disappointed with the Russian intelligentsia, just like those who surround him. By the early 1920s, people within the émigré “white” Russian Eastern Orthodox Church were already making plans for a strong Eastern Orthodox intelligentsia which, back in Russia, could oppose the Bolsheviks. However, things turned out differently. The communists got the intelligentsia onto their side, while those in the intelligentsia who identified themselves with Eastern Orthodoxy seemed vulnerable to succumb to the influence of the “restorers”.

Considering that the majority of today’s protesters against Putin’s regime are educated and hold some religious beliefs, Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, Rector of the Church of the Holy Martyr Tatiana at Moscow State University, said: “Admit that you fight for truth, freedom and justice, but if you were given any power, you would have spoilt everything, just like in 1917.” People thinking like Father Kozlov who remember past experiences, are scared that the radicalisation of ideas among the Eastern Orthodox could even destroy this tiny social achievement which the religious Russians have managed to achieve since the collapse of communism.

Orthodox cyber-intelligentsia

And yet, a completely new model of the Russian intelligentsia has emerged right in front of our eyes: the internet-using middle class. Many of its members question the direction their country is taking. The demonstrations on December 10th 2011 against the election fraud was the first mass protest organised in Russia through social media like Twitter, Facebook and VK (a Russian social network service – editor’s note). LiveJournal, the most anti-government of social media, which calls itself a “global community of friends”, contains four million blogs and 20 million users a month. Its most popular blogger, Alexei Navalny, is the unquestionable leader of the social protest against Vladimir Putin.

This wide and still difficult to grasp movement encompasses people and groups who declare themselves as Eastern Orthodox or Christian in general. Their vast influence can be proved by the fact that the movement is also supported by Sergei Chapnin, lay editor of The Journal of Moscow’s Patriarchate, an official paper of the patriarchate. However, the opposition of the “new Orthodox” is directed not only against Putin’s government, but also against the entire Church establishment and its connections with the corrupt system. The representatives of the “cyber Orthodox” generation use their blogs to combat the old, Soviet-like, thinking which can still be seen among their brothers in faith.

Some websites don’t only include material touting opposition and combat. Andrei Desnitsky, one of the most widely-read leaders of the online protests not only ridicules the idea of homo sovieticus christianus, but also effectively promotes a new model of social engagement that has been emerging in Russia. On his blog (www.pravmir.ru), readers can find a combination of civic values (called “bourgeois” values until recently), family values and an enlightened religion, open to the world; a religion which would also have friendly relations with the Catholic Church, something that would be strikingly unusual in Russia.

These were the groups which showed their support for the arrested members of Pussy Riot. The readers of political blogs who despite being Orthodox, agree that this behaviour in church was unacceptable, also expressed their opposition to the way the singers were treated. The patriarch received a petition letter asking him to intervene. The petition was signed by 2,000 Orthodox Russians, as well as many Catholics. In addition, Navalny himself got involved in the case by calling the arrest of the band members a “pointless cruelty”.          

On March 10th 2012, less than a week after Putin’s victory in the presidential elections, street protesters in the centre of Moscow demanded the release of the members of Pussy Riot. The protesters were carrying Orthodox icons and a cross.

This article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe issue 3(IV)/2012.

Jacek Borkowicz is a Polish historian and analyst who specialises in issues relating to Eastern Europe, religion and the Caucasus. He is a regular contributor to the Polish weekly Tygodnik Poweszechny and the bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

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