Pussy Riot's protests threaten more than just the Putin regime

The treatment of Pussy Riot says much about the close relationship between Church and Kremlin in Putin's Russia.

The arrest and prosecution of three members of the Russian female punk collective Pussy Riot looks to many foreign observers as a purely political event, and one that reveals the increasing authoritarianism and intolerance of the Putin government. 

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevitch were arrested in March after footage of Pussy Riot protesing at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was posted on YouTube. On 21 February the group had invaded the cathedral's sanctuary (an area normally off-limits to worshippers) and sung a satirical "prayer" to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, who was then seeking re-election. The performance lasted under a minute. The three women, all of whom are in their twenties and two of whom have young children, have been in prison ever since, forbidden even from seeing their partners. Their trial began yesterday, when once again they were denied bail. They face up to seven years in jail if convicted, and acquittals in Russia are rare.

Pussy Riot's cathedral stunt was one of several public protests the group staged against Putin in the run-up to this year's presidential election, and their treatment fits a pattern of official clampdowns on consent. In June, for example, Putin signed into law new and stronger penalties for public order offences that many saw as aimed at frustrating peaceful and legitimate political protest. There's little faith, either inside or outside Russia, in the independence of the judiciary. The arrest and unusually harsh treatment of the three women, many believe, must have been ordered from the very top and thus reflect the personal vindictiveness of the president who was, after all, the target of the protest.

But the case also throws a spotlight on the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and especially its head, Patriarch Kirill. According to Peter Verzilov, husband of one of the imprisoned women, it was only after the Patriarch saw the video that any move was made to identify and arrest the women involved.  Originally, the police had taken no action, but on seeing the footage the patriarch had personally contacted both Putin and the head of the Moscow police. 

Kirill has certainly been vocal in his condemnation of Pussy Riot, describing the group's action as "blasphemy" and telling a rally in April that the church was "under attack by persecutors". He objected strongly to "derision of the sacred" being "put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society." The church leadership has demanded that the three women be punished severely for their act of desecration.

Western reporting has downplayed the sacrilegious nature of the women's performance, seeing it primarily as a political stunt. Perhaps it was. But it was also genuinely shocking in a religious culture that still retains (unlike much Western Christianity) a sense of the numinous and of sacred space. Russian Orthodoxy is a religion rooted in experience rather than doctrine. Its founding myth concerns a delegation sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople which returned awestruck by the beauties of the Byzantine church: "We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven." Ever since, Russian Orthodox churches and services, with their icons, clouds of incense and intense, deep-voiced choruses, have represented an attempt to recreate heaven on earth.

Kirill's spokesman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, has compared Pussy Riot's action and its effect on believers to the burning of the Koran and said that he was "deeply concerned about the future of any society in which extremely divisive actions are ignored." 

Not all the Russian Orthodox faithful agree. Many have protested against the harshness of the church's official position - one seemingly uninformed by Christian ideals of forgiveness and turning the other cheek - and called for the women's release. It's no doubt convenient for Putin to leave it to the church hierarchy to condemn the protests. By ensuring that the women are treated harshly he is not merely reinforcing the message that no dissent is to be tolerated but also burnishing his neo-Tsarist credentials as defender of Orthodoxy.

When he was elected in 2009, Kirill was initially seen as a more moderate figure than his predecessor Alexy II, a former KGB agent whose strident nationalism had, on occasion, embarrassed even Putin. But he has been both politically and personally close to the president. He is often seen at the president's side, sometimes sporting an expensive-looking watch, while for his part Putin (oddly, perhaps, for an ex-KGB man) has regularly been photographed taking part in religious ceremonies. In the run-up to this year's election Kirill even praised Putin as "a miracle from God",  sent to deliver Russia from the "horrible, systemic crisis" of the Yeltsin years.

I can't imagine any British prime minister getting such an endorsement from any Archbishop of Canterbury. But then the Russian Orthodox Church is not the Church of England. In Tsarist times, it was the sacred embodiment of the state, completely subordinated to the ruling dynasty. Even under a Communist regime that, at its height, bulldozed churches or turned them into Museums of Atheist Thought, the leadership of the Orthodox Church remained politically docile. A former dissident priest, Gleb Yakunin - who spent five years in a detention camp and was later elected to Parliament - was shocked by the extent of church-state collaboration when he gained access to the archives in the late 1990s.  The church, he concluded, had been "practically a subsidiary of the KGB".

Nevertheless, the end of communism marked the political rehabilitation of the Orthodox church and has seen it steadily grow in influence - a change symbolised by the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour which had been bulldozed by Stalin to make way for a swimming pool. This is partly why Pussy Riot's protest caused such a scandal: it was aimed not just at the authoritarianism of the Putin regime but at the privileges that the church has enjoyed for giving it unquestioning religious and moral legitimacy.

 

Nadia Tolokonnikova inside a defendants' cage in court. Photograph: Getty Images
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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.