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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Sadiq Khan's decision to scrap the Garden Bridge is a victory for ordinary Londoners

Perhaps the rich really do want to give something back to London. If they do, I'm sure it'll be lovely. But if they don't, I'm bloody glad I don't have to pay for it.

The obvious question about the Garden Bridge is: where did it all go wrong?

The bridge, after all, should have been a lovely addition to the fabric of the city. An oasis of greenery in an area devoid of it, a new way of crossing the river and a new tourist attraction, akin to New York's High Line, all rolled into one. The Garden Bridge was not like the hilariously pointless “Emirates Air Line”, the cable car to nowhere which is even now ferrying empty pods between two windswept ex-industrial estates in a deserted bit of east London, like one of the follies listed by Marge Simpson at the end of Marge vs the Monorail. The Garden Bridge should have been great.

Yet in the years since it was first proposed, it's sunk further and further into controversy. The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity responsible for getting it built, has failed to raise enough money or acquire the land required to start construction before planning permission runs out this December. Official reports have repeatedly raised questions about the Trust's financial plans.

And today's news that London's mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the Garden Bridge Trust to tell it that the taxpayer would not provide the financial guarantees required for work to continue – effectively killing the scheme – is more likely to be celebrated than mourned. So how did something so lovely end up so loathed?

The obvious explanation is the growing sense that the whole thing has been a bit of a con. When first the bridge was proposed, the intention was that it would be largely privately funded, with just a smidgen of Transport for London money required to get things moving.

The longer things went on, though, the more the ratio between those two sources of funding seemed to change. The predicted cost of the bridge continued to climb; yet the amount of money promised by private donors first flatlined, then began to slide.

So the amount of cash the taxpayer was going to have to put into this thing soared, with no end in sight: without a clear plan for funding the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge, it seemed likely to become a permanent line in the capital's own budget. As a result what had once been pitched as a gift to London began looking more and more like a pointless indulgence we would have to pay for ourselves. It felt like we’d been had.

But I think there's another, more philosophical reason why a lovely idea like a Garden Bridge should have become so unpopular: it fitted with a lingering sense that something has gone terribly wrong with this city.

We are, after all, in the middle of a housing crisis, which is seeing even relatively well-off people forced out of the city, and which has forced untold numbers to live in tiny under-regulated patches of squalor. The official definition of “Affordable Housing” has become a bad joke, yet new housing developments bend over backwards to avoid making even this limited provision. And in the midst of all this, the most visible property developments aren't much-needed homes for the masses, but commercial skyscrapers and luxury apartments.

Contemporary London prides itself on its tolerance and diversity and the way different social classes are all jumbled up together, without any of the ghettoisation seen in, say, Paris. Yet huge chunks of what look like public space are now private estates, often patrolled by private security. In our flattering, metropolitan liberal self-image, this isn't what London is meant to be.

It was, however, exactly what the Garden Bridge was going to be: a private garden masquerading as public space, yet funded by the taxpayer. The people most determined to see it built were a flotilla of rich, posh people: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Thomas Heatherwick, Joanna Lumley. They were not us, but them – yet still they expected us to pay for it.

And then, once in a while, the bridge would close so that an investment bank or a private equity firm could throw a garden party, drinking champagne and eating canapes in full view of London as a whole, on a bridge we paid for but which we were not allowed to cross.

Perhaps the project isn't dead. Perhaps the Garden Bridge Trust will somehow find enough donors to get it finished without taxpayer support, and even find a way of funding its upkeep. Perhaps the rich really do want to give something back to London. If they do, I'm sure it'll be lovely.

But if they don't, I'm bloody glad we will no longer have to pay for it. This city has quite enough symbols of economic division as it is.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, where this blog post was originall published. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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