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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John Prescott on Labour: “This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen”

The Labour peer and former deputy prime minister laments his party’s “civil war status”, saying “I wish Momentum would go away”.

I’ve attended a thousand PLP meetings. This must be the worst operation I’ve ever seen. It is more about personality politics than in the past.

The [last] Labour government was successful in most of the issues that we always thought was important to Labour: in the growth of the hospitals, the education system, the economy, people at work. All that was a successful record.

Not that it’s ever mentioned now. It was soured largely by Iraq. That period is almost obliterated by that. So you find present government, or even present leadership, in no way refers to that period of the Labour government. So the real problem is, if you’re disowning the most successful three periods of a Labour government, then you’re in some difficulty as to what you’re replacing it with.

It’s never happened before – it’s open war, civil war, inside the PLP. Some members in the PLP sit there with their social media, already typing out the fight going on to the mass of reporters who are amassed outside and told to come along and report because there’s going to be a big row. All that means we can’t really have unity. The division now is the attack on the leadership. A core who sit in the same places, make the same accusations against the leadership, right or wrong, every bloody week. They do it by a death of a thousand cuts – keep on making the same complaints.

I just think that the PLP is in civil war status. It’s not carrying out what it should do – that is, project Labour’s policies and be supportive of our people in the field.

All this criticism is about removing him. And then what adds to that is when Tom Watson comes along and joins in with this criticism. He’s entitled to do so, but he is the Deputy Leader, for God’s sake – quite different from the way I saw the role as defined; to support the party in a positive way, right. Get out and increase his membership, etc.

And the Leader, he's faced with a really difficult position, because he was elected and had never been a minister before. My heart went out to him when he had to deal with PMQs. Even with my 50 years, I found it impossible and fell on my face a few times.

We have a shadow cabinet now – cor blimey, you can be in the shadow cabinet in 12 months! You do need to have a bit of experience. So that does affect it, without a doubt. Then you get people on one side who refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet criticising the shadow cabinet. If you join the shadow cabinet, you’re a traitor to one cause or the other.

It's how you manage that division. The leadership is critical – for Jeremy to go out and do all of these things when he’s not been a minister is difficult. I think he’s been improving in doing the job. But frankly, it gets into people’s minds in a very short period of time, whether they think you’re the leader or not. And we do have a dilemma. It’s difficult for him – he’s reaching out a bit now, but almost the list has been drawn. I can’t see these people coming across now and uniting in the name of the party, supporting our people out in the elections. If you can’t unite the party, how the hell can you carry the country?

There are problems on the left and problems on the right, but we’ve always managed them – especially in the PLP. Robust arguments. But now it’s the battlefield, and all that comes out is a divided party.

I’m an old Labour man, right, I’m Labour to the core. To sit and watch it waste away its great reputation, what it’s done for our people in the country, and then when our people start stopping to vote for us, you’ve got to ask what’s bloody going wrong.

What Jeremy does is his decision. But he’s made clear he wants to stay. Now, if that stays the same, and the others stay the same, we’re going to have a stalemate divided Labour party – it’s disastrous.

So on the one hand, the PLP could try to be a little bit more supportive, and to recognise the party’s elected a leader, or they can go through the same process come June and call for another election, put it to the vote. They’re the options given to us by our party.

Our bloody country is decimated and we’re talking about the fucking sponsorship rules for the election of leader! I wish Momentum would go away, they’ve given us the same problems we had with Militant. I don’t think they’re as powerful as Militant, but they’re dedicated to the same cause. Their debate is how you change the Labour party.

By Christ, we can't win like this! I’m an old-fashioned type, and I’m proud to have belonged to a team that did win three elections. There was no other leader who did that before. But I don’t put it down to leaders, I put it down to the nature of the party. We’re responsible, not the leaders.

John Prescott is a Labour peer and former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition